It's just getting light and drops of dew drop randomly from oak leaf to oak leaf on the trees around my house. This is the main sound; a faint mist muffles distant dog barking. The tree frogs who were also barking early in the night have fallen silent. This is the day (May 11) I have been working for since mid-February when I decided to go on this trip. Soon I begin the long drive to the Little Indian Sioux River put-in on the Echo Trail (entry point 9) from Sewanee, Tennessee. In a few minutes the preparation of jogging, weight lifting, paddling and hiking with a heavy pack will be behind me and the real journey will be under way.
I set my GPS on the hood of my van while I eat granola and sip coffee and have a last minute conversation with my wife. I want her to at least attempt to notify me if something happens to either of our elderly mothers. She wants me to be careful and call often on the trip up. Breakfast is over; the GPS has queried the satellites for its position. Before I kiss J. goodbye I hit the "goto" button and select "LISR." Last night I entered the position of the put-in using Delorme Topo USA. The GPS reports an as-the-raven-flies distance of 943 miles and a bearing of 345°. A kiss; I'm in the van and out of the driveway at 5:00 a.m.heading south. How many more miles than 943 will I drive before I start paddling?
Driving north and northwest through Kentucky and Illinois and on into Wisconsin is traveling back in time. The corn shrinks. In Tennessee it is about a foot high; but it is only two or three inches in northern Illinois. Wisconsin farmers are preparing to plant. The leaves on the trees shrink and become a paler green. I go from fully leafed out trees to the early blooms of fruit trees. I quickly pass over the Cumberland, Tennessee and Ohio rivers. All are dammed, engineered so that no obstacles surprise the mighty barges. I'm heading for smaller rivers and I want surprises.
Fourteen hours later I'm in Chippewa Falls, WI, in a small motel. I ask the man at the desk about a picture of two boys leaning on a structure that only small boys would build. "That's me and my brother when I was about ten. My mother gave me that when I turned fifty." In the intervening 40+ years, I learn, he and his brother have built and operated this motel, restaurant and campground. I reflect on knowing your life's work from an early age; I didn't. But then I loved camping and canoeing when I was around ten and here I am.
Here's another advantage of the short Hornbeck canoe--it fits in my van (a full size Ford Econoline). At motels I just lock the doors. No worries about theft and on the road no concerns about loose straps. My long paddle also easily fits inside. The bow comes up between the two front seats; I rest the road map on it and glance at the compass now and then.
In the days leading up to this trip I have been checking web sites: long-range weather reports--how cold will it be? and how high is the water? Will the LISR's current make going upstream difficult? The water levels are high; on Basswood Lake they are breaking 72 year old records. So, when I arrive in Ely six hours after leaving Chippewa Falls via routes 61 and 2, I drive the 30 miles to the put-in on the LISR. I quickly see that, although the water is higher than when I did part of this route in 1999, it is doable. I head back to Ely and in the process see seven deer, a moose and a fisher. When I pick up my permit at the International Wolf Center, I learn two things: 1) the artic wolf pups are fully grown from last August and 2) my idea of camping up the LISR before the BWCA boundary won't work because the land along the river is not in the Superior National Forest as I thought. It's privately owned and if I camped there I would be trespassing.
I get some last minute things in Ely which is very calm. There are plenty of parking places and the shops are mostly empty. In the Piragis bookroom (now upstairs) Steve Pargis introduces himself. It's a good feeling--most people seem to know each other and, if they don't, want to find out who you are. I joke with Steve that I'm having two springs this year. I buy the book Three Years in a Twelve-Foot Boat to read on the trip (six days in a 10-foot canoe?).
The campsites at the Lake Jeanette Campground back up the Echo Trial are too close together for my taste so I end up staying in the Fenske Lake Campground which is basically deserted. It's ironic to stay here. Last August my wife and I rented one of the cabins across the lake for several hundred dollars a week. This night I'm paying only $10 for the night; but no sauna!