Canoe trip in BWCAW, Ely, MN

Finnish/Canadian Canoe Expedition July 18-24, 2002

85 kms (53 miles), 28 lakes, 25 portages (6 kms), 9 satisfied participants!!

Ryan and Brendan prepare first by eliminating extra itemsParticipants (Suomen Partiolaiset, Scouts Canada, Boy Scouts of America):

Mikko Lamminpaa (Finland), Organizer
Virpi Lamminpaa (Finland)
Antti Lamminpaa (Finland)
Lauri Lamminpaa (Finland)
Hilla Lamminpaa (Finland)
Brian Wick (Canada), Venturer Advisor
Ryan Mitchell (Canada)
Brendan Hendel-McCarthy (Canada)
Rob Montz (USA), Interpreter

Travel to Minnesota

For the Canadians the travel was simply 3 days driving from Whitby, Ontario (near Toronto) about 2,400 kms to the Boy Scouts of America Northern Tier Canoe Base in Ely, MN. For the Finns, a little further travel was engaged but not much more time spent as they flew from Tampere/Lahti, Finland via Iceland to Minnesota. Once again, we are together.

The objective of the expedition was to canoe the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness along the American/Canadian border, travelling as far a possible in the first 2 days, then venturing a little south to the smaller lakes for 3 days paddle back to the base. The task was easily achieved since all have prior canoeing experience and good preparation allowed us to travel quickly and easily across the portages. Most days travel was early in the day, usually 9 am - 2 pm (with lunch break.) On entry to the base, we were required to "shake-down" our gear to reduce the weight and volume. One nights stay allowed us time to get more familiar with each other, to rest and to go to sauna.

Journal Entry

Departure from Whitby, Ontario (July 16, 2002)
After taking care of a few last minute items such as buying batteries and film, we head out on the first lag of the journey from Whitby to our first night at Val Gagne, Ontario, stopping along the way at Baysville and Powassan. Deer and moose hazzards after dark suggested it was not in our best interest to travel after dark. Someday we will invent reflector for moose so they can be seen by the headlights of the vehicle before the rack goes through the windshield.

Ryan and Brendan photograph Lake Nipigon 20km north of Hwy 17Hwy. 11 to Thunder Bay and Dryden
An early start got us on the road west, stopping at Kapuskasing (Brendan's mom's birthplace), picnic lunch at Heart, photo session along the shores of Lake Nipigon and cultural stop at the Terry Fox Memorial just east of Thunder Bay. The memorial was established in 1984 to honour one of Canada's modern heroes. In 1982 Terry Fox, having lost a leg to cancer, set out to run across Canada to help raise money to find a cure. He travelled more than 4000 kms from St. John's, Newfoundland until his health failed and had to stop. The event raised more than $20 million that year and continues the legacy with an annual run in September in most communities in Canada.
On the road north, we worked on learning some Finnish language. Mikko provided a word list with canoeing and camping terms and I added greetings, numbers and telling time. I was really impressed at how well Ryan and Brendan absorbed the
language, both mastering numbers before we arrived at Northern Tier.
We stopped at Hoito Raventola (Care Restaurant) in Thunder Bay for dinner. Here we sampled traditional Finnish foods including Finnish sausages, Finnish wieners and salt salmon (cured but not smoked or cooked.)  Karelian pirrika (rice pastry) was not available but then the portions were big and there was no room for any more.
Just another 400 km to go today...
To break the long drive, Ryan cleans a Brooklin Sign at Kakebeka Falls - Norwest Rec CtrNext stop was at Kakabeka Fall, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Canadian Shield easily accessible by highway. The falls were spectacular thanks to a lot of rainfall in the spring. As we continued on to Dryden, we saw both a wolf (standing on the highway) and a male moose standing in a grassy swamp on the shoulder, both within 10 minutes. What a great start to a wilderness experience.

