My Canoe Trip

After a particularly hellish week at work, my buddy Stan turned to me and said,

“I know a lake…”

The far off wistful look in his eyes told me almost everything I needed to know.

“Is it hard to get to?” I asked.

“Almost impossible,” he said.

I couldn’t think of two more compelling words.

A few weeks later, we clunked ashore at the far end of a large lake in Northern Ontario. Beyond that lake, hidden behind a shroud of mist lay another – and beyond that another and another.

Without saying a word, Stan slung a pack over his shoulders and humped off into the forest.

Now normally, a portage is a trail or at least a trodden path that leads from one lake to another – but this was more of a maze constructed out of lichen stained boulders and moss covered pines.  Some trees were standing, many were not – but all routes through them led in every direction but the one we wanted to go.

I called after Stan, “What do I carry?”

“The canoe,” he yelled back.

There were several packs each weighing over fifty pounds and each requiring its own trip across the portage but there was only one canoe. It  weighted sixty pounds and only required one trip, so I thought I had the better part of the deal.

Until I flipped it over and put it on my shoulders.

Let’s just say it is not easy to pick your way through a pine maze wearing a sixteen foot aluminum hat..

Then it started to rain.

In earnest.

It is always raining somewhere in Northern Ontario and that somewhere is always wherever you are.

Again, I couldn’t believe my luck, sheltered as I was by the canoe- until every mosquito in Northern Ontario also couldn’t believe their luck as they took refuge under the canoe.

Let’s just say it is not easy to pick your way through a pine maze wearing a sixteen foot aluminum hat – full of hungry mosquitoes.

And oh by the way, do you know what a no-see-um is?

I thought so.

By late afternoon, we had enough and put ashore to set up camp.

The first order of business was to stash our provisions beyond the reach of bears.  So Stan climbed one tree while I shimmied up another.  Each of us carried the opposite ends of a rope.  I tied off my end then Stan tightened the line and tied off his.

With a high wire strung about fifteen feet off the ground, we threaded another rope through the shoulder straps of our packs, tied it off and tossed the other end over the high wire.  We used this to hoist our provisions well beyond the reach of bears before tying the hoist line to a tree.

It did not take long to test our system.

An old sow bear soon came crashing and snorting through the underbrush. This was her way of telling us to discreetly step aside and allow her to inspect our camp.

She sniffed here, rummage there and walked in confused circles until it dawned on her to cast her gaze skyward.

That is when she spotted what she came for.

We followed her eyes as they focused on the backpacks then methodically traced the hoist line from the packs up to the high wire then diagonally down to the tie-off near the ground.

She sauntered over to the tie-off and….:


The packs hit the ground and she pounced.  We shouted and waved our arms about – but this only annoyed her.

Despite our impolite behavior she was kind enough to leave what amounted to a meal or two apiece.

From there on in, every canoe stroke and every step of every portage became a deep dive into the study of human misery – but keep in mind that the word miserable is a close relative of the word impossible and whenever you venture into territory described by such words, you know you have finally gotten somewhere.

I would like to say we caught fish – but we didn’t. Not a one.

I would like to say we spent our evenings sipping whiskey around a crackling campfire – but it never stopped raining. Not once.

I would like to say we paddled across sky blue waters as the sun danced among the waves – but the sky was never blue and it was not the sun but us who danced frantically among the waves.  The entire way.

I would like to say that a gentle breezed whispered through the pines and blew the stars across the sky – but I can’t lie. Not like that.

All we can say about the trip is that we experienced what the words miserable and impossible were built to describe.

Yet from that day to this, whenever we speak of it to our friends and family, we still get a far-off wistful look in our eyes as we say,

“I know a lake…”

Author: Almost Iowa

59 thoughts on “My Canoe Trip”

  1. By enduring that trip, you did achieve the impossible! Which will always give you a fond memory or two, despite the miserable environment. And sadly, I do know what no-see-ums are. They love me, which is truly unfortunate, because I seem to be allergic to them. They are, in my opinion, God’s biggest mistake.

  2. I love camping, but the rain always spoils it. Haven’t had to deal much with bears down here in the southeast though. We only have the little ones anyway.

  3. Sounds like you ran into Yogi Bear’s mean older sister.
    There is something magical about surviving…
    Oh, the energy of our younger selves!

  4. This took me back to the camping nightmares I endured when my son was young. Rain coming down sideways. Raccoons breaking into our Tupperware and eating our Rice Krispie squares. Swatting flies and scratching bug bites. It drove me to finally admit I’m an ‘inside person.’ And I’m hoping with some therapy my son will recover from the experience! That Stan. Brimming with good ideas.

