Tag Archives: paddling

River of all my years, steps 8 – 18

Last week: River of all my years (steps 1-7)

Step 8: Ascend.

Friday afternoon we drive north out of the city for an hour and then east from Hinckley along rolling hills with state park on the south side of the road, rocky cattle pastures or fallow fields on the north side, small creeks and rivers occasionally flowing under bridges.

We drop down a long, straight hill on the highway and cross the St. Croix and into Wisconsin. A fleeting glimpse of the river: clean water and rock. Lots of rock. Looks stunning and wild.

Step 9: Stage.

We arrive at the canoe rental place that will give us a shuttle about an hour early so we stand around by the cars waiting for our ride. When he gets there, we load the trailer with our canoes and our gear and then follow him a few miles upriver where we leave our cars at our planned take-out.

In the van we drive north and east, twisting and turning, each road turned onto narrow and bumpier than the last.

He deposits us at the county campground at the river’s headwaters around 6 p.m. We are tired and hungry and suddenly alone with two canoes, two dogs, a pile of gear and not much of a clue.

Tents up. Fire started. Dinner prepared. Steaks pan-fried, pan bread made over the coals. Hamm’s and red wine out of a cardboard box.

Then, a while around the fire. Suggestion: S’mores with Nutella. Do it. Wonderful. More than wonderful. (Hat tip: Rainier.)

Young people show up at the site next to us. Then, more show up. They pull their cars up so they can listen to the stereo. They yell. They walk back and forth past our site. Their horny Boxer puppy, sans collar or leash, keeps running over to harass our dogs. They are slow to come retrieve him. This is all tolerable. What comes later is not.

We wait until almost 11:00 until there is absolutely no light left in the western sky. Then we go down to the dam and walk a ways across it away from the campground lights and look up at the stars. Amazing.

Back at camp we’re all ready for bed. Tired from the travel and wanting to get plenty of sleep so we’ll be rested for the next day.

Step 10: Do not sleep.

We lay there for hours listening to the same top 40 song played over and over on the car stereo, to every word spoken by the drunks. Hear talk of throwing beer bottles at any cop who dare show up. Hear someone talk about going back to his car to get his pistols. Hear guy get put in Full Nelson and punch a girl trying to get out of it. People come and go and come and go and come and go. And that same shitty music plays all night.

I feel justified in being a wimp and not wanting to go over and say something.

At 2 or 3 a.m. B and I go over and say something. There are just a few people left around their fire. B says “shut that off” and a snotty girl looks at one of the guys sitting there like “do I have to listen to this loser?” and he nods and she goes and shuts it off. I say “we’re just trying to sleep” and we turn and walk back to our tents.

Cops come later and take away whoever is still there.

Step 11: Awake.

It is a beautiful morning and none of us rested. But we’re awake by 7:30, knowing there’s no point in trying to sleep any longer. We figure on a much quieter campsite tonight, all alone on the river somewhere.

Coffee and tea and oatmeal for breakfast. Breaking down camp goes pretty quick and soon we are standing by the water just below the dam with a pile of gear, two canoes, two dogs, and not much of a clue of what we’re in for.

Step 12: Embark.

The dogs don’t have much canoe experience. Almost none actually. We paddle away from the landing with the ladies in the bow facing backwards to hold onto the dogs in the front compartments.

Interesting.

There is a short and wide lake below the dam where the river starts. We paddle across it and as soon as it narrows into the river proper we scrape bedrock.

We are soon out of the canoes and dragging them. For the first time. I grab the bow and study the water ahead, trying to see where there might be enough to float our vessel.

Sometimes I spot it, sometimes I don’t. I drag the canoe over bedrock, boulders, gravel and sand.

At intervals there is enough water for a few hundred yards and we paddle leisurely, wondering if maybe it was just that first little bit below the dam that was bad.

It wasn’t.

We plod along. I quietly look around every bend for the first campsite marked on the map that will tell us we’ve made two miles. It is a long time coming.

There is a long set of Class I rapids with a short bit that might count as Class II at the bottom. As B and Rainier line their canoe down, Rosie and I decide to shoot it. We let Lola out so she can catch up with the others and we head down into it. As we pass them in mid-set, Lola sees us and decides to follow. The memory of barely maneuvering through a tight gap between two boulders and looking back to see her do the same is forever burned in my memory.

