Lessons Learned - A Trip On the Big Fork River From Big Falls to the Rainy
I am lucky enough to live in International Falls, Minnesota, and am very grateful and aware that I am in a pretty central location for a lot of great canoe trips. I have driven over the bridge at Big Falls many, many times, and also over the Big Fork at the mouth where it meets the Rainy River. However, I never considered taking a canoe trip down it until a few months before this, when I was discussing canoes with one of my uncles, and he mentioned that he had taken the trip in the late 70’s with his wife.
My first order to business was to search the ‘net, and eventually I found out that the MDNR publishes a great river-trail map of the Big Fork from the source to the end. I should mention that the DNR map is not nearly as detailed as the Fisher/MacKenzie maps that we use in the BWCA, and has no elevation or topographic detail, but since the river doesn’t branch on this section, and the map lists the river miles and rapids, I figured it would be no big deal. My uncle informed me that it was an easy paddle when he had done it. I requested a copy of the DNR map and then studied the route on Google Earth. That was about as far as my route planning went.
Next, I contacted Bill Gordon at Wild River Outfitters (now known as Rivers North Outfitters) and I have to put in a plug for them. If you have any desire to canoe on the Big Fork or Rice River, give them a call. Bill is very knowledgeable about the rivers, and they will do full or partial outfitting for your group. They also sell a cool historic map of the river with lots of details about the area in the past. Their rates are competitive with any other outfitter I’ve ever checked into. They have a good sized fleet of 17’ Alumacraft “boomers” and a half dozen or so recreational kayaks if you would like to try that out. Okay, endorsement over. I reserved two boomers and half a dozen paddles, and then started packing.
The trip was planned to be about 40 miles in two days, which seemed maybe a little optimistic at the time, and in hindsight definitely was, but we figured, with the current pushing us along, we would be able to manage. With only one or two possible portages (depending on water levels) we could pack heavy, so we brought two four man tents, and planned hamburgers and lunch-meat sandwiches, with a wild-rice soup dinner and eggs and bacon for our one breakfast. My crew laid out as follows: Myself, undoubtedly the crew-chief because of my planning and phone calls, plus a two buddies with a half dozen BWCA trips between them, and another friend who has done quite a bit of backpacking and camping, are all in our mid-20s. My granddad, who has hiked Grand Canyon three times, (twice with me) and many of the north shore trails, and been camping as much as the average outdoorsman for his 65+ year life. I had also planned on one of my cousins, who has plenty of camping/hiking experience, to come along, but at the last minute he had an athletic camp scheduling conflict. His younger (12 year old) brother took his place in the canoe, with nearly zero experience save some car camping. He had never set foot in a canoe before, but I figured there would be time to learn, and we could give him some pointers along the way.
I attempted to lay out some basic packing lists but was probably a little overzealous with BWCA type rules, and only my canoe experienced buddies and my granddad were interested. As we loaded the packs and canoe onto the trailer in International Falls the morning that we were leaving, my cousin proudly announced that he had remembered to bring extra batteries for his Nintendo DS. My buddies rolled their eyes, and I told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to dig that Gameboy out of his bag and leave it behind. The wilds of river canoeing are no place for that techno-crutch. He pulled it out and gave it to my dad, who was dropping us off. I inspected the gear as it was loaded. I had packed a small day pack with a light sleeping bag, a change of underwear, basic toiletries, binoculars, and a weather radio. My cousin had an uncompressed 3 season bag strapped under an old ALICE pack, which was bulging at the seams. My granddad had an old canvas and flannel sleeping bag stuck into his exterior frame hiking pack. My buddies had combined most of their stuff into one large Granite Gear Immersion bag, and crammed all of their lightweight sleeping bags into a black plastic garbage bag. I should mention I am something of a gear freak, always over-plan and over-pack, and have to bite my tongue when my traveling mates pack in a non-conformist way. I was biting my tongue now.
We hit the road, and reached Big Falls about an hour later. It was pouring rain, and about 7:30 in the morning. I hadn’t checked with the outfitter the night before. The sign on the door indicated they opened at 9 AM on weekdays. My mistake, as I had been harassing everyone to get their rucks packed and loaded so we could hit the water early. You should always confirm your plans with your outfitter.
