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We’re camped on the northwest tip of Sawbill Lake. The wind is from the south, just a gentle breeze. Blue sky, a few cottony clouds, though it was foggy on the drive up.
We left the Twin Cities at 8:10 this morning and were on the lake by two. It’s astounding how swiftly one makes the transition from the rush and roar of traffic to the simplicity of the woods. Moving up the lake again, stroke by stroke, watching the islands shift position against the skyline. The progress is so slow, but neither unexpected nor displeasing. Miles of empty shoreline. Patterns of blue and green. A few waves.
As the afternoon advances, finding an unoccupied campsite on the north end of Sawbill can become difficult. In the end, we had to backtrack to an out-of-the-way spot in the northwest arm of the lake, well off the beaten track. We’ve never camped here, though we’ve visited it before. At the time it struck me as closed in and buggy—a crash-and-burn site. In fact it’s very nice. (And any campsite immediately becomes more appealing when your own tent is set up in it.) Hilary has already gathered a few robust handfuls of blueberries, and I’ve built up a little pile of wood. Though the main body of the lake is obscured from view, we have an opening to the south stretching for at least a mile.
Two bad things to report: while we were setting up the tent two of our tent-poles broke. Thank God for duct tape! Also, it occurred to me a while back that we left the sausage and cheese back home in the refrigerator.
Moose in creek
It’s rather cool this afternoon. I’m wearing a long-sleeved shirt, and I just changed into long pants. Our campsite is on a little cove, with a creek running down into it from a marsh off in the woods somewhere. I just wandered down to the shore to see if there were any critters in the creek, and at that moment a moose emerged from the woods to feed on the lily pads. A sleek, rather youngish-looking moose. No antlers. He may have been fifty or sixty yards away. We watched him for maybe fifteen minutes. I don’t think he ever saw us. Finally he waded across the stream, climbed the bank on our side, and disappeared soundlessly into the woods.
Picking reading material for a canoe trip can be difficult. You don’t want to read about nature, because you’re in nature. But you want something pure and fundamental, like nature. I’m reading the introduction to Plato’s Timeaus. But now a loon is calling. And an immature bald eagle just flew by high overhead, made a second pass over the campsite and then drifted off toward the main body of the lake.
We had a campfire last night, mostly made of black spruce. The wood wasn’t burning well and I finally got tired of nursing it and abandoned it, but ten minutes later it revived of its own accord.
We saw one ripping-good shooting star, one very bright planet, and stayed up to watch the three-quarter moon rise above the trees. Slept very soundly. Got up at 4:30 to pee. The moon had set, the stars were brighter, the Pliedes, Taurus, and Auriga were blazing, and a supine Orion was just rising bright in the east.
This morning we devised a way to make coffee without the filter-holder—one of the other things we forgot, though it was sitting on the dining room table with the other equipment. We broke camp at 8:45. Perfectly clear blue sky. Lots of traveling through swamps and up creeks, with a mile and a half of portages. Then a fairly long paddle down Cherokee Creek, which was not dammed by the beavers, as it sometimes is. The creek widens, you turn the final corner, and the beautiful expanse of Cherokee Lake begins to come into view.
We passed several open campsites on the lower end of the lake, but continued on and were lucky enough to find that island spot out in the middle of the lake still open, with its big rock shelf that you can see for miles.
I just brought in a little cedar and a little balsam from the woods behind the campsite and sawed them up. We had an ample lunch (the absence of cheese and salami notwithstanding) of almonds, figs, sesame snacks, dried banana chips, beef jerky, and Rye Krisp. But we just now discovered (Alas!) that the Ghirardelli chocolate I brought along wasn’t semi-sweet, but unsweetened. Hence inedible. Right now we’re finishing off the Fritos we bought at a gas station on the way up.
Timaeus argues that the god who made the universe was working from a pattern of eternal, unchanging things. Why must this be so? Because the world is a fine and good thing. “The world is the fairest of things that have come into being and he [God] is the best of causes.” Plato goes on to suggest that God gave the world “soul and intelligence” because all the best things have these qualities. There follows a good deal of discussion about astronomical rings, the planets, air, fire, earth and water, and etc.
