Boundary Waters Catalog Blog

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Howling Too Good on a December 1st Afternoon

by Steve Piragis

All my friends seemed a bit squeamish about early season ice conditions yesterday.  It is early but the small lakes now have at least four inches of ice, so Jack our dog, also known as Mr. Happy, and I just got out some tip ups and bought some minnows and headed to our secret little wilderness lake to see what’s biting.

Tuesday was a near perfect early winter day; little wind, lots of sun and some fresh hope for the future in the air.  The walk in is very short but this lake, just outside the wilderness boundary, seems to be rarely visited by other folks.  We were alone again, and the feeling was good.  Jack is always happy to be out and as a fuzzy and very cute bearded collie he is constantly aware of more of nature than any human can sense. 

piragis winter one

With ice chisel in hand, we poked our way along the shore ice till we got to the spot where a big boulder is a long stone’s throw offshore and headed out.  I was wearing my paddling life vest and I had safety ice picks on a cord around my neck.  I was as careful as all my friends had warned me to be.  The thump of the chisel every few feet sounded solid, so we carefully made our way to the fishing hole that was so productive in summer, off the big gull nesting rock.  It’s a good spot for northerns, crappie and bass in summer so why not in winter was the hypothesis.

In my humble opinion, the best time to ice fish is early in the season on a rare sunny day with four inches of ice to cut through instead of 4 feet of ice in January.  At 30 degrees the minnow bucket doesn’t freeze, and the holes stay open and a human can relax and jig from the comfort of a camp chair while soaking up the rare natural vitamin D available in December.

The chisel chunked out big chards of ice that Jack found to be the perfect puck to chase around the ice and crunch on for kicks and refreshment.  He seems to prefer drinking out of lakes and eating snow over drinking water from a bowl anytime of the year anyway.  With a couple ice fishing tip-up rigs set up and baited with a fresh minnow we had time to play fetch the ice chunk.  At a year and a half, it was Jack’s first time realizing that even a canine with four legs has a challenge trying to stop while running on ice. 

jack on ice

With no action happening and feeling the thrill of being alone on a wild lake perhaps miles from the nearest person, I tuned up my wolf howl for fun.  It’s worked well over the years, mostly at night but even in daytime occasionally.  Not to sound like bragging, but one of my few talents in life is the ability to imitate the calls of birds and even a few mammals.  On early morning walks with Jack, I have made more than a few ravens do a double take and circle back to check us out.  I have called in whip or wills in white cedar bogs on Cape Cod and made a lot of loons curious about a canoe cruising past.  “Poor Sam Peabody” is a specialty of mine.  The white throated sparrows eat it up in June when I whistle the call, they all but attack me.  I once imitated the high-pitched whine of a mother wolf and brought her three little pups out of the woods to greet me on a June run on old logging roads.  When mom showed up to round up the pups her stare at me, hackles up on her neck from a few feet away is a moment frozen in time.  So, howling into the wind on an open wild winter lake in not unusual for me.  Jack thought I was a little crazy, but he is always forgiving. 

The flag went up and we trotted over to the tip-up and found the line headed south and the tug of a fish on the end.  I was hoping for a pike for dinner or even a walleye but up through the ice hole came a largemouth bass.  Now, that’s a first for me in winter in northern Minnesota, catching a bass through the ice. Two pounds of golden floppiness lay on the ice for Jack to inspect.  I believe he thought that was pretty cool.   We let her go back through the hole she came up through swimming straight down in the murky depths.  It turned out to be the only fishing thrill of the day.

jack and bass

The sun slides sideways in the north on a December afternoon.  The angle of decent is as oblique as it gets in December as it slices towards the horizon oh so slowly.  As Jack and I descended into the shadows of the big white pines to the southwest, I felt the first chill of the day.  Maybe it was time to start packing up the gear?  But, first a couple more howls to the distant hills and we can wind up the lines. 

Facing the long length of the lake to the east there was some movement near the distant shore.  I’ve seen deer on the ice there before and as day turns slowly to night deer are more likely to be out of cover and on the ice.  Two animals at first and then four and they seemed to move more quickly and playfully than deer would naturally.  There were soon more.  The long legs could be deer, but the quality of their movements looked more like wolves.
Jack took notice.  He made a half-baked move to run out there but seemed relieved when I told him to stay and get back with me.  One little 50-pound beardie does not herd his flock of wolves without consequence.