While I called to inquire about an early departure with Bill, my group hit the Big Falls café for coffee, caramel rolls, and in one case, a second breakfast. Bill answered his phone right way, and said he would be there to open the doors by eight or so. That’s service. I walked away from the outfitter, decked out in my canoeing hat and woodland camouflage gore-tex, and received a few odd looks from some locals on my way to the café. Big Falls ain’t Ely. The caramel roll and coffee I had at the café was awesome, and it was nice to get out of the rain for a couple minutes. The waitress was very interested in our trip and all the locals who were eating or reading their coffee wished us good luck as we left.
Bill was just opening the doors as we got there, and I settled the rental fees with him upfront. One of my buddies bought a book of matches (which I had forgotten) and a very heavy duty camo vinyl rainsuit (which he had forgotten). I also purchased the Wild River Outfitters official historic river map, and we trooped outside to load the canoes.
From there we drove back over the Highway 71 bridge and down to the Cody Landing at the base of the falls for which the town is named. We tossed our gear (and four armloads of seasoned firewood – a benefit of low to no portages) into the canoes, pulled our hats down lower against the rain, and shoved off, with a wave to our drivers. The canoes got a nice shove right away from the falls, and we were around a bend, and out of sight of the landing.
The first two miles or so are really entertaining. The water was at just about the right level, and right away we had to start dodging boulders and riding riffles. My paddling partner had canoed a few times before, in our slick fiberglass canoe we were riding fast and easy. My other buddies were having a good time too, but somewhat unwisely, I had let my cousin and my grandpa climb into a canoe together. Thank goodness they were paddling an aluminum canoe, which quickly earned it’s nickname as a “boomer”. There were several tricky spots and my canoe bounced off a few rocks as well, but they were having a pretty bad time. About 20 minutes into the trip, the rain let off and the clouds broke, but returned several times for brief, soaking sun-showers.
About two hours into the paddles, we can upon the Sturgeon River Landing on our left hand side, and pulled the canoes up for a breather and a leg stretch. My more experienced buddies started giving my cousin and grandpa some pointers, while I made use of a nice enclosed toilet. We explored the area a little and then climbed back in the canoes, after shuffling some gear around to give my grandpa and cousin an easier time. The wind continued to blow, and we could hear thunder in the distance every so often, but were not hit with any more rain.
At this point the river turned fairly quiet, with no boulders to dodge for quite a while. Several miles later we must have passed the Ben Linn Landing and campsite, but none of us spotted anything other than normal riverbank. I guess the trees along the bank screened it from us. About a mile past were the campsite should be, there was a short stretch of rapids described as Class I on the map, but at this water level were barely more than riffles. We boat-scouted a route, and then my canoe shot down to test it. No problems. We yelled back a few instructions and then circled to watch the others. Granddad and cousin lined up, paddled forward, and with only a few more paddle strokes slid through with no problem. The last canoe, with my “experienced” buddies, started their run a bit to the west, and almost immediately broached on what I can only describe as a “pillow rock” which was an inch or two under water. The canoe started to tip, the garbage bag full of sleeping bags slid into the water, and our backup paddle started its own journey downstream. They were lucky that the water wasn’t moving any quicker, because they were able to shove off the rock with a few heaves, and then get headed in the right direction, just slightly off course. They glanced off a few boulders and made it out the other end without any real further trouble. I grabbed the sleeping bags, my grandpa caught the paddle, and we headed off. After this the clouds seemed to break and we had clear, cool weather for the rest of our traveling.
