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July 1998

7/29/98 – On my recent canoe trip I had a singular experience with wildlife. It didn’t involve the glamour animals like moose and bear. It involved the humble and lowly toad.

Although I have known since grade school that toads eat insects, I have never actually seen one catch a bug, other than on the Discovery Channel. On the night in question it was very warm and I was half out of my sleeping bag. Also, the tent was set up on a fairly steep side slope, so I had slid off my Thermarest and my arm was pushed hard against the screen door of the tent. The vestibule was half open and a huge, luscious, full moon was half way clear of the horizon, accompanied by a loon symphony. As I gazed upon this beautiful celestial body in a half sleep, I was startled by the silhouette of a huge, black creature blocking fully half of the moon’s face. As I quickly rose back to full consciousness, I realized that the creature was actually a toad who had hopped up on the edge of the vestibule at just the right angle to create the astonishing effect. As my eyes adjusted to my brain’s new perspective, the little fellow hopped inside the vestibule and was lost in the inky blackness of the earth therein. I soon fell back to sleep and might not have given it a second thought had I not been mysteriously awoken some half hour or so later.

The moon was fully up now and flooding the landscape with its magic light. I lay with my arm still tightly pressed against the no-see-um netting of the door, wondering what had disturbed me. Slowly I became aware of a light, but distinct, tap – tap – tap against my arm. I lay quite still for several minutes, mystified by this phenomenon. Finally, curiosity got the better of me and I carefully engaged my trusty mini-mag flashlight and pressed it to the screening to illuminate the vestibule space.

There was my friend the toad, camped out an inch from the mosquito netting, looking back at my blazing torch with what I took for indignation in his eye. He was capitalizing on the horde of mosquitoes, drawn to the warm-bloodedness of my arm through the netting. He was happily picking them off just as fast as they could land with intent to bite. I lay back down and carefully restored my arm to its vulnerable position. It only took about two minutes for him to recover from his moment in the spotlight and get back to work. Tap – tap – tap, about every ten seconds until I drifted off to sleep, protected by that wily predator, Mr. Toad.

7/27/98 – Yesterday we received our hardest rainfall since the 13th of March. During about six hours we received 1.17". The wildfires burning in the wilderness are presumably out and the water levels have rebounded slightly. It is surprising how quickly the evidence of yesterday’s rain has disappeared. Today is sunny, 70 degrees and breezy.

Don and Lorraine Anderson, long time seasonal residents of the Sawbill Campground and blueberry aficionados, report that many picking patches are barren of berries, others have dry berries, while others (they’re not saying where) are loaded with sweet, juicy berries. Raspberries are also ripening and promise to be at least mediocre this year.

7/25/98 – Moose sightings have been frequent on the roads recently. Luckily, speeds on our gravel roads are slow enough that moose car collisions are very infrequent. Typically, there is plenty of time to slow the car for a nice sighting of the moose, while it decides the appropriate course of action. When I see them from a long distance, I find myself squinting down the road wondering what crazy really tall people are standing in the road. I have learned that the moose sense of curiosity requires a fairly lengthy appraisal. Most moose stand staring, until a car is within 75-100 yards. Usually, the moose choose to flee, and they run down the road looking for a suitable entrance to the woods. This process is usually brief. Occasionally, a moose is more choosey – running a slalom course of indecision, hunting for just the right opportunity. We try not to stress the moose, so we drive slowly and stay far back. We are also motivated by the possibility of unusual behavior. It is not uncommon for moose to have brain worm, and those guys can act very strangely. They appear drunk and act uncharacteristically bold. A couple of winters ago, Cindy had a two hour standoff with a moose, which included a fair amount of judicious backing, as the moose approached her, seemingly oblivious to her presence. Years ago, a moose that was apparently content to stroll by Bill’s car, out of the blue, jumped up and crushed in the windshield. It returned to its casual saunter, after this strange bit of moose instinct had satisfied itself. Long waits are typical in the winter, as the steep, thick snow banks near the road are not conducive to a retreat from the road. As annoyed as I sometimes become about the delay, I am always pleased that my tardiness is due to a moose and not a traffic jam.

