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Magnetic North - June 6, 2018

Magnetic North 6/1/18

Love at First Sight
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the woods and lakes and portages draw folks of all ages and abilities, like me. Or, I should say, like me 48 years ago. 
Today, it would take Jaws of Life to get me out of a canoe and there isn’t money enough in this world to make me hike uphill in the dark, surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes, to pee at 3 a.m.
But my attitude, and my body were far different in June of 1970. My husband at that time, Jack, and I had been white watering canoeing for a few years on the rivers of Ohio, where we lived before moving back to Minnesota. Jack loved canoeing and as much as he enjoyed rivers, he had his sights set on the Boundary Waters, and so insisted on getting a lake keel on our 18 foot Kevlar canoe.  Jack had been on a Boy Scout trip in the BW and remembered it in a dreamlike way, replete with aurora borealis, more stars than one had ever seen, glistening fresh water lakes and stunning forests. And, because he knew my weakness for animal life, he promised that if we went there I’d see eagles, moose and deer.
And thus we set off for the North Shore in June of ‘72, leaving baby Gretchen with my parents in the cities. All the way up to Duluth, Jack lectured me on the wonders ahead, never guessing that his wife was about to fall head over heels in love with.....a place she would one day live without him.
I remember still how my breath caught and stopped as our car rounded that curve above the Duluth harbor where first you spy Lake Superior. Not since leaving my home on the East Coast ten years before had I seen so much water. An inland sea. It was love at first sight. And so it went, all the way up the narrow highway to Grand Marais. I craned my neck to take in each glimpse of the lake as Jack lectured about the Precambrian shield on the high side of the road. So when we finally got to the Gunflint Trail and took that sharp left turn uphill, away from the lake, I protested. “Where are we going?”
“Round Lake,” he said. “That’s where we put in.” 
And we did, in a Biblical deluge, right behind a scout troop of about two dozen young boys, all with old aluminum canoes. I mention that only because the kids dropped the canoes so often, with the resounding clatter of a garbage can hitting a brick wall. Wet boy scouts, it seems, are tone deaf. 
Since this was our first backpacking venture into the BWCAW, we packed poorly and thus had to make two trips over each portage to get all of our gear to the next lake. But for that first day, just staying on our feet in the mud was the top priority. That, and beating the scouts to the choice camp site we wanted on the next lake. I still remember passing one poor boy, lying on his back off trail, pinned by his heavy pack, kicking his mud caked hiking boots in fury as he brayed for help.
The trip now is something of a blur in my mind. I don’t recall having seen any wildlife, perhaps a beaver swimming back and forth off Ellis lake, where we were camped for two days on a lovely little island. Not out of liking the location, but because Jack sprained his ankles trying to keep our canoe from blowing out into the lake. We never stayed that long anywhere else. It sticks in my mind as a “forced march,” indicative of the difference in temperaments between Jack and myself - a difference that would eventually pull us apart.
Each night, I would fold myself into the sleeping bag, listening to the drone of millions of mosquitoes, loon calls and the distant clanging of the boy scouts dropping or turning over their blasted aluminum canoes,  and replay that drive up the shore. The shore.  That is where my heart was, not in the woods. 
Still, upon our return, we immediately began planning our next trip in the “B-Dub” - this time smart packing, with a red hard sided pannier, ultra lite packs and tent, and a meticulously planned route with even more portages and lake and campsites than on our first outing. It would be in late August, a month with little rain, warmer lake water and, the gods willing, fewer scouts.
And so we returned in August of ’72 and this time we nailed it, at least on paper. The missing element, I now realize. was that we did not factor in the love of nature, only the conquering of it. Our success on the second trip was all about reaching goals, such as the number of portages and lakes tallied in ten days. Now that I think about it,  we were more like decathlon racers, than lovers of woods, trails, and waters. Smug hares zipping by the lumbering tortoises who had packed poorly, strapping toilet seats and other badges of shame to their bodies and packs. And the result was that our victory over nature did not bring us back to those trails and lakes. Ever again.
I say bring “us” back ever again because I did come back. This time with someone who, like me, relished being close to the big lake. So much so that Paul and I scoured the real estate ads for two years until we found a home we loved, loved probably as much as we loved each other. Our farm was homesteaded in 1913 by Scandinavian immigrants, probably much like both sets of Pauls grandparents. 
We had no plan, no goals to accomplish when we packed up and moved here. We just felt that it was where we belonged.
One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis goes something like this - that when the most important things in our lives are happening, we often have no idea what is going on. I think that is so true of how I came to be here, spinning tales for you some 48 years after I fell in love at first sight with Lake Superior and with the little town pinned to its shores. I had no idea what was going on. None at all. 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North