Canada canoe trip: mud, bugs, and good times

Imagine strapping a 50-pound pack to your back or balancing an aluminum canoe on your shoulders. Next, picture yourself floundering in muddy bogs oozing up to your hips, or inching your way precariously over boulders or fallen trees. Your mission? To reach another lake or stream without being completely ravaged by hordes of kamikaze mosquitoes.

Sound like your idea of a vacation? Probably not. But this was my introduction to canoeing in the vast network of lakes and streams in the Canadian wilderness as one of seven members of a canoeing expedition. And to get from one lake or stream to the other, we had to walk. And crawl. Otherwise known as portaging.

But portages are only half of it. When you're not walking, you're paddling. Lake canoeing means there are no currents to carry the canoe along. So you have to paddle like crazy. The large lakes are generally the worst -- strong winds take delight in forcing your canoe backward or sideward, and choppy waters cover you with spray. If a thunderstorm happens to break out, it only adds to the fun.

As we sat around the campfire on our first night, exhausted and trying to come up with sound reasons why we were subjecting ourselves to such torture, we heard the eerie cry of a lone loon sweep across the water and fade until it was no longer audible.

"Even the loons are getting away from this place," someone muttered.

"Yeah," a voice answered. "Does this mean we're loonier than they are?"

It was a question no one could answer.

Two weeks later, however, as our trip came to an end, everyone was already planning another trip to Canada. Thoughts of portaging and mosquitoes were blotted out by memories of spending quiet and peaceful nights around the campfire, of filling pails with fat blueberries for pancakes and cobblers. I remember the way it felt to dive into the cold, clear water and then spread out on a flat rock warmed by the sun's rays. I remember being able to quench my thirst by dipping my cup into the rivers and lakes.

But more than anything, I remember the feeling of escaping from civilization, of exchanging a world of sidewalks, asphalt, and cars for a world of canoes gliding through glacier-made lakes lined with Norway pine and white birch. And as for those unpleasant aspects of living under primitive conditions, you learn to accept them.

Deciding where to go on a canoe trip up north depends primarily on what you're looking for. Most families and Scout troops opt for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, 110 miles of portage- linked lakes and streams along the Minnesota-Ontario border between Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods. Camping is restricted to developed campsites and campfires are permitted only within constructed fireplaces. Portages are generally marked and easy to follow.

Another popular spot is the Canadian Quetico Provincial Park on the Canadian side of the border north of Ely, Minn. The fee for using the park runs about $2 per person per day.

Since our tastes called for primitive camping in isolated bays and coves, we chose to canoe in the area directly east of Quetico. Although you can drive your car across the Canadian border and then begin your canoe trip as far north as you wish, we decided to start paddling from Gunflint Trail in the northeast tip of Minnesota and then canoe through Canadian customs.

Although Americans need no special identification to cross over the Canadian border, you will have to pay a small duty on the food you bring with you.

In a time of spiraling costs and inflation, canoeing in Canada is actually one of the least expensive vacations you can take, especially if you own your own canoe or can borrow one. Your only cost other than gasoline for your car is food. We spent approximately $50 a person for two weeks -- which is less than we would have spent at home.

At least half of the people coming to the northern waters bring their own canoes, according to Bud Darling, owner of Way of the Wilderness Canoe Outfitters on Gunflint Trail. The others rent canoes for about $7 a day. Backpacks run about $1 a day. August is the busiest time of the year, but the season runs from May through September."

If you have visions of getting lost in the Canadian wilderness, never to be seen again, you can hire a guide. You will be provided with everything you need , such as canoe, tent, cooking gear, sleeping bags, and even food. Guides will also teach you how to read a map and will give you hints on camping skills.

Ninety-five percent of the people canoeing in northern waters, however, do it on their own. Although it is easier to follow a map and compass once you get out of the big lakes and into the smaller ones, maps are sometimes deceiving. A small stream you are following may suddenly shrivel up into a dry river bed. Do you continue by portaging or do you turn back? We met two young men who had portaged 2 1/2 hours over a dry river bed before deciding to turn back. Later they found out that if they had continued walking for just a half hour longer, they would have come to the end of the portage.

Since we were canoeing in lakes that were off the beaten path, it was difficult to find areas large and level enough to pitch our tents. However, we found that islands made the best camping spots. They serve as natural protection against intruders such as bears, and a steady wind generally keeps the mosquitoes away.

Another thing we learned was to regret all excess weight in our packs. Since cans and bottles, including aerosol cans, are prohibited in Canadian canoeing areas, all our food was in plastic containers or plastic baggies (wrapped twice for double protection against rips), and most of our meals were in freeze-dried packages. We did allow ourselves a few luxuries, however. The best things I brought were a good book and a hammock!

We also learned that it is infinitely wiser to have three people in a canoe rather than just two. If you stuff all the personal gear for the three people into one huge pack and all the food into another, then two people can carry packs and one person can wrestle with the canoe during portages. Otherwise, you will probably have to make two trips at each portage. And with three people in a canoe, the person in the middle is free to relax.

After two weeks in the wilderness, it didn't even seem like we were roughing it any more. We got used to building fires and pitching tents. Freeze-dried food, which generally tastes pretty awful, tasted great when we were hungry. And when our trip came to an end, we wondered whether it had all been a dream. That is, until we got home and unpacked our clothing. We were shocked how strongly our clothes reeked of campfire smoke, insect repellent, dampness, and dirt. But the funny thing was, all the time we were in Canada, we never even noticed it.

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