Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Another Month in Quetico Part 2

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 10/01/2012
Entry & Exit Point: Quetico
Number of Days: 30
Group Size: 4
Trip Introduction:
Part 1 of 2
October 11 My eyes and mind adjust to the confusion of oriented strand board as I wake. It takes me a second to recall my surroundings. We squeeze out of our narrow bunks and begin packing yesterday’s purchases. Our story may have included a weary retreat if it had not been for Jim and the people at Canoe Canada Outfitters, we are forever grateful. As we leave the last warmth we’ll feel for days a gray pall eats everything in sight. The icy air burns our nostrils and we feel silly carrying paddles. One last donut and one more cup of coffee are savored before we commence our inevitable march towards the woods. We march the two miles out to the highway realizing our luck hitching a ride seems to have vanished. Feelings of ridiculousness are exacerbated when the sky opens up and throws quarter size lumps of snow towards the earth at stunning speed. Standing in the midst of a sudden snowstorm on the side of a desolate Canadian highway our helpless, hapless foursome can’t help but laugh. At least were not in canoes. The number of passing cars accumulate with the snow. Perhaps they can’t see us in the whiteout. Finally we are picked up by a truck whose driver offers us his living room and hot showers. We again are overcome with the generosity of some Canadians, and ponder how many Americans would pick up a group of four strangers on the side of a highway and offer them their home. Assured that we have the essential skills and knowledge to survive the current conditions our driver deposits us back at the Nym Lake access. He is the last human we will see for 11 days. Almost immediately upon sliding canoes back into Nym the extended snow squall blows south and a magnificently warm sun appears. We retrace our previous day’s route and by mid-afternoon find ourselves back at camp, where we finish our pizza. Pizza on a snow covered island in Quetico tastes better. The rest of the day is spent warming ourselves next to a roaring fire, reading passages from “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson, and consuming large quantities of tea. Our half French, half English weather radio report forewarns of continued cold temperatures and we mentally prepare for a night in the single digits. Such a dismally frigid forecast once again makes us question the reasons for our presence in these parts. Geographically speaking we are as far away from home as possible at this point, so we have no easy exit strategies. Darkness and cold seem to diminish the warming effects of the fire and we quickly make our moves to sleeping bags. Zipping up once again I know we have no choice but to endure the cold and hope the lakes stay soft. Enduring cold temperatures seems easy when compared with the possibility of suffering through a maze of frozen lakes in canoes.

October 12 Everything is still. Last night’s hard frost has sapped the life from everything but the water, the clouds and us. We tie no knots. Any pedantic movements of unsheathed metacarpals are sluggish in the anesthetizing morning air. Only a fleeced covered hand will do. Crispy gear is wrestled back into packs under teasingly clear skies; they make it look a lot warmer than it actually is. We turn our backs on the island we made home for three days and point our canoes south towards our next. A weak sun lethargically climbs over the trees at an even shallower angle than yesterday. Our morning’s route will lead us back through lakes we had paddled two days prior. Back down Batchewaung, into Maria and across the boy-scout manicured portage into Jesse before veering west down towards the “Cedar Portage” into Oriana Lake. Backtracking over previously travelled territory is never as exciting as laying eyes on new country, but we persevere. The last mile of Jesse is the first lake we have encountered with noticeably higher water levels, and for a moment we wonder why before a massive beaver dam comes into view. A frozen slick of muck makes dealing with the obviously new portage path actually much easier. Slogging through the viscous slop in August would be a drag. Effects from the cold seem friendly for only a minute as we reach the creek on the other side and find it eerily calm; closer inspection reveals the dead still creek is frozen. Nervous eyes stare out at hummocks of swamp grass dancing innocently in a growing south wind. The lifeless black creek waits idly under deceptively clear skies for our next move. We drive empty canoes into the ½ inch thick ice and load gear. Canoes grating against sheets of stubborn ice distort the senses. Vibrations cause the hands to question whether or not it’s worth holding on to a paddle, quickly they wonder if it even exists at all. The relentless crunching, grinding, and breaking of ice drown out the silence, even our thoughts are shouting. Forcing a canoe less than 400 yards through a slightly frozen, lily pad laden creek is more exhausting than any gust of wind we have encountered yet. Our voyage is but half-finished and already we find ourselves battling ice. Surely temperatures will improve. At the end of the creek we are forced to grip clumps of grass and drag ourselves onto another slab of frozen mud and rock, our portage. It is the oddly named “cedar portage” and after the first haul we are happy to be moving towards Oriana, as it drops the entire way to a mucky trickle posing as a creek. Somehow it does not appear to be frozen. We discuss the confusing lack of cedars in the area over lunch, and plan our attack on this muddy imposter. Again the only way is forward. Paddles cut into chunky mud and slowly our canoes pick up momentum. A layer of rotting downed ash trees just below the surface unleashes a torrent of angry paddling and language. Paige and Liz come to a complete stop in the mess, and upon probing with paddles are unable to find solid ground; they are marooned. Tori and I have a bit of drive left in our canoe so we have to keep moving. The loathsome creek at last releases us into waters deep enough to float, and shortly we are joined by our previously stranded partners. Quickly we cover the remainder of Oriana, and make our way over two short portages into Quetico Lake. Long gusts from the south and even longer shadows prompt a search for a home. Two spots are deemed unworthy before we find a spot on a point just north of our portages south into Jean. The wide open site holds a massive stand of old growth red pines. Open lanes of pine run a ½ mile back into denser forest. They stand waiting, ostensibly yearning for loose cowboy hats to come bouncing and rolling along the ginger colored carpet of needles. Our knit stocking hats hold on tight in the heavy winds to the chagrin of the hat eating woods.