Several miles later we passed the Gowdy Campsite, where there was a canoe pulled up on shore and a tent pitched. We continued on quietly. Once a mile or so we would find some riffles to run, which eliminated any boredom, but without any more incidents we made it to Keuffner’s Landing and Campsite, at about 4:30pm. We chose the site nearest to the river. There were three good level, slightly elevated areas to set up tents, an elevated hitching post, which we used to dry our raingear, a metal grill box for cooking, some large trees to hang the food bag, and a metal fire ring, which was filled with some nasty smelling trash when we arrived. There was another party here at the time, car camping in a big tent a hundred meters or so away, and we waved to them, and then started hauling the packs and firewood up the bank. We set up our tents, and started cooking. I had brought burgers, and the grill box was right there, but we hadn’t brought any charcoal, so I started the cook stove to pan fry them. My buddy got a great idea to “wood fire grill” so he started a small fire in the grill box and cooked two burgers. I had one of them, and it tasted absolutely like a pine air freshener. Save yourself the disappointment and don’t “wood fire grill” over anything but hickory or oak. Cedar might work too. Not spruce.
At this point I found out why my cousin’s bag was so heavy: It was packed full of snacks. Some good stuff, like apples, a couple oranges, and some granola bars, but also all the fixin’s for s’mores, a 6 pack of Gatorade, fruit roll-ups, a large bag of Doritos, etc. I love all those things for car camping, and I will confess to eating my fair share of s’mores, but he had completely loaded his own bag down with unnecessary stuff. The Gatorade was pretty refreshing though. We also cooked a few bags of rice-sides, which was great as always, and we treated some water with tablets. The Big Fork River water is definitely drinkable after treatment, so ignore the tannin-stain that makes it look like weak root-beer.
I should mention that the mosquitoes were pretty bad, and I don’t say that lightly. I grew up here, I’m used to them to a degree, so I mean it when I say they were bad. There was very little wind to keep them away, so we busted out the head nets, 99% DEET, and I fired up a pair of Therm-A-Cells to create a mosquito free zone around the bench that was facing the fire-ring, which we had cleaned off earlier, and now only faintly smelled of fish guts. At this point, my grandma and some more family showed up in the car, since the campsite can be driven to. I wish we had thought to have them resupply us at this time, it had never crossed my mind. At this point, my cousin decided that this canoe trip was not his cup of tea. We agreed that we could manage the third canoe solo, and he grabbed his pack and sleeping bag, got into the car, and left. I could tell he felt bad, but the day had been pretty hard on him and no one blamed him.
As we were now done eating, I tried out my new bear-kit for the food pack, using an two ropes, a pully, and two S-biners. It worked much better than trying to draw the pack rope through a carabiner or over a branch. This system will definitely be making my next BWCA trip with me.
We sat around the fire for a few more hours as the sun went down, and listened to our “neighbors” whoop back and forth with what I am sure was a bird off in the woods. I’ve rarely heard anything like it before, but soon there were four or so of these birds all “weeewwwhhh…whoop!”ing off in the distance. Each time the neighbors would whoop, we would all listen for a few seconds until a bird replied, usually sounding a little miffed. We cracked up every time.
Eventually we crawled into our two tents and fell asleep. I was using two foam pads and slept better than I ever have while camping before. In the morning we got up about 5:30, and I boiled water for oatmeal while the others broke camp. We were back on the water by 7, which was a pretty slow start, and my grandpa decided to paddle solo, despite everyone else requesting to do so. We figured that it was his paddling partner who had bowed out so if he wanted to try it, it was his right. I really wish that I had known that you can paddle backwards sitting in the bow seat in a tandem canoe and be in just about the same place as the single seat in a solo.
After this point, the river was very slow moving, with only a few more sections of riffles and no more rapids. The river winds and oxbows around, which would be slow going anyway, but I later found out that the DNR and the paper mill that own the dam on Rainy River had opened several gates a day or so before our trip. The additional water gushed down the Rainy and “backwashed” up the Big Fork, created a 25 mile section of nearly still-standing water. This is not the normal circumstance, but I urge paddlers who decide to run this section to check into similar events before they go. The temperature was in the 80s, there was very little wind, and the water was, if anything, flowing slightly upstream. We had to force every bit of downstream progress. We stopped under a bridge for lunch, and found that our sandwiches had turned soggy and greasy, so lunch was pretty brief and mostly a water break. We then reorganized, and I climbed into the canoe with my grandpa, who had all but kept up with us the time, even incorrectly paddling a tandem canoe solo. I attribute this both to his fast learning, and to the fact that he had only a minimum of weight in his canoe. Maybe I’m just an unskilled paddler. We reorganized, and one of my buddies took a bunch of the packs in his canoe as “ballast” and headed out alone. The other guys, in the fiberglass canoe with almost no baggage, stroked out of sight almost instantly. I hopped into my grandpa’s canoe, and we shoved off.
