Looking Back and Paddling Forward: Rediscovering My Love for the Boundary Waters

The first time I was in a canoe in the Boundary Waters wilderness was in 2000. I was 5 years old. My younger brother, Justin, only 3 years old, and I sat in the middle of the canoe while our parents paddled us to camp. We felt like marshmallows in our life jackets with baseball caps, sunglasses, and sunscreen smeared on our cheeks to protect us from burning. When it rained, it poured. On one trip, my parents shoved my brother and I inside of a young fir tree after arriving at our campsite while they set up our tents in the hail. We still tell the story of Justin complaining at our campfire one night: “Aw man, we can see other people. ” Those “people” were a flickering speck of a campfire across the bay from us. You can imagine that it took us a while to adjust to car camping as we grew older.

Yearly canoe trips became an annual tradition for our family while we lived in rural Wisconsin and after we moved to Duluth when I was 9. The camping trips taught me patience while I was attacked by mosquitoes and gnats, optimism when it rained for 5 days straight, and wonder as we watched moose swim across the bay and loons carry babies on their backs. Sure, I was nearly a hypochondriac; I worried about each bug bite that appeared on my arm, feared we would flip the canoe, and panicked when I heard unexplained sounds in the dark, but I learned a lot from those forests and lakes. 

As I grew older, our family trips began to take us out of the state. We toured Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, biking around islands and camping on Lake Superior’s sandy southern shores. We traveled to Glacier National Park in Montana, taking in breathtaking views while driving the Going-to-the-Sun mountain pass. We spent 21 hours in the car to visit Banff and Jasper National Parks in Canada, rewarding ourselves with the iconic view of Moraine Lake. My family was visibly more relaxed and happy when we were outside, and at a young age it showed me the value of these undeveloped landscapes. My parents spent time reading the interpretive signs with us to learn more deeply about the places we traveled through, and it was the trip to Banff National Park a year into my undergraduate degree that made me realize I could study ecology.

When I started college, canoe trips to the BWCA became even more challenging to plan. With spring semesters stretching into early June, and possible internships starting then, too, there was no time for long weekends spent up north. Yet it was during the seasons I stepped away from the Boundary Waters that I experienced exponential personal and professional growth. One summer I landed an internship in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I worked on the park’s official website, took photographs, and wrote my first published web article. The next two summers I was a Science Communication Intern with the National Park Service in Denali National Park, Alaska. I quickly fell in love with the landscape, mountains, wildlife, and history, and the subarctic tundra became my new home.

In Denali, I learned how to communicate science to non-scientific audiences using web articles, social media, and newsletters. I even met my partner, John, during my first summer. We hiked and backpacked in grizzly bear country with (almost) no fear. In my second summer, we were charged by a mother moose after unwittingly getting too close to her and her calf standing hidden in the thick alders. Every time we set out into the trailless backcountry, I wondered if or why I even enjoyed backpacking, with all of its mishaps, discomfort, and hard physical work. But after every trip, I ached to get back out into the quiet, sighing landscape.

I continued to return to Alaska, this time as a Field Educator for the Denali Education Center. I guided interpretive hikes and taught classes to Road Scholar tour groups and the public. I learned how to spot wildlife on the park bus, facilitate active discussions about climate change and conservation, and guide groups through wildlife encounters. I learned to observe the smallest plants and lichens along a trail to teach participants about the ecology of Denali and the value of the smaller players in the forest. In the winters, we lived and worked in Aspen, Colorado with a snowmobile touring company and traveled throughout New Zealand in a rented campervan. I had come a long way from the worrying young girl that journeyed into the Boundary Waters so many years before, but at every destination, I immersed myself into the ecology and diversity of the new environment. The Boundary Waters is where that love of nature truly began.

Even if the only place I’d been able to travel in my young life was the Boundary Waters, I would have been extremely privileged. There are not many places so natural and so easily accessible, and my privilege as a white, middle-class American gave me and my family the opportunity to travel widely. As far as I have traveled, however, I always come back home. Growing up in the Boundary Waters instilled a yearning for wilderness in me. I did not realize it originated there until our most recent trip.

After spending three years living seasonally, I found a graduate program that felt like it was the path I was meant to take. In October 2019, John and I moved to Madison, Wisconsin so that I could pursue a professional M.S. degree in Environmental Conservation. I now find myself at the birthplace of environmental restoration and the crossroads of famous conservationists like Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day. For the first time in years, I am only an 8-hour drive from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

My family started planning a Boundary Waters trip for Memorial Day weekend back in February. We had a route, a date, and a guide: it was a trip that my younger brother, Justin, had done many times, entering near Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters and paddling and portaging into Frost Lake. I experienced emotions across the board. I was nervous to be in a canoe again, excited for John’s first-ever canoe trip, and cautiously curious as to how it would feel to be back again after more than ten years away.

We were a motley crew of explorers. My brother,  a computer engineer who had guided his friends on this same route multiple times; my dad, the avid outdoorsman and ongoing trip comedian; my mom, who—like me—hadn’t been in the BWCA in ten years, and admirably carried our extra food bag all the way in; my boyfriend, a California native who’d never lifted a canoe in his life; and me.

After loading into our canoes at the start of the trip, we paddled across a lake that was barely more than a pond, passing by an old beaver dam on our way to the first portage’s rocky landing. Justin jumped out of his solo canoe first, hoisted his pack onto his back, and then lifted the canoe over his head. I stepped out of my canoe next, and suddenly there was a large splash behind me. I spun around to find my dad half in the water up to his chest, one leg still hanging in his canoe. His foot had slipped on a rock while he was trying to get out, and he was trying to keep their canoe from flipping. I stumbled into the water up to my waist to help him, but he had already regained his footing to stand. Communication between team members at portages is absolutely key, and it was a good reminder for us all how easily and quickly a canoe can tip.