I love fire. Growing up my fascination with the simple chemical reaction caused my family to surmise a future occupation in firefighting, or pyromania (seems more like a hobby). At a younger age it was the destructive power of it that enamored me; which I think is the case with most boys. Older, possibly wiser, and standing on the wind whipped shores of a wild Canadian lake in October I realize it is fires utilitarian virtues that mesmerize me. Four or five properly prepared pieces of timber set aflame can ward off the drowning blackness of a 1 million acre wilderness. We meticulously gather, saw, and split the best wood we can find for the long night. The freedom of fire pits in Quetico allows us to align rocks to best suit the wind and the size of our group. For some reason most of the fire areas at sites in Quetico are built up on top of years of rocks and soot, which does not allow for easy access to heat. Our best guess at the reasoning behind these shrines of fires past is temperatures and age. We suppose most people are sitting around fires in warmer months, and only need the fire for preparing food or setting a mood. Also, older campers like to sit up off the ground. The long cold nights of October require the fire to be right in front of us. Camp work usually involves a major overhaul of the fire pile, lowering it, and widening it so our entire group can sit around it. Any dreary spirits are boosted nightly by well-lit fires in hand-made hearths.

In the calm behind our wind block eggs are scrambled while bacon crackles. Combined with rice and beans and stuffed into hot “grande” size tortillas we gorge on breakfast burritos. Strangely the south winds pick up as the night exacerbates our fatigue. More wind blocks are constructed in front of hammocks and we fall asleep realizing our string of bad luck is persisting.

October 13 Gray traces of morning sneak through the cracks of my eyelids while persistent winds gush out of the south through the evergreens and birch skeletons above. The gusts of late fall moving north through leafless limbs and pine boughs create an eerily subtle noise. Generally one feels the winds of fall before hearing them. While the gentlest summer wisp atop an ocean of leaves produces velvety ebb and flow that overwhelms yet comforts, it takes whistling gales through the bare branches of late fall to produce an unsettling sound. We linger in warm sleeping bags troubled by the sounds of tough paddling, and in doing so decide to wait out the wind without speaking a word. Periodically dozing off on a lazy morning is one of life’s simple joys, swaying cozily between two trees in Quetico it’s as good as it gets. The bliss is fleeting and by late morning our foursome is upright and packing slowly. By noon the winds have diminished enough for us to consider vacating camp, and by one we are unloading at our first portage into Conk Lake. It is a short climb over bare rock alongside a cascading creek. We make easy progress across the calming waters of Conk and carry over our last portage of the day into Jean Lake. The dense ceiling of gloom we had come to know over the past week is lifted away as quickly as a quilt from a couch and the sun is surrounded endlessly by fresh blue skies. As our two white boats slide eastward an unfettered sun entices us to make camp early and take advantage of the rare warmth. A number of obvious sites are scrutinized before settling on a south facing site with a sand beach. We enjoy lunch under the warmest sun in over a week. The rest of the day is spent relaxing in a summertime state of mind; lounging in the sun with a book and a smile.

October 14 Unusual snorts and gasps from the water wake us early. A new blanket of featureless gray clouds moved in overnight, dampening the day’s first light as we search for the source of the strange sounds. Quite puzzled are we after a short search reveals two swimming and presumably fishing otters as the source. During our morning rituals we discuss the anomalous otters and how a mammal that has evolved to make the water its second home is apparently struggling in it. We posit that perhaps it is young or disabled and spend the rest of the morning mimicking the ridiculous sound. Most likely it is something altogether normal that we do not fully understand; which is usually the case with most unexplained sights or sounds in the woods.

