The Boundary Waters Canoeing Area

Ely, MN, July 14 , 2015

This blog being dedicated to an observation of the world from the saddle of a bike, canoeing in the wilderness of northern Minnesota should not find its place here. However the experience is so unique that I would be remiss not to write about it even if it was not biking. 

The Boundary Waters area in north east Minnesota is probably known by most Americans, but I must admit I had hardly heard about it in France before coming here. Oddly enough, French people hardly know anything about the French part of the history of America. This is  probably due to the fact that we lost the French and Indian war in 1763 and consequently all our territories west of the Mississippi, lost  our territories in Canada to the British ( battle of the Plaine of Abraham 1759) and eventually sold Louisiana to the U.S.( 1803), thus definitely abandoning any presence in North America. However lots of town names from the Canadian border down to the Gulf of Mexico bear French names, to say nothing of the French communities in Manitoba and Quebec.

The Boundary Water is a huge area of lakes and forests that  American and Canadian governments have dedicated to the conservation of wildlife. It is a maze of lakes  of all shapes and sizes surrounded by a thick vegetation that no human being can penetrate. Our friends from Cedar Falls IA, Jim and Lauri, are very familiar with this area which is sort of their backyard, even if the ride from Cedar Falls takes 8 hours and the logistics is quite complicated. We had two cars, each carrying a canoe and our luggage and food.Ely is the main town where many outfitters sell or rent out  all the necessary gear : canoes, paddles, waterproof bags to carry the tents, sleeping bags and camping equipment, as well as the clothes needed for a few days in the wild. Another 15 miles and we reached our starting point on Snowbank lake, bound for Ima lake, through Disappointment, Ashub, Jitterbug, Adventure and Jordan lakes. That is 7 portages and about 7 miles paddling. Between each lake, one has to “portage” the 40 to 50 pounds canoes on one man’s shoulders,as well as the heavy bags stuffed with camping gear, 7 bags in our case. Mosquitoes are pretty aggressive and seem to understand that loaded like a mule you won’t be in a position to smack them. Which you don’t , obviously, and these guys get a great free meal sucking your blood while you huff and puff and think ” why the hell am I not on the deck of a cruise ship between Miami and the Bahamas, seeping beer and smoking a cigar while an army of flunkeys take care of everything for me?”.Well , that is were cycling comes back in the loop: canoeing and biking have in common that they are for people who like sweating and exerting their bodies outdoors.

The other point that needs to be mentioned is the camping experience in complete autonomy. No water, no gas no electricity, none of these things that we hold so evident that we forget how blissfull they are. Everything must be allotted in small quantities, in a constant balance between weight and comfort. It is ever one or the other. You want to cook ( as we did) ? Then be prepared to portage a stove, pots, dishes, cutlery. You want to sleep on a comfortable mattress? They are thin and light or thick and heavy. And so on, every choice must be made with a view that weight is the enemy, just  like on a self sustained bike ride. 

Mother Nature, I discovered, is a lush and inefficient mess: proficient life  and ominous death are everywhere in the form of fallen trees rotting among new ones growing so close to each other that it seems obvious that two out of three will perish to let the third one bloom and expand.; around our camping base, an impenetrable jungle of pine trees and bushes prevents any human being to proceed ahead. What did the early settlers have to fight to find their way through such a thick jungle, no one can imagine.

A wonderful, hard, humbling experience. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! 


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