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Backcountry Birthday

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3 Woman near canoe in water at the start of a trip

The four of us arrive in the small and spirited town of Ely, Minn. to pick up the extra rental canoe. I love the atmosphere as everyone is here for the same reason. They’re either entering or exiting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, work at a local business that relies heavily on this traffic or are at least soaking in some of the abundant nearby outdoor activities – hiking, biking, fishing, or exploring the many parks and trails – that require a little less commitment. Canoes frequent the tops of vehicles, packs adorn people in the streets and I finally feel at home in my Chaco sandals.

The outfitter helps us strap the canoe to the top of my car, we swing by the ranger district to pick up our backcountry permit and head to the entry point, a boat launch on Ojibway Lake. There we unload and divide gear into two 120-liter portage packs plus one day pack that holds lunch, rain gear, water treatment and toilet paper.

We carry the canoes to the water, load packs, and strap fishing rods to the side before parking cars and saying goodbye to civilization.

I happily turn off my personal and work cell phones and stick them in the glove box.

With a map in hand, we set out for our first portage. There we will unload gear and carry it down the trail to the next lake.

Woman carrying canoe

Two of us help flip canoes over the shoulders of the first two packers, and the remaining two heave the even heavier portage packs onto their shoulders, grab paddles, and set off down the trail.

The sound of a canoe hitting the water after being thrown off someone’s shoulders is a welcomed and familiar indicator you’re almost to the other side. We reload gear, and paddle away to repeat the same tasks several times that day before making it to a lake where we’ll camp.

Red dots on the map indicate designated campsites but around each bend our waning optimism is met with brightly colored tents, canoes at landings or people splashing in the water who arrived earlier to stake their claim.

We paddle through a little rapid into a tucked away bay and spot the granite rock face we assume must be the next site and seemingly vacant.

As we get closer, the fire grate confirms it, and we happily unload and stretch our legs to scope out a spot to pitch our tent. After gear is unloaded, two of us work on dinner, the other two set up the tent.

Everything takes longer in the Boundary Waters, it’s all part of slowing down and being forced to focus on daily tasks – not text messages, appointments, meetings or email – that help the team.

We sip on bagged wine and enjoy our first dinner in the wilderness, bratwursts with sauerkraut, a perishable luxury that can only be had on night one. Tomorrow, we’ll day trip with just our canoes and fishing gear to a nearby lake.

Woman holding fish she caught

By noon we jokingly say the lake is named Clear Lake because “it is CLEAR there are no fish in it.” Humor aside, we’ve enjoyed the morning exploring new waters, catching a few small fish and one nice smallmouth bass, but none of the coveted walleye we were after or even a good-sized pike that can grace tonight’s fajitas.

But in the small bay the portage back to camp is located in, the other canoe lands a perfect eater-sized pike. We carry it to the other side on a stringer.

By the time we’ve arrived at camp the afternoon sun has gotten warm. We have a little y-bone removal teaching session and place the boneless fillets in a Ziplock bag in the shallows to stay cool before dinner while we enjoy a late afternoon swim/wilderness bath.

It’s all hands-on-deck to help slice peppers and onions (it took a few years to learn these are surprisingly durable to backcountry travel), heat rice and beans, and cook fish fillets.

Sporks in hand, we happily chow down on delicious fish fajitas and overlook the lake.

After evening dishes and a brief sunset fishing attempt, we return to build a fire in hopes the smoke will deter some mosquitoes. To my surprise, one of my friends unpacks apples, oats, brown sugar, flour and butter to make over the fire an early and belated birthday treat for myself and another. We get a little carried away with our flames and the treat very aptly becomes apple crisp. But the center is still filled with warm, gooey apples and caramelized sugar. They even top ours with birthday candles and sing.

As I blow out the flame in my tinfoil pouch, for a moment I’m filled with overwhelming gratitude for this little crew.

I hate underestimating the number of women who love the outdoors; I know they exist in abundance, but I just never had this incredible group of girlfriends that gets me, tolerates my corny humor and annoyingly competitive ways. Girls I can get pedicures with and chit chat about our favorite naturally based beauty products and go on multi-day wilderness trips with, talk dog training, hunting gear, husbands and life. Girls who like me enough to pack a few extra pounds and some birthday candles into the backcountry.

The trip goes by too fast, and it feels like I’m opening the glove box far too soon.

It’s Sunday so I opt not to even turn the work cell on. After a hearty lunch at The Chocolate Moose in Ely, we say our goodbyes and head home. The drive is long but I’m eager to see Fins and Scott.

I return to work Monday, exhausted and gloomy, yesterday at this time I had gone for a quick morning swim, and we were doing yoga on a big rock face that stretches into the lake and sipping coffee.

My only reprieve to being back in civilization, the carrot dangling at the end of the stick, is that Saturday we'll be hunting grouse in Montana, cuing another camping trip, a long weekend, and a kickstart to the fast-approaching North Dakota hunting openers and a busy fall with plenty of feel-good moments and outdoor memories waiting to be made.

Woman paddling canoe in calm lake with sunset in front of her