Boundary Waters Canoe Area Expedition
I took my second of three camping BWCA trip after my junior year of college. We spent five days in the northern Minnesota wilderness. We entered at Snowbank Lake east of Ely.
It was a pretty random mix of guys, which always makes for a good trip...
Above from left: Len, me, Tony, Paul, Luke, Bo, and Matt. How do we know each other? I (Craig) organized the trip. Matt is my high school friend. Len is my college roommate. Luke and Bo are Len's brothers. Paul is Bo's friend and Tony is Paul's roommate.
This photo is from the end of the trip, as all BWCA group photos are. Our exit point was a bar called Smitty's.
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This is a photo from the first day of the trip, as I paddle through Lake Ima. Matt and I are in the same canoe. Paul teamed up with Tony and the three brothers shared a three-man canoe.
Matt pulls the canoe through shallow water after a portage.
After finding a campsite on Lake Ima the first day, we decided to go cliff jumping. Lined up on the rocks from the left are Tony, me, Len, Bo, and Matt. Luke was busy catching dinner.
Here I launch myself from the rocks.
Matt starts a rather stylistic run into the water.
Len decides that it's more fun to "cliff fall" into the water than "cliff jump."
On the second day, we paddle from Lake Ima to Lake Thompson. Here Matt and I have stopped as Len, Bo, and Luke paddle upstream through a small section of rapids.
We are lucky enough to find an island campsite on Lake Thompson. Here is a dusk view from our campsite. Matt sits on a log in the foreground, while Paul, Len, and Bo turn around at water's edge.
Here is the campsite viewed form the water's edge. You can see the green rope that we use to hoist our food up at night to keep it away from bears and other animals. Len and Matt are near the tents and Luke straddles the canoe.
Above, Craig holds Luke's catch of fish. Luke was the avid fisherman on the rip. Every day on the trip except the last, Luke fished for around an hour and caught two large walleye, pike, or lake trout.
Usually, Luke gutted the fish and threw them straight on the campsite fire grill. After cooking the fish, we peeled back the skin and grabbed the fresh meat. Usually just two fish made almost an entire meal for seven people.
The National Forest Service recommended that you put fish remnants on the rocks and let the BWCA scavengers go after them. Normally, this consisted of seagulls. But one time, a large snapping turtle crawled up on the rocks.
Luke then runs over there are grabs the thing by the tail and started yelling, "let's eat it, let's eat it." Bo and I tried to talk some sense into him. "Come on Luke, nobody here knows how to clean a turtle or make turtle soup." We finally convinced him. Then instead of just releasing the poor bugger, we tied a string and water bottle to its tail so we could paddle out on the lake and pull him back up from the depths of the lake. When we got bored seeing where he traveled to, we let him go for good.
The Bear and the Day Trip
So while camping on the island in Lake Thompson, we decided to take a day trip. The outfitter told us that there were some "ice caves" at another lake, so we made that our destination. We leave Lake Thompson and go on a 3/4 mile portage. The problem is the rainy spring left the trail completely flooded in many places. The portage was long, miserable, and mosquito infested. We had to carry the canoe through ankle-deep water through much of it. We finally arrive at our destination lake.
We get to the section of shoreline at where the outfitter had marked "ice caves." We split up and start searching for so called ice caves, though nobody knows what an ice cave is--maybe it's made of ice, maybe there is ice inside, I figure.
Matt and I go a ways down the shoreline. We see a line of cliffs about 60 ft tall and a quarter mile back from the shore. "If there are any ice caves around here, I bet they are there." So we start the bushwack through the thick forest. Eventually, we reach the cliff face. We start walking along the cliff face. We see a small deep cave cut into the side of the rock. It is a foot or two above our heads. Fallen rocks would easily allow us to scramble up there and check it out.
As we near the cave, deep inhaling and exhaling break the relative silence of the northern Minnesota wilderness. "Holy crap, Matt, something really big is snoring in that cave. Maybe a bear."
Adrenaline pumping, we rush back through the swampy jungle and reach the canoe in five minutes. We paddle furiously back to the rest of the group. "Guys, we found a sleeping bear!" I exclaim.
Tony pipes in, "sweet, let's go see it." We could have maybe convinced just Tony not to go back, but all five of the others wanted to check out the sleeping bear. Matt and I know better, but we decide to go back anyways and show the rest of the group our discovery.
We paddle back to the area where we had parked our canoe earlier. The seven of us start the trek inland, this time carrying paddles "to defend ourselves against a bear." Keep in mind that the nearest hospital is a twelve hour paddle/portage and couple hour drive. Bo, Luke, and Paul turned back because they didn't feel like plowing through the dense woods. So Matt, Tony, Len, and I arrived at the cliff face cave.
We heard the snoring again. "Holy crap, you're right," Tony added. "Let's go up on that rock and wake it up."
"I've had enough guys. That's some loud snoring. Let's get the heck outta here." Len, the most rational of the four of us, decided to leave.
Tony, Matt, and I use a tree to climb up on a large boulder. Nine feet above the ground and about the same level and fifteen feet away from the cliff face cave, the rock should afford some level of protection from a bear. Except that black bears could of course climb trees. And that snoring was deep, so it was a large animal. From the top of the rock, we got a glimpse of a large shadowy mass inside the cave, but we couldn't confirm that it was a bear. Maybe a mountain lion (we weren't thinking that at the time)?
Tony grabs a small rotting log and chucks it at the cave opening. Matt follows with a small stone. "Alright guys this needs to stop. We have no idea what or how dangerous that animal is. Let's get the hell outta here." The other two are convinced.
We sprint back to the canoes, oars in hand, and Matt releases a blood-curdling scream in an attempt to frighten the others. We pack up, eat lunch, and begin the couple hour trip back to the campsite.
At the end of the trip, when we returned to the outfitter, he had admitted that he never saw the ice caves there, only having heard about them. To this day, I have no idea what an ice cave is.
Author's note: This story was told at Matt's July 2004 wedding and received good reviews. As shown by the story, I recommended that his wife Abby should "always question her husband's judgment."
We leave our Lake Thompson campsite early on the last day.
Here is a great picture of the Luke, Bo, and Len on Lake Ima, prior to stopping for lunch.
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I carry the 70 pound canoe and 40 pound pack on one of the small portages.
All of these photos were taken with a Kodak disposable waterproof camera and scanned.
Last updated August 22, 2004.