Below the rapids we see the campsite we’ve been waiting to see. It’s lunchtime and we take a much-needed break. We aren’t making the progress we need to be making to make the 24 miles we’ve committed to with our cars waiting for us downstream. I feel the first twinge of “what have I gotten us into?”

The optimism of the whole crew rules the day though. Maybe it’ll get better. We don’t linger long after lunch, but are back in the canoes with full bellies and the belief that there can only be more water the further downstream we get.

Step 13: “Oh my god.”

So is the final straw announced. Rosie in the bow with Lola says it and I hear something unpleasant in her voice.

She can’t describe what’s wrong with Lola but it’s enough for all of us to head directly for shore and leap out. When I get to the bow I see my dog’s whole face puffing up, especially around her eyes and mouth.

I don’t know what to do.

We take an almost-melted ice pack out of our cooler and I hold it over her eyes. Rosie digs through the first aid kit, Rainier finds some anti-itch wipes that the dog doesn’t seem to like. We are all standing around in an especially mucky spot of water. Lola’s face is swelling more every minute.

We are six or seven miles from the next landing. I remember exalting in the remoteness of this stretch while planning the trip. Our cars are another 15 or 20 miles by road from that landing.

I don’t know what to do.

Step 14: Move.

We have no choice. We have no plan. We get back in the canoes and B and Rainier tell us to just go, don’t wait for them. So we do.

Rosie in the bow holds her hat over Lola’s face to keep the sun off her and I paddle. It isn’t long before we hit bottom. I lunge out of the stern and shove the canoe over gravel toward deeper water. Back in and I’m paddling as hard as I can.

I do this for hours and miles and hours. The dog’s whole head swells up to twice its normal size, she is unrecognizable. For a time her eyes are swollen shut. She drifts off to sleep in the bow.

I leap in and out of the canoe, either pushing or pulling it over rocks and gravel. I slip and fall once on the slimy rocks. It is not graceful. Rosie paddles when she can but mostly she attends to our puppy.

We reach a stretch where the river is deep for at least a mile or two as it winds through a broad valley. It is truly beautiful. Like a garden. Perhaps the shallow stuff is behind us. It never goes straight though, rather just twisting and turning over a sandy bottom.

I feel fear and love in their purest forms. I am unfamiliar with the intensity, nothing else matters.

Step 15: Don’t stop.

She must have been attacked by hornets, we theorize. Later I hear how some labs will find ground hornets and attack their nests. Or maybe it was the horseflies. Who knows.

I don’t now remember much about those miles and hours. It seemed an impossibly long time and distance. I didn’t know what I was racing for, but all I could think was that we had seen it go from a few swollen spots to her whole head, where would it stop? What if she started having trouble breathing? What if she fell asleep and wouldn’t wake up? What then?

And I felt helpless and paddling and pushing myself was the only thing I could do.

We reach the old Coppermine Dam and find the water too low to even consider shooting it. So I yank our gear out of the canoe and run it over the portage, then back and we let the dog out and she seems halfway normal except for her abnormal appearance and she runs right over with us as we lug the canoe over and then I get the gear back in and then Rosie and Lola and I shove off again.

The river is speckled with rocks jutting above the surface. A maze. And that’s just the visible stuff. It’s the ever-changing bottom that kills me. As the sun drops lower on the water, the glare gets worse and it’s impossible to even guess where the floatable channel might be.

We nose into a campsite a ways downstream to see if she’ll drink. She is fast asleep and doesn’t awake when we bump shore. There is the briefest but longest moment as she is unresponsive to Rosie’s nudging, but then she comes out of her deep slumber and jumps out of the canoe.

The stop at the campsite is a dark memory now. I was exhausted and simply did not know what to do. I felt sick about leaving Rainier and B upstream. What if something had happened to them? There was nobody coming down behind them to help. And what was I going to do when we got to that landing anyway?

Lola drinks a little water and we rest a minute and decide against waiting for our partners. A plan starts to take shape in our minds: get to the landing, I’ll hitchhike down to the car and then get back to the landing where we can load up and hopefully our friends will join us shortly after that and we can give them a ride to their car and then get our dog somewhere where something can be done for her.

Step 16: Push.

