Stepping Stones into the BWCAW

Entry Point No. 19 Stuart River — For all those who have been privileged to set foot in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, nearly all have memories of not just placid campsites and pristine waters, but also something less inviting: portage trails. These ancient paths cut through the forest and serve as primitive escape routes for eager paddlers seeking temporary emancipation from civilization and its seemingly frenetic treadmill of endless running, playing, working and worrying. All portages are not created equal, though. Some can be short, flat and relatively free of rocks, tree roots and wet spots. In many cases, however, portages can be long — a quarter-mile is normal; a half-mile or more common — and arduous, requiring paddlers to pack their gear and canoes over and through rugged terrain that includes steep inclines, rocks and boulders, downed trees, water, mud and frequent clouds of insects. No matter the fear, frustration or even hardship these well-worn thoroughfares have produced, paddlers know that they are just a temporary means to a usually glorious end: fish fries and shore lunches, warm campfires and laughing loons, distant wolf howls under an aurora night sky, and most of all: happy, serene memories. Have you added your footprints to the stone, soil, tree roots and mosses that make up these hallowed portage trails? This summer will you add your name and write your own chapter in this unending wilderness story? The trails, rivers and lakes within the BWCAW await your arrival.

 

Earth Day 2017 Observations

WAYLAND, MASS. — It’s tempting on this day before Earth Day to climb into the high pulpit of conservation and environmentalism and to preach, as I frequently have tried through the years, about the need to teach our children well. To encourage them to be good fellow citizens on this blue and green marble we all share and call home. To exhort them to care for Earth. To care for nature. To care for one another regardless of creed or color or class.

It would be particularly easy to feel justified in pontificating against the irresponsible slobs who don’t pick up after themselves a day after hiking with extended family — both children and adults — around a beautiful national wildlife refuge in eastern Massachusetts where the arrival of spring was evidenced in swollen tree buds and pulsating bird life, but where, in the same place, in every direction, there could be seen paper and plastic and broken glass and wads of old fishing line and even a sign warning anglers not to eat any fish they might catch. (The sign didn’t explain why, which leads the mind to imagine all sorts of dire possibilities, such as high levels of mercury.)

Of course it would be easy to bemoan how others are despoiling the planet — for us, our children and our children’s children — not just by throwing their garbage everywhere but all the more seriously by not doing a better job of regulating the massive amounts of fossil fuels they are emitting into the air we breathe or the tons of deadly chemicals they are dumping onto the soil and into the water that inevitably contaminate the life-giving natural resources we all need to survive.

It would be just as easy to point an accusatory finger at others, especially corporate heads, lobbyists and the politicians both aforementioned groups often appear to own and control, and who seem — all too increasingly — only to value an economy based on the insatiable appetite of its citizenry to consume physical and material goods — an unsustainable approach to life that ends up trashing the Earth and the atmosphere while ignoring and enslaving the lives of so many in a tyranny that lines the coffers of a greedy few.

It would be easy, as one among those who try to respect and care for the good world around us, to play the blaming game.

To attack the adversary. To be angry and to grumble and to rage against the annihilating machine.

To say to others that they are either for us or against us. With us or without us. Good or bad. Left or right. Pro or con. Black or white.

Because of our humanness, however, it’s not so easy for some of us — whether we’re liberal tree huggers on the left, radical conservatives on the right or most likely somewhere in between — to acknowledge that we all, in some way, share the blame and shame for the degradation.

We are all in this boat together. As such, we all are part of the problems, and we all can be part of the solutions.

In these turbulent days our children desperately need to see all of us demonstrate honesty, civility, respect, nonpartisanship and statesmanship.

Not to mention grace, forgiveness and stewardship of this one and only beautiful home we call Earth.

Happy Earth Day 2017.

^

Todd Burras can be reached at outdoorstoddburras@gmail.com.

Finding Your Entry Point into the Outdoors

 

ELY, MINN. — Look on any number of maps of this part of northeastern Minnesota and you’ll see dozens of circled red numbers or black asterisks and numbers often next to a red line of varying lengths.

Paddlers who are familiar to the area know what those symbols mean. The numbers represent entry points — read “parking areas” — and the red lines indicate portages — manmade trails that link paddlers and their canoes from their vehicles to water entries — creeks, rivers and lakes.

These entry points serve as jumping off points to a few days or even weeks of adventure into North America’s largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River. It’s here where tens of thousands of people come to escape the grind and rat race of daily life and to rest and recuperate, relax and recreate, revive and refocus.

A few entry points allow a paddler to disembark right next to the water, but most require some foot travel over a portage. All portages, however, are not created equal. Some can be short, flat and relatively free of obstacles. In many cases, though, portages can be long — a quarter-mile is normal; a half-mile or more common — and arduous, requiring paddlers to pack their gear and canoes over and through rugged terrain that includes steep inclines, rocks and roots, downed trees, water, mud and frequent clouds of insects.

