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Sam Cook column: Wilderness trust: Put a rock on it

We were several miles into the canoe-country wilderness of Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park last week. We'd been catching plenty of lake trout and listening to a lot of loons.

Our last morning, over the breakfast fire, one of my fishing companions made a serious announcement.

"I think I left my cash and driver's license and passport back at Prairie Portage," he said. "I've looked all over and can't find them."

Prairie Portage is on the Minnesota-Ontario border east of Ely, up a chain of lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It's where Sucker Lake flows into Basswood Lake, and on the Canadian side sits a Quetico ranger station. We had passed through there three days earlier. No Quetico rangers are on duty there this time of year. We just put our camping fees in a box and wrote our own permit to travel in the park.

The canoe country is lightly traveled in early May. The water is very cold. None of the aspen had begun to leaf out during our trip. Nights can be frosty.

Before we broke camp that last morning, we had discussed the probability of our friend's cash and passport — and smartphone — still being there when we passed through later in the day on our way out. We thought maybe the chances were decent. Still, it was disconcerting.

Paddling out, we ran into a group of Grand Rapids anglers camped on a rocky point. We swung in and asked if they had seen our friend's valuables.

"Yes," one camper replied. "It was right there on the table. We debated what to do with it. We decided it would be best to leave it there. We put a rock on top of it."

That was two days earlier, he said. He went on to say that he had spoken with another group passing by their camp just the day before. That group, too, had seen the clear plastic bag with cash — more than $200 — and the passport and the phone.

"They left it there, too," the man said.

We came across one other group of four fishermen headed into Quetico for lake trout. We knew three of them. Yep. They had seen the money and the passport under the rock. Yes, they had left it there, too.

We paddled across Basswood Lake until the canoes nosed ashore on the gravel beach at Prairie Portage. Nobody else was around.

My buddy climbed out of his canoe and walked up to a small kiosk where we had paid our entry fees three days earlier. There was his plastic bag, under the rock. He moved the rock and looked through the bag's contents.

"Wow," he said. "Wow."

It was all there — cash, license, passport, phone — apparently untouched. Our fishing partner was quite relieved.

But honestly, none of us was too surprised that the money and valuables had been left by at least three other groups who had followed behind us. For one, they didn't have any really good options for getting it to a better place. Taking it with them, even to return it later, would have only complicated things. And they must have figured — as we did — that with light traffic this time of year, not many more eyes would fall upon our friend's little bag.

The others who passed through Prairie Portage likely would have put themselves in my friend's place and asked themselves, "What would I want a fellow traveler to do?"

They would want someone to leave it right there and put a rock on it so it didn't blow away.

We shouldered our canoes and headed up the portage trail.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. To see photos from our trip, go to facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors.

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