the first day at the lodge, Brothers Nathan (left)
and Gabe Usem broke out the paddle boards on White
Iron Lake. Their family was visiting from
across White Iron Lake, I looked up at the sky, cloudless
and blue. Then I glided around a bend and spotted them: a
pair of slim maple trees, rising from the rocky shoreline,
burst into a brilliant orange.
still early. Mid-September. In this northern edge of
Minnesota, just outside Ely, most of the trees still
shimmered green. But from our canoes, my paddling group
witnessed hints that autumn, in all its brilliance, would
the perfect time to be up here,” one of our guides,
Devan, later told us.
say that to all the groups,” laughed Georganne, who had
trekked here from Oakland, Calif., with her husband and
two 20-something sons.
weekend would back up his claim: Comfortable temperatures.
Fewer people — and perhaps more important — fewer
mosquitoes. And those slim, orange maple trees, with more
to come. It was as if all the forest’s color had
gravitated toward the water.
gravitated there, too. We had come to canoe, to explore
just the edge of an epic wilderness of lakes, rivers and
rapids. This trip, put on by Wilderness Inquiry, proved
more easygoing than my past pack-and-portage excursions
into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Each
evening, we returned to a cozy lodge on a pine-covered
peninsula on White Iron Lake.
had been billed as an “amazing trip for leaf-peepers.”
As the trip approached, swaths of the Department of
Natural Resource’s color-coded state map — which
Minnesotans eye each fall — had begun turning yellow and
orange. But the Ely area?
the van headed north, I hoped.
guides, manning the wheel and the music, picked a song I
seized as a good omen. In aching harmony and amid a steel
guitar, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss sang: “Leaves
were falling just like embers/ In colors red and gold they
set us on fire/ Burning just like a moonbeam in our
other goals besides leaves, of course. One man in our
small group, the pediatrician from Oakland, had brought
his wife and sons to experience the sight that as a
Minnesota youth he had fallen in love with — “the view
of a sunny lake from underneath a portaged canoe.”
Karen, in her 70s, wanted to explore her beloved Boundary
Waters with the help of a guide and the comfort of a bed.
Devan, always quick to identify a bird in flight, hoped to
see a bull moose.
time in a canoe.
and canoeing trips had relied, for too long, on men who
boasted more gear and experience than I had. Who knew how
to start a fire despite the rain and — if I’m being
honest — were willing to carry the canoe on their
shoulders from one lake to the next. On this trip, I vowed
to pay more attention to the maps and the weather and the
knots used to tie up canoes. I wanted to be able to
venture into the Boundary Waters on my own next time.
Wilderness Inquiry guys, clad in Chaco sandals and
sporting tans, let me look over their shoulders as they
marked their maps and made their plans. But Karen, who had
navigated this part of the state many times before, became
my guide, too.
dock, on that first evening, we measured the time to
sunset with our fingers. I stretched out my arms toward
the blaze, cocking my palms perpendicular. Each finger
between the sun and the horizon represented 15 minutes.
Six fingers meant an hour and a half of light left.
brothers stripped off their shirts and grabbed a pair of
paddleboards, launching themselves out onto the lake.
Their dad watched them paddle in the waning light.
haven’t really been to a place,” he said, “until
you’ve been in the water.”
I awoke the
next morning to the sound of rain peppering the roof and
the smell of onions frying in a cast iron pan. After
exploring the Boundary Waters by backpack, I was struck by
the luxury. A roof! A kitchen!
at the long wooden table, drinking coffee and checking the
weather on our phones. The rain would pass, our guides
looked up from “Listening Point,” the book that
naturalist Sigurd Olson wrote about his retreat on
Burntside Lake, not 20 miles from here, and began reading
aloud. Olson was describing a paddle in the dark, when
“the lake evoked a spell.” Water’s power, he
surmised, springs from the fact that “man’s history is
woven into waterways. …
mountain, a desert, or a great forest might serve his need
of strength, but water reflects his inner needs. Its
all-enveloping quality, its complete diffusion into the
surrounding environment, the fact it is never twice quite
the same and each approach to it is a new adventure, give
it a meaning all its own.”
was done with the passage, Georganne sighed. “That’s
dropped by, a dog at his heels. Arctic explorer Paul
Schurke and his wife own this lodge, which specializes in
winter dog sled excursions. But in the warmer months, he
lends the place to Wilderness Inquiry, the company he
co-founded with Greg Lais while at St. John’s
University. (“This little lodge is lonely and forlorn
all summer,” he said. “Mostly we wait until the snow
flies — which it will very soon.”)
baseball cap and a sweet, crooked smile, Schurke welcomed
to think you’re in a very special place,” he said.
“You’re at the entry point to the most popular,
beloved, heavily visited protected wilderness area on
Planet Earth and, for that matter, in the Milky Way
this cabin, Schurke said, gesturing to the door, are 2,000
lakes, “almost all of which are clean enough that you
could dip your cup in and drink from them.”
Wilderness Inquiry wouldn’t recommend it.”
were right: The skies cleared. We drove east, to the Lake
One trailhead, and dipped our Kevlar canoes into the
OF THE WATER
Lake, in the distance, an animal swam, creating ripples of
water that spread and disappeared long before reaching our
canoe. The animal was deep, strong. But what was it?
tell,” Devan said, leaning forward. “A deer, maybe.”
Or maybe a
moose? We called over to the other canoe, careful not to
shout too loud. Their eyes widened. We had been talking
moose all weekend, hoping to see one on our hike to
Kawishiwi Falls. Or from the road. But on the water? We
had never considered such a thing.
off, pulling the clear water back with our paddles as
quickly as we could.
As we got
closer, the swimmer looked smaller. A deer indeed, its
short antlers sticking out above the water. We watched it
swim toward shore.
an island respite and another paddle later, Devan spotted
another swimmer, much smaller this time. A beaver, someone
I dug my
paddle into the water quickly, deeply, using every skill I
had learned over these past few days, until we got close.
Closer. Its figure finally became clearer: a red squirrel,
dog-paddling toward shore.
so hard our canoe shook.
took our time, paddling and pausing, exploring the
lakes’ edges and its fauna. Moss the color of rust. Lily
pads, turning from green to gold. At one point, we found
ourselves in a bay of what appeared to be wild rice. The
brilliant burgundy of their stalks beat any tree I had
seen, so far.
chopped vegetables for dinner that night, Devan
disappeared to build the fire that would stoke the Finnish
sauna, coaxing the first flames by blowing, gently, into
an open door on the sauna’s side. A few hours later,
after a veggie stir-fry, some wine and a few more stories,
we changed into our swimsuits.
grown just cool enough outside to appreciate the dry heat
I let the
sweat build on my forehead for 10, 20 minutes before
grabbing my headlamp and following the others down the
hill to the dock. The lake had grown dark, but the two
brothers jogged to the dock’s end and jumped. Karen
smaller steps. Paused. I chickened out, sitting down and
then easing myself into the cool, black water. Goose
We did it
again and again, the lake water drying from our skin only
to be replaced with sweat. Nathan posed big questions.
What’s your biggest fear? If you could have a cabin,
where would it be? I told them about a cabin we had rented
a few years back on Lake Superior. We slept with the
windows open, listening to the waves hitting the rocky
shore. But tonight, my answer was here. Near this sauna,
on this lake.
lake, sauna, lake.
On my last
trip to the lake, I abandoned my towel and headlamp. Then
I ran down the dock and jumped into the darkness.