Sommers Canoe Base Trip Report
By Ronald Fox

The crew left the Charles L. Sommers Northern Tier Canoe Base on June 22nd. We crossed into Canada that same day and spent the next 8 nights in Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. For the middle 4 of those days, we didn't see another human being. We paddled about 90 miles, and portaged (poor-tahged, with the accent on the 2nd syllable) another 5.5. I was very happy, and somewhat surprised, that the Scouts set a challenging route for themselves. We had a great guide, Martin, who did a wonderful job with the boys (and the adults...), making sure we learned a few things about the area, canoeing, and ourselves. The guides get trip assignments on a bid system where the most experienced guides get the first bid. The most desired bids are the 10-day Quetico trips, which--not knowing this--is what we took.

The geology of this place is rugged. The lakes are nothing like you may be used to where you live. Many of them have "shores" made up of sheer rock cliffs anywhere from 5 to 100 feet tall, with trees clinging to a couple of inches of soil. There's generally only a few spots of rock ramps that you can land a canoe at. When you get caught in a storm in the middle of a 4 mile long lake, you can't just put in and wait the storm out: there's nowhere to land. You have to point your canoe into the wind (said canoe being loaded with 2 people plus 160 pounds of gear or food), paddle as hard as you can for an hour or two, and ride it out. Then you still have to paddle and portage to your campsite. When you get out of your canoe, the rocks are covered with lichen and moss. Trees grow, very tenuously, in the 2 to 6 inches of soil that has been created by tens or hundred of thousands of years of growth and decay of the lichen and moss.

One small area of the park has thousands of trees blown over by a burst of wind that blew through last year. The Scouts were surprised to see the root systems of the upturned trees were only a few inches deep and peeled off to reveal bare rock. Who was it who first used the phrase, "a terrible beauty"? It describes this place. It is beautiful. But there's a couple of plaques in Bay Post (the building where equipment is issued to crews) dedicated to 3 Scouts who went out on trips but never came back. Between them are a couple of food pack containers that had been torn open by bears, and outside are canoes that were wrecked on one set of falls or another.

To get from lake to lake, you often have to carry either an 80 pound pack or a 75 pound canoe across extremely rough trails. These trails usually start and end at a swampy, heavily mosquito-infested spot on the lake where the water flows in or out from the next lake in the chain. The trail is usually comprised of two or more of the following elements: jumbles of rock anywhere from 6" to 4' across, with minimal soil between them, and nearly knife-sharp edges; bog, with a few logs thrown in to lend footing, that can be anywhere from 2" to 3' deep (my son went in one up to his hip with a pack on his back, it took two people to pull him out); mud covered rock; and rock ledges anywhere from 5' to 50' in height with only the odd foot-sized outcropping or tree roots for footing on a 50 to 70 degree angle.

These can be anywhere from a few rods (the unit of measure, 16.5 feet long) to over 200. Our longest was about 180. 160 rods is a half mile. The most notable portage was the one between Agnes Lake and Louisa Lake. There's a falls between these two lake of somewhat over 100 feet. That means you're going up (or down) that distance, and the length is only about 10 rods. On the top half, you can stand upright on the trail, reach straight out in front of you, and touch the trail. But half way down, there's a flat spot that you can set down the loads and climb into the falls themselves, into a rock pocket called the "bathtub" that fits about 10 people, and let the water pound down on you while you clean up (no soap, please) and yell at each other, and look over the lip 60 feet down to the bottom of the falls, which are about 20 feet wide there.

Part of the value of this trip is the technical part. All of your canoeing, hiking, and camping skills are stretched as you are completely self-reliant. If you didn't bring it, you won't have it and have to do without. "I forgot" may be true, but the rocks don't care. "Dad, give me xxxx" isn't an option; Dad doesn't have it or isn't there. You also have to strip down to very minimal gear, as you can't carry a bunch of extra changes of clothes, camp chairs, etc. Too heavy and too much volume. The food is a lot different: everything is dried or powdered, and the amount of meat is minimal (from MREs); you're mostly stoking up on a one pot meal with lots of rice or pasta and freeze dried corn and peas for vegetables, plus dried sauces and spices.

You're also wearing unfamiliar clothing. You wear Vietnam-era jungle boots, that lace up to 4" above your ankle, are half Cordura fabric, and have drain holes in the bottom. You wear wool socks under these. Your feet are wet all day, and you have to dry them out and powder them once you get into camp and get the bear bag hung. You don't get in out of the rain. The bugs can drive you into your tent at 8 PM.

And you still have fun. Each Scout caught the biggest fish they've caught in their lives. The smallmouth were jumping into the boats. We had a couple of fish breakfasts where each person had a pound or more of fish to eat. I caught a bass that was 21" long, 12" in girth, and 3.5 pounds, and one of the Scouts caught one that was 5 pounds (those were released, by the way). Everyone caught at least one bass 18" long and 2.5 pounds or larger.

My limited communication skills leaves me unable to tell you exactly what it means to me to literally see my son grow before my eyes. His self-confidence has jumped up. His understanding of what he can do, and what he can try to do, has greatly expanded. His attitude towards challenges has changed; he now has at least some understanding of why he should seek to undertake something that he may fail at, instead of avoiding anything that he's not assured of succeeding at. He also understands that if you do fail (standing there in the middle of the trail in bog up to his waist), you can still pick yourself up (or have your friends pick you up) and succeed. I think he now understands the values of accepting risks.

He will talk about this, and be proud of what he's accomplished, for the rest of his life. And he should. He'll also be bonded to the Scouts he went on this trip with for the rest of his life, even if they separate in a year or two as they become involved in high school. I have told the parents that the Scouts that came home from this trip are not the boys they said goodbye to at the end of June. In fact, as I've written this, I've edited out the word "boy" and used "Scout", as "boy" no longer really fits them anymore. And I've been blessed to be a part of it, even if my back is absolutely killing me (if you're paddling hard into a headwind, keep your back straight, don't twist it into each stroke for extra power and then carry a 75 pound canoe over 3 miles of rocks the next 4 days...).

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