7/24/98 – Another fire has been discovered in the BWCA Wilderness. The Blue Jay Fire is just east of Polly Lake. It is less than an acre in size and is burning in a dried up beaver pond. This area was logged in the ’60’s, before the BWCA Wilderness was completely protected from logging. The Forest Service says that it probably won’t spread much unless the drought deepens dramatically. They are not fighting any of the fires burning in the wilderness, and there is no danger or concern for canoeists.

7/23/98 – A day in the life of a crew member at Sawbill Canoe Outfitters. I woke early today. I sleep in a loft in our outfitting building. A triangular skylight above my bed frames a small section of a large red pine surrounded by the sky. Like Monet’s haystacks, the color and mood of that red pine indicate the weather and season. This morning the tree was crisp against a cool morning blue sky. We are miles from the closest municipal power source, so my first task is to be sure our generators are in working order. I make the coffee for the customers and enjoy an hour of relative calm before the inevitable rush of a late July day. The rest of the crew arrives and we go to work renting canoes and talking to people about the wilderness. With so many buildings, facilities, and equipment, many small repairs are required, and we assign a different person to rectify these problems each week. This morning a broken flush stem on a toilet is the culprit. The work is varied, and I return to the office to deal with the previous day’s receipts. Our dogs have free run of the place, and they snuggle and snore at my feet, as I try to interpret a crew member’s cryptic note about a sale that went awry. Interruptions are the rule. The kids come in and out wondering what to do because summer is so boring. Sometimes, the intensity of the sky makes us drop our work to spend a moment in its splendor. The other day, a long line of yellow clouds marked the leading edge of a front that unleashed a fury of rain. So nice to be employed by, and work with, people who appreciate the spectacle of nature. The wooden gunnels on a kevlar canoe were returned broken today, a big job that must be started immediately, as most of our kevlar canoes are booked in the days to come. At the end of the day, the beautiful light lingering on the tops of our ancient red and white pines, reminds me that I need to update the newsletter with the sights, sounds and activities of our life in the Northwoods. I write these lines, with the editorial assistance of several talented crew members. Finally, the work is done. In the few hours before exhaustion, we play – a paddle like last night, a game of cards or a swim and sauna. Below the window in the dome, my eyes adjust to the darkness, and I can just make out the red pine under a canopy of dark blue and twinkling light.

7/22/98 – A storm rolled across the forest on July 14th, touching off numerous fires with lightning. By yesterday sixteen fires had been found. Two of them are within the BWCA Wilderness and are being managed by the Forest Service as “wildland fire use for resource benefit.” In other words, these fires will be watched closely and allowed to progress naturally if they offer no risk to civilization. One of the fires, named Bow Lake Fire, is near Malberg Lake and is about fifteen acres in size at this writing. The experts say it has little potential for dramatic spread due to its location near several large swamps. The other, called Fallen Arch Lake Fire, is near Lake Isabella and is only a half acre in size, so far. Neither fire has closed any portages, campsites or entry points yet. The rain yesterday dampened the fires, but did not put them out. With no rain in the forecast, it is likely that we have not heard the last of Bow and Fallen Arch Lakes.

7/18/98 – Fishing has been a little slow the past few days. Alan and Arlene Olson, parents of former crew member Patti Olson, managed to catch enough fish, but said it was work and that the walleyes just weren’t biting. Al and Arlene have been coming to the Sawbill campground for years. Two great people. Their age hasn’t deterred their youthful spirits, and together they portage and paddle to their secret spots just about every day. They have such a nice way with each other, and I suspect the ritual of fishing is a sweet joy in their relationship. Not too many couples fish together that regularly. The ones who do, always seem to have that special something in their marriage. They borrowed Patti’s lightweight kevlar canoe for this trip. Al is much happier portaging kevlar, after many years of labor under an old Grumman. It’s really nice for us to have the regulars return each year. The older folks restrict their activity a little more each year. Eventually they stop coming altogether, and that is always sad. Arlene enlightened me in this regard. She knows her and Al’s days of portaging and paddling are limited, but she is so glad for the time they had and adamant in her opposition to an accommodation that would allow for easier access. She likes the wilderness just the way it is, and wants it that way for her kids and grandchildren. Such gratitude and consideration in those sentiments. Luckily for us, Al and Arlene have lots of years left. Unfortunately, not enough to make us another Patti!

