Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Boundaries in the Best of the Rest

Sunday September 4th

I have long held that this country is really just two important borders (the East and West coasts) with a great gap in between, often disparaging the central US for not real reason at all. This trip has allowed me to see the error of my ways and come to the understanding that only some of the states in the central US can be considered a great pit, while others actually have some redeeming qualities. Of these, and really of all of the states I have seen outside of California and New York, Minnesota is far and away the best. Green and wet and lush like you wouldn't believe, as soon as you cross into Northern Minnesota you are whisked out of the great plains and into a magical land where it seems like our convservationism is actually working ... but more on that in a minute, first we have to escape the Dakotas.

So after dropping Ryan off at the Rapid City airport, Neal and I drove about 300 miles past massive numbers of hay bails up to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. This park, a AAA gem attraction (along with such luminary places as Pierre South Dakota, Bismarck North Dakota, and North Dakotas enchanted highway 2 where you can see the worlds largest statues of turtles, oxen and cats) is supposed to be the jewel of the state. Its kind of nice, and it is interesting because it commemorates Teddy Roosevelt, who really allowed the national park service to become what it is today. The park is mostly a lusher version of the Badlands, with similar multi-colored hills and pleasant vistas of the Little Missouri winding past grasslands full of bison and wild horses. The whole parks seems to be blue-green-brown, and the hills are lightly packed with scrub brush on top but thicker trees and bushes down in the valleys. We see a lot of bison, some wild horses and some wild turkeys, take a hike in a sand stone canyon, check out the fat prarie dogs and slowly circle the parks lower section. Its a nice diversion for 3 hours or so, made nicer because it is the 90th birthday of the park service and they give us free cookies and lemonade as we are examining Teddy Roosevelts triple-barreled shotgun and pictures of his ranches in the area.

When we leave, we drive in a straight line for 400 miles ... seriously, I don't think the freeway deviated from the line even 6 inches, passing even more hay bails and checking off cities at 100 mile intervals until we hit Fargo, the largest and easternmost town in North Dakota (at 90,000 this is a huge city for this part of the country). During this trek we pass the worlds largest cow, White Cloud the albino buffalo and a host of other bizarre tourist attractions. In Fargo, while looking for the Timberline steakhouse we have decided to eat ate, we get lost and see the whole city in about 20 minutes, then find the place and settle in for a nice meal. Our server, Stacy, does not have the accent made famous in the movie Fargo (turns out that Fargo is not in Minnesota anyway and even in Minnesota they don't have that accent) and has never heard of a hedgeball, but is otherwise charming and we have a nice meal.

After dinner we get back on the road and head over to Itasca State park, source of the Mississippi River, to camp for the night. Unfortunately for us, the park closes at 10 pm and does not have self-check in (because those little envelopes are so complicated), so we start looking for a space on the side of the road to camp. This should not be hard to find, as we are in the middle of a forest, but it turns out that in Minnesota, the suburbs are all forests and everytime we find a small turnoff it is someones drive-way. More bemused than worried, we head to Bemidji to get a hotel room, but when we get there we find out that there is a forest rally (kind of NASCAR in the woods with ATVs) in the area and every room in town has been booked for months. Now we are worried and we start driving to Grand Rapids at about 1 am. About 15 miles down the road, through another suburban forest, we stop at a small road side motel that can only be described as a shit house. Most of the screen doors are hanging off the hinges, the lighted sign is fluttering and the whole place looks kind of like a horror movie set. We pull up anyway, amazingly the manager is awake, and we go in to ask him about rooms.

"You folks in town fur the rally? I was there, it was great."

"No, we just got unlucky with the timing. We are heading up to the Boundary Waters."

"No kiddin', the Boundary Waters. I used to go up there. When I used to train dogs. That was a long time ago."

"Do you have any rooms available?"

"Yeah, you are lucky, you get the last one. I have not been up to the boundary waters in almost 30 years. The last time I was up there I saw wolves."

"Really? There are wolves up there?"

"I met a guy who doubted me about the wolves. I left a German shepard out over night, and when I woke up the next morning its guts were lying on the ground next to the collar. The wolves got 'em. There was blood everywhere and you could see ..."

"So which room was it?"

The man was obviously reliving some kind of strange trauma, and the stink of whiskey on his breath and increasingly interesting descriptions of the entrails of his old German shepard encouraged us to quickly get to our room. It was surprisingly nice and even had reading material, the Holy Bible and the National Enquirer.

