Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Crab/Cummings with Rookies
by Ho Ho

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 07/23/2010
Entry & Exit Point: Crab Lake and Cummings from Burntside Lake (EP 4)
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 4
Trip Introduction:
This trip was a four-day adventure into the Boundary Waters with two rookies, Michael and Josiah. Michael is the 19-year-old son of an old college friend of mine whom I had recently gotten back in touch with. She, her husband, and Mike were coming out for a week at the cabin, and Mike wanted to try a wilderness canoe trip while his parents held down the fort with cocktails back at the cabin. We had never met Michael but I was pretty sure he would be a fun guy to take out on a trip, which definitely proved to be true. To round out our crew, we invited Josiah, the 15-year-old son of different friends, to come out with us too. He had been to the cabin for a few days with his family a couple years ago, and had been angling for another visit and canoe trip. David and I have both known Josiah since he was born and we knew he would be fun to have along. Mike has always lived in Boston, and Josiah has pretty much always lived in New York City, so the Boundary Waters was going to be a new experience for these city boys, who had never been on a wilderness trip (much less a wilderness canoe trip) before. And so after a few days at the cabin getting our gear together, practicing some basic canoe strokes, and just hanging out with Mike's parents, the fateful morning for the beginning of our adventure arrived . . .
Day 1 of 4
Day 1 (July 23, 2010) -

Our entry point was Crab Lake. We picked this entry because we thought it would create a challenging (but not TOO challenging) trip that would lead quickly to a fairly remote area and give the guys a good idea of what the wilderness is all about in a just a few days. The key is the long portage into Crab, which keeps the riff raff out. Of course, our new guys had never portaged in their lives before. But they are young athletic guys, and our approach to portages is easy-going, so I was optimistic it would work out well.

David and I have paddled across Burntside to get to the Crab Lake entry in the past, but we thought with a couple of new paddlers on this trip, we should get a tow to start the mile-long portage fresh and avoid potential whitecaps on Burntside. I arranged with VNO to get the tow pickup right at the cabin dock, which was really convenient and really fun. Waiting for the tow, from left to right, Josiah, Ho Ho, David, and Mike -

Mega smile (with the Harlem Little League baseball cap) -

Kevin the towboat driver arrived, we loaded up, waved goodbye to Mike's parents, and were ready to go -

Heading out -

Kevin at the helm -

Mike, probably thinking "what am I getting into with these guys I just met a couple days ago" -

The tow had its own element of adventure because the motor was barely working. At first Kevin said it sounded like it was running on one cylinder. Later he said a half cylinder. Still, we were making slow but steady progress across Burntside, and I was glad we had arranged the tow because we were facing a strong headwind and there were good-sized rollers on the open part of the a lake.

Then, somewhere around School Section Bay, the engine just up and died. I was pretty sure that we were going to be paddling the last couple miles of Burntside to the portage, including some rough water, but after about 10 minutes of fiddling with the motor, Kevin got it started again and kept it going to our destination. Kevin is a good guy to get a tow from, it was very enjoyable, complete with mishap. When he dropped us off, he called back to VNO to let them know he might be stranded out on Burntside, but we found out after our trip that he kept the motor limping along all the way back to the public access, so no rescue was needed.

We offloaded at the portage and were ready to leave motors behind -

While we were organizing our gear and applying ample bug dope, a couple of youngish guys paddled up in a green Penobscot. I tried to make a little pleasant conversation while they unloaded, but they were pretty taciturn. It looked like they were planning to single portage, each with one pack (not canoe packs) and one guy with the canoe. But the one carrying the canoe sure was having trouble getting it resting on his shoulders the right way with the pack sticking up. I had a good idea what the problem was, but since they didn't seem like they would be too receptive to suggestions, I kept my advice to myself.

Shortly after they headed down the trail with the canoe in an awkward position, we were off ourselves -

We decided to leapfrog the mile-long portage in 1/3 and 2/3 segments, carrying the first load 1/3 of the way across, going back for the second load and carrying it 2/3 of the way, then getting the first load to carry to the end, then finishing up with the second load. Before we got to the first stopping point, I passed the two guys with their canoe down on the ground. A hello was not returned. We went on and then dropped our loads at the approximate 1/3 point, at the place where the new rougher part of the rerouted portage meets the older smooth and level trail. Not far behind us came the two guys, carrying the canoe two-man style with one under the bow and one under the stern. They didn't look that happy.

For our part, I was glad we were double portaging as we got a drink of water -

David took some pictures on the trips back between loads - though not as many pictures as usual on our trips, because we were more focused on introducing Josiah and Michael to the art of painless portaging. We did stop to look out over the beaver pond that is about half way across the portage -

I'm not sure what this flower is -

I think this is Pearly Everlasting -

The big beaver meadow (an extension of the pond) -

Another perspective on the meadow -

I like carrying canoes (at least the lightweight kind). So I was taking both of them across, while the rest of the guys carried the packs. But when we went back for the last leg of the second load, Mike offered to carry the second canoe to the end. I appreciated that, but thought maybe it was still a little far for a first canoe carry. So I said he should give it a try on the next portage, and I finished the last leg of this portage with the canoe myself.

By the time we got everything to Crab Lake, we were ready for lunch. We headed for the first campsite on the north side, where David and I had stayed on the last night of our trip with my sister in September 2006. The water was a lot higher now than it was then, lapping almost up against the fire grate. As we ate we could see the two guys in the green Penobscot paddling around Crab. By the time we were ready to move on, the clouds had thickened to the west, and we got on our rain coats for the paddle up the lake to the next portage. But on the way there the sun came out again, and it we got pretty warm in our rain gear and PFDs (which we were wearing on this maiden voyage with the rookies).

The easy 20-rod portage from Crab to Little Crab was the perfect place for Mike and Josiah to try portaging canoes the first time. Mike went first with the Champlain and, not surprisingly for a big young guy in good shape, he had no problem with it at all - once it was on his shoulders. The initial lift still needed some refinement. Then Josiah carried the Spirit II. When he got to the end and set it down, I asked him how it went. His initial answer was "not bad," but then almost immediately his shoulders started hurting and he revised his assessment. The pads were too wide for his shoulders. I'll give him another year or two before he becomes an avid canoe portager. Then look out.

Unfortunately, we forgot to take pictures of this initial foray into canoe carrying. Once the rest of the gear was across, we loaded up -

Mike looks a little concerned here, maybe he was wondering if I was going to tip the canoe when pushing off -

No concerns from Josiah -

We quickly paddled up Little Crab Lake to the Korb River, which starts with a riffle through narrows with a tiny submerged dam that I think beavers made but maybe it was some other natural force or humans. Then the river widens out into a broad boggy route. With Mike the powerhouse in the bow, our canoe tended to stay well in the lead. As we went down the river I paused to tell Mike about Pitcher Plants, which were present in abundance. There was a downside of being in two canoes, which was that David had the camera and because they were a bit behind, he didn't pause as much to take pictures in this beautiful stretch as we would have if it were just he and I in the same boat.

Soon we came to the rocky stretch and beaver dam just upstream from Korb Lake. We portaged around the rocks and dam here when we went through with my sister in 2006, but now the water was higher, so we threaded our way through the boulders and lifted over the dam. This was a little harder for Mike and me than for David and Josiah, since we had the bigger canoe and heavier load - a disadvantage that would pop up a lot on the last day of our trip as we headed town Crab Creek back to Burntside.

After getting over the dam, it was just a bit further down the river to Korb Lake, where we quickly came to the 70-rod portage to Cummings. Looking back at Korb from the portage -

Mike was gung-ho to carry the Champlain across another portage. Getting ready to lift -

Not bad -

Seems like it's going okay -

Excellent -

Oops! -

Fortunately, he could strong-arm it back into place -

Ready to go -

He's off -

I grabbed the Spirit II while Josiah got a pack -

At the other end, I asked Mike how the canoe carry went. He said he liked it - although he couldn't believe I had carried both canoes a mile each on the first portage. I explained that it's one of those things you get used to, and I have no doubt he'd easily do the same on the next trip. Heading back for the second load -

Once across the portage with all our gear, we loaded up on Cummings to start our search for a campsite. We wanted a good site for a two-night stay. I was thinking the island site just north of the south bay in the main part of the lake would be nice to explore, and we were pretty optimistic because every single campsite we had passed so far was unoccupied.

