Friday, September 30, 2011

Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park

A good friend of mine (we’ve known each other since before high school, long story) and I take a yearly trip where we try to do something different each year. Last year we hiked the Smokies since he had never been here. This year, we went up to his home state to check out the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park and get him out on a canoe for his first water trip. I hadn’t been on a canoe trip in over a decade, so I was looking forward to the water.

The Trip

I got up early on Tuesday the 23rd of August and took off to Greensboro from my hometown in Fayetteville to catch a flight out from there to the Twin Cities (via Detroit). The first leg of my trip was in a tiny 34 person plane and we were all crammed in pretty tight. I took the time in that hour trip to watch the Blue Ridge Mountains go by below me and plan my food for the trip. The Detroit airport was ultra cool, with an tunnel in between concourses that had an interactive wall that changed colors and sounds as you walked by and had a really high tech metro in the inside of the main concourse. I still walked.

The second leg of the trip put me in a far bigger plane with plenty of people and space. At the Twin Cities airport, I watched crazy drivers picking up people at the worst airport curbside pickup I have ever seen. Within a few minutes, Ben picked me up and we were headed north...
We had to stop at the REI first to pick up our canoe and some fuel. That went smooth and then we headed over to the first Wal-Mart we saw to buy our food, but instead walked around until we discovered that they were remodeling their grocery section. So on we traveled north to the next closest available Wal-Mart. After purchasing up what we needed, we realized we wouldn’t make it to the park till too late to get on the water and find a spot, so we chose to find a small county park along the way to crash for the night.

We dumped out all of our food on the table and began organizing, breaking down and putting into Ziploc bags.

I was sporting my new waterproof bag. I didn’t want to take any chances out on the water. Ben also got his newly purchased campers hammock. I had been using mine almost exclusively for hiking, and he wanted to try it out too. He was just going to rent one, but decided on buying one anyways. We picked a spot that had three trees with almost the perfect range to set them up for the night.

My only worry about this trip was a concern for mosquitoes. My fears turned to nightmares as we were relentlessly assaulted in wave after wave of kamikaze blood suckers. I had a really bad feeling for the week. For this matter, we finished our packing, had a quick pipe smoke (a tradition for our trips) and quickly crawled into our hammocks and crashed for the night.

Day 1

Our drive up to the park was quick, full of talk, laughs, and a hunt for a hardware store in order to find tent spikes, or something similar (garden stakes) to use for our hammocks rain covers.

As we headed north though, the sky kept turning darker and greyer. As we turned into the last stretch of road leading up to the park, I could tell the trees were swaying; there was a lot of wind out there. This was not very promising.

As we pulled into the parking lot completely filled with people’s boat trailers, we took a quick look at the ranger station and then headed down to the canoe dock. The wind and water hit us right away. This was going to be rough. The lake looked more like the ocean, with 3-4 foot waves crashing on the shores. We got our canoe ready, got in and took off for about 30 seconds before the waves were crashing over the canoe and filling us up very quickly. We quickly made for shore, soaked already. Obviously, we would not be putting out today. As it turns out, the winds were 30 mph with gusts up to 60 mph.

So instead, we decided to hike some of the trails they had nearby. Turns out this was a great idea, for a four mile trail they had starting there led us to a spot where you could see the lakes from a high point. It was a wonderful, windy, amazing sight. Along the way, I learned firsthand of a fellow animal that would be with us the entire trip, some noisy territorial squirrel that howled every time we got near his land. We also saw a tiny snake and many butterflies.

This hike made up for the really bad initial outcome we had with our trip. My dear friend, who had never before been on a canoe, was certain that our trip was doomed. I had to encourage him, let him know that was only a one day setback. It was not going to be this windy every day here. The next day, he’d see, the lake would be just as placid as we imagined.

That night we camped at a small city park right next to one of the many rivers that feed this area. We had our food, rice with our own flavoring, smoked our pipes and had our first good look at the Milky Way, which we could see clearly. We also believe we heard wolves howling in the night. If it was, it was quite far off and we couldn’t be too certain of it.

