Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Canoe Comfort




Tracey and I hid like Indians, behind the glacial polished rock in the northern Minnesota autumn brush, as the boys came stumbling down the hill of the last portage, hauling packs and paddles with someone wearing the ‘big green hat’.  We listened to their banter as they dropped the canoe in the water and packed it up for the last short paddle across the bay to our prearranged rendezvous spot.

Minnesota wedding veil
We had separated into smaller groups for several days during our 10 day canoe trip to the Boundary Waters, for solitude and sanity, but my wife and I were anticipating a nice reunion with the three bachelor team and we had made camp earlier that day.  Like Lewis and Clark who, after being separated for weeks in western Montana, reconvened at the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Missouri within hours of the appointed time.  I gave the secret whistle, revealing my presence, when they started badmouthing us for picking such a sheltered camp site, away from the last big lake that lay between of us and home. 

We settled down on a cocktail rock to watch the clouding, red sunset and recap our particular adventures.  Some of us took quick, cold, naked baths in the semi secluded bay to our east.  Privacy was not as important as it was at the beginning of the trip.  It took a few days but we all found the rhythm of the trip and fell into it like it was second nature. 

Although the forests had all been cut down at the turn of the century and were comprised of mostly new growth trees, the wildlife had started to come back and dominate human intrusions.  We shared stories of bears and wolves, northern night lights and glorious fall days, smooth water and blow down forests, autumnal flora and fauna.  Our days had been filled with countless strokes as we paddled across an endless string of lakes, trolling an articulating Rapalla and catching fish as we rowed along.  Between lakes we would load our gear on our back and the canoes on our head, like a big green hat, and portage anywhere from 10 yards to 2 miles between lakes.  Nights were filled with measured feasts, ragging fires and bug-less sleep in cozy tents or on open beaches. 

A bull moose swam across the lake in front of us and disappeared into the trees.  Pete and Marty each took a canoe out to fish for dinner while we lounged.  They were soon back comparing booty.  Pete proudly displayed a nice 2 pound Walleye until Marty reached back into his Creel and rolled out a long thin 5 pound Northern.  We made a huge feast with our remaining supplies knowing we were one or two days paddle from the car and the bar.  No one had seen a weather report for a week or could anticipate the coming maelstrom as we stayed up late stirring and staring down the fire.

Evan Williams - Traveler
The rain started slowly, imperceptibly, around the warm fire but when we retired to our cozy tent, it began in earnest.  The boys scrambled to collect the food and dirty dishes and in a drunken stupor, proceeded to hang it all from the highest limb available, right next to our tent.  Nevermind, it was raining too hard for the bears to care.

There is no nicer place to be then in a tight and comfortable tent during inclement weather.  Let it rain, we thought, as we drifted to sleep.  During the night we were aware of the downpour and the waves of the deluge on the tent.  I rose only once for a pee break in the middle of the night and noticed the swamp forming around us and under other tents where there were flashlight scrambling to batten down the hatches.

When morning broke someone shouted for directions and a plan.  I called out that we should sleep in and let it pass.  This was no fast moving western rain storm and it felt like that could be a while.  We had some fruit and nuts and water with us in our tent and we were enjoying the change of the familiar morning routine and tempo.  After a while we peaked out to see Pete stringing up his extra tarp over the cooking area as he attempted to boil water for coffee on his stove.  Richard got up also to complain that his tent was submerged and his pad and bag were floating away.  They hunkered down under the tarp cooking and laughing and playing cards having so much fun in the storm that they brought each tent in the group a pair of hot mugs of steaming Joe. 

As the morning wore on it became clear that the storm was not breaking and there was a movement by those with floating tents to pack up and hit the lake.  We had to be out the following day or we would miss flights and appointments.  With more than 20 miles to paddle we had no time to waste.  We had a discussion under the tarp and then went out to the lake to have look.  The lake was raging with 3 foot white caps, sheets of rain and a 30 mph wind in our faces.  Not only would it be uncomfortable breaking camp and paddling, it was dangerous, life threatening - suicidal.

Back to the tents, for better or worse, we lounged out the rest of the day in wildly varying degrees of comfort.  By dusk we had another wet pow wow under the tarp as we drank our last cocktails and ate the last of our dinners.  These storms can last for days and we would be in trouble if it did not break soon.  Our retreat to our tents was less festive than it was the night before and a gloomy attitude prevailed over the group as we said good night.

Outstanding in her field.
We slept the sleep of the damned until I woke up to a strange sound shortly before first light - silence.  I poked my head out of the tent to see the full moon setting in the clear western sky, with only a wisp of floating clouds on the horizon.  I jumped out of bed and roused the soggy group.  We sprang from our beds with the energy of a 30 hour nap.  Fires were lit, stoves were activated, coffee was prepared and meager food supplies were shared.  Tents were dismantled and hung to dry and fresh clothes were found to wear as the first light broke the eastern horizon and a cool fog settled over the humid lake. 

By sunup we were in the canoes paddling for our lives.  The glassy surface and windless day provided no resistance and we made great time.  The day felt more like winter then it did summer as the season seemed to have changed overnight but we kept warm with our efforts.  We relaxed by afternoon enough to appreciate the changing surroundings.  The autumn leaves had been beat down into what were mostly bare trees under blue skies.  We stopped briefly for a quick lunch on a rock outcrop and ate the last of our hoarded nuts and figs. Ten days out and we were wearing our last warm dry socks and eating our last nibbles.  Providence or planning, we could not tell but we were unabashedly proud and joyful.

We covered 20 miles in record pace and by the time we reached the cars we had slowed to a crawl, trying to prolong the feeling and the trip.  We threw the canoes up top and the gear inside and headed down the sunset lane, warming to the heater and the old tunes on the radio.   Five miles out a long, lean wolf crossed our path, barely looking up as he forced us to slow for his crossing.  He gave us a look of spite and contempt, for our intrusion or for our lucky escape from his world where he was so at home and we were the uncomfortable visitor.