The energy from across the lake suddenly picked up momentum.  Four animals became six and more movement along the shore meant more.  Were there really nine wolves in this pack?  The lead group was coming closer and again the pack expanded.  I counted many times and came up with 11 dark figures moving randomly but ominously in our direction.  As they came closer the lead animal was darker than the rest and appeared much larger.  He or she, likely the alpha, stood obliquely to us staring.  Maybe my howling earlier in afternoon piqued their curiosity or maybe they perceived a threat to their territorial range.   Whatever their motivation it was obvious Jack, and I were on the minds of 11 wild, awesome predators of the great north woods. 

I had had a close encounter with a walrus once in the high arctic waters of Ellesmere Island.  It was just curious I think but it bumped the bottom of my kayak lifting two of us out of the water a foot or two before appearing with tusks dripping ice cold water two feet from my bowman. With 28-degree water leaking into our skin covered boat from a hole made by the walrus, we had little time to take photos.  We made it to shore before sinking along with the rest of our team in similar fabric covered kayaks only to have this mighty whiskered beast sit offshore a few yards watching this rarity of humans in a place long abandoned by Inuit centuries before.  In a life lived outdoors there are moments that a person will never forget.  The connection to nature is woven of experiences like this and so many others with the animals that live their entire lives in the constant drama of life and death.  Our own lives are mostly not at risk in nature with a modicum of care but there are moments on the edge when it could go either way.

I never got out my phone to take a photo or video of this great pack of wolves on the ice; never even thought of it.  I wasn’t really scared as I wasn’t rationally afraid of the mother wolf with pups two decades before.  But there was adrenaline.  Fight or flight was in my blood, but I reminded myself that wolves have never been aggressive towards humans in recorded history except for a questionable death up north in Saskatchewan a few years ago.  11 wolves however approaching even a quarter mile away is intimidating.  One or two would be less so I think.  11 is a whole squad in any sport and we were easy meat.  So, what to do?  I pulled the homo sapiens card and instead of howling, I yelled at them to get lost.  The ones in the back quickly retreated for the shore and the woods.  The 2 or three in the front, including the biggest and darkest of the pack just stood there.  Yell some more I think is what Jack suggested.  I did and they all slowly moved south towards the shore and disappeared.  One more indelible memory etched in chemical and electrical tangle of brain cells that will last as long as I do.  May there be many more.

— Steve

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A Snapshot in November

There are times when things just fall together. Colors on a hardwood floor, patterns, like Autumn leaves jumbled into a harmony ordained from the moment they deserted the only home they’ve previously known up in the canopy. Perhaps it is because we work together as a team, that our choices as buyers and creative members compliment each other.

Perhaps it is just a simple snapshot of November. Like the song goes, these are a few of our favorite things… today.

— for your reference, easy links and copy and paste items numbers for search if you are finding us from Instagram.

Buffalo Plaid Beanie — Item number 10008-1 $28.00
Sunset Wilderness is Calling Sweatshirt — Item number GDND $39.95
Topo Mini Quick Pack — Item number miniquickpack $55.00
Home Pack — Item number T25 $42.00
Sanborn Anniversary Cribbage Board — Item number SCC25 $65.00
Trees Sweatshirt — Item number T26 $48.00

Poem: Boundary Waters Recipe

Boundary Waters Recipe by Tim Stouffer

Halfway thru July
a dance on lily pads
sunset, three-quarter dark;
comet sweeping
over painted night.
Wilderness breathing deep;
cattails, loons and froglings
singing in the breeze.
Nothing needs
but a paddle to stroke
and solve a puzzled peace.

