Paddling with Padres - A spiritual Exodus adventure
I finish getting dressed as my alarm goes off at 4:15 this morning. Then it’s a brief, moonlight drive to the rendezvous point at Father Brandon’s hacienda where I meet up with most of the rest of our 9-man crew. After some small talk and cramming a few more items into the already bulging packs, I follow Father Drew up to Ely where the sun begins to rise just as we pull into town to meet the rest of the crew, pick up the 4th canoe and last second items before heading off to the Mudro entry point.
The long winding dirt road exasperates our impatience to finally get started on this much ballyhooed adventure. Water levels are very low as the loaded canoes barely float and everyone needs to walk their vessels down narrow Pickett Creek a few hundred yards to paddle able waters.
While shallow, there is only a couple of spots where we need to get out and easily pull through before arriving at Mudro Lake. Several in our crew have been through this area often; so, the maps stay packed away as we just follow the lowest dip in the horizon which accurately indicate where the next portage will be.
I’ve often heard this first portage referred to as “Heart attack hill”. And, while we do encounter a modest rise; fortunately, we’re traveling in the right direction so as to avoid the infamous climb. Everyone is all smiles as we are able to get everything across with only half of us having to go back across the trail again. Next, it’s a longer trail that sports an extensive stretch of boardwalk across this level path that leads to Tin Can Mike Lake where we take a brief rest stop.
Spirits continue to be sky high as we encounter our first real obstacles of the day on the portage into Horse Lake. It appears that a recent storm came through and has knocked a few trees down across the trail. Even with these impediments, we get across with little delay and still muster enough energy to help an elderly crew by hauling their remaining packs across to Tin Can Mike.
As we push off into Horse Lake, I’m totally amazed by the lack of other canoeists out and about. Besides the group we shared the portage with, we’ve only seen one occupied site on Tin Can Mike and one on Horse Lake. Paddling/weather conditions are excellent as we make the turn down the Horse River, hopefully it doesn’t worsen by the time we exit. I smile to myself as I hear Bill (who is something of our mother hen on this trip) instruct his son, “Now Joe, you’ll have to paddle on the left side to get us over there.”
I don’t know if our modern-day Moses (Father Brandon) hit the rock twice with his staff just before the trip but, shortly after river navigation begins, (while not exactly wandering the desert for 40 years) we encounter dramatically shallow water and a short run of exposed boulders. The cumbersome process of unloading all the packs and getting the canoes back on floatable water for the reload begins. No sooner do we get the wood back in the water, than we run into another impressive boulder garden. We begin the treacherous process of boulder hopscotch yet again. An all to brief paddle later, and just prior to reaching the first actual portage trail, we encounter a third shallow area which proves to be the longest.
Obviously, this being day one, our packs are loaded to the gills. And, by this time, everyone looks like a bunch of Weeble Wobbles as they precariously attempt to traverse the latest array of knobby boulders. However, these Weeble Wobbles DO fall down as Ben takes a hard tumble! Providentially he lands on his pack and doesn’t suffer any serious injury. Seeing Bill and some of the others struggle mightily as well; as Captain of the Black Pearl (which contains 2 of the heaviest packs in its cargo hold) I make a hasty command decision and just muscle the fully loaded vessel through the constricted water way and over the small beaver dam and return to help Joe and Sam do the same with their loaded canoe as well. This is a course of action I rarely employ (nor do I necessarily recommend it) but, I could see our spirits needed a ‘shot in the arm’ and this tactic seems to reinvigorate the weary ranks. Ultimately, I would rather see the scars on the Black Pearl than on a friend.
The Horse River normally has 3 portages and none of them are anything too drastic. However, the recent harrowing experience of boulder hopscotch has changed the countenance of this crew and there is a new demeanor bubbling to the surface as we endeavor to put these trails behind us. While it doesn’t literally play out this way; I do recall the happy go lucky attitude on the first few portages where everyone was sporting a wide grin and giving an enthusiastic thumbs up. As we cross paths along these last few moderate portages, the grins have disappeared, and now an altogether different digit is being used to communicate by hand signals. It is also along these portages that we discover that there is a tenth personality along on this trip.
Now, I feel I have done a fair amount of portaging in my day but, I am here to say I have NEVER encountered a pack as heavy or cumbersome as Ol’ Blue. In fact, I’ve never encountered a pack that had earned its own moniker. And, it’s not like Ol’ Blue is just a little heavier than the previous record holder. I mean the straps and clasps on this pack are literally screaming and are so taut they act like guitar strings, and it is near impossible to tell which side is the top or even if it is a side. And, since it was assigned to The Black Pearl, I had the “good” fortune of having to load/unload this monstrosity at each slimy, boulder strewn landing.
As mentioned earlier, we are able to do our portaging in a trip and a half. Meaning about half of us need to head back across to finish grabbing our packs on each portage. Although, now it seems that Ol’ Blue is, without fail, the last pack coming across. The Biblical phrase, “take up your cross” gains new significance on these last few portages of the Horse River. On every trip there is always a longing for a forgotten or wished for item when in the midst of a particular struggle. However, I must admit, this is the first time I wished I had a block and tackle loading system along. As it would have been an invaluable tool to get Ol’ Blue and a few of the others up. Being a greenhorn, Ben’s inquisitive question, “Are you guys having trouble with your arms going numb too?!”, speaks volumes about the physically draining experience of trudging these bulging packs across. Special kudos and Thanksgiving to Fitz and Father Drew who were absolute workhorses throughout, as they took double loads each time across most of the trails today.