Sturgeon Lake is our goal for the day, as to set up for a paddle down the Maligne River. Our portage into Burntside Lake is short and flat, ending at an abandoned cabin and a slight beach. Nothing remains but the footprint. As we explore the ruins my eyes wander over an outline of the structure that I know existed. My mind wanders over an outline of the past that I want to exist…

The fog on this damp cool morning keeps a greying old trapper inside longer than usual. His equally grizzled husky knows why and remains curled tight near the stove. Through the door of their massive iron stove comes the subtlest signals of time. A glowing orange wedge of carbon shifts and crumbles like glass, unifying the bed of coals and raising two sets of eye brows. Finally he stands, slugs the dregs of his coffee like a shot of whisky, and whirls a blood stained canvas jacket over his shoulder. The old husky bolts upright and trots towards the door before slowing and settling into a grand stretch. His back arches and his paws extend while a quiver starts at the tip of his stiff tail then shutters quickly down his spine before spreading out towards pointed ears. It is an enviable stretch that would refresh even an on looker. Trapper and companion move out of the warmth and into undistinguishable fog. For a moment the sun hints at its existence like a flashlight pressed against a bed sheet. Both know it will lift. A handmade ladder is collected and propped against a small shack on stilts. Each step creeks and bows as he climbs. At the top a small door swings open and despite the fog dense smoke billows out like a drop of dye in water engulfing his upper half. Sweet moist smoke swirls around the old trappers face, and he smiles. The huskies nose points skyward and twitches to and fro. Four racks of white fish are flipped and fresh cedar shavings are added before he carefully descents from his smoker in the sky. The two move down a well-trod path before the trapper flips his old wooden canoe and slides it into glass calm water. Instinctively the husky scrambles to the bow, where he sits and waits. Their craft moves swiftly and quietly out into the chill. As the sun climbs a little higher and breaks through the shroud once more they turn into a narrow slip of bog and disappear.

Our foursome moves south down Burntsde Lake, a lake we all wish we could stop and explore more. Numerous islands and back bays beckon, but we press on towards Jean Creek. At Rouge Lake we bear east and head into the creek. We all have some misgivings about creek travel. Today the sun shines and we are lucky enough to be traveling downstream through a creek filled with enough water. We curse no beavers while floating the flooded sections before spotting a dam and building up enough steam to shoot halfway over. Surely it would be different had we been traveling north. Our two canoes met a little resistance in the form of sand bars as we entered Sturgeon Lake and took it as a sign to indulge ourselves in a floating lunch. Again the sun appeared and for a brief moment we paddled shirtless. After so much time paddling in the fall I am still surprised at how fickle October is. The days are quickly growing shorter and we have to find a site. A huge bald rock calls out to us from across the lake. The sun is shining and the winds are calm so it seems like a great idea to check out this exposed, elevated campsite as it will give us an incredible view down the length of Sturgeon. We find the view from the site stunning and decide to call it home for the night, just as the winds pick up. After setting up hammocks back in the woods we realign our campfire to mitigate smoke and wind. As the wind increases I wonder if we made the right choice in calling this frigid chunk of Canadian Shield home. It is a lovely site but I will always look back on it as one of the worst, considering the wind. After grilled cheese tomato soup and a spot of whisky we climb into hammocks. Swaying in the darkness I cling to fleeting consciousness and swear I can smell sweet cedar smoked whitefish on the crest of a breeze.

