Wednesday, September 15, 2021 [paragraph break] Right. Everything was packed the night before except two frozen steaks for the first night's dinner. Alarm was set for 4:15 am. Goal was to get out the door by 4:30, up to Ely around 9 allowing time to stop for gas and McDonalds in Cloquet or Virginia, get the canoe from the outfitter at 9:30, to EP30 by 10, on the water at 10:30, and to site #2220 by 1, 1:30, give or take. [paragraph break] I'm up at 4:15, out the door at 4:30, and half an hour later I'm about to exit 694 to 35W north when I realize I think I left my nalgene water bottle on the side table by the front door. I call my wife, who is a saint and decided to wake up at the same time as me anyway, and she confirms it's there. So I turn around, she hands it to me in the driveway, I head back out now delayed a full hour. DDSS, Don't Do Stupid S#!t. [paragraph break] Up to Cloquet, gas and McDonalds coffee and hash browns. Up to Ely, get the canoe strapped on, get to EP30. It's a gentle EP compared to a lot of others, no real portage, wide soft landing, and I'm just happy to get on the water. Lake One is gorgeous as always, and I beeline towards the portages to Lake Two, and there's a pileup. Four canoes already on the shore, two more loitering on the water waiting their turn, and a lot of people still coming back and forth on the portage. No worries. I've got all day. I back up a little and take my place in line as the congestion slowly clears. [paragraph break] Across that. Across Lake Two. Into Lake Three. Crossing my fingers that #2220 is open, and it is. Water levels are low - usually there's only one rock above water in the middle of this channel.
And into camp, setting up the platypus water filter to replace the portable TrailShot, because I'm tired of squeezing a water filter:
I fell in love with how simple and fast that was. The minor hassle of backflushing with a bleach and water mixture to clean it after a trip was well worth the time saved of squatting by the side of the lake and squeezing a half teaspoon of water at a time through a filter. [paragraph break] Dinner was the two now-thawed steaks, a package of instant mashed potatoes, pouring the steak drippings into the mashed potatoes for even more flavor, and being semi-proud of myself for not doing stupid s#!t.
Thursday, September 16, 2021 [paragraph break] Nothing happened this day. Maybe something did, but I don't remember it because of Friday? But I stayed in camp, I slept in, I got ready for the thunderstorms coming that night.
And spent some time listening to the rain and watching the thunder before falling asleep. What a peaceful day! If only every day were this peaceful. Gosh, I bet tomorrow's going to just be incredibly peaceful. (That's called foreshadowing, kids.)
Friday, September 17, 2021 [paragraph break] This day was going to be sunny, clear skies, moderate west wind, mid-60s, a perfect day for a loop. The plan was to head down from Lake Three, through Horseshoe, Brewis, Harbor, North Wilder, up to Hudson, and then back through Four to camp. I've got all day. It's gonna be fine. [paragraph break] I set the solar battery charger out in the sun before I left where it could get direct sunlight, sunup to sundown. That's not stupid s#!t, that's some smart s#!t. Look at me, being prepared. I plotted out the route in advance, went to paddleplanner and had it calculate trip times based on waypoints and specific paddling and portaging speeds. Even allowing 50% extra time, I'll definitely be back by well before sunset, plus I'll get to travel through that part of the 2011 wildfire and see the regrowth. Packed a hoodie in case it got chilly, map, compass, water bottle, and phone in doubled-up ziploc bags in a zippered pants pocket. [paragraph break] Down through Lake Three, to the portage to Horseshoe. This part hadn't been burned at all and the portage remained a beauty:
But when I got out of the canoe, I realized I didn't have the yoke with me. I knew I brought it to the shoreline when I was leaving camp, so ... did I forget to load it? Or did it somehow fall out and I never noticed? Alright, my DDSS meter is at 1 out of 10 so far, that's kinda stupid. But I made my way across and looked out at Horseshoe Lake:
As I paddled east I could see site #1518 on top of a rocky exposed point - at least, what I assumed was the kitchen area; there were still piled up rocks but I couldn't see any logs for seating. Probably all burned in 2011? Or maybe I was looking at the wrong spot? Either way - a glassy lake, only a little bit of the west wind started showing up by the time I got to the far side, and I began portaging to Brewis.
There's a portage there, I swear! There were a few deadfalls across it -- unsurprisingly, the forest service isn't out to this spot every day to clear it -- and soon I saw Brewis Lake ahead of me.
Gorgeous area. Consider taking a short daytrip in here. Not too far, though, that way lies madness. (Remember what I said about foreshadowing? This is more foreshadowing!) [paragraph break] Looking back west at the portage, the way I came.
I crossed Brewis, a tiny, tiny lake. Supposedly there was a former campsite on the southeast corner, but I didn't stop to look for it; I was a man on a mission, and this mission was to loop through this area. Next up was a cake 40-rod portage to Harbor, which was more of a 50-rod or more (with deadfalls here, too), thanks to the low water and having to trudge on the grassy tufts to get to water of any depth. Looking back at the portage from Brewis to Harbor Lake:
And once out into Harbor Lake, you can see how thick the regrowth is in this area. You're not getting through that on foot any time soon. Eventually some trees will choke out others, and they'll space themselves out, but that's years and decades in the making.
Got to the far end. Found a difficult landing for the portage, and crossed 80 rods to North Wilder, going over and under some other deadfalls, and seeing the cairns and ribbons marking where the Powwow Trail crosses it. There's a comment on this portage on paddleplanner from 2020 saying it's been cut open nicely, so the deadfalls that are here must be within the past year. I got to North Wilder at 11am, per the timestamp on the photo as I got ready to push off:
Making perfectly fine time. Only one portage left to get to the creek, and then I can get to Hudson, then 17+25+20 rods for the last three portages to Four, and then back to camp. What could go wrong? [paragraph break] (foreshadowing, remember) [paragraph break] I crossed the portage, and then like earlier, crossed another couple dozen yards on grassy tufts following a beaten-down trail. At this point I assumed it was another hiker or canoer that tramped down that grass. Sure looked like it, after all.
I followed that, and pushed off into the creek. Should be about a mile east, then a mile north. Here's what it looks like from satellite view, from some unknown non-winter season in some unknown year. Also, at this point I'll omit a few exceedingly humbling details... but the DDSS (Don't Do Stupid S#!t) meter will still track appropriately.
It's only 2 miles up to Hudson, I can push on. DDSS 3/10. [paragraph break] I get to the bend where the creek goes north. It's no longer navigable, and I'm on the east side without much grass. I slog through thigh-deep mud and water, pulling the canoe behind me, to get to the west bank and up onto the grass. DDSS 4/10. [paragraph break] I start going north overland. The creek is about an inch deep over thigh or waist-deep mud on an adult man, so that's impassible. There's still enough of a trail through the grass, but the ground is uneven and occasionally dips low enough to be wet, so I'm watching my step so I don't sink in unexpectedly. DDSS 5/10 by now. The sun is still shining, it's still warm, no worries. [paragraph break] I get to the point where the creek branches east to Zitkala Lake. I'm maybe a quarter of the way to Hudson. I decide that the trail I'm following can't be from regular human traffic, and when I cross a low spot and see a hoof print in the mud bigger than my hand, I realize I'm following a moose trail. And it's got to be a fresh one, since a muddy print like that must be after last night's heavy rain. And I'm getting to be EXHAUSTED at this point - fifty paces, then rest in the grass a while, then fifty paces, then rest in the grass, then fifty paces, then realize there's no PFD and I left it behind at the last rest, so fifty paces back for it, rest, fifty paces forward. It's that feeling I have of "bonking" at 20 miles into a marathon -- your body has burned all of the glycogen storage, and is switching over to burning fat for fuel, which is less efficient so everything just feels exhausting. [paragraph break] As you can tell I stopped taking pictures at this point. It was beautiful, and getting some evidence of the deadfalls I was navigating while avoiding going into waist-deep muck would be nice, but preserving battery life was more important if something really went wrong. So I'm tired, I've still got half a mile or more of this terrain to cross, maybe I'm five hours or five minutes behind a bull moose. Let's move the DDSS meter up to 6/10. [paragraph break] Still trekking north. Still a sunny day. I've got some blisters on my feet, two of them have popped, so I'll be digging into those GlacierGel dressings when back to camp. I can see the open water of Hudson up ahead of me, so I'm getting there, but then I run into this.
