A graduate of Harvard, Class of 1931, PAUL BROOKS succeeded Ferris Greenslet as Edit or-in-Chief of Houghton Mifflin Company. His interest in the out-of-doors is reflected in his holidays as well as his publishing activities. He and the Bow Paddle,who “cooks best on hands and knees with smoke in her eyes.”have camped,puddled, walked, fished,birded, and chased butterflies from Thoreau’s Concord River at their doorstep to such roadless areas as he describes in the article which follows.
by PAUL BROOKS
To MY wife and me, “roadless area is the most poetic phrase on our road map of the United States. It is printed, indefinite but irresistible, across the northern edge of Minnesota, and over the border into Canada, about fifty miles west of Lake Superior. Lacking the usual spider web of red and black roads, innocent of a single town name, the area would look barren but for the tangled blue mass of lakes.
More detailed maps show this to be the heart of the Superior National Forest of Minnesota and Quetico Provincial Park of Ontario, a tract of wilderness almost five million acres in extent. A century and a half ago, the great explorer, Alexander Mackenzie, said that there was not “a finer country in the world for the residence of uncivilized man.” If he could see it today, I doubt that he would revise his judgment, though he might be appalled at the number who need uncivilizing.
Here are the oldest rocks on the surface of the earth, known as the Canadian Shield; the geographical ridgepole of the continent, whence waters flow to the Atlantic, the Arctic, and the Gulf of Mexico; the historic canoe route of the Indians and fur traders and the legendary Northwest Passage. Here are refuges for wildlife where guns are forbidden, and for human life where cars cannot penetrate and commercial planes may not fly.
We had already arranged for supplies and canoe, when my wife (hereinafter known as the Bow Paddle) read an account of travel in this country by the Director of the Wilderness Society. He made it sound tough: long stretches of paddling, punctuated by slithering in mud, slipping in sphagnum moss, and (this from a world authority on trail work) some trouble in finding his way. “Obviously a characterforming experience,” said the Bow Paddle, “but I’m not sure that I like to have my character formed in the summertime.”
The canoe, however, was waiting at Ely, Minnesota, the jumping-off place, road’s end. Once a booming lumber town, now it booms with the business of equipping campers for life in the wilderness at its doorstep. Enter, that early August afternoon, the headquarters of one of the leading “outfitters.” A barnlike room, tier tier of canoes on racks, in the center a fable on which were already laid out the supplies for our ten-day trip. Three huge packs that made the fourth—our own veteran of the Adirondacks and Green Mountains — look like a lady’s handbag. On the floor we piled the essential gear: tent, sleeping bags, air mattresses, axe, fishing tackle, binoculars. Over all soon floated a heavenly aroma as I decanted into an aluminum flask some 151 proof Hudson Bay rum, that most effective of liquors in terms of weight, and perfect mixer with anything that will float a canoe.
Within an hour we were whisked off on the first leg of our journey. Something about our equipment — perhaps the featherweight tent from London, or the Bow Paddle’s insistence on traveling light (comparative term!) and leaving behind most of the potatoes — had given the wholly erroneous impression that we knew our way around in lake country travel. Actually most of our modest canoeing experience had been on rivers, which have the virtue of always taking you the way you are going. (Even when you smash up in the rapids, the wreckage— and probably you — will continue in the right direction.) Threading your way among lakes and currentless beaver-flows is something else again.
Before our hurried departure, we did extract from the outfitters a map showing hundreds of lakes like raindrops in the dust. More interested in what Thoreau called the tonic of wilderness than in covering distance, we bit off a modest chunk of lakes and joined them with a confident line in heavy crayon. Politely, rapidly, the experts gave us a few hints about finding our way. (There are no markers on the portages, and we were not taking a guide.) “Remember at the first lake you’ll see a narrow cut through the reeds; at the fifth don’t take the blazed trail but go on to the beaver-flow, then at the next dam bear left through some dead snags. . . . This one straight up the cliff is a bit tricky. . . . But you’ll find your way all right. . . . It’s really simple. . . . Have a good trip!”
The first leg was a long tow by motorboat up Basswood Lake to the head of navigation, which saved a day or two of dull paddling. By dusk we were at the north end of the lake, and across the line into Canada; a short paddle (we hoped) from that first portage leading out of the reeds. Rain squalls blew up while we pitched the tent, but a white-throated sparrow, symbol of numberless happy holidays, sang reassuringly from the pines, and the loon’s wild cry drifted over the water. Before we fell asleep, the big drops were striking with a sharper and sharper “ping,” as wet ropes shrank and the thin fabric tightened like a drum. We were on our own.
