For several years, my son and his friends have taken a week to 10 days and gone into the wilderness via canoes and portages. I have listened to the stories, of cold water swims, walleyes and northern in abundance, fish fries every night, awesomely beautiful country, drinking water from lakes so clear you can see the bottom, quiet serene nights around a campfire, and the big one that got away. This year, I was invited as a guest, to take the trip and experience the best that life has to offer. This trip was to be my 1st in more than 20 years into the BWCA. The invite was extended last January and the plans and routes were laid out then. I was not expected to bring any food – that is another story for later – or any gear except for personal stuff. It was agreed at this time, since I was the odd man out, I could bring my newly acquired kayak. However, to keep in mind, that the 1st day, we would be canoeing 20 miles! I had to keep up and not slow the group down.
The cast of characters for this trip are Nate – my middle son, Jenny – Nates’ wife, Larry – Jenny’s dad, Chris – Jenny’s brother, and I. Larry makes these trips several times a summer and makes frequent trips to remote Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Canada. We left White Bear Lake on Sunday at noon, stopping for needed refreshments and a late lunch in Virginia, MN. We stayed for the night in International Falls, Mn. as our permits for Quetico Provincial Park were issued for entrance the next day. That evening we spent browsing the town, casing out the border crossing, and the many businesses located there. Nate was a little concerned as I pulled over by the river and watched what was happening at the border.
After crossing the border on early Monday, we stopped at the local bait store for bait and then we made a quick 2 hour drive to the launch area. The scenery was awesome, with many Rock Cairns along the north side of the road and long desolate areas of tall pines and endless skies. Finally we turned off the main road onto a dirt backwoods road and after following it for 30 minutes we arrived at the initial portage site to Beaverhouse Lake. Our paddling expedition started at the Beaverhouse Lake Portage, on BeaverhouseLake – commencing with a ½ mile portage over a rain slick trail from the previous nights rain and then a 3 mile paddle to the ranger cabin for the permits and licenses. After a brief rest, and snacks we then we paddled onto Lake Quetico by portaging around a water fall/rapids. These falls are an old sluice and dam at an area that was used to control logs coming down the river many years ago. There is a 50+ foot change in elevation between the lakes.
We paddled 20 miles the 1st day with 2 portages, with one being at the falls, where I side slipped in the kayak and took on water, so I was wet for most of this days paddling. I remarked to Larry, that I liked my little sportsman kayak better as it was more stable in the water. It was shorter and had a wider beam which added to stability. However, the place I purchased my sportsman’s kayak from said I would never make it with that boat on this trip and keep up with canoes at the same time. In their words, I would need an evacuation helicopter standing by to retrieve me from the wilderness with a cardiac arrest. They advised what I really needed was longer touring kayak that would carry more gear and travel on lakes faster. The one I borrowed on a trial basis was a 17’ touring German kayak weighing in at 65lbs and had a narrow beam, 2 storage compartments and a rudder. However, this one also really rolled and pitched with shallow waves, and I had to literally lock my feet into the stirrups, my knees into the knee braces and become “one” with the kayak. I could see myself doing a wet exit at any moment – which would have been my 1st. It was a real balancing act to maintain ones balance, much like being parking ones butt on a balance beam and trying to paddle while the beam was rocking & rolling back and forth. It was also quite tiring, and my abs were getting a good workout! Larry’s one comment was that he would never even get into one and why would someone do something as crazy as that. A kayak just appeared too dangerous, unstable, and difficult to use to really enjoy on a excursion or expedition.
The German made kayak weighed in twice as much as one of the canoes, so any portaging made the kayak a challenge to do alone. The kayak did have one redeeming feature, in Larry’s opinion – it was RED! It brought some needed color to the abundance of greens and blues of the Canadian wilderness. However, the kayak is as close to getting in the water, without actually being in it. It brings a new perspective and dimension to a someone that likes being in nature. However, the first day, I questioned the wisdom of making this trip with this kayak, as in the past, all my previous experiences were canoeing off the Gunflint trail, set up camp, with maybe 1 portage, and generally fish and be lazy for a week. This trip would add a new dimension to my experience as it would involve a new campsite almost each night with a lot of paddling, portaging,and exertion – and the rest of the team would have to carry my gear in their canoes. However I did not know I had a “hells portage” ahead of me.
That night we made camp on a scenic overlook of Lake Quetico. We used the canoes as tables and set up our tents.