Photos by Jordyn Stocks

©Timothy James Stouffer 07152020
All Rights Reserved Ely, MN

Leave No Trace(s) by Steve Piragis

Hello Canoe Trippers, From Ely Minnesota

We get away most summers, Nancy and I, in August and September to the Quetico. Along with a bunch of day trips to the Boundary Waters from May to July, we get a pretty good feel for what’s going on out on the portages and campsites. This year was different (in a lot of ways). We just completed a 4 night trip to the Little Indian Sioux country on the west end of the Echo Trail. It was enlightening. You could see it was busy from the lack of permits available online. In reality, it is busy out in the woods too. I say, good for us that we’re finding wilderness as a solace to the pandemic and the social upheaval our age.

It’s a time unmatched in history. Wilderness in the big sense and in the neighborhood sense is where people can escape,seeking quiet and contemplation. Thankfully we still have that escape. Thankfully too, we have the infrastructure in place ready to give us a reprieve from all that we have endured over the past months. Now, we have to take good care of it.

Lots of the folks we saw last week were first timers. I’d guess they have had a canoe trip in mind for years and just got up one day during the crazy pandemic and said Let’s Go. These are the groups you see using the bent paddles backwards. They are the ones who you might worry about if the water and weather was cold like October but you know will somehow survive in June or July or August. They are having fun and they are relieved to be away, in the wild, far from the city and the fear of walking into a haze of the breath of an asymptomatic carrier. With the wind blowing even a chance encounter with a group on a portage seems pretty innocuous. They, the green horns, the newbys and along with all the rest of us old timers are at peace this week in a slightly too busy wilderness. There’s a certain bond we sensed this year among the paddlers we encountered this year in canoe country.

Not to place blame, but, we also saw some evidence at our campsites of people not respecting the wilderness or at least not knowing wilderness etiquette. Our camp had a few big red pines hacked up pretty good with an axe. We found a pickle bucket with two cans of food hidden behind a rock where someone just decided to dump the evidence and hit the dusty trail. There was left over ramen noodles in a pile in the woods, too much for dinner and ramen in the lake near shore and toilet paper along the trail to the latrine, a remnant of midnight calling falling short of the destination.

I was under the impression that Leave No Trace was by now genetically en grained in all Americans. Obviously we need to work harder to educate. We, with the experience, have to teach it and set standards and watch out for the uninitiated. I don’t think there’s anything wrong when seeing people in a group of 10 on a portage to remind them of the 9 person limit. There’s nothing wrong with offering advice on great campsites and qualifying it with a strong suggestion to leave it better than when you found it please.

Let’s take the new campers under our wings and offer what the Forest Service video can’t, a kind suggestion on what matters; wilderness manners. It took decades to instill this ethic in all of us from the old days. Now, we start over with a new crop of seekers of the secrets of the wild who are yet to join the club and Leave No Trace. Sig Olson wrote articles about this very topic in the 1940’s when cans and bottles and bough beds and pioneering projects were rampant in the Boundary Waters. We’ve come a long way but the scars of one person with an axe will last for another 100 years so again it’s time for all of us to work harder to protect what was left to us.

Steve Piragis

Poem: This is our home

This is our home…

Said the loon that your phone recorded,

Said the black bear that swam across the lake,

the wolf said as she howled to her pups over on the high ridge. 

The cute chipmunk and red squirrel and pine martin all chittered excitingly from the red pines that creak and sway — reciting the same. 

Spring peeper frogs and throaty bull frogs,

Woodland jumping mouse, deer mouse and Northern grasshopper mouse voices join in solidarity with the bubbled agreement

from pike, walleye, crappie, trout, bass, perch, lake trout and lawyers (bourbot variety)…

This is our home.

Chickadees and white throated sparrows chime in,

Red backed voles and red bellied snakes don’t say much nor do the shadows of raptors flying high above but it is their home too. 

The moose bellows, the deer stamps, the fox and the fur bearers silently share. We live here too, It’s our home that you’re visiting.

The camp robber, Whiskey Jackjoins you in your camp, looking for something.

What is it that you brought?

Before you leave your home

Pack some respect. Bring some dignity,

Compassion for those that paddle after.

For those that call it home. 

Leave it better than you found it. 
There’s no maid service in the wilderness.

