Paddling in the Boundary Waters, I’ve taken for granted how easy it is to pass between lake and portage with the aid of well-marked maps and a compass. Nature’s job is reduced to providing the scenery.
In the early years Native guides helped trappers and Voyageurs, without a single waterproof MacKenzie among ‘em. But with all the look-alike trails and myriad lakes, how did so few get lost? How did they have such a concrete sense of direction?
Paging through The Voyageur’s Highway by Grace Lee Nute, I came across one way routes were marked: The Lob Pine.
The making of a lob pine, or Maypole, as it was frequently called. A pine, usually of great size and prominence, preferably on a height or point of land silhouetted against the sky-line at night, was selected by the voyageurs passing along the canoe route. A man was deputed to climb it, ax in hand, and lop (lob) off the central branches. Thus the tree was left naked and conspicuous in the middle, a landmark for all future travelers. It was formally named for some individual of the party, usually the bourgeois or guest of the group. The person thus honored was expected to respond by giving his canoe mates a liquid treat.
Can you picture it? The stout, burly novice shimmying up a big pine, charged with lobbing off branches 40 feet in the air? Now that’s the sort of contest to respect next time you’re breaking camp under an ol’ White.
Regrettably there are no known Lobs left in the BWCA, although I think it proper to make a note of some of the living contemporaries on your map next time you pass by some tall ones. The only true oldies still standing are said to be on the Kaministikwia route between Fort William and Lac La Croix in Quetico. So maybe next summer, you’ll have to extend your journey and make a pilgrimage to those Pines that gave direction so long ago to such daring adventurers.