Crossing New Boundaries

Words by Caitlin Looby

Photos by Aaron Black-Schmidt

Our canoes were nestled behind a small rocky island, sheltered from the steadily rising wind. We lingered there eating handfuls of GORP and homemade bourbon beef jerky, enjoying a much-needed break from paddling and portaging. An hour later we would realize just how crucial that respite was.

All morning we’d been dodging the wind by working up along a chain of islands on the southern shore of Little Saganaga Lake. As we ventured into openwater, the knowledge that the wind could gust up at any moment brought out ourlast bit of energy.

One-by-one, our canoes took off and disappeared around the corner.

Ellie and Rachel enter Little Saganaga Lake from the east.

When it was our turn, we finally met nature’s full force. Up until that point we had only had a couple of bugs and one downpour. But, this was nature flexing her muscles. Are we really paddling into this? I wondered as our small fleet charged into the gusting lake.

Behind me I hear a yell muffled by the wind. “Don’t change sides!”

I paddled frantically on my left as the 30-mile-per-hour gusts numbed my face. We aimed for a tiny island about 700 feet away. I didn’t understand how our canoe was going to get there through the howling wind.

But, by keeping the bow of our gear-laden canoe pointed into the wind we were able to sideslip over to the island.

Another wind-muffled shout: “Draw stroke right!”

Good thing I learned that stroke two hours ago, I thought to myself.

This was a test. If I did this stroke incorrectly, the chill of the brisk wind would be replaced by cold, numbing water.

Fortunately, our canoe—filled with desperation and expensive camera gear—ferried the final few feet into the shelter of the island. 

I jumped out of the canoe, and observed the others. Sixteen-year-old Ellie had the same ear-to-ear smile that she radiated throughout the entire trip, while Judy calmly discussed the combination of techniques we’d used to ferry across the lake.

I had never paddled a canoe before this trip. Terms like “ferry” were new to me. I was new to this world and in that dire moment, I didn’t have the language to describe it. 

The group came to a quick consensus: we should return to the closest campsites for the evening. If we’d learned one thing, it was that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area—with all of its twists and turns—would guide us where we needed to go. 

Ellie and Rachel pass in front of Caitlin on Tuscarora Lake.

Just three days prior, our group had met at the Voyageur Canoe Outfitters near the end of the Gunflint trail west of Grand Marais, Minnesota. Most of us were meeting each other for the first time.

That night our trip leader Darren drew his finger over maps, linking small lakes and portages to make a circle. His wife Stephanie divvied up gear and GORP as Darren described the intended route. Beginning and ending at Round Lake, the trip would take us across 21 lakes linked by 20 portages—including the second longest in the BWCA at 428 rods (1.3 miles).

That night I lay awake, hypnotized by my thoughts and the bright moonlight that ignited our hotel room. This was a new experience I was about to embark on.

Mud splashed at my ankles as I balanced a canoe on my shoulders, following a winding forest trail. I focused on the steps in front, mindful of the wet rocks and saturated soil. The portages were in my comfort zone. I spend a lot of time hiking difficult terrain with heavy packs. I am good on the ground. Water and me? We are slowly getting to know each other.

And although the Northwoods were quiet, my mind was not. Was I doing the strokes right? What happens if the canoe tips? Is the paddling world going to accept me?

These thoughts were interrupted as I saw one of my group heading back to get more gear. There was one guarantee on all of these trails: Ellie would be beaming from ear to ear.

Behind this smile, Ellie carried a weight heavier than a pack and more onerous than a canoe. Weeks before the trip, her grandfather—her outdoor mentor and avid paddler—passed away. For the smiley teenager, this trip was about connecting and healing.

Her grandfather had been her connection to the outdoors. The BWCA was her connection to him. This was one of his favorite places and exactly 30 years ago, he led a trip here as a Boy Scout leader.

Towards the end of the trip, I noticed Ellie diligently hanging her hammock immediately upon arriving to camp. She seemed at peace, while I was busy rooting around for Ibuprofen. Darren later told me about the link between the hammock and her grandfather. She holds onto a photo of him swaying his hammock in this same wilderness.

It was in this unknown territory that Ellie found solace. “Being with strangers in the wilderness—people who didn’t know me but showed me love anyway—reminded me that his love still comes to me,” she said. 

Rachel and Ellie scouting for moose, loons and other locals.
Darren and Stephanie on Tuscarora Lake.
Ellie toasting pita bread in camp.
Team Rachel and Ellie on Brant Lake. 

Another newcomer to canoeing, Ellie found companionship with her stern paddler, Rachel. A skilled leader, Rachel critiqued Ellie’s strokes and helped improve her paddling. Their infectious dynamic was as clear to me as the lakes we paddled. Their laugher echoed constantly across the water.

The juxtaposition of the heavy packs and Ellie’s story made me appreciate what true strength is.

All smiles at the beginning of another portage.

And the packs were heavy. At the end of one portage mine hit the ground with a soggy flop. Judy threw hers down next to mine and muttered, “these damn portages.”

I joined in with a slew of profanity that only a New Jersey native like myself could concoct. Judy and I were in our chorus of colorful banter when Ellie strode around the corner giggling.

“C’mon Ellie just say a curse word,” Judy implored with a mischievous smile.

“Uh, gosh golly?”

We all erupted into laughter. Judy had this effect on people. She kept spirits high. But, she was no stranger to adverse conditions and working hard outdoors.

Raised on Air Force bases with little time spent outdoors, Judy made sure that she raised her own kids with a heavy appreciation for nature. While some may avoid trips to the grocery story with their toddlers, Judy took hers on backpacking trips. That toddler—now grown man—was sitting in the back of my canoe somehow steering and taking photos at the same time.

An experienced paddler, Judy’s skillset was just as impressive as her ability to pick up the heaviest packs and have a conversation with you along the entire portage. She knows everything about a world that I am just now walking into.

Judy and Caitlin soak up some rays near the end of a long day.

Judy told me that she wanted to prove to herself that she could still do this. And she totally did.

Judy’s comfort with paddling was apparent, Stephanie’s paddle was practically an extension of her body, and Rachel was a true leader. I wanted to reach that level of comfort that these women put forth. Going into the trip, I was comfortable with the heavy lifting. The hard part for me was putting myself in a new situation, canoeing. It is easy to stay in your comfort zone. It’s much harder to voluntarily immerse yourself in an unfamiliar situation.

Back in Grand Marais after our group parted ways, I fell fast asleep—too tired to take the shower I’d been dreaming about for days. You know you’ve learned a new language when you speak it in your dreams. I dreamt of portaging and moving my paddle through those still clear waters. 

Caitlin, Rachel and Ellie at our last camp overlooking Brant Lake.

After some time, Ellie reflected on the experience. “Traversing the wilderness with a canoe on your shoulders is no small feat, and the magical place that is Boundary Waters helped me see the strength within myself.”

Sometimes you need an adventure to remind yourself of how strong you are. Seeing the strength and endurance in other women is empowering. It was our sense of adventure that allowed our paths to cross.

And the Boundary Waters guided us there.

More from C&K

Turning Tides: A Glimpse into our Future of Rising Sea Levels

PHOTO ESSAY: Elemental Forces in the Boundary Waters

DESTINATION: Boundary Waters/Quetico, Minnesota and Ontario