SHORE LUNCH “A Tale of Two Campsites”

by Ken Hupila

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
They were contemporaries. Though they didn’t know each other, they traveled many of the same lakes and portages in the late forties and into the early fifties. It was a time of wood and canvas canoes, although Grumman had just come out of WWII building aluminum canoes to fill the void in their business when the U.S. didn’t need the vast number of fighter planes they had been manufacturing just a few years before. This part of Minnesota was still called a “Wilderness Area.” Routes were well established although only a relative handful of adventurous souls traversed the backcountry by pack and canoe. Motors were allowed throughout the million-plus acres and many chose this method of travel over paddling. Portages had canoe rests every 100 rods or so and many of the campsites sported picnic tables. Most of the portages were marked. The Duluth pack was standard and carried canvas tents, military surplus down sleeping bags, heavy saws and axes as well as food packed in glass and steel cans. Fishing tackle would be almost unrecognizable today. Depth finders were one ounce weights at the end of your line as depth finders and other electronics were unobtainable other than through the military until the 1960s. Fishing was so good you didn’t need them. Resorts dotted the shorelines and it wasn’t unusual to encounter a private cabin here and there.
They both had gone to war. Fit and full of adventure they relished the challenge that the back country provided. Trips rarely were shorter than ten days, and most times they were joined by three to five others, bent in the same courage and physical determination as they. Bob eventually settled in Texas and Gene, Wisconsin. As families came to be, their trips to northern Minnesota became less frequent until ending all together. Yet, both were adamant that their grandkids would someday enjoy the adventure in taking in and traveling through the Boundary Waters.
Grandpa Bob had told stories of the far north to his grandchildren from the time they were old enough to understand. Of great fish; of thunderous storms; of grueling portages; of starry nights and of the sounds of loons and wolves, he inflamed in them a desire to visit the North Country at some time. He had promised that he would take them to this wondrous land himself as soon as they were old enough to safely go. Alas, as the four boys (two sets of brothers) reached their early teens, schedules conflicted and it seemed that a time when all could go just didn’t present itself. Soon they were off to college and the delay continued. Finally when all were in their early twenties the stars seemed to line up. It was also about the time that Grandpa Bob was diagnosed with cancer. It progressed rapidly and it was obvious that he would not be able to take the boys on the trip. He did the next best thing. Bob arranged for a guided trip through Wilderness Outfitters that would take them on some of the waters he had traveled as a young man.
Time was again a factor in two ways. We would only have four days for our trip. And, Grandpa Bob wanted them to take the voyage before he passed so that they could share their adventures with him and he could re-live some of his treasured time spent long ago.
We got a tow to Washington Island and then paddled north, around U.S. Point and to the second camp site to the west. It was the perfect spot for us. We could travel and explore a lot of country in a short time, and fishing would be at a premium. Day one was getting to camp and set up. Day two was a paddle towards Upper Basswood Falls and back. Day three was set aside for fishing and day four was getting back to the motor zone for a pickup.
The cousins got along well. While paddling and in camp they were constantly telling stories of their high school athletics, college experiences, job opportunities and girlfriends. In the evening after supper, they would talk incessantly about Grandpa Bob and his tales. They were anxious to get back to him to tell of their time up here. Much was how he had described it but some was even better than his stories. The third evening was to be the walleye dinner. Grandpa had guaranteed that a meal of fish would be the highlight of the trip.
We started fishing right after breakfast on the third day. It was important that we get enough fish for a good fry so I left plenty of time to accomplish the task. As it turned out, it went better than expected. By 11 o’clock in the morning we had plenty for a big meal. When I announced that we had enough and to catch any more would be a waste I figured we would head back to camp. As we were picking up, one of the cousins said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring enough walleye back home to have a fish fry with Grandpa!” What a great idea! Because we had no portaging, we had taken along a good sized cooler that still had ice. With five of us we could catch enough for our supper and for a big meal back home in Texas! And so we spent another couple of hours filling out our limits.
The rest of that trip flew by. The cousins could hardly contain themselves in knowing how much Grandpa Bob would not only get to hear about their trip but get to enjoy a Minnesota fish fry to go along with it! I got a note a couple of weeks after they go home. Grandpa sent me a card with a heartfelt message of gratitude, and a second tip for the trip!
Grandpa Gene had taken full advantage of the GI Bill after the war and had gone on to medical school to become a surgeon. He married, had a daughter and between medical school and his ensuing practice time seemed to slip away. Jill, his daughter, had three boys and Gene made the same promise to them – he would take them on a trip to his beloved Boundary Waters when they were old enough.
True to his word, he was able to arrange a trip when the boys were 14, 15 and 16 years old. This was through Canoe Country Outfitters and the group included Gene and Jill in one canoe, the two older boys in one canoe and the youngest in mine. As the trip got underway, it became apparent that there was some tension among the campers. Gene and Jill had been estranged for some time and this was an attempt for them to reconnect. The boys did not have a lot of outdoor experience and Grandpa Gene was quite critical when they would do something that didn’t quite fit into how he used to do it in his younger days.
There was only one campsite left on Fourtown and it was the furthest site to the north next to the Moosecamp River. We unloaded the packs from the canoes and Gene and Jill left me and the boys to set up camp. As he left he told me “It’s your job to teach these boys woodcraft and how to fish.” After the tents were set up, wood gathered and the food pack hung, I started to get some fishing gear together. The two older boys got into their canoe and paddled out about 30 yards onto the lake to start fishing. I was getting the last fishing rod strung when Gene’s canoe came racing back to camp. “How could you let those boys out on the water without you being right with them?” He had a few other not nice things to say to me and then took off again.
Anxious to get things moving in a different direction, I took the boys to one of my favorite spots, rigged up some Lindy Rigs with crawlers and caught a nice bunch of walleyes. I had cleaned the fish, gotten back to camp and started supper when Grandpa Gene and his daughter came back to camp. He quizzed the boys on who had caught the fish and how. I began to feel a bit better. After a great fish fry, Grandpa grabbed my elbow and dragged me behind one of the tents. “The fish fry was good, but tomorrow you have to teach the boys how to REALLY fish!” Catching walleyes was not something he was interested in. Casting the shoreline with plugs and catching small bass was. So that’s what we did the rest of our time there.
We got up the second morning and Grandpa announced during breakfast that we were going to break camp and move to the next campsite down to “Teach the boys how to break and set up camp.” Fortunately it had been vacated earlier that morning, and we knew that because we were within sight of it!
The reconciliation between dad and daughter was not going as planned. They had argued so much that Jill put a pack together, threw it into a canoe and took off for the parking lot halfway through the day. After two hours she was back and assured me that she would stay the duration. It did not become much more pleasant.
We actually did some good stuff. I taught the boys how to read a compass. We learned how to make and tend a fire. We made a day trip to Horse Lake and back. The boys and I really got along pretty well. Jill would address me occasionally, but Gene said almost nothing to me except to say to me “That isn’t how we used to do it in the old days.” We all made it out in one piece, but there were times when I wasn’t sure it would be so.
Over the years I’ve at times pondered how two trips with the same goals could come out so differently. Family dynamics can vary so much. Most times I was able to get a read on what they were and could mold my interactions with the family members in such a way to assure an enjoyable trip. Once in a while a family was fractured enough that it was near impossible. Fortunately for me that scenario only took place a couple of times over the many trips I guided on.