We shoot a long stretch of riffles that we actually manage to float most of, bumping off rocks (“It doesn’t have to be pretty, we just have to get down it”) and glancing sideways off one so badly that I see the gunwale dive toward the surface, almost catching the water, and Rosie and Lola are almost thrown from the bow, but we recover.

It goes on for a long time. The river is still beautiful. White pines and rock and whitetail deer drinking in the shallows and melting into the woods at our approach without ever lifting their tails in alarm.

It’s hard to believe, but the landing does eventually appear. I first notice some powerlines over the river around the next bend. Then I catch sight of the bridge itself and we shoot one last little ledge and across a pool and are there.

I am exhausted. I have nothing left. Rosie too. We pull the gear from the canoe and then pull it up onto the grass and I walk right up to the road to catch that ride downriver.

Step 17: Thumb.

And I stand there.

For 10 minutes. 15 minutes. It is hot on the side of that lonely road, the heat coming up off the asphalt. And not a car goes by. Then two do, but they’re going the wrong way and give my quizzical or uncaring glances.

Then a car does come over the hill toward me and I stick my thumb out way too early, feeling a little silly, and they put the brakes on a hundred yards up the road and slow down so gradually toward me I can’t tell if they’re actually slowing.

But they do and they roll down their window and I give them a confused explanation and there seems to be no question that they’ll give me a ride, they’re heading that way anyway. They are a middle-aged couple heading back to the Twin Cities after spending some time at their land up in these parts.

In the car I catch the occasional whiff of booze. It’s not strong and he’s holding his lane just fine. We see very few other cars. Just the broad expanses and long distances of northwest Wisconsin. He tells me more than once that he wouldn’t have left his wife up there alone with all the Indians around here.

When we get to Riverside they go off to use the can and I leap into our car, then drive very fast back the way I just came.

We are just tying the canoe down on top of the car when we hear B and Rainier’s dog Quercus barking upriver. I have never been so happy to hear his barking. We watch them shoot the last little set like a couple of pros and coast into the landing, all of us wearing big smiles for the first time in a while. Lola is looking a little better already and we’ve all made it off the river safe and sound.

There’s not much more to the story. On our way home we pick up some Benadryl and give it to Lola with peanut butter and she sleeps for the whole drive. We get a hold of our vet and he tells us that was the right thing to do. Less than 24 hours later, Lola looked just like her old self.

Step 18: Lament.

So the trip wasn’t the trip I had planned and not at all what anyone had expected. And though for quite a bit of that time as I fought the river I didn’t know if I could ever see it the same way, ever love it the same way, maybe ever want to paddle it again, now I see that perhaps we had to be acquainted in such a way. Perhaps I’d given it love without the proper amount of respect.

We way over-committed ourselves trying to do 24 miles. I don’t know what I was thinking. And with such questionable water conditions, we would have been far better off doing a day trip so our canoes wouldn’t have been so burdened with gear. We woud have floated over a lot more, and pulling and pushing them wouldn’t have been so difficult.

And I would have brought Benadryl.

Nonetheless, I’m already back to feeling like the St. Croix might be not be so bad. At least, it’s ambivalent, as all the great forces are. And I’m also slowly convincing myself that it wasn’t all my fault. And that trying to canoe the whole thing isn’t a bad idea, but I think I’ll wait until the peak of high water next spring to try the next leg.

River of all my years

Onward

“The river is magnificent. It’s a spiritual experience.”

- Former Vice President Walter Mondale on the St. Croix River

The river of all my years. The river I have paddled and swam and fished and waded and skinny-dipped and pondered from beside a campfire. Rocky and muddy and sandy.

Where my hometown sits on its banks the rivers flows by quietly, the town taking the name Stillwater. It is here where it begins to be called “Lake St. Croix” for how it becomes broad and slow in the couple dozen miles before it joins the Mississippi.

Above Stillwater it is a braided stream of many channels weaving through islands that are sunken as often as they are dry. Up there, where boats are prohibited from traveling to from Stillwater, it is usually quiet of the roar and ruckus of horsepower, but often a din of birds and frogs.

And further up, where I know it best, it can be a little raucous on nice summer days with revelers in rented canoes. Yet backwaters and bluffs are hidden behind stands of ash and beech and cottonwoods. Smallies, walleye and northerns lurk under snags and leap before our bow. Spring-fed falls tumble over sandstone and chill the channels where they enter.

