*The following post was published in the Winter 2021 issue of the Boundary Waters Journal and titled "Baskatong Bull." It's a great publication and I would encourage anyone with a love for the BWCA to check it out. If you are interested in purchasing the Winter 2021 issue, you can do so by following this link: https://www.boundarywatersjournal.com/shop/available-back-issues/product/203-winter-2021.
Over the last few years my wife and I have made countless trips to northern Minnesota. She’s a climber, I’m a wildlife photographer. We both love being outside. Our adventures have ranged from backpacking the Superior Hiking Trail, climbing Palisade Head, exploring the BWCA, and sipping whiskey under the stars on the shores of Lake Superior. Last summer I set out with the goal of seeing my first moose in the state of Minnesota. I had photographed moose in Montana, Wyoming, and Canada, but had yet to even see one in my home state. By the end of 2020 I had seen eight and even walked away with some quality photographs. Yet for the amount of time I spend looking, which primarily involves combing the backroads of Superior National Forest, I see far less moose than I would hope.
Minnesota once boasted a population of nearly 10,000 moose. Since 2006, that number has dropped dramatically with the most recent estimate to be around 3,000 individuals. Three thousand may seem like a lot of moose, but considering where the numbers once stood, as well as the vastness of Superior National Forest, moose sightings are rare. There are very few well maintained roads that travel through Superior National Forest. Aside from the Superior Hiking Trail, other trails, such as the Border Route Trail or the Kekekabic, are difficult to navigate without a GPS. Arguably the best way to navigate Minnesota’s backcountry is by canoe.
My wife and I decided to plan a trip up north that would consist of some day trips into the BWCA. We have not done much camping in the BWCA backcountry and decided a weekend of car camping and day trips would be an enjoyable and less stressful way to enjoy the area. So now it fell to the task of deciding which route to take into the BWCA. We have no problem being out all day, so long as we make it back to our campsite before dark. I have to imagine that searching for a portage in the dark could be a challenging task. But since we are both relatively active and fit individuals, we felt that day trips taking us three to four lakes into the backcountry was a realistic goal.
I set about scouring the internet as we planned for our weekend up north, looking at BWCA maps to get an idea of entry points that would lead to a chain of lakes we could explore for an entire day. Soon my searches shifted toward my favorite northern Minnesota hobby - searching for moose. My searches shifted to, “where to find moose in the BWCA,” “best lakes for moose in the BWCA,” or just “moose in the Boundary Waters.” Obscure blog posts, miscellaneous reviews, and outdated magazine articles started popping up. One website in particular provided several articles of interest. It was an old, online publication focused on the Boundary Waters and its wildlife. It contained route suggestions, narratives of adventures through the BWCA, photo contests, information about wildlife, outfitter recommendations, and so on.
There was one article in particular that caught my eye. It was titled “In Search of Bull Moose at Baskatong Lake.” The author, Toni Babcock, had purchased a shed moose antler that had originally been found along Baskatong Lake. The size of the antler was impressive enough that it inspired the author and her husband to make the journey out to Baskatong with the hope of encountering the individual this enormous antler had once belonged to. It was a beautifully written story, filled with detail about the journey out to Baskatong Lake and quiet mornings spent waiting and watching for the legendary moose to make an appearance. One could feel the sense of peace and aloneness that comes with being deep in the BWCA through her writing.
Unfortunately, Babcock never saw her moose. Signs of moose were all around their campsite. A large splash in the middle of the night indicated they weren’t entirely alone. But the bull moose of Baskatong Lake never appeared.
The intrigue surrounding Babcock’s search for this moose was enough to convince me to follow in her footsteps. Granted, the article was written in 2001, and while the bull moose from the article had likely passed on, it seemed like as good a route as any. Thus our trip plans materialized. Our first day would consist of entering the BWCA from Baker Lake, hoping to go as far as Jack Lake, then our second day would be the journey to Baskatong.
We left after work on a Thursday evening. Most of our trips up north begin shortly before sunset so by the time we arrive at a campsite it is almost always dark. We’ve become pretty adept at setting up camp with our headlamps. The stressful part is often finding a campsite. This trip was no exception as it was nearly 9:30 before we turned onto Sawbill Trail to begin our journey into Superior National Forest. The North Shore has become increasingly popular since the start of COVID, forcing us to become increasingly creative when it comes to finding accommodations. We had hoped to camp at Baker Lake, a rustic campground with five sites. When we arrived it was full, so we continued down The Grade to Crescent Lake Campground where we found a handful of open sites. It was a beautiful night and the Perseid Meteor shower was taking place, so we headed down to the lake to sit under the stars. The moon had set, plunging the sky into deep darkness, and the Milky Way had risen over the lake right in front of us. We watched the most brilliant shooting stars we had ever seen streak across the sky. It was one of those magical nights under the stars in Superior National Forest.
