Unlike previous hitches, the Superior team took on a new member for a few days, their Program Coordinator, Mike Stenfancic. The team prepared their Duluth packs and food the morning of their first hitch while they waited for Mike to arrive around 9 am.
Once Mike finished shopping and had loaded up his canoe, the team left for the Moose Lake landing. The temperature was mild with clear skies and light wind and the entire team—in a stretch circle on the shore—relished the clement conditions. The relishing was especially prolonged and verbalized because they had a bit of foreknowledge that a severe heat wave loomed just off the Boundary Water region. For some team members, this would be a mental and physical challenge, yet for others it would prove to be a salubrious boon.
The first afternoon warmed as the team portaged into and out of Wind Lake. Mosquitoes hummed around faces, and black flies left red pinpricks on sweat-glossed skin. The destination was a two-day base camp on Basswood Lake, which was about a mile from the last portage out of Wind Lake. Visions of setting up camp and swimming fueled their muscles with energy during that last haul. Finally, the crew arrived: A grassy bank that gave way to block-shaped granite that crumbled into Basswood’s black water. Only moments after they set up camp were they in swim-trunks and -suits playing 500. Having an extra voice, a personality, and a helping hand—not to mention Mike’s contagious, bellowing laugh—was a treat for the team that first night and was already a lamented vacancy once he had to move on without them.
They spent the next two days visiting sites: The usual smattering of glaring yellow-eyed Daisy and seeding Hawkweed. The Hawkweed added a new caveat for the team this time around. The hitch before they realized that the Hawkweed’s frothy buds were easily knocked loose, which allowed more seeds to be sown. To avoid this, the crew used a Duluth bag liner—a thick, plastic bag—to put the seeds in. Team members tip-toed around as if holding a sleeping baby, a full glass of water, or as one team member noted, a sensitive explosive, hoping that each fragile seed would remain in the bud until the plant was put away in the bag. After cosseting the plant’s seeded heads for a few hours, the team moved on, satisfied with their meticulous work.
One priority site in particular was an anomaly for the summer. It was an old lodge property that was overrun by Goutweed. It was so large that all their agency contact asked them to do was to clear a ten-foot perimeter around the infestation. When they arrived at the site they saw one, then two, then a bundle, then an entire forest floor covered with the white-fringed leaves. Finding the perimeter to such an infestation was a challenge, but they identified the best border they could and went to work whacking the open areas with the rhythmic pendulum-swinging of metallic blades.
Goutweed is a small, three leaved plant that develops a cream colored fringe. It has a single lobe, which makes the leaf look like a mitten. A member of the carrot family, Apiacae, early settlers and lodge owners in the Boundary Waters area introduced the species as an ornamental despite the plant’s ancient medicinal uses for, as the name suggests, gout (a gnarly form of arthritis). Now, the weed is a legitimate ecological gout in wilderness ecosystems and for those obliged to get rid of it: Its rhizomic root structure and tenacious hold on top soil makes removal a teeth-grinding endeavor. Regardless, the crew managed to create a boundary that would contain the havoc one more summer until the next crew can arrive to manage the situation.
The next day the team was off for Prairie Portage and Sucker, Newfound, and eventually Moose Lake.
In the mornings, the goopy-eyed and shoulder-sore team ate oatmeal and drank instant coffee around the froggy-voiced National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) weatherman, waiting to both mentally and physically prepare for the day ahead. Each morning the NOAA man was a harbinger of imminent severe heat. Two members of the crew, Nick and David, waited in anticipation, while others simply accepted that the heat would be a challenge, but nevertheless endurable. But it was Jason, the neurotic, psychosomatic, cold-climate craving Coloradan, who each time he heard “heat index of 105”, whimpered and accepted his plight with silent crying in his tent.
The team began each day afresh and ambitious. Mike proved to be an invaluable resource for the team in identifying the myriad of flora on each site and portage. He not only showed his botanical wizardry, but he also served as a mosquito magnet. Each morning when he got out of his mesh-lined tarp, swarms of hundreds—maybe thousands—of blood-hungry mosquitoes cycloned around his exit. Oddly, he turned down an invitation to stay longer.
When Mike left for Chicago to visit the Superior team's sister team in the Illinois Sand Dunes, the crew headed to Prairie Portage. The team knocked the site out quickly and worked their way into other portages and sites in the area. The severe heat was staved off by low-lying fog, but the sauna-esque humidity was ubiquitous.
The crew moved into their last base camp on Newfound Lake the morning of the first full day of predicted severe heat. Nick and David thrived and bounded in and out of the canoes while the rest of the team moved a bit more slowly, conserving energy to make it through the entire day. The Forest Service recommended mid-day “health swims”, which the team indulged in at various sites and at lunch. That night, while listening to distant thunder and watching clouds boil all around, the team ruminated what a privilege it was to volunteer in such an amazing place where they could escape heat with a quick dip, then return to an “office”, or temporary home, that was in the middle of one of the Nation’s most serene wilderness areas.
The next day the team wrapped up the sites on Newfound and Moose Lake and survived one of the hotter days of the week. They left a day early to stay the night back at their dorm, but planned on going back to one of their first work areas from Hitch 1, Little Gabro Lake, the next morning.
First thing that following morning the crew was up and out the door. The heat was on early and the sky was an orange and blue haze. A sweaty, mosquito-pestered, 200 rod portage into the lake. Soaked and pocked with red welts, the team loaded canoes and slip through the placid water to new sites. They cleared out Hawkweed, Oxe eye, Canadian and Bull thistle all morning then went back to the dorm to clean up gear and prepare for the next hitch.
The third hitch was productive and exciting with the usual mystery of North Woods weather phenomena, and, with Mike’s candid reminder on his way out, that "some people would pay" to be out there doing what the Superior team is doing. They truly are the luckiest conservation volunteers ever...that's right, EVER.