Canoeing: A Lifelong Pursuit

Alone at the end of a portage long after nightfall, a young Jim Nicholson vividly remembers looking up at the stars feeling astonished at the beauty of the natural world and realizing just how small he was. “It was an awe-inspiring experience we all have from time to time,” he recounts in our interview for the Camp Voyageur Podcast.

Jim received his first taste of the great Northwoods on a family trip to a cabin, southwest of Ely on Bear Island Lake in the summer of 1961. His father, James, had visited the area in the 1940s while in college. Jim’s mother, Joan, attended DePauw University where Camp founder Charlie Erdmann taught and coached. Several kids from Indy went to Voyageur, including a happy camper named Carl Dean, the grandson of Mrs. Wilde, James’s client. But what sold Jim and his two brothers on summer camp was Charlie’s “dog and pony show,” sharing slides of enormous fish on a slide projector.

Jim eventually fell in love with the wilderness at Camp Voyageur in the 1960s. He considers himself very lucky to have been exposed to the Boundary Waters at an influential time in his life and it became something he deeply appreciates. Though he attended college and law school on the East Coast, he felt a great pull and innate attraction to Minnesota’s Northwoods. So when he and his wife, Debbie, were considering where they wanted to settle in 1979, Minnesota was the easy choice.

When Jim learned his colleagues at his law firm in Minneapolis were also canoeists, they began organizing trips each summer. They’ll embark on their 45th annual trip this June, chasing walleye and lake trout in the Quetico Provincial Park. The seasoned group often amazes the Scouts on the trail, especially when Jim tells the youngsters that he’s been carrying canoes since 1962. Jim’s crew still gets across portages in one trip, though he admits his Wenonah canoe is about half the weight of the old Grummans they used to carry. Still, Jim likes to let the Scouts know that canoeing is a sport they can enjoy for an entire lifetime.

Anyone who’s been on an extended group trip knows it’s not always easy getting along. Jim has a few tips and tricks he’s learned over the years when traveling as a group: Be tolerant of the same old jokes. Be respectful. Choose a crew of intrepid travelers who appreciate nature, share duties, and agree to “paddle and carry to the best of our abilities,” as the Voyageur oath states.

Jim on the right, with Dorothy Moulter and Becky Rom, a colleague at his law firm. Becky, an Ely native, daughter of outfitter Bill Rom, lives in Ely on Burntside Lake. She is Chair of Save the Boundary Waters and former Chair of the Wilderness Society. She is a relentless defender of the BWCA.

Jim’s canoe trips never missed an opportunity to visit the Root Beer Lady in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Dorothy Molter received a life interest following the Wilderness Act of 1964, allowing her to continue living inside the designated wilderness while the rest of the Boundary Waters’ residents and businesses were forced to move. After days of drinking lake water, Jim’s crew would stop at the Isle of Pines on Knife Lake to enjoy homemade root beer and fellowship with Dorothy. They called her brew “the best in the Boundary Waters.” Dorothy had known all about Camp Voyageur and enjoyed interacting with campers. “She lived a life of considerable solitude in a place she loved,” Jim says with reverence.

Though the Wilderness Act was initially controversial, today “there is considerable state-wide support for protecting the Boundary Waters,” Jim says. The Act did not completely stop the threat of development. Currently, there’s a 20-year moratorium on mining, but it could be reversed by any given Presidential administration. The Chilean company endeavoring to drill has another proposal for horizontal drilling on state land, and the effort to prevent it is happening now in the Minnesota legislative session. Fortunately, Minnesotans and nature lovers everywhere have Becky Rom, a tenacious lawyer leading the effort against mining with the national coalition Save the Boundary Waters. They want permanent protection at the federal level that can’t be undone and similar protection at the state level for state lands. Individuals and businesses can get behind the effort by supporting Save the Boundary Waters.

Jim Nicholson’s early experiences on Bear Island and at Camp Voyageur motivated him to make life decisions that enabled him to continue going on wilderness adventures. This summer, his crew will hit the trail once again, seeking walleye and trout, as well as the camaraderie and restorative effects of nature. I imagine they’ll find what they seek. Ask them yourselves—if you can catch them.