Wind whooshed through the pines and spruces who bristled across the spine of our rocky point like quills on a porcupine. I snuggled more deeply into my sleeping bag. The day had been gusty, our paddling fierce and steady against whitecaps, with white lines of foam streaming down the lakes. Once the sun rose again, we’d be paddling upwind into a three-and-a-half mile fetch. Would the breeze slacken or strengthen overnight? I tensed at each gust and relaxed in the quiet, trying to foretell the future.
You would think that after 25 years of paddling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I’d be pretty good at sleeping in a tent up there. But no, I often find myself listening in the dark. Sometimes the vigilance is because I’m responsible for the safety of a group. Other times it’s just a by-product of a sore back or snoring neighbor. Cracks of thunder and howling winds are the only sounds that truly carry a measure of risk. But even quiet nights find me lying awake. It’s not all bad.
During a pause in the wind, the faint rasp of gnawing teeth slipped through the thin nylon walls of my tent. Micro-bears (mice) might not be dangerous, but they do have the potential to ruin gear or my treasured bag of gorp. I opened my eyes in the darkness and tried to imagine the campsite layout. Was the sound coming from our food pack, hung high in a white pine tree away from regular bears? Or was it coming from under the rain tarp, where a few items of gear were avoiding the off-and-on drizzle of the evening?
Then my tent-mate’s bladder chimed in on the problem. When they started undoing the series of zippers – there is no silent way to open all of those zippers! – between them and night air, I decided that I might as well get up, too, and take care of a couple of sleep deterrents at once.
Relieved, I determined that the gnawing was definitely not coming from within our campsite. In fact, it seemed to be coming from across a small bay. Sound travels astoundingly well over water, but still, those had to be big teeth to make a sound that would carry. I smiled at several memories of hearing this same sound at different campsites – beaver!
Since we were up, and the moon was up, and the wind was down, we grabbed jackets and headlamps and made our way down to the point. This slightly sloping spit of rock on Winchell Lake, with its level landings and artistically disheveled jack pine trees, is the foundation of one of the most desired campsites in the Boundary Waters. When I worked for the Forest Service in this area, we never saw this campsite empty during the height of summer. This afternoon it had been our reward for braving the wind and rain when almost no one else did.
We spoke in whispers while slipping the canoe into the water. The moon played peekaboo with the clouds as we turned into the bay and paddled toward the dark shadows of the trees. Then we paused to listen. Paddles dripped. Waves lapped gently against Kevlar. And there it was: a rough and rhythmic gnawing from the far shore. We paddled a few strokes closer.
Splash! Shriek! Laughter.
I’d been expecting a beaver to slap their tail at us, warning their family that something suspicious was afoot. I’d been trying to brace for it. But when the noise actually came it startled an embarrassing noise out of me all the same, and I shook with mirth in the dark. Four more splashes, conducted in surround-sound, told me that we we’d probably disturbed this family of beavers enough for one night.
After the screech of zippers, the rustle of sleeping bags, and the hiss of breathing subsided, my ears again found the rasp of beaver teeth on wood cutting through the night air. Now, because I knew our food and gear were safe, the sound was soothing and familiar. Darkness began to seep behind my eyelids, too, and quiet the synapses that kept me awake.
I wonder if Sigurd Olson, champion of wilderness, once slept at this campsite? If he travelled through Winchell, he surely did. A bit of wisdom from his book “Reflections from the North County,” filtered through my drifting memory: “If we can somehow retain places where we can always sense the mystery of the unknown, our lives will be richer."
A single, loud noise rang through the dark. My eyes popped open. “I don’t know what that was,” I whispered into the tent, not very much liking what this mystery of the unknown suddenly added to my life.
But that’s a story for next week.
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Our exhibit: “The Northwoods ROCKS!” is open through mid-March. Our Fall Calendar of Events is ready for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.