©Timothy James Stouffer 06252020 All Rights Reserved Ely, MN #elystreetpoet

Poem: Beaver Dam

Beaver Dam

by John Looney

The water on “my side” is down to a trickle
furtively crawling through the sticks and mud wall,
up above, roughly four feet now, today;
A flat pool stretches dark and far. 
Dragonflies skim the surface,
algae drifts with yellow pollen
and clumps of white cottonseed
caught in the liquid clutches of June.

I can sit up higher and see the point of the V trailing away from his wall,
Like me he has punched the clock
on a day’s work done. 
I need to portage again, it seems
this dam is too big to slide over. 
I wonder at the stillness on the other side,
wonder at the darkness that swallows even the bluebird blue sky.

I feel like slapping my tail.

It feels like home.

©Timothy James Stouffer 06252020 All Rights Reserved
Ely, MN #elystreetpoetPhoto by John Looney

Poem: The Pine Cone Crunch

By Tim Stouffer

Pine cone crunch…

is that a new Blizzard flavor?

At the local D.Q. after a canoe trip,

or the lego-like-walk to the latrine in the dark;

hazarding the path without your sandals

cause you forgot your glasses

in the food pack that’s hung high in the branches?

Is it some extra protein in the chicken chow mien

rehydrating over the burning pyramid of dry birch?

Is it the debitage pile from the resident red squirrel

that lies here, but also there.

And over there.

Is it the scintillating

smell that’s deep in the woods if you leave the path

even for a moment to follow the trail of a chattering chickadee

or scout the shade for Lady Slipper footprints?

Is it worth every moment it took to get here?

The bight along the shore that you read incorrectly on the map

and the bite of the yoke on your shoulders

and the bite(s)

all around the soft part of your neck and ears.

That much and much more.

©Timothy James Stouffer Ely, MN All Rights Reserved 06182020 #elystreetpoet

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Crooked Lake Fishing Trip Report

Crooked Lake Fishing Trip Report, May 26th– 29th, 2020

By Eric Glasson

For the last six years, a group of my high school and college buddies have ventured into the Boundary Waters to chase fish at the earliest opportunity – fishing opener weekend. It has become a tradition, which we were very disappointed to break this year.  2020 was the first year since we began in 2014 with a trip to Disappointment Lake that we couldn’t make our BWCA fishing opener trip happen. Unfortunately, the Boundary Waters was closed to overnight travel due to Coronavirus closures and the unnecessary risk to visitors and safety personnel, and our group decided it was not a wise idea to travel, so the trip was canceled.

Fortunately, I had a Mudro Lake permit in my back pocket for Tuesday May 26th. I had booked the permit right away when permits became available back in January, knowing that it might be one of my only opportunities other than fishing opener weekend that I might be able to get away during the busy season.  As manager of the retail store, I can rarely take more than a few days off at a time between Memorial and Labor Day to make trips happen.  

Here’s some insider information if you’d like to visit the BWCA when the weather and water are starting to warm up, there are not yet clouds of pesky insects, the fish are incredibly active and feeding and there are very few people visiting the BWCA; go the two weeks after Memorial Day weekend.  The BWCA sees a huge spike of visitors Memorial Day Weekend, then it slows down for 2-3 weeks before picking up again leading into late June and the Fourth of July.  

Simple Places

Simple Places by Jeffrey Hancock

simple places need to be preserved
photo by Steve Piragis

My head screamed in pain at camp.  

It had been a long and demanding previous three days as I wrapped up work, prepared to leave, made the trip, and connected with my wife and kids for a 3-night adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).  I had left from Kansas the day before after spending the previous night packing for a new adventure, of which I had no experience with.  The plan was to meet in Minneapolis, catch them on an incoming flight after a two week visit in Vermont with grandma, shovel down some dinner, dash to a hotel bed and awake early the next morning for the five or so hour drive to Moose Lake.  The plan worked out great, but I underestimated the mental toll of changing all those gears along the way.

At Moose Lake we geared up, settled up on rented canoes and permits, and struck off across the water to arrive at our first camping spot of the evening.  We had finally made it…Wilderness.  It was about seven o’clock when we landed camp and I was spent with pain in the brain.  About forty-eight hours earlier I had been at a desk doing what engineering business owners do and in a mental state far different than I expect of myself in the woods.