And above that, above the Dalles with its tourist paddlewheelers and hordes and fireworks stands on the Wisconsin side, above the reservoir that stands stagnant behind the dam, above all that… I don’t know. We’ve explored it little, though there are nearly 100 miles of river up there. I know it not at all, though it is from there where the waters of all my years begin their journey.

So, the genesis of the idea: canoe the whole thing in a summer. Four weekends or something like that. Get to know the river from its tip to its toes (or at least to its ankles, I for one have little interest in paddling Lake St. Croix).

Step one: Enlist a crew, pick a weekend and stick to it (amazing summer’s obligations).

Done: June 8 – 10.

Step two: be flexible.

Low water levels mean that first 30 miles before the Namekagon and its waters join it are nearly unfloatable, according to a source at the National Park Service?

Lament the loss of the symbolism and change the plans. Start at Riverside, just below the confluence of the two streams.

Step three: meet over breakfast the weekend before and come up with a list or two. Groceries and gear and the such. Get French toast. With blueberries.

Step four: spend the following workweek daydreaming about solitude. Swimming. Smallies on the fly rod. Campfires. Dogs in canoes.

Step five: drive up Friday afternoon leave our cars at the take-out get a shuttle to the put-in camp there and paddle Saturday and Sunday more than 20 miles less than 25 camp on the river Saturday night come home sunny and smelly Sunday night and… go back to work on Monday.

Step six: pick the next weekend.

Step seven: post words and pictures here.

Of Memory and Ashes

Ham Lake FireI saw a report this morning that Superior-North Canoe Outfitters has lost most of its structures to the Ham Lake Fire, which is currently burning in the Boundary Waters. Superior-North outfitted the first BWCA trip Rosie and I ever went on together (which was my first ever).

Every Journey Begins Before A Single Step

I was 18 years old and it was the end of the summer, just before Rosie was to depart for her sophomore year at UW-Madison and I would head the opposite direction a few weeks later to my freshman year at the University of Minnesota-Morris.

Despite my best efforts, we weren’t dating at the time. But, our extremely close, but platonic, friendship had reached a new peak at the end of that summer when we had spent many evenings and weekends going to-and-fro as one does in the summer. I remember the beaches of the St. Croix River, the dam on the Kinnickinnic River at River Falls, late nights swimming in my parents’ pool (yes Mom and Dad, while you were in Bosnia) and all the other things you do the summer of your eighteenth year.

Demonstrating the beautiful frenetic recklessness of that age, we decided to go to Lilith Fair at Canterbury Downs the night before we would leave for the canoe trip. Actually, she decided to go and, as per my style, I tagged along. It was a long day in the sun, I remember Mary Lou Lord on a small stage, and Natalie Merchant on the main stage who declared that she could barely perform for being so upset over the beginning of U.S. airstrikes in Yugoslavia.

If we had been able to drive home right after the show, we might have gotten enough sleep. As it was, traffic was horribly backed up in the parking lot and we were on the far side of the Twin Cities, so we each got to our own beds after 2 a.m. But, by shortly after that August dawn, Rosie was in my driveway.

The Part My Parents Aren’t Going to Like

We headed north in her Geo Tracker. Soft-top. Tape deck. Rusting. In fact, rusting in such a way that the receptacle for the gas nozzle had separated from the frame, so when you tried to insert the gas nozzle, it would just push the receptacle back. Which meant one of us had to reach under the car and hold the receptacle with a pliers while the other pumped the gas.

It was just such a trip.

This is the part where the story gets funny. Not feeling like making it easier on ourselves, we had chosen Saganaga Lake as our entry point, which happened to be located at the very end of the Gunflint Trail. And we elected to be in Ely that afternoon to welcome my friend Canoeman back from a six-week canoe trip above the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Readers familiar with the area will see the humor in this. Those who are not might take a look at this map.


(The green marker is Ely. The blue one is Superior-North Canoe Outfitters.)

What the map above illustrates is that Ely is on one side of the BWCAW. Superior-North on the other. As the crow flies, the two outposts are about 40 miles apart. As the car drives, which is from Ely all the way back to the North Shore via twisty Highway 1 (approx. 60 miles), up the shore to Grand Marais (approx. 50 miles), and then all the way to the end of the Gunflint Trail (approx. 50 miles), it comes to roughly 160 miles.