The following morning we rolled out of our tent before sunrise. We had to drive back down Sawbill Trail to pick up our canoe at Sawtooth Outfitters so we decided to make it a morning of searching for moose. Soft light filtered through the trees as we drove back road after back road, hoping to get a glimpse of a dark silhouette passing among the trees. As has been the theme of this summer, we saw nothing and continued to Sawtooth. Once the canoe was loaded on the car, we made the drive back up Sawbill Trail to embark on our first adventure. The goal was to begin at Baker Lake and work our way as far into the BWCA as we could manage in a day. We pulled up to the lake and began unloading our gear. A strong wind had picked up and clouds were rolling in. Soon it began to rain. My dream of paddling on glassy lakes started to fade as it became clear that today was going to be more of a challenge than we had hoped.
We waited for a break in the weather before pushing out into Baker Lake. We were met with a strong headwind that would not let up for the entire day. I had hoped to make it as far as Jack Lake, but constant wind, periodic rain, and low water levels caused us to turn back after a brief foray into the southern part of Kelly Lake. We were disheartened and a little crabby.
The following day was another early one. My philosophy when searching for elusive wildlife is that that more I do it, eventually I am going to get lucky. That philosophy has not held up well this year and we came up empty handed again. It was a beautiful morning, nonetheless. Steam was rising from the lakes along the backroads. Loons called to one another in the fog. If this is the consolation prize for getting up early, it was very worthwhile.
After breakfast and coffee we discussed what to do for the day. The previous day had been just discouraging enough that we weren’t sure if we wanted to repeat it, but no other options stood out to us. So we decided we would make the trek out to Baskatong Lake. We had nothing to lose and if the wind proved to be as miserable as the previous day, we could always turn back. Our spirits lifted as we drove to the Kawishiwi Lake entry point. The sun was out in full force, the wind seemed to be subsiding, and by the time we reached the lake it was clear that we were in for a beautiful day of paddling. The parking lot at Kawishiwi was full, but once we pushed out onto the lake we felt as though we had the place to ourselves. Paddling across Kawishiwi was uneventful - a nice change from the day before. We paddled past islands, a pair of trumpeter swans, and before we knew it we had entered the channel that connects to Square Lake. We glided silently through Lilly pads, past tall reeds, imagining moose at every turn. Near the end of the channel, a beaver dam separated the two lakes, but required nothing more than lifting the canoe to the other side. As we paddled into Square Lake, we were met with a very different landscape than what we were used to. The entire north end of the lake sported young growth intermixed with tall, dead trees - the results of a forest fire. In August of 2011, a lightning strike started what is known as the Pagami Creek Fire. What seemed like a small, inconsequential forest fire, turned into one of the largest, and most unprecedented fires to cut through northern Minnesota, burning over 80,000 acres in one day and over 90,000 acres total.
What’s unique about Square Lake is it sat on the very edge of the burn area. While the north side has small growth and tall, dead trees, the southern edge of the lake was untouched.
Square Lake is a relatively small lake. Aside from a loon and a couple people camped on the southern shore, we were the only ones on the water. We paddled across Square to the portage leading to Baskatong. The 69 rod portage was very manageable. Relatively flat, it leads to a clearing along the shores of Baskatong, which is where we paused for lunch. While we ate, I wandered around the shoreline searching for tracks in the mud. Seeing none, and being the middle of the day, I accepted that we too would not likely encounter the bull moose of Baskatong Lake.
I looked out at the lake ahead of us, taking in the scenery while I ate my PB and J sandwich. Baskatong Lake was well within the burn area of the Pagami Fire. Tall dead trees lined the surrounding area, ghosts of the previous forest. On the east side of the lake, large boulders jutted out from the shoreline into the water. We paddled along these into a small bay where a single loon was preening itself. As we paddled through the bay we were startled by a loud splash. Unknown to us, we had intruded on a beaver’s territory. It slapped its tail as it dove under the water, alerting us that we were not particularly welcome guests.
We paddled out of the bay and into to the northern part of the lake. The weather was absolutely gorgeous. High 70’s, no wind, blue skies, and we were the only people on the lake. My wife wanted to take a dip in the lake, so we pulled the canoe onto a rock ledge. I cracked open a beer, she swam in the lake. Despite having not seen a moose, I was content. Barely three lakes into the Boundary Waters, we felt as though we were on the most remote corner of the planet. There were no people, no sound from man-made machines. It was just us and the wilderness.
