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There exists an unanswered question from friends and family that I no longer try to answer, "What is enjoyable about putting yourself into mortal danger and experiencing the deprivation of family or the modern comforts of civilization"? There are no hot showers, flush toilets, soft sheets, or cold drinks. Is it that incomprehensible to understand why one would seek the far North, put up with the biting insects, drink out of the river like a dog, sleep in the cold rain, or in a hot sweltering tent while nursing your tired achy, dirty body to sleep. Why, why do we do it? Is it the smell of black spruce or the sweet musky odor of muskeg in the air? Is it the sighting of a moose, bear or eagle? Or is it the stark ruggedness of bedrock as old as the planet is where only lichen and the most tenacious of cedars can grow? Is it the earth trembling and the thunder in the air at a mighty waterfall? Maybe it is the rush of adrenaline that comes with fear, or the elation that comes from successfully running a foamy, rock strewn, canoe eating rapid. Maybe it is the feeling of complete isolation, independence and hardship that reminds us of what we really need, not what we think we need to be truly comfortable and happy. And just maybe it is the confirmation of seeing how blessed we are when walking the streets of the remote Obji/Cree communities and talking to its inhabitants after undergoing this spiritual re-awakening. This is our story.
Jose and I left Indianapolis Friday immediately after I got off from work. It was a pleasant drive that brought back memories of attending Canoecopia this past spring. We planned on staying in Beloit, WI that evening and somewhere north of Thunder Bay the next night. After a 24 hour drive we would hopefully re-unite with our crew in Pickle Lake, ON. The drive along the Minnesota Lake Superior coast brought back fond memories. It had been three long years since I had last visited the Boundary Waters were I was first introduced to wilderness tripping many years ago. I was getting giddy and felt like I was returning to the arms and bosom of my first love. Purple lupines were in bloom, Lake Superior was calm and the sky was blue. We had the time and I insisted we stop at Betty's Pies to feed the memories. Upon finishing our pie and coffee we felt the presence of two bodies. Larry Alsop and Jim Shaw were standing outside, staring at us through the window. We waved them in and made room for them at our table. Eagle eye Larry had spotted Jose's green Mohawk Odyssey amongst the hundreds of canoes in the area and had Jim make a U-turn into Betty's Pies. It was Jose who had introduced us to each other last year when we paddled the Bloodvein River in Manitoba. Over coffee and pie we told Larry and Jim we planned on staying at the Thunder Bay Inn that came highly recommended. Something felt strange, not right the further north we drove along the shore. The area had changed. It was no longer the rugged pristine wilderness I remember. It looked manicured and inviting. Jose had warned me about tripping with him and he was correct. I was now spoiled and the Boundary Waters paled in comparison with the places we had been in Canada. After arriving at the inn, eating a Canadian home cook meal at Cousin's Restaurant, Jose and I drove back to the highway to purchase some fireworks for Canada Day and the Fourth of July. Unfortunately the fireworks stand was closed. The next morning the four of us returned to Cousin's Restaurant for breakfast and got an early start to Pickle Lake. Before turning north onto Highway 599 we thought it would be best to drive to Ignace for gas. Several miles down Highway 599 we see the warning sign, no gas for the next 190K. For the next 3 hours we drive down the rough, lonely paved road to Pickle Lake. It felt like we were driving to the end of the world.
We arrived Sunday late in the afternoon at North Star Air and meet Lynn Cox owner of Canoe Frontier. She recommends the Winston Motor Hotel for dinner and gives us directions to their private campground on the Crow River. They are in the process of building a kitchen in a yurt. Another tent houses their rental equipment. Near the deck is a large barbecue grill. Upon completion, this campground will be heaven. Lynn would keep an eye out for Jim Kendall. Jose and I had paddled the upper and lower Missinaibi with Jim K several years ago. It would be nice to re-unite with him.
Late that evening Jim Shaw and Larry drive to Pickle Lake to climb the fire tower and tour the town. While they visit the trash dump and watch bears consume moose remains, Jose tells me he has something important to say. Jose says he is unable to commit to the trip. He is feeling bad vibes. The Mojo is not right. I asked a few questions and appreciate his courage to back out at the last minute. Jose gives the bad news to Jim and Larry upon their return. They too asked a few questions. Jose is a spelunker and mountain climber and is not easily spooked. We are all experience outdoorsmen. When Mojo speaks you listen! Our hearts are saddened but we all agreed Jose will not be coming.
Monday June 27th Day 1
We wake early and do not find Jim Kendall. Are we to be short another member? We drive to the Winston for breakfast and are about to leave when we receive a phone call from Canoe Frontier that Jim K would be joining us. He had arrived late last night and did not find Lynn's message to the campground posted on the gate. Driving around last evening he could not locate us and the local police did not know where we were either. Over breakfast Jose gives the sad news to Jim K.
