After a long day of paddling, I usually sleep like the dead, but something woke me with a start. Listening, all I heard was blood roaring through my head and a scraping on the tent wall as dried leaves skidded down its side. Finally, the sound came again. From across the water emanated a mournful cry, then a reply, and then another; in the darkness the noise sounded for all the world like unclaimed souls crying for redemption but finding none. Once I recognized the source of the caterwauling, I smiled-it was a chorus of timber wolves.
Hearing the wolf serenade came as a bonus on an already-inspiring paddling trip to one of North America’s favorite paddling destinations, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).
The Boundary Waters are located along the Minnesota/Canada border and contain more than 1,100 lakes and more than 1,500 miles of paddling routes. Since motors are allowed on only a small handful of border lakes, paddlers wanting to escape the noise and bustle of civilization value the Boundary Waters.
Traveling solely by paddle through these waters is a cathartic experience. The cobalt blue lakes are pure and cold, and the scenery is awe-inspiring. The Boundary Waters’ topography was created by a series of glaciers. Up to two miles thick, they acted as bulldozers, hewing lake beds out of granite and creating a landscape of rocky islands and coves that offer paddlers new sights and sounds at every turn.
My partner, Dave, and I were paddling on Saganaga Lake, one of the Boundary Waters’ largest and northernmost bodies of water. Running along the Canadian border, “Sag” has a reputation for being windswept and rough. We chose to paddle here because we figured there wouldn't be many other boats on the lake; most canoeists are hesitant about paddling on big water, especially in the fall, when fast-moving storms are common.
Saganaga Lake is at the very end of the scenic Gunflint Trail, which originates in Grand Marais, Minnesota. The drive along the Gunflint Trail to Big Sag is very beautiful and reminded me of Alaska, with aspen- and conifer-blanketed hills interspersed with boggy areas that are home to moose, marten, and wolves.
The landing we used near the Forest Service campground was actually on Gull Lake, and we then paddled through a two-mile channel to get to Saganaga Lake. Dave and I were quite protected there, but the full force of the wind hit us hard as we entered Saganaga. We were having a great time, especially poking along and exploring bays and estuaries. As we nosed around, eagles twisted and tilted above us in the thermals, their white heads and tail feathers flashing in the sun. As a counterpoint, jet-black ravens croaked at us from perches high up in the evergreens.
Paddling along, we passed a number of excellent campsites. All campsites in the Boundary Waters are designated; toilets are not enclosed, but they are located far behind the campsites and feel very private. The weather was on the cool side (50 degrees F, with a low of 20 degrees F overnight), so we picked a site that would catch the sun’s rays early in the morning. Most campsites have two or more places for tents, and knowing Dave’s ability to snore, I encouraged him to take the one farthest away from me.