But the campers have to be somewhere, and it seemed they were all on Cummings. There were canoes and campers in the south bay, staying at the southernmost site where we spent two nights with my sister in 2006. The next site up at the entry of the bay was too close to the first group for comfort, so we made a bee line past it for the island I wanted to explore. But as we got close, we could just barely see the tent of the people camped there. We could also see people and tents at the site on the eastern side of the entry to the north bay. And scanning with binoculars revealed a tent on the island a little west of there.

With no open site we wanted to stay at on the east part of the lake, we headed to the site at the narrows to the western part of the lake and checked it out. Mike and I got there first, and he went up to scout. He quickly confirmed it was the campsite with the fire grate, but when I asked how good it was, he looked around and said, "I don't know how to tell." Which was understandable. So he came back to hold the canoe while I scouted. It was a crummy site, just an open grassy spot with the sun beating down, surrounded by scrubby brush. And so I said we needed to look further.

At this point Josiah, who had been a complete trooper, voiced some concern. "How much further?" I looked at the map and said the next site was a half mile west, and we'd hope it was open and nice. It had been a good first day so far, but obviously the guys had done a lot, so I hoped for the best. We went through the narrows and faced a pretty strong headwind, yet spirits stayed strong, and we soon came to the next site on the western point of a long peninsula. It was hard to find a good landing with the wind and waves, but Mike and I jumped out in a rocky area, and I went scouting. Yep, this would be our home for the next two nights.

We all unloaded and decided the first order of business was a swim and snacks. There was a nice granite dome down to the water, and the cool dip in the lake and snacks restored our energy. (Josiah ate a whole pack of beef jerky. Before the trip, he said, "I don't eat much." One thing I learned on this trip is that teenagers don't have a clue how much they eat, and it's more than you would ever imagine.)

Next we set up the tents. This site had a couple great tent pads among open pines with a nice breeze blowing in from the west to cool us off. The only downside was that there were a fair number of mosquitoes for the daytime when you were out of the wind. Now that we were replenished, Josiah agreed that it was a good thing we paddled a bit further to this spot. Once the tents were up, we did a few more chores, like setting up the bear ropes. Here Mike and Josiah proved invaluable. They both are good baseball players and easily got the ropes in place -

Josiah filtering water -

Mike helped me gather and saw wood. We got enough for two nights because rain was predicted overnight and we thought we could keep tomorrow's wood dry under the tarp. I got a blazing fire going for steaks on the grill -

David and Mike tending the steaks -

Are they done yet? -

There was also grilled asparagus, and basmati rice cooked on the stove. Dinner's served! -

Good eating -

After we ate, Josiah grabbed the camera to take a few shots. Ho Ho and David basking post-dinner -

Mike reclining by the water -

Footwear drying -

Contemplation -

We did dishes, hung up the food packs, tied down the canoes, and otherwise tidied up camp, then enjoyed some Maker's Mark or other age-appropriate beverages. About 15 minutes after sunset, the mosquito hordes came out in an awe-inspiring force that I have rarely seen south of the tundra. We quickly brushed our teeth and ran for the tents. David and I read for a while and then turned out the headlamps.

Even though rain was predicted, we decided to leave the flies off the tents due to the warm weather. About 1 in the morning I got out of the tent to pee and could see it was overcast. Unfortunately, a bunch of mosquitoes followed me back in, and I didn't manage to find and kill them all. I tossed and turned for about an hour wondering if it was about to rain while a couple skeeters buzzed me, until the first drops of rain fell. David and I dashed out to put the fly on, and I called back to the guys in the other tent, which was further back in the woods. There was no response, so once our fly was on, we got back there and roused them and put their fly on too. Fortunately it hadn't started raining hard. We got back in the tent and killed most of the mosquitoes that had followed us, while a soft rain settled in accompanied by the Cummings Lake loons.