It was cool along shady portage trails, but warm in the sun. The sky was blue with graceful white cirrus mare’s tail clouds. Aspens were golden against a backdrop of dark green pine and spruce. Here and there a red maple flamed. The water was clear and sparkling as it was rippled by a fresh breeze. It was setting up to be another classic fall day in the Northcountry, but we were paddling our way out to head for home. We all felt it coming on and weren’t sure if we’d be well enough to travel once we got back to civilization. A bad case of Northcountry fever had settled in. Duty called, though, and we travelled in spite of the feeling that we all needed another day or two to try to recover. It was after midnight early Tuesday morning when we finally got home from a long (too short) weekend trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Three old friends and I thoroughly enjoyed our brief retreat from busy lives to the silence and beauty of the canoe country wilderness. Bird calls were few, but the trees sometimes were alive with migrating fall warblers. Eagles and an osprey soared overhead. The loons had mostly molted into their brown winter plumage, but did offer us a couple of their lonely calls. We were entertained by a couple of Canada jays that visited us in camp one evening. Visits by bold and inquisitive Canada jays were part of almost any wilderness campsite back in the ’60s and ’70s, but are a rare delight today. A beaver patrolled just off shore each evening about sunset and otters chirped a greeting to us as they gracefully swam and dived by the campsite one morning. A moose splashed loudly through some weedy shallows near camp and waded ashore to tromp right past one of our tents in the middle of the night. We saw its tracks in the morning. We even saw fresh tracks of a momma bear and her cub on a portage trail; thankfully not right through camp. We endured an afternoon of wind and rain, but we were equipped for that. The tents stayed warm and dry. It was dark by 7 p.m., and there was no reason to stay up much later. We slept more hours than we ever would have at home.
It was dry enough and calm enough for a fire our last night out, so we stayed up a little later; maybe even till 9. We shared a few stories of trips past, but mostly shared quiet companionship and the warmth of the fire. A verse of a favorite song, called “Heading for Cover,” by a favorite songster named Doug Wood came to mind: Two old friends (actually four in our case) sit huddled round a campfire. They share the stories in each other’s eyes. Stories that are older than the telling, but brighter than the full moon on the rise. They wrap their hands around a cup of coffee. The city seems so strange and far behind. In their minds they’ll tend that tiny campfire, till they can head for cover one more time. We’ll head for cover again, too, as soon as we can clear schedules. You see, Northcountry fever never really goes away. It just goes into remission and will flare up when one who is afflicted has been too busy in civilization for too long. The only treatment is more time in the backwoods. An early May trip back north with ISU students is already planned for next spring.
(Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.)