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Across Serene Lakes ... & Down Rough Rapids : Paddling a canoe around Minnesota's soothing Boundary Waters

April 28, 1996|FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Clifford is an environmental writer for The Times

ON GUNFLINT LAKE, Minn. — In the 1950s, before Minnesota's northern canoe country became an adventure travel destination, suburban teenagers went there to test the waters of manhood; in other words, to behave like hobos. A 10-day voyage into the unknown, it was our way of hopping a freight train. We smoked and swore as we pleased, carried cherry bombs in our pockets to ward off bears, chucked empty Spam cans into the woods, carved our names in tree trunks, came home covered with ticks and wearing the same clothes we left in, hoping at least to smell like men.

For years I resisted the urge to go back, leery of what I would find. The daunting labyrinth of lakes had become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, one of the modern species of managed wilderness, bristling with rules and politics, teeming with people. Environmentalists decided years ago that to protect their turf they needed to promote it, make it more accessible and more comfortable. ("A privy at every campsite," is the way a friend put it, exaggerating only slightly.) It was a shrewd strategy and, perhaps, the only way to build a strong constituency for wild places.

But despite it all, my boyhood friends had been going back every summer, avoiding holiday weekends and steering clear of the most heavily traveled routes. They said the Boundary Waters was still a place where you could get lost on purpose. They reminded me that the moose and the bear and the wolf still found it habitable, and that the moan of a distant freight train could not be more soothing to a hobo's spirit than the loon's midnight yodeling.

Just getting to the Boundary Waters was a haul in our day, with four of us and two canoes weighing down an ancient Pontiac. We were lucky to average 40 mph up 300 miles of farm-to-market blacktop from suburban Minneapolis to just south of the Canadian border.

Today, you can fly directly to Duluth, rent a car and three hours later be at the put-in with your waiting canoe, packed with tents, sleeping bags, waterproof duffels for your clothes and all the food you'll need (vegetarian fare is available upon request). But I decided we would go the old-fashioned way, making the six-hour drive from Minneapolis through the remnants of logging and mining towns, along the northern shore of Lake Superior and west along the Gunflint Trail, one of the few paved roads that probes deep into the Boundary Waters.

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We spent the night before our trip at the Gunflint Lodge, a venerable fishing camp that today doubles as a hospitable, woodsy resort and a canoe outfitter. The next morning we pushed off amid the flutter and squabble of a family of mergansers, heading into territory that I had only touched on as a boy. For the first couple of days, we would follow a route, tracing the Canadian border, that 18th century French fur traders took as they made their way from northwestern Canada to Lake Superior and waiting cargo ships.

We were one canoe, three people--my wife, Barbara, and I, and a guide, Lee Kerfoot--and provisions for a four-day loop trip that would take us across Gunflint Lake to the Granite River, actually a chain of small lakes connected by goosenecks of fast water that can be portaged or run, depending on one's ability to negotiate quick turns in a frothy current that usually is more riffle than rapids.

Beyond lay several larger lakes, including formidable Saganaga, where I nearly came to grief as a 16-year-old, paddling feebly against a fierce headwind. Between the bigger lakes, we would have to shoulder canoe and gear over several short portages, none longer than a quarter of a mile, along mostly flat, well-trod forest paths.

For the Boundary Waters, where you can paddle for weeks without seeing the same lake twice, this was a pretty easy trip. We paddled seven to eight miles a day, getting the traveling done by early afternoon, leaving plenty of time for fishing, swimming, exploring the islands where we were camped or just laying about. In mid-July the weather was hot enough to force us out of our sleeping bags one night, but comfortable enough on the water. The lake water was warm, and still clean enough to drink, which we did, although most outfitters urge you to treat or boil it first.

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You don't have to have a guide to canoe these waters, but it helps if you haven't been here before. Many of the lakes are full of islands, where it's not hard to meander off course, even with the detailed maps that outfitters provide. An extra pair of hands comes especially handy if you or your companions have never experienced the tedium of paddling a fully loaded canoe across several miles of open water in a stiff head wind.

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