In short, the red portage lines mean the paddler is going to have to go to some effort and inconvenience to get onto the water and into the wilderness where they can find the lake, campsite, fishing spot or vista he or she seeks.

The question now arises: Do you have any special entry points into the wilderness — read “nature and outdoors” — in your life? If not, could you identify one and visit it sometime soon?

An entry point doesn’t have to be 1 million acres of wilderness. It doesn’t need to be 1,000 or 100 or 10 or even 1. Maybe you already have an entry point that’s as simple as walking out the door and into the backyard where you have a flower or vegetable garden, or both. Or maybe you manage some birdfeeders and birdhouses or raise bees back there. Maybe the entry point is a walk around the block or a trip to a small park where you like to watch, listen, smell and possibly taste the natural world around you.

But maybe the backyard or a neighborhood green space doesn’t do it for you. Maybe you don’t even have a backyard or maybe you need a destination entry point that allows you to unplug and reconnect with the outdoors. Remember the red lines representing the portages? Maybe, in your case, you need to walk or drive or even fly to an entry point to gain access to a setting that brings you the benefits that only nature and the outdoors can provide.

Through more than two decades of living in central Iowa, several areas have served me as entry points into the outdoors and nature. They include Ada Hayden Heritage Park in Ames; McFarland Park, east of Gilbert; Inis Grove and Emma McCarthy Lee parks in Ames; Ledges State Park near Boone; Colo Bog in eastern Story County; and the Skunk River Greenbelt south of Story City. There are, in fact, many others; too many to mention.

What about you? Is there an entry point nearby? Here’s guessing there is, and here’s hoping you’ll use it.

Todd Burras can be reached at outdoorstoddburras@gmail.com.

 

Called into the Wilderness

Entry Point No. 16 Moose River North — A windfall balsam may block the progress of a vehicle, but it cannot impede a spirit called into the wilderness. A raven croaks. A robin sings. A time-worn portage trail is covered by snow, ice, water, leaves, mud, tracks. Whitetail. Wolf. Moose River North droning in the distance … always, hypnotic in its invitation. That is until the thunder of ruffed grouse wings momentarily breaks the reverie. A new song. A new season. Nothing will hinder the desire of the water to rush on toward Hudson Bay. Nothing can halt the march of spring into the North Country.

The first break of light…

“The early morning belongs to the Church of the risen Christ. At the break of light it remembers the morning on which death and sin lay prostrate in defeat and new life and salvation were given to mankind.”

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Get me out of here and ‘out there’

It was a quiet highway in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, blue sky, prairie grass and rolling green hills in all directions, buttes in the distance, the windows partly down. This was in Wyoming in the summer of 1972, and, as usual when we traveled, I found myself sandwiched in the front seat between my parents, my older three siblings fighting turf wars of their own in the backseat.

As I recall, there was no air conditioning in the car, but that fact, like most of the others surrounding this family vacation — which, now as a married adult with two kids of my own, I can see in the review mirror was an epic undertaking by mother and father — is lost to time. All that remains are a few grainy photographs (no selfies or video footage of the entire trip) and scattered memories among the six of us.

One other thing I do remember, however, which my mother likes to remind me, is that I continually grumbled about being stuck in the car, on a highway shared by others, the endless vistas appearing and then quickly disappearing as my father kept his foot on the accelerator.

“But I want to be out there,” I would protest, pointing to some distant butte or valley where I presumed there were no other people, save perhaps for some small Indian settlement (something at that tender age I naively dreamed still existed somewhere), and only buffalo or antelope or whatever other wild creatures the Great Plains might be home to. “Out there.”

I don’t remember if we ever got “out there” – at least to my satisfaction — on that particular trip, although we did drive through the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Tetons and I remember seeing a black bear and some elk. But so, too, did the throngs of other vacationers with whom we shared the roads and motels and magnificent scenery.

Being “out there” wasn’t an idea or ideal that I remember working on or expanding the meaning of while growing up in the middle of Iowa farm country, some 8.5 miles from the nearest town and nearly a mile from the nearest neighbors. It never once occurred to me that by many people’s definition, my family was living “out there.”

In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago when Stephanie and I bought a cabin in the woods and I moved here to recover from some health problems that I began thinking about what I meant on that lonely stretch of highway in the middle of Wyoming. What is being “out there?” Does such a thing even exist? If so, what does it look and feel like? Is “out there” the same for everyone or does it at least include some common attributes or characteristics? How would I know if I’m truly “out there?” Does living in a cabin in the Superior National Forest qualify?

Please bear with me as I make a rudimentary attempt to briefly answer these questions for myself.

First of all, in this context, “out there” has to do with a personal interaction with the environment. It does not have anything to do with artificial hallucinogens or psychotic behavior though being “out there” can release endorphins that cause us to feel good.

Secondly, “out there” is a subjective term. One person’s definition may not fit another’s just as one man’s dog sled trip to the North Pole might be another man’s walk through a park with his canine companion.

