Excerpt from, A Trail of Stars – Our Fight for Sanity in an Insane World.September 4, 2023
Druids GateSeptember 9, 2023
“The Guide” As Seen In: Boundary Waters Journal
by Rick Jebb
M y arrival in Ely the summer of 1975 at age nineteen, was less than glorious. But that wasn’t the worst of it, and that wasn’t how it all ended.
My canoeing experience had started eight years earlier. As a kid I, wasn’t easy to be around so my mother shipped me off to camp. This was everyone’s perfect solution. A canoeing camp in Canada was presented to me as an opportunity and a privilege—eight weeks in the woods!
“It’ll be a great experience” mother said. I was also fooled by the warm smile of the Camp Director and the laughter of kids in the promotional film. The camp was called Owakonze—which in Ojibway means determination. That should have been a clue. It was a training ground for “character building” through an intensive wilderness canoeing program. The place was carved out of the woods in 1918, thirty miles northeast of Quetico. I was very weak at the time, having just gotten a cast off my arm and my most distinguishing characteristic was probably laziness.
The challenges of traveling through the wilderness were de-emphasized in the marketing propaganda. Instead, most of the camp’s film footage showed kids happily paddling canoes, playing basketball and riding the water toboggan gleefully down into the lake.
I remember my very first canoe trip like it was yesterday. A four-day trip from Baril Lake to Elbow Lake and back. My first difficult portage, I’m covered in mosquitos and black flies and slip off a split-log trail, plunging chest-deep into muskeg. We didn’t go far, made a comfortable camp, fished, ate, and slept. And we jumped off a twelve-foot cliff over and over again into the warm Canadian summer, until it was time to return to Owakonze Island.
By the end of that first summer, even after almost drowning in the rapids below Chatterton Falls, I felt the self-assurance that comes from several wilderness canoeing trips into Quetico. By fifteen, I had paddled something like two thousand miles of northern canoe routes. It is here I discovered a world where I fit in.
I’m not exactly sure when I first decided to become a canoeing guide. But at thirteen, I began to organize canoe trips with family and friends. We paddled the Galena and Upper Iowa rivers, then into the real canoe country out of Ely and the Gunflint Trail. Other trips, we drove to Atikokan and paddled south into Quetico. All these trips came off well.
The last noteworthy trip came just before attending college in Mexico. This trip included a high school buddy everyone called Elk, a cool guy of Scandinavian heritage who had never been on a canoe trip. We would take a Greyhound bus to Ely, paddle out of Fall Lake and cross the Canadian border on Basswood Lake. After stopping at Louisa Falls to camp and swim, we would head up Agnes, through Kawnipi and Pickerel to French Lake and back, about six full days.
It was slow going up to the top of the park. The first four days were constant rain. The kind of rain that worked into every piece of gear, even into your skull. Windbound on our return through Pickerel, Elk said, “this was a bad idea. You know, Jebb, we could have been home drinking beer and chasing girls!” Seems I had failed to deliver the blue skies and Canadian sunshine as promised. Soon we were at each other’s throats. Only two days remained before we had to be back. Then everything changed.
On the afternoon of the fifth day, as we stood on a rock overlooking Kawnipi, the sun came out. It was radiant, penetrating our soggy spirits. The moisture rose from our clothing and up into the mist rising from the water. As the clouds parted, I’ll never forget looking over at Elk. His frown was replaced with a big, kindhearted, taunting smile, as welcome as the sun. The warmth and joy returned in a flash to both of us. We laughed again, and said to each other, “this has been a great trip.” And later, “it was all worth it in the end!”
We made great time getting back to Ely and after cleaning up, paid our tab at Canadian Waters before a celebratory steak dinner. The outfitting manager inquired about our trip, mostly to hear how we had made it back from Pickerel in just two days. I mentioned being available the next summer to guide trips and he offered me a job on the spot. “If you’re still interested when spring comes, call me,” and handed me his card: Tim Anderson – Outfitting Manager.
