In the morning, at our free dispersed campspot in the Paul Bunyan State Forest, the bugs are less terrible, but we see more ticks than we did last night – yeesh. So we pack up pretty quick, and are up and out to Grand Rapids for a workday.
The cafe is nice, the folks inside are nicer, and though we get a lot done we see the time slip through our fingers. Soon enough, the cafe is closing and it’s getting on in the day, so we’re off and up into the George Washington State Forest to see if we can’t find some more dispersed camping.
The first dispersed campsite we go to is trashed. We think about staying, but we’re pretty sure we can do better. The second dispersed campsite we go to– well, we don’t actually get there; there’s a small pond about three car lengths long with its center in the road. We eye it suspiciously – maaaaaybe we could make it. But we don’t know how long it’s been there, and there’s no cell service if we get stuck in the dirt turned mud turned silt down there, so even though the nearest campground’s supposed to be 40 minutes away, it’s better safe than sorry.
We don’t get more than three miles before we find a campsite that isn’t on our maps; we follow the road along to Bear Lake, and sure enough, there’s a beautiful State Forest campground on the edge of the water. We find a designated spot next to the lake, where the waves are hitting the shore.
Well then. Welcome home.
There are about a billion mayflies in a cloud around; they’re eating the mosquitoes – hooray! – but they get into everything – boooooo – so we eat dinner in the tent with the fly off and fall asleep to the sounds of the bitty waves lapping at the shore and the slow shifting of the stars.
Tuesday, it’s more must-dos – the first, seeing Voyageurs National Park. We drive through Orr, Minnesota on our way to the Ash River Visitor’s Center of Voyageurs National Park, only to find that it’s still closed for the season. Apparently, the beginning of June isn’t the beginning of the season. The actual, year-round visitor’s center is over an hour away, so we while away the time between mandatory phone calls by walking the piers, staring out over the lake1, taking silly pictures of the dragonflies and spiders and tiny trees clinging onto the rock faces.
Mission accomplished, we’re happy to find a state campground just a few miles away, and happier still that there’s a chorus of frogs there to lull us to sleep.
Then it’s from Ash River into Ely, where Spesh has arranged for us to stay with the Voyageur Outward Bound School south of town. They’re lovely and accommodating, and we make our way pretty rapidly from checking into the wee Cabana they’ve set aside for us to gathering maybe too many things into a canoe, where we make our way out north into the Kawishiwi River and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
By the time we’ve done a portage, I know for a fact that we’ve brought too much stuff, and I’m decidedly displeased about it. We end up walking all the portages twice because we have so much stuff. I’m grouchy and angry and then decidedly contrite when Spesh asks where the bug spray is. Ohhhhhh dear. I seem to have forgotten it. I try to cover with bluster about not needing it, which of course doesn’t work, and we decide to stop early at one of the first designated campsites in the Boundary Waters partially because we’re at each other’s throats.
We manage to have an open an honest conversation about it, and both manage to let it go better than I’d hoped. The views and the hammock and the relaxation probably don’t hurt. And in the late evening, after securing confidences that we won’t talk any more about it, I tell Spesh that yes, I am pretty glad that we’ve got our pillows with us.
On Thursday, after a 4:30am sunrise and a leisurely late morning wherein we identify a strange bug as a dragonfly nymph, we paddle.
I love the beauty of this place. It’s not as instantly stunning as the mountains are, but it slips under your skin with its sweetness just the same.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big canoe person, but the teamwork this takes certainly starts to dawn on me – even if you’re like me in the front and you never see your partner, you know they’ve got your back.
We almost make it to Gabbro Lake, but we’ve been a ways already, and Spesh’s hunger our inexperience leads us to call it just before the outlet. We eat lunch at a campsite, and on our way back, we see that rad bald eagle:
And come back to that excellent sunset I previewed when I talked about canoeing, that just deepens and deepens as the time goes by:
We’re in bed before the sun is fully down, the heat of the day sinking into our bones and dragging us into sleep.
We try to get out early in the morning to make sure we’ve got enough time to do some town chores today, but we’re forced to bring it to a halt rather quickly – a dragonfly nymph has attached itself to the tent and has started shaking its tail feather in that way that means it’s soon to be a dragonfly.