But we’re watching a loon family. (Do they have soul and intelligence? I’d like to think so.) Two adults and two young half their size. The adults dive, return to the surface with tiny minnows in their beaks, then swim back to feed the babies.
I like the speech that Plato puts into the mouth of the head God. He’s speaking to the lower gods of Greek mythology, the classical pantheon—Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and the rest—commanding them to make mortals, so that the created universe will be perfect. He proceeds to mix up another batch of “soul” in the same bowl that he used to make the souls of the “star” gods and the Olympian gods, “... using what was left of the old ingredients and mixing them in much the same fashion as before, only not quite so pure....” The logic of all of this is tenuous at best, but it does have poetic appeal.
A lovely, quiet afternoon, and we’re both feeling refreshed after our second swim. (There’s something ungainly about swimming with your tennis shoes on, but they tend to float, which is good, and they make it much easier to climb out of the water through the rocky shallows.)
4:30, and we hear parties of tired canoeists moving slowly by, looking for a campsite. You can hear their voices for miles, like something from a dream. And the slap of a paddle against the gunwale of a canoe. They’re lost in a dream, out there on the lake, where the afternoon sun flashes against the slowly rising, but not yet indomitable, waves. A few have taken off their shirts. A listlessness has overtaken them. Perhaps they don’t even know where they are. They drift.
Looking for a campsite
And here (returning momentarily to my book) is an astute remark by Timaeus:
In general we should never speak as if any of the things we suppose we can indicate by pointing and using the expressions “this thing” and “that thing” have any permanent reality, for they have no stability and elude the designation “this” or “that” or any other that expresses permanence. We should speak of it not as “being a thing” but of “having a quality.”
Friday 2:30 PM. We just got back from Long Island Lake an hour ago. That was a nice excursion. Mostly following up a channel. A few portages, lily pads, turtles, the occasional rocky cliff. Two pileated woodpeckers flying back and forth across the channel. A large flock of common mergansers bustling along the shoreline, herding their afternoon meal into the shallows. Long Island Lake was also pretty, though the eastern end of it has been severely burned over. We spotted several good campsites—for future reference.
We ran out of stove gas yesterday. And our back-up canister seems to be some off-brand that doesn’t quite fit the nozzle. (Cooking on an open fire can also be fun.)
Last night we had a freeze-dried chicken mole that was pretty strange. Still, something hot in the stomach. After dinner, the hot coffee. Then we took the canoe out for a spin around the islands on the east side of the lake.
The moon was almost full and two of Jupiter’s moons were quite easy to see with the binoculars. Tiny pinpricks in space.
The loons did quite a bit of flying around us as the sun went down, back and forth across the darkening sky, calling long and loud.
Just a few minutes ago, we were out on the rock shelf sitting in the shade of a cedar tree when two rangers showed up! I showed them our permit and we chatted with them for a while. They were both wearing the green life-preservers of their profession, but in other ways they made for a strange pair. One was clean-shaven and rather tall and stout—a hunter-fisherman type ranger—while the other one had glasses and a scruffy red beard, and was lean both in face and build—a biology major type.
I asked them about the Canadian Yew I’d seen growing in profusion in the hills behind the campsite while scrounging for firewood. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much of that scattered around before,” I said.
“That species is on the endangered list in the United States,” the lean ranger replied, “But it’s common in Canada, and also here in the BWCA,”
“Here’s another question. You’ll probably arrest us for this one,” I said—
“We’ve got our notebooks out—” the lean one shot back, mimicking a stenographer.
“We never filter our water.”
The stout ranger laughed, “We’ve probably drunk two gallons of unfiltered water since we set out on this trip.” His companion hastened to add that with more people visiting the BWCA, there are going to be a few more cases of giardia reported. Naturally they caution people against drinking water indiscriminately.
“We just paddle out into the middle of the lake and fill the bucket,” I said.
“Avoid the beaver swamps and you’ll probably be fine.”