My first year of college at the University of the Americas in Cholula, Mexico was a bust. Followed by a semester at the University of Arizona in Tucson, with no transferable credits, I had no idea who I was any more. My mother and stepfather called me a hippie-drifter-party-boy. I can’t say they were wrong.
A few weeks before leaving Tucson, I had called Tim to say “I can be in Ely the first week of June.” “Great! See you then. Call me when you’re on the way.”
I was headed to art school in South Florida in the fall, but my next stop was Ely, to work as a canoeing guide. Once again, I would live in a place where I fit-in, under the pines on the shores of blue-water lakes where I could learn all about becoming a professional guide/outfitter.
I still remember that cool summer day in 1975, my orange pickup with white- spoked wheels, rolling towards my dream job. About 3:00 in the afternoon, I enter the outfitters’ store, filled with shoppers. Some stir with anticipation, others are unable to hide their pride having just returned from the woods. I wander around the trip planning areas and down the stairs to the outfitting counter. Then back up- stairs. In the book section, as I thumb through works by Sigurd Olson, I look up to notice Tim Anderson coming out of a trip planning session. As they start to leave, I wander over.
“Tim,” he looks my way. I walk over. “Rick Jebb.”
“You made it!” He extends his hand. “Welcome. Give me a minute to finish this paper work and I’ll show you around.” I wait.
“Ok Rick, first things first. Do you have a place to stay?”
“I have a tent and a truck.”
“Ok. I think we’ll put you in a bunk house out at our Fall Lake Base. You can help with things out there.” What he doesn’t tell me is that it’s slower at Fall Lake, not happening like their Moose Lake Base. He mentions the caretaker, (a reclusive, part-time lumberjack with a pet twelve year old boy), who runs the operation: bunk houses, snack shop, trip launches etc.
“Any guiding opportunities on the horizon?” I ask him.
“Usually there’s an abundance of guides, lets see what comes up.”
“Ok, thanks.” I had been expecting more, but remain hopeful.
“Don’t mention it. I want you to meet the owners.” So we wander through the store to the executive offices.
“Dan, I want you to meet Rick Jud, he’s going to be on our outfitting crew.”
“Jebb—Rick Jebb,” I say and extend my hand. “Nice to meet you.” Dan looks up from a stack of papers. Unimpressed.
“Hi Rick. Welcome aboard.”
Tim gives me a tour of the trip-packing room and some of the other facilities. Then outside to what looks like a partially-framed house on a large concrete pad, with a few industrial dryers. “This is the slab, the place where the wet, muddy tents, packs and sleeping bags are cleaned and dried for the next trip.” We walk over to a couple of guys who look busy. “I want you to meet Rick Jebb.” Everyone seems friendly. He introduces me to some of the slab rats and that’s when I meet Stu Osthoff for the first time. Our paths don’t cross much during the beginning of the season.
Living out of a bunkhouse at Fall Lake wasn’t perfect, but it just might have been the thing that kept me away from bigger trouble. The part time lumberjack was a tall guy named Lyle. He and the hostile twelve year old, mocked me endlessly. Why did I deserve this?
“So you’re a trip guide eh? Ever been in a canoe?” My response was measured. Paul Bunyan might axe me in my sleep if I pushed back too hard.
One day they show me a little respect. “Hey Reek Jubb” the kid says, “we got a new name for yah.”
“You don’t say.”
“Creek Chub. (apparently the minnow low life in the local food chain). Now you’re on the map.”
Turns out, despite my tripping skills, hippie types were not prime candidates to take inexperienced families and church groups out into the woods. Harsh reality. My tripping skills had little value.
Getting high all day and hitting the local bars almost every night, wasn’t how I thought my summer would go. One evening, unknowingly, I swear, I tried to pick up the boss man’s girl-freind at a bar. Days later, I lost control of a company vehicle (mysteriously called The Sausage Wagon) while going too fast around a gravel corner. After nearly rolling over a steep ledge, I over-corrected, pounding the side of the van into a rock cliff.
One morning at Fall Lake, Lyle gets a call from Tim. “Yeah, ok, sure.” He looks over at me. “Got it. He’s on his way.” He hangs up and looks at me again. “Well Chub, guess it’s your lucky day. You need to head to town in your fancy truck and pick up a food pack the Johnson party forgot. Come back here then you can canoe it out to them.” I’m excited about the opportunity to finally do what I had come to do.
In record time, I return with their pack, excited about my mission. “Where are they headed?” I ask.
“You’ll find them around Pipestone Bay.”
“It’s a big bay. It would help to know their trip plan.”
“You better get going.” And with that we walk to the dock, he hands me an extra tank of gas for the little motor on the square-stern canoe. He steadies the boat as I place the food pack up in the bow.
Puttering off in the direction of Pipestone Bay, I’m thinking this isn’t guiding but at least I’ll be of service to these campers out in the woods.
Pipestone Bay is big and I don’t know the campsites. I consider they might have made camp early, or taken a shortcut. But I needed to catch them if they have pushed to the top of the bay. I’ll double back if they haven’t.
After portaging Pipestone Falls, I begin to think I’ve overestimated their speed and Lyle may have withheld critical information, wanting me to fail.
The Johnson party is nowhere to be found.
I’m too far up the bay. Probably missed them in the shadow of an island. Still, I push up the mouth of the bay to the limits of remaining daylight, mindful of my return fuel supply. I do have a paddle if I need one.
Now, I turn back towards Fall Lake. The sunset is beautiful. It’s good to be on the water again.
Scanning the shoreline, I figure they are still somewhere in the Bay, closer to Newton Lake. Still nothing.
With daylight waning, I decide to camp on a small island (more like a rock with a few bushes) hoping to find my party in the morning. As the light fades, I contemplate shelter and food. I now realize I left my knife behind in the rush to get going. I open the food pack, extracting a hunk of hard salami along with the freshly sharpened axe, tucked along the side. I hack off a piece with the axe, Lyle, aka Paul Bunyan, would be proud of me.
In the chilly air, the bugs come out to feast on my flesh. I need to make a fire. Rifling through the pack, no matches. Never made a fire without matches. Sitting, thinking, shivering, swatting bugs—I have never been so unprepared. As I look to the southwestern shore, I spot a campfire. It has to be the elusive Johnson party, whose salami I’ve just chopped and devoured .
What if I was to just show up? Would I be received as a hero or an intruder? It doesn’t make sense to go over there now. What was I gonna do, sleep in one of their tents?
Being so unprepared is embarrassing. I had rushed off, miscalculating almost everything. Perhaps Lyle hadn’t known anything more than he shared. None of that matters now. I will spend the night on a cold rock and deliver the pack in the morning.
After unsuccessfully trying to get warm and cover up from the bugs, I try to use the pack as a sleeping bag. When that doesn’t work, I layer some brush on top of me. Morning is a long time coming. I re-pack the pack, minus the salami.
After washing up a bit, shaking dry, I slowly motor over to the nearby camp and confirm it is indeed, the Johnson party. They are thankful to have their food pack back, along with an axe, that they will soon discover has been smashed countless times against granite by a desperate fool trying to spark a campfire with gasoline- soaked twigs.
I return to Ely where everyone is relieved they don’t have to send a search and rescue party out for me. A few days later, the Johnson party returns. Anderson calls me into his office and presents me with a blunt axe. He has some questions. It wasn’t my fault I argued. If only there had been some matches in that pack. Nothing I say matters. Our discussion ends when he shows me a grinding wheel and orders me to sharpen every axe in the inventory. This is the world’s largest canoe outfitter—there were a lot of axes to grind. It takes most of the day. When finished, Tim offers me a job on the slab. “Sorry Rick, but that’s the only work we have for you at this point.”
I shrug my shoulders. “Thanks I guess.” The summer hasn’t gone as I had hoped.
Reeling from my streak of failures, this low point of the summer is now the low point of my year. After two colleges and no direction in life, my belief in the one thing I am really good at, has been badly shaken. Being a guide requires more than paddling and portaging, more than reading maps, splitting wood or flipping pancakes. It requires sound judgment.
