Fighting the elements and a ‘bug’
BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
We paddled north by northeast on Jackfish Bay under clear skies and a rising wind that had tree tops in turmoil. The wind was hard from the west and we held tight to the lee shore where we would find calmer waters. Should we stray too far out the wind would catch us and the canoe would be at its mercy.
We’d put in at Mudro Lake in the middle of the Boundary Waters. It was a busy place. A group from Kansas. A trio of young guys in one canoe. A couple from Missouri, Rob and Mary. They were dating, in the middle of a budding relationship. A true test of a relationship is how well a couple travels together. That and a second challenge: How well does a couple do in a tandem canoe? Rob and Mary rolled the dice, traveling and paddling both.
Under blue skies and a budding wind, we paddled out, portaged to Sandpit Lake with the threesome in their canoe and Rob and Mary. Then we went our separate ways and turned easterly toward Jackfish Bay. We passed two campsites on the southern end of Jackfish; fishermen at both. Then we were on our own. We would not see another person that day.
Jackfish Bay is a lobe of Basswood Lake and Basswood Lake is big water, near 25,000 acres. If the wind was coming from the north or east we’d not have attempted to paddle it. The westerly winds were to our left and we were sheltered by a buffer of trees and hills.
We paddled north, five miles, maybe six. Then a gap in the sheltering lee shore opened and the wind hit us like a fist. The wind caught the canoe, turned it and for a moment there was a gut-shot of panic.
Looking across the half mile gap of lake to the far side, the lake was wild with white-capped waves. Decision time; head into the heavy chop or pull up. Our canoe is named Northwind, a nod to its seaworthiness. The canoe would handle the big water. Could we?
We turned into the wind. The canoe stalled; the waves rolled. Then we started to move, arms and shoulders straining. The canoe responded and we slowly eased away from the land behind into the rage of wind and wave.
It took time but we made the far shore and found shelter of pine and spruce. We caught our breath. Then we turned north and paddled another hour.
We camped above Basswood Falls. I started a fire, coaxed it to life and full flame and controlled fury. The fire burned down and we cooked tenderloin steaks over the coals.
Across the open water was Canada. It was peaceful. We did not see another person that night. When the sound of the wind calmed we could hear the sustained thunder of Basswood Falls.
Next morning we paddled to the portage at Basswood Falls. The portage is a mile long. There is no easy way to walk a mile while carrying a pack and balancing a canoe, no matter how light, on one’s shoulders. I walked a slow mile. Then I put the canoe down, shrugged off the pack and headed back to the head of the portage. There were two more packs and I carried them down. Down and back and down again; three miles.
We met a pair of young guys from Florida, doing a west-to-east route that would end, if all went well, at Lake Superior; 220 miles total, the one said, maybe 230. They were behind schedule and worried about their progress.
We stopped mid afternoon just below the maelstrom of Wheelbarrow Falls and above the short gorge of Lower Basswood Falls. We found wild roses and a single pink lady slipper, delicate pinks at odds with the harsh land.
I had slept poorly the first night, slept worse the second. On the third morning I woke tired after a restless night. We started late and paddled the Horse River to Horse Lake then portaged to Fourtown Lake. It was early afternoon and the wind was angry, a sea of whitecaps ahead.
We considered things; cross the lake into the wind or not? We decided not to and turned south, found a campsite. I was exhausted. I lay in the sun on the grass and fell asleep. I woke chilled, had no appetite and went to bed at dusk. In the dark of night I spiked a fever and woke to a sweat-wet sleeping bag and a daybreak decision: Push on or head in?
We had two more nights on our permit. I was feeling bad but not terrible. But what to gain? What to risk? In the end we paddled out and drove to Ely.
The following day we took the canoe for a short trip to Hegman Lake where a set of pictographs is painted on the rock face on the north end of the lake. There is mystery and power in the pictographs, painted hundreds of years ago. Rusty orange, small but of a majesty far greater than size alone. In our odd age when bombastic posturing seems the norm I find solace in looking at the silent work of an unknown artist that has stood for ages and will for ages yet to come.
We let the canoe ride easy and looked at the pictographs a long time. Then we turned for Ely and the next day for home.
A few days later we had dinner with friends. I explained the odd circumstances of my maladies. “Sounds like when I had Lyme’s,” he said.
Two days later a blood test; next day the result: Positive for Lyme disease.
With that an explanation, in part, of the long, dark nights in the Boundary Waters when sleep did not come easy and rest not at all in the land of wild lakes and far-reaching horizons and dreamless nights.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.