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Disappearing Act: Paddling the Boundary Waters

Want to vanish into the quietest, wildest corners of the Boundary Waters? Say these magic words: Primitive Management Area.

We paddle the perimeter of Nawakwa Lake, scouting for outcrops. According to our permit, we must find a durable surface for our campsite, a place that won’t show impact. "Your challenge is to blend into the wilderness," reads the sheet, in an eloquent departure from standard backcountry regs.

We find a bald granite face on the forested west shore (where the fire didn’t reach), with plenty of room for our canoes and a cooking area. I bushwhack into the woods and find a spot in the underbrush for our tent (shoreline camping is forbidden). When I return, Prom is building a platform for a fire in a large divot where he cut and peeled back sod. He’s observing another PMA rule: no ashes or burn scars. "After our fire, I’ll disperse the ashes and roll the sod back," he says.

Treetop shadows are just beginning to slide across the lake, so we have another hour or so before sundown–prime fishing time. We launch the canoes and troll Rapalas and Daredevle spoons. For a while, we have zero success, but then we encounter a pair of whiskered, furry heads glaring at us. Otters are a dead giveaway to a fishing hole. We soon land two feisty, 24-inch northern pike and paddle back to camp with eight pounds of fish for dinner. Prom lays out an assembly line of ingredients for fish tacos atop an overturned canoe: tortillas, chopped cabbage, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. After dinner, we uncap IPAs and kick back in Crazy Creeks on the lakefront ledge, where we watch Jupiter outshine the stars in a darkening sky. The night is silent save for a beaver that stealthily cruises the shore to see the intruders.

"This doesn’t feel like the Boundary Waters," Prom says over coffee the next morning. "It’s like northern Canada. This isolation, being certain that we won’t see another soul." Today, we’ll take a daytrip to an even more remote corner of the PMA. The map shows a squiggly blue line that connects Nawakwa to Trust Lake then Faith Lake–two apt names, since trust and faith are all we have. Who knows if the line is navigable?

We paddle two miles before we discover it’s not. This is the kingdom of beavers. Chewed and stacked logs create an obstacle course for our canoes; we pry and wedge and scoot our boats over the underwater hurdles. A square, brown beaver head surfaces to see what we’re up to, then silently submerges, leaving behind only bubbles. Sedge and willow squeeze us from both sides as we round each bend of the snaking channel. Soon, the vegetation brushes our arms as we paddle, and we’re ducking under deadfall. Then the bow hits a dam we can’t climb over. We’re about a quarter-mile, maybe more, from Trust Lake. And we’re not going any farther without stepping into hip-deep muck.

I climb a boulder for a better view, and I see a sedgy meadow. The Voyageurs–who shuttled pelts through this region 200 years ago–called these "savannahs," because they look like grassy fields and could be used to shortcut impassable waters on foot. It’s still swampy, but it holds our weight. I see moose tracks in the sludge.

Trust turns out to be a shallow, turbid lake full of floating detritus. We paddle slowly, and Kooi, in the bow, asks, "What, exactly, are we doing here?" He’s losing faith that there’ll be any payoff. Maybe this is the reason nobody ever goes back here.

"Let’s just see where it goes," I say half-heartedly. We land on Trust’s south shore, lug the canoes over a spit of burned forest, and we see it.

Faith Lake is about 20 feet deep and Tanqueray clear. It sparkles in the sun. We fall silent, perhaps waiting for the next trick to be played on us in this forbidden zone. I eyeball the shore at the northeastern end. Yellow sand? We paddle over to find a sun-bleached moose antler, a signpost of pure solitude. Wolf tracks weave up and down the beach. We’ve reached the deepest point of the PMA accessible by canoe.

We remove our boots, and the sand massages our feet, tenderized by the epic portages. We wade out for a swim. Prom’s eyes widen to saucer-size as he contemplates water where no one has cast a line in years or decades. Or ever? He launches a canoe and casually trolls a spoon, landing and releasing two pike pushing 40 inches–trophies that are twice the size of the fish we ate for dinner last night.

We lazily eat our lunch and then recline on the warm sand. I pull my hat over my face for a siesta. Now, I can’t say that the ranger in the permit office was wrong. This primitive area in the Boundary Waters is indeed rough. But who says there’s no comfort in that?

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