There used to be a time when tripping into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area was all about the fishing. Walleyes and Lake Trout were the quarry and coolers of ice were the first of the gear loaded into #4 Duluth packs. The melting ice provided a little cold drinking water but the weight of the cooler was a necessary burden to carry fish fillets home. The canoes were heavy aluminum and tough enough to run up on the rocky landings at portages. Big Ed did the planning and everything was packed at his house, the headquarters for our expeditions. Brother Don manned the bow paddle of Ed's Alumacraft and always seemed kind of grouchy but catching and eating fried walleye would put a smile on his face. I was paired up with a variety of partners, depending on who was game and most often it was Holmsy in the front of my Grumman – a good partner always in good humor.
The destination was one of three lakes, each requiring multiple portages to get to. Holmsy and I, being in our 20s and half the age of Big Ed and Don, each carried two packs the first trip over the portage then went back for more. Looking at the amount of gear and packs stuffed into the canoes you might think our trips would be weeks long. Three or four days was a typical duration depending on when we'd had our fill of fresh walleye in camp with enough to bring limits home, along with who had to be back at work and when.
Times change, of course, and canoes got a whole lot lighter and way more expensive. Gear became high-tech and before long we were all saving up and buying new tents, bags, pads, stoves, and packs to put them in. I became fascinated with the idea of solo tripping in the wilderness area. Suddenly I was all about the paddling, traveling and exploring the lakes and portages of the BWCAW and Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park on my own. Spending weeks each year alone in canoe country was a passion and I thought nothing of getting dropped off in Atikoken, Ontario and paddling different routes south through 30 or more of the hundreds of lakes back to Ely, MN. Or putting in at a western entry and traveling the border route to see the various falls before circling north or south through small lakes and beaver dammed streams back to my starting point. It's beautiful country and the fishing was still there, obviously, and enjoying some fantastic angling along the way is another benefit of canoe travel. I can't remember all the camps I've pitched, or all the portages, but the experiences stand out.
I don't get there as much, anymore. It seems there's more people up there, now. And the reservation system took away the spur-of-the-moment capability of going whenever the urge hit. Not to mention the years collected and added to my age. But a trip was due and I was ready.
Camping along the border and lacking the extra permitting to enter Canada, I stayed on the U.S. side. Walleyes were there to catch, along with smallmouth bass and pike. Fly rod, canoe, and breeze can be a frustrating combo but when it's right it's... well, right. There was a moose followed without bothering with the camera, and pictographs. There was flat water and currents, wind and calm, sunshine and rain. Portages aren't getting easier, and this trip took nineteen of them and several camps before I pushed into the last landing, the takeout, tired and satisfied. Grateful for the chance –and thankfully able.