“Here’s another one related to that video they make you watch,” I said. “It seems to me there are very few trees in the BWCA suitable for stringing up a bear-proof pack.”
“Lot’s of rangers never string up their packs,” the stout one said.
“I just suspend it as well as I can to make it harder for the mice to get in,” I said.
“That’s what I do, too,” he agreed.
Hilary mentioned the family of loons we’d been watching, and how small the young ones looked. The little guy said, “The ice went out late this year and the loons got a late start raising families.”
When I observed that it seemed the same baby was getting all the fish, he said, “It can be a advantage for survival if the stronger baby squeezes out the other one. If there is only one baby in the nest, the survival rate in 70 percent. But if there are two, there is only a 40 percent chance that either of them will survive.”
In the last half-hour some haze has developed, pretty high up. The sun is still shining, but not so intensely, and I’ve put on a thicker shirt.
Other items that came up during our conversation with the rangers: Should you leave firewood for the next camper?
“There is some controversy about that,” said the lean one. “Some say no, leave the campsite just as you found it. Empty.” My feeling that you are under no obligation to leave wood. On the other hand, if you have some left over, I see no reason to hurl it off into the woods, just to create an effect. We have benefited many times from the wood-chopping efforts of those who came before us. We praise them to the skies, we celebrate their foresight and industry.
In fact, it’s the origin of religion!
Another issue: Hilary asked them if we should have selected a smaller campsite and left this very roomy one for a larger party.
‘Absolutely not,” said the stout ranger. “These big sites really get beaten down by the big groups. It’s nice to see this place getting some rest.”
The haze of which I spoke now appears to be a thick streak of cirrus clouds. They’re pretty, swirling and streaking intermittently across the sky. But we didn’t have any yesterday. A change in the weather? If the rangers were still here, we’d ask them.
A dinner of beef stroganoff—one of the better Mountain House meal-in-a-foil-bag offerings. The moon rose quite a bit later and perhaps 3 degrees north of where it was last night. (I measured it roughly against the trees.) Jupiter, bright once again. And our first memorable sunset—swirls of purple clouds reflected in the smooth surface of the lake.
Later, some northern lights. They looked rather hazy and unspectacular, I suppose because of the bright moonlight. I stared at one streak for several minutes and it remained in exactly the same place relative to the stars behind it.
Many haunting loon choruses up and down the lake. A few of them fly by, you can’t see them but you can hear the wings grinding like little machines. And someone’s playing an out-of-tune banjo at a campsite to the west of us, out of sight behind another island. But not loud enough to be offensive. It sounds almost oriental.
We broke camp at 8 AM. Grayish skies. Mild wind. We passed a bunch of mergansers that had spent the night on a flat rock in the middle of the lake. Down Cherokee Creek, past all the beaver houses and rocky north-facing slopes covered with lichen and moss. Hilary points out a pitcher plant here and there amid the bog laurel and water grasses.
That 180-rod portage seemed long for some reason. The other three were nothing. We passed a few people amid the reeds and marshes of the connecting lakes and exchanged pleasantries—
“Couldn’t be better.”
—and arrived back here on Sawbill well before noon.
There is something about this site that I don’t like, though we’ve camped here before. Too exposed to the afternoon sun. I’d rather be on the west side of the lake. We paddled over to a better site but it was taken and we hurried back here, and are now quite content.
The haze has lifted, some dangerous-looking cumulus clouds have rolled by, and now we have a bright blue sky and cheerful, cottony cumulus clouds in clumps that don’t look threatening at all. It’s fairly windy, however, and things can change in a hurry.
A nice nap out in the sun. And now, before turning my attention reluctantly to one of the British mysteries that Hilary was wise enough to bring along, I feel I ought to summarize the good points in Plato’s generally rather strange, unsatisfying, and illogical Timaeus.
1) The universe is a splendid place.
2) Even though the universe is good, greater good is yet possible.
3) It would make more sense for us to refer to qualities than to entities, because things are shaped and reshaped over and over again, and yet the most important thing is the beauty or harmony or soundness of the form—not the name of the thing.
