Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Pride Comes Before the Fall....And After it Turns Out!
by TreeBear

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 08/20/2020
Entry Point: Cross Bay Lake (EP 50)
Exit Point: Missing Link Lake (EP 51)  
Number of Days: 2
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
I have been working through my 2020 and 2021 trips these past couple of weeks, enjoying the time reflecting on good wilderness days and compiling the notes and stories before the memories drift too far. This particular trip stood out to me because of the costly lesson I learned under the tutelage of wilderness. I have told this story on the forum before outside of the broader context of the trip it was a part of; here is the whole story. I worked for an outfitter that summer after the guide season shut down for the pandemic. Our time off came in shifts, either with a coworker or by ourselves, and would last from the afternoon one day until lunch or dinner the next. My next off days rolled around, and I was set to head out on another solo trip. This time, unfortunately, I pulled a heavy aluminum as it was all the outfitter had left to offer me. It proved somewhat fortuitous as the springtime waters of the Cross River had long departed down the watershed and hadn’t seen much replenishing rain this summer. I dropped the gear at the landing and drove the car over to Round, taking my walk before the trip this time. This would prove to be beneficial later!
It was a mid-afternoon start meaning I would have to move with some efficiency. The portages to Ham Lake change drastically with the water levels and required some boulder-hopping that day. Once on Ham Lake, it was haunting to see the start of the so-named fire that started here. The poignancy of the moment hit me as I thought of driving up to my friends’ cabin on Seagull just after and seeing their place burned to ashes with windows melted over the stone and nothing by blackened husks of trees in every direction save a few lone spruces who escaped by the creek. To think that it all started here was melancholy. I found the portage out of Ham after passing a couple of groups in their campsites., and the creek thereafter was a bit of a minefield, with many boulders now above the surface. After tedious travel in the final stretches, I was on Cross Bay Lake. I paddled to the end for some sightseeing, eating dinner at the portage and enjoying some sweet moments of reflection by the bubbling stream. I then paddled back up the lake and through the mud pit of a portage into Snipe. The first campsite was occupied, so I continued on to encounter a rather displeased otter at the channel. The sun had already set behind the trees; I needed to find a campsite quickly. The site around the corner was open, and I was in no place to be choosy. I took it but noticed numerous items left behind by the previous group including a weird homemade canoe yoke. 2020 was no joke with the leave-no-trace violations. It wasn’t just the perspective of grumpy sticklers having to share their wilderness experiences with new people; I legitimately noticed way more trash than in the years before. On this particular trip, my pack was already closing in on double the weight after this campsite. I crawled into my hammock for the night and enjoyed the unforgettable symphony of an evening in canoe country.