The canoes served a dual purpose, just like space in a tiny house serves. The sink serves as a kitchen sink and lavatory sink, and tables fold out of walls, and about the only thing that is normal size, may be the lap top computer.
This nights dinner fare was grilled steaks, fried potatoes and onions, green beans, and for dessert – pan brownies.
During the night, I was summoned out of my sleep by rain pelting the tent, and flashes of lightning illuminating the dark shadows inside of my tent. My immediate thought, was one of having to kayak tomorrow in this downpour as I drifted back to sleep.
On Tuesday, it rained all day and we decided to stay put for this day, so we just spent time in our tents reading, playing cards, telling stories, and napping. The lack of movement create a glorious “backache” day, but I did get some good reading accomplished. Besides food and trail mixes, I always bring a book or two and Karen Casey’s newest book, “Change your Mind and Your Life Will Follow,” was the main reading material which was a very enjoyable and enlightening read into thought processes. Even though I napped frequently during the day I actually slept that night well. The sleeping must have been helped with the steady pattering of rain on the tent that finally soothed me to dreamland. The book and reading it, made me realize that I needed to change my mind on this trip and enjoy each day as a new experience. The dinner fare for this evening was grilled pork chops, hash browns, corn muffins and dessert was candy bars.
Wednesday, we awoke to a bright and dry day; had a quick breakfast of oatmeal as we had territory to cover to get to the next campsite by dark. We had lunch of fruits, trail mix, etc, while paddling and late afternoon we found a nice campsite for the evening. It was on an isthmus between Lake Quetico and Jean Lake. While kayaking this lake, I discovered that the rudder to the kayak was not working properly, and with any wind at all, the tracking could be challenging. While the canoes could maintain a straight course, I would find myself being blown to new destinations which would require more paddling to keep up. At this campsite, I caught my 1st fish of the trip and then Nate caught the same fish a hour later. We could tell by the same scars on its back. At this point we were practicing catch and release, as our fish dinners were scheduled for Thursday into a remote lake. The beauty of the area, the clean clear crisp air, the clear star lit nights made one feel that we were the 1st to come this way. We did not see a camp squirrel or Canadian Jay the entire trip. We were too remote for even them. The dinner fare for this night was hot dogs, baked beans, and candy bars. After dinner, we would paddle out to the middle of the lake, hold our canteens and water jugs upside down and push them down into the water, about a foot, turn them over, and allow them to fill with lake water for drinking and cooking. Each evening this scene would be repeated for the next days water supply.
Thursday morning, we headed out from Jean Lake to Your Lake, and that had some short portages and 5 beaver dams to cross over plus the added test of 1 long portage thru a marsh. At the last of the beaver dams, we found it had been torn down with just a small stream running thru what was once a huge beaver pond. I ventured forth with my kayak, and found I could go quite a distance, however any turning around or getting out was not an option. The bottom was mud as far down as I could push the paddle, and our only choice was to keep going. We finally managed to get far enough upstream where we spotted a good place to get out and portage the rest of the way. We carefully made our way to this area of solid ground and rocks and happily saw our next lake less than 100 feet away. At this long narrow lake I choose to paddle the opposite shore from the rest of the group. About 20 minutes into the this lake, I could hear Nate yelling at me to be careful as there was a moose with calf in the water just around the bend from me, and my course would take me right onto them. The cow and the calf plunged into the reeds and underbrush by the time I made it there and I never saw them. However, Nate managed to get a few pictures of them.
Being surrounded by the forest colors of the many hues of greens, the pale blue sky, the silence of the wilderness except for our “swoosh” of the paddles breaking water, without any other human contact the whole trip made me realize what the explorers may have experienced when the area was 1st discovered. I did not miss my career, the work, the hustle, the stress, phones, faxes, firefighting, etc while there. The main item that I became aware of; is that in a one man kayak, one is pretty much alone, and that means all of the work of paddling is solo; another noted item is the lack of being able to share discoveries with some one significant; or share the “ahah” moments, etc. as they are encountered. By the time we got to Your Lake, my socks were black from the mud of portages, and my pants were black to the knees, and I am sure I also needed to bathe. However, I choose not to, as my idea of ice cold lake water except for drinking, was not for bathing or doing a “wet exit!.
