On the Scent of Boundary Waters Adventures

On the Scent of Boundary Waters Adventures
-Rob Kesselring

It’s the smell more than anything, whether you are varnishing paddle blades in preparation for the upcoming canoe season, or spring cleaning and deliberating on whether to put an old Duluth Pack in the garage sale pile, or maybe you just unrolled a set of Fisher maps for a quick reminisce. When you catch a scent, whatever that scent is, it launches you into a daydream of adventure.

An old down sleeping bag put away none too clean (you didn’t want to jeopardize the loft by overwashing) has a distinct odor. It may remind you of a morning you rose early on Oyster Lake and watched wisps of fog dance across the water, twirling and shape shifting in front of an audience of dark conifers. Thinking only of coffee, you toss back a cover from a pile of axe-split jackpine. The plastic crinkles, and from a few feet away a snort echoes through your camp. You look up to see a whitetail buck, antlers with ten pointed tines sharpened and gleaming, eyes in a wreath of steam, a black nose glistening as it twitches. Only for an instant he hesitates, and then effortlessly, from motionless to a bound, the buck vanishes into the forest. On that morning long ago it seemed as if it was a dream, but today the memory is clear, and as you breathe deeply again, the smell of old nylon and goose feathers transports you back there one more time.

The thick, sticky scent of linseed oil brings memories of paddling. Rollicking down Agnes Lake, zooming with the wind and feeling powerful as the canoe lurches ahead, pulled by the force of the wave. Your hands on the paddle shaft and the palm grip tighten as you watch the water come up nearly to the gunwales before it curls away. You yell to your bowman to paddle hard as you thrust your paddle blade deep into the dark blue and pull the canoe on to the next big roller. The shoreline just a few yards away slides by in a blur. No one will ever believe how fast you came down that long lake, but you remember.

It’s sometimes stored in a kitchen drawer but it doesn’t really belong there. It’s not the smell, but the heft of the fillet knife that conjures up Boundary Water dreams. You might use the knife to slice a tomato, but your mind is somewhere else. It’s up on Lac La Croix. Pink streaks in the northern sky are the last gasp of a sun reluctant to give in to the darkness. You surrender and admit it is time to paddle back to camp, but just as you begin to reel in the Lindy Rig, first a subtle tap and then another. You throw open the bail and let the fish take the line. And then, with your index finger tightly clamping the line to the cork you sweep the rod and set the hook. With a turn of the reel handle, a snap of the bail signals that a fight with an old bulldog walleye is on. You wouldn’t have found the campsite if your buddies hadn’t built a bright fire, but they did. It was after midnight on the blade face of an old beavertail paddle, when the Walleye relinquished its flesh to the same tomato knife in your grasp today. It was another hour before the coals of the campfire were just right and the fillets danced in the hot grease of your skillet. Was it dinner? Or was it breakfast? Who cares? It was a night you will never forget.

The smoky tarp is pungent even after all these years. Somehow it is always your tarp that is strung taut over the campfire. How many days were spent under that tarp? Eyes rasped by smoke, feet wet, a chilled damp wind cutting through your jacket. But the bite of the cold was softened. Your friends were there, quick with a story, a joke, an observation. Some of those friends are gone now but their comments rattle through your brain, nicknames reserved only for camp, bonehead moves you hoped would be forgotten, but bring a smile today. Friends who teased you, saw you through the rough patches and helped you find meaning in work, satisfaction in family and fire in your belly. Good smells, good times, good friends, a good place, the wilderness of Quetico-Superior.

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