All My Sons
A Canoe Country Reunion
Words By Conor Mihell
Photos By Martin Sundberg
Leather backpack straps tear into shoulders on a long carry; chewy, thick-sliced salami for lunch; jokes and banter echo over calm water; pine trees whisper in the breeze; the scrub of granite on bare feet; the tug of a hefty northern pike: These are the collective summertime memories of Gary Sundberg and his sons, Martin, Aaron and Craig. The timeless sensations of canoe-tripping may fade over time, but as the Sundbergs discovered last July, young families, high-paced jobs and thousands of miles of separation cannot displace deep-set traditions rooted in Minnesota’s North Woods.
For five days last July, the Sundbergs relived memories they hadn’t experienced in more than 20 years, as father and sons returned to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) for a paddle and portage trip. Being back in the wilderness together triggered intense flashbacks. The men slipped into the roles they’d defined for themselves as boys. Aaron, a 40-year-old engineer and avid triathlete, surfer and cyclist from Oahu, became his pre-teen self, casting for walleye for hours. Reassuming his big-brother status, Martin, a 42-year-old professional photographer from San Francisco, took charge in pitching camp. Craig, a 38-year-old father of two from suburban Minneapolis, was engrossed by the simple details of organization—from hoisting the kitchen pack beyond the reach of black bears to studying the route on a map.
“A lot of it was routine,” says Martin. “We all contributed and did our usual things—just like we’ve always done as brothers on canoe trips, the same as when we were 12-year-olds. My dad went out and shopped for trip food and came back with the same terrible hunk of salami he always bought back then. He still packed like a Boy Scout.”
There was nothing special about the route they followed, a BWCA classic tracing the Basswood and Horse rivers and connecting a handful of lakes north of Ely, Minn. Their travel days were mostly easy, the midsummer weather benign. They even took a rest day to take advantage of good fishing at one of the Basswood’s many waterfalls. The remarkable thing about this canoe-country reunion is that it happened at all.
“It wasn’t necessarily an epic adventure,” says Martin, “but it was epic in that three career people with families of their own came together and pulled it off. In that sense, it really was a trip of a lifetime.”
Over the 2013 Christmas holidays, Gary Sundberg had an unsettling revelation. He was nearing 70, and his boys had long since grown up and moved away, living their own busy lives with families and careers in Minnesota, California, and Hawaii. One evening, when the dinner table discussion turned to canoeing, Gary turned wistful. “We had some wonderful trips,” he reflected, “but I don’t think we’ll ever get up to the Boundary Waters as a family again.”
Moved by Gary’s remark, Craig’s wife, Amy, was the first to suggest a father and sons canoe trip to celebrate Gary’s 70th birthday.
The brothers started tossing around plans by email, with Craig leading the organization in Minnesota. They thought about making it a surprise—just showing up on Gary’s birthday with the canoes loaded and saying, “Dad, get your paddle.” After some debate, they scrapped that plan in favor of announcing the idea to their dad on Father’s Day. He was thrilled and jumped into the preparations.
“Half the fun of a canoe trip is figuring out a route, putting the gear together, making the menu and doing the shopping,” says Aaron. “We selected the week in July that bracketed dad’s birthday. I put it on my calendar. There was no way anything was going to interfere with the trip.”
Canoeing is etched in the Sundberg DNA. Gary and his brother started paddling as boys in South Dakota, inspired by a few Scout outings and canoe races on the James and Missouri rivers. He was barely a teenager when he built his first canoe—a fiberglass boat with crude wooden gunwales. (“It was a real disaster but at least it floated,” Gary laughs.) He fell in love with canoe camping in the North Woods on Boy Scout trips, including a paddling adventure along the Boundary Waters’ famous Border Route in 1959. “It’s like my dad was on a quest to be a paddler,” says Martin. “He did this completely unguided, without any influence from his own parents.”