Obviously we didn’t plan this very well.

But don’t forget I was but 18.

And in love.

Further exhibiting that the limits of our didn’t-know-any-better-ness knew no boundaries, we did not take the direct route from the Twin Cities to Ely where you exit I-35 at Cloquet and head directly north through the Iron Range on Highway 33 and 53. We went all the way past Duluth and along the Shore to Highway 1 and took that in to Ely.

Not the fast route.

Somehow though, we arrived in Ely at mid-afternoon a little before Canoeman’s scheduled arrival. I remember sitting in a booth at a diner, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and drinking lots of Coke, both of us nearly delerious, Rosie describing to me some weird quasi-hallucinations she was experiencing.

I had taken the wheel recently and would stay there for the rest of the drive.

A Brief Detour

After our lunch, we drove out of town along the Echo Trail to Camp Widjiwagan. There, we ran into Canoeman’s mom, dad and sister and tried to make coherent conversation while we waited for the prodigal son.

Eventually Canoeman and his five paddling partners (including one counselor) blew into camp in a 16-passenger van, towing a trailer loaded with some well-used canoes, horn honking, all of them jubilant but with a glimmer of melancholy in their eyes, their great adventure over, suddenly not just the six of them in the tundra but surrounded by other people, other considerations.

The perpetually baby-faced Canoeman had a thin and scraggly beard from the summer without shaving. He watched his dad fidgeting with a small piece of cord, trying to tie a particular knot. He took the rope, hid it behind his back, and shortly produced it with the knot in question perfectly tied.

Such it was.

We got some chuckles when we shortly announced our need to move on, and our destination and reason for doing so. This being my first foray into the wilderness, Canoeman was understandably excited for me and it all seemed to fit as he culminated years of adventuring with my imminent introduction. His parents just seemed a little befuddled, though also excited for us. Looking back, I can only imagine that everyone was silently wondering why the hell we hadn’t picked an entry point out of Ely, which would have meant an additional drive of five to 30 minutes, not four hours.

Into the Woods

So we set off. And I remember little else of that journey. We drove and drove through the northwoods as the day passed to evening. The Gunflint is a two-lane highway that climbs out of Grand Marais and then cuts through the woods without passing through another town or crossing another road. At intervals, small roads leave it to terminate at the edge of the wilderness where an outfitter or two occupies a cluster of lakeside buildings.

I remember tall white pines arching over the road, glimpses of vistas over lakes with rocky, undeveloped shorelines, and the yellow stripes down the middle of the asphalt.

It was a feeling of some accomplishment when we pulled into Superior-North. There was the grassy area where we parked, the lodge with the office, various sheds and outbuildings, and a couple bunkhouses.

In the office, we were welcomed by proprietor Earl Cypher, an older guy with a particular funny, easy-going attitude that you rarely find outside of northern Minnesota.

After going over the map, our gear (being novices, we had elected for a complete outfitting package including canoe, food, packs and almost everything else), and plans for the next morning when we would hit the water, Earl led us across the compound to our bunkhouse. We gave him our car keys in case he needed to move the Tracker and he asked which one was ours. When we pointed at it, he laughed and asked, “Where’s the other half of that car?”

We were left to our own devices in the bunkhouse for the night. We packed up the Duluth packs that Earl had given us and, though beyond tired, we weren’t sleepy for a while. We had driven so many miles through and along the edges of the vast canoe country during the day that the prospect of soon paddling off into it for three nights was enough to briefly mask our exhaustion.

In the morning we packed up the canoe and set off into Saganaga for a trip that would involve big waves and water, otters, the call of loons, island campsites and, ultimately, a night camped amidst tall pines on a lake all our own. That’s another story though.

The Way of Life

People are fond of romanticizing an outfitting business like Earl and his wife Anita’s as a labor of love. I’m sure it’s true that it’s a lot of work and there are no great riches in it. But it’s also true that the opportunities for entrepeneurship in the northwoods are limited. The Wilderness takes a lot off the table: namely logging, mining, development and the periphery professions that accompany those industries. And, so, many people are probably drawn to outfitting simply because it is there.