October 15 A disorienting field of gray cloaks everything. I raise my head up out of my hammock far enough to see the thickest fog imaginable. We very well could be camped on the top of a mountain. My eyes provide me with the only information available; I’m hanging between two trees. It takes a bleary second but my mind reminds me that in fact we are not alpinists but canoeists. The idea of paddling into a mysterious fog gives me the same kind of tingle that paddling into a vast Canadian wilderness does. Albeit a smaller sensation it is exciting for the same reason. One of the qualities that excite folks who explore wilderness areas is the idea that you never know what you are going to find, and I think the fog magnifies that. Excitedly I walk out to the edge of the world. Like a camera at night trying to capture the stars my eyes struggle to focus. They dizzyingly yearn for the outline of anything to hold on and give me some bearing. After a minute of scanning an area where I last saw Sturgeon Lake and finding nothing I turn back to my new 100 square foot world. Easily we come to the decision of waiting. On another day of travel we could set a bearing on our compasses and cover some water, but today’s goal is Twin Falls, at the end of the Maligne River. Images of a dangerous situation quickly come to mind. Our imperiled foursome, now a threesome, gazes at our pair of ravaged kevlar canoes from atop a lone Duluth pack. I shake those gristly pictures from my mind and settle into a cup of coffee. No matter how tantalizing the thought of exploring the fog world is, it is not worth the risks of navigating a rapid riddled river. After a hearty breakfast of bacon and potato frittata and several pots of coffee the world around us expands. With each morning chore completed a new island appears. Soon we can see the near shore and as we push off into a windless day the entirety of Sturgeon shows itself. In the distance the gentle whirring of rapids brightens the eerily silent morning. We drift by what looks to be a heavy duty boiler from the Titanic before unloading at our first portage around a 75 yard stretch of life altering rapids. A short portage through a stand of swamp oak brings us to a small cove of calm water before another stretch of angry water. As our group drops gear below the second set of rapids the outline of the sun becomes distinguishable. During a group reconnaissance of the third set of rapids the sun comes out completely. Any challenge seems easier under blue skies and we decide to run them. This set of rapids is the shortest yet and offers two obstacles in the form of submerged rocks. Massive smooth bulbs of churning water hint at what’s just below the surface. Paige and Liz take off first as Tori and I watch from shore. The rapids look even easier to run after they take a perfect line and make their way to shore to watch us. My heart knocks on my ribcage as we line ourselves up. The current is always more powerful than you think and within seconds we are in it. A high leaning brace is required to straighten us seconds before crunching broadside into the last bulb of water. With the sun warming our backs we breathe deep and enjoy the magic of floating down a wild Canadian river in October.

From drop to ocean following a river is like following life; the life of the river and the life of a human. Just as every river is different every human is as well, but still we both share enough common qualities that allows one to draw comparisons. Man and river are both lives in a chain of lives; each born out of their past. One can track a rivers lineage as one could a man’s. Every drop of water and every relative make up who they are; each move exponentially affecting where. Just as both lives will end physically both will carry on in essence. A man’s essence will in family and friends; a river in the lakes and oceans. They both came from a drop and both end in an ocean.

We met an adolescent Maligne this morning; angst ridden and angry, unpredictable and awkward. After running the third set of rapids a magnanimous stretch of water lay before us, making up for the mistakes of its past, trying to convince us it is no longer the river it was before. The Maligne widens while still keeping a swift current and occasional flat rapids remind us of its wilder days. It seems to be searching for a course as broad bends accentuate its youth. Sand beaches and towering white pines that seem to be filled with bald eagles cause us to slow our pace and enjoy the scenery. These are the best days of this rivers life. Soon we sense another tumultuous hum in the distance, swirling columns of rainbow mist, the distinct aroma of life under the surface and then a portage. As I haul packs through another stand of orange oaks I wonder where this falls fits into the life of this river. I suppose every life has a few unexpected events. Below the thundering chasm we see a mature Maligne. It is wider yet with back bays. They are filled with ghosts of summer and auspices of winter; remnants of lily pads and half submerged piles of aspen branches awaiting gnawing beavers. Occasionally along its course a riffle or two will cause us to look twice, but the current is mostly gone. The sun offers warmth as it hangs overhead and we strip layers. At the marriage of the Maligne River and the Pooh-Bah Creek is Tanner Lake. It starts out as a wide river before blossoming into a full blown lake with islands. It’s slight, reed bordered shorelines suggest a lack of depth. Pangs of hunger send us digging into the food pack at the portage around Tanner rapids. The river has approached this mid-life crisis with grace. It is a wide picturesque set of rapids that holds the eyes and eases the mind. Below tranquil Tanner rapids the Maligne shows its age. Without a hint of current we move down the widest section yet. Sections of blow down and wild fire scar the shoreline. A campsite comes into view that does not appear to have been used in years. Ragged dead jack pine lines the edge of a weed choked opening. Hazy cirrus clouds blur the now low hanging sun’s rays and wash the world in amber. We move farther west into grayness as thicker clouds obscure the entire sky. Our minds are ready for camp, but the Maligne has one last surprise. Within half a mile of Twin Falls the river narrows again because of a few islands. On both sides of the constricted waterway lichen covered Canadian Shield juts out of the river at a 45 degree angle. Our eyes follow the ancient ramps of rock skyward until they meet with towering stately white pines. Despite the dying gray light everyone is enchanted by the boreal tunnel. We spend the last few moments on the Maligne in silent reverie. The portage around Twin Falls leads us right into a magnificent campsite. It sits immediately adjacent to the spectacular and unique waterfall to the north of the island that separates it from its twin. What a way for a river to end. Instead of meandering into a vast and diffused delta it relentlessly jounces through two jagged canyons into a roiling pool below that surely holds hoards of fish in the spring. After setting up camp I spend a moment alone at the bottom of the falls. My eyes focus on one section of water and follow it as it cascades and swirls over piles of rock before bobbing out into the pool below where it ceases to exist as the Maligne River. I watch the culmination of a life. With night closing in I climb back to camp and open the 16 year old scotch and celebrate. We celebrate the life of the Mighty Maligne.