4) The stars are souls. This may seem silly, but to draw a connection between those absolutely unitary and brilliant entities and the individual soul does have poetic merit. I can think of no better way to convey the uniqueness and shine that each of us carries inside.
I have noticed that although there is something pure and elemental about being on a canoe-trip, you do spend a good deal of time sitting in the dirt. And while you’re sitting in the dirt—a very fine dirt, almost like powered sugar—quite a few bugs fly by. One that I particularly hate has a patch of bright orange on an otherwise black body. He looks quite stunning at rest, but in flight he has an ungainly hang-down body with legs sticking out every which way like a lunar pod, and whenever I see him pass by I look around for a newspaper to swat him with.
I have found a patch of grass and clover here in the shade of a big spruce tree on the south side of the rock shelf that defines our campsite. Those rangers we met yesterday might say, “Get off that grass, you’ll compact it; it will die, and then there will be more dirt in the campground.” But it’s comfortable here, and there’s actually quite a bit of grass in the campsite, and it all looks better than the grass in my yard back home, so I’m not going to worry about it.
The rule about gathering wood is “Dead and down,” but wandering through the woods behind any campsite, we discover that the trees are very healthy. Even the cedars that have drooped to the horizontal position, and might be considered “down,” are doing quite well. And a detailed investigation of a clump of lowly balsam fir will reveal that however closely they’re bunched, and however cramped and shady their position, they all have a few bright green needles at the tip! When you do finally find a small tree that’s really dead—forget about the down part; that will never happen—a thrill of satisfaction rushes through you that could hardly be greater if you’d stalked a spruce grouse and lassoed him with the painter off the canoe.
I brought in a tree to camp an hour ago that’s dry and crisp, twenty feet tall, thick as a bicep at the base. I don’t know what kind of tree it is, however, and that bothers me. Gray bark, smooth, but with lenticels. Blue beech? But it lacks the sinewy bulges that characterize that species.
We went for a swim a few minutes ago. Few things in life are more refreshing than the plunge into the cold BWCA water. Bright blue sky above, trees on the horizon every way you look. It’s a turtle-eye view, you head is only a few inches above the water. Such pure rich colors, and the chill running through your neck and shoulders and legs. Dip your head under. Rustle your scalp with your fingertips. Tread water on your back as the coolness sinks in.
Now a mature bald eagle is circling above the campsite, fairly high up. We haven’t seen any canoes for quite a while. I guess people have either found a spot on the lake or moved on the Cherokee long ago, or brought their trip to an end at Sawbill landing.
There is a remarkable moss garden out in the woods just south of here. I couldn’t tell you what most of those plants are, but they come in several shades of green, from pale to deep and rich. Some are like a carpet, others are like a miniature forest. And here and there you’ll also see clumps of Labrador tea, bunchberries, and yes, blue beech. Also, blueberries everywhere—small and scattered, but choice.
Back when we were using a stove, I didn’t pay much attention to the woods behind the campsite, so the failure of that device to function has really enriched the trip. It’s interesting to see what’s growing back there, and also how it’s growing. Lots of the old jack pine around here are dead, for example. But the back spruce is doing well.
I neglected to mention the spotted sandpiper that accompanied us on our journey down Cherokee Creek this morning. An elegant bird in that somewhat overgrown and mucky place. It kept flying off ahead of us, rather than turning aside and doubling back, almost as if it were leading us on.
On Hilary’s suggestion, I took another shot at getting the stove to work. After all, when you shake the fuel canister, it sounds like there’s still fuel in it. I hooked the thing up again and off it roared. (Maybe I just hadn’t opened the value fully?)
After having cooked a few meals with wood, I was astounded all over again at the speed with which water boils on a butane stove. I guess that’s where the expression comes from, “Now we’re cooking with gas.”
The dinner we prepared with such lightning speed, a rice dish called “Cajun Chicken,” was mediocre, but we enjoyed putting something spicy and hot in our stomachs. (Yes, I know. Nowadays you can devise much more creative and tasty meals, but we’re devoted to the simplicity of those freeze-dried products—not only the preparation but the clean-up.)
