No Country for the Old Man
The secret to backcountry paddling with Dad? Patience. And brandy.
"THIS COULD BE a Titanic mission," my father, James, says as we drive toward Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He's explaining his newly purchased canoe, which came at a discount due to a weak spot in its Kevlar laminate that may or may not lead to us sinking.
"Sounds about right," I say.
We're here to celebrate Dad's impending retirement. A former Peace Corps volunteer who took up skydiving during a midlife crisis, he's now prepared to call it a career after nearly four decades running a sunflower-processing business. We chose the Boundary Waters because it's a place he's always wanted to visit and one that I know intimately. He picked me up at the airport, his defective canoe teetering on the car's roof, and later, at the hotel, invoked his newly acquired AARP discount. Once in the room, he attached an air ventilator to his face, Snuffleupagus style, in order to thwart sleep apnea.
The next morning, a steady rain lashes our faces as we paddle out. Every third stroke, my father mindlessly splashes water in my lap while extolling the virtues of his new bent-shaft paddle, which he purchased on the advice of a how-to book.
"How's she look?" he asks.
"If you hold it more upright," I say, "it'll be easier to paddle, and you won't waste so much energy splashing."
"Technique," my father says, "is overrated."
Toward the end of the day, I suggest a campsite on an island in Canadian waters. "Too open to the wind," Dad says. Two hours later, we pull into a site on Birch Lake, the only spot we can find that's even slightly sheltered. I suggest a fire. Dad wants to crash, so we set up the tent and I cook dinner on a camp stove in the tent's vestibule as the rain hammers down. "This sucks," Dad says.
The next day, while eating lunch on a rock outcropping under a soaking drizzle, Dad suggests raiding the leftover firewood from a nearby campsite. "Not kosher," I say. But he's made up his mind; we dump the wood in the boat and paddle on.
Eventually, the sun begins to break through. He asks me about my job and my love life. I tell him that I live in a desert and that I'm not referring to the geography.
"You're not getting any younger," he says.
"This coming from a man who sleeps on life support," I say.
That night we drift out in front of our campsite with a bottle of brandy and two rods. We catch three walleyes. Onshore, I fry them in bread crumbs, and we eat in silence as the moon rises above the silhouettes of white pines on a distant ridgeline. Afterward, for perhaps the first time, my father compliments my cooking. I begin packing up the campsite, and before I can stop him he dumps the leftovers in the fire—a major faux pas.
"What the hell?" I say. "You know there are bears here."
"Yeah, yeah," he says. "If you're this fastidious about the campsite, how come your apartment is such a mess?"
I pick up the bottle of brandy and polish it off. There's nothing else to do.
"Good trip," Dad says. "Where to next?"
EXPENSE REPORT: One night at Canoe On Inn in Ely (canoeoninn.com): $88. Two fishing licenses (www.dnr.state.mn.us): $50. Maps, freeze-dried food, and blueberry scones at Piragis Northwoods Company (piragis.com): $67. Bottle of brandy: $26. Post-trip steaks and cocktails at Ely Steak House (elysteakhouse.com): $93. Total: $324