'Established in 1978, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) has changed little since the glaciers melted. With over 1,500 miles of canoe routes, nearly 2,200 designated campsites, and more than 1,000 lakes and streams waiting, the BWCAW draws thousands of visitors each year.'
The blurb goes on to describe the area in detail, and nothing on the Boundary Waters website indicates a place where adrenaline levels are going to be running at anything other than low. As Lana only lives a few hours drive away in southern Minnesota, USA, it seemed the ideal place to start her canoeing career. So on a recent visit we packed the tent, cleaned up the camp stove, loaded the car with food and headed up to within 15 miles of the Canadian border to see what all the fuss was about.
Wilderness is the key word here. Over the course of the next few days we drove nearly 60 miles up a dead end road to the imaginatively named Trail's End, stopping to camp at Devil Track Lake and Hungry Jack Lake en route.
It was at Devil Track that we first heard the B word, when the campground host suggested we might get lucky as we headed out for an evening cycle ride. At Hungry Jack, there were wooden carvings on the gateposts of the campground, but at Trail's End Campground, the hosts came right out and said it in plain English (or as near to English as you can get in a nation where campsites are called campgrounds and boots are trunks).
'Got a bit of a bear problem round here. Better not be storing any food in your tents. You'd best tie it up a tree, or better still put it in the trunk of your car.' So after three days of joking about bear sightings, and shouting 'bear!' at every sighting of an animal be it chipmunk, fox, or even duck, we were finally, truly concerned that a bear encounter might be on the cards.
With dinner finished and night approaching, we began to clear our secluded little campsite of all food and cooking gear, and as we were tidying up and shifting our kitchen into the car Lana announced that she could hear twigs breaking in the dense woodland nearby. Dismissing this as a figment of her imagination we continued going about our business, until the figment emerged from the woods in the shape of a large black bear which stood looking at her as she clutched a bag full of bread, fruit and cookies. Bear food.
I ran down to the car at Lana's excited shout, expecting to see a bear trundling off down the track in the distance, but instead found Lana sitting in the car, pointing nervously to a spot about two metres away and proclaiming the immediate presence of the bear in the woods. We sat in the car wondering about this for a while and peering excitedly into the undergrowth for signs of movement. 30 metres away a fellow camper was packing up his boat trailer to go home, and as he tied a cover over the boat the bear suddenly appeared next to him from out of the woods. The camper half turned in the bear's direction, and neither seemed the least bit bothered about the other's presence. We watched fascinated as the bear strode leisurely down the track away from us and back into the woods as the guy continued with his work.
Encouraged by this live and let live approach we left the car and approached the brave camper.
'Alright there?' we started, 'That was pretty cool the way you ignored that bear.'
'Bear?' he replied, 'What bear?'
'The one that was standing about three metres behind you,' we said as he jumped about three metres in the air before running off into the woods saying something about going to warn his brother up at the tent.
This left us feeling quite guilty about not giving him a shout when the bear had appeared next to him, but more so wondering how he had missed the big bundle of black fur when he had turned around.
It seemed even harder to believe as I lay awake in the tent that night listening to the bear sniffing around outside.
We had gone to bed in a slightly hysterical mood, but we had protection against bear attack in the shape of a saucepan and a spoon. These would reputedly scare the bear away if we banged them together loudly.
Lana was displaying her nerves by dropping off to sleep, and the prospect of waking her up by banging the pan seemed far more scary for all concerned than a slightly more subtle approach. 'Lana,' I started quietly, 'I'm really sorry to have to wake you up like this,' getting louder, 'but that fucking bear's sniffing around outside the tent and to be quite honest,' on the verge of shouting, 'I'm a bit scared!'
Thankfully so was our visitor, and Lana woke to the sound of the bear disappearing off into the woods. It didn't go far though and we could soon hear the disturbing noises of breaking plastic as the bear obviously found itself a nearby food container to break into. We prayed that it wasn't inside someone's tent, and the lack of screams reassured us that this was probably the case. After some time the noises stopped and despite a very restless night there were thankfully no more disturbances.
We awoke bleary eyed the next morning, ready for the adventure we had actually come here for: a canoe trip into the wilderness. Feeling the need for a hearty breakfast after such a stressful night, I wandered down to the car to retrieve our food, only to discover that the large food container we had heard being forced last night was in fact Lana's car. Bear prints all over the roof and windows, teeth or claw marks along the edge of the driver's door and broken plastic mouldings around the air vents at the back were all evidence of an attempted forced entry. And when the bear had found that he wasn't going to get our cookies without picking the locks, he decided to spite us by smashing the wing mirror. A sleepless night and a car that looked like it had been hit by - well - a bear really. Bastard.
We ate breakfast nervously and packed up camp quickly, keeping an eye out for any movement in the woods.
At Wilderness Ways canoe outfitters we found a beery smelling man who would have looked quite at home on the set of Deliverance. He advised us of a canoe trip that we could complete in a day, sold us a map and directed us to a storeroom where we collected paddles and buoyancy aids. We set off 20 minutes later with visions of being tied to a tree and squealing like a pig that made another night with the bear seem like a pleasant prospect.
These unfounded fears faded as we paddled across Sea Gull Lake and into Boundary Waters proper. The scenery was strangely spectacular, made mostly so by the sheer scale of everything. Lake joined lake via small streams, and everywhere wooded islands scattered the water giving a myriad of route choices. High cliffs jutted out of the clear water and we stopped for lunch at Palisades Rocks, climbing 50 metres or so to a vantage point where the water and forest stretched out as far as the eye could see. We moved on after lunch, proving how very easy it would be to get lost in such a place by getting lost.
This profusion of water is the former home of native American Indians who helped guide the Voyageurs n 18th century fur traders who used canoes to transport pelts from Canada down to Lake Superior where they were loaded onto ships and then easily transported to the rest of the world. Their techniques for traversing this country involved long portages where they would carry their canoes great distances across country in order to connect between one lake and another.
Completing a small portage through some woods towards the end of the day, I had no bear fears at all. If the things could be scared off by banging a saucepan with a spoon, how would they cope with an aluminium canoe being hit with a paddle? And if that should fail we could always throw out our cookies, turn the canoe upside down and crawl inside until the danger had gone.
The Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game recently issued this bulletin: In light of rising frequency of human/grizzly bear conflicts, the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game is advising hikers, hunters and fishermen to take extra precautions and to stay very alert for bears while in the field.
"We advise outdoorsmen to wear noisy little bells on their clothing so they will not startle bears who are not expecting them. We also advise outdoorsmen to carry pepper spray with them in case of an encounter with a bear. It is also a good idea to watch out for fresh signs of bear activity. Outdoorsmen should recognise the difference between black bear and grizzly bear manure (scat). Black bear manure is smaller and contains lots of berries and squirrel fur. Grizzly bear manure has little bells in it and smells like pepper."