Early Pleasures of the Journey
Along the way, we stopped in Minnesota’s Itasca State Park to explore the headwaters of the Mississippi River, which starts out a mere 18 feet wide in knee-deep water. From there, we followed a 70-mile portion of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, traveling from Bemidji to Grand Rapids. Then, we headed northeast along Highway 169 through the historic mining towns of Hibbing and Chisholm.
The western entry points to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are near Ely, Crane Lake and Cook. As in the past, we chose to enter near Ely, a splendid town overflowing with recreational opportunities and a half dozen or more canoe outfitters. We stopped at Voyageur North Outfitters, where owner John O’Kane welcomed us warmly, as he has other paddlers for 40 years.
Just two hours after the shuttle dropped us off, we’ve already paddled across glassy Ensign Lake and now sit in the canoe on the northern end of Ashigan Lake. Our plan is to camp at Jordan Lake, still three portages and two more lakes away. I point straight ahead and say, “If we keep that island to our left, the portage should be in front of us.” Peter nods in confirmation. The lake isn’t large, but it’s new to us, so Peter and I both double check the map. Out here, it’s easy to miss a portage if you’re not paying attention. But therein lies the fun — using only a map and our sense of direction to find our way.
When we reach the portage, it takes longer to traverse than expected, our first reminder of the effort of moving deeper into the wilderness. Jack takes his turn carrying the canoe on his shoulders while Peter and I follow, shuttling gear through a mosaic of jack pine, fir, birch and aspen to Gibson Lake.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness sees almost 200,000 visitors annually, but it’s rare for every campsite at any of the lakes to fill up. However, the sites at Jordan Lake are full, as are those at Ima Lake, a hot spot for anglers fishing for trout, walleye and northern pike. Finally, we find an open site at Alworth Lake and decide to make that our base camp. Immediately, we fall into a familiar rhythm: pitching tents, sorting gear, gathering wood, filtering water and then relaxing over a hot dinner.