I don’t know why the Cyphers did it. Perhaps they love enabling experiences in the magnificent wilderness. Perhaps they just enjoy owning their own business and somehow chose outfitting as that business. (I can say that certain other outfitters we have used since seemed to take much less pride in doing it well.) But I can also imagine that Earl and Anita love the lake country, that they know it well, and see running an outfitting business 40 miles from the nearest town as not a bad way to make a living in the place they love. So yes, I suppose in that sense it might have been a labor of love.

The one thing I do know is that memories of that trip have accompanied us on every subsequent journey in the Boundary Waters. We still marvel at the innocence (or was it innocence’s close cousin naïveté?) of that journey north. We approach challenges knowing we survived the things we did on Saganaga, most of the time not even aware we were being challenged.

And I still seek out the feeling of harmony similar to that which was evoked by sitting lakeside at dusk listening to the frogs and loons.

It’s strange to hear that Superior-North has burned. While all they really did was rent us some gear and a comfortable bed after a long journey and then and set us on our way, they also set us at ease for that trip and many more to come. Looking back, as the tipping point between the roads and the lakes, they were part of that introduction to the wilderness just like the water and the trees and the canoe were.

Spring on the St. Croix

Sleepy and I paddled my favorite stretch of the St. Croix River yesterday, from Osceola to Log House Landing (near Copas just north of William O’ Brien).

We put in about 11:00 under partly cloudy skies. The forecast was calling for showers and maybe thunderstorms later in the afternoon, but it sure didn’t seem possible at the time. It felt great to be back out the water.

It isn’t long after you leave the landing at Osceoloa that you can sneak into some really cool backwaters that run parallel to the main channel. Things suddenly get very quiet and it’s hard to believe you are so close to a major metropolitan area. Birds were singing, geese were honking at us if we got to close to where they were nesting, and green was starting to emerge everywhere, from buds on the trees to bright splashes at the base of the bluffs where some plant was monopolizing on a lack of competition to proliferate on the damp forest floor.

I didn’t take any photos of that first stretch yesterday, but here’s a couple from autumn a couple years ago. Funny to see the green just emerging yesterday, knowing it will all end the same way, in a blaze of orange, yellow and red.

Autumn on the St. Croix

Displaying unusual foresight, I had purchased some knee-high rubber boots for both myself and Sleepy the previous weekend when I had been at Fleet Farm. Displaying my usual flakiness, I had left both pairs of boots on my front porch when we left my apartment yesterday morning. So we both traveled in sandals, which was “interesting” given the 50 or 60 degree water temperature.

When we pulled off shortly after entering the backwater we stepped out of the canoe and directly into cold, squishy mud. Exactly what the boots had been intended to protect us from. Alas.

The sun was still shining and we stood looking out over a small bay. Four turkey vultures made slow circles across the river, spending a disconcerting amount of time directly over our heads. It being Earth Day, we retrieved some old beer cans and stowed them in the garbage bag we had brought for that purpose. I sure don’t want to look at the same garbage all season long.

We headed back down the river after not too long, generally paddling only when we need to manuever or when the breeze kicked up, as it occasionally did. The water levels were great and the current was moving along nicely, though never enough to create any dangerous eddies, sweepers or other hazards.

We saw no one in the backwaters, only hearing boats on the main channel once-in-a-while. Small planes frequently passed overhead though, probably pleasure cruisers, and I was reminded of the story of the fight to ban seaplanes from what was the Superior Roadless Area (later to become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness), led by Sigurd Olson, as I recently read about in David Backes‘ fantastic biography of Olson, A Wilderness Within. The planes, which became popular after World War II when there was suddenly a surplus of planes, pilots and mechanics, threatened the wilderness nature of the area, allowing fishermen to fly in to lakes for the afternoon that had only been accessible by difficult, multi-day canoe trips previously. The ultimate success of the campaign led Congress to pass legislation for the first time that expressly protected wilderness in the United States.

But I digress. The planes were loud and they kind of bugged us. I don’t ever expect them to be bannned from flying over the St. Croix.

A little further down, we heard falling water back in the woods. I had heard it before, but the falls themselves had always been hidden by thick foliage. Not today. From the river, we could see water running down a rock face 50 yards from shore and we decided to check it out. We landed the canoe by running it right up the little creek that entered the river there.

