Paddle North

Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010
© 2010 by Greg Breining 

Shadows of the North
Lake trout are a large fish with olive back, small light spots, and pectoral fins with leading edges as white and crisp as the pressed collar of a newly laundered shirt. By rights, they are char—Salvelinus namaycush—related to arctic char and brook trout. They are native to the lakes of the Canadian north and the coldest deepest lakes of the Great Lakes and New England. Lake trout won't tolerate water warmer than about fifty-five degrees. In summer they follow cool temperatures more than 100 feet deep, where they are nearly impossible to catch from a canoe. So instead, we had arrived in mid-May. Ice was off the lakes just two weeks. Snow lingered in the shadows of cliffs. Buds of aspen and birch were all but invisible. We wanted to fly-fish for these emblems of canoe country before they disappeared into deep water. 

Lake trout are just one among many symbols of the north woods, common here, but rare or absent farther south. The moose and Canada lynx are even better known. They give real character to the northern forest—the moose by its occasional appearance; the lynx, a virtual shadow of the wilds, by its promise. Others are the gray jay or "whiskey jack," which snatches tidbits from campers' larders, and the spruce grouse, a dark portly bird known also as "fool's hen," for its naiveté. 

These species are virtually unique to the north. Other creatures are found elsewhere but nonetheless give the boreal forest soulfulness and beauty. Who would recognize canoe country without the haunting cry of loons, the mournful howls of timber wolves, or the varied and expressive quonks of ravens. Would spring ever come to the north without the persistent call of the white-throated sparrow? How many fishermen paddle the border routes for no other reason than to catch a northern pike or walleye? Beaver, even though common far to the south, are a prime symbol of canoe country because their furs fed the trade that, as writer Eric W. Morse so poetically remarked, "unrolled the map of Canada." 

If there is anything most characteristic of the north, it is the lakes themselves—clear and deep, set in the jagged core of the old continent, and rimmed by a forest of spruce, pine, and brilliant white birch. Overhead, on especially crisp clear nights, the aurora borealis appears—shimmering curtains of lights, the Ojibwas' dancing of the dead on the trail of souls, a benediction of the north. 

Some striking symbols of canoe country have disappeared. 

Woodland caribou, with their handsome coat and cream-colored collar, Frisbee-sized hooves, and magnificent antlers, roamed the border a century ago. Though not as numerous as moose, they were common enough to emphasize the connection of canoe country to the far north. In fact,Atikokan, the name of the Canadian town on the northern edge of the Quetico, is an Ojibwa word that means "caribou bones." But logging, settlement, and more recently a warming climate have changed the forest to the benefit of white-tailed deer and the eradication of caribou.

Another vanished symbol of the far north is the relentless wolverine. Perhaps no animal, at least in the human imagination, has combined a more comic physique with a more ferocious character. Once trapped on occasion in northern Minnesota, the wolverine is rarely found along the border today. 

This country has seen a long history of northward retreat. During the last ice age, until a bit more than 10,000 years ago, the land was piled high with glaciers. The ice shrunk away to the northeast. Glacial Lake Agassiz drained away to reveal a scarred landscape of bulldozed bedrock, transported boulders, eskers of sand, and mountains of gravelly moraines. Tundra shrubs colonized the emergent land. Boreal spruce followed. The animals of this new land were symbols of a world soon to disappear forever—mammoths, mastadons, camels, horses, giant bison, and saber-toothed cats. These mega-creatures soon vanished, perhaps even as glaciers still covered the Quetico. Musk oxen retreated to the far north. Herds of barren-ground caribou gave way to woodland caribou. 

Millenia marched by. The climate warmed. Jack and red pine flourished. Oak savanna and prairie crept to the edge of canoe country. Climate cooled, and white pine appeared. Woodland caribou departed, replaced by moose and white-tailed deer. 

In pursuit of our trout, we followed a series of portages through potholes and small lakes. By coincidence, the route followed the boundary of two recent fires. As a result, we traveled through a Janus-faced forest: On one side, green pine, spruce, fir, and cedar. On the other, scorched rock, blackened sticks of spruce, and charred, twisted trunks of ancient pine. 

The bristling stubble of aspen and birch that springs up after fire is prime browse for deer and moose. Indeed, the word moose derives from Algonquin for "twig eater." And sure enough, at the end of a portage, after an exhausting climb over a mountain of rock, we found a young bull moose. We had been chattering back and forth, but there it was, as though it didn't mind or were profoundly deaf. My friend Dave Garron began taking photos from twenty feet away. I chose to stay twenty feet behind Dave. I got photos of Dave taking photos. If the moose turned ornery, Dave would provide a barrier—and give me some spectacular shots besides. 

Years ago, to see a moose was purely a thrill. And see them we did, often. We found them browsing on the portages, lunching on waterweeds along the shores of boggy creeks, even swimming across lakes, where the temptation was strong to paddle alongside and leap from the canoe to ride bareback as far as shallow water. 

It's harder to find a moose now. In recent years, emaciated but otherwise healthy-looking moose have simply keeled over. So inexplicable and spontaneous are their deaths that researchers call them "tipovers." Puzzled scientists have watched a slow decline in moose around canoe country. They suspect ailments from brainworm to heat stress. So when I see a moose now, the thrill is tempered by some regret. It is difficult to imagine this country without moose. 

These thoughts pestered me as we pursued that other symbol of canoe country, however fleeting, the lake trout. We cast streamers and small plugs without much success until the second evening, when we drifted in a light breeze along a rocky point. There I caught two trout, one nineteen inches and the other seventeen, in quick succession. With each, a sharp jolt ran up the fly line. The fight was strong and dogged, though neither fish made a long run or broke surface. In appearance, each was subdued but beautiful, the color of a general's uniform—drab olive with deep brass buttons and crisp white stripes. The strength of the north ran through their quivering muscles. We lopped off their heads, slit their bellies and fried them whole, with butter, shallots, and parsley. 

It may be that 100 years from now, canoeists will not be able to catch lake trout here, that even the deepest lakes will have warmed sufficiently that trout will have joined the northward procession of caribou and lynx and other boreal creatures and plants. Such a loss would be a tragedy to those of us who know canoe country as it is. But it would be wrong to take this sentiment and the anger and despair it provokes too far. For icons are the things we seize upon to fix a place in our minds, but they are changeable and illusory. All is transitory. In some distant future, there will still be a tumult of life, a robust mix of species in the north. The people of the time will celebrate new icons—no longer moose, lynx, and spruce, but white-tailed deer, bobcat, and red maple. And there will remain a few of the old familiar signs, if we from the past were there to appreciate them—the lakes, the rocks, and the glimmering, shifting lights on the trail of souls. 

All excerpts are protected by copyright and must not be reproduced or distributed without the written permission of Greg Breining. 

All excerpts are protected by copyright and must not be reproduced or distributed without the written permission of Greg Breining.