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Little things make the trip

Birds, fishing, and the song of the whip-poor-will highlights of weekend journey

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 5/30/18

CUMMINGS LAKE— Sometimes it’s the little things that stand out on a trip into the Boundary Waters. That was the case this past weekend when my son Max and I ventured into the heart of the Trout …

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Little things make the trip

Birds, fishing, and the song of the whip-poor-will highlights of weekend journey


CUMMINGS LAKE— Sometimes it’s the little things that stand out on a trip into the Boundary Waters. That was the case this past weekend when my son Max and I ventured into the heart of the Trout Lake section of the wilderness for three days of camping and fishing for northern pike. Roller-coaster weather, incredible bird-watching, good fishing, total solitude, and the song of a whip-poor-will were just some of the little things that proved highlights of the trip.

For us, it was a last opportunity to spend a little father-son bonding time before Max heads back to grad school, this time to pursue a PhD in entomology (studying bugs in case you forgot) at Michigan State. We won’t see much of him over the next five years and a few days in the wilderness was a way to reconnect with his North Country birthright before he re-enters that oh-so-populated outside world.

We chose the Trout Lake section of the Boundary Waters because Max is a lot like his old man— he’d rather not have a lot of company on a trip in the woods. And this roughly 100,000-acre chunk of wilderness is rarely visited. Its portages are long, it’s disconnected from the rest of the Boundary Waters, and access isn’t that easy.

We took the Crab Portage from Burntside, which I knew had been reconstructed a few years ago after an access dispute with a landowner. What I had forgotten was that the location marked on my 1992 vintage map wasn’t going to reflect the change.

We found the remains of the old portage, walked 20 feet down the trail and realized it was impassable. Fortunately, we had both brought iPhones (I brought mine to take photos, Max brought his because they’re inseparable), so we called the Forest Service office in Ely. Becca Manlove answered cheerily and quickly snapped a photo of a map showing the new portage location and texted it to us and we were instantly back on track. So even I, a natural Luddite, am starting to warm to the notion of this new-fangled technology— at least when it works. The new portage is 420 rods, by the way, a fair bit longer than the original trail.

It’s long enough for the sounds of civilization to fade away.

By the time we hit the north half of Crab Lake, we had left the only other canoeists on the lake behind. From there, through Little Crab and on up the Korb River into Cummings Lake, we had the whole place to ourselves. In three days on sprawling Cummings Lake, we never saw another soul.

We had our pick of campsites and selected a beautiful one on the tip of a long, narrow peninsula that juts to the west about two-thirds of the way up the lake. It’s an ideal location to keep the bugs at bay, but we had timed our trip perfectly, and didn’t need the breeze. We never saw a mosquito.

We did, however, see some unpleasant weather. It was an odd three days, bookended by perfect conditions punctuated with rain, high winds and chilly temperatures our second morning that had us reaching for every stitch of warm clothing we had brought.

While the chilly wind kept us hunkered down for the morning, it did much the same for an amazing assortment of birds that hung out on the leeward side of our little peninsula, searching through the stunted red pines for their breakfast. By far the most fascinating was a male red crossbill who was actively feeding at least three recently-fledged young. Sitting on a little bedrock rise with my binoculars, I was able to watch the crossbill at eye level as it used its unusual beak to work the nuts out of red pine cones in order to placate its pestering children. It stayed right in camp for at least half an hour, providing a chance to observe crossbills unlike any I’d experienced before. I even watched the young ones as they tried working pine nuts out of the cone for themselves. It looked like they’d be dependent on the parents for a while yet. It’s a strange beak and it no doubt takes some practice.

Later in the morning, as the sky lifted and the wind died down, we headed west to the outlet into Otter Lake, where we’d heard the fishing could be good at times. As we neared the spot, we saw four bald eagles, including two that were obviously fighting. The eagles were clustered around the rapids at the outlet, where the suckers were running and the living was easy.

We later found the two fighting eagles on the ground near the rapids. We paddled over while I tried to snap a few photos, which prompted one of the birds to fly off. The other stayed behind and it was only as we got closer that it became apparent that the bird may have been injured in the brawl. Rather than fly, it crawled off into the woods and we quickly headed the other way to avoid further stressing the bird. One thing’s for sure, in the wild, everything is for keeps. We could only hope for its recovery.

The Cummings outflow into Otter did provide us some fishing action, including our nicest northern of the trip and a couple big bass, which we tossed back. I’m more than happy to portage northern fillets, but I draw the line at bass.

But soon our attention was drawn to the recent burn on the north shore of Otter, which had started a few years ago from an unextinguished campfire. We decided to explore the site for moose sign and found plenty. The moose had clearly been working the site over heavily. Piles of moose scat were everywhere and virtually every bit of recovering vegetation had been heavily browsed. It just confirmed what has become increasingly clear— moose primarily need quality habitat to thrive in the North Country.

We slowly paddled our way back to our campsite, working shorelines with spoons, exploring the nooks and crannies of Cummings Lake along the way. By the time we arrived back at camp, the sky had cleared and the high winds had lessened to a fresh breeze and temperatures had climbed at least into the 50s. After supper, we casted from shore as the sun slowly settled in the west.

Later, when we had retired to our sleeping bags, the wind calmed and we listened to the sounds of the night— a nearby loon with a call that was slightly off-key, and a barred owl asking “who-cooks-for-you?” Then the whip-poor-wills started in. These nocturnal birds feed on night-flying insects and are more often heard than seen. But in my experience, even hearing a whip-poor-will is a pretty uncommon event. I tried to soak it in.

We made our way out of the wilderness the following day. Against a backdrop of intense blue, we marveled at the huge red and white pine that towered over the shores of Korb Lake, and the lime green of new aspen leaves that were then just appearing.

These are little things, perhaps, but they can make a trip when we make the time to take notice. And they are fine memories to sustain a young man as he heads off to life’s big adventure.

It’s been quite a growing up for him in our little log cabin in the deep woods, and I know he’s come to appreciate how unique his childhood was here in the North Country. Another visit to the Boundary Waters was just to accentuate the point. As I told him the other day, “Kid, remember your roots.”


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