One more trip this year. That’s all we wanted.
Each of us had been thinking about it. Then it came up in conversation on a late September afternoon.
One more trip to the canoe country. It would be early October before we could leave. Just the two of us — old friends, up in years, as they say.
Maybe that was part of it. Maybe we sensed that there was a finite number of these opportunities left. Not that we’d say it or admit it, even to ourselves. But we’ve both seen some of our paddling partners make their last portage. That gets a person to thinking.
So we stole four days, threw together some food and some coffee and some gear. And went.
We made for the campsite where we had spent a week for the fishing opener. Half a dozen portages. Ten or 12 miles on the water. Only to find someone else camped there.
We found a camp in the next bay sheltered from the wind and moved in. We paddled across the narrows and heaped the canoe with firewood. Evenings are long in October.
Our homemade chili thawed as darkness wrapped itself around us. When the rain set in, we strung the tarp and hunkered beneath it. We built a big fire and sat close to it. We were happy as Huck and Jim on the raft, floating down the Mississippi.
In the morning, we paddled past a pair of trumpeter swans down the bay. So big, so pure white — and the definition of grace. We saw another pair in the bay where we caught our walleyes. We never used to see trumpeters in the canoe country. Now we see them nesting in June and raising young in October.
Tim McKenzie, a U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger in Cook for 31 years, says he’s seeing more and more swans.
“It’s gone from never seeing any for 20 years to seeing them nesting around here,” McKenzie said. “It’s increased quite noticeably in the last eight or 10 years. One fall on Agnes Lake, we saw probably 100 or more. They must have been coming from up north.”
Whatever the case, they’re lovely creatures to share a wilderness lake with in October. Nearly all of the loons had already headed south. Then, coming back to camp one evening, we saw a single loon swimming among the islands. We saw it dive. We heard it call once but never saw it attempt to fly. Duluth birder Laura Erickson said later it was likely a late-hatched juvenile from this past summer. Young loons must have fully developed feathers before they’re able to fly long distances, she said. Its parents likely had left on their migration, Erickson said, to take pressure off food resources that the young bird would need.
Talk about tough love.
All of that offered a stark reminder that this was a country in transition. In a few weeks, skim ice would form in the bays. The swans and their cygnets would depart for points south. The land would tighten in the cold, girding for the long winter.
We knew were stealing the last days of fall. So simple, so sweet, this life on the trail. Enough walleyes for the frying pan. A couple of otters cavorting on a lump of granite. Trumpeters, bottoms-up, feeding in a cove.
We sat by the fire and told stories long into the night. In the silences between the stories, all of those with whom we have shared camps were there with us.
They were there in the flickering firelight. They were there when we tossed another log on the fire and a flurry of sparks twisted up into the night. They were there when we stepped away from the fire to gaze up at the constellations.
And maybe they sent the trumpeters, cooing softly just overhead, that last morning when we paddled out.
It didn’t seem at all impossible.