The Unintentional Base-camping Trip
As we arrived at the landing two young men were loading up their gear and their canoe at the end of a trip. We exchanged pleasantries, and they just happened to mention that they had seen FIVE moose, including one on Cross Bay Lake that “wasn’t a bit shy.” That really sounded good to me!
We departed from the Cross River Landing at 10 AM under partly cloudy skies on a calm, warm, rather muggy morning. Again I noticed daisies, marsh marigolds, dragonflies and bluets as we were loading the canoe to get on our way. I was trying to take Anna’s advice to look for all things good and not notice my fears about being up to the tasks ahead.
Right off the bat we took a wrong turn, heading right rather than left as we made our way into the reeds on the river and taking, as Spartan1 later called it, “a short-cut”. This resulted in getting stuck in several spots where he had to get out and lift our heavily loaded canoe over shallow obstructions, and also in me remarking “This can’t be the right way.” Duh.
But we did get on our way down the river, and it felt good to be heading toward the BWCA at last.
In short order we arrived at our first portage, 60 rods long. This isn’t a difficult portage for most folks who are in good shape and well prepared for the job. It has a couple of good climbs, nothing major. But it was a problem for me because of stair-steps! The portage crews, in order to help insure against erosion on the hills, have inserted steps in several places on the portage, with large 6x6 beams set into the grade, making for a really BIG step up (or down). This is probably fine if you are six feet tall with long, strong legs. But if you are 5’ 4”, with a 28” inseam, have two arthritic knees, carry too much weight on your person and a heavy pack on your tender back, they are a daunting task! Much harder for me than just walking up a hill! Spartan1 ended up carrying my packs up the steps in most cases and then putting them on my back—a very big help indeed.
There were to be three portages on this day and we planned to camp on Cross Bay Lake by afternoon. Our next one was either 30 or 40 rods, depending upon which map you wanted to consult, and it went in to a little pond that led to Ham Lake. When we got to the portage landing we were scolded by a merganser who seemed to think that the landing was her own personal property, but she didn’t stay around long enough for a photo!
When we paddled in to Ham Lake we of course paddled right by the campsite that was the source for the infamous “Ham Lake Fire”. It is a rather sobering sight to see the campsite, not burned greatly itself, and then look across the narrow expanse of water to the other shore and view the stark outline of the many charred sentinels, reminders of a conflagration that spread along the Gunflint for many miles. And of course, underneath the blackened trunks still standing, there is the green of the renewing forest, growing yet again.
So. . .we had two portages done and we were doing well. I was hurting some, but not complaining yet, and the day was still young. So far, so good! We paddled along on Ham Lake, looking for the portage entrance, and that was when we made a big mistake! We heard the moving water, saw the stream entering the lake, and instead of looking for the portage landing along the lakeshore (which isn’t that hard to spot if you are paying attention) we headed right for that splashing inlet with its small waterfall. There is a rock face where you can unload your canoe rather precariously onto a small landing beside the tiny falls, and there is a small trail going off on the right. Not nearly large enough of a trail for this portage!
Now we had been on this route before! Not even that long ago, 2002. We knew that this wasn’t supposed to be an odd or difficult portage. But we had a senior moment, or something, and we looked at this little trail, with its rocky hole smack dab in the middle, and we decided to portage all of our gear and our canoe across it. It ends with an equally tiny landing. I mentioned to Spartan1 that I sure did hope no one came our way because there wasn’t a way in the world that more than one canoe could fit on this landing. But still we didn’t catch on.
We paddled out into the stream for a few yards, heard the sound of white water, looked ahead and saw a long, long set of rapids. We were not at the portage. We weren’t even NEAR the portage! (The only thing we can figure is that perhaps kayakers run these rapids downstream as far as we came, take out at our tiny landing, and go to Ham on the short, rocky trail. It is NOT the portage!) Duh, again!
So we had to go back to the miniscule landing, unload the canoe, carry everything back to the equally uncomfortable landing at the other end, reload the canoe, and find the portage. The afternoon was fleeting, I was beginning to worry about getting a campsite on Cross Bay Lake, as there are only two, and Spartan1 was very tired. He does ALL of the loading and unloading, always has, but now with my back problems it is absolutely necessary. He is still anemic from 16 years of chronic kidney disease and always will be. He’s a lifelong insulin-dependent diabetic. And he is six weeks short of 65 years old. He has wanted to make me believe he is superman strong now, but I could see that he was very tired and not looking forward to another portage. This first day wasn’t going as well as we had hoped. But we were in the BWCA and life is good. What could possibly go wrong that hadn’t already?
Don't portage here!
Yes, you guessed it! It can rain!
He said, “Do you want to put on rain gear?” as the skies suddenly opened up and we were drenched almost immediately. I said “Why? We are already wet!” So I shouted “No!” And we loaded up in the canoe, wet to the skin, thankful that it wasn’t a cold day, and pretty much exhausted. And still with a 24-rod portage to go, plus paddling the length of Cross Bay Lake if we were to take the campsite we had our hearts set upon.
Then my confidence caved in. I said, “There are all of the sites on Ham Lake open and we can just take one of those and go on in the morning!” He tried to argue, because of course that would mean that we would be entering the BWCA illegally, one day after the date of our permit, and we always follow the rules as carefully as we are able. But it was raining so hard, we were so wet, and we were just so tired and discouraged, that I could see him caving in right beside (or actually behind, since he is the stern paddler) me. We headed that canoe to one of the campsites on Ham Lake—it didn’t end up being the nicest one, but it was adequate for our needs—and we put up a tarp in the rain until it let up, then set up the tent and made our camp.
Eventually the rain stopped, and we enjoyed a field of daisies at our campsite.
Our evening meal was a Packit Gourmet Beef Wrap that I was trying as a new idea. The corn tortillas I had bought at Zup’s didn’t hold together and Neil didn’t like the spicy meat mixture very well, but I thought it was really good. Flour tortillas needed, though! We topped it off with Backpacker’s Pantry Dark Chocolate Cheesecake, and that was really just like an instant chocolate pudding with some Oreo crumbles on top, but still tasted pretty good. We were dry and resting, so ‘most any food would have done OK.
We enjoyed a beautiful evening with interesting clouds. In spite of feeling guilty for being there, I don’t think we regretted the decision to stop at Ham Lake, given the challenges of our afternoon, even if some of them were of our own making. We hoped that if a ranger dropped by, he/she would accept “extenuating circumstances” as an excuse, and if not, we were prepared to pay a fine, just so long as they didn’t tell us we had to go home!