With Our Heads in the Clouds

"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.

We shed our backpacks and Martin and I rested while Craig and Nora went scouting. Soon we heard shouts: "We found it!" They bounded back with renewed energy; Craig helped me with my backpack and scooped up his own and the kids'. "It's the most beautiful campsite I've ever seen," he said.

It was right on the lake, and a delicious breeze blew the mosquitoes away as it cooled our skin. Craig and Nora pitched the tent, I drew water from the lake with my filtering pump, Martin floated little boats of moss with small stones on them out onto the glassy water.

I alone ventured into the rocky, shallow lake to bathe. I couldn't swim, it was too shallow and filled with rocks and sunken logs, but I peeled off my clothes and lowered my pale, Rubenesque form into the cool lake, much to my family's amazement, splashing the pristine water onto my sticky skin, rinsing away the trail's grime. Soap is forbidden in Boundary Waters lakes, but this water was cleansing all by itself.

Although darkness comes later up north, it was fast approaching by the time we'd finished our supper. Craig gauged various trees in which to suspend our food pack. He selected one, and hurled the rope, still coiled, up over a long sturdy branch. It immediately caught on a little broken branch at the top. Several tugs only tightened the knot, so he finally rigged a second rope (experienced camping friends had advised us to bring extras) with a rock on the end and flung this more successfully over the branch. He hoisted the pack high and we retired to our tent.

I thought back to our stop at the Grand Marais Ranger station early that afternoon. We'd picked up up our permit there, and watched a required fifteen-minute orientation film about camping in the boundary waters. We'd noted how the campers in the film suspended their own food pack between two trees. We'd watched with alarm when a young bear came right into the campsite and the campers demonstrated how to make a tremendous racket with pots and pans to chase the bear away.

Now, I like wildlife. I was hopeful we would see something more interesting and exotic than the squirrels and grackles that visited our South Minneapolis backyard. Bears, however, I could do without. Especially up close and personal.

But I heard no animal sounds in the night. No owls, no loons, no wolves. No bears. Only the ominous drone of the mosquitoes swarming around the tent. As soon as the sun set, the spell that had kept them away from our campsite lifted.

I awoke at dawn to a rustling sound, eerily close by. Craig was awake now, too. We cautiously peered out of the tent and up at our food pack. A squirrel was feasting on the one apple we hadn't eaten on the trail. "Shoo, scoot!" we yelled, employing the bear technique on this rodent.

My guidebook told us that the view from Eagle Mountain is truly spectacular, that on a clear day you could see Lake Superior, some twenty miles away. Drizzly rain fell the morning of the day we were to make our climb. We had come all this way to climb a mountain, and no wimpy little rain was going to prevent us from doing so. We donned our ponchos, packed a lunch and headed onward.

The trail up the mountain wasn't really rockier or more crossed with roots than the one we had already trekked. It was just steeper. We climbed and we climbed. Sometimes we had to use our hands, other times we could walk, leaning into the slope. We came to a clearing with a lovely view of the surrounding scenery. Although we couldn't see any great distance, it was truly beautiful; the neighboring peak was shrouded in mist like the Scottish Highlands. The rain wasn't much more than fog by now. We removed our ponchos and continued onward.

We had expected to reach a point where we would break out of the trees and find ourselves on an open mountain top, above it all. But this is Minnesota, and 2,301 feet above sea level is not that high, after all. When we finally came to the peak, it was a small clearing in the woods with a plaque on the large granite boulder telling us we had reached our goal. Good thing, or we wouldn't have known. After taking a picture of the kids around the marker, we headed back to eat our lunch in the clearing with the lovely view. This must be where we should be able to see Lake Superior, I thought, peering into the clouds.  

We hung around the campsite the rest of the day. The kids tied rocks to ropes and hurled them out into the lake to fetch them back. Martin made more moss boats. Nora looked for pretty rocks. I took a nap. Craig shimmied up the tree to fetch the tangled rope. We enjoyed the stillness, with just enough breeze to clear the mosquitoes, but not enough to ripple the lake.

When we awoke the next morning the mist had grown heavier, the air was sodden. It was dead still. The mosquitoes greeted us eagerly as we emerged from our tent. The spell was broken; it was time to go. We roused the children, wolfed down cereal bars, packed up quickly, and were on the trail by nine o'clock. Martin led the charge, and it soon became a race against the mosquitoes.

We removed our hats and fanned ourselves constantly as we marched through the woods. Nora and I sang an old marching song my mother had taught me:

Wausau the forty-second,

Wausau has gone to war

Wausau the forty-second, marching

through the bramble briar.

Zoom-de-doom had boots and stockings

Zoom-de-doom had nae no more

Zoom-de-doom had boots and stockings

Marching through the bramble briar

When the kids began to whine, I started the song again, pushing them onward. Nora stopped once to tie her shoes and we all shifted anxiously in our places, swatting mosquitoes.

We made good time: barely over an hour. Neither child complained of aching shoulders or asked to have their packs removed. We passed a few people on our way. We must have been quite a sight: dripping with sweat and streaked with dirt and blood from swatting mosquitoes. The sight of us sent one couple back to their car to apply more insect repellent. We, the experienced ones now, assured them that the trail was long, but worth it. The mist was lifting, it would probably be clear by the time they reached the peak.

When we broke out of the woods and into the parking lot, we expected to find a breeze and some relief from the mosquitoes. There was none. We threw our packs into the trunk of the car and scrambled in without pausing to congratulate ourselves.

But we laughed and slapped our high fives in the car as we drove away down County Road 153 toward Finland, Minnesota and a shower. We were tired, sweaty, dirty, bloody, full of welts--and triumphant. Our children would have something to boast about when they returned to school in the fall: they had climbed a mountain.

And we will return, some cold clear day when the mosquitoes are dormant, to conquer it again.

When Sharon Parker isn't climbing mountains or swatting mosquitoes or gardening or reading and writing mysteries, she writes music reviews for Minnesota Parent and several other publications.

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