Day 2

The day was obviously calmer although my friend still worried about condition on the lake. We drove back up the ranger station and we were greeted by a crystal clear lake. We put off again, this time with ease and we were on our way.

I must first say, while this trip was absolutely awesome, there was one thing that really put a downer on things, and that was everyone in their motorboats. I had read that the park was a zero wake area, but apparently, no one follows this, as we were constantly fighting against all the wakes being made by all the motorboats. In my whole time there, only two, out of the hundreds of boats I saw, actually slowed down near us. Some even came super close to us. We were the only people on canoe there, with a few kayakers. That aspect was very disappointing. It will come into play later.

Already that morning, I got my first ever view of a bear in the wild. After a decade of hiking the Smoky’s and never seeing a single bear, here on my first day, we saw a bear thinking about swimming across a small strait we were coming upon. It took a few looks and headed back into the woods, but not before I managed to get my high zoom lens on and get a few pictures.

On a small break on yet another island, I saw an enormous turtle that vanished under the water before I could get the water out. On this same island I found a bald eagle feather, probably one of the coolest mementos I have ever gotten from any of my trips.

We had lunch on another island that had a large campground. There was a large buoy just out of the island, and as we found out, this was a high traffic area. Boats came flying around the corner following the numbered buoys. As we ate lunch, we wondered just how many accidents had happened on that blind corner.

By 4 we reached a smaller campsite (nearly all the campsites are on islands, a super cool feature) which was occupied by another party, but we just required a few trees (those there were plenty). Apparently, the motor boaters head out really early in the mornings, find a campsite, set up for the week or days, and then head out. We unfortunate slow canoers didn’t have this luxury. When the other party arrived later that evening, they eyed us suspiciously, and one of them asked us how long we would be staying. I mentioned only the night and they seemed relieved.
We were exhausted from the paddling (new muscles) and my friends back was aching (eh oh). We ate, smoked, gazed at tons of shooting stars, then crashed for the night.

Day 3

The next morning, the fishermen were gone early and we, with aches and sore muscles, took our time eating and getting out of there. Before we left, a ranger (btw, the absolutely cutest female ranger I have EVER seen) who was there cleaning up the fire rings gave us some good locations where we would avoid the motor boat fishers. So we headed off, for about a 5 mile paddle.

That day we went off the “beaten” path and went behind the islands parallel the main waterway. It was much nicer. No wakes and plenty of smooth water. We eventually discovered a completely empty campsite which sat about 20 above the water with a fantastic view of the lake. It was wide open, plenty of choice trees, fire ring on the rocks and a table.

I took a lake bath that evening, cleaning up good and after managing to get enough wood for a fire, threw a butternut squash wrapped in foil into the coals. After about 45 minutes, and plenty of turning, I had myself probably one of the best hiking meals I have ever had. I ate the whole thing with gusto (and a touch of butter and salt).

That night, with an amazing view of the lake, we watched the sun go down (something we had done every night as well) and had ourselves a super (and I mean insanely) quiet night. Not a single bug, cricket or frog. It was, odd, making my ears buzz. The only sound was the occasional loon call and answer. A rather creepy call when it’s totally silent.

We also attempted to fish off that rock. We had tried fishing all trip long, but were having no luck. Our bad luck continued here. I actually had two bites, but my friend Ben, had nothing but a lost lure.

That night we smoked our pipes and talked for hours before crashing.

Day 4

We plotted a trip that would allow us to go by as many campsites as possible, slowly working our way back to the ranger station. If all else failed, we would end up at the first campsite we had enjoyed lunch in the first day.

That morning, while Ben was still sleeping, and as I ate pancakes with real maple syrup on the rock, I heard the bald eagles crying. Already on this trip, we had seen many and learned their very unique calls. From the trees behind me I could hear one and I thought to myself, I really need to get my camera out.

