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Just canoes and paddles… on ‘vacation?’

“You’re going where?  For how long?  Just canoes and paddles?  No motors?  This is your summer vacation?”

We wanted to get away.  We wanted a change of pace, to be surrounded by nature’s beauty.   And so the dream began for me, my two older sisters Trace and Ann, and our good friend Pam.  We made our plans and BWCA reservation, gathering information, tents, equipment, food.  Trace was our natural guide, as she had gone on several BWCA camping trips with her husband in past years.  Nervous and excited, we gathered at their home in northern Minnesota, making sure we had everything packed.

Women only  (no husbands, no kids), in our early 40s, taking time to laugh, visit, enjoy each other and relax in nature’s quiet.  We picked up our permit in Ely, getting an early morning start.  After finding our entry point, we loaded up the canoes.  We paddled to Isabella Lake in July 1991 on a glorious, sunny day, after portaging our canoes, packs and gear.  The gentle breezes over the gray-blue waters helped keep the mosquitoes and bugs away.

“Check that compass and map again…… Are you sure this is the right way?”  “Pass the canteen, M&Ms and Twizzlers please.”  We finally found our campsite and pulled up to shore.  We unloaded the canoes, pitched the tents, set up camp, made dinner, and washed up.  We built a crackling campfire, relaxed around it with cocoa and s’mores.  The trickiest part was hoisting our food pack up high on a rope between two tall trees, hopefully secured from any hungry bears.  It took awhile and quite a few tries, but finally all was set.  Eyelids grew heavy, and we climbed into our sleeping bags with aching muscles, falling sound asleep in a hurry.

Our days and nights passed quickly and melted together, as we enjoyed  swimming, exploring and relaxing.  Around the evening campfire we watched brilliant sunsets, told stories, sang songs, played Yahtzee.  The world slowed down and came alive, with nature’s beauty filling all our senses.

The truly magical, unforgettable BWCA experience happened close to the end of our camping  time. Our sister Ann got up and went outside sometime after midnight.  Near the tent, her eye caught movement high above.  The night sky was dancing with pulsating colors.  She called to us, “Wake up! Quick, get out here……. You won’t believe this!”  We scrambled out of our sleeping bags, climbed out of the tent, blinking like raccoons in the night.  The wide sky was alive with brilliant colors, blending with each other, shimmering, glowing.  We all wordlessly moved down by the lake’s edge, eyes fixed on the entrancing display of Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.  The colors were violet, purple, silver, shades of green.  They stretched across the sky, mirrored in the calm lake water, doubling their size.

Suddenly our ears filled with the sound of loons calling in the night.  They were aroused by the fantastic light display too, evidently.  Their haunting ghostly cries echoed from all sides.  They called back and forth, their cries fading away, only to start up again moments later.  We said very little to each other.  There was no need.

These sights and sounds filled and magnified our world, our eyes, ears, and hearts that spiritual night.  This spellbinding show may have gone on for only a half hour, or maybe a couple hours. Who can say?  It doesn’t really matter. We were lost in time and place, with a rare mystical experience.  When it was finally finished, we slowly headed back to bed, somehow changed, bonded closer to our world.

The next morning, we visited more about the night magic of Northern Lights and loons.  Would we experience it again?  Each night until we left, we kept a lookout, hoping.  While we weren’t honored with a repeat performance, that memory remains  sharp and vivid, crystallized in time. Finally it was time to pack up and head home.  We were ready by then, with some sunburn and bug bites, lots of pictures and special memories.

That was our first BWCA adventure, over 20 years ago.  We promised each other to make it a yearly journey, and we have kept that promise.   Our core group of sisters and friend Pam remains constant.  Sometimes my daughter Barbara or our stepmom Marilyn has joined us.  Our access points and routes have changed over the years, sometimes crossing into Canada, lately chosen for fewer portages and more leisure time.  We are retired now and have young grandchildren.  Our bonds are strengthened when we share this special time together. There is always a new adventure waiting.   Like the flowing BWCA waterways, memories weave their magic, creating patterns in paddlers’ lives.  We are all uplifted and better persons for it.

Yes, our reservation is already made for this coming season.

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