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Boundary Waters Trip Report

I was privileged to again help lead an ISU student trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area this year. The 24 students were all biological premedical illustration majors taking a course that is taught by my good friend, Dean. BPMI majors are people who end up illustrating textbooks, designing facial prosthetics or doing other technical art of a biological nature for universities, medical companies and more. The trip to the BWCA is designed to help them learn to draw from nature. Each student had to develop a sketchbook of scenes, wildlife and objects they found while visiting area museums and nature centers, and while hiking or paddling in that beautiful and wild part of the country. They are then to develop two finished pieces of art from their sketches that will be exhibited both locally and next spring at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth, Minn.

These student were able to do far more than draw some nice pictures. Some were able to capture quick sketches of form and motion of a moose or running deer seen for no more than a few moments as the vans passed them. Others could capture recognizable and artistically accurate faces of fellow students as they pencil-sketched around a campfire or at a restaurant. Some could create beautiful watercolor or colored pencil renditions of water falls, pine trees, birds or cliffs. Some of their finished works will probably be created digitally on computers, with India ink, or using any of several other artistic media.

The students often worked in their sketch books while wearing gloves and winter coats. The BWCA is experiencing a record late ice-out on some of the interior lakes this year. A local told us that May 18 was the latest date on record for ice cover on lakes like Gunflint, Sagnaga and Poplar. Poplar was partially ice-free on the 18th, but Sag and Gunflint were still locked in ice, and the shady woods were still full of snow from spring snowstorms. The outer harbor at Duluth was still full of slush ice on Lake Superior on the 19th as we drove past on the way home. The U.S. Forest Service Trails End Campground, where the students slept four nights in tents, lies only a few miles from the Canadian boarder about 60 miles northwest of Grand Marais, Minn. Some local outfitters were frustrated that anglers couldn’t get to some of the better lakes for the walleye opener, something that’s usually a big event up there.

The group normally spends a day paddling a loop route on some wilderness lakes, but lake ice and racing high water streams blocked that option this year. Some of them enjoyed paddling on Gull Lake, a small lake between Seagull and Sagnaga, where there was open water. The campground on Gull Lake offered some great wildlife viewing, too. Several moose had apparently spent part of the winter there browsing on red maple saplings and had not left the area yet. Some kids spied a black bear across the lake and one girl spotted a dark-colored wolf while out jogging. Eagles and a drumming grouse were nearby every day. They were quite tolerant of our group. The eagles fished for spawning walleyes in a rapids nearby and the grouse happily continued his drumming to attract mates, while students sat within 20 feet sketching him. The walleyes were most interesting when viewed with flashlights at night. Their large eyes glowed like dozens of fireflies under the dancing water. We found only a single wildflower, a tiny blue sharp-lobed hepatica, in a sheltered nook between some rocks on a trail we hiked.

I have certainly seen more pleasant weather on other trips to the Boundary Waters, but our students almost never complained, even when cold rain dampened things or when snowflakes fell from passing clouds. Lots of hearty and hot food was cooked in our camp kitchen and warm clothes and extra sleeping bags were shared to make sure no one got too chilled. Hot chocolate and coffee were in big demand throughout the days and into the evenings around the campfire. As often happens, it looked like good weather was finally going to settle in just as we were packing the vans to leave. I’m guessing that some of those students will head back north someday. I know my friends and I will.

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