The next day we got up, stopped in Great Falls to buy food and eat at Dotties, and then headed up to Ely, gateway to the Boundary Waters, stopping only at Wal-mart to pick up a fishing pole, leatherman and a healthy dose of bad karma. In Ely, the Spirit of the Wliderness Outfitters hooked us up with a canoe, paddles, lifejackets, and extra pole for Neal and various permits. By the way, if you ever have to choose between an aluminum and a Kevlar canoe, go Kevlar. The aluminum might not feel that heavy but believe me you will want the lightest boat possible. After gearing up, we high-tail it over to the Fall Lake campground, snag the last campsite and pack up for the morning.

Now for those of you who are unfortunate enough to have never heard of the Boundary Waters, let me explain. Its a canoe area wilderness presided over by the forest service. Its basically hundreds of square miles of pristine lakes, islands and forests, full of eagles, moose, bears and fish, where the number of people allowed in is limited and no motorized vehicles are allowed (except on a few of the lakes). The lakes are dotted with campsites that have a fire grate, a very primitive toilet and nothing else. You get around by canoing between sites, and often portaging (carrying your canoe on your shoulders) the canoe and all your gear across dry land between lakes. Interestingly, the maps of the area list the portage distances in rods (a rod is one canoe length), so you never really have any idea of actually how far you are carrying the boat.

Neal and I woke up the next morning and left for our 4 day, 3 night trip around the lakes. It was one of the best backcountry trips I have ever done, not just for the spectacular beauty, or the amazing wildlife, or the peacefullness that comes from a complete lack of mechanical anything, or the incredible sense of adventure but for the ture uniqueness of the experience. Not only have I never done anything like this, I have never been anywhere like this. It was truly a dream trip.

We canoed about 40 miles in the 4 days, cruising in and around Bass Lake and Jackfish bay, along with several smaller lakes, river and tributaries. The lakes were all deep blue and cloudy up close, ranging from 5 to 40 feet deep, but not very cold, as we both comfortably swam in all of them. Each lake connected to others by rivers or little rapids or waterfalls (which we had to portage around) and was full of islands. There was so much water around that it often seem like an ocean full of islands rather than a land mass full of lakes. The islands were all covered with tall green trees, birch and pine and fir, and covered with granite boulders. Often, mostly in the mornings but sometimes in the afternoons as well, the water was so still and clean that you could not tell the sky from the surface of the lake. The weather was perfect, we were lucky, between 70 and 80 the whole time, with little wind and no rain. And best of all, there were basically no bugs - I got 10 moquito bits the whole time and only used insect repellent once. We must have seen fifty or so bald eagles, many flying directly in front of us across the lake. Those birds are incredible, just an absolutely perfect combination of grace and power taken aerial form, like huge brown gliders with a white (sometimes all brown) tip, serenely moving across the sky. The lakes were full of loons and ducks, and in the swamps and marshes we saw several herons. We saw frogs, toad, turtles and snakes all over the place, several rivers otters and beaver lodges (but no beaver), spent one night fighting off crazy numbers of mice intent on our food, and of course saw tons of fish, we even caught 10 or so, although we threw most of them back.

The first day went by fast as we were canoeing downwind and there were only 2 portages, this gave us the idea that the whole trip would be a piece of cake. Very wrong. We fished a bit that first afternoon, Neal caught a small mouth bass, and after messily teaching ourselves how to clean fish (I could not figure out how to remove the head, so I tore it off with my hands ... do not do this) had fish fajitas for dinner. After dinner we got to see the Northern Lights, which I had never seen but I can tell you was unlike anything else you will ever witness. Kind of like ghostly rain falling across the stars and coalescing into faint, red-yellow-white ephemeral serpents that wove their way across the northern sky. Very impressive.

The second day we started late, a tad sore from the paddling, and almost immeadiately went off the route, ending up avoiding the ridiculous 340 rod portage but having to forge out own way around several minor rapids. In the process of doing this we accidently strayed into Canada (fortunately they were unaware or I might have been prosecuted) and found an excellent fishing spot. Taking my fathers advice that the best bait is that you catch yourself, I fished with a dragonfly larvae I found and immeadiately hooked and realeased a small fish and then landed a three or four pound small mouth bass. Being that I am a terrible fisherman, I was very excited and posed with the fish to take a picture. Unfortunately, just after the picture, my pole snapped in half under the weight of the fish. Undeterred, I took my expensive Black Fury lure, affixed to my gimpy pole and began fishing, immeadiately I hooked big fish, started to bring it in and it snapped the line and got away with the lure.

