With Our Heads in the Clouds

We never really intended to be such ambitious campers, but when you set out to climb mountains, anything can happen

"My shoulders ache. And my back's all sweaty. And the mosquitoes keep biting me." More than two miles into the rough, rocky, rutted trail in the woods, my six-year-old son, Martin, began to whine. My husband, Craig--already carrying the biggest backpack and the tent--slipped Martin's pack, with the plush tiger jutting its head jauntily out from beneath the flap, off our son's small shoulders and carried it in one hand. He checked with nine-year-old Nora. "How you doin'? You want me to take yours too?"

No indeed. She was troopin'.

I had realized--about a week before we set off to hike the three-and-a-half-mile Eagle Mountain Trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness--that I hadn't really prepared our kids for the journey: we hadn't done any training. No hiking.

Three days that week I had the kids don backpacks and hike the mile or so on city sidewalks to Minnehaha Creek. It was the best I could manage at the last minute. So I was amazed and impressed when these children, who still insist upon riding in the cart at the grocery store, made the long trek with nary a complaint or a pause. Except the one, which was certainly understandable.

We really didn't set out to be such ambitious campers--it never crossed our minds during the early stages of planning our trip that we'd actually camp in the Boundary Waters--but somehow Craig's determination that we climb "The Highest Point in Minnesota" managed to possess us all, even after we learned that it was much further north than we had thought, and considerably more remote.

Before starting our hike, we'd parked our car in the dirt lot at the head of Eagle Mountain Trail, which begins in the Superior National Forest, crossing about a mile later at "entrance point seventy-nine" into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where you continue for another two and a half miles, the last half-mile of which is the steep ascent up Eagle Mountain--The Highest Point in Minnesota, 2,301 miles above sea level. (My husband's boss, who hales from New York, laughed when he heard the figure, but it's what we have, and we were determined to climb it.)

Our official hiking pamphlet labeled this trail "most difficult" (due to its narrowness, steep ups and downs, rocks and roots, and the occasional log bridge over a swampy creek, no doubt). But what really made it challenging was the mosquitoes.

They swarmed in our faces and whined in our ears and showed a marked preference for the backs of our necks. We had applied liberal doses of a non-DEET insect repellent called Bite Blocker, to no avail. I'm not convinced even pure DEET would have deterred these voracious parasites.

The temperature was in the seventies, there was a smattering of clouds, and, though humid, the weather was pleasant enough due to a gentle breeze. But the breeze soon vanished and the temperature climbed once we entered the woods with our full packs, laden with sleeping bags, a tent, and a two-day supply of food.

The people we passed on the trail had no backpacks. They had made the day trek unburdened, heading up the mountain in the cool of morning and returning by mid- afternoon, just as we began. Some of them cheerfully urged us on, extolling the beauty of the trail and the scenic vistas to come. One woman, however, looked considerably done-in. "It's a long way, and it gets harder," she greeted us. But we were undaunted. It was early yet.

Shortly after Martin unloaded his backpack on the trail, we glimpsed lovely Whale Lake. Only a quarter mile or so across, it is far removed from the more famous Boundary Waters lakes and not accessible by canoe. We had it all to ourselves. We basked in the breeze as we gazed across it at a prominent peak, which sloped gradually on one side and dropped sharply on the other: Eagle Mountain. We knew we were close now, and plunged back into the woods to find our campsite.

The man at the ranger station where we'd gotten our permit had been quite certain that both of the two campsites on Eagle Mountain Trail were somewhat removed from the lake. He'd also assured us there was water at the trailhead. He had been wrong about the water. When we spotted the first little signpost with the tent symbol on it, we noted with some hesitation that it led away from the lake. But we were tired and hot and our backpacks had grown heavier. Our shoulders ached. So we headed into the brush to check it out.

We were disappointed. The campsite was cut off from whatever breeze the lake bestowed, and it was not at all picturesque. We stood there slapping mosquitoes and sweating and trying to imagine relaxing around a fire in this setting. "The next one has to be better," we agreed, and trudged onward.

That was when we came to the rockiest, most difficult part of the trail. Sometimes it was hard to find a space between the rocks to place my foot. It was almost five-thirty; we had been hiking for an hour and a half.

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