Getting up on Friday was a real eye opener...it was pretty cold and in any other scenario I would've crawled right back into my sleeping bag. Layers were definitely going to be the way to go. At least it wasn't raining...yet.
After a quick breakfast of bacon, egg, and cheese muffins we loaded into the truck and headed for the Chainsaw Sisters and our entry point.
The morning was still, the skies were gray and the river was flowing fast and silent. Everything seemed so alive and…well, wild. The 3 of us piled all the gear into the 17 foot sundowner and I climbed into the middle and straddled the Duluth pack while sitting on the yoke-seat. My only previous experiences canoeing were in aluminum canoes on the Delaware river where it was pretty tame paddling with only a few rapids to shoot, and even then I recalled dumping at least once. Getting into this light kevlar canoe I felt like quite the tenderfoot and for a while I had visions of going over the side into the frigid waters...I kept my life vest buckled up tight :)
We set out paddling down the river and into Mudro lake. It was quite pleasant really. There were very few rocks to dodge because the water was high and I started to feel a little more secure as I got my ‘sea legs’ under me.
As we entered Mudro lake, however, a light rain began that would continue in one form or another for the rest of the day and into Saturday.
I got my first taste of portaging when we got to the east end of Mudro. 'Heart-Attack Hill' they called it. I didn't find it so bad going up, but my knees were complaining on the way down for certain. Oh well, I guess I have to accept that I'm not 25 anymore...
We paddled through Sandpit lake and I was regaled with stories of previous year’s trips and the funny things that happened...usually involving a dunking...thanks guys. We looked for signs of smallies on their beds in the shallows but it was apparently still too early for the spawn, even with the early ice out. There were, however, lots of beaver dams and more eagles flying about than I’d ever seen.
When we got to the portage between Sandpit and Tin Can Mike the guys started talking about how awful this next portage was. I could see by the map that it was the longest of the day, but they were talking about scaling steep rock walls and crossing narrow ledges that sounded pretty brutal. I loaded up and set out down the path, looking all the while for the rocks and cliffs I was going to have to climb. By the time I got to the board bridge over the marsh, I began to realize that I might just have been put on a bit…and once I saw the shores of Tin Can I knew I’d been had. Sure enough, here come my pals down the trail with big grins on their faces. I think I know now what I’m in for on this trip…jokesters.
By this time the rain was coming down pretty good and I was getting pretty tired. I’d never paddled from the middle of a canoe before and with the Duluth pack in front of me to try and avoid and the long reach over the side, my shoulders were starting to ache. Most of the trip through Tin Can was spent in silence, simply paddling and trying to stay warm. Part way across the lake, I suddenly realized that I was staring at sleet as it bounced off the pack in front of me. I thought to myself “this is insane, what have I gotten myself into”?
We paddled across Horse lake and began up the river on the west side toward Lower Basswood Falls, our final destination. As we stopped for lunch, somebody pointed out that I had managed to split my rain pants from stem-to-stern at some point during the morning…no wonder I was so cold…note to self, need sturdier rain gear next time.
We also happened to note that the canoe seemed to be taking on water. Upon closer inspection we discovered that at the end of one of the portages, the canoe carrier had plopped the canoe down and didn’t see the rock under it. The impact punctured a 4”x2” ‘L’ shaped tear right in the side. With all of us and our gear, it was under the water line too…not good. We tried using duct tape to seal it, but with the cold and wet weather it just wouldn’t stick. I was almost ready to panic, how could we go on? How were we going to get back?
Well, cooler heads prevailed and we decided to try and push on and see how bad it would leak. Turns out that it wasn’t as bad as I feared, though it did collect 2-3 inches of water as we paddled down stream. Around this time I discovered that the boots I thought were waterproof, weren’t. Sheesh, from bad-to-worse-to…? I was starting to think I would never be back, I couldn’t imagine working this hard and enduring the weather without the promise of a hot tub or a shower at the end of the day. Maybe I wasn’t as up for this as I thought.
Well we did finally make camp, and even got the site the other guys had hoped would be available right next to the falls. And after quickly setting up camp and scouring the site for anything dry we could burn, we got a fire going and I started to feel like I might actually warm up again…eventually. My mood improved further with a hot spaghetti dinner followed by a glass – or rather plastic cup - of brandy and a good cigar. By the time I crawled into my still dry sleeping bag to settle in for the night I was starting to remember what it was I was hoping to experience out there. As I drifted off to sleep, lulled by the sound of cascading water around me and secure from the still blowing wind and rain, I dreamed of the fish that we’d be catching the next day right outside the camp.
The weather did improve some during the weekend, and by Sunday most of our clothes were even dry. And the fishing was as exciting as I had hoped it would be. I never wrangled so many walleye, northern and smallmouth bass in my life! We did, however end up feeding a few walleye to a crafty mink…or something during the night. The scenery was gorgeous and I had no trouble forgetting the cold & wet trek in.
As we headed out on Monday, the sun peaked out from behind the clouds and it actually felt good to shed some layers. The wind was gone and the sky showed signs of clearing, and everything around me was alive with the bright green color of spring growth. But with the sun came the bugs and I began to wonder, which would I prefer? Bugs, or wind and rain? I’m not really sure at this point, but I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be finding out sooner than later…maybe in August…