As it turns out, Stu Osthoff was the first slab rat I got to know. We started having conversations that made the days fly by. He wanted to know everything about canoeing, camping and fishing in the wilderness. What lakes had I been to and what were they like? I was surprised when he said he had never been on a canoe trip.
Making friends with Stu was the best thing that happened to me that summer. I hadn’t expected to make a friend, just when I needed one most. But when I started working on cleaning dirty, wet equipment, that is what I got. And it came with the opportunity to share my experience. That was the real reason I was here, to share my love of the woods.
Stu and I talked about the Quetico, about my camper days, how I got here, how he got here. How he couldn’t wait to paddle out into the incredible wilderness that surrounded us. He listened to my descriptions of great places to fish, waterfalls to swim in, places of extraordinary scenery—great campsites. He absorbed every detail. And more than anyone that summer, he treated me with respect.
I asked him how he ended up working for a canoe outfitter. “Tim Anderson was my next door neighbor in Madison. For years growing up, my brothers and I batted baseballs off the side of his house but one day he still offered me a job at Canadian Waters. I had never been in a canoe or heard of the Boundary Waters but I wanted out of the city so off I went.” When Stu mentioned the free trip our outfitter graciously offers to staff members each summer, we decided to team up. I knew just where we would go.
We paddled into Basswood, up through Agnes to Kawnipi, then down into the Falls Chain, the most concentrated series of waterfalls I had ever experienced on a canoe trip. The trip had it all, swimming in the “bathtub” of Louisa Falls, bushwhacking into an unnamed lake trout jewel off Louisa, picking plump blueberries for our pancakes on Agnes, Stu catching his first big walleye on Kawnipi, camping at Kennebas Falls and our group rescuing a husband/wife swept over the cascade in their canoe, paddling through the recently burned and spooky Jasper Lake area and even visiting Dorothy Molter on Knife Lake on the way home. Stu and I paddled together the whole trip, me in the stern and Stu in the bow. He bugged me the whole way about teaching him the J-stroke because we were constantly leaving our bigger and stronger trip mates well behind. It felt very good to share what I had learned about canoeing the Quetico. Afterwards, Stu thanked me for guiding him on such a wonderful adventure. That trip changed the trajectory of my life.
Some fifteen years later, settled, married with two sons, I get a notice in the mail from my Chicagoland REI store. Some guy is scheduled to speak about living on the edge of the Boundary Waters, about making a living guiding up there, sled dog racing in the winter, and publishing a magazine about the canoe country. Then I see the name of the presenter: Stuart Osthoff, Publisher, The Boundary Waters Journal.
“You won’t believe this,” I tell my wife. She had been to the Quetico with me. The last day of our trip, she kissed the sandy beach at French Lake when it was all over. One and done.
“Are you going to see him?” She asks.
“Of course—I wouldn’t miss it. This is the guy I guided on his first Quetico trip back in 1975.” To say I was humbled when Stu recognized me in the audience as the guy who taught him how to paddle and portage would be an understatement—it was much more. The fact that our trip ended up being so influential to his life and livelihood in canoe country, was very gratifying to me.
It had been great to see this old friend. And while we never spent a lot of time together, that magical week in Quetico had changed our lives, and that special bond of wilderness canoe mates remains.
You might say that 1975 trip was all about being in the right place at the right time. Call it fate or destiny, I don’t know. But many year later, I did come to realize one thing for sure, that was the summer I landed the best guiding job of my life.
Editor’s Note: Last year I had our BWJ field editors share how they got their canoeing starts in our regular Collective Wisdom feature. Well now you all know the real story of how I got mine. The whole truth and nothing but, direct from my mentors pen. He left out the part about loading me up with two heavy food packs on those Meadows Portages into Agnes and saying, “Don’t stop till you get to the end.” I made it, barely. And the rest is history. It is a treat to relive it here through Rick’s perspective, to which of course, I was clueless at the time. But make no mistake about it, he may feel like I did something worthwhile for him that summer but what he did for me on that trip was priceless. And as the editor of this story, I get the last word.