Our family lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Alison and I have four sons and four daughters, ages 11 through 26. They had all been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) with dad except Tess (17) and Isabel (14). This was going to be the summer to get them up there.
We chose a five-day, four-night trip from May 30 through June 3. We worried about the BWCAW being closed due to the U.S. Forest Service following Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s COVID-19 pandemic executive orders. I checked “bwca.com” for the latest COVID-19 news on the BWCAW every day to see if our trip would have to be re-scheduled.
And, we were lucky! The BWCAW opened up just in time. After a final survey of the family to see who could go, it ended up being Kate (22), Tess (17), Henry (15), Isabel (13), Oliver (11) and me.
Planning the route is important part of any canoe country trip. Here, there was not much of a disagreement because of the circumstances. I’ve been a leader for over 20 family and father-son trips. So, when I pick a route, I know who I am. I am a “make the loop big enough, so you risk mutiny” kind of guy. Nonetheless, my experience on previous trips with newbies, including fathers with their own children, has taught me to be flexible to change the plan on the run if it is not working out for everybody.
On this trip, though, there were no other fathers and their children. It was just me and my children. And, since I was dad, my children trusted me. Henry (15), athletic and with a half-dozen canoe country trips under his belt, had more of a “big-loop, if it doen’t kill’em” mentality. The other children, frankly, didn’t really understand how important the route was in determining the characteristics of the upcoming experience.
So, I told Henry we would go for the big trip to Kek—and catch the lake trout we were after. Henry and I had missed out on our annual early May fishing trip in the BWCAW because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, on this trip, we were going to make up for missing out on the early May trip. The other four children were not resisting the “big loop” plan because they lacked experience; they were either rookies or second-timers.
A few days before we left for Ely, I called Canoe Country Outfitters, owned and operated by the extended Olson family, our family’s outfitter for over 20 years, and found out permits were scarce. The best I could do was to get a permit for Snowbank Lake entry point. I immediately knew that, for rookies and second-timers, Kek is a long way from Snowbank. It would be a big loop if it happened. I didn’t tell Henry immediately of the consequences of the Snowbank entry point. I thought I would just let it lie.
I wasn’t worried though. I figured we would go as far as we could. I knew if we did not make it to Kek that Henry would be very disappointed. We had looked forward to that dad-son May trip to Kekekabic for spring lake trout fishing all winter. We told ourselves for months, “Let’s get those lake trout in the shallows as the ice goes out.” I knew Henry was bound and determined to make it to Kek no matter what. I knew that was a big loop for rookies and second-timers. I reminded myself to stay flexible.
After gearing up in Ely, we arrived at the dock on Snowbank Lake in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, from the dock, it was windy—and even gusty. Bob Olson had recommended, rightfully, a Parent Lake-Disappointment Lake route to avoid the heavy cross-wind on Snowbank Lake. Snowbank, he reminded me, is always a treacherous lake. But, Henry knew that the portage to Parent Lake would be the end of his Kek dreams. Inside, I wanted to agree with Henry—but I knew I had to be flexible too. Safety is important. No one else in the party knew what was going on.
So, we departed the dock at Snowbank Lake entry point with a heavy prevailing wind from the northwest. Whitecaps were on the water. I was in the stern with Isabel (13) and Oliver (11). Henry (15) was in the stern with Tess (17) and Kate (22). Once we got around the near island, we were at the point of no return. To the right of me was safe portage through to Parent Lake. To the left of me was a long, three-mile paddle with a heavy cross-wind and white caps. In making my decision, I noticed the other canoe was not steering well in the heavy cross-wind due to lack of experience. So, it wasn’t an easy decision at all.
To make my final, informed decision, I dipped my hand in the water—and it was…unseasonably warm! The decision was made—toward Kek we’d go.
But, making such a decision for a “big loop” is easy. Finishing a “big loop” is the hard part. Now, we had to journey there.
The wind on Snowbank was too strong for us to keep a straight line. So, we did the zig-zag all the way up the shoreline to the portage. And, we all made it—and safely too. Spirits were high! Maybe, that’s why the children didn’t complain about the 200-plus rod portage into Ensign Lake. However, in a sense, they didn’t know any better either.
