A new world behind the trees

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

On a cold November morning, trucks rattle along an old dirt road behind a stand of timber across from our home in the woods of Itasca County. The chains rattle against the trailers in the crisp, clear air. Sound carries. Two miles, maybe three? This land has been logged several times over in the past 150 years, and hardly qualifies as untouched wilderness. Which is easy to say, until you get lost.

A couple summers ago, Christina, the boys and I decided to do some exploring on the old logging roads in this roughed-up forest. At one point, we needled down a road that ended in a thicket, hoping to find a shortcut back to our house. It would have been a good mile of walking back the way we came. We could hear the dog barking in our backyard: maybe a quarter mile away. So we set off into the woods.

Suddenly, we were in a new land. I’ll spare you the account of whining, yelling, crying and family bonding that occurred before we spilled back onto our driveway, like pilgrims through the portal of a time machine.

This story came to mind as I read the accounts of Jason Zabokrtsky, an Ely canoe guide and outfitter, who last week completed a 90-mile walk of Quetico and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. For two weeks, Zabokrtsky walked, waded and swam across the wet, cold blade of the Arrowhead. His mission: to challenge himself and observe land that few people ever see.

Moss on a moose skull

Jason Zabokrtsky snapped this photo of moss growing on a moose skull in the wilderness behind the trees of Quetico.

“It’s a different world back there behind the trees,” Zabokrtsky told me this week. Most of his walking was done on a wet mossy forest floor. The wetlands extended up hills; his feet stayed wet the entire journey. Even in the dense forest, he saw three moose skulls along his narrow path.

“This place behind the trees, this is where the wildlife is born, where they live and where they die,” said Zabokrtsky.

One morning brought the howling of wolves, one of which was near his camp. Shortly later he encountered a bull and cow moose.

“When you’re in a canoe and you see a moose on shore, you’re surprised,” said Zabokrtsky. “But when you’re deep in the woods and see a moose, you surprise the moose.”

Fortunately, he avoided being chased by the bull, a known hazard of these woods.

It was 13 days of walking from the Ontario entrance to Quetico to the border before Zabokrtsky saw signs of any humans, some long abandoned fire rings. Along the way he swam lakes with snow on the ground (not as bad as it sounds, since the water was warmer than the air). His biggest concern was hurting himself in a fall, something that happened several times a day in the wet, rocky terrain. He used a GPS to plot his path and a satellite phone to share daily updates with friends, family and fans.

It was, in short, a modern-day adventure in a place not so far away. He made quicker time through the BWCA and emerged from the woods to find friends waiting to walk him back to his hometown of Ely, where a hot meal and shower awaited.

It was an old spirit of adventure that drove Zabokrtsky on his “bushwhack” of Quetico and the Boundary Waters. A seasoned canoe guide who has trolled most of the waters in this area, Zabokrtsky was amazed to find an entirely different, fragile, complex world just behind the trees. So he cut in, walked lightly and lived to tell.

“You don’t have to go far to find adventure,” Zabokrtsky said. “I literally walked home.”

Such spirit has driven the people of northern Minnesota since people first arrived here. May it continue forever.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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