    1. Raccoons breaking into our Tupperware and eating our Rice Krispie squares.

      Hey, this is a family blog. We don’t write things here that will give children nightmares. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. No bears in the UK? Gosh, did the Brits have a saint who chased them out? Kind of like Saint Patrick and the snakes of Ireland? 🙂 🙂

  5. No-see-ums live in Texas, too. If we could, we’d persuade them all to head to Ontario, where they could be with friends and have wonderful experiences with canoe-carriers and paddlers. I can’t believe that no one mentioned that line about the “sky blue waters.” As soon as I read it, I had a vision of a bear, but it was log-rolling on a different lake, with tom-toms playing in the background and Longfellow rolling in his grave and wondering, “What’s a Hamm?”

    I’ve never done the boundary waters, and never camped up there, but I do have one memory of Ontario: Rainy River. We were on a family vacation circa 1957 or so, and for some reason ended up in that town. The only place we could find a room was above a bar. I remember a flashing neon light outside the window, a lot of noise from the first floor, and my dad wedging a chair under the doorknob. You know a lake; I know a bar.

    1. Everyone who grew up in the Upper Midwest during the 50’s and 60’s remembers the Hamm’s Beer Bear. He was an icon of our youth. So much so that newspapers printed the schedule of Hamm’s beer commercials so that we wouldn’t miss them.

      Here is a short take on the phenomena from MNopedia

      “In 1945, Campbell-Mithun of Minneapolis became the advertising agency for the Hamm’s company. To extend the beer’s appeal outside of Minnesota and to promote where the beer was brewed, the Land of Sky Blue Waters advertising campaign was created. It featured lakes and waves, the moon and stars, and the north woods, but no humans or animals. A jingle was added with a distinctive drumbeat and the lyrics, “From the land of sky-blue waters, from the land of pines, lofty balsams, comes the beer refreshing, Hamm’s, the beer refreshing. Hamm’s!” The phrase “land of sky-blue waters” is a loose translation of Mni Sota Makoce, a name for the homeland of the Dakota people; the jingle’s lyrics were inspired by Longfellow’s poem “Song of Hiawatha.”

      Controversy exists about who first “created” the bear. Most agree that the character was born in 1952 at Freddie’s restaurant in Minneapolis at a meeting with Cleo Hovel, creative director for Campbell-Mithun, and Howard Swift, an animator who worked for the California TV production company Swift-Chaplin. Hovel usually gets the credit for drawing the bear on a napkin in response to the idea to add an animal character to the Sky Blue Waters campaign. Throughout the decades, however, many others were involved and credited with drawing the bear and creating the Hamm’s commercials.

      An early memorable television commercial featured a birling (log-rolling) bear trying to balance on a log cut down by a beaver. Through the years, the bear, often with forest friends, was the star in many commercials. He was a sportsman and bowled, played hockey and baseball, golfed, skied, fished, and camped. He also was a magician and played the accordion. The commercials were so popular that newspapers printed the television broadcast schedule so fans could watch them.”

  6. Except for the bear part this brought back fond memories of many canoe-camping trips from my younger days. Portages, rain, bugs, and then at the end of a long day of paddling, no matter what we ate tasted not like camp food, but the best gourmet meal in existence 🙂

  7. I’ve done a bit of portaging, Craig in Canada and Alaska. And I certainly know much more than I want to know about mosquitoes, black flies and no-see-ems. But more than either of the above, I’ve done my share of bears, including numerous trips through Yosemite where the bears run colleges to train their cubs how to steal backpackers food. I caught when you said you tied your food off. Yosemite bears would say ‘elementary’ to that. I am proud to say that only once did a bear get my food. And, to add insult to injury, came over and stood on my chest and sniffed my breath to see what it had missed. I awoke to a pressure on my chest and a snout filled with large teeth inches away from my mouth. That was a first. And, the damn bear had punctured a hole in my rum bottle and it had drained out! –Curt

    1. Bear stories are the best part of camping up north.

      Once when we put ashore in the BWCA, a friend rushed off to use the bushes. At the same time, a bear made its appearance. We tossed the packs back into the canoes and paddled aways ashore – then our friend returned. I still remember the confused look on the bear’s face as our friend ran around in circles and yelled, “Come back! Come back!”

      For some odd reason, he never went north with us again.

  8. This gave me brief flashbacks to a camping trip in Moab where there was snow, sleet, and rain all in one day, followed by 36 degrees at night. In a tent. In MOAB. Geeeesh lol.

    1. What is it with Utah? We were there over the Memorial Day weekend years ago when it snowed all the way down to Zion. We planned to camp but stayed in a motel instead.

  9. I’m glad we did not have that sort of experience on our BWCA trip last September! Not one day of rain all week. But I do remember the portages with the canoe. No bears, but we almost came face-to-face with a mama moose.

