"I found it," yowls Russ as he bounded into my kitchen. "There's a mini Boundary Waters just west of Silver Lake."
"Just what's a mini Boundary Waters ..."
Before I complete my question, answers ricochet through my mind. Stirred by Russ' high spirits, I reel off my impressions. We alternately exchanged thoughts on the alluring attributes found in the 1 million acres of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).
"It includes sheltered waters and easy paddling." "But there's wind-swept stretches." "Bodies of water where a long wind fetch sets off waves that can only be overcome with powerful paddle strokes." "Most portages are reasonably short." "I'm looking for a sense of untrammeled remoteness free of cellphone towers and other unnatural structures." "Wilderness symbols abound, like soaring eagle and the hoot, yodel, tremolo and wail of loons." "Blue herons stand in the shallows and mallards paddle among the water lilies." "Turtles sun themselves while otters frolic on the bank." "A shoreline of noble white pines and birch trees reflect whiteness on blue waters." "Oh, I can smell the refreshing scent of pine and balsam as a fresh breeze burnishes my cheeks." "An inviting campsite conveniently located is essential." Deer occasionally appear at the water's edge."
Neither of us mentions bears, although they certainly are common in BWCAW. My encounter with a black bear on a canoe trip may be the reason I fail to mention the creature. I'm not sure why Russ makes no reference to bears, but there are more impressions to swap.
We talk a great deal about the waters. The clearer the better. And the waters beckon. You know how it looks when a light breeze forms riffles on the surface and catches the morning sun to reflect a thousand sparkles. When I worked summers on a Lake Michigan tugboat during my college years, the skipper pointed at the lake through the pilothouse window and declared, "She's wearing her diamonds this morning."
Water and shore meld together to intrigue the eye and raise the unending question, What's around the bend or beyond the next bay? The waters invite the modern-day voyageur to intuitively set a course through a channel or an inlet leading to a new vista. At other times the passage from lake to lake remains hidden. Russ cites the "poke-around-feeling" you get studying the treeline to locate the passage to the next lake or stream.
The search is on
Russ' remark calls to mind when Charles Osgood interviewed Charles Kuralt on a CBS "Sunday Morning" show. The interview took place shortly after Osgood succeeded Kuralt as the show's host. Osgood commented on how happy Kuralt looked in a photo of him in a canoe.
Kuralt replied, "You know, ah, anyone would be happy. You can paddle this canoe across this lake, Moose Lake, and camp and put the canoe in another lake the next day and paddle across that lake and camp and make another little portage to the next little lake the third day .... You can do this for a hundred years."
Russ reflected on Kuralt's words and asked, "Isn't that the essence of life itself?"
Certainly, fulfillment comes with the freedom to search for the best channel to the next destination and then go on from there.
Sigurd Olson, the late naturalist, writer and conservationist wrote about his listening post in the Boundary Waters. Obviously, BWCAW was a wellspring of inspiration for Sigurd, as well as many others including Russ and myself. Unfortunately, the pace and pressure of modern life does not permit us to return to distant listening points as often as we would like. Consequently, we felt the need for a substitute place. A more convenient place where we could connect with ourself in surroundings that nourish thoughts and feelings similar to what we experienced in an awesome canoe paradise.
Washburn County holds promise
The string of small ponds near Russ' house falls short or our criteria for a pocket wilderness. Rather than let that ralization end our quest, we pour over topographic maps to find a water path that comes closer to a mini Boundary Waters. Spider Lakes No. 1 through No. 5 in Washburn County, Wisconsin, look promising. See, Spider Lake No. 5 alone has numerous islands on 177 acres of surface water with 81 miles of wiggle-waggle shoreline.
Months later, two hulls float on crystalline water. An 18-foot Jensen and a 17-foot 9-inch Sawyer Cruiser, Empty, they both quiver and do a little jig on wavelets that ripple toward the public landing on Spider Lake No. 5. It's a motion that's always excited me as a prelude to adventure.
The clear water serves as a lens refracting the sun's rays causing the gravel bottom to appear clearer a couple of feet offshore than it is at the water's edge. My gaze traces two possible water routes beckoning with sparkling highlights. The inviting pristine waters criterion is satisfied.
With Russ' wife, Jo Anne, in the bow of the Jensen and my wife, Janice Lou, in the bow of the Sawyer, we paddle toward an inlet marked by an osprey nest. Rounding the point in the largest section of Spider Lake, I rest my paddle on the thwarts and watch two loons floating while an eagle soars overhead. The loons paddle to within 20 yards of us and, contrary to expectations, the male never threads water with body upright and spreading wings in a penguin dance as a territorial warning.
Nestled among evergreens and hardwoods on one of the islands is an inviting campsite complete with fieldstone fire ring and cut firewood. My nostrils flair as my sensory focus narrows and I draw upon all of my being to find the concealed passage from Spider Lake No. 5 to Spider Lake No. 4.
Studying the tree line for a hint of the channel, I reason the explorer and fur trapper Pierre-Esprit Radisson and his brother-in-law, Mèdard Chouart des Groseilliers, must have felt like I do when they rummaged around for a route over nearby Wisconsin waters more than 340 years ago.
Gliding into a bay that proves to be a dead end, we flush a great blue heron. The bird's ponderous, flapping wings prompts us to pause, reappraise our route and take a stab at another passage. Just ahead there's a backdrop of blue sky behind a section of trees that suggests the location of a connecting channel. Three paddle strokes gives confirmation as an orange blaze mark on a dead tree comes into view. The blaze is reassuring.