October 16 It feels like summer as I crawl out of the tent. Pure beams of golden light probe the spaces between the trees and an unblemished blue sky overhead invigorate more than coffee ever will; riparian life teems. A gushing river that dumps into a deep swirling pool must be a paradise to the few who remain. What a scene this place must be on a morning three months from now. I image it to be white. A morning like this increases expediency and within seconds we are on the water. We return, quickly pack camp and within minutes we are back on the water. Today we will paddle Lac La Croix. One of the largest patches of blue on any map you use to navigate this section of the world is Lac La Croix. If you were to ask me to assemble a list of lakes I might like to paddle in late fall, this beast would be second to last, just above Superior. Something about it still draws us though. Our planning could have easily routed us around the potential disaster, but here we are poking around in its back bays waiting for its jaws to unhinge and swallows us whole. I am hyper-alert to any wind as we try to figure out which side of Bell Island looks best. The faintest breath of wind sends my thoughts reeling. We are only a week removed from our harrowing battle with Hurlburt Lake. There are islands the size of that lake on Lac La Croix. Another branch wiggles in a breeze and my eyes latch onto it trying to discern which direction it is coming from. “Don’t breathe so hard Tori!” Unfortunately we decide to traverse the waterway south of Bell Island. I feel like we are living out some horrible cartoon where the tiny rivulet of water slowly shrinks until nothing remains. Eventually we have to portage atop a field of crusty rocks and acrid muck that screams giardia before reaching open water. The one canoe width lane of water protected us from wind and the idea of wind. As we moved out into the maw of La Croix I realized there was no wind. Suddenly our tiny white canoes move unimpeded over glass calm waters under clear blue skies. Again it feels like summer. We spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon paddling close enough to hold conversations. After passing Dog’s Point we move south and then back east before stopping on a sandy island just across from America, just to explore. Our route mingles with the international border for a moment before probing the narrows ahead of Black Robe Portage. Temperatures climb into the 60’s as our feet pilot hunched bodies across the portage into McAree Lake. We discuss the esoteric origins of Black Robe Portage over hunks of dry salami and cheese before aiming our bows to the northeast and dragging spoons through placid waters in hopes of hungry trout. After a leisurely paddle we disembark troutless at the portage into Minn Lake. A copy of earth and sky in the waters of Minn greets us on the other side and we doff t-shirts for the last time in October (unknowingly). Our loose itinerary has us exploring the twists and turns of the Darky River tomorrow so we search for a campsite just above it. South of the Darky a slab of angled Canadian Shield looms. From a distance it displays no obvious signs of previous campers, but upon landing and exploring up the slope where the rock meets the wood we find a nice flat spot that has seen humans in the past. Hammocks are assembled before rearranging hulking chunks of rock on the tip of the island and preparing the evening fire. Dead calm waters and clear blue skies beckon us to the water’s edge to watch the sun drop.

On the shores of Minn we notice the stillness, the silence. There is a deeper sort of silence that exists late in fall this far north and if measureable would be absolute zero. It penetrates and sinks into your chest like that feeling you get while standing at the edge of a cliff. Most of the birds have made their way south and this windless evening puts into perspective the absolute cacophony that is spring. It makes you wonder about all the other times you’ve commented on how quiet it was when really it was just quieter than the city. I think the constant prevalence of noise, no matter how slight, keeps us balanced because in its complete absence I find myself immediately disoriented and feeling the need to sit down. Not disoriented in a sick or dizzy way, just a little overwhelming because when one of your senses has nothing to sense the other four are heightened. But, if you listen long enough you will hear it. Sitting on a billon year old rock as the last sliver of sun fades you hear it, a ceaseless whirring. In the absence of everything the ears may be compensating, but it’s not ringing. It is a great distant whirring that embraces all, and then I know, it is the spinning of the earth itself.

Like most warm evenings on the water a slight breeze kicks up moments after the sun sets. We spend the rest of the evening basking under the infinite amphitheater of our universe. The moonless night reveals a spectacular milky way. I am glad we take the time this evening to enjoy it, because it will be our last opportunity in October. Finally we make our way up to the hammocks and I take one last look into the void before spinning off to sleep.