BLOG 74. Canoeing the BWCA with Steve Johnson and Cliff Jacobson
In 2009, after three decades of outfitting and guiding canoe trips in northern Canada, I threw in the towel, had a huge garage sale and sold off most of my tripping gear. My plan was to start a “new life” of just “canoeing and camping with friends. I’d seen my share of grizzlies and polar bears, musk ox and caribou, wolves, whales, wolverines and seals. I was 69 and figured it was time to climb a new mountain.
|Cliff prepares supper|
So when Steve Piragis asked if I would lead a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters for him, I said “no”! Then, he baited me with: “What if Steve Johnson guides the trip and you go along for laughs?” I perked right up when he said “Johnson”—for Steve Johnson is Piragis’s top guide. Years earlier he joined me and a Piragis crew on a trip down the Steel River in Ontario. It was unique because there were real rapids and we all paddled solo canoes. I’d done the Steel several times beforet, but now, with Steve along, it would be much easier. Two guides to share the work of one—how wonderful! During that trip I grew to really like and respect Steve and hoped our paddles would cross again on future trips. Johnson is a bull in the woods: he will carry a canoe and the heaviest pack with seemingly no effort at all. He can make a one match fire in the rain; catch lunker fish while others keep casting, and do it all with a great big smile. I’ve known a lot of guides over the years, but I think Johnson is the best.
To date, I’ve done five canoe trips with Steve—one on Ontario’s Steel River, and four in the Boundary Waters. Each year, we do a different route in the BWCA. Most recently (our August 9-15, 2014), we began at Moose Lake (with a motor tow to Sucker Lake—thank goodness!) then paddled northeast along the American side of the border to the South arm of Knife Lake. For a different view coming back, we canoed the Canadian side of the border. There were four days of leisurely but determined paddling and relatively easy portages, and one layover day on a picturesque campsite. There were no bugs (not one!) and near constant sun all week. It rained heavily one night but courteously stopped just before dawn. I never took my rain gear out of my pack!
Steve and I each hang a GPS from the stern thwart of our canoe. Mine records the route and campsites. Steve’s, I think, notes EVERYTHING, including the position of every school of edible-size fish and dry sticks of wood. Soon as we’re camped, Johnson mysteriously disappears for an hour or so. When he returns, his canoe is filled with fish and tinder dry wood. Fried fish and blazing fires are always part of the daily routine.
At my age (I turn 74 next month), I no longer relish the heavy work of hauling back-killing packs and heavy canoes (fortunately, the Piragis boats are very light!). I can still carry reasonable loads, but my days of slogging 80 pounds on a tumpline are gone. Fortunately, there’s Johnson! He humps the heavy stuff, fuels fires, fries fish and pontificates on nature. I make gourmet meals, model wilderness skills—rig rain tarps, demystify GPS navigation, teach knots, tell stories and smile a lot.
Steve and I consider our trip together “special”. Accordingly, we provide the finest food and treats for our crew. There are fresh vegetables from Johnson’s garden, my own scratch-made Italian spaghetti with dried hamburger (tastes just like fresh!), fresh garlic, olives, celery, basil and oregano and two kinds of mushrooms; a popular hamburger/raman/shittake mushroom vegetable stew, and my signature dish-- steam-fried pizza with fresh onions, garlic, pepperoni, zucchini and fresh mozzarella. And when the campfire and stars shine brightly, I pop Orville’s finest corn with organic butter and sea salt—and there’s not a burned kernel in the lot!
If you want to learn a lot and have fun a lot, join us on a future Johnson-Jacobson canoe trip. It happens just once a year, in August.
The equipment Piragis provides is the finest obtainable. And it’s all spanking new (each year, Piragis replaces used gear with new). Canoes are ultralight Kevlar We-no-nahs and Bells; tents are high end NEMO’s and Sierra Designs; paddles are $200 carbon-fiber bent-shafts; tarps are Cooke Custom Sewing, ultralight sil-nylon; CCS and Granite Gear packs have waterproof vinyl-coated liner bags. Everyone gets a comfy pillow, Nalgene liter water bottle and an insulated mug, plus a full size folding chair with backrest so you can sit while eating fish and solving the world’s problems. Participants also get a copy of my book, Boundary Waters Canoe Camping, autographed by Steve and I.
When we were sorting out stuff at the end of our trip, Drew Brockett asked how much longer I plan to continue these trips with Steve. “As long as I’m alive and can put one leg in front of the other, “ I replied. “And when I can’t I’ll ride in the middle and you guys can paddle me around”.