The campsite was set around a tall fire ring and two log benches. Three perfectly flat tent sites behind the fire ring were nestled in the woods. There was a cast-iron grill built into the fire pit and a Dutch oven set beside it. Nymphs hatched in the silvery water and the western sky lit up like coals in a dying fire. Living in the Arctic will make a man appreciate a good fire, and Paul had one going before we unpacked our tents.
We sat around for hours that night, drinking boxed riesling and swapping stories. Paul told us that a year after the Wilderness Act passed, President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter Lynda Bird Johnson paddled into the boundary waters with 11 canoes, 12 Secret Service agents, a few portable toilets and a staff of cooks and attendants. Ms. Johnson banned the press from the trip, but four reporters followed and camped on the same island we were on. They eventually bribed the Secret Service with a bottle of bourbon and got an interview. In their reporting the following week, they called Ms. Johnson the “Greta Garbo of the North Woods.”
Paul had the beginning of a cold and went to bed early. I stayed up and watched the stars come out. The sky was reconstructed with constellations I’d never seen. Anthropologists speculate that Ojibwe rock paintings in the Boundary Waters relate to constellations. At nearby Hegman Lake, a painting of three paddlers, a moose, a wolf, a shaman and several dashes almost exactly corresponds with Ptolemaic constellations set around Orion. Beneath the painting, the artist drew a horizon as a reference — that would allow a hunter to calculate his latitude and distance from home.
I followed the arc of the Milky Way — what the Ojibwe call the Path of Souls — until it disappeared into the shadowy canopy on the other side of the lake. The air smelled like pine and campfire smoke and a shrill loon call echoed off the granite shores. The last thing I saw before slipping into the dreamworld was a shooting star splitting the lake in two.
The land of 10,000 lakes has closer to 20,000, if you count lakes under 10 acres. The combined shoreline of Minnesota is 45,000 miles — more than the sum of California’s inland and ocean coasts combined. Eight percent of Minnesota is water and the other 92 percent is home to an average of 67 people per square mile.
Ely is the capital of lake country. Sea kayaks, canoes, skiffs, powerboats, inner tubes, water skis, dories and dinghies lean against buildings and sit in driveways along Highway 169. A black-and-white photo in A Taste of Ely cafe on north Central Avenue is a window into the town’s past. In the picture, two 1960s station wagons wait at a traffic light on Sheridan Street. Two 16-foot canoes are lashed to the roof of one. The other is carrying a single canoe and two kids. Drivers and passengers wait patiently. They are here for the trip of a lifetime. That’s how outfitters describe a trip into the Boundary Waters.
I didn’t see another person on the lake the next morning when we started paddling. I also couldn’t see where we were going. From three feet above the water, everything looked like one big lake. Thick pines onshore, long slabs of granite, streams and outlets all melted into an unbroken horizon.
Paul and Sue have paddled the border route dozens of times and headed straight for a slot in the southeast corner of the bay. The stream led to our first portage to Bottle Lake and a second into Iron Lake. Sue demonstrated how to empty everything in the boat into one of two portage packs, then swing the canoe on top of your shoulders, upside down. Sara took the giant pack, and I tried to lift the canoe. The motion was like putting on a sweater except that the sweater was a 17-foot Kevlar hull. The canoe was lighter than I thought it would be, but balancing it was tough. I fell over the first few times I tried, but I eventually got the hang of it.
There was a small gravel beach at the start of the first portage and a flat rock for launching canoes on the other. Pale corydalis and harebell grew near the shore; sphagnum, leatherleaf and Labrador tea in the swampy sections of the hike. Even though we had seen only a few people so far, all of the portage paths we walked were well-worn.
It took an hour to paddle across Iron Lake. With two people paddling, the Kevlar canoe averaged three miles an hour. The motion became second nature after a while. My mind drifted off, and I thought about time before time, when the glaciers were receding and this country was gray and wet. It took decades for young spruce and prairie grasslands to crop up. Aspen, birch and other hardwoods came next.
The Ojibwe did not arrive until the 1500s. The tribe came from the east and still speaks a form of Algonquin. They believe there have been three eras since the world was created. Animals and monsters were masters of the first. In the second, monsters died and people inhabited the earth. Humans and animals spoke to one another in this era and a half-man, half-god named Nanabush introduced hunting, fishing and the arrowhead. In the final era, which we live in today, humans and animals can no longer communicate. Shaman are the only conduit.