The falls felt like a special place. They weren’t much, just two small streams of waters falling over a smooth and mossy rock face, a small pool of clear water at the base.

Quite cunningly, I suggested to Sleepy that he climb up next to the falls while I stayed down below. “It’ll be a cool photo,” I said. Being the good sport that he is, he scrambled up the loose, steep slope to pose for this compelling shot.

After lingering a bit longer, doing our own casual worship on this special Sunday, thanking the Earth for secret waterfalls, we walked back to the canoe. Pushing off into the current again, we admired a pock-marked rock sticking out of the river where the little creek entered. I remarked that it looked like a meteorite and Sleepy thus dubbed the falls “Meteorite Falls.”

Proceeding down the river we kept nosing the canoe through any passage that would admit us. Exploring the backwaters of the backwaters, we found vast wetlands with all varieties of ducks nervously exploding from the water. We saw more small waterfalls tumbling down the bluffs. Trying to paddle back toward one, our way was blocked by a tidy beaver dam.

We stood by the dam for a few minutes to have a snack. A very light rain began to dimple the beaver pond, but had subsided by the time we got back in the canoe. The sky was darkening a little with gray, puffy clouds rolling over the bluffs on the Minnesota side.

Just before re-entering the main channel, we passed by the Great Blue Heron rookery that is a highlight of the trip when visited at the right time of year. Often, a springtime trip can allow you to paddle right through the submerged island with the giant birds flapping overhead or perched on their nests in the treetops. The water wasn’t high enough yesterday, but just paddling by was amazing. There were probably over 100 nests visible from the water and many of them had birds perched on the edges. And it seemed like everywhere we looked around the area, a heron was flying or standing along the shoreline. The wind picked up for a few mnutes and was blowing us around so we kept moving along and I didn’t get the camera out.

The first stretch upon entering the main channel is fairly wide and heads due south. With the wind yesterday out of the south and east, it had the potential to be a pretty challenging paddle for being headed downstream, but we lucked out with a mostly calm spell as we drifted down it.

At some point along there, it started to rain. And the wind started coming out of the south pretty good, so I just have a vague memory now of paddling along looking at the bottom of the canoe to avoid the rain that was otherwise driven into my face. Pleasant. The rain waxed and waned, but the day was still warm enough that it wasn’t too much of a bother. We stopped at my favorite campsite for a lunch of roast beef sandwiches, Pringles and Hamm’s and then got back in the canoe for the last mile or two.

At this point the current was strong, especially along the west bank, and we paddled very little for that last stretch. The current easily kept us in a straight line heading downstream at a relaxing pace, close enough to shore to see the shoots of green amongst the rocks. A warm, rainy afternoon like this would only hurry on that growing even more.

Soon enough the river brought us to the landing. I was a little bummed to see the trip end, but looking forward to many trips down the river in the months ahead, and the warm, dry car waiting for us. It had been good to see the river this early in the season. We had seen a lot of birds, including Bald Eagles, an Osprey, a lot of Great Blue Herons, buzzards, wood ducks, mallards and other unidentified ducks, geese, heard many songbirds, seen a few jumping fish, and had gone several hours without seeing another human and feeling like we were a long ways from where we actually were.

The Cliffs of Kekekabic, Part Five: The Winds of Kekekabic

“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.

DSCN4096

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.

DSCN4097

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 naïve 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.

The Cliffs of Kekekabic, Part Four: Day of Rest

Face

It was Monday. Not a bad day for a layover day in canoe country. Thoughts of what was going on around my workplace barely entered my mind. Today would be the only day we would not have to break camp and set up camp during the trip. We had a nice site with lots of room and a beautiful and massive cliff across our little bay to contemplate. The day began with alternating sun and clouds and the wind continued to blow strong and steady into our west-facing bay.

Rosie and I relished in the absence of any pressure to get moving and leisurely made and ate breakfast. It was another Cache Lake bread this morning, a cranberry breakfast bread that, topped with raspberry jam, was delicious. It was of course washed down with plenty of coffee.

