It was the kind of trip that the sweetest childhood memories are made of, a long leisurely haul from our farmland home near Oshkosh, Wisc., up to the forested fringes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota, out to Isle Royale and then along the rugged circumference of Lake Superior, with Mama and Papa in the front seat and my freckled buddy-since-birth Cilla Kimberly and me in the back, each of us counting cows on our side of the road up to a hundred and then yelling "whiskee washee!" if we made it, unless we passed a cemetery, in which case the unlucky one with the graves on her side of the road had to go back to zero.
The cows ran out somewhere south of Duluth, and there weren't many cemeteries either, or towns, for that matter. We started noticing deer and porcupines and hawks and cascading rapids instead, gazing in turn at the dense pine and birch wilderness to the left of the car, and over the steely blue expanse of Lake Superior to the right. We passed through Grand Marais, a picturesque village of 1,200 that a decade later would become a significant point on my personal map, before heading away from the lake up the Gunflint Trail, up over the ridge that rises almost a thousand feet from the shore.
Several dusty, rutted miles later we pulled in to Heston's Borderland Lodge on Gunflint Lake. It was cloudy and cool, the family-album photographs remind me. We paddled our rented aluminum canoes modest distances, and cast languidly. Once, I caught a fish and reeled it in, surprised that it wasn't a waterlogged old shoe or stump. Its eyes flashed and it resisted the net indignantly. Two hours later my father had cleaned it and fried it up and we were eating it. It was delicious, delicate, but at 12 it seemed an awful thing to do.
We took a ferry to Isle Royale, a roadless, carless, hotelless mound of forest and swamp 50 miles long and a dozen miles wide rising out of Lake Superior, and saw our first wild moose. I took a picture of Cilla sitting in a bed of trillium (and moose droppings, as she discovered when she stood up) and it later took first prize at the Winnebago County Fair. Hundreds of miles around and across the lake, we saw the gigantic statue of a Canada goose outside of Wawa, Ontario. You remember things like that when you're 12.
That trip turned out to be a North Woods overture. I have returned often to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), and to the rugged shores of Lake Superior, to canoe and hike, to cross-country ski and bicycle tour, to pack smelt and clear brush, to visit old friends and get acquainted with new family.
I was a graduate student at Northwestern University in Evanston before I went north again, for the October wedding of an old roommate, who'd left Macalester College and St. Paul to find herself in the woods.
The hundred twisting shoreline miles between Duluth and Grand Marais shimmered to the left with autumn colors rendered subtle by a summer drought, and Superior's perpetual steely blue to the right. The scenery doubtless hadn't changed much in nine years, but I felt as if I were seeing it for the first time.
I hadn't been to many friends' weddings yet, and was struck by the loveliness of this one, outdoors, with Lake Superior glistening through the background trees. The bride and groom wore matching hand-sewn embroidered muslin (not the kind of outfit a native-born Grand Marais bride would likely be caught in, mind you -- it embodied a city-raised vision of country life).
I met my future husband that night, at the wedding dance in the Hovland Town Hall, 20 miles up the shore from Grand Marais, halfway to the Canadian border along a still dark stretch of road that could at any moment startle a driver with a blank-eyed deer, a waddling porcupine or a recalcitrant black bear. Steve Leonard was an old college boyfriend of the bride, on his way from a job in Los Angeles to one at Northwestern, where I was studying. That made him accessible.
That he had deep North Woods roots made him intriguing. Steve's grandfather, Charlie Boostrom, had blazed the Gunflint Trail and built some of its sturdiest lodges early in the century, besides being a trapper, fisherman, logger, surveyor, game warden, guide, mason and more. Steve's mother and her nine blond siblings had been born and raised on Clearwater Lake by Petra and Charlie Boostrom, 35 miles up the Gunflint Trail.