OUR best trips, we find, invariably start in confusion and rain. This one was no exception. The rain came first, and hard. For a whole day we had the elemental problems of keeping dry and fed, as we cooked with wet wood and a frying pan fuller of rain water than bacon grease. The confusion came the following morning when a hint of clearing weather sent us off in search of that first portage. We drew blank, and again blank. It must be here. But it wasn’t. Would we spend ten days paddling round and round the same lake? Not until we had hauled over two beaver dams (unmentioned by the experts) did we find an old blaze, footprints in the mud, a trail. Here began the first of some twenty portages, ranging from a few rods to half a mile, which led the Bow Paddle to inquire from time to time whether this should be called a canoe trip or a walking trip carrying a canoe.
Eventually we learned to guess, from the configuration of the land, where the portages were likely to be. We were able to lift searching eyes from shoreline and compass long enough to appreciate the beauty of the pink granite cliffs, spotted with reindeer moss and lichens; the white canoe birch against dark spruce; the tall Norway pines (so different from the white pines in the chunky pattern of their needles against, the sky); the king-size water lilies described in 1823 by Dr. Bigsby, first artist of the border-lakes country: “Superb . . . about the size of a dahlia . . . double throughout, every row of petals diminishing by degrees, and passing gradually from the purest white to the highest lemon-colour.” Among the lilies suddenly appeared a young buck, antlers in velvet, watching us with more curiosity than fear. Ospreys — and once a bald eagle — soared overhead. Every lake had its welcoming committee of loons, calling their greetings and laughing at us when we got lost.
For we did get lost, through a bit of spectacular stupidity that cannot be explained away by saying that we were portage-drunk. I simply forgot a lake. It was a round, featureless little lake in a chain of five, but it threw us off count. (Incredibly, neither of us could remember how many portages we had made that morning.) For an hour or two that tiny, nameless pond was to us as important as Lake Superior.
Moments like this, amusing in retrospect, serve better than weeks in a library to give you an understanding of what the early explorers and voyageurs were up against. Look at an eighteenth-century map of these lakes. A series of vague shapes, compounded of rumor and legend, strung on a river of hope. Floating upon this river with its treacherous rapids, upon these lakes with their quick, uncertain squalls, a frail birch-bark canoe, loaded to the gunwales with ninety-pound bales. Two or three bales made a load on a portage — and a portage might be several miles long. Indians, some hostile, some friendly, but the friendly ones forever seeking the White Father’s aid on the warpath against, their neighbors. Look at the French explorer Vérendrye, wounded veteran of Malplaquet, devoting his life and the life of his four sons to the service of New France, rebuked by the corrupt Minister of Marine at Versailles for being so dilatory in discovering the Western Sea! How many of the thirty-six portages from Grand Portage to Rainy Lake, or the twentysix from Rainy Lake to Lake Winnipeg, would that foppish official have endured — the Partridge, Big Rock, Caribou, Fowl, Moose, Big Cherry . . . on, and on, and on?
For portage fatigue there is no cure like an island. The island that we chose, in a many-armed but little-traveled lake, could stand for any of a thousand others in general cast of its features; its expression, its smile of welcome at the end of a backbreaking day, was its own. Too small to be shown on the map, it was perhaps a quarter of a mile long and half as wide. We spotted our camp site from far across the lake: an open grove of pines near the southwest tip, with sufficient level ground for a tent and sharply sloping rocks that promised deep water for swimming. Coming closer, we identified the green masses along the northern shore as low-bush blueberries. The core of the island we found to be a tiny sample of apparently virgin forest: towering Norway and white pines, a few canoe birches, poplars, small spruce and arborvitae; underfoot the moss and ferns and springy, crumbling debris of the primeval forest floor.
On this peaceful island occurred, a day or two later, the Battle of the Reflector Oven. Though we had ignored them successfully for twenty-odd years, these ovens, the outfitter had impressed upon us, are essential. Time came for the test. The batter was in the pan, the oven drawn up close to a bright active fire. The Bow Paddle promised herself not to look at it for ten minutes. In ten minutes, it looked exactly as before except that the surface was covered with a fine gray ash. Ten minutes later no change, except that a number of small bits of charred wood had joined the ash. The tears in the Bow Paddle’s eyes were half smoke, half frustration. Finally, with the boldness of ignorance, I started a roaring blaze that was lapping around the oven and contents within seconds. We both stood spellbound as the cake drew a deep breath and rose up, up, up, brown and beaming before our enraptured eyes. The forces of light and heat had triumphed.
As all this was going on, unruffled by the conflagration, confident of crumbs while yet the sparks flew upward, appeared the boldest bird of the north country, the Canada jay or whisky-jack (from the Indian Weeskaijohn: “He who comes to the fire”). “It is a noisy, familiar bird,”wrote the geographer, David Thompson, “always close about the tents, and will alight at the very doors, to pick up what, is thrown out; he lives by plunder, and on berries, and what he cannot eat he hides; it is easily taken by a snare, and, brought into the room, seems directly quite at home; when spirits is offered, il directly drinks, is soon drunk and fastens itself anywhere till sober.”
