Adrift on the Pine - Granite River 2018
Our group of 9 old friends rose early Monday morning to enjoy a hearty breakfast prepared by the wonderful staff at Clearwater Outfitters. Around 8am, we were headed to Gunflint Lake to begin our adventure. There was a strong breeze over the lake, presenting the first of the day's several challenges (particularly as it had been a year since any of us were in a canoe). Nevertheless, we pushed through the choppy water quickly enough, determined to make it up to Gneiss and find an ideal spot to base camp and fish for a few days. We were able to take a brief rest on a tiny island where Magnetic narrows into the Pine River, and were delighted to discover a plentiful blueberry bush. Continuing on, we made our way up the Pine and around Little Rock Falls. The breeze persisted, and at times the sky appeared ominous though there had been no rain or storms in the forecast - perhaps this was an omen for the remainder of our day.
Heading towards the portage to Clove Lake, we searched for the landing. We searched, and searched, and searched. We stuck close to the shore, scanning every bit of land between the falls and the portage marker on the map. We got out of our canoes and searched on foot. At this stage I longed for the route to be as heavily trafficked as the message boards had warned. A couple of hours passed as we continued our search in vain, hoping other paddlers would appear out of the brush and reveal the hidden portage. No such luck. Eventually we decided to travel north, wishfully thinking that maybe the map was inaccurate and the portage lay ahead. We rounded the bend and the current picked up, bringing us to the top of impassable rapids. Fortunately we found a rocky landing to the left of the falls, and were able to locate a path. Could this be the portage? Then, from behind us, came unfamiliar voices. Another group! They were locals and didn’t seem to think they had missed the portage, which gave us a bit of a confidence boost - maybe we were on the right course after all. All of a sudden, however, they were pulling their craft out of the water on the Canadian side of the river, disappearing as quickly as they appeared. We followed the path we had found - a short but steep traverse to avoid the unmarked waterfall. At the bottom of the falls, an abandoned canoe - not the only wreckage we would encounter on this leg of the journey.
As we loaded our gear, the other group emerged on the opposite side of the falls, waving to us before pressing on. We wouldn't run into them, or any other folks, for the rest of the day. Making our way up the winding river, we located what we believed to be the swamp portage and determined our earlier navigation issues were a result of a very poorly drawn section of map. Except, this portage wasn’t swampy at all. It was quite rocky and, as the defined path gradually widened and vanished about 100 feet past the landing, the only thing to guide our way were piles of stones left by former travelers. The abundance of blueberries in the area indicated this route had not seen a lot of traffic. It was a long enough portage that led to a small, circular pool with no sign of a path on the other side. It did not appear as the end of swamp portage on the map, and as the sun began to drop in the sky, a bit more dread began to creep in. Crossing the pool in a few short strokes, we climbed out. Ahead of us lay several hundred feet of jagged, rocky terrain covered by a shallow flow of rushing water. Beyond that, we saw a lake. By now it was evening, and not having passed a single campsite for hours we knew there was only one way forward. Our group split, as half of us unloaded the canoes and began to caravan gear across the water to an overgrown path on the southern side of the river. Our sturdiest travelers took the task of portaging the canoes directly through the water, as the path was a tunnel of trees unable to accommodate the vessels. It was a slow process, brave canoe carriers taking extremely conscious and careful steps to avoid ankle injury by dangerous combination of a strengthening current and slick, jagged rocks. A much needed moment of triumph came once we had safely delivered all our gear, canoes, and bodies to the lake that the shallow rapids emptied in to. But we were beginning to lose light, and we still didn’t know where we were. We spotted what we thought looked like a site on the opposite side of the lake, and pushed hard to cross, relieved to find that we were right.
Upon our arrival, the disappearing sun illuminated a cloud in a brilliant shade of pink, like a floating quartz lantern. A welcome and comforting glow signalling refuge after many hours of somewhat agonizing uncertainty. As the mosquitoes began to make an appearance in full force, we hastily set up camp and began to prepare dinner. It wasn't until then that I thought to turn on my phone and open up google maps, which unbeknownst to me was tracking our location the whole time. A shameful admittance to use such a tool, but worth the cost of my pride for the feeling of security that came with finally knowing our location. We were on Clove Lake, far from where we thought. A journey that should have taken a few hours at most, took a full day. In retrospect, we found the section of the map that featured the route we ended up taking to be inaccurate. It was difficult to look across the lake and discover the clearly visible landing to the portage we were meant to come from and not feel completely inadequate. But at that point, all we could do was laugh and share gratitude for knowing exactly where we were for the first time in about 8 hours. A much more draining day than we anticipated, we ate, sipped on some whiskey by the fire, and crashed.
We woke up slowly - a couple early risers took a morning dip, discovering only after we emerged that we were sharing the shallow water with a sizable snapping turtle. It seemed displeased that we were using the warm rock to enjoy our breakfast, a premium sunning spot. Not to worry, we’d be off soon enough. Now that we knew exactly where we were, we’d follow our initial goal to find a great site on or around Gneiss to make our home for a couple of days. We began to pack up and heard some paddlers in the distance, the type of group you hear LONG before you see them. We were ready to go just by the time they approached, so we had to wait a bit to allow for the appropriate amount of space.