Charlie often trekked that distance on snowshoes, between snowdrifts like fortress walls, with a hundred pounds of provisions in his dark-green canvas Duluth pack. That was before the trail became a road, before snowplows, before the carloads of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In April, I came to live with newlyweds Tim and Cheryl for a few weeks in their roadside cabin in Hovland. The spring was advanced and balmy in Chicago, but coming north was like traveling backward in time. Brilliant white ice clotted Duluth's harbor, Christmas decorations still hung from streetlamps along Highway 61, and the buds had barely begun to break out. Their place was admittedly ramshackle on the outside, the kind of unpainted shack with a crippled snowmobile and odd bits of stuff in the yard that made passing tourists cluck disapprovingly as they sped past. Houses and clothes in the bush, some of them, anyway, are like that: purely functional, unabashedly patched with wood or wool. Many North Woods cabins lack running water, indoor toilets, electricity. Cheryl hauled water from her mother-in-law's, stoked the woodstove at 3 a.m. to keep the cabin warm, read by the dim light of an oil lamp, washed dishes only when she had enough to justify heating the water on the propane campstove to do it. Living like that, one puts little stock in what passing tourists think of one's front yard.
It was the smelt season. In the hours before dawn the young men and women of the area would don hip waders and heavy sweaters and would stand in frothing rivers with names like Devils Track, Temperance, Baptism, Cascade, Brule, scooping up the shimmering little fish with dip nets. During the day and night, they would pack tons of fish in a little plant in town. When there is work, it is done with a ferocious, consuming intensity, before the long, inert months of winter set in.
Cheryl and I drove up the Gunflint Trail one afternoon, to visit her old stomping grounds -- coincidentally, the same Borderland Lodge I'd come to 10 years earlier. It was warmer inland, as it always is, except in winter, when it's colder than by the shore. Spring was further along. "That's Number 2, the honeymooners' cabin. Al Capone stayed there," Cheryl said, indicating a cabin painted olive green with black trim.
The inside of the lodge was all warm golden wood, with the mandatory moosehead and showshoes mounted on the walls. One lodge is pretty much like the next along the Gunflint Trail -- quiet, comfortable, genteel, worn but dependable as a grandfather's lap. In recent years they've taken to staying open through the winter, so cross-country skiers can ski from one to the next across the frozen lakes and through the rolling forested hills. (The lodges shuttle your luggage, so you can stay at a different place each night if you choose to.)
A woman in the lodge, perhaps the owner, was complaining about environmental extremists pushing to ban all motors from the million-plus-acre BWCA, which lies within the Superior National Forest. "They're mighty happy to see a motorboat when they capsize and are drowning," she groused. "They think they walk this far off the land," she added, spreading her hands vertically, "but they don't clean up after themselves."
It's an old battle between the locals and the wilderness purists, between the rural caretakers who say they can't use their backyard as they see fit with all the confounded environmental regulations, and the urban users who see the BWCA as a unique national shrine. The latter view has more or less won out; low-power motors are allowed on only a few of the BWCA's 1,175 lakes now. Snowmobiles are banned. No bottles or cans may be brought in. Anyone caught camping in undesignated areas stands to be fined stiffly.
Steve drove up in early May, and we set off for our first BWCA trip together in his grandfather's battered old Grumman aluminum canoe. It was unexpectedly hot, in the 80s every day, and we'd unwittingly chosen the opening of the fishing season. At first, the woods were alive with the sounds of cussing and canoes crashing through the trees, of fishermen scrambling to make their limit, but our route eventually led us to solitude.
Just as we started to tire of paddling in the bright sun, we would reach shade and land. We became pack animals, then, bent under the weight of our provisions, rolled-up accommodations and unwieldy 17 1/2-foot canoe. Horizontal trees littered the trail, felled by winter blizzards or spring lightning. Blackflies and mosquitoes descended maddeningly, and dense brush clawed at our skin and clothes. Just then, we would reach the next lake, gratefully heave off our loads, drink the sweet water and begin again.
