A mishmash of flat rocks poked out of shallow water, making it difficult to land our canoes and awkward to unload them.
It would be dark in a few hours in the thick pine forest along Sawbill Lake. A better landing area with more elbow room would have eased our scramble to make camp and fix dinner.
But our sixth-grader didn’t see it that way. Finding himself on terra firma inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time, he flipped his life jacket aside and played a game of wilderness hopscotch on the obstacles.
“Dad, watch this!”
Joe was at his 12-year-old best jumping from rock to rock, dodging water that sparkled in the sun below his feet. As the tents went up, he explored the surroundings with his 16-year-old cousin, Cal. First things first, they discovered a footworn path to the latrine in the backwoods. They also chased a medium-sized garter snake.
Cal had experienced the BWCA on a previous trip with his dad, Patrick. But to Joe, this early June excursion into canoe country was all new.
On the way in, neither boy would need paddling lessons. Pat and I chose Sawbill — a popular entry point carefully maintained by the U.S. Forest Service — for its extreme north-south layout. We didn’t want prevailing winds from the west to blow us off the lake.
So, go figure. Nature delivered a strong wind out of the southeast that powered us 8 miles up the narrow lake. At times, we floated forward with no input from our paddles — a gift that Joe couldn’t fully appreciate.
But other simple pleasures didn’t go unnoticed. He admired Sawbill’s water clarity by chirping about the huge, brownish boulders 10 feet down. He noticed the fresh air, asking if I could smell the cedar trees.
Are we there yet?
We launched our camping and fishing trip at midafternoon on Friday — a potentially desperate hour for finding an open campsite. On cue, the first five sites marked on our McKenzie map were taken. It was well after 5 p.m. when we veered to the very northwest end of Sawbill, hoping for mercy.
Through the eyes of a newbie eager to park the canoe, every clearing in the underbrush looked like a vacancy. “Are you sure that’s not a campsite?” Joe asked several times. He doubted me until he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. The opening he finally spotted was, indeed, fit with a forged steel campfire grate surrounded by log benches.
Leading up to the trip, Joe asked random questions about the Boundary Waters that were tinged with anxiety and excitement. A month before leaving, he wondered at 7 a.m. where we’d get firewood. “Lots of dead trees,” I said. “How will we cut them?” he asked. “Uncle Pat has a camp saw.”
Every time the trip came up in conversation, he had another question.
“Are we allowed to swim?”
“Have you ever seen a bear up there?”
“Can I bring Ramen noodles?”
“What if someone gets hurt?”
Campfires are a big deal to Joe, and he was eager to try out a tip he learned in his firearms safety class. He gathered lint from the clothes dryer at home, filled a Ziploc bag, packed it away as a fire-starter and dug it out at the first chance. It worked!
In the twilight after chores were finished, Joe and Cal played tic-tac-toe with the charcoal end of a fire-tending stick. Their canvas was a big rock.
On our first full day, the bugs weren’t a problem. But the unrelenting southeast wind stranded us in camp. To kill time, Cal laid in his hammock in the breezy sunshine. Joe sat sidesaddle on a carvable campfire bench, satisfying the urge to play with his Buck knife.
The boys fished from shore and skipped rocks. The snake returned (to its demise) and Joe marveled at the audacity of the camp chipmunk. “Dad, he’s only a foot away from me. Should we roast him?”
Despite the wind, we all needed to go yonder. We paddled headlong into the gusts, only to be turned sideways or fully around. The struggle drilled Joe on the importance of keeping the canoe’s bow straight into the wind. A crawl was better than getting blown backward, and we battled long enough to reach the leeward side of a point that was south of our camp.
We were in the mouth of an unnamed creek and Pat caught a rock bass with a bobber rig. No one else got a bite. Still, it felt good to be on the water, and the boys splashed each other when the canoes got side by side.
The wilderness wind killed our plan to find the Kelso River and explore Kelso Lake. We eased our way back to camp, hopeful for a chance to hook a few walleyes after dinner.
Joe yelped when his second try at hopscotch failed. His ankle wasn’t twisted, but his left shoe and sock were drenched. Too bad. The lake was calm and the canoes were packed for fishing. He jumped in and we pushed out.
Five minutes later, the canoe had momentum and Joe was trolling a perch-colored stick bait well behind our wake. We were in the channel beside our campsite. “I think I got one!’’ he said. The arc of his fishing rod suggested a snag, but Joe recognized a heavy wiggle at the end of his line. We all hollered when he landed a perfectly golden, 17-inch walleye.
A second walleye hit Patrick’s line and there were more whoops. Joe followed by hooking a northern, but the mini-frenzy fizzled as the sun dipped below the tree tops. As the dads cleaned fish on a rocky point away from camp, the boys monkeyed around.
We talked before the trip about staying up late and watching the sky for shooting stars and space satellites. I told Joe it would help him fall asleep, but he packed melatonin just in case. But on both nights at Sawbill Lake, Joe zonked out on his own. He and Cal retired to their sleeping bags before the sky turned black, missing all the speckles and the Milky Way.
I awoke to Joe making traffic noises inside the tent. “I like waking up here,” he said. “You get to hear nature instead of cars and trucks.”
We were in no hurry to leave, and Joe dawdled more than paddled on the way home. To him, the ride wasn’t a chore. The more miles we covered, the more he tried to make it last. Toward the end — while Pat and Cal waited on shore with their canoe tied to the roof of their car — Joe kicked his feet up and leaned back against our packs.
He made me promise to bring him back. “THIS YEAR,” he said.
I pictured him 40 years from now at a campfire deep inside the Boundary Waters. “I’ve been coming up here since I was 12 years old,” he’d say.