After this second problem with the pole we decided I was afflicted with Wal-Mart karma. Neal caught several rocks, the opposite bank of the river, a number of smaller fish and eventually a medium size one that we kept when we finally got on our way around 2 pm. We shot several rapids and paddled up the horse river, taking us to an entirely new area of the park, the swamp. We were in a vast flood plain, water about 4-6 feet deep, surrounded by wild rice, giant lily pads, blooming water lilies and all kinds of strange aquatic plants. The canoe makes scraping sounds as it moves over the plant life, you feel incredibly remote, and very glad there are no alligators in the north. The water level was too low this year so we had to portage 4 or 5 times, not only over trails but over rocky sections of river by simply walking in the water and carrying the canoe. We finally got to Horse Lake in the late afternoon, and upon seeing our desired campsite was taken, proceded to thoroughly exhuast ourselves by unecessarily paddling upwind for 1.5 miles to another island campsite. It was a great site though, except for the mice, and after almost losing the fish in the lake (neal went in after the fish and recovered it) we had a wonderful dinner of fish pasta and watched some of the best stars I have ever seen.

Waking up the third day was tougher, we got up later and were much, much sorer. My arms ached just hanging from my shoulders. We explored the island, loaded the canoe and paddled and portaged our way down two lakes pretty fast. Then, looking for a spur off of the third portage, I was following Neal across a swampy section of trail, carrying the canoe, and suddenly sank up to my stomach in mud. Still sinking a bit, I yelled, Neal came and got the canoe and I managed to extract myself with out losing my shoes. Turns out, the whole portage was this way, and we spent the next 2 hours slogging through a bug infested, foul smelling mudpit, laying down sticks to have anything to walk on that would not sink, hoping from tree to tree, portaging the canoe through trees we should have been cutting with a machete, using the paddles to push through rivers of mud, fighting off large amounts of bugs (here is where the insect repellent was used) and generally struggling with the swamp. In retrospect it was actually a lot of fun, but at the time, I can tell you it was brutal. We finally made it through, made the long paddle up Jackfish bay, took the shortcut and repeated our swamp adventure becuase the map was poorly marked and we could not find the portage. This time I was not so lucky with my shoes, and lost them several times in what I can only describe as a river of shit, before we brought our backs through the second swampy hell and found the good portage on the other side. Fishing was not lucky that evening and we just had pasta, but were lucky to witness a beautiful Alpen Glow, a kind of reverse sunset where the sky is pink and the horizon is blue. Looks like a post card, really impressive.

Finally, the 4th day, we paddled out, against the wind almost the whole way, like the boundary waters were trying to keep us. Getting to the dock, we got organized, returned the canoe, got some boundary waters clothing, and headed down to Ely for pizza and beer. So good. We camped that night in a small campground near Duluth, where Neal narrowly defeated me an epic cribbage match with a 51 card deck, woke up the next morning and went to the fresh water aquarium in Duluth, stopping several times along the way to marvel at the vastness that is Lake Superior, the largest body of fresh water in the world. If you did not know better, you would swear you were looking at the ocean. From Duluth, it was down to Minneapolis/St. Paul, the twin cities that the highway signs cannot seem to figure out. A quick stop at the Mall of America, truly the highest evolution of out of control consumerism, and then I drop Neal off at the airport and head down to Rochester, to spend the evening with Ahlques parents.

Ahlque is basically on the phone with me the whole way down, guides me through Rochester and up to his parents door. The evening with the Ahlquists was fabulous, they are simply wonderful .. I think I need to adopt them. Their home is gorgeous, kind of a modern castle of wood and glass in a neighborhood that could almost be a park. Dinner was waiting when I showed up, entirely unnecessary but so appreciated, and extra food had been made so that I could take it with me the next day for lunch. Awesome. We talked for a couple hours and then crashed, they left before I woke up but let me lock myself out, which was also fabulous as it allowed me time to shave and shower and whatnot, to basically feel human. The night there was a highly rejuvenating experience, letting me turn my thoughts away from Minnesota and towards the south, and Chicago, where I was staying with Rachel, millers sister, over the weekend.

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