It’s 2:30 pm on day two. Ryan and I have been hiking through the Northwoods for a mile and a half and it’s taken over four and a half hours. This is slow slogging. Sore and likely dehydrated despite our efforts to continually drink fluids, we are sitting on the edge of a bog staring at the dense forest that lies on the opposite side. We sit and sip water looking at our map and re-assessing the situation. The look on Ryan’s face was one of frustration and concern. The hike had taken its toll and the nearest certain water source was .8 miles in the opposite direction. It was a lake we had been to in a previous iteration of this trip and we were not excited to head back there. Turning around would likely end this segment of the journey resulting in a failed attempt to cross this section of forest and defeat. To continue forward meant wading across the bog then hiking another 1.5 miles through the unknown. Be smart. It was an easy call for me to make. Ryan would have pressed on but I knew we were safer turning around. After drinking more water we started back the way we came. Neither of us was terribly excited to hike back through the rats’ nest of downed timber and young birch trees that managed to tangle ankles with every step. We both gained a healthy respect for the north woods, a better understanding of our current if less than desirable physical condition and what it takes to exist in this environment. Imagine the first explorers who ventured into these woods.
The .8 miles back west took almost two hours and as soon as we could see a clearing in the trees we headed straight for the lake. By this point, I was dehydrated and not feeling the best which only further reinforced my decision to turn around. We filtered water on the edge of the lake and drank. We were on a less than ideal section of shoreline standing in high water created by beaver habitat on one side and a marsh on the other. We opted to head to a section of red pine forest on the opposite side of the lake to recoup and consider our options. Last year we made it to this lake with day packs and fishing gear, we remembered the lake fondly but initially the idea of staying felt like a concession, failure. We hiked up a steep section of rock and sat in the shade created by the old tall red pines scattered behind us. It took nearly two hours to slowly drink enough water to bring us both back. We had come this far and we discussed heading back to the boat and the comfort of the larger lake with the campsites on it but that would have contradicted why we came out here. Instead, we chose to stay in the red pines. Once the decision was made morale made an immediate one-eighty.
We dropped our packs and walked the red pines looking for the best site to hang a couple hammocks. The sun was out and from the higher elevation, we had an excellent view of the lake. The view was of priority when choosing our site, the other main consideration was access to water. By 7 pm we had our hammocks hung and a makeshift fire ring made. The goals for camping in the primitive management area were similar to goals we would have camping at a traditional BWCA site only to the extreme. Leave no trace meant literally that. We would learn over the next two days that it’s not as easy as it sounds. Humans leave a significant footprint even when they are trying not to. We discussed the pros and cons of traveling the same path between our site and the water source and the latrine. We sorted out a “dug” as soon as we got hammocks hung and food out for the night. Part of leaving no trace here meant no straight cutting of anything. Trampled paths grow and fill in over time, even burned rock will eventually fade but cut branches or cut tree stumps are a long lasting sign of our presence. No cutting period, break it off or don’t use it.
We rounded out the day sitting on our rock ledge overlooking the lake eating re-hydrated potato bark soup. As the sun set, we watched active beavers swim from one lodge to another crisscrossing the lake as they went. Ryan brought a pair of binoculars which made scanning the shoreline for wildlife from our vantage point an enjoyable way to spend the last of the daylight. Exhausted and sore we slept well under the stars for the second night.
Day 3. I woke early to watch the fog roll in and out over the lake. At one point the lake was nearly free of fog and an hour later I could barely see the treeline opposite our campsite. I sat and drank my coffee watching the sun come up eventually burning the remaining clouds off. I spent the morning practicing feather stick making. Conditions were perfect for feather sticks, the sun had dried downed wood for days and the conditions were hot and dry in the red pines. Most finely made feathers went up with one or two strikes of a Ferro rod. I fished a Clouser minnow from shore with the longest roll casts I could manage and managed a few fish but they were all super small. Perch and bluegill were all I caught casting from shore. The DNR doesn’t have any survey data on this particular lake and it lacks a feeding stream so it’s hard to tell if much other than these small fish inhabit the water.
The rest of the day was spent setting up tarps, practicing knots and fire building. In the afternoon we hiked to the far edge of the lake and sat in the water to cool off. The lake was home to far more life than I had noticed the last time we sat on this rock. Minnows, perch, water spiders, cased caddis larva were all present when one looked closely. The small perch were feeding on the water spiders in a school and they could be spotted rising in a moving group chasing the spiders on the surface. Sitting in silence I noticed more life and activity than I had the year before. Thoughtful observation would become a theme for me this year. We noticed small jack and white pines growing from small cracks in the huge rocks we were sitting on, these trees are determined fighters. Many of the trees nearby showed evidence of the beavers that seem to be the primary mammal inhabiting this lake. We scanned the trees around us and used an identification manual to learn as much as we could. Jack, white, red and austrian pines were all found within a few hundred yards of our campside. Black spruce and tamarack clearly visible in the bog across the lake. Poplar and birch were the predominant desigious trees present but small slow growing oaks and maples were easily found. The tree identification guide was a key peice of gear we brough from my perspective.
The day of more relaxing activity ended with dinner and a discussion of the day to come around our fire. A .8 mile hike and bushwack seperated us from the boat on the main lake. We had two more nights in the BWCA and as we ate dinner we settled on a plan to leave the comfort of our elevated red pine campsite and head for the main lake, our canoe and hopefully the fish. As the sun set the stars came out for a third night as we laid on the flat rock outcropping overlooking the lake. The frustrated human in me couldn’t help but see and think about the myriad of satellites that flew across the sky as we observed the milky-way appear before our eyes. I packed it in for the night satisfied that the goals for this trip were being completed.