We pulled up to the Blankenburg Landing on Seagull Lake at about 2 p.m. As we hefted full portage packs out of the car onto the grassy landing, another group blew in off the lake, their trip ending. By the energized banter and their relief to be on shore, we knew that our first crossing would be windy.
Nevertheless, my battered old green Penobscot 16 Royalex canoe (blemished even when new, fifteen years ago) carried us safely six miles across the lake, past the gray wooden sign announcing our entry into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), and to our first campsite.
The wind and mist howled around fire grate on top of our rocky point. Lighting a stove there was impossible. Instead, we hung a tarp and huddled in a grove of northern white cedar trees down on the lee-side of the point. As the pot began to boil, I carefully tore a sprig of cedar leaves off our windbreak and stuck it in my tea mug. Soon, the hot, citrusy, Vitamin C-rich tea was warming my hands and my belly.
The wind did not subside overnight, but braving the wind and rain, we portaged out of Seagull and into Alpine, Jasper, and Ogishkemuncie Lakes.
The charred, fire-ravaged landscape still shocks me. Pink granite knobs stand out in stark contrast to charred trees and vivid green saplings. Along sheltered, damp shorelines, live green cedars still grow out over the water, as if lunging away from the fire. Adult trees have no fire resistance except their preference for low, wet ground, or inaccessible cliffs, but seedlings prosper on recently burned areas.
A long day of paddling and portaging – from Kekekabic Lake we paddled 10.5 miles and portaged 317 rods through Pickle, Spoon, Dix, Skoata, and Missionary Lakes. We saw more loon chicks than people, but we did meet one group on a portage.
We were just picking up our packs as their last person came walking down the hill to the landing with a beautiful cedar strip canoe up onto his shoulders. I was hit with more than a little bit of canoe envy. Kevlar may be light and bulletproof, Royalex cheap and indestructible, but nothing beats the elegance of a richly hued cedar strip canoe.
“Did you make that yourself?” I asked as he gently flipped it into the water, but he hadn’t. Perhaps we both still have something left on our bucket lists.
We began the morning with a long portage into Knife Lake. Everything felt big here – the lake, the sky, the hills and cliffs on both sides, and the mature pines towering along the shore.
As we pulled up on a rocky campsite for lunch, I heard a high-pitched whistle. Looking up to the dead top of a cedar tree growing out of the rocks, I saw the distinctive yellow tail band of a cedar waxwing.
As we got out our peanuts and raisins, the cedar waxwing flitted out from the tree and back, supplementing its fruit-based diet with protein-rich insects. Come winter, these colorful birds will earn their name by eating cedar berries (which are actually the tiny fleshy cones from Eastern redcedar trees or juniper bushes).
As we drank our morning tea (cedar, of course) on a high rocky ledge, we watched a slight breeze swirl fog across the glassy water. It brought to mind a passage from Sigurd Olson’s The Singing Wilderness: "In the morning when the white horses of the mists are galloping out of the bays…"
The wind stayed calm throughout the morning, and we portaged quietly into Otter Track Lake so as not to break the spell. I guided the canoe close to the steep, rocky cliffs, and we marveled at how faithfully the water reflected each detail of the overhanging cedar trees. We floated on the intersection of heaven and earth.
Stepping out onto the landing at Monument Portage, I noticed that rangers had done a lot of work to prevent erosion on the rocky hillside. One waterbar curved and tapered with the telltale shape of a cedar trunk, its rot-resistant wood holding back soil for the long haul.
We had a guest today for our final breakfast. As we perched on a rocky point overlooking the islands of Saganaga Lake, a rustle in the cedar tree brought our focus in closer. The cutest little red squirrel was perched on a cedar twig, eating the fresh, bright green cones as if his life depended on it, or he had drunk too much coffee, or both.
We opted for one more cup of cedar tea instead of coffee, and reveled in our last minutes of wilderness peace. Many things make the Boundary Waters a special place for me, and Eastern white cedars are one of them. As wind blocks, hot drinks, scenery, building materials, and habitat, they are an important and beautiful part of canoe country. To make your own cup of tea, simply put a sprig in your mug, pour just-boiled water over it, and wait until it is cool enough to drink. Enjoy this taste of the wilderness!
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April 2014.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com/.