Within a few moments, from across the bay, another bald eagle came gliding and I sat there entranced, watching it. As it flew over me, I realized I hadn’t made a single move for my camera. Woops.

This day would prove to be our longest day. Every single campsite was taken as we came up to them. On one, we arrived just as a large boat house full of college age kids, laughing loudly, rammed that huge boat right onto the beach and got it stuck in the sand. They cursed, then laughed, then someone jumped in the water. Spring Break, Hikers Edition. Sigh.

We paddled approximately 12 miles that day, taking an hour to eat lunch and rest a bit before finally making it back to that larger campsite, which was only inhabited by another duo, older men who had a kayak with a sail on it. SUPER COOL (I want one now). We had plenty of space and had ourselves a large meal, thinking of finishing our food, but found out that we were less hungry than we assumed.

That evening we got a great view of the sun coming down on the lakes.

I must point out that, after that first night of mosquito hell, I don’t think I saw a single one after that. Our nights on the lakes were bugless, cool and very comfortable. There were always an abundance of great tree locations and as I have since I purchased it, slept in amazing comfort in my hammock.

Also, while the motor boaters were loud and annoying, at about 5 o’clock, they all seemed to disappear, and our whole evenings were wonderfully quiet.

That evening, we were joined for a brief moment by a border patrol boat that was, get this, a JET BOAT. Yes, a boat that gets around on a jet. The rangers joked that it got less than a mile a gallon, but it could go upwards of 100 mph, useful I guess, if you really need to get somewhere on the lakes. It was flat bottomed, so I can see a small wave sending that boat flying. As they left, it sounded like a jet plane.

Day 5

That morning we were greeted by bald eagles calling on an island across from us and a wonderfully foggy morning on an absolutely crystal clear lake.

Since I had enjoyed my pancakes the morning before, I repeated that on my menu, adding in some bacon bits I had. Super good.
Our paddling trip was only 3 miles back to the ranger station. We were there by 10:30 that morning, unloaded, loaded up the canoe and headed back to his house in New Ulm, MN, where Id spend a few days before heading back home. We smelled awful, were tired, but had a great long talk all the way to his home covering politics, science (were made out of carbon), arguing, family, God and who knows what else.

All Done

I spent a couple of great days with him and his family, introduced them to Carolina BBQ, hushpuppies and homemade onion rings as well as other of my cooking skills. We played games, watched movies, talked a ton and had a great time.

Regardless, I was quite homesick for my Carolina. The last leg of the trip from Cincinnati to Greensboro, I was one of 7 people in a 34 person plane. That part was nice. My rental car (thanks to my wife) was waiting for me at the airport. I drove home and joined my fam for a night out at some southern restaurant.

My Thoughts.

Despite the setback of the first day, I think Ben was finally getting comfortable with the canoeing, the way it moved and rocked, by the last day. The motor boating was really a pain. Having to constantly change course in order to deal with the many wakes was troublesome, although, thankfully, never dangerous. If there is a next time, Ben suggested the Boundary Waters outside of the park, where motorboats of any kind of completely illegal.
Fishing, which was something we really wanted to try (and eat), turned out badly. Maybe the Boundary Waters, where we wouldn’t have to worry about wakes, will allow us to fish from the canoe with more confidence.

Otherwise, this was a great trip. I saw my first bear, saw more bald eagles than I had ever seen before, plenty of loons, turtles, beavers, otters and those pesky squirrels. Remember those? In each campsite, there was one. He would sit on high branches, scream at us, then circle back around the camp, and scream at us from somewhere else. He would also peel apart pine cones and eat the seeds, throwing the cone peels in a nice pile under whatever tree.
The nights were clear, the Milky Way visible every single night, with plenty of shooting stars, some quite dramatic. Many hours were spent talking about so many things with my good friend. Some new muscles were broken in and thankfully, Ben’s back was not broken in the end.
Who knows what we will do next year? Ive suggested the Redwoods in CA.