Canoeing, I submit, is a unique endeavor. Two people sit, yoked by their vessel, for hours on end, pulling on paddles and talking. I’ve had some of the best conversations of my life in canoes, and this trip was no exception. Bob Timmons and I talked about our fathers’ recent deaths. Aaron Lavinsky and I discussed religion. And Brad Shannon and I compared notes on parenting and marriage.
But the conversations with Aidan, my 14-year-old son, I treasure the most. He and I shared a canoe most days on our trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). We talked about him quitting Edina hockey and joining football, about his impending entrance into high school, and about whether Neil Peart of Rush or John Bonham of Led Zeppelin is the greatest rock drummer of all time.
For our final paddle on the fifth day of our journey, Aidan and I carried our canoe into South Fowl Lake, and he held it steady as I carried our yellow Labrador retriever Crosby over the water and placed him in the canoe. We were trying to keep the bandage dry on the foot he’d injured the previous night near the Pigeon River Dam.
It was sunny, warm and calm, and South Fowl lived up to its name as we flushed more than two dozen ducks from bays and marshes as we paddled. I couldn’t help but dream of returning to this spot during waterfowl hunting season, another passion that Aidan and I share. While we marveled at the wildlife, Crosby dozed in the sun, exhausted from a sleepless night at our island campsite.
Our portage out of South Fowl was at the mouth of the Royal River, where we passed some shallow rapids. We put back in at Royal Lake, no more than a bulge in the river. Bob remarked that Royal Lake, quiet and shallow, seemed like a wildlife sanctuary, rife with ducks and wild rice and songbirds. After some searching, we found the Royal River inflow and started paddling upstream toward our takeout spot and our return to civilization.
Brad suggested that we paddle in silence and at an unhurried pace. We were at the river’s bidding. Twice we crossed paths with a mother duck and ducklings, first a skittish family of goldeneyes, then of American black ducks.
Below us, river grass bent with the current. Above us, new palisades emerged around each bend, commanding the horizon. We were enjoying the best weather of our five days on the Voyageur’s Highway. I didn’t want the trip to end, and I could tell that Aidan didn’t either.
A 78-rod portage deposited us at the headwater of the Royal River, a pretty pool on the southeast corner of John Lake. The sun shown brightly enough for Aidan to see to the bottom, where he glimpsed a massive smallmouth bass.
“Can we stop and fish?” he asked.
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “We’ve got to paddle out, drive a long ways, and clean our gear.”
“Please,” he begged.
The other canoe was already out of sight, and I explained that because we were traveling with a group, we couldn’t make unilateral decisions without them. I promised that we’d come back and fish this very pool, for that very bass, someday soon.
As we paddled away, Aidan had the last word. “I cannot tell you how hard it is for me to leave a fish that big just sitting there. That’s like the hardest thing you could ever make me do.”
We rounded one last bend from John Lake into Little John Lake and saw Brad, Aaron and Bob on shore, waving us in, cheering. I climbed out of the canoe and hugged my boy. After five days and four nights in the BWCA, through rain and wind and bugs and mud, his sole complaint was that he couldn’t fish one last time. I had baptized him a voyageur, and he’d risen to every challenge.
With the canoes and packs on the trailer, we climbed in Brad’s old Suburban and rolled down the gravel of Arrowhead Trail. Nearly an hour later, the road turned to pavement, and just about that time my phone started vibrating with a week’s worth of notifications. Modern life clawed me back. I sent a message to my wife that we were safe, and I lost coverage again. Maybe I’ll be lucky and never get service back, I thought.
The denouement of our trip consisted of cleaning and drying all of our gear, and a hot sauna followed by a jump in a cold lake. I convinced my compatriots from the Twin Cities that we needn’t rush back, so we spent a leisurely night in Grand Marais. The drive home could wait a day.
The ducklings we’d seen earlier on Royal River were just a couple of days old, still completely reliant on their parent for food and safety. In the bow of my canoe sat my offspring, no longer so dependent. Aidan is nearly as tall as me, and I can hear his voice changing almost daily. A year from now, he’ll be getting his driver’s license, and I know from my older kids that I’ll see a lot less of him once that happens.
Someday, I thought, he’ll come back here. I hope he’ll remember me, remember this trip, remember the fish we caught and the ones we left behind. Remember eating steaks in the rain and me hitting my head on a tree. Remember the first time he portaged a canoe, that first taste of pemmican, and touching whiskey to his lips during his “baptism” at Height of Land Portage.
Surely he’ll remember Crosby, the dog he loves to snuggle. Maybe he’ll bring his own dog.
Maybe he’ll have a buddy in his canoe and they’ll talk about the native people and voyageurs and lumbermen who plied these waters. Maybe they’ll talk about burying their fathers.
Maybe he’ll bring his own kids. Maybe he’ll tell them about his dad, who brought him up here in 2019 and about the adventures they had and the conversations they shared.
I hope that if he does return, the water will be as blue as it is today. I hope that he can dip his bottle in the middle of lakes and drink the water unfiltered. I hope that there still is no cellphone coverage (or whatever device they’ll be using then), and that the mosquitoes are just as bad. I hope that storms roll in and smallmouth bass still take the bait. I hope that the BWCA is just as rugged and wild and beautiful as it is today.
Tony Jones is a freelance writer and theologian, and lives in Edina. Reach him at ReverendHunter.com.