Beyond brookies: Wilderness therapy in the Boundary Waters

ELY --The sun is just rolling out of bed, throwing long shadows across the ice of Moose Lake east of Ely. Beyond the shadows, the lake is bathed in light the color of a tamarack in October.

Ken Hupila skiing
Ken Hupila of Babbitt strides up Moose Lake near Ely on a March morning, headed for a brook trout lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He pulls his gear on a pulk made especially for winter travel. (Sam Cook /

ELY --The sun is just rolling out of bed, throwing long shadows across the ice of Moose Lake east of Ely. Beyond the shadows, the lake is bathed in light the color of a tamarack in October.

But Ken Hupila and I are in the shade, skiing along, pulling small pulks full of fishing gear. The temperature on this early March morning is just a few degrees above zero. Moving feels good.

Hupila, of Babbitt, has made this kind of trek into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness countless times. Up Moose Lake. Over a portage or two or three. Into a little brook trout lake or a big lake trout lake or a back bay full of northern pike.

He carries no map. He won't need one.

We're headed for a lake that's stocked with brook trout by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. No names will be used here. That wouldn't be right, given the vulnerability of these lakes. Hupila's friends caught fish at this lake earlier in the year, soon after the winter trout season opened.


It's the brook trout that draw us here, but for Hupila, 60, these forays into the woods offer much more. He's been known to take off from a landing when conditions are right and just walk from lake to lake to lake, not even fishing.

"This is my therapy," he says. "If I haven't been out for a while, I know I need to get into the woods."

Quiet passage

Sssss. Ssssss. Sssss. Our backcountry skis hiss along over the cold snow. We're lucky. Dogsledders use this frozen highway frequently. They've left us a well-broken trail. Without it, we'd be slogging through almost a foot of loose snow.

We're carrying only the basics in our pulks, specially made sleds for winter travel. Ice auger. Tiny tackle boxes. A couple of sandwiches. Water. And a bag of deceased minnows, the only kind permitted on these designated trout lakes.

Hupila sometimes uses a Marcum flasher unit, especially if he's fishing lake trout. But not for brookies in the BWCAW. He knows where to fish. He knows the brookies cruise around. If they come by, he figures he'll catch some.

In two hours, we're on the lake. We grind a couple of holes through at least 2 feet of ice and drop little teardrop jigs tipped with minnows into 20 feet of water. On these designated trout lakes, anglers are permitted just one line each, not the two lines customarily allowed for winter angling.

We can see the tracks of previous visitors -- anglers, maybe, or winter campers. But an inch of fresh snow overnight has painted the lake an unblemished white again. We won't see another soul all day. While both of us are social creatures, we also appreciate the solitary nature of this kind of fishing.


Solitary endeavor

It is something to be in the canoe country in winter. You can enjoy the illusion -- and sometimes the reality -- that you're the only human beings for several miles in any direction. No cabins. No trace of woodsmoke drifting down the lake. Just snow and pines and rocks and sky. Maybe a raven, proclaiming whatever it is ravens proclaim in winter.

Hupila is a good man to be with in the woods. A former teacher and coach at Ely, he guided anglers and families on canoe trips for years. It was hard work, but the office was good. He cooked a lot of shore lunches on rocky outcrops in this million-acre wilderness. He put people on walleyes and bass and pike. He showed them pictographs and eased them up to feeding moose.

It was good work, he says.

"It's like anything else. Ninety-five percent of people are good folks," he says.

In his retirement, he's become an excellent photographer, shooting nature, wildlife and sporting events through his Snotty Moose Studio. He teaches photography workshops as well.

Supper secured

Morning stretches to midday. Each of us has a couple of bites, reluctant tugs from brookies interested only in minnows, not shiny hardware. Finally, early in the afternoon, Hupila shouts, "There!"


He's fishing not far beneath the ice. With a lift of the rod and a sweep of the line, Hupila has a 12-inch brookie sugar-coating itself in the snow. He's seen much bigger fish come out of this lake, but at this point, we're not kicking. It's good to know at least one of us still remembers how to catch a fish.

We admire the handsome creature, the haloed red spots on its side, fins the color of a sunset with their black leading edges. A fish has to have a lot of self-esteem to wear colors like those.

"I'm set," Hupila says. "That's my dinner."

His wife, Beth, he explains, doesn't eat trout.

We fish until mid-afternoon, and that's the only fish we catch. When we aren't catching fish or losing minnows, we are trading stories. Hunting-dog exploits. Game warden encounters. Duck hunting moments. Kid updates. Skiing pile-ups. Improbably big pike. Gray wolf sightings.

Hupila gets out into the bush, and when someone gets out in this kind of country, he is going to have stories. Not tall tales. Hupila isn't that kind. Just ordinary stories of extraordinary events that accumulate over a lifetime.

We load up for the haul back to the landing. The day has warmed, and the snow is faster now. We actually glide a little.

We move along in silence for the most part, lost in our own thoughts. We gaze down the lake, remembering what this country looked like before the blowdown pruned all of the big pines in 1999.


One of us is thinking about a brook trout dinner.

The other is thinking about Dairy Queen in Ely.

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