We listened to nature for an hour at Rebecca Falls as Paul napped and we ate lunch. It didn’t sound like anything I’d heard before. Chickadees, white-throated sparrows, finches, grosbeaks and loons called out. A bald eagle glided overhead and an osprey crashed into the water a hundred yards away. The lake was layered with sweet flag, sedge, lilies, horehound, bulrush and buckbean. The air smelled like stagnant water, rotting wood, pine and sweet columbine. Wild licorice, fireweed, hawkweed, bastard toadflax and littleleaf pussytoes created a carpet underfoot. Thin, green marsh fern circled lakes alongside moonwort, rattlesnake fern and horsetail.
Ten millenniums of photosynthesis and a century of legislation have kept it that way. But a decade of lobbying by a Chilean mining company, Antofagasta, Paul said, is threatening it now. The company is suing the federal government to renew permits for a $3 billion underground copper-nickel mine near where the South Kawishiwi River flows into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Currents in the wilderness would carry toxic pollution from the Twin Metals mine through most of the border lake area in the Boundary Waters.
The Forest Service, the Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, and tens of thousands of Boundary Waters supporters have voiced their concerns about the mine. Though Twin Metals’ future looks dimmer every month, the fact that it was even a possibility — and that there are other mining companies trying to exploit the region — calls into question the values, integrity and good sense of civilization in the 21st century.
We took off again and crossed the border into Canada, paddling all afternoon past granite promontories and tiny islets. I could see an exact reflection of the forest and sky in the water. The only sound was water dripping off our paddles with each stroke. Paul found a campsite on a rocky point and we dropped our gear and portaged into Argo Lake for a scenic four-mile loop. Paul wanted to find a cave he had heard about that might have housed Paleo-Indians, but all we saw were swooping eagles and an osprey standing watch in her nest. It was almost dark by the time we got back to the site and Paul cooked chili and quesadillas on the fire while we set up camp.
We sat by the fire that night listening to more stories about the Boundary Waters and the French voyageurs who opened them to the world in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Voyageur is the name the French gave to canoe men who carried goods to remote trading posts and brought back furs. They wore a uniform of a red wool cap, deerskin moccasins, leggings and an Indian belt. They were expected to paddle 55 strokes a minute, 14 hours a day and carried an average of two bales of furs — 180 pounds total — over miles of portages between Montreal and the Mississippi. The most common cause of death: strangulated hernia.
We wandered off to bed, imagining an extra 180 pounds on our backs on the next portage. A violent thunderstorm ripped across the lake an hour later hurling lightning, hail and heavy winds. Another blew through in the morning and slammed the tent with raindrops the size of nickels. I looked outside in the middle of it and saw Paul in his raincoat starting a fire. By the time the storm blew through he had a pot of coffee ready.
The skies cleared at 8 a.m., and we took off for what was going to be a long day. The sun was still rising above the trees and everything in front of us was a silhouette. We crossed Crooked Lake into Friday Bay, then paddled and portaged between Papoose, Chippewa, Niki and six other lakes — including a killer mile-long portage from Wagosh to Gunn Lake.
It rained on and off all day, forcing us to eat lunch under an overturned canoe at the end of a portage. An hour later, we ended up on a granite goat path winding along a stream. Hiking on the edge of a 30-foot precipice with a canoe on your head is an interesting challenge. It was almost dark by the time we made it to Mudro Lake, and it was raining harder. We made our way southwest along the lake and through tall reeds bordering the inlet in the dark. A thick mist settled and the watery scene morphed into something from a fairy tale. I almost fell out of the canoe when a beaver slammed its tail five feet away, sending a report through the marsh.
The wind started up again and blew the bow of the canoe around. We had already traveled 17 miles and it was almost dark. Sara spotted a white sand beach ahead but we weren’t sure if it was real. Then I saw Paul and Sue stacking their gear and knew we must be at the end.
We pulled up alongside them and heard a car door slam. It was a strange, unnatural sound. After a few days in the Boundary Waters, everything other than water, stone and wood seemed unnatural. Paul began loading gear and we hauled our canoe one last time to the car. The back seat of the Suburban felt incredibly soft when we got in, and five minutes later the car was 75 degrees. Paul got a cellphone signal and suggested we order pizza to pick up in Ely and, just like that, we slipped back into the modern world.
An earlier version of this article misstated the size of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It is 1.1 million acres, not 1.1 million square miles.