Our canoes slither over a submerged ledge and to shallows leading us to the entry on Spider No. 4. With heightened awareness, I take in the constantly changing scene accompanied by a deluge of delicate smells and soft sounds. But then, Russ causes me to question whether I'm fully aware as he turns toward me as he yells, "Did you see the deer tracks underwater?" I confess the tracks evaded my attention.
Skimming along a narrow stretch of Spider No. 4, I notice the reflection on the water just over the gunwale. Wow. Cumulous clouds and maple leaves in a riot of fall colors reflect on the breeze-riffled surface in a manner appearing like cloisonnè leaves mounted on metal dimpled by an artisan's hammer.
There off to the left is a gap revealing a 20-foot portage that can be traversed with a quick carryover into a small lake. Rather than portage, we press on to a likely looking corner leading to Spider No. 3. Painted turtles are sunning themselves on a log. We sweep to make an S-turn through lily pads and look in disappointment at a gravel path that had been the channel bed when water levels were normal.
While carrying the canoes, we have our first glimpse of Spider No. 1. It's a beautiful sheet of water with a maximum depth of 62 feet. Look how the scene is framed by a 40-some-foot pine on the left bank and encircled by mixed hardwoods, including maple, birch, aspen and more pines.
Spider Lake Saloon
Near the head of the lake are docks and a swim float marking the location of Spider Lake Saloon & Resort. Energized by the site of a destination, our paddle blades bite more forcibly and frequently into the water.
With a big smile, Lee Ellerbruch, asked, "What can I get for you?" Lee and her husband, Bob, own the Spider Lake Saloon. Lee attempted to make eye contact with any one of the four of us seated before her. However, we were preoccupied, looking in all directions at the fishing and hunting trophies that adorn the walls of one of the northwood's coolest saloons and eateries. The tavern and restaurant was expanded around an original log building constructed by loggers almost 100 years ago.
My first thought of a Leine was superseded as I recalled the thirst-quenching bottle of root beer I pulled out of the cooler at Dorothy Molter's Isle of Pines in BWCAW 30-some years earlier. It seemed only natural to relive the visit to Dorothy's island where she resided from 1930 to 1986 and greeted thousands of paddlers who came to enjoy a bottle of home-brewed root beer.
With a loud clunk, our frosted mugs collided in celebration of a mission accomplished. A mini Boundary Waters had been discovered.
But then Jo Ann set her glass on the bar and sounded off. "It's really not necessary to have a canoe paradise every time you go for a paddle. Can't you find enjoyment in watching a football game other than the Super Bowl? Come on guys, let's not destroy something we love."
Adventure is what you make it
Jo Anne's admonition brought me to realize there should be joy every time we grab a paddle. Adventuresome feelings are universal among all paddlers and can be experienced anywhere. Haven't I just experienced nine distinct feelings of adventurers similar to those felt by Native Americans, fur traders and explorers who preceded us on Wisconsin waterways?
• The feelings that emerged as we scoured the maps and tried to visualize the actual landscape and shoreline. Is that how Henry Schoolcraft felt in 1831 while studying Jean Baptist Perrot's map at Sault St. Marie in preparation for an expedition that would take him to Wisconsin as a prelude to discovering the source of the Mississippi River?
• The anticipation for adventure as I watched our canoes dance on ripples ready to take us on a day of discovery.
• The poke-around exploration as we groped and probed to find our way through the next passage.
• The eureka moment when we found the hidden passage between Spider Lakes No. 5 and No. 4.
• The awe inspired by the splendors of creation, such as the striking reflection of autumn leaves and clouds upon the water.
• The heightened awareness that comes when countless stimuli bombard your senses and you notice the unusual, such as Russ seeing dear tracks underwater. You will also come to know this feeling when running tricky rapids.
• The slight letdown best exemplified by the explorer Henry Hudson when he realized he was navigating on a great bay and not across the elusive Northwest Passage to the Orient.
• The exuberance that results from accomplishing what you set out to do. It's a feeling that surges through the mountain climber planting a flag at the summit or the sensation a backpacker feels while viewing a vista that prompts he or she to fling arms skyward. In our case it came with the root beer toast.
• And the realization "there's more of this" just around the bend.
Surely a canoe is a remarkable vessel for discovery. Not only did we experience the vibrations felt by bold explorers and extreme adventurers, we also discovered insights on topography, flora, fauna and humanity. We came to recognize you don't need a perfect place for adventure. Best of all, we learned the wake a canoe carves in the water soon disappears, but the canoe's wake of pleasant memories can last a lifetime.
Don Erickson lives in Birchwood, Wisconsin. He enjoys spending his spare time paddling as well as building and maintaining the Ice Age Trail.
How to get there
From Birchwood in Washburn County
From State Highway 48 and County Road D: Take County D north past County Road DD to County Road T; turn right onto County D (first road on right); take County D to Nice Lake Road (first road on left) turn left onto Nice Lake Road and take to Elbow Lake Road (first road on right); turn right onto Elbow Lake Road and take to Spider Lake No. 5 Landing Road (first road on right) and turn right to boat landing.
To put in or take out at Spider Lake Saloon:
From State 48 and County D: Take County D north (past County DD ) to County D (next right); turn right on County D and go 5.5 miles to Spider Lake Saloon.
For food, lodging and more information, contact:
Spider Lake Saloon & Resort
N2586 Spider Lake Trail
Birchwood, WI 54817
Camping is available at Spider Lake Saloon & Resort. For information, call the campground manager at 715/554-1289. Primitive camping is also available on a first-come basis on some of the state-owned islands on the Spider Lakes.