Overnight to Dorothy’s – A Trip Report
August 23, 2022
I will admit that sadly I never met Dorothy Molter. When I took my first Boundary Waters trip, she had already been gone for 17 years. And yet, like many of us who have only enjoyed the stories, she remains a revered figure in our local history. And it’s the same for so many of that generation and era. As I have paddled the Boundary Water through, I have seen numerous places steeped in history, heard the legends, and connected in some way through the land that held such a special place in the hearts of remarkable people. There’s a feeling of the significance and history paddling past Isle of the Pines, pulling up above the old dock footing at Benny’s place on Ottertrack, observing the D-Day monument at the Nordahl Anderson cabin site, staring upwards in reverent awe at any number of the pictographs, paddling past Janice’s Cache Bay ranger station, seeing the little memories of Justine Kerfoot around Gunflint, watching the sunset from the Blankenberg’s beach, touching a tree studied by Miron Heinselman, finishing a trip by paddling past Sig's Listening Point, uncovering history at the fire tower sites, starting a backpacking trip from Forest Center, or sharing portages with the native peoples and voyageurs who have come before. And as a guide, I loved stopping mid-trip to allow my groups to connect with these places and people too. I hoped that if I could share the stories and the legends they could feel the significance of the past in the places we visit. And, in some ways, these legendary figures could live on through the tales of their lives and in the new generations who come to admire them through their stories.
It’s with this perspective of history in mind that we planned a sort of crazy tribute paddle one night this summer. Little Grumpy, a past guiding friend of mine, came up from his desk job to fill in as a guide. At the end of that week, we were planning to do something crazy and fun (our worst ideas come when we’re both involved.) Plenty of outlandish routes circled around, but we landed on an overnight trip to Dorothy’s islands on Knife Lake. Friday came quickly, Lil’ Grumpy’s guide week ended, I clocked out of work, and we prepped the gear for the adventure ahead. I had acquired a 17 ft Beaver, the legendary, fairly short lived, super aluminum canoes whose racing genetics I wanted to see on a “push-it” adventure. We pulled into the Snowbank landing and had ourselves on the water shortly after 5:00.
On the lake, we started to acclimate to the Beaver whose genes began to show in the marginal lack of primary stability. This wouldn’t have been so much of an issue if there hadn’t been big chop on Snowbank. Thankfully, the wind was pushing us north towards the Boot portages we were heading for. The combination of the tailwind, fast hull, and motivated paddlers put us at the portage in about an hour from leaving the landing. We ran into another group between the portages to Boot. We had the standard conversation of “where did you come from/where are you going.” I think the fact that we were heading to Knife didn’t totally register since it was already 6:00. We moved through Boot quickly enough and then it was on to Ensign. We both recalled trips past as we moved through familiar waterways. I remembered a moose I saw with some friends and an unseen rock we had perched a canoe on which we avoided this day. We also took note of the usual campground-esque nature of Ensign with plenty of groups settled in for the night. These were the people we would be trying not to wake when we paddle back past at some unreasonable hour. From Ensign, we didn’t take the direct route since the scenic route has always been more our taste. Besides, who wants a straight out and back trip anyways? We turned north into Trident since neither of us had ever been that way. The portages were steep, overgrown, and rather poison ivy covered, but we made good time up to the border. The portages would be familiar again as we pushed east. We encountered another group on the portage, two people with three packs and a canoe. Thankfully, all three were Portage North and/or Kondos packs which gave me some pride in seeing our gear doing what it does best. We made it to Carp Lake just as the sun was setting. This beautiful scene was canoe paddling at its best and spirits were high. As we rounded the corner, we heard a loud exclamation from the southern campsite “Dad, come quick, Uncle **** hooked himself!” With a fair bit of wilderness first aid knowledge between us and some experience with self-hooking besides, we figured we should at least go follow up on the situation. The gentleman had hooked himself in the thigh, but seemed rather nonchalant about it as he referred to it as “I hooked myself AGAIN.” After their assurance that they could handle it, we made our way for the portage. It was fun recollecting here as our first season guiding brought us this way for staff training. We made it to Seed and ended up walking the canoe through the rapids thereafter. This would have been a normal routine had the sun not already departed and visibility dramatically declined. We took the final portage into Knife in the dark and arrived by about 10:30 and set out into the darkness for our destination. Embarrassingly, these two seasoned wilderness guides would actually get a tad turned around on Knife since a storm system to the north pretty well darkened the sky. We caught ourselves before going too far, and pulled off on a point not far from Isle of the Pines. We sat on a rock by the shore and admired the stars and pulled our special treat from the packs: two Dorothy Molter root beers and a block of fancy cheese from Mitska’s. Now I know, folks will say that it isn’t the same recipe that Dorothy made. Others will say we should know better than to bring a glass bottle into the BWCA, they are forbidden! But we wanted to do this moment right and we are the last people to ever leave a bottle behind (I even routinely use a larger pack than I need so I have space to carry other people’s garbage out.) In any case, it was special to sit and drink root beer, watch the stars, and experience the raw power of the storm which was lighting up the sky with lightning behind us. The impending storm had us a tad nervous for how the remainder of our overnight paddle would proceed, so we made good time to the portage. Long portages always feel longer in the dark but, with minimal gear, we moved well across to Vera. From here, things would be a slog. The tiredness would begin to set in on the paddle stretches as we struggled to stay focused on the task at hand. Portaging would prove a welcome reprieve to wake back up a bit. Snacks helped too. Also the lightning flashing in the distance was beautiful to watch as it never seemed to get closer. In fact, it never even made a sound. In the silent flashing, we were able to get fading views of trees and clouds who passed in and out of the shadows from the brief moments of lightning. Finally back on Ensign, we paddled around the corner. I forgot my lesson learned in my fatigue and, all of a sudden, the poor canoe came to a grinding halt. Sigh.... big rock. Wonder if anyone lying in their tents on Ensign were questioning that noise! We back out to open water and made our way to Boot, not traveling as efficiently as we had been some 6-7 hours earlier. Over the portages we went into Boot and eventually out the pond and on to Snowbank. Little did we know what lay ahead. Despite being 3:30 in the morning at this point, there remained a huge chop on the lake, this time into our faces. It would be a struggle southward towards the car. As we worked our way across the lake, the horizon began brightening ever so slightly. It’s a strange feeling to begin paddling mid-afternoon, enjoy the beauty of the sunset, and to still be paddling as the sun began to rise again. We pulled off mid-lake for a break and a snack before the last push. The primary stability of the Beaver was being called into question again as the big chop and the tired paddlers made for a potentially wet combination. As we set off towards the parking lot, the skies finally opened up for some good wind-propelled rain. We limped back into the landing by about 6:00 after a long, hard fight across Snowbank. This little adventure was a cool one. We were able to push ourselves a bit and share in a one-of-a-kind experience. It seemed surreal in a way to spend time on the incomparable Knife Lake without any camping before or after. Sleep would follow shortly after returning to camp with dreams filled with beautiful scenery, fascinating history, and the challenges set before us in a way that only wild places can.