Still running on the high off the knowledge of our exact location, we had a carefree day paddling north. Weather was perfect, traffic was light, portages were smooth as could be, and we arrived on Gneiss by mid-afternoon. The scouted and sought-after island site was inhabited, so we rounded Devil’s Elbow to find a beautiful spot (#1949) ideal for a group of our size. A gorgeous elevated site with magnificent views of the lake, plenty of trees for hammocks, and a perfect rocky landing to sun on and swim off. A small cliff on the southern end of the site begged for a plunge into the lake (after very careful depth inspection, of course). We set up camp and went for a swim in the sparkling blue. Later, about half of the group set off into the lake for a fishing session at dusk. If I recall correctly, a few bass were reeled in and then spared, as we wouldn’t have enough time to cook and responsibly rid of the scraps.
Returning to the site, the group collectively enjoyed a stunner of a sunset and began to make arrangements to create a refuge from the mosquitoes about to descend on us. Unlike the previous night, we would be better prepared for what would become known as “bug hour” at this site. I had purchased a cheap net made for a king-size bed to attach to trees with the hope that we could all squeeze inside and find some protection from the inevitable evening swarm. Luckily, all 9 of us fit, and it became ritual to have the tent set up as our makeshift kitchen each night. By the time the sun set, we’d be enclosed - a desirable alternative to retreating to our separate tents. We’d pass “bug hour” (which was really closer to two) eating and playing Pass the Pigs by headlamp.
This would be our long awaited day of leisure. We spent the day fishing, floating down gentle rapids, swimming, sunning, reading, snacking. The fisherpeople caught a wealth of bass as well as a pike, on both sides of the Gneiss portage. On our way back to camp, my paddling partner and I caught a spectacular show of nature as we witnessed a fully grown bald-eagle in a mid-air battle with a bass almost equal in size. It would be dinner for the 2 or 3 baby birds crying out from a massive nest high above the Canadian side of the river. The eagle disappeared in the forest across from her nest, to finish the job and prepare the meal.
That evening, the group reconvened at the site to feast on the fish - a dish delicious on its own but elevated by a couple of packs of vacuum sealed olives. After dinner the very vocal (read, constant screaming from canoe to far away canoe and travelling at an extremely slow pace) group we had encountered on Clove began to make their way towards us. Disappointed that our site was occupied, they sarcastically pleaded to stay with us before crossing the lake to make camp directly across from us. We’d be very aware of their presence for the remainder of the evening. Despite the disruption, it was hard to be too bothered given the blissful couple of days we’d been blessed enough to experience. After our bug hour ritual, we enjoyed a peaceful campfire, not without a twinge of disappointment at the fact we had to leave this perfect place the following morning.
Our mission for this day was to make it to big Sag and begin heading south towards Seagull River before finding a site. We planned to get to our exit point by early afternoon on day 5, and wanted to give ourselves plenty of time should we encounter any challenging conditions on the huge lake. It was a calm and sunny day, and we traveled up through Maraboef with no issues whatsoever. The only travelers we passed on this stretch were loons. We found the portage around Horsetail rapids to carry a bit of magic, with a mossy wall of trees providing a soft sanctuary from the rough waters. We took our time here, pausing to enjoy its beauty. Our first traffic jam of the trip came at the Sag falls portage. Another large group was moving at an extremely relaxed pace as they transported their canoes and gear up from the base of the falls. With plenty of room to hang out in the water, we cast a few lines and had a couple of bites as we practiced patience (all eager to make camp at this stage in the late afternoon).
Once the path was clear, we portaged around the falls and ran into a local fisherman who gave us the relieving news that the forecast was relatively clear for the next 24 hours. Evening was setting in so we paddled hard, circling all the way around campers island before settling for a site on the southeast side (#368). It wasn’t ideal for a group of our size - very rocky and limited tent pads - but darkness was coming and the winds seemed to be picking up. We made it work and enjoyed an early dinner outside the bug tent, hungry from a day of paddling. Though the site was exposed and the breeze was strong, the mosquitoes were not deterred! We rigged up our bug hour tent in a clearing in the woods behind the site, our final practice of this now strangely beloved ritual.
Fortunately, the fisherman we had met the evening before was right and conditions on the lake were favorable enough for our exit. After a serene morning packing up camp, we loaded into the canoes and set off towards Seagull River where we’d arranged to be collected. The water certainly wasn’t calm, but it wasn’t anything to complain about given the size of the lake. We quietly paddled all the way to our exit point with no breaks, feeling both ready for the cold beers and warm showers waiting at the lodge yet mourning the return to society. Everything went according to plan and we were back at the lodge, bathed and beers in hand, by late afternoon. We traveled in to Grand Marais for a final collective feast and a waterfront stroll, returning to the lodge to recall our trip and swap stories with another guest who’d been spending summers in the BWCA for decades late into the night .
Reluctantly, and it will always be with great reluctance that I leave the Boundary Waters, we’d hit the road for the long drive to the respective cities we call home. Places where it takes no time for the reverse culture shock to set in, but armed with the bliss that accompanies a week in the wilderness creating home and a constantly cooperative experience with people I love.