Upon arriving at Canoe Frontier, Jose gives the news to Lynn. Hopefully she does not think we are a bunch of crack pots; after all, it is Jose who introduced us to each. We complete the final paperwork, receive instruction on how to use the emergency aircraft radio, flares and bear bangers. It is an eerie feeling to be brief on the use of the emergency radio. In all our years of tripping we have never been provided one. It resonates a cord that we are really disappearing into the wilderness. Lynn tells us there is no need to hang our food packs. Bears are not a problem and besides, the trees are too small to support the packs. We pay our bill and receive some last minute trip and map notations. We load our packs and canoes for the long two hour drive down the gravel North Road, a gold mining road and board the bus.
Nearing the Pipestone River Bridge it begins to sprinkle. By 1:30 pm we have arrived. We don our rain gear and hastily load our packs into the canoes. In less than 1K we will be running three CI rapids and a CII. Larry's Mohawk Solo 13 is small and he has to bail some water out of his canoe on the first CII. I pull center and hit the first big wave and hole. I ride the second larger wave into another big hole and pray that my bow will not plow into the next wave. My PakCanoe 140 rides the waves and takes on no water. Alv, it lived up to its reputation, thank you! I have confidence in the canoe.
Jim S and Larry portage the next CII-III. Jim K & I run it. The magic has returned. Water levels are definitely high. At the next CIII-IV we all cheat by hugging the right shore and taking out before the point. Going over the ledge I feel my stern temporary being grab. Unbeknownst to me, my hull flexes into a "V". The two Jim's thought the floating lawn chair was about to collapse. They are surprise and impress how the PakCanoe handles. We are cold, shivering and take out at the campsite below the next rapid. It takes a group effort to get the fire started. The Jim's collect wood and I split it in order to get to the dry heart wood. Larry nurses the fire. Once the small fire is burning on its own, I pitch a tarp. That evening we hug the fire while eating and drying our clothes and socks out.
Tuesday, June 28th Day 2
It got cold last night and I had problems staying warm in my down sleeping bag. My long johns, fleece turtleneck, hat, and thermal sleeping liner were not quite enough to keep me warn throughout the night. While putting my socks on I discovered I had burned a hole in one of my socks. I now have one and a half pairs of socks for the duration of the trip.
By 8:00 am we are on the river. Seconds later I am stuck on a rock with my bow pointed downstream. I can not get the canoe off the rock. I try scooting backwards, forward, and sideways. The canoe begins to pivot 180 degrees. Hopefully, the current will pry me off the rock. I am facing upstream and still am stuck. I try to push off the rock but my paddle is too short to reach it. Eventually, the PakCanoe frees itself on its own.
We portage 100M on river left around the waterfalls and avoid the island portage due to high water levels. It is impossible to run or line the left channel due to river flowing through the bushes. Five kilometers downriver we approach the CIII-IV and take the 400M portage on the left. There is minor deadfall to step over or stoop under.
We stop for lunch in the hot sun on a sandbar. During lunch I discover tiny sparkling flakes of gold along the shoreline. The sand beneath the water looks as if it has been sprinkle with gold dust. There are gold mines in the area and I automatically assume I have struck it rich. Maybe I can collect some gold to take home. The day we are scheduled to come out of the Canadian bush is my 10 year wedding anniversary. Maybe I can collect enough gold for a ring. I reach down and scoop up some sand. I no longer see the gold glitter. Jim S does the same and says it is iron pyrite. Jim K thinks it is some sort of silica. After our gold fever wanes we wade into the river for a swim. Kicking up the glitter the water turns into a golden snow globe. The water is cold but refreshing. We do not linger.
By 2:30 pm we have reached the campsite for the day but decided to push on. It is still early in the day and the crew wants to get ahead of schedule just in case we run into problems or delays. The next rapid is a CIV drop followed immediately by a CII-III rapid. Lynn recommended portaging all. We were told the portage was flat, well traveled and the rapid is a rock garden with no clear channel. We easily find the portage. However, it is in bad shape. We are stepping over logs, stooping under or climbing over fallen trees. In some places we are force to lay the canoe on top of a down tree, climb over and lift the canoe back to our shoulders. Walking the soft, flat, open middle section nestled in the middle of the black spruce is a pleasure. Upon approaching the end of the portage it became a game of bang your shin or step over the log. Near the water's edge but still in the bushes is a short path carpeted in driftwood. After two hours and three trips down the 1K portage we are ready to get back on river.
I am tired and we have another 6K to paddle to what we were told was a lovely campsite. Approaching a bend in the river we see a high bluff with two large sandy trails rising 25 feet above the water. One of the trails climbs at a 45 degree angle, the other is much steeper. It is difficult climbing the trail with our heavy packs and it takes two to pull the canoes upward. It is a lovely campsite and sits high on the bluff with large pine trees and plenty of open space for tents. The black flies are bad and we hastily pitch our tents and begin to cook our meals. Today we have paddled almost 23K and are in bed by 8:30 pm (9:30 pm Harrison County time).
Wednesday, June 29th Day 3
We are on the river by 7:00 am and way ahead of schedule. We plan to paddle 7K, make camp and fish below the waterfalls for walleye in the area that burned in 1997. Arriving at the waterfalls we find no campsite and the portage is in bad shape. Jim K clears some trees to make it easier to portage the canoes. We find ourselves at another waterfall 3K later and are unable to line the right side. We find another bad portage and once again clear a few more trees.
Another 3K and we are at CII-III that is 1K long. The confirmed portage Lynn told us about is in bad shape and may be 1K long. I have had enough of banging my shins on logs, climbing under or over trees and pretending to be a lumberjack. I was told that some have lined the left side. I decide to run the CII and hopefully line or portage the CIII. I tell Jim K my plans and he agrees. In the meantime, Jim S and Larry are preparing to portage and abort their plans when they see Jim K and I paddle to the center of the river to begin our run. The CII run is short. Jim K is ahead and is moving river right to skirt the large CIII waves. The river fights back and pulls him center. I drop into 3 foot trough and ride to the crest of a larger wave and see Jim K swimming. His canoe is 20 feet from him and going the opposite direction. I drop into a bigger hole and once again begin the climb. I take on no water. This repeats itself several times, each wave getting bigger and bigger. I am struggling to get river right. I am half way through the rapid and am beginning to think I just might get lucky. The PakCanoe is flexing and twisting and riding the waves high and dry. In my attempt to get river right, I ride to the crest of a larger wave sideways. I am looking down into the deep brown hole and then find myself in the water. I lunge for my canoe and miss it by an inch. I am going down the rapid head first. With some difficulty I get my feet pointed downstream. I have my paddle in hand. Jose would be proud! I ride a wave and drop into the hole. Before reaching the crest my butt hits a boulder. I slide into the next hole. All I can see is brown water. I barely break surface and take a breath of froth. Coughing and sputtering I drop into the next trough and hit my butt on another boulder. My life vest wants to ride high above my head. I cross my arms and grab hold of the shoulder straps. Larry passes me in the water swimming. Shortly thereafter, I see Jim S float by. I hit four boulders before the waves begin to get smaller and smaller. I see Jim S and Larry floating towards the eddy. All over the river I see packs, canoes, paddles, maps and other miscellaneous items floating around. It is a disaster scene. I begin to laugh. To bad Jose is not here to enjoy the fun. I catch up with Jim K's canoe and grab hold. A pack floats by and I grab that too. I struggle against the current to push his canoe to shore. I am rapidly going downstream and have no idea where I will land. Jim K sees me struggling with his canoe and swims over with a pack and his paddle. Together we muscle his canoe to an island while grabbing what ever floats our way. We empty his canoe and he paddles up river to retrieve my canoe and help Larry and Jim S collect our floating armada of gear.
My boot laces are untied. My life jacket is half un-zipped and one of straps that cinches round my waist is dangling, minus the buckle. Jim K's brand new Bell Yellowstone has several ugly scratches near its bow. Larry puts another crease into his Mohawk. It is probably time for him to consider getting another canoe. Next time it will probably wrap itself around a rock. Jim S's Mohawk looks as if someone took a belt sander to the gunnels near the bow and stern. My PakCanoe shows no wear and tear but one of the electrician ties used to secure a rib to the longitudinal has worked itself loose. Larry asks Jim S why he did not throw him a rope. Jim S responds he tried to but found himself swimming. Jim K said he saw my canoe, the ghost ship float by, packs and all. We are lucky! No one was injured and all that was lost was Larry's reading glasses and Jim S's comb. Our swim was at least 500M and somehow all four of us manage to hold onto our paddles during the long swim.
We plan to stop at the next campsite and dry out. At Hole in the Wall Falls we can not find the 250M portage or campsite. We are still in the burn area and it looks like a bad game of Pick-Up-Sticks. Down trees everywhere. With great difficulty we follow the portage by looking for the ends of previously sawed trees. Once again we are clearing a portage. After getting back onto the river we look for the winter road 3K downstream to call home. We never see it. We paddle another 2K and find ourselves at the abandon government water monitoring station cabin on Karl Lake. The river is flowing fast. We have paddled 5K in 30 minutes.
The cabin is small, dirty and full of trash. There is shelving, a counter, 2 bunk beds with foam padding for 3 racks and a woodstove minus the stove pipe. I hang my wet clothes on the non-functioning weather station. Jim S and Larry scatter the contents of their food pack on the elevated deck to dry. Jim K has items drying in the bushes and on his canoe. We open the windows and install the screens. There is a roll of tin foil and we use it as packing to fill the holes and gaps in the cabin to keep the mosquitoes out while we prepare our dinner. Jim K and I had planned on sleeping outside until a rain storm arrives. Jim K takes a rack and I decide to pitch my free standing tent on the floor after everyone is in bed. After dinner we all turn in. A few minutes go by and the mice come out. The cabin is crawling with mice. I take my food pack outside and hang it on the weather station while everyone else hangs their packs from the ceiling. Some time later I hear Larry get up. He is a mad, craze man. He is running circles around my tent with a Pepsi bottle obtained from the trash pile and is smashing mice. At 3:00 am Jim S gets up and goes outside to pitch the tent. He has not been able to go to sleep due to the mosquitoes, mice running across his face and my deafening snoring.
Thursday, June 30th Day 4
It is a cold, extremely windy, gray, overcast day. We are wind bound. The temperature sits at 55 degrees all day long. Jim S and Larry read or nap. I nap and sleep most of the day on the floor. Jim K is antsy and goes out several times in the wind and rain to fish. Eventually he finds a spot on Karl Lake near a cliff face where he is protected from the wind and white caps and can fish. He catches a few fish and we share a dinner of fried fish, chili and carrots. That evening Larry and Jim S decide to sleep outside where they will not be bother by the mosquitoes, mice and my snoring. Jim K decides to sleep inside and take his chances. That night there are few mosquitoes and one lone mouse to annoy us. I wake during the night and hear Jim K talking in his sleep. Minutes later I think he is talking to mice. Shortly thereafter, I realize he is complaining about my snoring.
Friday, July 1st Day 5 (Canada Day)
Launching our canoes we note that the water level has rose a foot. It would appear that the ground is saturated with rain water. No longer can it absorb, soaking up the rain and slowly leaching it back into the river system. I anticipate future rapids to be larger and meaner. By the time we conclude our trip, water levels at the Karl Lake water gauge (http://scitech.pyr.ec.gc.ca/waterweb/selectProvince.asp) have rose 1 meter.
We run the CII rapid not far from our Karl Lake refuge and portaged around the falls. We enter an area with marginal campsites we never see. It is gray and overcast and looks as if it may rain again. Within hours it turns into a hot, blue, cloudless day. We stop for a mid morning snack at a fly-in fishing cabin on Wastayanipi Lake. It is clean. There are plenty of bunk beds, a gas stove, refrigerator, and chairs. I wished we would have stayed here yesterday instead of groveling amongst garbage and rodents in a cabin not much larger than a storage shed. The Jim(s) are fishing the middle of the lake and catching nothing but weeds. I paddle the shoreline in search of a known gravesite. The weather begins to change again. It is getting windy and cloudy. The wind is out of the northwest and wants to make the canoes weathervane. My PakCanoe wants to turn away and sail. It is difficult paddling. I have yet to learn how to trim this particular canoe. I am starting to wonder if the hull's flexibility is negating my attempts of repositioning the packs.
We run the CI at the end of the lake and can not find the portage for the next rapid, a CII. We bushwhack the shoreline and scout the river. I am happy we are going to run it for it would have been difficult to get the canoes through the brush. Jim S catches a rock and slides easily off of it. Near the end of the rapid I hit a big rock and am stuck. Before Larry could come to my aid I step out and float the canoe around the rock and past a ledge. Further downstream is a wave train we run without mishap.
By 2:30 pm we are camping on an island that is an obvious fishing camp. It has plenty of flat, open places to pitch a tent. There is also plenty of trash in the bushes. We find rusting Spam cans, an empty cardboard box of government potatoes, and an empty cardboard box labeled medical supplies addressed to Kingfisher Lake. Jim K wants to move on and camp at the next rapids for walleye fishing. Jim S and I know we have a good campsite and do not want to give it up for some questionable unknown spot. We are finding campsites to be nonexistent unless you want to bush camp. It is still a hot, sunny day so we continue to dry our packs out from our swim two days ago. I pitch the tarp when it begins to briefly rain. Jim K catches one small pike for dinner. Larry gathers and burns the trash leaving the campsite in better shape than we found it.
That evening when turning in and putting my poly-pro long johns on I see bruises on my legs. My shins and thighs are turning blue and purple. I assumed it is from swimming the CIII rapid or maybe a combination of swimming and playing the game Bang Your Shin on the Logs.
Distance traveled, approximately 22K in under 7 hours. We are 5K short of being at tomorrow's campsite.
The river is flowing fast and this hearty paddling crew is finding it difficult to slow down.
Saturday, July 2nd Day 6
We are up at 5:30 am and on river by 7:00 am. In 1K we are at the portage we were warned was a poor foot path. For half a kilometer the portage is easy to follow and walk. Larry and I begin to bushwhack our way through the trees. There is not much underbrush and there is enough room between trees to move around. We enter a minor deadfall and I can not keep up with Larry. Jim K catches up with me and we headed further into the woods away from the river to avoid the deadfall. Once again, we are stepping over logs. Eventually we find ourselves in knee deep, cold muskeg. My back is now killing me and I really need to put my second pack down. I fear I will never find the green Duluth pack if I lie it down. I wish I had moved my gear in stages as Jim S wisely choose. Taking different paths, it is amazing that all packs end up near each other somewhere below the rapids. Jim K and I scout the river on our way back to the canoes. We decide we can run the CII with empty canoes. Walking back we pass Larry carrying his canoe and he tells us to wait long enough for him to get his throw bag ready. We need to hang tight river right, skirt a ledge and eddy out. Hang tight again and draw left to miss two pillow rocks. Run the shoot, keeping the gunnel against the bushes and hit the tongue head on. As soon as you hit the tongue, draw the bow immediately left. The shoot is short and tight and ends with a 90 degree left turn at a rock ledge on the right. Make a mistake and you will finish running the rapid backwards. Running the rapid was easy, just like being flushed form a toilet.
Before reaching Assin Lake we are overtaken by a storm. Just as we arrive at a fly-in fishing cabin the sky turns dark, the wind begins to howl and white caps form on the river. We secure our canoes and carry our packs inside the empty cabin. It is a palace. Off the main dining room/kitchen are five bedrooms and a shower. While the Jim(s) nap and I eat, Larry entertains himself with the electricity, running water and just being nosey. If it continues to storm and no one arrives we will call this place home. Unfortunately the storm is brief. We have 7K to paddle to get to the northeast end of Assin Lake where there are sandy beaches. We plan on camping there to insure we will not be looking for a campsite in what appears to be a huge bog tomorrow. The lake is up and there is not much left of a sandy beach. We pitch our tents in the trees and pray a huge wind does not pile up the water on this end of the lake. The Jim(s) and Larry go fishing. I stay in camp to collect fire wood for grilling fish. When it begins to rain I pitch the tarp and don my rain jacket to keep the hordes of mosquitoes at bay. It is still raining when the boys return. Instead of grilling, we fry the fish. Jim K introduces Larry and Jim K to poached walleye with rice. They savor each spoonful. Afterwards, I hear Larry say that maybe they should stop bringing cooking oil and start to grill or poach their fish. We are one full day ahead of schedule.
Sunday, July 3rd Day 7
Upon rising in the morning we discover fog on the far side of lake breaking up and two loons feeding not far from shore. It is a beautiful sight. By the time we are ready to hit the water we are totally fogged in. We can not see safely to run the CI-II rapid. We fish and then float, waiting near the rapid for the fog to burn off. Somehow eagle eye Larry finds a poor trail that immediately turns into a wide, relatively flat portage free of down trees. It is the best portage we have come across so far. By 9:30 am we are back on the river and making real progress. We run the next CI and find the waves to be steep and choppy due to the increasing wind. It appears that it will rain and I get out my rain gear. By the time we arrive in the huge area of muskeg and lakes, the wind is blowing hard. The direction we paddle is totally dependent upon the wind. We choose the path of least resistance, always looking for the lee. We see white caps and avoid the middle of the lakes. We begin to look for a place to stop for lunch. I find an old site with plenty of down trees, and partially constructed and abandoned cabins. We find a nice aluminum extension ladder and windows still in the manufacturer's original crate. It is 1:30 pm, too buggy for lunch and too early to make camp. Jim K leads the way to a rocky island with a steep, slippery rock outcropping for lunch. Jim S grabs a tree limb and begins to climb out of his canoe. The limb snaps. Jim falls backwards into the water nearly taking me out at the same time. It is blowing hard and we paddle due north to avoid the white caps. We need to paddle northeast to get to the end of the lake.
We begin to look for a campsite. Exiting the lake we see an easy CI that bends to the left. It is not on the map and appears easy to run. Every now and then we have come across some swifts that were not on the maps. This may be a swift that is now a CI due to the high water levels. The Jim(s) and I paddle toward the right bank to get a better view of the rapid when Larry spies a portage behind driftwood on the left bank. We plan to make camp on the portage trail. It is too buggy for my likes. I decide to see what is at the other end of the portage. The portage is in good shape with plenty of signs of moose activity. Exiting the portage I find myself standing on a high bank staring at the huge wooden white cross beside a waterfall. At the base of the cross are marbled bricks engraved with Father, Cousin, Nephew, Uncle, and Brother. I am a little disturbed at what I see. By now, Larry, Jim K and Jim S join me and stare at the cross and waterfall. We are fortunate it was late in the day; otherwise, we may have missed the portage and joined Hosea Thomas Mamakwa in his watery grave. The view beyond the cross is gorgeous. The river empties into a high rocky gorge complete with an island. The wind is blowing strong and there are few bugs. It looks like a perfect campsite. For some reason, the boys appeared reluctant to camp here. I return to my canoe and begin to portage my gear. The decision is made. We camp by the falls. I pitch my tent beside the cross and get the tarp out when it begins to sprinkle. Everyone catches a walleye for dinner. Once again, Jim K tantalizes our taste buds with poached fish in soup. The wind is blowing harder and I move the tarp onto the portage where it will be sheltered and better secured by trees. I envision a moose walking down the portage and snaring himself in my tarp during the night. It continues to get colder and windier after we crawl into our tents. Shortly thereafter, it begins to rain.
Monday, July 4th Day 8
It got cold, real cold last night. I went to bed wearing bottom poly-pro long johns, one wool sock, one wool sock with all my toes sticking out, poly-pro T-shirt, light weight poly-pro long john top, medium weight poly-pro long john top, fleece hat and crawled into my silk liner, then thermal liner and lastly my sleeping bag. The ground was cold and I used my life vest to insulate my legs from the cold ground while my torso lied on a ¾- length sleeping pad. I woke during the night shivering and don my last layer, a fleece turtleneck. I feared I may have to use my silver Mylar emergency bag if it gets any colder. I could not warm up and my bladder was full. I needed to pee. It was blowing and raining hard. I refused to open my tent and get everything soaking wet. Out of desperation I urinate into my rubber moccasin clogs. Jose had always warned me to bring a piss bottle. I unzipped the mosquito netting and poured my urine onto the ground beneath the rain fly.
I rise from my tent and hastily join Jim S by the coffee pot. It is early in the morning and it is windy and cold. I am wearing almost everything I have, including my rain suit. Jim tells me it is in the low 40's. I tell him I have reached an all time low. He tells me that he and Larry can help carry my gear and canoe. I set the record straight by telling him I had to pee in my shoe last night. I get a chuckle out of him. I am greatly concerned about the temperature, weather and any possibility of someone going for a swim. I decide to take a clothing inventory. I am wearing everything and my sleeping bag is not enough to keep me warm. Larry is wearing everything that is dry. The Jim(s) have a couple of shirts remaining in their packs. No one has dry gloves. We have no rapids to run today. It is unlikely anyone will go for a swim. I realize our only option will be to get a fire started and it will be difficult to find dry land and wood if the worst case scenario occurs.
We are now on the lakes and are battling the wind. I can not navigate this morning. My brain must be frozen for I can not figure out where we are or why we are changing course. I believe we have missed the turn and our current course will take us off the maps. I activate my GPS to find our exact location and see I am in error. I follow the crew and watch the GPS until my navigation skills return.
We take a brief break on a point where we find a nice campsite guarded by what appears to be a sandpiper not much larger than a sparrow. We must be near her nest for she shows no fear. We have already passed today's campsite goal but paddle onward for it is late morning. Around noon, Jim K and Larry stop for lunch at the lodge, a beaver lodge. It is much easier to climb on top of the lodge and have lunch than try to find some dry land. From our perch we can see the CI-II we will need to run. It appears to be a small rock garden with allot of bumping and grinding. I fear I may stick like bubblegum and have to step out. I do not know how we managed it but everyone makes it through the rock garden without catching a rock. Our next set of rapids appears ugly, very ugly. It bends to the left and disappears behind a point. There are huge waves in the center and far right. There is no good way to see it and the water is flowing too fast to hold beside the bushes. Larry and Jim K force their canoes into the bushes and scout the rapid or look for a portage while Jim S and I cling to the bushes with our hands and try to find a spot to pull out. Walking out of the bushes, Jim S and I take one look at the forest and realize this is not going to be good. Jim K and Larry return stating the rapid is run able on the far left, hang tight. Everyone keeps their stern in the bushes and bow pointed downstream and allows the current to push their canoe around the tight blind point. In one spot we all have to move away from shore to avoid a strainer and get our tails back into the bushes. Thankfully, it is an easy run. By mid-afternoon we are at the rapid where the Pipestone dumps into Hilyard Lake. It is an easy CI.
We begin to look for a campsite that is not flooded. I paddle along the shore line moving towards the base of the first point where I see a small clearing. The crew is moving away from me and appears as if they will paddle around the point. Nearing the clearing I see water high in the bushes. I paddle over the point and join the crew on the other side. Larry and Jim K spy something shining across the lake and paddle towards it. They find an abandon Indian cabin on an island just off a peninsula. At one time it appears to be a nice cabin from the hunting pictures we see on the back of the door above a dart board. Hanging from the ceiling is a lantern with fuel. Sitting on the kitchen table by a big plexi-glass window is a brand new Honda generator. The cabin has a stove and a refrigerator complete with a moldy bag of unknown origins. There are several moldy mattresses beneath the loft and plenty of more mattresses in the loft. There are several down trees leaning on the cabin and the site is riddle with electrical wiring and rusty Spam cans. We call it home and pitch our tents outside in the numerous clearings. The Jim(s) go fishing. Jim S returns and decides he is going to cook a feast of venison tacos with macaroni and cheese. After Jim S begins to prepare the meal, Jim K returns with a feast of walleye. There is too much food. Tonight, we gorged ourselves. After dinner Jim K returns to walleye hole and catches two more for breakfast.
Tuesday, July 5th Day 9
As usual, everyone gets up early this morning; however, we get a late start due to having grilled fish for breakfast. Leaving the island we paddle towards an esker and plan to check it out. Instead we find ourselves in swifts and paddle on except for Larry.
Nearing the two huge islands on Hilyard that create 3 channels, there is much discussion on which leg to take and how to run the rapids. Everyone agrees the 500M north channel rapid will be difficult to run with the water being so high. The topo map depicts two small rapids totaling 250M in the south channel. Larry and Jim K believe the narrow south channel rapids will be washed out and easy to run. Jim S believes it would be wiser to take the middle channel and look for the winter road; thus, bypassing all rapids. I know the gradient for the North Channel is barely run able with normal water levels. I have my doubts we can run the south channel. I anticipate seeing strainers or a steep gradient worst than the North Channel. The group decides to take the southern route. Reaching the confluence of the middle and south channels there is some confusion as to where we are and which route we are running. I confirmed our locations with my GPS and state we can always take a look at the south channel. It is early in the day, we have plenty of time, are ahead of schedule and it is not too far out of our way. We cautiously approach the first rapid, an easy CI if ran on the right. Downstream we see a strainer and an island. Jim K agrees to run the rapid and signal us to follow or turn back using his paddle. It will be a one way ride for him for there is no way to return. He easily runs the rapid and eddies out signaling us to follow. Larry is up front blocking Jim S and me from following. Larry decides to wait and see what happens when Jim K reaches the island. We watch Jim K step onto the island and he promptly signals us to turn back. We regrettably retreat and paddle 2K up river to reach the middle channel. I want to get the group reunited as soon as possible. I activate my GPS and make a bee line towards the winter road. We quickly find the winter road. An abandon Lund fishing boat with gaping holes in its hull and a moose skull marks the portage. The winter road is flat and wide, more like a winter highway. After traversing the road we find Jim K waiting on us. He has been waiting for us for over an hour. Jim K tells us the second rapid was actually a gorgeous waterfall. He had to portage across the island and paddle back to shore. After bushwhacking 80M around the falls he found a portage trail back to the river. Jim K tells us we need to check out the broken wood/canvas canoe and rapids below the North Channel. We easily find the broken canoe floating in the bushes and wonder how old it is and what happened to it and its owner. Approaching the rapids we are in awe. It is a CIV-V and there are huge waves that extend from the bushes of one shoreline to the bushes on the opposite side. In the center are 10 feet waves throwing froth 20 feet high into the air. It would have been suicidal to run or even attempt to line this raging beast we were told to be careful on.
We begin to find several gill nets suspended in the water off the various points. Around noon, Jim K catches a large northern and we stop for a shore lunch. Although we got a late start, lost some time at the last rapid and are now stopping for lunch I realize there is a good chance we will be in Wunnummin tonight, two days ahead of schedule. I decide that if this happens we will leave tomorrow. This will enable me to barely get home Friday night with a few hours to spare to celebrate my 10 year wedding anniversary with my wife. I keep silent and will allow the crew to determine the outcome.
Entering Wunnummin Lake we begin looking for campsites. We paddle along the shoreline and amongst the small islands but can find no high dry ground. Jim S leads the way between Bury and Porter Islands. We see Wunnummin Peninsula not far away in the distance. There are no campsites to be found and we paddle towards a large sandy esker on Wunnummin planning to pitch our tents on its sandy beach. Arriving on shore we find the esker all torn up. It is now a gravel/sand quarry. We paddle south away from the town of Wunnummin and towards the airport and find a dirt road. Jim S and I hike the road to a gravel road and spy the airport in the distance. We can see orange cones at the end of the runway and the terminal lights barely visible above a huge mound of sand. We are unsure what side of the peninsula we need to be on. Our directions to the airport do not match what we are seeing. The two of us walk back to our canoes and meet Larry and Jim K. It is getting late. We have paddled 21K today and Jim S begins to make camp. Larry, Jim K and I hike back up the dirt road and across the huge mound of sand. There is sand and gravel everywhere. It crunches beneath our feet and I feel as if I am walking on the moon. Larry eventually finds a road that will take us down to the lake. There is a small campground beside the road with a picnic table. We return to our canoes and tell Jim S we have another 1-2K to paddle tomorrow in order to get to the airport. I tell the crew my plans on leaving. We pitch our tents between bushes on the water's edge, swim with 6-inch leaches, eat and turn in.
Wednesday, July 6th. Day 13
We arrive at the airport before 8:00 am and find everything locked. Shortly after 8:00 am the terminal building is unlocked and we move our packs inside. An Indian arrives and tells us our gear will be save where we have placed it. No one will mess with it because it is far from town and they have their own stuff to carry. I ask the Indian where I can find a phone and he tells me he has one at home. I begin to disassemble the PakCanoe stopping short of taking her completely apart until I can confirm we can get a flight out this afternoon. Eventually we realize the Indian we are talking to is a taxi cab driver, not an airport employee and he is hoping to drive this penniless crew to town. Eventually I am able to get into the locked maintenance shed and make a call to North Star Air. While making the call, Jim K barters a diving minnow fishing lure for a ride into town.
Joe Bluecoat, our taxi cab driver entertains us with stories of his family, winter roads, fishing, hunting, weather, gold mines, construction of the all year road to Pickle Lake and any other crazy question Larry can mustered. Joe drives us to town, points out a few businesses and takes us to his home where he invites us in for coffee. We walk around town and find the community to be extremely friendly and welcoming. We hike 4K back to the airport and grab lunch from our packs. Joe shows up for an incoming flight and once again entertains us. Larry inquires about moose hunting and what it takes to become a citizen of Wunnummin. We joke that Larry will have to assume an Indian name. He shall be called, "Dogface Yankee". A flight from Wasaya arrives and I have the opportunity to speak with some officers of the company before they depart. Joe gets no fares and continues to share his camaraderie for a few more hours with us. After he leaves we talk about what a nice guy he is and joke that all he made today was a measly fishing lure.
Late in the afternoon our flight arrives, a Turbo Otter on floats with retractable wheels. We help the pilot load two canoes inside the plane, my disassembled PakCanoe and all our gear. The pilot pumps half a barrel of fuel into the plane and tells us she is ready to board. In a cooler we find cold sodas and beer. It is a bumpy one hour flight. After landing, we taxi and park beside the loading dock where we receive curbside service. The employees of North Star Air quickly help us unload. Mat from Canoe Frontier and Jose are there to greet us. Mat has showers and towels waiting for us, tells us where we can find fuel so late in the day and makes hotel reservations for us in Ignace. After we get cleaned up and tell Mat some stories he gives the four of us souvenir Canoe Frontier bandanas.
All five of us meet at the Winston for dinner and share our stories. We learned that Jose drove to the Pipestone River and paddled up river to some lakes. Like us he battled the cold and rain. He fished, met some nice folks and has no regrets he did not join us on our trip. We hastily eat, pay our bill, fuel up and hope we can get to the hotel before they lock the hotel doors. It is going to be close. We have a three hour drive and it will soon be dark. Jose and I lead the caravan down Highway 599. We dodge one big bull moose, one calve and two bears in the road. We arrive a few minutes late at the hotel and learn from Larry and Jim S that we were also chased by a bear. Jim K continues on. He plans on driving throughout the night for Chicago to visit his daughter.
Nearing Thunder Bay Jose, Larry, Jim S and I make a detour to Kakabeka Falls. We marveled at the splendor and are in awe when we read the legend of Greenmantle. After crossing the border, Jose and I stop at Grand Portage National Monument and savor the moment of a voyageur's life. Friday afternoon I drop off Jose at his house and begin my drive home. I stop to get flowers and sneak into the house. My wife and three old soon are upstairs eating and watching cartoons. I surprised them, showered them with a few gifts and spend the rest of the evening celebrating our anniversary.
The Pipestone River is remote. Most of our problems and difficulty arose before Assin Lake. The route between Kingfisher and Wunnummin is easier and poses few obstacles. Weather is highly variable. Looking back, I can not say it was one of the hardest trips I have undertaken. I also can not say it was an easy trip. My goal was accomplished, creating some new challenges with a little more difficulty. At times I thought we were one step or half step away from making a bad decision that puts you into a situation where you make another bad decision that eventually creates a cascade of events where something bad happens. Overall, it was another good trip! Everyone rose to the occasion and learned something new, including Jose.
Now to get back to the unanswered question friends and family ask, "Why, why do you do it"? All I can say is that you have read our story. If you do not understand and are still asking why, then I am at a lost for words. My only response is, "You had to be there in order to understand. It is something you experience and live".
-Water levels were high and flowing fast. It may have been possible to line at lower water levels. Water levels were in the bushes and continued to rise during our trip. 1st Nation travel between Wunnummin and Kingfisher by motor boat ceased due to the severity of the rapids.
-Campsites were hard to find or possibly underwater. We stayed at numerous 1st Nation fish and hunting campsites or cabins. We avoided most islands due to constant rising water levels.
-The weather is highly variable and wind direction changed several times a day. Use caution on large lakes.
-Portages from the North Road to Assin Lake are poor or almost non-existent. The burn area is especially bad. Look for the sawed ends of down trees to locate the portage. Portages between Assin Lake and Wunnummin were cleared of down trees due to travel between Kingfisher and Wunnummin.
-We saw no one on the river and lakes. All fly-in fishing cabins were unoccupied.
-The airport at Wunnummin is not staffed. A telephone is available in a locked maintence shed if you can find someone to let you in. Otherwise you will need to hike north 4 km or paddle 12 km to Wunnummin to find a telephone.
-There are 2 errors on the topo maps.
Mohawk Solo 13 and 14
Bent Shaft Canoe Paddles
PFD's (Life Jackets)
Cartop Kayak Carriers