We spent a week like that, canoeing in a broad loop on lakes named Round, Tuscarora, Owl, Crooked, Mora, Harry, Little Saganaga, Gabimichigami, Agamok, Ogishkemuncie, Jasper, Alpine, Red Rock and Saganaga. Long before the lakes were named or mapped or even seen, long before Native Americans and French voyagers and Scandinavian settlers, the area bore the grinding weight of southbound glaciers. Eons of ice and snow shaped the land, and the ancient marks remain -- the deep, cold lakes, cold as a window in winter, dot the terrain like gigantic glacial fingerprints.
The scenery is more tranquil than splendid. There are no breathtaking mountains, just tall trees and quiet water, big wild fish, circling eagles and hawks, and raving, mourning loons. Often, too, northern lights paint the starry night sky.
When Charlie and Petra Boostrom traveled in the North Woods, they fished and ate dehydrated foods, though theirs didn't come in fancy foil pouches with earnest names. Unlike us, they baked wild berry pies and yeast breads, setting the dough to rise in the front of the canoe as they traveled, baking it in a reflector oven when they made camp. They also ate off the land: labrador tea, blueberries, strawberries, water lily roots, muscrat and beaver, young bear, lynx, woodchuck and, rarely, porcupine.
Many of the natives of Grand Marais still trap and hunt and forage to supplement their sustenance. Steve's parents' deep freezer is usually packed with moose, venison, bear, lake trout. In early spring, when the snow is still deep but melting, our friends tromp out under the moon to tap the maple trees. They sit around a bubbling cauldron in a tepee made of clear plastic sheeting, with a smaller pot of chili on the side, sipping whiskey or the scarcely sweet tea-like sap as it boils down to syrup.
On Aug. 17, 1979, a lot of history died with Charlie Boostrom, who was 91 and probably ready. A month later we visited his and Petra's graves up the hill before setting off again in the old canoe. We climbed the magnificent palisades that had been the Boostroms' view for decades on Clearwater Lake. We gathered blueberries where we found them and came upon friends from Grand Marais poling through the grassy shallows of one lake, gathering wild rice by bending the stalks over the canoe and beating them with a stick so the grains would fall into their canoe.
The weather got rough with the approach of autumn, and waves lapped over the canoe's gunnels, soaking our legs and packs. We were happy to have the shelter of a family hunting shack ahead of us, on South Fowl Lake. On the way, we passed a group camped on a windswept point, including one person in a wheelchair. Young and able-bodied, we'd had enough trouble getting to this point; it was humbling and encouraging to see that wheelchair on the beach.
In 1980 our attention turned to the other side of Superior, to the rugged Canadian shore. In March I visited the Stokely Creek Ski Touring Centre, in the rolling Algoma wilderness just north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, for the first annual Wabos Loppet, a 27-kilometer cross-country ski touring event.
What a glorious way to ring in the spring, I thought, as I explored the 90-kilometer trail system, enjoying the challenge and speed of hills the likes of which I'd never skied in Wisconsin. I reveled, too, in skiing shirtless in bib knickers. Up to 300 inches of snow falls in the area yearly; the strength of the equinox sun barely made a dent.
Before dawn on Loppet day, about 200 skiers converged in the "Soo," as Sault Ste. Marie is known. We piled onto the Algoma Central Railway's "Snow Train," tried to figure out which gooey combination of klisters to use on our ski bottoms, sipped coffee and piled out an hour later at the Wabos whistle stop (Wabos means rabbit). Soon we were negotiating the trackless wilderness, over snow-dusted lakes and tree-studded hills. Some glided and some clumped, depending on their abilities, and whether they had struck the right chemistry with their klisters. Spring conditions argue mightily in favor of waxless skis.
Friendships arose among strangers as stories and snacks were exchanged. I skied with others and alone, as my pace and mood dictated. When my stamina would flag and I was faced with a snaking downhill run I wasn't sure I could negotiate, I would sit on my skis, only to find a warming tent and dozens of amused spectators cheering my humiliated arrival around a corner at the bottom.