The next morning, I packed up my things and all the new “treasures.” From there, I paddled west in search of the island campsite. I took notes on it for the future and began heading for the Missing Link portage. I was nearing the final narrows when the sound of heavily burdened wings striking water caused me to turn and enjoy a magnificent takeoff of the local loon. What a beautiful morning! After the narrows, I stopped by the final campsite, taking more notes for the future, before heading for the portage. Here, I had a choice to make. With the “Lead Sled” borrowed from my employer, and my ever-growing portage pack, do I double pack or take a couple of trips? It sure is a vexing pressure having a set return time that makes a person move faster than they otherwise might. In any case, I picked up my pack and the Alumacraft and braced for a bit of a march. It did not last long. After only about eight feet, my foot caught a root, and I tumbled to earth. Sigh..... In my guide seasons, I fell maybe once or twice a summer, usually a misstep on wet rock or mud. They always hurt the pride more deeply than the body, and this time was no different. I was muddied and otherwise okay. Ignorantly, I restarted with the double packing as that deadline was still swirling in my mind. I made it about halfway through the portage when my foot caught something else. This time stung more as the entire weight of the “Tin Can” and pack completed what can only be described as a pile-driving of my left kneecap into a thoroughly pyramidal rock. I was suddenly in agony. The perfectly sharpened geologic protrusion had seen fit to drive itself with great vigor into the bottom of my patella. I was the furthest thing from a happy camper, having tossed the canoe, which had taken the course of gravity to land directly on top of me, off to the side. I stayed on the ground awhile, amazed at how much discomfort that little boulder had caused and slightly hesitant to see what my knee would look like when I rolled my pant leg up. My knee was bleeding and already a rich purple color. These are the situations I dread on solo adventures. Good thing I was not too far from the entry point! I shuttered to an upright position and grabbed the pack. No more double-packing today, evidently. I hobbled to the landing, gingerly encountering every patch of rough footing from here on out. I reached the end, took a swig of water, and lumbered back for the aluminum beast. Upon finding it again, I grumbled all the new names I had for the rock before picking up the canoe and leaving the boulder behind. At the Missing Link end, I stood in the water awhile, letting the cool water soak my knee for a minute. Stepping into the canoe was a bit of a circus as the beleaguered joint had already started to stiffen. The landing to leave Missing Link for Round has a little step up, something I now dreaded. I had hauled the pack up to a tree, electing to take the canoe first and come back for the pack later. I lifted the canoe when I heard voices come around the corner. It took but one look to know these folks were very new to the canoeing experience. My amicable self normally would have been happy to chat and share experiences about the wilderness I love so much, especially with people encountering it perhaps for the first time. On this occasion, I was less chipper and apparently could not hide the grimace when I went for my step up onto the portage trail. This is when those innocent souls asked the question that every competent wilderness person, potentially carrying some pride issues, dreads: “Do you need help?” Do I really look that bad? I mumbled no thank yous and some pleasantries. My stupid pride would not let me ask for help and, even deeper, I was grumbling to myself that these folks were now in my way and I just wanted to hobble out of here... blah....blah....blah. It’s hard to be the person you want to be and, hopefully, often are when you get hurt due to your arrogantly poor decision-making. Partway through the trail, I saw a sleeping pad on the ground. I hoped the group knew they dropped it because I was not going to be running that day! I finished the portage and picked up the pad on the way back. By the time I hit the landing, they were long gone. Shucks. I knew that pad meant one, maybe many, nights of bad sleep for my new acquaintances. I also knew that, if they made any sort of mileage that day, they wouldn’t come back for it, and another piece of outfitted gear would get lost in the wilderness. Not entirely knowing what the best answer was at this moment, I threw the pad into my canoe as I knew which outfitter they came from and could drop it off on my trip back to work.

At the landing, I ran into a couple of Hungry Jack staff also enjoying their off time. They seemed very nice, and we had a conversation for a while. Again... pride got in the way of me asking for help to load my canoe. Stupid, stupid arrogance. So I grimaced through loading the canoe and the gear and hurling myself into the driver’s seat. 15 minutes later, I pulled into Seagull Outfitters to drop off the sleeping pad. This would be the first test of stiffness. Ooftda! It sure is stiff. In through the front door and the gal at the counter seemed perplexed that I would go through the trouble of bringing gear back. Anyways. I got back in time for lunch and managed to *finally* ask a coworker for help unloading. I would be sore for a few weeks afterward and took the lesson hard-earned hopefully to heart. The wilderness is faithful at teaching humility, for amid the beauty is challenge, and ego finds itself chastised by the great equalizing factor of wild places where each of us finds ourselves, more or less, on level ground. It is part of the magic of this place and a trip I will not soon forget.

The next year, when I took the Missing Link to Round Lake portage the next time, I paused at my pyramidal rock. I jokingly kicked it, some sort of payback for the knowledge hard-earned. In that moment, I reflected on the many lessons taught in this marvelously wild classroom. Some learned through conflict or struggle, and some learned in the quiet reflection time only wilderness may provide. In each of them, I enter the wilderness with a plan or a dream, and what I leave with is something ever-better, ever-deeper, and to that purpose I return, with hopeful unexpectance at what the newest lesson may be.