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Into the BWCAW by dog team

'Basswood' Bob Oliva "Basswood" Bob Oliva of Ely drives his 10-dog team of Alaskan huskies across Disappointment Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness at sunset on Feb. 5 after a day of ice fishing. An eight-dog team and a second sled follow Oliva on his way back to Smitty's Resort on Snowbank Lake near Ely. Photo by Sam Cook

ELY -- We had thought it was a lake trout trip, but the first walleye changed our mind.

Hey, we could be flexible. Lake trout? Walleyes? Who's going to be picky on a balmy February afternoon in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness?

"Basswood" Bob Oliva and I had left Snowbank Lake east of Ely earlier that morning behind 18 of his Alaskan huskies for a 12-mile jaunt into Thomas Lake for the day. Oliva, a guide in the Ely area since 1996, drove a team of 10 dogs, and I followed with eight.

Thomas Lake is well-known as the home of lake trout, and it's one of the most accessible lakes in the Ely area during the winter. We had started from Smitty's on Snowbank, the resort where Oliva keeps his dogs all winter.

Now, at midday, the dogs were lined out along a south-facing lump of Canadian Shield, and the sun was packing heat. Gloves were optional. An angler could re-tie a jig on a day like this without taking a break to jam his hands into deep pockets.

We drilled our holes by hand about 30 yards off a little island where the old jackpines grew.

"I like fishing drop-offs where it's about 40 to 50 feet next to deeper water," Oliva said.

He had caught lake trout here before, and walleyes, too. We dropped airplane jigs and minnow imitations and plain ciscos down the holes and waited for the lake trout to come by.

"Basswood" Bob

Oliva earned his nickname from one of the dock boys who worked summers at Smitty's on Snowbank. Basswood Lake is just north of Snowbank, and Oliva has taken trout anglers there, too, as well as to Ima, Fraser, Knife, Little Knife and Ottertrack lakes.

You don't have to have a dog team to reach these lakes if you're willing to pull or pack your camping equipment and spend a few days. But if you want to day-trip 12 miles one way, you're going to need some huskies.

Oliva has been running dogs since 2003.

"I started with four," he said. "Now I've got 21."

And five pups in training.

Traveling behind a good team of dogs across wilderness lakes is a privilege. It's all about the dogs, which pull all day for a pat on the head and a bowl of hot food. Once they had made the mad dash out of the dog yard, they settled into an all-day trot. Oliva and I rode the runners in silence, chatting briefly at short halts near portages.

No, this is not the Alaskan bush, and we are not living off the land. But this was the sprawling, unpeopled canoe-country wilderness in winter, and we were traveling by one of the most traditional means on the continent.

I watched as the trail took a jog at mid-lake and Oliva's team stretched out, 40 paws flicking, the team all tails and tongues and tugline, Oliva riding the runners behind the uprights. In the distance, Disappointment Mountain rose in shades of blue haze beyond the near shoreline.

Oliva's dogs knew the routine, and rarely did he have to speak to them.

"After three years, mushing is easy," he said. "The dogs train the other dogs. It's when you have to train them that it's hard."

Waiting for lakers

We fish three hours for lake trout, jigging and watching our set lines. Nothing. Lake trout usually are eager biters if they're in the neighborhood. They must cruise the big lake's drop-offs all day, seeking morsels of food. But perhaps they had cruised this stretch before we arrived.

Then, between 3 and 4o' clock, using a bulky half-ounce jig and chunk of cisco far too big for a walleye, we hauled up two walleyes. Gleaming, green-yellow and big-eyed, they were about 18-inchers, and we planned to release them right into the dogsled for the trip home.

Sure, we would rather have had a couple of4-pound lake trout come flopping up through our holes. But you have to step back and look at the big picture: How rough a day is it, riding a dogsled for 24 miles, watching tall pines and otter tracks and brooding spruces slide past your eyes? And coming home with walleyes for dinner?

We left Thomas Lake at sunset and made the final hour of our ride home under the stars. All of them. Not just the city complement, but the full wilderness canopy, no extra charge.

Over our shoulders shone a slice of alabaster moon. The moonlight sent dog shadows dancing on the porcelain lakes. We pointed the teams west and followed Venus home to Snowbank.