Paddle - BWCA, Quetico, Sylvania, and other paddling places

2021 Trips - Staff Training Round 1

By Riley Smith Print Icon Print Report View/Leave Comments (0)
Dates:June 1-6, 2021
Entry Point:43 - Bower Trout lake (BWCA)
Lakes:Bower Trout, Brule, Cam, Caribou, Cherokee, Cliff, Dugout, Flicker, Gaskin, Henson, Horseshoe, Lizz, Marshall, Middle Cone, North Cone, North Temperance, Poplar, Sitka, South Cone, South Temperance, Swan, Town, Vernon, Vesper, Wanihigan

This trip would teach me many things, not about guiding or wilderness or really any of the skills I would need for the summer. No, this trip taught me how hard it can be for me to let someone else teach in a space that I feel I am knowledgeable in. Furthermore, how hard it can be for me to sit idly by as they emphasize things differently than I think they should or “mismanage” the group in my mind’s eye. To some extent, I was probably right, but I hate how it impacted my attitude. Any time in canoe country is special and this trip was yet another lesson in how important it is for me to maintain the focus on that. I have found this can be especially difficult for me early in the season as my pent-up excitement shows itself in unending energy and a drive to travel forever. I have tried to learn, as my perspectives have matured, to try to temper this for the betterment of the whole group, sometimes with mixed success. That said, this was a trip that I needed to learn this lesson, and obviously fell short on more than one occasion.

The trip was starting at Bower Trout. It was a slow morning and seemed to take forever to get the staff loaded and to the entry. Once there, the organization was chaotic as canoes came off and loitering happened for some time. Finally, the group meandered towards the lake. It was strange to me to feel so chaotic on a staff trip! The outfit I had guided with before was very organized with these things and perhaps I was overly used to it! On Bower Trout, we paddled as a group towards the portage. It’s a wonderful chain of small lakes, all beautiful, with semi-frequent portaging. We worked our way west throughout the remainder of the morning.

Eventually, we found ourselves on Swan Lake where it was announced that we would be spending the night. I was shocked. Here? We are training wilderness staff to be responsible for the well-being of children as they are pushed beyond their comfort zones, staff who will spend the entirety of the summer in the wilderness, and we are only traveling 4.5 miles on day one!?! I was less than amused. Once we pulled into campsite, we didn’t spend a single moment as a staff talking about any of the things I would have expected like choosing a campsite with a group, how to decide if a campsite is a good one or a safe one, looking for potential hazards, and how to include a group in these discussions. No, instead we were told to get swimming gear on, it was time to learn t-rescues. I am embarrassed to admit that I was fuming at this point. I know I didn’t handle myself well at that moment and was not the best team member for the rest of that day. Finally, we were given free time so I marched east. A good bushwhack would help burn some energy and I obviously needed to distance myself for some time. The first day was very frustrating for me. Hopefully, day two will be better.

Day two we awoke and still moved with little purpose on our way to our first real portage of the trip. It was here that the staff found their rust or their inexperience as this single portage took well over an hour to complete. I found some more team camaraderie here as I headed back quickly from the landing to help where I could. On Vernon, we headed out of our way to the corner campsite for a snack break before heading for the portage. It was here that we encountered a group paddling a catamaran. Oh, the oddities of entry-point lakes! It’s a steep portage for sure and I, craving wilderness challenge that I felt lacked the first day, quickly gathered myself two portage packs and reveled in the first dose of hardship I had yet found. Once on Brule, we paddled west with brief stops for snacks or water and to marvel at the palisades. As we rounded the corner, we passed a full campsite at the narrows and then turned around an island. Here, it was decided, we would spend the night. 11 miles.... hardly an overwhelming distance for wilderness professionals....and we would be staying on an entry point lake. Again, I felt under-challenged and my attitude sour, especially as I stuffed a gallon bag full of the garbage I was scooping out of the fire grate. Sigh.... is it my expectations and attitude that are bad? Is there something wrong with this trip? Perhaps both? In our evening free time, I circumnavigated the island on foot in search of the personal challenge I so badly craved.

The morning of day three dawned and we were told this day would be a tough one. I tried not to get my hopes up, but the promise excited me. Do you understand what it means to crave hardship and challenge? It’s a hard thing to explain well, but I find myself so drawn to the discomfort found in the wilderness. The raw beauty is only won through extraordinary effort. The satisfying comfort of resting in the accomplishment of a tough day. I enjoy the quiet and the rest. I need wild spaces and the rejuvenating beauty they provide. But I also go to these awe-inspiring places for the lessons of humility, for a test of metal. I don’t go in an irritatingly toxic masculine need to conquer, but more with an openness to learn what wild spaces teach me when I push beyond myself. On guide trips, I can scale back and act as a tutor to allow wilderness to challenge my groups. On friend trips and especially staff training trips, I have learned that my mentality sometimes is set that “I will be challenged” and some insatiable part inside of me struggles when that reality does not come to fruition.

We headed through the Temperances and crossed the Laurentian to Cherokee. It is a sort of tough portage and the group was very lunch ready by the other side. I ate with the group for a while and took a walk for a bit as they rested. Next, we took a turn into Town and my demeanor turned entirely. I know where this goes!!! This is one of the toughest stretches of maintained portaging the BW has to offer. He wasn’t kidding when he said today may be tougher. It did seem quite odd that we were looping back to the entry point lake we spent the previous night on, but I was content, especially when my canoe buddy allowed me the privilege of double-packing all the way to Brule. I was elated. All of the staff reflected later that they were rather confused during these hours. For as the portages grew worse with boulder fields, muskeg pits, steep hills, down trees, tough early-season bugs, and challenges beyond number, my smile only grew and grew. This is the feeling of wilderness that I craved. For beyond the hardships, I knew, was beauty. Gasket, in particular, is one of my all-time favorite BWCA lakes. The group was surely struggling, with some hard falls and tough portaging. I helped where I could. At this point, I was nothing short of frolicking along the trail, in sheer bliss at it all.

We made it back to Brule eventually and paddled a bit of a stiff chop to reach Cone Bay. Most of the nice sites were full in Cone Bay and finally, leadership let the group vote. I tried not to speak up too loudly for the group already knew my opinion on the matter. It was decided. We pushed on. The nice island site on South Cone was, unfortunately, taken. That left Mid Cone with its knee-deep grass and tick infestation, planted firmly on an old road grade. The group, tired from the day, decided on planting here. I never end such days gracefully, especially in lackluster locals. That said, this one had a local snowshoe hare who paid us a visit. On to another day.

The next day, we headed into North Cone and into Cliff where I marveled at the magnificent trees and rocks. Once on Winchell, we hiked up the Palisade trail and spent some time enjoying the view together. We paddled the length and I talked of wildfires and windstorms with my canoe mate and had a wonderful all-around conversation. Gaskin was fairly busy and we ended up in the weirdest campsite with a trail setting it back far out of view of the water. Also, another sub-10 mile day. This is the strangest staff training trip I have ever been on.

The next day, it was announced that we would each be spending the day solo reflecting and enjoying the wilderness. Graciously, my boss allowed me, his energizer bunny guide, to take a canoe while the rest of the staff were dropped around an island somewhere to sit for the day. I was grateful! I am not one to think sitting still; I definitely contemplate better while my hands are busy. Anyway, with the day ahead of me, I paddled west and into Hensen, making a tour of the campsites there. I then headed to a back bay for a bushwhack into Flicker before checking out a couple more campsites and heading back for my scheduled return time. We had a good evening bonding as a staff on our final day.

The next morning came and we took the anticipated route out through Caribou and eventually on to Poplar. It was an oddly subdued training trip. I came into it expecting to be pushed, and I was, just very much so not in the way I was anticipating. It was a unique way to start a summer that would see me spend more nights in the BWCAW than out...just the way I like it.

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