Words and photos by Mara MacDonell
Sitting in the duffer seat of a green plastic Alaskan canoe, my butt is soaked. I readjust, attempting to sit on the Crazy Creek behind me, but am stymied by loose water bottles rolling around, several inconveniently placed thwarts, and fat Duluth packs keeping my legs solidly scrunched. I sigh; swamp ass it is for me.
It is just past noon on an early June day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota, and the second day of a five-day trip. Though the air is humid and the sun is playing hide and seek, my rain gear is resolutely on. The black flies and mosquitos have taken advantage of the early summer rains and are out with a vengeance. I pull up my bright pink Buff to my eyes, protecting my neck, ears, and sanity.
Sitting in the duffer seat down in a puddle at the bottom of the canoe, I feel close to the water. The river ripples under the plastic canoe beneath me; when we pull over a beaver dam or accidently paddle across the odd log, the hull gives ever so slightly, alerting me to the mysteries just beneath the water’s surface. We are paddling the Frost River, a swampy blue line connecting the eastern bigger lakes such as Brule and Long Island to Gabimichigami, Little Saganaga, and eventually Seagull. Our party of seven has taken two plastic boats and an aluminum one with the hopes of bumping and grinding down the mini-sets of the Frost River. Though we have brought little gear and can easily single portage, we hope to forgo as many portages as possible.
Currently, however, we are winding through the swampy section and with the exception of a beaver dam or two, little whitewater has been seen for a few hours. Instead of the roiling, roaring, rush of water, near silence fills the air, punctured only by soft sounds: the dip-dip-dip of the paddles, the lazy calls of song birds, and the drone of the mosquitos. In the swamp, the mosquitos reign queen.
Down in the duffer seat, I look up at the land we pass. The bottom of the boat offers a new perspective. As we move through the narrow waters, yellow-green reeds brush my face gently. They are flat, like leaves of grass. We paddle further and pass green-blue reeds. These are great puzzles, with little black joints every few inches. I pluck one from the water and take it apart, joint-by-joint, rolling the perfectly round reed in my fingers. I put it back together and let it slip out of my hand into the caramel water.
We continue down the twisting Frost, finding peace in the quietness. Other another bend, however, the silence is disrupted and we paddle through mini-sections of whitewater: riffles and swifts carry us down rocky sets three feet wide and lined by fallen trees. Occasionally, we portage around sets filled with strainers or miniature waterfalls. Other times, we hop out of the boats and guide them down, around, and over sets impossible to canoe in boats, loaded or otherwise. Eventually, I find myself in the stern and my swam-ass dries out. The bugs never leave.
As dinnertime approaches, we are still a paddle and a 100-rod portage away from our campsite of choice for the night. We look at the map and find Time Lake, a lake connected by blue lines and devoid of portages. "Send it!" we concur and after an easy first set we paddle across the small lake to the perceived exit. As we look down the river, we find ourselves somewhat stuck in Time. The only way out is through a nasty set of strong current, strainers, and rocks that look perfect for wrapping boats. As we bring the boats to the top of the rocky mess, my paddle slips out and down the set. I don't see it come out the other side. This doesn't bode well.
My canoe starts down the set, carefully, close to shore, my body in water up to my chest. We push the canoe under a large fallen white pine, two feet in diameter. A pack snags on the nub of a branch, but we get it through with just the smallest of tears in the dark green canvas. Rocks scrape along the bottom of the boat and I imagine we are leaving a trail of green plastic as a statement: we were here, we have not let this obstacle stymie our progress!
Towards the end of the first section of whitewater, I let myself float down a part of the river, hands on the boat, feet up to avoid entrapment. When the current mellows, I touch my feet down again, pulling our boat swiftly to an eddy. We made it down. Nestled in reeds on the edge of the river, cloaked from the sky by towering pines of emerald, we watch as the other boats come down. One goes past and attempts to walk the final stretch of the set. My boat and another opt for a bushwhacked portage. A heavy, wet canvas pack on my back, I push past thin branches and let them whip back, their leaves rattling and flinging water like jewels thrown into the sky. A spider web covers my face and the rocks are slippery with moss but with a final push I make it to the end. In the water below, my paddle bobs, safe and sound.
We make it to camp within 15 minutes, the sun setting behind the far hills. The tent is set up, home within the forest. As I look for firewood for dinner, the new needles on the balsam trees distract me. The needles are lime green to the older needles deep forest. On the spruce tree, the same phenomenon occurs. All around me, I am struck by the varied shades of green—some with hints of blue, others yellow, still others make me glance sideways, and for a moment, rusty red plays on the edge of the moss.
In the early summer, the BWCA is new and fresh. The rain falls often and the misty mornings make me hold my cowboy coffee close. Though I've only been out for a few days, my legs are already covered in bug bites and bruises. It's the beginning of summer and the days are long. All seems new and in the newness, the forest positively glows. I glow with it. From every path, from every unknown waterway, adventure beckons.
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