The next morning, just when we were going to take off towards Vera Lake. A stranger “Bill” paddled up to our site in a one-person canoe. He was a one-man party and was suffering stomach pain. I had just taken 20 hours of remote and wilderness First Aid training. So, I went through the steps—including introducing myself as certified in remote and wilderness First Aid—and concluded that Bill should be evacuated.
We agreed that I would I would travel in his one-person canoe (my first in a one-person canoe) and Kate would paddle with Bill in one of our canoes. We went to a couple of campsites looking for a satellite phone. No luck. Then, we met an elderly man on a solo trip who had a satellite phone—but it didn’t work. We asked the elderly man to stop on his way to Vera Lake at our Ensign Lake campsite and tell the other four children we were going to bring Bill to Moose Lake and we’d be back in 2 hours.
Then, we set out for Moose Lake. I had never been in a one-person canoe before. And, I was going to learn in a stiff quartering headwind paddling west on Ensign Lake. I was wobbly, but I managed. I got through to Splash Lake.
But, then on Splash Lake, while I was leading the other canoe, something unexpected happened. I went wobbly and fell out of the canoe (first time ever). Yes, a “SPLASH” in Splash Lake!
Humiliated, I swam to the shore and got back in the one-person canoe. My daughter Kate saw the whole thing. Her only comment in the moment was, “Are you OK dad?” But, I figured there would be more.
After I climbed back in the canoe, we completed the paddle and the portage to Moose Lake. A nice man fishing at the end of the portage took over. The fisherman called Canoe Country Outfitters who sent out a launch to get Bill. After the trip, we found out that Bruce Olson had rescued Bill and got him to the resort safely.
On the way paddling back, Kate couldn’t resist a dig against a dignified old man (me) going in the drink. Kate is highly intelligent and clever. She thought this one out. So, she chose to hide her dig between a couple of implied compliments while maintaining her humility. So, after some thought, she said, “Dad, it wasn’t until that moment that I realized, out here, how dependent we are on you for our survival.”
I threw my head back. Wow! Immediately, I knew her dig was a Boundary Waters masterpiece not soon to be forgotten. It is now part of family lore.
When we got back to the campsite, we were in for another surprise. The four children were there. But, they reported to me that the elderly gentlemen did stop at the campsite, but got the message wrong. He told my children, “Dad’s heading to Moose Lake. You should pack up and go there.” They were confused by the message. And, for safety reasons, they decided to all stay put. I’m glad they did.
That day we travelled through Vera to Knife to Kek. It was a hard day for my children. There were many portages—including two over 200 rods. I tried to split up the day by having lunch on Thunder Point overlooking Knife Lake—BWCWA’s iconic spot on the United States-Canada border. It was a sunny day. I always like going up to the summit after paddling from the west. And, then, I look back west and say to myself “from whence I came.”
We made it to Kek late. In diminished light, we set up camp on a lovely site on the west end of the lake. The previous voyageurs had left wonderful piles of dry campwood and kindling. We decided to take a camp day—giving us two nights on Kek. It rained on our camp day, but the skies cleared later that evening. That second evening, while eating our dinner, we saw a beaver swim by not more than six feet from shore. We also caught a nice lake trout—which was one of our goals on the trip The Kek lake trout made for a delicious meal.
Since the night skies were clear, we were looking forward to staying up late. Henry found a nearby hilltop with no trees. It was an exceptional place to view the surrounding lakes and skies. After dinner, we all went up to the hilltop. We spent our time there enjoying the half-moon, identifying constellations, pointing at the shooting stars and enjoying the Milky Way. All the time, you could see these beautiful lights in the sky reflecting in the calm waters of Kekekabic.
Since Kek was the furthest most point of our trip, when we woke up on the fourth day, we were heading back to civilization. We were blessed with only a slight headwind. Here, I made the decision to exit through Moose Lake, not Snowbank Lake, as originally planned. I figured that we would avoid three 200-plus rod portages and a possibly dangerous Snowbank Lake.