Breakfast

We had decided to have our layover day on Kekekabic for several reasons, but one was the sheer quantity of activities and destinations that presented themselves for day trips:

  • The lake is known for its lake trout, a fish I really wanted to catch for the first time.
  • On the south shore of the lake in this end, there were American Indian pictogaphs (which we had also never seen)
  • and a spur of the Kekekabic Hiking Trail (which crosses the entire Boundary Waters). There aren’t many hiking opportunities in the Boundary Waters, and by hiking up this trail we could find
  • the location of an old fire lookout tower. The tower is gone, but the hill would present another good view of the surrounding territory.
  • There was also little Kek Lake, a five rod portage away and supposedly a neat lake to check out. Small and exceedingly deep, with high bluffs rising up all around.

All of that sounded like a great field trip. Pack a lunch, our rain gear and the camera, leave camp set up, and do some exploring. Back in time for dinner and some rest and relaxation.

Unfortunately, two Boundary Waters truisms were illustrated this day: things don’t always go as planned, and you can’t control the weather.

The weather history for that day shows wind speeds of 10 mph, maximum speeds of 18 mph, and gusts up to 34 mph. It was blowing and blowing hard. All we had to do was look up from anywhere in the camp and see the rollers out on the main lake to know that we had no interest in going anywhere until it settled down.

So, after breakfast we set about taking it easy, which is not very hard to do in the Boundary Waters. We passed much of the morning and afternoon reading, napping and fishing off the rocks into a drop-off on the north side of our camp. We caught nothing but rocks and logs, though it was still fun.

Caught

For a couple hours in the afternoon, while Rosie hung out in the tent, I read, sitting out in the main part of the camp, with a great view of the lake, with a rock sticking out of a patch of grass at the perfect angle to serve as a backrest. I was reading Carl Sagan’s book Contact and was totally wrapped up in it, which gave me added incentive to try to stay put when it occasionally started to rain.

Every so often, clouds would blow over the bluff from the northwest and let loose with a little rain. I could always see the clear skies around the clouds and knew the sprinkles wouldn’t last long, so I’d pull the hood up on my rain jacket and try to outlast it. The rain always seemed to crescendo just to the point where I had no option but to get up, grab chair and book and go under the tarp, back in the brush my the tent. About as soon as I got comfortable there, the pitter patter on the tarp would slacken and then stop and I’d get back up and move my little setup back out in the camp.

Home in the woods

Though I’ve always considered lounging around a Boundary Waters campsite to be one of the finest things in life, I struggled all day with the frustration of not being able to explore Kekekabic like I’d wanted. I felt a certain melancholy all day, combined with the slight worry of what we would do if the wind was blowing like this tomorrow, when we were due to paddle down much of the length of the lake on our way west.

Campsite

As the sun began to dip toward the western horizon, we did get out in the canoe for a little while. We paddled out into the middle of our bay and dropped anchor (our Bell anchor bag, probably overfilled with rocks from shore, held us quite well the couple times we used it during the trip, even though both times were in strong wind) and tried every combination of heavy jigs and artificial bait we could think up, hoping to hook a laker. No luck.

Shortly after we dropped anchor we saw the first other people we had seen since early the previous day (on the South Arm of Knife Lake) and the first people we had talked to since the first day of the trip three days prior (on the portages from Birch to Knife Lake). A pair of guys paddled into the bay and asked if we were camped at our site. We said “yes” and they promptly turned around and headed back out of the bay.

We headed back in after a while with thoughts of dinner in our head. That night, we had what turned out to be one of my favorite meals of the trip: cheese-filled tortellini with a creamy pesto sauce, chicken and peas. The tortellini didn’t take long to cook over the stove, the pesto sauce was powdered and just required a little dehydrated milk and non-dairy creamer, and the chicken and peas were both dehydrated. All of it mixed together was simply delicious and I amazed myself with how much I ate. I was also amazed again at what a good hot meal can do for your spirits.

As the sun set, the skies cleared some and the wind died down a little. It was a familiar pattern already and I knew it was no guarantee of calmer weather the next day. Rosie soon went to bed but I didn’t quite feel ready. The potential difficulties of the next day were already palpable to me, thought it might have just been the thought of getting back on the move again after a stationary, stress-free day.

I leaned against the chair rock and read by the light of my headlamp for a while, then turned off the light and went up on the flat rocks where I could lay on my back and look at the stars. I waited until I had seen a couple shooting stars and retired to the tent.

Good night

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