The Boundary Waters 2021

Almost exactly a year after last year’s trip, my family returned to the Boundary Waters this summer, although this time it was just my parents and me, since my brother was working a show. It’s been ten years since our first family expedition to the BWCA in 2011, and fittingly, we returned to the same entry point we used on that trip, on Lake One. We drove up on a Friday, through the Iron Range, and had dinner in Ely before spending the night in a very nice bunkhouse at the Kawishiwi Lodge & Outfitters. The next day, we paddled out in our rented three-person canoe. We soon claimed a lovely campsite on a peninsula in the northern part of the lake.

View from our campsite

It was home to some pretty vocal red squirrels and adorable chipmunks in several sizes who chowed down on beaked hazelnuts and birch catkins throughout our stay. They weren’t camera-shy either.

Chipmunk

Red squirrel

On Sunday, we set out on a day trip, taking the heavily trafficked (in midmorning) portages to Lake Two. There we paddled around for a bit and then stashed our canoe on the rock in order to walk the portage to Rifle Lake. The trail featured bluebead lilies, bunchberry, and wild blueberries, though we found only a couple of ripe berries to pick and eat.

Water lily near a portage

As we canoed back toward Lake One, we spotted a mammalian head rising out of the water. We got closer, and I saw the head again before it ducked underwater. A smooth brown back appeared above the surface, then a round, furred tail, before it was gone. An otter! I was excited because 1) I’d never seen an otter in the wild before and 2) I didn’t even known there were otters in the Boundary Waters (Minnesota’s Otter Tail County notwithstanding). We drifted in our canoe, looking back and watching, and we saw two heads in the water. The otters approached each other, and I wondered if they’d do that adorable handholding the sea otters do, but no. They did hop onto the rocky shore of a small island, though, and we could see their lithe forms and thin tails as they gamboled briefly before returning to the water. We weren’t that close to them, but they were definitely the highlight of the trip for me.

An evening paddle

In the evening, we went for another paddle to try to watch the sunset (they weren’t that spectacular on this trip, though). We went around our peninsula and found a beaver lodge in the inlet, but we’d never before spotted a beaver near a lodge, or, in fact, at all. We came out again. But then, as we paddled southwest alongside our peninsula, past the landing for our campsite, I was looking at the shoreline on my right, and I saw a creature on the rock, at the edge of the water. It was large and brown and stocky and roundish, and I pointed and exclaimed, already sure it was a beaver, and it slipped into the water. I think I saw a big, black, flat tail. We drifted again, watching, and again there were two of them! One in particular we watched swim around a lot, its head and back visible above the surface of the water. It looked like a capybara (as if I’ve ever seen one of those).

Looking back toward Lake One along the passage to Confusion Lake

On Monday, we explored Lake One further and checked out the so-called Lake One Dam, at the mouth of the passage into Confusion Lake to the north. The passage contains some rapids, and the “dam” was possibly an attempt to direct the flow of water a certain way by piling up rocks. We ditched our canoe again and walked the portage to Confusion Lake, where we saw a group of five diving ducks. Were they some kind of merganser, or buffleheads, or goldeneyes? We hiked back and, on the advice of some women we’d met, paddled around into an inlet, found a patch of sand where we left our canoe, and clambered onto some rocks with a view of the rapids.

The sun on our last morning

Over the course of our short camping trip, it grew hazier. When we’d left the Twin Cities, the haze and air quality were actually worse down there than up in Ely, with smoke blown down from Canadian wildfires. But the haze thickened in the Boundary Waters while we were there. On Monday evening, the setting sun glowed an intense red behind the trees, and on Tuesday morning, it was orange and cast a reddish light on the ground. We packed up and headed back to the outfitters.

Another view from our campsite

In addition to the otters, beavers, red squirrels, and chipmunks, we saw bald eagles, loons, cedar waxwings, and blue and gray (Canada) jays, among other birds. I also saw at least two garter snakes. The otters and beavers really made this trip memorable, though; I haven’t seen anything as exciting since the moose in 2005! But I’ll be perfectly happy if I never meet a bear in the Boundary Waters.

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