The Big Chill
You've probably heard it said that if you can remember the sixties then you weren't there. Well, let me introduce you to two gentlemen who were there... and who remember every last minute of it. Tom Evans was in college, studying for medical school, and working as a guide for Tuscarora Lodge on the Gunflint Trail. Tom Higgins was finishing high school and vacationing on the Gunflint with his family.
One fateful week in 1965, Tom Higgins' dad decided his sons needed the wilderness challenge of a backcountry camping trip. He hired the lodge's young guide, Tom Evans, to take the boys out to Little Sag. This was Tom Evans' third season with the lodge and he had proven himself more than qualified to take charge of the two younger men. This chance occurrence set into motion a string of events that would shape the lives of these two men for the next 30 years.
The camping trip was a good one. The boys learned the ropes from their guide and a little something about themselves. They paddled, portaged, swam, and fished. They caught lake trout and filled their bottomless stomachs with fresh filets and mountains of potatoes. Somewhere along the line the bonds of a lasting friendship were formed.
Evidently the young guide saw something he liked in Tom Higgins. When the campfire discussions lead to young Tom's future, the guide suggested that he consider working for Tuscarora the following summer. He said he'd put in a good word for him with the owners of the lodge.
Young Tom was skeptical of his chances but followed the advice anyway. Lo and behold, the summer of 1966 found both Toms guiding for Tuscarora. Other young men were also hired, but Tom Higgins, by virtue of his previous trip, was designated number two on the guiding totem pole. This rank would mean the difference between guiding numerous trips that summer or simply doing the chores around the lodge.
Tom Higgins' first day on the job was undoubtedly one of his most memorable. No sooner had he unpacked his bags than he was sent back down the Gunflint Trail to help fight the Hungry Jack forest fire. When he returned a few days later, blackened and tired, he surely must have felt that he had earned a little time off. But the lodge was full of guests who'd come to fish, and Tom's 4 a.m. wake-up call the following morning signaled the first of many early-morning outings he would make that summer.
Little Saganaga Lake was the preferred destination for lake trout and pike fishing in those days. This was a five-hour round-trip journey from the lodge that the guides made nearly every day. So while it would be weeks before that day off would come, the young men never complained. They were wilderness guidesand proud of it.
As you can see, the fact that both young men were called Tom could get a little troublesome. Once again the veteran guide solved the problem. He began using both of Tom's given namescalling him Tom Karl. Naturally, this was abbreviated to Karl, and it wasn't long before everyone knew the pair as Tom and Karl.
In the summer of 1967, Tom had to study for medical school, and was forced to pass up on guiding several longer trips. Luckily for Karl, he was chosen to go in Tom's place. If not for this guiding, Karl's life would be very different today. Karl would guide that summer and two more after it. Eventually, he would marry the oldest daughter of the lodge owners, and later become a partner in a successful family outfitting business.
The two men also had the chance, on a number of occasions, to guide together. This lead to some friendly competitionparticularly when it came to the mile-long Tuscarora portage. Imagine Karl, standing six-foot-two, trying his best to keep up with his mentor, who stood only five-foot-eight!
Carrying a fully loaded #4 Duluth pack, and a three-horse gas "trolling" motor in one hand, Tom Evans was never beaten across the Tuscarora portage. Tom once did the Tusc portage in an unbelievable 13 and 1/2 minutes. Check it out on your mapsit's over a mile, and anything but flat.
This past June, almost 30 years to the day since Karl came to guide, the two men once again set out over the Tusc portage. They guided only themselves and their wives this time on a long overdue reunion trip. They sported slightly more modern apparel and equipment than in 1965, and sported a few gray hairs under their caps.
As they crossed the portage trail, however, time stood still. Both men trotted along surrounded by the memories of trips taken 30 years before. They wore small grins as they recognized familiar rocksbarely-remembered milestones telling them how far they had to go. And when they finally set their canoes down in Tuscarora Lake it was deja vu all over again.
The reunion trip was a good one. More lake trout were caught and a few were eaten. The weather was outstanding, allowing the old friends uninterrupted hours of trolling on their favorite lakes. As they fished they reminisced about particularly good fishing days in the '60s. They recalled particularly memorable guests and their antics. And when they hit a slow stretch while trolling one of them would remember a tactic, or a place, tried 30 years ago, and soon they were catching fish again.
"Hey, Karl, you remember those L.L. Bean rubberized rain ponchos we used to wear?"
"Yeah, I seem to recall you bought 'em extra large so you could pull them down over your knees to keep dry."
"That's right! It worked, too, except for my boots. Remember how the guide shack used to smell so foul with our wet boots every night!"
"Oh, I'll never forget that. Those darn beavers used to have that Missing Link portage damned up constantly. We had wet feet all day even if it didn't rain."
On their first trip together in the '60s, the campfire discussions were mostly about their futures. On the reunion trip they focused more often on looking back at the Tuscarora years. There were certainly few regrets from their summers in the Boundary Watersfew regrets, save one.
They lost a race against two older guides from another lodge at the annual guides canoe race on the Trail. The older, more experienced guides knew not to take the outside lane or get bogged down in the middle of all the canoes. Tom and Karl learned this lesson the hard way and never forgot it. Many times in life they would take the path less traveled to avoid getting hung up with the rest of the pack.
Towards the end of the trip, when the men regained their easy familiarity, they began to discuss plans for the next 30 years. Who would have guessed, they said, that the doctor who studied so hard back then would retire early from medicine and take up a career building handmade wooden canoes in Canada. Or that the one-time outfitter would end up making delicate handmade truffles and living in a posh suburb of Minneapolis. And who would have guessed that it would take 30 years to return to their favorite place together.
From the first moment their lives intersected it began to change them. Had they not met, Karl might have gone through life known simply as Tom. And he might have married someone else if he hadn't stayed around the lodge those extra summers. Tom Evans might still be practicing medicine instead of following a dream which crystallized 30 years ago at Tuscarorabuilding classic wooden canoes.
As the years went by, the two Toms didn't see much of each other, but their friendship still had an effect on them. Many times, when faced with decisions, they thought about what the other might do. Occasionally too they would wonder: Who would be the first one over the Tuscarora portage the next time they met?
Perhaps, right now, you are wondering too.
*For information on Tom's superbly built canoes, call him at 306-668-4548.
Special thanks to Roger Hahn of Seagull Outfitters for sharing this story.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication