“Switch!” Rosie yelled from the bow. I switched sides and dug in with my paddle against the fierce wind that was blowing relentlessly down Kekekabic Lake, making forward progress seemingly impossible and whipping up whitecaps that tossed our canoe around like a toy boat in some sadistic child’s bathtub. The muscles in my shoulders were grateful for the switch, though I knew it would only be a few minutes before they would start to burn again.
In front of me, my wife rose and fell with the waves. Each time the bow splashed back into the water after cresting a wave, I winced and redoubled my paddling. The remaining mile to the portage to the smaller water of Pickle Lake and the hope of easier, safer traveling seemed insurmountable.
As we passed a point, the gusts threatened to knock us back onto the rocks. We both tried to paddle through it and keep moving, but we very quickly had to decide to retreat to shore while we still had control of the canoe. We sat in a small space under the branches of a pine for a half hour, reading and watching the choppy lake.
We had wanted to make some good progress today. We were two nights away from our planned exit from the wilderness and, after a layover day the day before, hoped to position ourselves today for a timely exit. So, though it was comfortable and calm on shore and far removed from the peril of the lake, we reluctantly got back in the canoe and headed back out into it.
We didn’t make it far.
We reached the next small point down the lake and the scene was repeated, with gusts of winds threatening to blast us onto a rocky reef that extended out from the point. We again had to fall back and go into land. It was a very unpleasant feeling of defeat.
We secured the canoe and tried to be patient. We sat on shore, trying to tell ourselves that the wind was lessening or some other false assurances.
I have no idea how I look so calm in this photo.
An hour passed and a light rain started to fall so we moved into a stand of pines for some shelter. I found myself looking around and wondering if we could set up our tent here if we had to. No, I decided, but maybe we could rig our tarp.
It was cold and I withdrew into my rain jacket. I couldn’t help but wonder what I was doing out here. I berated myself, I told myself it was hubris, that I had underestimated Mother Nature and overestimated my own abilities, that I was naÃ¯ve and stupid and reckless. That it was all my fault. That our next vacation was going to be Hawaii.
We both were trying very hard to reassure the other that everything was fine and would be fine. We played “patty cake” to keep our blood moving and our spirits up. We read to each other and occasionally walked back up to the point where we could see down the lake. The view was always beautiful, though the lake was still roiled with savage whitecaps.
When, after a couple hours, we finally decided to try the lake again — to try ourselves — I felt sick. Rosie and I both were trying to be as positive as we could, for each other’s sake and our own, but as I untied the canoe and got ready to push out into the lake and the wind, I felt like I could throw up. Few things have ever affected me like that. I was scared of that water and that wind and I was scared of something happening to Rosie.
But, in spite of the fear, we fought our way down that last mile of lake. We battled on and on against the wind for some immeasurable period of time and, finally, after coming around a point, spotted the portage. We had to paddle straight out from it so we could turn and let the wind blow us in. When we hit shore, Rosie hopped out and pulled the canoe up.
I stepped out of the canoe and onto broken granite. A portage had never looked so good. I turned and faced the lake and the wind and the waves and I howled into it all, as loud as I could. The howl came from a place within me that is usually dormant, but now it filled me and I yelled and yelled, all of it whipped away by the wind.
After we left Kekekabic, the lakes were smaller and the wind negligible. After having just focused so hard on making it off the big water, happy to have the chance to make it to any campsite, the day’s miles be damned, we decided to push on a bit further before calling it quits.
We went north across Pickle and then portaged into Spoon and turned west. As we left the portage we saw a canoe in the middle of the lake heading the same direction as us. We arrived at the west end while they were still at the portage. The water was low and we had to push and heave our canoe through the last 25 yards. We landed as they headed up the trail and we said “hello” briefly and they were gone. I wanted to try to express something of what we had experienced this day, to find out if they had had any sort of similar experience, but I didn’t know how and didn’t have time.
When we got to Dix Lake, we decided that it would be the end of the line for us. It was getting close to dusk and it was gray and cold and still breezy. We were completely drained. There were three campsites marked on the lake and we didn’t think we really cared about the accomodations too much. Still, we paddled by the site closest to the portage, it looked battered from the blowdown and exposed to the elements. We headed to a campsite marked as tucked away on an island in a small bay on the north side of the lake.
Coming around the island, we were greeted by an enormous beaver lodge. Nothing better than sharing water with a beaver, and just hoping your water filter is working properly. From the water, the campsite looked overgrown and unwelcoming. Rosie got out to investigate, but was soon back with a poor report. She said she couldn’t see a single spot to set up the tent and that it didn’t look like the site had really been restored since the blowdown.
It seemed that one didn’t have to be too picky to have trouble finding a suitable site on Dix Lake.
We put our paddles in the water once more and crossed to the south shore of the lake, where we found a decent campsite that would serve our needs. It had a big smooth rock shelf for a landing that sloped down into the water (at a dangerous angle, it would later prove).
We unloaded our gear and set about our making camp routine. We worked together to set up the tent, then Rosie got in it to inflate sleeping pads and unpack sleeping bags and the such. While she was doing that, I set up our tarp out in the main area of the site and started water boiling for dinner.
It was almost dark when we ate dinner. I don’t remember what we ate or what we talked about. It felt incredibly good to be safe at a campsite, though I also felt the emptiness of the lake and the land around us in an acute way. During this day, we had overcome the biggest challenge we had ever faced in the Boundary Waters and had done it by pushing ourselves physically and emotionally. Somehow, we both felt a certain glow, because we had done it together.