John made it flawlessly through our first portage with his pack and our canoe. As a Minnesota native, I couldn’t be prouder. In our seasonal lifestyle, he’d visited home with me multiple times, but only during the cold, snowy months (which are beautiful in their own right). I’d spent years talking up the lush green landscape and crystal clear waters of Minnesota. Now, they finally had a chance to show off for themselves.

Every portage streamlined our process, making us smoother as a team of five. As I stumbled over roots and well-worn rocks in the forest, I laughed at the way I had asked my brother a few days before if I could wear hiking sandals for the trip in. My feet and ankles were grateful for the support of hiking boots, even as I waded knee-deep at every landing and departure to protect the canoes from rocky landings. 

When I was younger, I remember having multiple bags in the canoe, since Justin and I couldn’t carry our own gear yet. We did fewer and shorter portages because of it. On this trip, it became quickly apparent that it was worth having only one bag per person. Thankfully with warm weather, the need for extra layers was not as necessary. Even so, there are a few things that I am sure to never leave behind: my hammock, for hours of reading and listening to the birds at camp; a baseball hat for sun protection and as a camp-hair accessory; binoculars; a loupe or magnifying glass to examine mosses and lichens; sandals to free my feet after a long day of paddling and hiking; and my Rite-in-the-Rain journal, to record our memories for later.

We certainly could have made it easier on ourselves. Compared to backpacking, it felt like a dream that our packs traveled most of the journey on the keel of the canoe rather than on our shoulders. For the sake of fun camp food, we did not stick to traditional dehydrated meals.  Pillsbury biscuits become delectable camp donuts when you poke a hold in them, fry them in oil, and dip them in a bag of cinnamon sugar. As an added bonus, we saved that oil and used it to fry our fish later that night.

We brought salami, jerky, and cheese for our lunches, bags of trail mix, dried mangoes, dehydrated pudding packets, and Hostess birthday cupcakes—which survived only partially smashed—to celebrate Justin’s 23rd birthday. He brought a new camping skillet—a gift from my parents—that was well worn over the weekend for nearly every meal: beef taco meat, garlic bread, bacon, blueberry scones, pancakes, dehydrated eggs, and of course, lots and lots of Lake Trout.

The trip to Frost Lake will make you feel like you’ve earned your sleeping mat that night. While it doesn’t require you to make one of the longest portages in the wilderness area, at 140 rods the tenth portage of the afternoon is sure to test you. Lake after lake, my mind raced at the feeling of being back. 

I was not the 15-year-old girl my parents last brought on a canoe trip. I felt stronger, physically and mentally. When I was younger, my family used to tease me for dipping my paddle in the water and letting it float back instead of paddling (a phenomenon that I still insist was not happening). This year I pulled against the water with a strength that wasn’t there before. My legs carried me and my pack (sometimes two) across the portages, and after so many backpacking trips off-trail in Alaska, they didn’t feel as challenging as I remembered. While fishing, I could have floated in the canoe for hours listening to the birds without feeling bored. Justin even taught me how to fillet my own fish!

I noticed every small flower, plant, tree, and track. I was better at spotting wildlife, identifying species of lichens, and tracking the barred owl’s “who cooks for you?” call through the forest so we could see its silhouette at twilight. I knew more of the plants’ names and felt that I had a greater appreciation for them because of it. 

Imagine! Another world, another language to be explored, hidden in plain sight within the landscape you already cherish. You only need to look at a boulder to see my point. Once smoothed beneath a glacier, it is now home to an array of lichens and mosses, every new color or shape, a different species. I like to see how many I can count in the space of my hand. 5? 10? Sometimes twenty, maybe more.

Lichens and mosses are indicators of air quality due to their porous construction that allows them to absorb moisture and nutrients without a root-like feature. This means that they absorb pollutants just as easily. Lichen diversity plummets near cities, which makes the boundary waters a perfect environment to witness their incredible biodiversity.

Growing up in the boundary waters spoiled us and we took it for granted. Now that I’m older, I understand the threats these natural places face and I fear for them as much as I am inspired by them. It’s the reason I am dedicating my career to protecting them and communicating their importance to others. As a Field Educator to travelers in Alaska, I’ve seen firsthand how much education can shape an experience, and how much an experience can shift a mindset.

This trip was designed to be John’s first introduction to the Boundary Waters, but it turned into so much more. It was a time to turn off our phones, take a break from the news, and reconnect with one another. The weekend was full of magical moments: water smooth as glass, a loon surfacing 20 feet off of the bow of our canoe, and waking at 2 am to the sound of a beaver slapping its tail in the water. These are the moments I can’t experience anywhere but nature. They transform me into the person I want to be. Free from anxiety, or from the endless, mindless scrolling on my phone. Alive and full-spirited. Calm, determined. In awe of this beautiful planet we call home and inspired to do something to protect it.

The next time you canoe in the Boundary Waters, hike in a state park, or even step into your own backyard, I implore you to take a closer look. Notice the smallest wonders: the diversity of lichens on granite bedrock, the number of bird songs you can pick out in 5 minutes, or the way the lakes and forests change along the trip. It will only deepen your appreciation of these places. What I have learned about our planet Earth in the last 10 years—from the wonders it holds to the work we have ahead to protect it—has changed the way I look at the Boundary Waters as a grown woman. This trip gave me a renewed feeling of purpose to pursue the career path I know I was always meant to take.

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