I don’t know if it was me, a poor distribution of weight, or damage to the canoe, but that aluminum canoe seemed to drag through the water. If canoes had heels, this one would have been dragging them. I hadn’t had any caffeine in quite a while (no cowboy coffee) and had a splitting headache. I will say that a crappy day canoeing beats a good day at the office or at the mall, but I was miserable. The sun beat down, my head was pounding, and I was pissed off at that canoe. I swore at it several times. Grandpa just laughed. Grace comes with age I guess.
By 2:30 or so, we came across Crawford’s Landing, and I drug myself up onto the road. We were still about four miles or so from the Reedy Flats Landing at the mouth of the river, but everyone was tired. I found a bar on my cell phone, and phoned in our request: Come pick us up, and please bring beer and Excedrin. Our pick-up crew arrived within 20 minutes, which I spent lying in the grass, under some shade, with my hat pulled over my eyes, listening to my head pound. My mom walked over and set down a cooler next to us, which opened to reveal Michelob Golden Light and Coke-Cola. She handed me two pills, which I swallowed with a Coke. I slurped my way through the Coke, chugged a beer, and started tossing gear and canoes into the trailer. I immediately felt about a hundred percent better. We got a ride back home, showered, and then hit Border Bar in Int’l Falls for some pizza, which was awesome. Later, we drove back out to Big Falls and dropped off the canoes and gear, and said thanks. My buddies packed up their cars, and headed back south, leaving me alone to ponder the trip.
I had failed in some of my goals, and mostly learned from my mistakes. We hadn’t made the entire journey, mostly on my account, and I felt bad about that. However, we had canoed about 35 miles, and that was a good thing. I wanted to use the trip as good practice to keep my paddling skills fresh, and try out some new methods for the BWCA. I would say overall, it was not good practice for the Boundary Waters. There is no portaging, so there is no pressure to pack smart. However, I did learn lessons on this trip that were merely uncomfortable, when learning them in the BW could have far more serious consequences. Always be ready for the possible weather conditions. Don’t take a person who has never been in a canoe with on a multi-day adventure, unless they have other applicable experience and a true desire to go. Never underestimate moving water. Bring a legitimate food hanging rig and practice with it. If you are addicted to caffeine, either pack to compensate, or kick your addiction. Plan to cover less distance than you initially feel that you can go, arriving a little early is not a bad thing. Follow up with your outfitter so that you know what to expect. Match paddling partners so that someone can learn a little something, and someone can offer a few pointers, or paddling with someone who is experienced if you feel there is nothing left for you to learn. Throw all of your gear, and I mean everything, in a pile the night before you go, and go through each item so you can avoid double packing and pack smart. Don't prebuild sandwiches before you leave, store the meat, cheese, and bread seperately.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my account, because I enjoyed writing it, maybe even more than I enjoyed the experience at the time. Consider paddling some of the alternate canoe routes in Northern Minnesota, I doubt very much that you will regret it.
A quick update: Drove over and launched the canoe at the Ivan Crawford access around noon on July 1st, 2011, and paddled the last 8.1 river miles out to the mouth where the Big Fork meets the Rainy River. The knowledge that we hadn't completed the trip had been eating at me since we pulled out early last time. It feels great to finish the trip, even a year later.
Although the day was pretty warm, we had a nice gentle headwind that kept the bugs away, and the scenery was, as before, really nice.
Once we pulled the canoe up at the landing, we biked back to the put in to retrieve the car, then drove west on Highway 11 to check out the Manitou Rapids on the Rainy. There is a mammoth amount of water rolling through there, the rapids are completely submerged for now, but the water is really boiling. We talked about shooting through in the canoe for fun but decided against it. Maybe next time!
Now I just have to find time to canoe the first 100 or so miles of the river!