At all of the portages, we wore our Buzz Off shirts and baby blue hats, as they kept the mosquitoes, ticks, and flies at bay. The bugs would fly/hover around our legs and feet, but would stay away from our upper bodies. The ticks were also out at the portages, and it would be common to remove 30 to 40 from our clothes, and the lead person would often find in excess of 50 -70 friends. At the end of this day, we found an island that faced west and we nicknamed it Turtle Island. As we paddled to the island, the sun was just starting to set. There was deer along the shore, and the high cirrus clouds were turning oranges and purple from the setting sun.
The turtles were out in numbers laying eggs along the south western shoreline, and where we were camped, was evidently a major place for laying. We even had a large snapping turtle come up and visit us. We stayed at this campsite for 2 nights, and the next day the rest of the group went out – Friday – for more fishing. I decided to stay in camp, to read, do some journaling, and fish from shore. Nate in pursuit of the illusive walleye went along and swamped his canoe and was quite soaked and disgruntled. They had to do some major portaging again over beaver dams, and he was all muddy from it. For myself – I was content – I fished from shore, caught more walleye than they did, and even though I broke my pole on a larger fish, staying in camp was worth it. I even finished the Casey book and started another book. A Western!
The next day, Saturday, we were up early and had figured we had 9 portages to do, plus a lot of lake to cover to make it back to our vehicles by evening. I had seen the high cirrus clouds coming in on Friday, and told everyone we had better high tail it, or face some wet weather. We started early that day, pushed our limits and encountered what is called “Hell’s Portage.” That is a 1 mile portage that is challenging for anyone to do – even for someone in good physical condition – of going over hills, thru mosquitto infested swamps and tick laden bogs across corduroy logs trails, trudging thru rock laden streams and muddy potholes, for what seemed an eternity. I miss-stepped at one point thru the logs and fell with the kayak on top of me landing on my back in a small stream. I kept thinking as I lay there that I was hearing someone run towards me, but after a minute or two, I realized it was just my heart pounding instead of someone running thru the woods. This was a day of trials, gifts, opportunities, and this was just another high point to that day. After this portage, Nate remarked, he had never seen so many portages in 1 trip before! We had to make 2 to 3 trips at each portage of canoes, kayak, backpacks along with miscellaneous gear and when we got done with this portage, I was beat, exhausted, and hurting. And the kayak was mine alone to portage and I felt the weight more with each step!
Then we put in and continued across Badwater Lake. The wind started to pick up, and since my rudder on the kayak had broken earlier in the trip, I found I had little control unless I was going into the wind or vice versa. At one point, I was being tossed around by the waves in the middle of the lake, and finally decided to head for shore with the wind at my back. This was to be repeated later on Beaverhouse Lake with more wind. On Beaverhouse Lake and the final leg of the trip we had decided to cut across the middle of the lake as it would be a shorter route. By this time, the wind had picked up some more, and the kayak was a concern to me. While the waves beat up against the canoe sides, the kayak being lower in the water would allow the waves to crash over. It made me uneasy. Upon reaching almost to the center of the lake the thought of a “wet water exit” was the paramount fear I was facing. After being tossed around as I was trying to run at right angles to the wind, that fear was being heightened, and I yelled at Larry that I was changing my tactics, and would be making a run with the wind towards shore. Larry, looked at me, and said that the waves would be worse along the shore, and I replied that it was now all psychological battles and mind set now. I would feel better being closer to shore battling the waves, than be out in the middle of a big lake. At least, I could wet exit and swim for shore if need be. But, when I got there, that also turned into a challenge, but with the shore line on my right about 30 – 40 feet away, I just gritted my teeth and went for it with the thinking that what will be – will be, and that I was in my right and perfect place; reminding myself that we are never given anything that we can not handle. As Caleb, my youngest son has said, if it is time to go, he will face it head on, and off I went to face a fear of mine. After about 20 -30 minutes of battling the surf, I made it around the corner of an isthmus and found a calm spot to regain my wits, sanity, and calmness..
After that it was a quick run with the wind at my back and onto the final portage and our trucks on solid ground. At this final portage to load our vehicles, I decided to portage the lightweight canoe, which I grabbed before Larry could, and it felt like a feather compared to the kayak. No wonder Larry could run a portage as I struggled with my kayak. That night the storms moved in and we were happy to be in civilization at a motel with showers, a comfortable mattress, AC and someone else cooking for us – The Moose Restaurant. I was also thinking that next time, I am also going to have a super lightweight canoe and stay the hell away from “hells portage!”