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5/21/2020
Publisher’s Note: As referenced in the May-June 2020 print issue of On Wisconsin Outdoors, the Ellis column Memorial Day-Trading it all… directs the reader to this website for stories of Americans in battle during World War II and Vietnam.  Posted in the April 30 Ellis Blogs on this website Tanks in a Mine Field is the eye witness story of 709th Tank Battalion gunner John “Mike” Kunnen during the bloody battle of t...
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Fencerows: Thirty-Mile Portage (Part 1)

By John Luthens

On Wisconsin Outdoors

John Luthens prepares to pack it in on the North Country Trail, near Solon Springs, Wisconsin.

Squinting into the morning sun, surveying the hardwoods that climbed from the boggy headwaters of the St Croix River, near Solon Springs, Wisconsin, I took a deep breath of northern air and a first, tentative step up the ridge trail. It was the first pace of a thirty-mile portage and the beginning of a walk into a land that has remained timeless for centuries.

I’d keyed in upon a section of the North Country Trail, a scenic swath of the northern United States that starts in the Adirondack Mountains in New York and works west through the upper Great Lake states and into Minnesota before sweeping to a conclusion on the grassy plains of North Dakota. It equals out to 4600 miles of trail, the longest of the 11 National Scenic Trails in the country, managed by federal and state agencies but built and maintained primarily through volunteer efforts.

On the overall map, my chosen section of the North Country Trail was only a small, Wisconsin sprout of something far greater, but it was destined to blossom into a legendary burst of wild that I’d never forget. I was dropped off at my starting point and there was no backing out when my ride honked farewell and drove off back to civilization. There was nothing but forest trail in front of me.

The first mile took me up and over a northern continental divide. The St. Croix River flowed below me, giving way to the springs and bubbling swamps which are the headwaters of the massive watershed that winds south to join with the Mississippi and ultimately into the Gulf Stream waters of New Orleans.

Crossing the divide, though it was impossible to tell exactly when it happened, the boggy springs reversed their course and became the headwaters of the Bois Brule River, flowing now due north to meet a destiny some 60 miles away in the frigid waters of Lake Superior.

Tarnished plaques were mounted on rocks at intervals, telling the names and dates of the first to set foot along this historic portage. Trappers, traders, missionaries and map makers were represented, and the deeper I walked, the further back in time the names and dates became. The last date etched into the 1600’s, when the first French explorers opened the route between fur camps of the north and the budding cities along the Mississippi.

In time, the names upon the rocks disappeared. I was deeper in the forest now. There were no telltale signs to mark the original Native Americans who used this route for centuries before the first Europeans made their Atlantic crossing. Flickers and warblers danced in the brush and deer browsed in golden fields between the trees. I ate handfuls of blackberries and crossed streams that ran as pure as the days of the original natives. I was fully back in history and into virgin wilderness.

On Wisconsin Outdoors

Deer browse an opening along the North Country Trail.

I toted 45 pounds of survival on my back: tent, sleeping bag, and clothing. I was planning two full days on the trail, but I had enough food to stretch it into three. I wasn’t certain how my backpacking legs would hold up over such a long stretch. If I needed to camp an extra night, so be it. I also carried a fly rod in a case, along with my fishing vest and a pair of water shoes. My plan was to camp the first night above the Bois Brule and fish the remote brook-trout headwaters that are seldom seen, not to mention seldom fished.

 I sucked a little wind on the sandy upgrades and wobbled down the shadowy bottoms. Bear sign was evident, but my only heart-pounding encounter was from a pair of spruce grouse that flushed from the aspen slashing on a hillside. My pack felt lighter as I went. Perhaps I was in better shape than I thought. I was five miles into wilderness and a mile from my camping destination when I reached behind and found that my sleeping bag had slipped its moorings and was gone.

On Wisconsin Outdoors

Wading the headwaters of the Bois Brule River.

Decision time, it was warm enough now, but northern nights with clear skies can suck the heat from the land. I rested my pack beside the trail and forced myself into a slow jog back. It was nearly a mile before I found it rolled into the brush alongside the trail. Rookie mistake, it could have been worse. I regrouped and made camp by early afternoon. I was on a high ridge with an icy creek gushing below. I drank from the bubbling spring and rewarded myself for not panicking by rolling out my sleeping bag and taking a nap beneath a pine tree.

The afternoon was getting on when I awoke and stretched the stiffness from my body. I put up my tent beneath a perfect square of popple trees and slid my fly rod from its case. Then I hung my pack on a popple and set off down the shadowy creek to find the upper reaches of the Bois Brule.

I jumped across the small stream in spots. I felt like an original explorer as I ducked beneath fallen cedars and waded through the slanted sunlight and sparkling water. I picked a glistening shred of copper ore from the stream bed. Now I was an original prospector as well. My feet and legs were numb from the icy water by the time it spilled into the Brule.

On Wisconsin Outdoors

Sunset over the St. Croix Valley.

The main channel itself was a two-edged sword. The view was spectacular, pines and bogs and tattered clouds floating above, but I found that I could only safely navigate the river in shorts and wading shoes for several hundred yards in either direction of the hard-packed outlet of the feeder creek. After that it was peat-bottomed silt, sucking me in over my waist and seeming to have no bottom.

 If I’d possessed the legendary skill of crafting a birch-bark canoe, it may have been fishing nirvana. As it was, I took a single brook trout on a stonefly nymph before I was shaking from the cold and looking like a swamp monster. I stumbled back up the creek to my camp, satisfied enough that I’d fished in a place where few had gone before.

Dinner consisted of canned spaghetti cooked over a pocket stove. I built a small fire for company and watched one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. The pines of the St. Croix Valley burned in gold. There were no sounds of civilization, only the swooping of nighthawks above and the popple leaves rustling like ancient water above my tent. I hadn’t seen a single person all day. I fell asleep to the silent music of a northern night, dreaming of tomorrows trail.

John Luthens is a freelance writer from Grafton, Wisconsin. His first novel, Taconite Creek, is available on Amazon or atwww.cablepublishing.com  or by contacting the author at Luthens@hotmail.com