My first Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness trip started on Moose Lake north of Ely. It was back in the day when Dorothy Molter served up ice-cold root beer at her cabin on Knife Lake. We paddled straight to her root beer stand, where we chatted until the day’s light faded. We departed for the nearest campsite with a word of caution from the kind root beer lady. Be careful with your food as a nuisance bear has been hanging out, she advised.
We pitched our tent, lit a campfire and soon filled the woods with the aroma of our first-night steaks sizzling over coals. That’s when the storm clouds opened up. We dove into the tent and the bear Dorothy had warned us about showed up for our supper.
Those were my memories one week ago as a towboat carried four of us up Moose Lake. Son Erik and I were loaded for bear; our companions carried paperback books in place of the ammunition we carried.
Last year some 6,300 hunters harvested 1,627 bears in Minnesota, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Only five of those were taken in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
We set out last week to see if we could be counted among those harvesting a bear in this protected wilderness. Only 50 permits are issued each year for bear hunters in the BWCAW, an area covering over 1 million acres.
The challenges to taking a bear in the BWCAW are many, but none matters more than this: Baiting as is typically done to lure bears is not allowed. Hunters are advised to boil honey to attract a bear in the BWCAW.
A few years earlier a phone call to Tom Rusch, area wildlife manager with the DNR in Tower, yielded the advice we follow. Bears are on the move in the BWCAW come fall, searching out the acorns, hazelnuts and other hard mast food sources they favor after the berries are gone. He believes they tend to favor ridge lines in their travels, and suggested they also offer the best opportunity for hunting them.
Of course, it’s always good to find an area where the home range includes a good bear population.
More recent advice came from John O’Kane of Voyageur North Outfitters in Ely, who had sent me to Knife Lake on that very first trip. Back in mid-summer when we booked a BWCAW permit he had suggested Ensign Lake as a good area to hunt bear. The area naturally holds a good population of bears, and this summer there were reports of problem bears bothering campers.
When we reached Ely to start our adventure, John advised us that the reports of problem bears on Ensign Lake had shifted north to Knife and Vera Lakes. A thick, black line was placed under Knife Lake on the BWCW map he kept on the counter to alert others of the reports of problem bears.
We stayed the course to Ensign. We pitched our tent, lit our fire, enjoyed our first night’s meal and sipped hot chocolate as the northern lights danced atop the trees on the shoreline across from camp.
Our first day of scouting yielded lots of sign where bears were to be found. Their scat revealed their interest in acorns.
Along with all of his insights on the habits of bears, Tom Rusch had offered this bit of wisdom for a BWCAW bear hunt: Take advantage of your time to enjoy the fishing and other opportunities to be enjoyed here. We did. It was from the water with fishing poles in hand that we spotted the bear climbing the ridge line rising above the stand of oaks that had already captured our interest.
This was a very busy corner of the wilderness, popular with campers but also active with lots of wildlife. We surprised a porcupine while paddling along the shoreline one day. The next, three otters surprised us.
A fisher was my first surprise while sitting in my hunting stand. The sudden blur of black in the thick brush started my heart thumping, until it circled and revealed itself. My pot of honey flavored with anise boiled away. The woods smelled as sweet as a bakery.
Day by day from this stand I watched a grouse drum on a log just 15 feet away; raven and geese fly determined paths overhead, and squirrels and birds of all sorts dash about in the under canopy.
Each night I returned to camp for meals of fresh-caught fish and excited talk about what we heard but did not see in the woods.
John O’Kane was waiting as pulled into his parking lot on the east end of Sheridan Street in Ely.
Did you get one, he asked, and proceeded to tell us:
Two parties he had sent out to Knife Lake in the past week had returned with torn tents and reports of problem bears there. One party had moved to another campsite only to have the bear show up there, he reported.
We caught fish, explored woods and swamp with only animal trails to follow, enjoyed perfect weather, and had very good reason to believe a bear was very interested in what we were doing. If only we had something more to offer than the sweet scent of boiling honey, I told John.
Should have gone to Knife Lake, he said.