Charles L. Sommers Canoe Base
July 21-29, 2019
Troop 1128 traveled to northern Minnesota this summer to participate in wilderness canoeing at the Northern Tier High Adventure Base. Northern Tier is Scouting BSA’s gateway to adventure in the Great Northwoods. We started our adventure from the flagship base of Northern Tier, the Charles L. Sommers Canoe Base which has hosted Boy Scout canoe expeditions on the shores of Moose Lake since 1941. It is located twenty miles outside of the town of Ely, MN. Our scouts were among the over 4,000 scouts outfitted each year on wilderness canoe trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in Minnesota.
Base Camp and Preparation: Our trip started with our departure out of Dulles Airport for Minneapolis on Sunday, July 21. Upon arriving in Minnesota, we drove 250 miles north to spend the night near Ely, Minnesota – 30 minutes away from base camp. Along the way we drove to the east to see Duluth, Minnesota and travel along a portion of the western shore of Lake Superior. The next day we arrived at base camp where we were assigned our two cabins, provided with initial instruction, and researched and chose our treks. On Tuesday, July 23 we completed our gear outfitting which included three canoes per crew. Our gear was packed into five large packs called “whales: 2 for personal gear, 1 for the cooking kit, 1 for food, and 1 for our tents. We set out that morning for 6 days of wilderness canoeing.
On the water: This high adventure has a historical theme based on the fur trade that occurred in this area during from the 1600s through the early 1800s. We experienced much of what the “Voyageurs” did during that time except for actual trapping of beaver. Both crews paddled long distances (60 + miles of travel), carried heavy loads of gear, did nearly 40 portages, canoed into 20 knot winds on white cap lakes, road out storms at night, and experienced pristine wilderness that included beautiful scenery: boundless waters, water falls, cliffs, wildlife (bald eagles, river otters, beavers, loons, and yes; mosquitos after dark), and native pictographs. Scouts mastered canoeing, cooking, camp set up and clean up, navigation, the art of feet-first 5-foot cliff jumping, the language of loons, and portaging. Most of all they had fun. The level of good cheer, laughing, and friendly teamwork was impressive.
Portaging. A unique aspect of this adventure is the requirement to carry canoes between lakes as we crossed the wilderness just like the fur trappers of old. Everyone had to carry a load during portaging. Weights varied from the 50-pound canoes to 100 pounds for the food pack. Normally we would have 9 members in each crew carrying 6 packs and 3 canoes. Since we had 8 members in each crew (5 scouts, two adult advisors, and one interpreter– guide), our packs were heavier than normal as we were short one scout per crew. We decided to increase the pack loads rather than having an extra pack which allowed us to make only one trip per portage.. Our portages varied in distance from ½ mile to only 80 feet. A few portages were over mild rapids that required us to walk through the water pulling our canoes. Some of our portages were along the Canadian border and technically we were in Canada as we straddled the border. Some of the scouts had 30 portages carrying the canoe. The advantage of the canoe was that it is the lightest load, but it required good balance and skill to carry. Everybody shared in the carrying the pack loads.
Homeward Bound. Arriving at base camp on Sunday, July 28, we cleaned our gear and returned everything in good shape except for an interpreter’s tent that was destroyed during a gale force storm on the next to last night on the water. Even the storm was fun. The first showers of the week were welcome at base camp – swimming is the way to clean up during the trek. After dinner at the Dairy Queen in Ely where we treated our interpreters and the return to base camp for the closing ceremony, we all had that satisfying feeling that comes with a truly unique experience. The next morning, we visited the Soudan Iron Mine in Vermilion, Minnesota about 30 minutes from Ely. The tour of this former iron mine provided through the Minnesota State Park system was very informative about mining in this part of the U.S. Iron mining has been important to the economy of the northern Great Lakes region since the mid-19th century and continues to a lesser extent today. We descended a half mile deep into the mine through an elevator and traveled on rail cars for a ¼ mile to our visit location. After the tour, we drove to Minneapolis where we visited the Mall of America for amusement park entertainment, dining, and relaxation. Our flight was delayed so we spent 4 hours at the mall. This delayed our arrival at Dulles to 1:00 AM.
This was the first time Troop 1128 had been to Northern Tier since 2012. This is the first iteration of a Troop 1128 high adventure program that will have a Northern Tier/Philmont rotation. The next Northern Tier trip will be the summer of 2021. The troop will travel to Philmont in 2020. This alternation will continue for the foreseeable future.
Here’s a link with a taste of the Northern Tier adventure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHdDgcqlyEk&feature=youtu.be