This story featured in the March 2013, 40th anniversary, issue.
By Cliff Jacobson
In the fall of 1981, I took my family on a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota. Autumn is a wonderful time to be up north: The air is crisp and the people and bugs have long since gone. The weather can be beautiful, or as was the case this time, absolutely miserable. Cold rain spattered the windshield throughout the long drive to Grand Marais, the gateway to the Boundary Waters. The little town was fogged-in solid and the rain had turned to chilling drizzle. Over supper at Sven and Ole’s pizza place, Sharon and I nervously discussed the road ahead.
We would begin our trip on Seagull Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail, 60 miles away. The Gunflint was mostly gravel then and washouts were common. The scattered lodges along the trail were closed for the season so if we got stuck out there we’d be on our own. Sharon wasn’t sure we’d make it, but I had confidence in our Jeep Wagoneer and its four-wheel drive, which was rare in those days.
Morning came, and with it, more rain. While I was gassing up at the Standard station, Sharon and our two girls, ages 8 and 9, browsed in a nearby store. They returned with a bag of donuts and a Field & Stream magazine.
It was an odd choice. Sharon has never been a fan of hook-and-bullet magazines, but this was no ordinary issue of F&S. It was an anniversary edition, full of stories from the early 1900s. The cover listed the names of the authors, among them Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey and President Theodore Roosevelt. There was a story by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas titled “Why We Must Save the Allagash.” Sharon said, “If we’re stuck in a tent all week, I want something fun to read.”
I pointed the Wagoneer down the Gunflint Trail, careening through deep ruts and past a sign that warned drivers to continue at their own risk. The big Jeep skittered in the mud but “Quadra-Track” conquered all. When we finally reached Seagull Lake, the rain had stopped but the gray sky remained. I was thrilled to see that there were just two cars in the parking lot—evidently, the crisp October weather and the rain had driven all but the hard-core home. We loaded our 18-foot-6-inch Sawyer Charger canoe, and set out to meet the day.
We made an early camp on a slopping knoll, and I set our four-person Eureka! Timberline for a storm, with a plastic ground-cloth inside, a spacious vestibule at each end and extra guylines to resist the wind. Then I stoked a bonfire in the Forest Service grate and rigged our kitchen fly to face the flames. Soon the fire was glowing red and reflecting heat deep into the tarp. I put on the kettle and called the gang. We huddled in the glowing warmth, sipped hot chocolate and shared the donuts Sharon brought. It was magical.
Soon the rain returned, and we retired to the tent. The girls weren’t sleepy—and they’d fight if not entertained—so Sharon said she’d read them a story from the magazine. I lit the brass candle lantern and hung it from the tent ridge. Mysterious shadows flickered about. Rain thrummed on canvas. The mood was set.
Sharon found an article, written about 1910, that mirrored our day. It described a canoe trip in northern Minnesota, in an area which one day would become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The adventure began with four friends from Minneapolis loading two wood-and-canvas canoes atop a Model T Ford, and traveling a network of poorly mapped, one-lane dirt roads north to the interior lakes. There were ruts, rocks, mud and downed trees to avoid. There were no telephones, gas stations or lodges along the way. Night caught them deep in the forest with many miles to go and just some kerosene lamps to light the way. Ultimately, the men decided it was too dangerous to continue in the dark, so they slept in the car—or rather, tried to sleep.
They were city boys and the sounds of the forest—wolves, coyotes, owls, and rodents—kept them wide awake. They worried that they would be devoured by a bear or cougar, and they rejoiced when daylight came and the haunting sounds disappeared. As Sharon read on, I watched the eyes of our girls grow saucer-wide. And when the story reached its climax—“‘We are still alive, we are still alive’ they chorused!”—the girls laughed and snuggled deeper into their warm, dry sleeping bags.
The men in the story cranked up their Model T and started their canoeing adventure on a lake not far from the one where we were camped, six or seven decades later. We felt a kinship with them. We, too, had braved muddy forest roads and endured strange sounds and shadows. We shared the same sense of adventure and camaraderie, the same familiar feeling of gliding quietly into the wilderness. Thinking back now on that fall day more than 30 years ago, I wonder if the story Sharon read had been a mirror of our distant past. Or, was it just an affirmation that the magic of a wilderness canoe trip is timeless?
— Cliff Jacobson is the author of more than a dozen books on canoeing and camping. A distinguished Eagle Scout, recipient of the American Canoe Association’s Legends of Paddling Award and member of the ACA Hall of Fame, Cliff has been writing for C&K since 1979.