I'm at the red X, and in reality, that creek is all mud at this point. There's a cliff face in front of me on the west side of the creek. The regrowth is impassable to a canoe; see those earlier pictures. I'm not going to get up and over on the left side of the rocks. There's about 40 feet of muck between me and Hudson, or about 30 feet if I angle my way northeast to the grassy patch on the east side. There's maybe half an inch of water over unsteady muck, which means it's completely saturated and god knows how deep. [paragraph break] The first five feet, I'm in the canoe, trying to gingerly push my way across to little avail. DDSS is still a 6/10 here. [paragraph break] I tell myself, ok, this is probably only thigh deep, I can just drag the canoe. So I gingerly lower one leg into the muck (taking my shoes off first!) and find relatively secure footing... waist deep. And I fight a few steps, then slide the canoe, and fight a few steps, and slide the canoe, and put my weight on the canoe so I can more easily move my legs forward, being careful as hell not to tip it into the muck. And we'll just peg that DDSS at an 8/10 here, since being up to my waist in mud with open blisters, while feeling my way through for buried branches to stand on, is not great. But I've got to get to open water. [paragraph break] No, that's too stupid. Back in the canoe, caked in mud. Sitting there 15 feet from salvation. And ... a butt-shuffle does the trick. Grab both gunwales, and forcefully slide myself forward, and the canoe shuffles forward in the muck a quarter inch. Do it fifteen times, catch my breath. Look at a stick in the mud, focus on that as a goal, shuffle, rest, shuffle, rest, shuffle, rest. Look at the next lilypad. And half an hour later, I cross that last fifteen feet, and can leap forward onto grass and pull the canoe up behind me. [paragraph break] I'm a sight. Covered in mud up to the bottom of my ribcage. Exhausted. DDSS isn't quite at a 9 or a 10; I'm on Hudson, though I haven't seen any traffic. It's not like I kept going through the burn to try to get to Isabella or something like that. But unquestionably, this was a failure to abide by DDSS especially since that night it was going to get down to the 30s. [paragraph break] I'm back at my Lake Three campsite at sunset. I dig my phone out of my pocket and try to charge it (remember the solar charger left out all day?) but apparently doubled-up ziploc bags don't win against waist-deep mud and water, and it complaints about water in the charging port and asks if I want to override. I do, long enough to send a message home and see an email that the fire ban was lifted, and then prop the phone up to dry out overnight. [paragraph break] Haven't eaten since breakfast, but I have no appetite at all after that day. I boil some water, dump it into a Backpackers Pantry mac & cheese, and can only manage to eat about half of it before feeling full. I hang my muddy clothes to dry overnight, wash my feet as best I can, and sleep the sleep of the lucky and grateful.
Saturday, September 18, 2021 [paragraph break] I'm beat. I'm BEAT. Every muscle hurts. I shuffle to the latrine, I shuffle back to the kitchen and start a fire just for the sake of moving around. And then I look at the wind forecasts, and see that Sunday's going to be 15-18mph from 10am onwards, and ... you know, maybe I've had enough adventure. Let's either move back closer to the EP today to avoid crossing Three/Two/One in strong winds. [paragraph break] I pack up, pulling my quick-dry pants back on and shaking off the dried mud as best I can. Back through Three, and Two is a glassy, picturesque beauty. And back to One, and ... yeah, a beer back in Ely sounds more appealing right now, doesn't it? It does. Let's get a beer and a hotel room and just sleep it all off, and come home Sunday as planned.
What worked: some beer in Ely. [paragraph break] What didn't work: getting a hotel room there. With the ATV event going on, there were no vacancies to be found. I did find one in the Comfort Inn in Mountain Iron, just outside of Virginia, and that's fine. I'll drive and order some dinner in and sleep again. [paragraph break] That hot shower was a blessing and a curse. It was great to wash out the wounds and apply clean dressings. It was not great to find the dozen other cuts that were masked with dirt and grime, but when I stood in a hot shower I could feel where every single one was. But that bed was the softest bed in memory and I was asleep by 9.