With the Horse River portages mercifully behind us, our crew breathes a collective sigh of relief as we paddle for the confluence of the Basswood River and Lower Basswood Falls; which will be our last portage of the day. Along the way a single canoe pokes around the bend up ahead and Father Brandon and I share a chuckle as those poor souls don’t know what they’re about to get themselves into. As they approach; the woman in the front exclaims, “Faaaw-thurrrr!” (I guess it’s to be expected when one travels with a celebrity.) She introduces herself as Jody R from Brainerd. Coming up behind us, Ben also remembers her and asks her a curious question. “Jody, what are you doing up here?!” Her whimsical response, “The same thing you are!” brings the house down and affords our crew a much-needed laugh. Near the confluence of the Basswood River the wild rice is literally choking the waterway. And while water depth isn’t an issue, the expanse of long reeds makes paddling more wearisome for arms that are still just starting to get blood flowing to them again. Nevertheless, we soon emerge just above Lower Basswood Falls and pull into the large semi-sandy landing.
While we don’t officially take a break, we do approach this last portage (Petit Rocher du Lac Croche as the Voyageurs named it) with a little less gusto in our steps and take a little time to enjoy this sublime, wilderness scene of visionary enchantment. More to what I expected to see on this route, all the sites around the falls are occupied and there are several people fishing the shorelines too. Father Brandon tells us there is a crummy campsite about 20 minutes up the Basswood River where we can pull off and have lunch.
Ironically the “crummy campsite” is currently occupied so, after briefly contemplating the pictographs we end up paddling further up the Voyageurs Highway. Once there it is quickly noted that that paddle seemed to be a loooong 20 minutes. (This would become a running joke throughout the trip whenever someone asked how long something would take – the answer would invariable come back as 20 minutes.) We take a well-deserved extended siesta as we enjoy a lunch of cheese, salami & pepperoni pitas topped with some delectable horseradish sauce, which came highly recommended by Dan Hammer. (The seminarian who helped at our parish this past spring/summer.)
Back on the water, we resignedly cruise past Table Rock and continue northward up Crooked Lake before turning westward. As we approach Big Current, Father Brandon begins to point out various honey holes. “I bet we’ve caught 1200 walleyes there. Father Drew! How many walleyes do you think we caught there?!” Without hesitating, Father Drew takes it up several notches, “Oh at least 4000!” And, while I don’t know that anyone takes these grandiose figures as absolute Gospel truth; but we do bear in mind that these are both God fearing men who have given their entire lives to the service of our Lord Jesus Christ and, the Decalogue given us clearly instructs – Thou shall not bear false witness! So, even suggesting that the slightest impropriety has been made, makes me shudder. However, what Father Brandon says next does make me raise an eyebrow. I inquire, “So the guys are pretty whipped, we gonna grab a site around here?” With nary a hint of contemplation (nor apparently compassion) and straight faced, Father Brandon says, “Naw! I want to camp closer to good fishing.” So, our noodle armed crew begrudgingly pushes on towards Friday Bay.
Father Brandon has targeted the island site at the top of Friday Bay. But, as we paddle through Cadillac Narrows where the old Buick is located, the vacant island site just to the SW before entering Friday Bay catches the attention of our near mutinous clan. In a last-ditch effort to maintain his status as “Our Good Shepherd” Father Brandon relents, and we lay claim to this site. At this point I cannot honestly attest if the crew more readily associates Father as our ‘Moses’ leading us to the promised land, or as a hardened hearted Pharaoh?
Father Drew and Fitz pull in first and quickly give it their blessing. Slowly, the rest of us wash ashore in turn as well. (After the trip, I did some quick calculations on the Paddle Planner website.) We paddled 19.1 miles, portaged 2.6 miles and traversed 3 hazardous boulder gardens in approximately 11 hours. I don’t know if this is the “Promised Land” - flowing with milk and honey? But, if not, it looks most hospitable and acceptable to me, and the rest of Father Brandon’s minions. Give us this day our daily bread!
We have arrived! I don’t interview anyone afterwards but, I sense a true feeling of gratitude from everyone as we take a moment to thank the Lord for our reasonably safe journey today. And now we get to see just what, exactly, is in these rotund conglomerations of canvas and straps we’ve hauled up here. Each of us stake claim to our little piece of the promised land and get our respective shelters up shortly before the sun sets. Fitz even takes a few moments to test the waters in front of camp for fish. Supper tonight is grilled New York Strip steaks, skewers of fresh shrimp with asparagus and rice. No complaints, nor leftovers, as everyone relishes our hard-earned supper under a heavenly starlit canopy of the Milky Way. As one might expect, sleep comes easy and early.
~Mudro Lake, Sandpit Lake, Tin Can Mike Lake, Horse River, Horse Lake, Basswood River, Crooked Lake