7/17/98 – Apologies to those of you who regularly check the newsletter. Our most frequent contributor, Bill, has been paddling with his family. Stay tuned for highlights of their journey. Upon departure of the family, the crew found itself tending to an unusual patient: Sunnie our golden retriever. Bill, Cindy and the kids decided to only take Gust, Sunnie’s brother and the more reliable canoeist, on their canoe trip. Sunnie is truly inconsolable. I am the last person to personify animals, but in this case, I must say, Sunnie has the blues. Sullen, slow moving, and limp sum up Sunnie’s demeanor. Our typically ebullient retriever is one sad puppy.

The last few days have been idyllic. Blue and green dominate the view from the office. Such a joyful combination of color! The white lily bloom is contributing to our colorscape. I paddled through hundreds of these the other day on a portion of Marsh Lake. Incredibly thick – the tangle of flowers, twisted stems, and massive leaves held me tight when I stopped paddling. Such a fine feeling to be suspended there, caught between water and sky. Hundreds of yards from shore, in a sea of lilies, I became acutely aware of my immediate surroundings. Dragonflies darted about, etching impossible flight paths in the air, which seemed to hang ever so briefly like the smoky remnants of fireworks. Small metallic blue beetles crawled around the leaves and blossoms. The blossoms have a nice but unusual odor, not unlike the discs placed in urinals – strange. Tucked inside each bloom, are a group of yellow stamens, perfectly symmetrical and pure. They look just like sea anemones. In that small white cocoon, the yellow is so intense it glows. Occasionally, the wind causes a lily pad to jut out of the water, exposing its rich purple underside. Drying in the breeze, these purple crescents bind all the colors together. I broke away from the lilies and swam in a channel flowing with cool water. Drying on a hot rock, sun rays streaming into every pore, I contemplated nature. Wind in the grass lulled me to sleep.

7/14/98 – Two unusual wildlife sightings were reported by canoeists yesterday. Actually, the same sighting reported twice. A fawn deer was reported swimming down the shoreline on Alton Lake. It appeared distressed, but unwilling to take to land. Later the same day, the fawn swam across Sawbill Lake. Some canoeists spotted it from a distance and were quietly observing. The fawn spotted their canoe and immediately swam toward them. It pulled up along side their canoe and they guided it to shore. Again, it was unwilling to leave the water. There was no sign of the doe. Speculation is that wolves were involved in the incident, although bears are also major predators of deer fawns.

7/9/98 – Continuing the jolly mood of the previous night, four crew members sought the occasionally appealing entertainment of a night on the town and headed up to Lutsen Ski Resort for some pool, darts and general good times. Following the late-evening closing of Papa Charlie’s Bar and Grill, Michele Thieman, Jeff Thompson, Natasha Warner, and Annie Strupeck sought outdoor entertainment and opted for a wade in the Temperance River. This river, which meets Lake Superior in a beautiful pool just south of Tofte, winds through valleys in the Sawtooth Mountain Range, and gently rolls alongside a portion of the Sawbill Trail. Departing westward from the Trail, about 5 miles north of Tofte, is the Six Hundred Road. This road has always appealed to me, for it sports a grand bridge complete with wooden wheel guides and large iron sidebars and invites me to travel a road that narrows into green, lush woods. I had just driven over the bridge that very afternoon, across the Temperance River, and thought about the time I spend on the lakes, and the rushing rivers I forget. The foreshadowing of this afternoon’s drive led our party to park under the full moon and make our cautious way down the banks of the beautiful river. What began as a wade soon turned into an actual swim. The rocks provided many slippery footholds, and rather than continue the hopeless task of remaining upright, the four of us simply sat down and allowed the easy current to carry us. The water was a cloak – silky and black and strangely silent. I heard no gurgle in my ear, but instead was enveloped by the surprising quiet warmth. We were awash in the white light of the moon, yet still hidden from one another by the darkness of the night. The belly crawl back up the river provided us with a soothing massage, as the current washed over our arms and legs and provided that very small resistance that gives the muscles of the body pleasure and rejuvenation. These golden days of summer are alive and well.