The final 10 kilometers of the tour took us back onto Stokely's groomed trails -- a welcome relief, after a long haul of bushwhacking. Some seasoned ski racers finished in just over two hours. A long-distance novice, I slogged in after six, aching and euphoric, grateful for the ale and greasy morsel of smoked fish that were thrust into my hands. Later, lodge guests regaled each other with tales of the day's adventure, either in the sauna or curled up by one of the fireplaces in the airy Scandinavian-modern lodge.
I stayed on a few days. A group from the lodge drove up the shore a hundred miles on the Trans-Canada Highway (Rte. 17), past sweeping views of Batchawana Bay and Montreal River Harbour, and into the Lake Superior Provincial Park. We parked and skied down a long untracked road, and then onto Agawa Bay, on Lake Superior itself.
How strange and thrilling it was to glide on that paralyzed inland ocean! This was the volatile lake that had swallowed the Edmund Fitzgerald and countless other ships, whose crashing waves had shaped the shoreline cliffs and dragged down ancient trees over the centuries. Yet now it was silent, and we were skiing on it.
After an hour we came to a massive cliff faintly inscribed with the figures of horses, fish, men, canoes, bear, caribou, deer, Mikenok the turtle (who signifies reaching land) and Michipizhou, the horned lynx with a human face, a powerful lake spirit. Painted with red ocher, berry extracts, gums and saps, the figures are thought to commemorate a journey of war canoes across the lake and a battle at Agawa, made possible with the intercession of Michipizhou. It is a holy place for the Ojibway Indians, a place where tobacco, food and other offerings are to be left for the spirits. Archeologists say pictographs have been on the site for perhaps 400 years.
Two months later Steve and I were camped on a cliff adjacent to the pictographs, listening to the wind build across the lake and sift through the trees. We had driven to Frater, a whistle stop beyond Wabos, and gotten on the wilderness train with our bicycles and panniers. The train took us through Agawa Canyon, where spring buds were just opening in a haze of pale green between the sheer rock walls and waterfalls. (The train trip from Sault Ste. Marie to the canyon is splendid at any time of year; autumn is particularly lovely. It's 228 miles round trip, an all-day excursion with a few hours' stopover in the canyon.)
We changed trains at the Franz crossing of tracks and proceeded on Canadian Pacific Railway to Nipigon, the northernmost point on Lake Superior and the site of the first permanent white settlement on the lake's north shore. From there we rode back southeast along Rte. 17. We had counted on cool weather and a strong tailwind to help push us over the steep, long hills (up to 6.5 percent grades). Instead, summer blew in early from the south, pushing against us as we rode with stubborn headwinds and temperatures approaching 90 degrees.
It was a beautiful route, dotted with picturesque villages but mainly leading us along the jagged shore of Superior and through its husky forests and wilderness parks. One evening we had Neys Provincial Park all to ourselves. We camped on a sand beach on Prisoner Cove, so named because the park was used as a POW camp during World War II.
It was also a treacherous route, the only one connecting the Canadian coasts and thus heavily traveled by "transports," as Canadians call trucks. More than once we were nearly blown off the road by speeding 18-wheelers. We were grateful to head down the same road I'd skied down earlier, to get intimate with the lake and the magic of the pictographs again.
The next summer Cheryl and I bathed and basked like seals in the Cascade River near Grand Marais. She showed me the "potscrubber" rocks that get trapped and scour holes into river boulders. On the dirt road back to town, a bear cub approached the car, mewed at us, then scampered off to join its mother.
We had come back for the family reunion at Clearwater Lake. In "The Family of Man" there is a series of photographs of seasoned husbands and wives, and each is captioned, "We two form a multitude." In July 1983, I met the multitude of Charlie and Petra Boostrom, the dozens of blond children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, and the dark-haired minority that had married in to the family.
My own family is on the brink of extinction. I never knew my grandparents. My father and his brother are dead. I have only one cousin, only one niece. This sprawling family that I had joined through marriage was mysterious and wonderful.
The circle around Lake Superior, which had first been sketched in my childhood, seemed somehow completed in that gathering.Magda Krance is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.