The sun was four fingers high when we set out on our evening tour of the back bays. The lake was calm. The colors have better contrast than at midday—the island reflections, the rocky shoals, the bright green tamaracks and spruces, the deep shadows in the back bays—and the silence is complete now that the wind has died down. Paddling very slowly, gliding across the water.
Three women have set up camp on the only other campsite on this part of the lake. We gave them a wide berth—didn’t want to intrude—and coasted in to shore near an inlet to the east. As we drifted into the shadowy cove without a sound, we could hear a faint rhythmic scraping that grew louder as we approached.
“Look, it’s a beaver,” Hilary whispered as we approached. It took a minute for me to locate him in the shadows. He was sitting on top of a log that was lying on the water, gnawing at the little branches, and he looked like a huge round furry muff. “I say “huge” because I’m used to seeing a beaver’s head like a brown fist as he swims along, or more often a muskrat, which is much smaller, even when he’s sitting on shore gnawing on something. I can’t recall the last time I saw a beaver fully out of the water, and he struck me as immense, and beautiful. Simply gnawing away at some bark. Scrape, scrape... Scrape, scrape, scrape...scrape...scrape, scrape.
Whether he ever saw us I don’t know, but eventually he turned in our direction, dropped down into the water and disappeared, swimming under us past the canoe, I guess, without doing us the honor of slapping his tail. I would like to have seen him as he passed by, but I didn’t. It was almost dark.
Such are the rewards of the after-dinner canoe ride. One always hopes for a beaver, a moose, or a bittern, but it is hardly less satisfying to see the harsh brilliant green of a row of ferns that are growing from a crack in the rock as the evening sun hits them. Or the glistening of the reeds, or even the random croak of a raven breaking the evening silence.
We listen for sounds that are not there. We drift, and hear drops of water falling from the paddle. We await the arrival of creatures for their evening drink or meal. A rustle amid the bog laurel. The snap of a twig. Or simply nothing, no sound, no movement amid this seemingly endless expanse of living matter. Is that a drone of distant insects or a ringing in the ears? Whatever it is, it’s mesmerizing.
And darkness comes on.
Back at camp, I built a recreational fire, using those wonderfully light and crisp little chunks of blue beech. (Yes, that’s what it was.) I wanted to see how it would burn, and the smoke would keep the mosquitoes away. But for a remarkable fifteen minutes, against the afterglow of the sunset, we were visited by twenty or twenty-five very large dragonflies. They darted this way and that, forward and back, up and down. I suppose they were consuming large quantities of mosquitoes, but to me it looked like a very charming dance in the sky above our heads. As close as I’ve ever come to an “animated” Disney-esque experience—the friendly dragonflies save the weary campers. I almost expected them to break out into song as they buzzed about.
Then, as suddenly as they’d appeared, the dragonflies moved off, and our attention turned to a single nighthawk catching insects out over the lake. A beautiful bird to watch but less effective than the dragonflies at clearing the air of bugs.
Loons? Yes, they were calling throughout the night. The moon rose later than ever. Jupiter was the first “star” to appear, though Hilary spotted a faint star to the west just after sunset that I suspect may be Mercury.
Our last morning coffee. No cereal. (For some reason, I only packed a three-day supply.) We’re setting off down the lake at 8:15 when I discover that we left the map back at camp. Or packed it. It’s nowhere to be seen. But Sawbill is an easy lake. Turn the corner south and keep left for three miles.
As we approach the landing we pass men and women in rented canoes, sometimes all three paddling on the same side. (You’ve got to start somewhere.) At the landing we talk “moose” with a boisterous group from Florida that’s dying to see one. We move on to the subject of high wind on Seagull Lake, where the group set out from last year.
In the trading post, the clerk tells two Asian men which fish are biting at what depth this time of year, and what they’re biting on. I stare at the bright shiny, wrappers of the candy bars on the plain pine shelf, while in the next aisle a little boy, abandoned by his father, patiently counts the holes on a cribbage board—103, 104, 105...
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