It was 9 p.m. on the Fourth of July, but the overwhelming silence made even that seem like a lie.
The lake belonged to nobody but the calling loons and muskrats; and not a firework or human voice in earshot. I set up camp at a little island just before dusk and had a thought: This is the place to be.
UP A CREEK (WITH) A PADDLE
Just a handful of hours before, I’d locked up my northeast Minneapolis apartment, filling my car with gas and all the water bottles I could find. Furlough week had arrived and I was going to make the most of it.
So I typed “Superior National Forest” into Google Maps. I buckled my seatbelt for a 200-some mile trip, stopping in small towns along the way for a quick antique store peek or scenic view (of which there were plenty).
Still about an hour or so from my to-be campsite in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I stopped at a post near Ely to grab my camping permit papers.
As the roads begot fewer cars and static-free radio stations, I watched buildings turn into thick forests and skies unadulterated by power lines.
I swapped my car for a kayak, portaging a few hours toward a lake close to the Canadian border, and set up for the night. It amazed me how, just a five-hour drive north of the cities, over a million acres of pure nature sat untouched, welcoming people into its stillness every day of the year.
On day two, I woke up with the sun and kayaked back to my car. I stopped at a few different connected lakes for a bite of a Clif bar or to meditate with a fish popping up to say hello.
I turned around so the sun hit my face, capturing a few images with my trusty Canon film camera.
The next day featured a lot of hiking along the Superior Hiking Trail. There’s over 300 miles to choose from, and staff have COVID-19 measures in place, such as limiting groups to 10 or less and asking people to stay home if they’re sick.
After several hours of hiking — I chose a treacherous route, that one’s on me — I found a free campsite to stay. It sat on a cliff above a creek, not another person in sight. Though it was quite humid and accompanied by more than a few mosquitoes, the slow pace of northern Minnesota made up for it.
IT'S FOR EVERYONE
When I recommend people visit the BWCAW, especially on a solo trip like mine, they doubt their outdoor aptitude.
“I’m no Bear Grylls,” they’ll utter. Or, my favorite: “My idea of camping is a Holiday Inn without a pool.”
But camping — and yes, camping in the BWCAW or northern Minnesota — really can be for everyone.
Take it from me: I borrowed a run-of-the-mill kayak from a cousin and wore hiking shoes half a size too big. My hammock featured duct-taped holes. I even forgot my sleeping bag in my car the first night.
I’m not exactly a poster child for wilderness camping.
The point, though, is enjoyment. Kayaking toward the sunrise on a motionless lake? Listening to the wind in the trees? Looking up to a sky filled with countless stars? Anyone can love that.
And to get a taste of nature, people don’t have to trek hours and hours north. Even stopping just south of Duluth is a great spot to camp for free down the Superior Hiking trailheads. Public Minnesota land offers even more spots to explore, some of which aren't too much of a hike north (but can be if you want it to).
Now that I’m back at work, far away from my loon friends and solitude, I rest easy knowing that place will always be there — for me and others.
If you’re itching to get away from the cities for a bit, here’s a low-budget, feasible idea: Itch for something else, like mosquitoes and a beautiful camping spot, instead. And if you need someone to recommend which gear not to bring, I think you know who to ask.