A variety of mammals — from fussy little red squirrels to black bear and moose — give life and color to the border-lakes country, but only one gives it shape. This is the beaver’s domain. Evidence of his work was everywhere along our route. He had formed some ponds and raised the level of others. Newly felled trees floated at the water’s edge, their foliage still green; old snags showed where the water level had been raised years ago. Chips lay on the ground, as neat as if cut with an axe, but marked with the slightly concave imprint of the beaver’s chisel tooth. Beaver houses and beaver dams, enduring fabrics of interwoven logs and twigs, showed the amazing strength and technical skill of the animal t hat was, in the last analysis, responsible for our being in that country at all.
For it was the fur trade that first lured the while man into the northern wilderness; and beaver, of course, was the heart of the trade. The silent, Vshaped ripple that we see crossing the pond at twilight; the resounding slap of the broad tail on the water as we are discovered — these are today almost synonymous with a north-woods vacation. Yesterday they were strictly business. Thirty thousand beaver pelts were shipped in a single year along the great canoe highway which eventually became the official boundary between the United States and Canada.
Of the countless residents of the north country, our favorites were the loons. Open any scientifically arranged bird book and you will find the grebes and loons up front, as the most primitive birds, nearest 1o the reptiles from which they sprang. Edward Ilowe Eorbush, the great New England ornithologist, considered that of all the wild creatures in that region “the loon seems best to typify ihe stark wildness of primeval nature.”Its mad, quavering, human cry is among the most poignant notes of the outdoors, evoking an almost painful awareness of man’s kinship with earlier—and perhaps more permanent —forms of life. One associates it with flu’ plaintive inquiry of 1 hewhite! hroat, the ecstatic certainty of the hermit thrush, the strident clamor of the Canada goose, and the first faint, hesitant announcement by the spring peeper that the earth’s sleep is not the sleep of death.
GROUNDS for divorce differ according to state laws. But there are certain remarks, when made by a fisherman’s wife in time of stress, that would be universally recognized as sufficient by any judge who has ever wet a line. As with libel, the truth of the remark is not necessarily a defense.
Several days have passed since the Battle of the Reflector Oven, and supplies are dwindling. By now fish are more than a source of sport: they are a supplement to corned beef and Spam. It is dusk: there is just time for a few more casts before the light fails and the mosquitoes, dormant during the day, make their brief, fieree evening sally. Suddenly I am into a heavy fish. I have already taken a twelveinch bass on the same plug — a “Lazy Ike” — but this is something bigger. There ensues a sharp struggle, interspersed with terse commands to the Bow Paddle about keeping the canoe off the rocks. Finally, after consummately skillful maneuver, I bring the beast near enough to be identified as a fine walleyed pike. I call the glad news and reach for the wire leader to haul him in. At that precise moment, from the other end of the canoe, comes the devastating remark: “Oh . . . pike . . . aren’t they very bony?”
’They are. And it was.
Inch by inch that crayon line drawn across our map a week ago had undergone a metamorphosis, changing from anticipation to experience. Past the halfway mark of our roughly circular route, we were headed back toward Basswood Lake and home. Our canoe glided beneath the famous Picture Rocks: “High precipices of shattered granite,” as Bigsby described them a hundred and thirty years ago, “beautifully striped downwards by broad bands of white, yellow, red, green, and black stains”; decorated with Indian drawings of unknown antiquity, still depicting today in bold vermilion the animals that were here before the white man. This last leg of our trip drew us continually to the past, for here we were on the historic canoe highway, now the well-marked Boundary Route, which found us one minute in Canada and the next in the United States, depending on the current of the river or the location of a portage. The portages were no longer between lakes; they were around rapids. The roar of falls generally preceded our first glimpse of white water. Both contrasted sharply with the quiet, static quality of the ponds and bogs and beaver-flows we had left behind. Paddling up the Basswood River, headed roughly southeast, we could almost believe, as did the early explorers, that we had but to turn our bow around to reach in time the mythical Sea of the West and the Northwest Passage to China.
Our concern with these waters was a less serious one than theirs, yet it wasn’t wholly frivolous. We were searching not for new lands or untrapped beaver, but for recreation in the root sense of the word. The few others we met in the wilderness were on the same trail. “I should be pleased,”wrote Thoreau, “to meet man in the woods. I wish he were to be encountered like wild Caribous and Moose.” Not easy; but in a “roadless area” the concept becomes less fantastic.
As our packs became lighter (we never regretted leaving those potatoes) our load of gratitude became heavier: gratitude to those who have fought, and are still fighting, to preserve the area from despoliation; who recognize other values than the market values of fur, wood, iron ore, and electric power. The Quetico-Superior program is backed by every important conservation group in the United States and Canada. Its successful battle to preserve a remnant of our wilderness is the surest evidence that we are becoming civilized.