By Jim Bates
I pulled the aluminum canoe up on shore and looked around. We were on a rocky island covered in pine trees on a small lake in the boundary waters of northern Minnesota. We were also lost.
Next to me, Harry, my younger brother cupped his hands into the lake and took a drink. Then he stood up, wiped his mouth and looked at me, “Now what?”
Now what indeed. Mom had signed us up for this canoe trip with a group of kids between the ages of eleven and thirteen like me and Harry. As city kids with an unaccountable love of anything to do with the outdoors, we’d been all for it. It was our chance to provide we were woodsmen at heart and could survive being in the wilderness like our heroes Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Now we had our chance.
I took charge, “Check the pack. See what kind of provisions we’ve got.”
Harry hefted the fifty-pound canvas Duluth Pack out of the canoe and dropped it on the ground. He undid the thick leather strap securing the flap and opened it. After a minute he reported, “Nothing good, just beans.”
“Anything else? Oatmeal? Peanut butter? Candy bars?” I asked, hoping that what I’d call the ‘good provisions’ were with us. But no, they must have been with the other members of our group. Wherever they were.
“Nope. Nothing.” He sighed closed the flap. Harry was not a fan of beans.
“Maybe we can catch some fish later,” I said, trying to be encouraging.
He perked up. “That’d be great.”
“We should be fine,” I added, although, to be honest, I wasn’t sure. We were all by ourselves in the wildness. We had no idea where we were, and I could see storm clouds building over the trees on the other side of the lake. My vision of myself as an intrepid explorer started to diminish as confidence began to erode.
Harry must have read my mind when he asked, “Where do you suppose everyone else is?”
“I don’t know.” I tried to keep the irritation with both myself and the situation out of my voice. As the oldest, it was my responsibility to watch out for my younger brother. It was also my responsibly to follow instructions and not get lost. I was failing on both accounts and it was not a good feeling.
I looked to the far side of the lake where the portage was. If anyone was looking for us, that’s where they’d come from.
There were thirteen of us in our group led by a twenty-year-old guide named Frank. He was a nice guy. A little ‘churchy’ from my point of view, but that stood to reason because it’d been a church camp Mom had signed us up with. That was okay. Just being in the boundary waters surrounded by miles and miles of pine trees and clear lakes was a thrill for two kids from the city like me and Harry.
Except for the getting lost part.
Early that morning our group had paddled three miles across Bald Eagle lake and then set off on a mile-long portage to Rock lake. Harry carried the pack, and I was in charge of carrying the canoe. It was a beast, weighing easily one-hundred pounds. I had to tilt it against a tree and get under it and position the yoke just perfectly before I could rest the shoulder pads on my thin shoulders and lift it. It was a little frontend heavy which made it even harder to carry. Plus, it had rained the night before and the narrow trail over granite outcroppings and knarred roots of the ever-present pine trees was treacherous and slippery. I quit counting the number of times I almost fell. Harry did fall a couple of times. I had to stop, tilt my canoe against a tree and help him to his feet. An hour-long portage ended up taking over two hours.
Tired and sweaty, we’d stumbled out of the woods at the end of the portage and waited for the rest of our group. They never came, and it soon became apparent we were at the wrong lake. Rock lake was supposed to be six miles across. Our little lake was about as big as a football field. But it did have a tiny island in the middle and that’s where I thought we should paddle to. So, we did.
With our food supply of only beans accounted for, we sat on the shore, looked out over the lake and contemplated our next move.
I was worried about Harry. He was small for an eleven-year-old. He wore glasses and was prone to allergies. I wouldn’t call him the healthiest kid in the world, but he did have an adventurous spirit, I’d give him that.
“Where are we going to sleep?” he asked. I could tell he was getting worried.
I tried to calm him. “We don’t have tent, but we can prop up the canoe and sleep under it.”
He smiled. “Like those French fur traders we read about? That’d work.”
“It might be fun.” I tried to alleviate any fear he might have.
“Yeah, it might.”
We were both imagining spending the night on the island, trying to convince ourselves it’d be fun, when there was a whoop and a holler from across the lake at the portage. It was our group.
We both stood and waved at them.
“Hey!” I yelled. They yelled back. Then, I turned to Harry, “Well, we should get going.”
“Yeah, we should,” he said.
We set the canoe in the water, hoisted in the Duluth pack and began paddling out to join them. Harry turned to me, and smiled, both of us knowing that for just a little while, at least, we’d been woodmen, just like our heroes. I smiled back and kept paddling. You know what? For a couple of city kids, we’d done okay.