College and a stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War interrupted Gary’s paddling for about a decade, but after returning home and marrying, he built his first cedar-strip canoe. He became an avid woodworker, eventually crafting a solo and tandem canoe, sea kayaks for each of his sons and their spouses, and, most recently, a pair of standup paddleboards. Martin’s earliest memories are saturated with the heady aroma of cedar and spar varnish and the glow of fluorescent lights in his father’s workshop, going back to when he was small enough to walk underneath the strongback building form of a wooden canoe.
Of course, woodworking was only half of the equation. The family put the canoes to use, venturing north to the Boundary Waters and exploring this vast network of interconnected waterways—sometimes with mother Linda, or with Gary’s brother and his son.
“My brothers and I have been around boats as long as I can remember,” says Martin. “We paddled on the weekends, fished, and made six or eight trips to the Boundary Waters. All of this impacted who we are today. Beyond photography, paddling is my greatest passion.”
“The routes were remote and the fact that we were able to pull this off almost every single year was pretty amazing,” adds Aaron. “As boys, it gave us an appreciation of outdoors. Our folks did a really good job of getting us involved in silent sports and we’ve all hung onto that. Going outdoors and seeking adventure is a big part of all of our lives.”
Two canoes drift on the Basswood River, just downstream from the tumbling, multi-channelled cascades that make this waterway along the U.S.-Canada border one of the most scenic parts of the BWCA. The Sundbergs paddled lackadaisically, soaking in the sunny weather and spectacular surroundings. Gary approached this trip as he always had, hoisting two packs and a canoe at the start of each carry. “We had to take them off of him, at every portage,” Martin laughs.
On the water, the boys diligently navigated through the labyrinthine lakes and rivers of northern Minnesota. This was a joy for Gary—a role-reversal that made him proud of his sons. Not paying complete attention to their position on the map, he was stunned when a granite cliff loomed ahead where the Basswood entered Crooked Lake. The monolith was instantly familiar. “Let’s go check it out,” he told his sons.
With more urgency now, the canoes veered toward the rock wall, which was bathed in warm sunlight. As they got closer, blood-red Ojibwa rock paintings took shape. For Gary, the whimsical and obscure renditions of animals, people and spirit-forms dating back centuries elicited an instant recall. “I’d been there before,” he says. “I knew we were in the same general area I had paddled as a kid, but all of a sudden, I saw this and realized we were on the exact same route I had done as a Boy Scout 55 years ago. That was an awakening.”
Meanwhile, Aaron revelled in canoeing’s slower pace, fishing, swimming and relaxing in camp. Deep in the BWCA, he was profoundly aware that he was disconnected from the constant distractions of computers and smartphones. He became engrossed in a timeless and satisfying rhythm. “It takes more and more effort to slow down in my day-to-day life,” says Aaron. “That was the most rewarding part for me.
“Martin took a photo of my dad and Craig in a canoe, paddling in the mist next to an island with two pine trees,” he continues. “It’s an iconic photograph that captures the whole trip for me. It was nice to focus on my dad and my brothers and the relationship I have with them.”
Though Craig lives within a four-hour drive of the wilderness, he admits last summer was his first multiday canoe trip in a long time. “But after 20 years, the place hasn’t changed at all,” he notes. Paddling and camping with his father and brothers made Craig realize just how powerful the experience could be for his daughters, now aged 4 and 6. “In a few years, I know my wife and I will be taking them on canoe trips as well,” he says.
As a photographer, Martin’s responsibilities revolved around documenting the trip. While all the Sundberg boys hope to make future canoe trips with their father, for now Martin’s photographs serve as concrete reminders that this trip actually happened—that the campsites, portages and misty lakes weren’t just a dream.
The photo that topped Martin’s shot list was a portrait of Gary, back in his element. The elder Sundberg looks vibrant, youthful and content in the company of his sons. “When you do a canoe trip,” says Gary, “you realize that your kids are your best friends.”
This feature originally ran in our June 2015 issue.