Dryden to Ely, Minnesota
Only another 250 km south to Fort Frances and the chance to cross to the USA at International Falls. The border towns offer an illusion that we are past the Canadian Shield and now on the prairie as the land is suddenly very flat. The main industry in the twin towns is Boise Paper Mills, providing a bridge across the border.  A quick pass through customs, and off we were to Ely. We stopped at a general store on a lakeside only to be shocked at the prices they charged for everything - A&W root beer for US$1.69! We went to the old country store next door to obtain a fishing licence for Brendan. Another US$25 and a little anxiety from the clerk who couldn't cope with the format of a Canadian postal code, and we were on our way to the canoe base.
On arrival, we met Mikko, Virpi, Antti and his kids Lauri and Hilla, already reorganizing their stuff in the parking lot (well all over the parking lot!) I hadn't seen Mikko for over a year since he has been working in Belgium and isn't that easy to catch up with when I visit his hometown of Tampere, Finland.  Mikko, Virpi and Antti have all had experience "interpreting" or escorting Scouts into the area. Antti provided service 4 summer as far back as 1982 so he was pretty excited to show his children this incredible wilderness area.  Mikko and Virpi worked at the Sommers Canoe Base as recently as 2000.  I went on a 10 day excursion with Mikko in 1997 (Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario Canada) and into the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness in September 1998 with another Finn, Tero Mustonen.

Sommers Canoe Base, Boy Scouts of America - Northern Tier High Adventure BaseMikko has a lot more stuff to sort out before the shakedown
Upon arrival, the crews are introduced to their interpreter, our is Rob Montz from Los Angeles (currently studying in Providence, Rhode Island.)  As the boys soon learned, Rob wasn't that kind of interpretor to "cross the language barrier" between Finnish and Canadian English, but to show us the way to a great canoeing experience.  Rob laughed when we asked him to translate the Finnish language.  He got his share of learning both languages during the expedition, Canadian English and Finnish, at least he got a good taste of the subtle differences between Canadian and American English.
We moved our gear to one of the arrival cabins (style after a Swedish designed 8-sided hut) and went for dinner at the lodge.
An orientation in the interpretation lodge gave us some insight into the Boundary Waters Area, "no trace camping" protocols and procedures to avoid bears invading campsites for food.
Before retiring for the night we had a good opportunity to cleanup and partake of the sauna.  As is customary in Finland, the Finns did not wear bathing suits.  The air inside was refreshingly hot, possibly 90 C and really calmed the body for a good night's sleep.  For the Ryan and Brendan, the experience to the sauna was almost unbearably hot, but they endured.  We turned in early to beat the expected onslaught of mosquitos.

Rob Montz, out American Interpreter takes the stern on day 1Day 1 on the Water - Moose Lake to Knife Lake
After breakfast, we loaded our aluminum canoes: 3 people (stern, bow and one duffing) and 2 packs one with gear for three, the other with kitchen equipment or food. Each pack weighed about 35 kg (65 lbs). The third person would portage the canoe. Everything was packed to ensure easy single-pass portaging.  This was necessary to ensure time wasn't wasted on double pass portaging as we had scheduled about 25 portages varying in length from 5 rods to 240 rods (30 - 1200 m).
Rob took the stern and Ryan the bow as we head out about 10 am.  Brendan, Antti and Lauri took the second canoe and Mikko, Virpi and Hilla in the third.  The weather was a pleasant 24 C and partly cloudy.
Our first day out was expected to cover about 14 miles, important to get as far away from the population as possible and to cover at least half of 5 days paddle in the first two days. A couple of hours passed before we met our first portage from Sucker Lake to Birch Lake. This would test our "packing efficiency" and give us the first taste of wet-foot landing. In anticipation, I had purchased a pair of Merrell water-shoes, sneakers designed to be wet for long periods, providing excellent warmth, comfort and drainage, while providing a good grip on rocks with the gum sole. Despite the fact they cut into my heels as new shoes will do, they lived up to the pitch of the salesperson. I recommended to Ryan and Brendan that they also purchase these shoe, which they did.
The portage went quickly and easily. Rob was really impressed since the first two canoes had passed before we approached the landing. This made our travelling time significantly shorter than Rob had experienced on previous trips out. Our path took us along the "dotted line" as we zig-zagged across the border between Ontario, Canada and Minnesota, USA.  Our lunch (consisting of squished bread, turkey, cheese and nut bars) was taken on a huge rock with steel post as a border marker implanted in it. The marker indicated USA on one side and International Boundary on the other. Some of us ate lunch in Canada, the others in the USA.