The next hour, we cheer the tiny creature on through its metamorphosis, and once it’s fully born, we encourage it onto a stick so we can shift it to the side – we need to get along.
The trip back, sans food and most of our water, feels light as a feather comparatively; we make it back much sooner than I think we will, and it’s showering the trip off and heading into town for laundry, for coffee, for a car wash. We have a delicious dinner, to boot, then it’s back for some enjoyment in the wee Cabana with Master of None2.
The morning of the Festival, we’re up too early – our mornings are usually pretty leisurely, but not so much with this one. It’s pushing my slug self to the clothes, to the shoes, to the door. Luckily, we have enough time to get coffee before we arrive, set up the booth, start talking to folk. People here are super excited about Leave No Trace – we get a lot of industry folks who are stoked that we’re here chatting us up, and we’re happy to be able to spread the good word to the folks that aren’t. There are a bunch of Leave No Trace Trainers in the area – most of them from the Charles L. Sommers Canoe Base Camp – and they’re stoked to talk to us about things like their programs, their work, future Master Educator courses.
It’s enlivening to see so many people so excited about the work we do, and the fun and the heat and the work of putting up and taking down the tent make me sleeeeeepy, so I crash out for a while once we get back to the Cabana. Then it’s up to write write write, before we do it all again tomorrow.
The second day of the festival is exactly the opposite of the first – the rain starts as we’re setting up, only lets up as we go into our presentation. It scares the people away, so we’re cold and alone and offering stickers and warm wishes to the few people brave enough to weather the weather whatever the weather. By the finish, we’re ready to be done, and we spend an evening curled up in the warm embraces of the inside and the Netflix.
I’m awoken early Monday morning by my bladder, which is inconvenient, as the bathroom is many steps away and uphill; it’s beautiful out this morning, weather apologizing for the wind of yesterday evening. I think about showering, but I’ve left my towel in the car, many more steps away, and by the time I return with it, Outward Bound folks with actual responsibilities today are waiting in line to use them. Nah. I head back to sleep.
We’re awoken once, twice by people trying to get in – first, a couple, their reasons unclear; second, the cabin’s actual occupant, looking to do some tidying before she takes up residence full-time for the summer. Alright, alright, we’re up, up and out, handing out stickers before making our way to the International Wolf Center just east of Ely.
And we’re in luck; the wolves are having enrichment time in the form of a deer-leg popsicle – Denali is hogging it while Axel and Grayson look on and pout.
Once Denali gets the leg out and seems gratified by a puzzle solved, Axel makes away with the leg:
…but Grayson’s the one that takes it off and caches it. Patience is a virtue.
There are two main exhibits and a kids exhibit in the museum section, the latter in which I learn I’d eat about 42 pounds of meat in a meal if I were a wolf. Yeesh. Delicious, I guess? The main exhibit has a lot about wolves in folklore, and I spend a lot of time reading myths and tales about wolves and werewolves. Not a bad way to spend a morning.
But spent it we have, so it’s off, south, towards the North Shore of Lake Superior.
We stop at a highwayside Marina, walk the seawall, stare out at the island covered in tiny white bird dots and down at the many species of “nope” that run on their webs between our legs.
Then it’s off to Gooseberry Falls State Park, where we watch the river meet the waves:
get lost trying to find check out all three of the nearby waterfalls:
It’s getting darker, and we discover the campground has no room – we go to Two Harbors and try at the local public campground, but we’re uninterested in staying there, either – too pricey for too little3. The Dyrt, a clearly-named-by-hipsters app for finding camping, shows us potential in the hour-off town of Barnum, where there’s city park camping for a perfectly reasonable price.
We have another couple of hours to the Twin Cities – and a workday – in the morning, but for now, it’s falling asleep with the satisfaction that places like this still exist.
 Most of the park is lakes. We’d have explored, but it’s a little harder to explore lakes on foot.
 There are benifits and drawbacks to being so connected while also being outdoors. This feels like a little of both. It feels less like cheating because we slept under a roof and had four walls.
 I’ve got a bit of a rant about this one, so that’ll be it’s own separate thing.