Third, being “out there” likely involves some level of risk — even if it’s merely subjecting oneself to uncomfortable temperatures, blood-sucking insects or the like — and reward – where we derive some benefit from the experience, even something as basic as a little exercise or the release of some stress.

Finally, and certainly not last nor least on this potentially exhaustive topic, it involves being alone or at least in the company of a limited number of people, out of earshot of manmade noise and ideally out of cell phone range, a criteria that’s getting more and more difficult to meet.

Personally, being “out there” needs to involve at least some tactile engagement with plants or animals or rocks or water or other natural elements and it almost always involves getting off the beaten path and away from crowds and buildings and roads.

I liken sidewalks to highways and paths to gravel roads, and I’ve spent a good part of my life – even to this day – on gravel roads, both out of necessity and now by choice. Sidewalks, for the most part, take you where you think you want to go. They’re designed to be people friendly, minimizing one’s risk of being injured or subjected to unpleasant and unexpected encounters with the encroachment of nature, such as rocks, thickets, low-hanging limbs and water.

When you step off a sidewalk and onto a path, however, all bets are off. If the path is one you’ve never stepped foot upon and there’s no signage directing where it leads, you don’t know for sure where you’ll end up. You don’t even know what “hazards” might await. That, to me, is an opportunity. It’s where curiosity fuels the feet and the road to adventure and potentially being “out there” begins.

I have been “out there” many times throughout my life. Among some that come to mind: Paddling a kayak with my wife and in-laws in an Atlantic Ocean bay as seals and porpoises poked up their heads nearby to see who the intruders were; sharing a rocky shelter with a marmot near the top of a Colorado mountain peak while watching a storm blow over; sitting in a canoe on a remote lake in northern Minnesota on a beautiful November day, miles and miles from the nearest person and listening to a flock of tundra swans preening and playing; snowshoeing down a trail in winter and crossing paths with a timber wolf; standing near bison in the middle of wildlife refuge in central Iowa; stalking a pheasant through a swale.

Each of us defines in our own terms what it means to be “out there,” but no matter the similarities or differences, if you have opportunity today or tomorrow or some day next week, it’s my hope that you will find a trail and go for a walk. If it’s a concrete sidewalk, take a risk and step off it and find a wildlife trail or foot path. Explore it. Interact with it. Discover where it might take you. See if you eventually find yourself “out there.”

Ahhhhh…Spring arriving in canoe country

Entry point number 32. South Kawishiwi River. Melting snow. Running water.  Barking Canada geese. Cawing crows. Woodpeckers excavating dead trees. Scolding ravens. White pines soughing in the warm breeze. Coyote scat on the portage trail. Bear paw tracks on the river’s edge.  Spring arriving in canoe country.

When it comes to environmental engineering, leave it to the beavers

One of the reassuring aspects about going home – no matter how you define that term – is there are always things that don’t change – at least not much. There are always familiar people, landmarks, scents, flavors and sounds.

On the other hand, there are always a few changes, as well. New neighbors. New paint on an otherwise familiar home. A new car in a friend’s driveway. A missing tree or bush or both.

In an ever-sprawling town like Ames, if you’re gone very long, the number of changes can overwhelm even the most familiar of familiar things. New houses. New apartments. New businesses. More new houses. More new apartments. New streets. New playground equipment. Did I mention more new houses and apartments?            On my most recent visit home last week, conspicuous changes were even evident at one of my favorite green spaces in Mid-Iowa: Ada Hayden Heritage Park. I’m not referring to all the new development on the park’s north and west boundaries, either, which, at the risk of possibly offending anyone I’ll say no more.

Rather, hidden among the big bluestem, willows and wetland ponds in the center of the park, change in the way of construction of a different sort is taking place. It’s there where a colony of beavers has moved in and has been busy building a lodge in the past year, taking down trees here and there and adding some damming materials to a manmade concrete weir.

Beavers are among the most industrious and hard-working of all animals, tirelessly taking down trees, ferrying branches back and forth, building dams and lodges, and cutting ditches in bogs and muskeg, all of which manipulate the landscape to their liking. Next to humans, no other mammal can more dramatically alter an environment than these ecological engineers.

Here in the Superior National Forest of northeastern Minnesota, beaver ponds and the meadows they leave behind make up about 15 percent of the total land area of the region, according to a new book by John Pastor, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Biology. That’s a staggering statistic, which means there are tens of thousands of acres in the region that have been directly altered by beavers.

There aren’t nearly as many beavers in Iowa as there once were. Nor are they as plentiful as in areas where they have little or no contact with people, few encounters with predators and nearly boundless space to do what they do best: alter ecosystems for better and in some cases the worse.

In Ames, it’s perhaps too early to know if any of the local beaver colony’s work is affecting the park’s hydrologic system, which was engineered to move water from the local watershed across the landscape and into the nearby Skunk River. It’s not too early, though, to predict that left to the beavers, more changes to Ada Hayden Heritage Park could be coming.

Todd Burras can be reached at outdoorstoddburras@gmail.com.