Five more portages today brought us to Knife Lake and a campsite on an island next to Dorothy Molder's old homestead.  Dorothy was the legendary Root Beer Lady, who lived on the isolated island for decades after her husband passed away. She enticed passersby to visit and assist with chores around the homestead by serving home brewed root beer.  Her cabin and artifacts were moved about 20 years ago to a museum location in Ely, MN.Virpi, Antti and Hilla set up camp
When we arrived at the campsite, we quickly set up tents, kitchen and so on, then dove into the warm summer water. As is required by Boy Scouts of America regulation, we wore PFD's and shoes into the unknown waters. Ryan, Brendan and I swam (about 400 m) to Dorothy Molder's island to explore.  What we actually found was squirrels, frogs, crayfish, rocks and very dense forests.  After paddling for four hours, you'd think a rest would be in order but warm refreshing water actually energized us. I think we spent some 90 minutes or more in the water.
The temperature during the day slowly rose to about 28 C and dipped only to 20 C overnight. Haze from the forest fires to the north at Red Lake, Ontario filled the air. Dinner included beef stew with Tex-Mex rice, black beans, potatoes and torilla bread. It was really good but there was too much for us all to eat, meaning that the remainder had to be properly disposed of (buried) out of smell and reach of invading animals, especially black bears, native to the area.  A squirrel spent the dinner hour with us scavenging for food. He didn't get any as this would spoil his appetite, however we discovered a mouse bathing in the pan of chocolate pudding prepared for desert.
Ryan and Brendan observe a well constructed small campfireAs evening approached, we build a small fire (fire ban in effect prevented us from building one before 7 pm) and talked about the day's events as beautiful sunset drifted across the northwest sky.  The evening brought us a cruiosity for the Finns as they found a snake in the grass and a large turtle just off the shore. Finland doesn't have turtles as we found out.  The ever-present loons chanted on the lake. With darkness upon us, also came the onslaught of mosquitos. 10:00 pm and time for bed.Brendan and Ryan rest after the first day's paddling
I'm pretty impressed at how well everything is working out, and how well everyone is getting along.  The effort Ryan and Brendan put into learning some finnish before arriving at the base has helped them to appreciate another culture in ways they won't understand til later.  Finns are usually impressed anyways if foreigners make a effort to learn a little of their language.

Day 2 on the Water -- Knife Lake to Ester Lake
6:30 am arousal and prepartation for the days activity -- too easly for the guys.  It is still warm. Rob prepared freeze dried scrambled eggs and Antti charred the hash-brown potatoes. We also had a treat of coffee (too weak on first try) with non-dairy creamer.
The guys proved to be very effective with paddle in hand as they were soon labled "power houses" of strength and endurance.  Actually the energy exerted really isn't all that much when you have the skill mastered. I was impressed with how well they managed as well, not having been canoeing with eith Brendan or Ryan previously. Today's paddle was somewhat tedious and one that reminds us of the value of portaging.  Knife Lake seems to go on for ever!  With such a lengthy paddle, you crave the time you can spend on the portage trail to both stretch your legs and body, to take a toilet break, and to escape the intense sun that builds up in the canoe wilst on the the water.  Carrying 35 kg no longer seems like a task, but a much desired new challenge.  On day two we have only two portages, however the second was 400 m on what seemed to a 45 degee incline; pretty tiring.
As we head into Ester Lake, we are going south into the enterior of the BWCAW (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) and way from potential traffic on the border lakes. Here we will set up camp on the south point of one island.  This campsite is far better than our first night, with opportunity for serious fishing, a sharp drop-off into the lake, a great sunset view and for night, flat grass covered campsites.  Dinner was not so impressive -- mac & cheese with tuna.  Lunch of pita bread, salami, cheese, and trail mix continued to hold the stomach in any case.
We've now covered about 40 kms
In preparation for night, Rob wandered off to find a suitable place to hang the bear bag (food packs and "smellables") which must be out of reach of bears at night. Mikko, having evaluated the placement the night before, was not satisfied with Rob's proposal and insisted there must be better trees which would acually get the bags the suggested 3 m (10') from ground level and 2 m (6') from trees on either side. The task soon became a challenge as they attempted to raise the ropes as far off the ground as possible -- not an easy task with Jack pine. In the end, the placement was the best of the 4 nights out. I think this is when Rob started to interact with us, but really started open up on day 3.

Lauri caught a fish, a pathetic large mouth bass, but his first American fish!  Mikko had gone out in the canoe with him and decided it was ok to keep, but later decided it was to little to eat. The guys used it for bait later in the evening. Brendan found it a great weight for casting until his reel jammed.  The untangling process pretty much put an end to Brendan's fishing as he lost most of his line in the process.

Link here to continue the story.

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