Old School Insane Stuart River
I have a good friend who owns a small house in Ely. He allows us to stay there on our nights prior to entry. It's a great time. Each year we sit up late, play cards, re-pack all our gear and double check everything. This year we also watched the Olympics before hitting the hay. We had our permit so we could make an early start. Our group included my son, Colin (15), my daughter Hannah (18 and off to Luther College in two weeks), Hannah's college room-mate, Elyssa and my brother in law, Mike plus his fifteen year old son, Alex. Mike had been in the bwca one time, and Alex was an eager rookie. Colin has been hooked since our first trip when he was twelve. To say we were excited would be an understatement. We had no idea what lay ahead, but the night before we were all talk about killing that huge opening portage.....lesson time.
We hit the entry up the Echo Trail at nine a.m. We unloaded and Mike went to Big Lake Outfitters to rent one more canoe for him and Alex. He got an ultralight aluminum while we had two old, borrowed Alumacrafts. While Mike and Alex were gone, I sent Colin, Hannah and Elyssa on their way with the first of the packs. After getting more things ready, I took off following them. There is not way to adequately describe the opening portage to Stuart River. It is so long that it actually plays with your mind. As I walked along I waited to see the kids coming back, but they never did. I started to hallucinate that I heard their voices but...nothing. Then, at the very bottom of the hill, I saw them. They also looked shocked. On the map, this portage is an abstraction. Under your feet, it is a beast. We humped the packs along and then began wrestling the old school canoes. Kevlar riders must laugh at this, but we did not have the resources to throw at Kevlar boats, what with TWINS leaving for St. Olaf and Luther in two weeks. We went with what he had. Mike and I worked the canoes with help from the kids and we eventually (2.5 hours later) got everything to the river. On the first, five minute stretch before the next 90+ portage it began to rain.
Beaver dam one (out of three) was a marvel of engineering that one must see to believe. It was a good 4 to 5 feet high but we were able to follow a path at the side that others must have made. No unloads needed. We pushed on through all the portages, gradually wearing out and running out of water. We did not want to filter out of the river so we kept on going. When we reached the final portage to the lake (a steep, rocky number, but open) we were pretty beat. When I went back for the last gunboat, I almost wanted to cry and thought to myself, "I've lost my taste for this." Soon Mike showed and we joined together for the last portage. That night we enjoyed well-earned steaks (our first night tradition) with sauteed mushrooms on the island campsite that is very nice and accessible (and close to the portage)! Day one was abusive but we made it.