This was the hardest day for the children. The planned route was from Kek up to Knife through Carp and to Birch near the portage that leads to Moose Lake. As a host who likes to push his company hard, I recalled what one of my adult friends said on an earlier trip, “Erick, when you bring me on your vacations up here, it’s like grabbing a 2” by 4” and hitting myself on the forehead and thanking myself for not stopping.” I looked around at my kids. All of them, except Henry, looked tired and worn out. Would my kids survive? Would my kids mutiny? I wasn’t sure how it would play out.
Meanwhile, on Knife, I made the only orienteering error of the trip—missing the portage on the west end of Knife by one bay south. When I told my party that I had made a mistake and that we would have to paddle back a bit, I saw in my daughter Tess’s eyes that she might throw her old dad overboard. That’s the closest we got to mutiny on this trip.
After descending the Knife Lake portages, we had lunch at the outlet to Carp Lake. But, I knew we were running low on proteins for dinner. So, I was hoping we would catch a fish on the way to a campsite on Birch Lake. So, with this in mind, at the inlet to Carp Lake, Kate, Henry and Oliver went fishing for smallmouth bass.
Fish on! Kate got a big one! She caught a 21-inch smallmouth bass. Yea! Meat was back on the menu for dinner. We attached the fish to the stringer. And, then, while Tess—and there are many ways in our family to tell this story—was watching the fish on the stringer, she (accidently, we think) let it escape. Tess is our most environmentally sensitive daughter and doesn’t like the killing of fish. So, we don’t really know if Tess released the fish on purpose or not. I don’t even think Tess knows.
For others in the party, it was a tragedy. We actually watched our fish dinner swim away. It was painful to our stomachs. I really did not know what to say to Tess. But, I had to say something. After all, I’m the dad. So, I told Tess, “If that had been Henry’s fish—and not Kate’s fish—you would been left behind in the woods.”
Anyway, fish-less, we paddled and portaged on to Birch Lake where we stayed overnight. I told the kids we had about an hour-and-half to go. And, that we would get up early and leave.
As to the actual distance to Moose Lake, I actually didn’t know. I had only brought the W.A. Fisher Map, F-11 , which covers Snowbank Lake, north and east, including Knife and Kek. I had not anticipated the possibility of changing our course in route. So, the map I brought did not include Moose Lake, our exit point. So, I was literally map-less, but not necessarily clue-less. Over the years, I had paddled this area before. So, I knew I would get to Moose Lake. I just didn’t know how long it would take to get there.
On the final day, I roused everyone from their tents at sunrise. We efficiently decamped, had granola bars and disembarked. It must have been about 6 a.m., but none of us had a watch to check. Actually, the paddle from the Birch Lake portage to Moose Lake to Canoe Country Outfitters ended up being more like a three-hour paddle. My canoe mates Oliver and Isabel were fine with it. But, the teenagers in the other canoe were losing their minds. Whenever my teenagers asked, “How far is it?” I responded like an old salt, “the resort is right around the next pennisula” or “the resort is around the next island.”
When we finally got to the Canoe Country Outfitters resort on Moose Lake, I looked up at the big, round clock in the resort office. And, I said, “Look kids. It’s 9:30 a.m. You see it took an hour-and-a-half just like I said.” Since none of us had watches when we woke up that morning, their eyes shot darts at me because they knew I had them on that one. Again, I read their eyes. Basically, my children, knew, on the issue of misleading them on the time it took to get back to the resort, dad couldn’t be convicted because he couldn’t be proven guilty. Hehehe!
I also knew that this story would be another Boundary Waters masterpiece that I would never let my children forget.
Meanwhile, all the memories of pain and agony of canoeing and portaging were, of course, receding after the children got their sodas and treats at the resort store. We proceeded to Canoe Country Outfitters in Ely to return our gear, take showers and change clothes.
Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves with curbside Bucky Burgers from the Ely Steakhouse for lunch. And, then, we talked and laughed all the way home.
By Erick Kaardal (Dad)