Sunday, August 2, 2015

The North Woods: Wisconsin and Minnesota

I left Isle Royale and kept to the shore of Lake Superior. In Wisconsin I made a spur of the moment decision to take advantage of the sunshine to book a same-day sea kayak tour of the Apostle Islands. When my guide found out I had paddled in Alaska and was a NOLS graduate (he was one himself), he gave me the benefit of the doubt and turned me loose in a single kayak, the first client he ever let do so. I was very glad for  the freedom to explore on my own.  The highlight of the day was the opportunity to paddle into a number of sea caves!

Yep, a 5'8" paddler in a 17' kayak can indeed fit in that cave!

"Sea cave phone home"
I spent the weekend near Hayward, in the heart of Wisconsin's North Woods. My Aunt Clare has a lovely lakeside cabin and I enjoyed spending time with family, catching up on everything, and paddling the lake with my cousins in search of eagles, loons, and beaver dams. Thanks Clare!

I crossed into Minnesota near Duluth, got the first oil change of the trip (5,000 miles down!), and took the North Shore Scenic Drive up to Grand Marais. According to the sign at city limits, Grand Marais has been voted "America's Coolest Small Town" and although I've seen enough of those claims to doubt who holds the current title, I'd be hard pressed to argue against Grand Marais keeping the belt for a while longer. I found one of those great small town diners for breakfasts, the meal I enjoy most on the road. And a rooftop bar with live music and local beer, where one can enjoy sunset mixing with the evening fog in the harbor.

Grand Marais lighthouse
From Grand Marais I took the "Gunflint Trail," a famous voyageurs route, to enjoy some hiking in the eastern end of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness along Rose Lake with views into Canada.

Rose Lake Cliffs, BWCAW
But what's a trip in the Boundary Waters without a canoe? Wanting to sample more of the area, I headed west to Ely, MN to pick up a rental for some time on the water. I toured the International Wolf Center and then I got dropped off at Entry Point 29 with plans to paddle back to my outfitter a few days later.

The alpha male of the International Wolf Center, Ely, MN

My first portage (carry from lake to lake) was made easier with a system of Teflon and rollers. If only they were all so simple! I got a proper Boundary Waters beat down on my second portage, carrying my waterproof pack and the canoe on my shoulders for a muddy and rocky 190 rods. What's a rod? Good question. A "rod" is quite possibly the most useless unit of measurement known to man. It's something like 16.5 feet and it harkens back to the days of Indians and trappers. I get the historical aspect, but for planning purposes it's somewhat confusing. Apparently there are 320 of these rods to a mile. All I can really tell you is that I dreaded anything over 30 rods. I was too stubborn to shuttle my gear back and forth and made all the portages in one super-haul. My shoulders are still upset with me.

The easy way
The hard way
The good news is that lengthy portages keep the crowds away, and the Boundary Waters is one of the most popular wilderness areas in the country. On my last night of the trip I was fortunate to have Clear Lake all to myself, as it was guarded by 90 rods of suck. I cooled off with an afternoon swim. While drying off on a rock I spied a momma moose and her two calves across the lake from my island camp. I enjoyed a beautiful sunset followed by a "blue moon" and my cheery campfire before turning in for the night.

The solo canoe I had rented was sleek and easily managed, once I figured out that I had used the newfangled "bent" shaft paddle backwards for the first 10 miles. I paddled against an awful headwind for a couple of days but once that died down I ended up making pretty good time and arrived my final camp by 1130. Looking at the stormy sky, I decided to push on to the take out instead of spending a rainy night in the tent. I had to paddle like hell to the shore on three separate occasions when lightning burst overhead, but I made it back in plenty of time for a few post trip beers and stories with the locals and guides back in Ely.

Anybody home?
Their beady red eyes don't show up in the photo. I think I interrupted dinner time and they stared me down with those devil eyes. 
I made a friend! 

I'm giving up the great North Woods for the Great Plains. Heading to North Dakota on my way to the Canadian Rockies and hoping to leave the mosquitos behind me.

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