  10. I think you and Stan should holiday in N.T. Australia……. some great waterways up there. No bears. Well yes, some crocs, but no bears.

    1. I have never been to N.T. Australia but I have been to Queensland. I remember Palm Cove, just north of Cairns. My wife and I took a short-cut through a green strip from our hotel to the beach. Half hidden by the bush was a sign that read:

      Here is a short list of all the things that will kill you.

      The boxy that will kill you in fifteen minutes (jelly fish)
      The boxy that will let you live fifteen minutes longer.
      Moray eels (really big ones)
      Snakes, more poisonous and numerous to mention.
      Killer frogs
      Killer toads
      Killer tourists



      (Okay, I paraphrased a bit but I did not exaggerate)

      I also would love to go back. Fabulous place. Australia is the BEST!

      1. What? They omitted drop bears?!!!!!!! They’re the most dangerous of all. Oh, and photographers with big dslrs.

        1. They may not have omitted drop bears. Toward the top of the list was an item that looked like it was scratched out by a crazed Koala. As for the DSLRs, we needn’t worry, the beaches were strung with sturdy nets to prevent their entry..

  11. Heh heh. No-see-ums. Black flies! Had to go find it, “The Black Fly Song”; it’s there on YouTube. Tiny little motes of misery whose leavings cause huge swellings on all exposed bits of skin. Every self-respecting folkie in Ontario knows the song:
    The black fly
    The little black fly
    Always the black fly
    No matter where you go
    There are the black flies picking my bones
    In North On-tar-io
    North On-tar-io
    Being an Ontario resident I am well acquainted with the little devils and appreciate your perseverance with them 😭
    And, yes, I know a lake. — Mame

    1. My brother and I are headed to the BWCA in late May, permits pending. To get in shape for it, we will be renting a canoe in Austin and paddling down the Cedar River to Iowa. Austin has a service that will rent you a canoe and pick you up at points down river for a reasonable fee.

      You ought to try it.

      Not sure if they are still doing that on the Canon. Even if they are, I always have a hard time getting past that bar in Welsh Village. It is always blocking my path – even when I have to swerve out of the way to run into it. 🙂

  12. So awesome, Greg. I couldn’t help laughing at the 16-foot aluminum hat. Ha ha. I spent a lot of time doing such miserable impossible things as a kid with my family, and they make for the best memories. Great story. Hey, I know a lake…

    1. When they were young, a old friend of mine and a couple of his buddies set out to canoe to Hudson Bay. They never made it, instead they wintered in remote Ojibwa village. Rick married a local girl, Ada. He became the school teacher, she the nurse and I think they still live there. I lost touch.

      1. My dad did that trip in the 60’s and has some amazing tales. I still have a tiny pair of moccasins that he brought back from a village up there. My dad thought he was Grizzly Adams. 😀

        1. People have always worried about “kids these days”. They are lazy. All they do is watch TV and play video games, etc….etc… But then you mentions something close to impossible and full of hardships without any tangible reward – and their eyes light up. It’s like saying, “I know a lake…”

  13. HAHAHA I have been to that lake! Spent a week and had the best days and spectacular nights. Actually in all my canoeing in Northern Ontario I rarely got on rained on. (I prayed quite strenuously to the Algonquin gods) But no see ems and I did have a very personal relationship. Great memories!

    1. Actually in all my canoeing in Northern Ontario I rarely got on rained on

      Alright. I will amend my statement: “It is always raining somewhere in Northern Ontario and that somewhere is always wherever I am.”

  14. OMG!! This is why I don’t camp or hike. Too much like work! And those no-see-ums make mosquitos seem like fun!! Wearing a 16′ aluminum hat still has me laughing. It seems the bear got the best end of the bargain . Lol.

    I think you should stay away from any of Stan’s suggestions.

    Another great story.

    1. I hear that 16′ aluminum hats are becoming all the rage. In The Cities it is hard to get in and out of Starbucks for all the clunking around.

  15. I think your wife should start previewing all of Stan’s ideas before he gets to you. 🙂 Great story, and I certainly enjoyed the visual and the chuckle at the “sixteen foot aluminum hat…complete with hungry mosquitoes and no-see-ums.”

  16. “It is always raining somewhere in Northern Ontario and that somewhere is always wherever you are.”

    It’s amazing how many places can be described like that, when you’re planning to live in a tent or carry your belongings for a few days, or put something man-made into a lake. Great story, as always – thanks for sharing your “joy” with us.

    1. Northern Ontario does get a little wet. It is a rare trip when it does not rain and a not unusual trip when it rains all the time – but it is a wonderful thing to drop a line into water that has not seen a fisherman in years.

  17. Sounds like the time we camped in an cy rain. I don’t know what was wrong with us. Our little dog refused to come out of sleeping bag. We had to peel her out to make her relieve herself.

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