The Boundary Waters is a wilderness area of over a million acres right along the border of southern Canada and the United States in northern Minnesota. The interconnecting rivers and long, winding lakes are a labyrinth best explored by canoe. 150 miles of wild land spans enough of this border area that you can go for days and only rarely come across other people. It is even vaster still with the Canadian Quetico National Park north of the border and Voyageur’s National Park that adjoins it to the west in the US.
This area is far from any city and even the nearest remote town of Grand Marais is about an hour’s drive away. Just the trip to get up to the Boundary Waters feels like you’re approaching the end of the world and then somehow stepping into this place of quiet solitude that now so often seems to be something of the past. There is no noise pollution and no light pollution either, so on a clear night you can see the sky awash in vivid greens and purples of the northern lights.
From Grand Marais, the Gunflint trail is the main road that leads to the boundary waters, although farther south there are a few other access points. At the trails end, water ways take the place of roads and the trip can only be continued by kayak or canoe. It’s a paradigm shift to go from traveling over land to water. There is a deep quiet here, and even with our chitter chatter and the splashing of our paddles against the water the quiet remains unwavering in the background.
Up here, so far from civilization it’s easy to imagine the first French voyageurs navigating these waters and the native people before them whose soul was and is in these lands. The political border is so new compared to the natural physical boundaries formed by these lakes thousands of years ago by glaciers sweeping across the land. Many of the forests here are young aspen and jack pine, from fires and windstorms that have cleared the way for new growth, like the blueberries that grow here with wild abandon.
On the first day of the trip, we put in our boats at Seagull River where two baby loons quietly observed their parents fishing and diving in the cool shallow waters. We paddled downstream from there to Saganaga Lake, one of the bigger lakes that we followed until arriving at a small stream to connect to Red Rock Lake, where we camped the first night.
The dusk was so calm that the surface of the lake became the perfect mirror for the infinity of clouds above. A pair of northern flicker woodpeckers had made their nest right at the edge of the campsite and every half hour or so a parent came back, feeding the chirping, insatiable chicks.
Everything is so alive with the warm, long summer days with sunlight until nine at night. The waters are mostly warm and inviting and you can swim here as far as you can see. Plus, summer is the season for babies, the baby loons we’d seen the first day and then, the second day two baby moose, swimming from one lake to the next with their mom closely looking on and on the drive out, a baby bear roaming around next to the road.
The second day of paddling I’d definitely developed more of a rhythm, finding the dance between the water and paddle, relying on just this one self-contained vessel and my own strength to propel us forward into new waters.
Transitioning from one lake to another was sometimes as graceful as following a calm stream and sometimes eventful, taking on almost too much water in the tiny rapids formed by just a four foot elevation difference from one lake to the next.
We did one portage; only one-eighth of a mile, but one-eighth of a mile never felt longer, hauling all of our gear and four boats across the little stretch of land between Red Rock and Alpine Lake.
Rocky granite outcroppings mark the landscape, and we found cliff diving along some of the bigger, deeper lakes like Seagull Lake where we completed our loop. This area is part of the Cambrian shield, a huge area that stretches from northern Minnesota to Ontario where there’s some of the oldest rock at the earth’s surface.
Places so wild and untouched are rare these days; there’s something deeply special about this place of deep solitude, such a world apart: no motors on nearly all of the lakes, the absence of roads, houses, all these trappings of our modern society that don’t exist here. You must be self-reliant here; everything that you bring in with you, you must also bring out. There’s no phones, no service, just the loons calling their eerily beautiful songs to one another.
Coming here is an abrupt way of disconnecting with a lot of the background noise, instead connecting with other elements of our beings that are so often overlooked or forgotten entirely. We ended up camping out for four nights, but once you’ve gotten a permit, you can stay the amount of time you’d like. It was enough time to get lost in a way, but also found.
This is a place where eagles, black bears and mosquitos still roam free. It’s a place of calm and quiet reflection, of nature in its fullest expression, of pure waters and unaltered ecosystems. I left with achy arms and my soul full of wild sunrises.