No cellphone? No problem for Grand Forks teen – even with wet feet – during wilderness canoe trip
The canoe trip took Miles Larson, his five paddling partners and their camp counselor across 157.5 miles of lakes, rivers and portages over 15 days.
ELY, Minn. – The big bull moose was on the portage trail, mere feet from where Miles Larson and three buddies were walking while portaging their canoes on a trip that took them through portions of Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park and Minnesota’s adjacent Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“It was a huge bull moose,” Miles said, recalling the encounter. “It was probably 13 feet tall at the tip of the antlers.”
Still buzzing from the thrill of that sighting, the boys were back on the water and paddling their canoes when they came across another moose less than an hour later.
“We were coming around this bend, and we see this cow (moose),” Miles said. “She was swimming to the island to get out of the sun, get some food or whatever, when she sees us and starts going back to where she came from because she got spooked by us.
“We were being pretty loud because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you see a moose is let them know you’re there.”
A sophomore at Red River High School in Grand Forks, Miles, 15, was on a wilderness canoe trip through Camp Widjiwagan, a YMCA-sponsored camp based on Burntside Lake near Ely with a rich history of providing wilderness and leadership skills and experiences for boys and girls ages 11 to 18.
Widjiwagan is derived from two Ojibwe words, Miles says.
“‘Widji’ means like a friend, an ally or a partner in general. And then ‘wagan’ is like a journey or a path,” he said. “So, the camp is all about starting a journey, and then ‘Widji’ is like a friend on the journey of life, so it just kind of goes together.”
From camp to trail
Miles’ family dropped him off at camp Monday, July 25, and he was there three days before leaving “on trail.” From the camp on Burntside Lake, Miles traveled by van with his five other paddlers and a camp counselor into Ontario, departing from Nym Lake just outside Quetico Provincial Park.
The canoe trip took them across 157.5 miles of lakes, rivers and portages over 15 days before ending on the north arm of Burntside Lake. In an era when most teens are glued to their smartphones, Miles and his canoe trip mates survived without technology for nearly three full weeks.
The first couple of days were hard, Miles admits, but he soon learned to enjoy the friendship of his comrades and the beauty of his wilderness surroundings.
“You can have fun without it,” he said. “If you just focus on not having it, then you forget where you are. But if you focus on where you are, then you don’t need a phone to spend time on.”
Even the canoes they paddled were old-school. Crafted more than 70 years ago by Joe Seliga, a master Ely canoe builder who died in 2005, the wood-and-canvas canoes have taken Widjiwagan campers across thousands of miles of wilderness waters in their rich history.
The camp currently owns one of the largest still-in-use fleets of wood canvas canoes in the world, Miles says, “which is crazy.”
The teens and their counselor traveled in three canoes, Miles says, each taking turns as “duffer” – the odd person out, so to speak – who sat in the center of one of the canoes and didn't have to paddle.
“Two canoes didn’t have a duffer, but the other one did,” he said. “And then the other two, we usually just put all of the bulky packs and stuff.”
Portages were a workout. The crew started the trip with three food packs weighing 83 pounds each and portage packs – or “P” packs – that weighed 60 pounds each and carried clothes. In addition, each of the canoes weighed about 100 pounds, and they also had gear to carry across the portages.
Meals included various fresh vegetables, along with texturized vegetable protein – or TVP – that was supposed to taste like chicken. Other menu items included summer sausage and something called “loaf,” a dairy product that tasted like cheddar cheese but wasn’t really cheese, Miles says.
They also caught fish for a couple of meals – northern pike and smallmouth bass filleted by one of the campers who was an expert fisherman – and snacked on blueberries, raspberries and thimbleberries on the portages and at their campsites, he said.
Protecting the canoes
To protect the canoes from damage, Miles and his trip mates were required to get out of the canoes in deeper water instead of beaching them on the rocky shorelines like they would have done in a canoe made of aluminum or other modern materials.
Taking care of the canoes fits with the camp’s four tenets: Respect for self, respect for others, respect for the environment and respect for the equipment.
Camp rules dictated that “air, water and bread dough” were the only things allowed to touch the outside of the canoes. That meant wet boots, wet socks and wet, stinky trail clothes throughout the trip, Miles says.
“You just kind of accept if it’s smelly because you’re not going to get anything clean,” he said.
Putting on wet socks and boots marked the beginning of “Unhappy Feet Time,” Miles says, while “Happy Feet Time” was when they finally could take off their wet boots and socks at the end of the day.
First, though, they’d have to gather firewood, set up camp and prepare evening meals before the mosquitoes got too thick.
The bugs, Miles says, were biblical at times.
“Oh, the bugs – they were not fun,” he said. “There was a time at night that we called ‘The Witching Hour,’ and you couldn't go outside.
“It’s like the air was thick with bugs, and they would just destroy you.”
This was Miles’ fourth year attending Camp Widjiwagan. After missing 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Miles last year spent 10 days on trail hiking at Isle Royale National Park on Lake Superior. Widjiwagan is a “progression-based” camp, and as campers become more experienced, so does the length and difficulty of the trips they can take.
Campers can choose either canoeing or backpacking excursions during their stay in camp. Next year, Miles can progress to a 21-day canoe trip, followed by a 28-day canoe trip in 2024 and a trip to the Canadian Arctic in 2025 that will last more than a month, “which is bonkers,” he says.
While Miles is the first member of his family to attend Camp Widjiwagan, the tradition spans generations for some families. Such is the case for Tom Gehrz, who was one of eight kids in his family to attend the camp and whose parents actually met at camp in the 1970s.
Now an assistant Chisago County attorney in eastern Minnesota, Gehrz and Meredith Larson – Miles’ mom – formerly worked together in the Grand Forks County State’s Attorney’s Office.
It was Gehrz who suggested “Widji” might be a good fit for Miles, says Meredith, now an attorney for Vogel Law Office in Grand Forks.
Gehrz, who grew up in St. Paul, attended Widjiwagan from 1996 through 2001 and worked as a camp counselor in the summers of 2002 and 2003. He says his parents made him go to camp that first summer, but it was his choice to keep coming back.
“I wanted to go back because I made good friends there, and kind of my big summer thing was going on these canoeing trips,” said Gehrz, whose time as a camper culminated in a 900-mile canoe trip over 6½ weeks from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, to Baker Lake in the territory of Nunavut. “I played a little baseball in the summers, but pulling up to camp was the big thing, and it just really teaches you respect for the wilderness and setting goals and believing you can accomplish them.”
Like Gehrz, Miles says he’d like to work as a counselor once he’s taken the canoe trips that await. A quote from the campfire session that brings campers and their families together for the end of camp sums up the Widjiwagan experience, he says.
“You learn to be happy even when you’re miserable, and so you learn to have fun when you’re miserable,” Miles said. “I think that’s pretty true.”
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