7/8/98 – Former crew member Jason Morse surprised us with a visit last night. His popularity with the crew and his love of basketball, led to a game of hoops on our gravel court. Towering over the court is an eighty-foot white pine which serves double duty as shade provider and support for the backboard. Tough dribbling conditions prevail on the gravel, but we always manage to have a good time. We left the court paved with our footprints and a slight dusty haze settling. Heated from the contest, we headed for the lake, arriving just as the light was fading. The sky was perfectly reflected, but rippled as our weight depressed the dock, which creaked and moaned on its old timbers. Jeff Thompson sported a beat pair of Nikes, no socks, cut off shorts, a smile, and a great shock of hair swept back from wind, sweat, and sun. He was a pure manifestation of summer. As I told him this, we laughed, repeating together our saying this year, "these are the salad days" – a little joke between us that seems old fashioned and overwrought, but feels so true. We swam and flung ourselves off the dock in wild jumps (Jeff risking pain for the glory of applause.) We saunaed, and the remaining concerns from the day melted into the oblivion of cedar and steam. Under a bright moon, we headed for the deep sleep that comes after a day of hard work, sweet play, and camaraderie. Some days it seems we lead the life of Riley up here.

7/6/98 – An impromptu paddle last night turned into a spiritual experience for two Sawbill crew members and a visitor. Testing our new Wenonah Minnesota III canoe, the three paddlers made quick work of the Sawbill dock to Alton portage run. They enjoyed a classic summer night, keeping track of the time of day by the early evening whistling of the white-throated sparrows and the laughing loons. Glorious light on the trees literally made for a golden moment. An evening work detail set a deadline for this quick expedition. A brief look at Alton was the only expectation for portaging across the 30 rods. Back on Sawbill, loon calls and fluttering wings, lead the party to a small bay sheltered from the breeze. After a few moments of silence, a beaver was spotted 75 yards away, heading for the canoe. Initially, he did not seem to notice the canoe, but then made a 180 degree turn, gliding back along his path and slipping silently into the water. Waiting in silence, with eyes pealed, revealed nothing but the realization that the wilderness and the universe were in perfect order.

7/4/98 – It is a beautiful Independence day, and many patriotic day trippers are enjoying one of our great national treasures today. OB snuck out yesterday in Bill’s beautiful Seliga wood and canvas canoe. Some of you may have seen this canoe, as it hangs in the dome. Built by a master, Joe Seliga of Ely, it is a pleasure to paddle. It holds a line better than any canoe in our fleet and is responsive to the slightest paddle stroke. The joy of paddling this canoe goes beyond performance, however. It is a pleasure to look at the craftsmanship and to listen to the distinctive creaks of a wood craft and the solid resonance created by placing a paddle across the gunnels. The lap of water on the taut canvas provides the ideal soundtrack for drifting and leaning back to take in all the sights. Wood and canvas canoes were very common in the Northwoods until the lighter weight aluminum and composite canoes replaced them. My back is pleased by this transition, but it is always sad to see handcrafted technologies become obsolete. Fortunately, Bill’s Seliga ensures that the wood and canvas experience will be an option for Sawbill crew members.

7/2/98 – Looks like another beautiful weekend for the BWCA. Warm weather, blue skies, and a slight breeze complete the view from the office window at the moment. Despite all our dry weather, we have had enough moisture to have a nice mushroom bloom. All types are popping up, making the forest floor more colorful and interesting. Squirrels and moose have their favorites. The Bolete mushrooms, which are my favorites, bear the evidence of squirrel munching, but I have never seen a moose eating one. They are large brown spongy mushrooms, and I eagerly await my first sighting of a moose gobbling one of them down. Last year during a Bolete bloom, a very friendly Russian couple treated us to a Bolete feast. They told us about spontaneous mushroom hunts, where entire families would hear word of fungi in the woods and rush out. Apparently, mushrooms enjoy a better reputation in Russia. A very loud and unusual mid day loon call just carried in above the fray of a busy day. Such events help to reset the psyche when the crowds descend on Sawbill.