We were up at dawn. The morning light was metallic on the water and it was very quiet. The day had been planned as one of our biggest days in terms of miles to travel and, as a result of the previous day’s wind, we had even further to go than originally intended. We would leave the Canadian border today and head east down the South Arm of Knife Lake. Near the eastern extremity of that lake we would make the big turn of the trip, no longer heading east and away from civilization, but south and then west, symbolically heading home, though we knew there was still much ahead of us, in terms of days, lakes, portages, wind and experience.
We broke camp fairly quickly, already starting to feel the pattern of the various morning chores. While one of us worked on breakfast (instant oatmeal this morning) and coffee, the other stayed in the tent, deflating pads, stuffing sleeping bags into stuff sacks. Once breakfast was ready, we took a few moments to slow down and eat. After a night during which it had dipped to near the freezing mark, the hot breakfast hit the spot and it was good to watch the almost windless lake and the sunrise.
Although we were both eager to start putting some miles behind us, especially with the lake as calm as it was and no assurance that it would stay that way, we had to first stop by one of Knife Lake’s biggest draws: Thunder Point. High hills and long views are a rare thing in canoe country, where the land is generally glacially-flattened, and views from the summits of the rare hills are usually obstructed by the thick forest. We were drawn to Thunder Point, which separated Knife Lake and the South Arm, for a long view, which we had never really enjoyed before.
The quarter-mile hike was steep, but well worth it. From the top of the cliff, we could see down to the far end of Knife Lake where we had entered it two days before. It was hard to believe everything we had already seen and experienced in just a few miles of paddling.
It occurred to me then that it was Sunday morning. We were both pretty quiet, feeling a degree of introspectiveness and wonder that I think many people only feel in a brick and mortar church. As I stood looking out over the wilderness, I wondered about the grand meaning of such beauty, and who or what could have created something with that meaning.
I could have considered such questions all day, but the miles ahead called to us and we soon headed back down to the canoe.
Back out on the lake, we headed down the South Arm. We were very, very happy to find the wind finally at our backs, coming lightly out of the west as a good wind should. The skies were also mostly blue and I finally felt free to let my guard down a little and enjoy the feeling of being surrounded by miles and miles of land and water almost empty of humans. Though we kept paddling and moving, we maintained a leisurely pace.
On the south shore of the lake, the forest had been burned in a prescribed burn in 2005 and it was interesting to study the barren landscape with small bits of green scattered around, in some places where the fire had mysteriously spared a stand of trees, in others where new life was already emerging.
Not far down the South Arm we came across a flock of loons. I don’t usually think of loons as very sociable birds, their lonely cry that echoes across these vast distances of canoe country as if searching out some companionship had made me reflect upon ideas of companionship and solitude many times. But, every fall, loons do briefly flock up before heading south for the winter; this was the first time we witnessed it. They were also in their drab fall plumage, another new sight. Rather than a sharp contrast of black and white, they were almost entirely black and gray as they prepared for their long trips to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. I wondered what people in those places think of loons, Minnesota’s state bird. If they keep their drab colors and aren’t as vocal because they aren’t seeking mates or breeding territory, do they pass the winters in those places unnoticed or unappreciated?
After passing through the narrows of the South Arm, we stopped at a campsite to use its facilities. We saw a man in a solo canoe slowing working his way up the other shore, dipping in and out of small bays, obviously taking his time and getting a close look at the forest there. He didn’t respond to my wave and I assumed he was enjoying some intense and wonderful solitude out there all by himself.
As we entered the larger open area on the east end of the South Arm, we saw two canoes along the far north shore. They were a mile or so off and heading in the opposite direction from us. It’s interesting how easily we recognize humans or their craft in a wilderness setting, even though they were tiny compared to the hills and forest surrounding the lake.
The wind was picking up, but it still wasn’t at our heads. It was now coming a bit more out of the north, so the waves were coming at us a little sideways. The waves were big enough to ride, so we kept paddling directly along toward the portage to Eddy Lake. The portage landing was not ideal, made up of big rocks with a quick drop-off and no great place to land and unload. We ended up wedging the canoe into the rocks and then scrambling back and forth to get the packs out.
The day had become mostly overcast, though the clouds were higher than they had been the previous two days and it didn’t seem like there was much threat of rain. The wind still blew into the bay from the north and it was a relief to know we were off the big water for a little while as we headed through Eddy Lake and the Kekekabic Ponds to Kekekabic Lake.
After a quick Clif Bar and some beef jerky (making sure there was plenty of room for another party to load or unload), I shouldered the canoe and headed up the trail. And up. And up. I hadn’t closely studied the topographic map before setting out and I had failed to notice just how close together the contour lines were on this short 25-rod portage. It was very steep, rising more than 100 feet. It took us both a little off guard and we arrived at Eddy Lake winded.