Then, from out of the stillness, we heard a noise from across the lake. It sounded like a snorting sound. For a second I thought it was my imagination - my wishful thinking getting the better of me. My wife and I looked at each, clearly thinking the same thing. I grabbed the binoculars and started scanning the distant shoreline where the noise had come from. I saw nothing. We waited, looking and listening. Several minutes passed and still nothing. We were about to resign ourselves to the fact that whatever we heard, it was not what we had thought it was. Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, a large dark shape emerged from the trees on the opposite shore and stepped into the water.
My wife and I looked at one another, stunned. As what usually happens when I encounter moose, my heart raced. I could not believe what was happening. The moose was on the far side of the lake, over two hundred yards out. As quietly as we could we slid the canoe into the water and paddled to the middle of the lake. The bright sunlight had created some harsh shadows along the opposite shore, making it impossible to see the moose. I looked through the binoculars, but saw nothing. Had the moose disappeared as mysteriously as it had shown up? There was a fallen tree in the lake with branches sticking up out of the water and I turned the canoe toward that. A few more silent strokes of our paddles in the water inched us a little closer. Still unable to see the moose, we just sat, bewildered. Where had that moose gone? As we sat in the canoe I looked toward the downed tree again as the branches of the fallen tree slowly turn in my direction. What I had thought was a downed tree was actually the antlers of our moose, barely sticking above the surface of the water. He had submerged his entire body into the lake with just his head above the surface. As he turned, we got a full look at the antlers and I realized that this was not just any moose - this was a massive bull, the king of his domain. The bull moose of Baskatong Lake.
Now, a bit of a side note on my own narrative. Of course, the odds of this being the same moose are practically zero. Moose live to be anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five years old. Bull moose may reach their peak size around age five and begin to decline in their teens. If we assume the moose that Babcock was after was a bull in its prime, five to ten years old, that would mean it would be well over twenty years of age today, unlikely to be sporting such a healthy rack of antlers. Now, if you would be willing to indulge me for just a moment, whose to say that this moose submerged in the lake in front of us wasn’t genetically related to the king that once roamed this particular stretch of wilderness? It is likely that Babcock’s moose sired dozens of calves over the course of its lifetime. Strong genetics like that could produce a lineage of large bulls.
At the very least, I am choosing to believe that this is one of those descendants.
With that semi-believable narrative in the back of my mind, I sat in my canoe, in awe of the moose in front of me. For several minutes he just stared back. I think he was as surprised to see us as we were to see him. Baskatong is a dead end lake for BWCA travelers, so unless it is one’s specific destination, paddlers would not come through this lake on a regular basis. And while we were thrilled to see him, the feeling was not mutual.
We were careful to keep our canoe at a respectful distance, wanting to savor this moment as long as possible. However, one thing I’ve learned over the past decade of wildlife photography is that every animal has its own bubble of comfort. Some animals have a small bubble and are far more tolerant of the presence of people. The moose in Minnesota seem to have a very large bubble and do not usually stick around when people are present.
After a few more minutes of soaking in the lake, Our moose-friend had decided that solitude was preferable to our company. He turned and started swimming back toward shore. Once at the shore, he hoisted his massive frame out of the water, displaying his full size and stature, and started to trudge back up the hillside. About halfway up he reached a clearing with several downed trees. He stepped into the clearing and turned to look at us for what felt like an eternity. We sat in our canoe and stared back. He did not seem anxious around us, nor did he seem as though he was in a huge hurry to leave. Instead, it was almost as if he was curious about the small bipeds sitting in a floating structure in the lake below him. Curious, but unamused.
Then, with a final glance, he turned up the hillside and disappeared into the trees. Even once he was out of sight, we could hear branches breaking as he made his way through the thick brush. Almost as suddenly as he joined us, my wife and I again found ourselves alone on the lake. We sat in our canoe, stunned at what we had witnessed.
We had set out that morning with the fantastical narrative of Toni Babcock’s story in the back of our minds. There was no realistic expectation we would see a moose, but the moment this one appeared on the shores of Baskatong Lake, I couldn’t help but appreciate the parallels between Babcock’s story and our own adventure. Her article ended with the realization that, more than finding a moose, she had set out to find a good story. I’d like to think that twenty years later, I get to write the sequel to that story. In a sense, isn’t that what the Boundary Waters are all about? Each adventure into the wilderness is a story in and of itself, and sometimes these stories connect in beautifully ironic ways.
Keywords: adventure, animals, area, boundary, bull, bwca, camping, canoe, canoeing, explore, forest, lakes, Minnesota, moose, nature, north, Northern, photography, portage, quetico, waters, wild, wilderness, wildlife
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