Entry & Exit Point:
Number of Days:
Well its been awhile since this trip, but I will try and
provide as many details as possible. Living in Yuma AZ at
the time I needed to find someone to trip with for
transportation. Posting on another board, I was contacted
by Gary Rauch for Pennsylvania who had a couple trips in the
B-dub. We talked and made plans for the end of May. I would
meet him in Cleveland OH to help with the driving, no
difference in airfare.
Heading out all was fine until we hit continuous rain from
the Ohio border to International Falls. This was a omen of
what the trip would be, winds from the east switching at
times but continuous rain. Crossing in to Canada was easy,
picked up leeches and head to French Lake. Gary had his own
SR solo and I rented a older SR solo from Doug Chapman, very
good canoes, you will really like them. Doug provided a
transport to Stanton Bay the next morning, very helpful and
Part 1 of 3
DAY ONE, on the water very early, down to Stanton Bay by 6:30 with fresh coffee from Doug. The bay was smooth as glass, with gray, cloudy overcast skies, loaded the canoes and headed out. The solo had less stability than my MR Slipper, but was a little faster. Coming out of Stanton Bay we stopped at one of the small islands and got our bearings and stretched our muscles. The wind was picking up from the north so we were happy with the wind to our backs, especially when it was getting stronger all the time. Heading across Pickerel Lake waves were getting big but we were at the point of no return, we headed south to tuck behind the island, just east of Emerald. I don’t have my maps, so much of this is from memory. Less than half-way across the wind suddenly switched and big waves started crashing into the waves from the north. The pucker factor was raising, going from 2 to a 8 very quickly. I have paddled big lakes in strong winds with my Slipper and never had a problem. I quickly recognized the SR did not handle as well in big waves and did not have the stability of my MR. We were close together and paddling hard, we would be behind the island in 15 minutes. Little did we know that things were getting worse. The waves crashing into each other were causing what I call peak waves, waves with a top and 4 sides, 3’ high. There was no way to turn that wouldn’t put you sideways in the troughs. Pucker factor a 10! Just 5-10 more minutes and we would be out of the peak waves and behind the island.
I don’t claim to be the best paddler, especially in whitewater conditions, which was probably my undoing. I suddenly found my self on the top of a peak wave, and found I could reach the water with my paddle. Pucker factor off the scale, heart was competing with my Adams apple for space in my neck. I then slid down the wave being turned sideways with the east waves. Unfortunately , that wave was big and had the height to take the whole canoe over into the water. Bracing I was trying for as hard as I could, there was no denying the inevitable. Over I went, RUBBER BOOTS and all.
Going under water, I noticed how clear it was, damn my “Cuban cigars” were floating away. I reached for them, but they were to far away, well now to take care of other priorities. The rubber boots were like anchors, trying to go up they just drug water, so I kicked them off to a watery grave, may the rest in peace. Gary was very close, I grabbed the upside of his canoe and threw a few small bags in his canoe. The boys at that time decided to disappear and I don’t think they came out for a couple days. It was that pins and needles feeling, not being able to breath, but knowing this was not the time to panic. My canoe was close so I dog paddled over and brought it close to Gary, he had no idea what I was going to do. Turning the canoe upside down, with the gear bags floating happily down the lake, I started a canoe over canoe rescue. Shoving the canoe over the top, Gary was then able to dump the remaining water out and turn it over and slide it back to me. With him holding one side I pulled myself up and over the side and sat in the bottom of the canoe.
Gary said he was going to get my big blue pack it was close and he would meet me farther down the island wherever the wind took him. My spare paddle was still lodged in the front of the canoe. My back was to the island, so I started to back paddle with all my strength to the island, with adrenalin going I had plenty of torque and quickly reached shore. There was one minor problem, The waves were crashing on shore and so big I could hardly get out. Kept losing my balance, being pushed away from shore and banging on rocks. I finally found a spot a little shallower close to shore and just rolled out and pulled the canoe up. The water hadn’t warmed up a bit even with the sun being out.
I turned to look for Gary and there was no canoe visible! Finally I spotted his hat bobbing in the water. They say you should never compound a disastrous situation by endangering yourself, better one dead than two. I thought about that and decided that was BS. Either we were both getting to shore or we would both be floating across Pickerel Lake and not in a canoe. He was to far from shore to swim in that cold of water, I paddled the last stretch in maybe 5 minutes. I don’t think he could make that paddle in less than 30 minutes minimum. I knew that I must get him or die trying, I would not be the one to tell his family I stood on watched him float away. Grabbing the canoe I had a hell of a time getting back in with the waves crashing into me. Finally I got in and sat in the bottom for the most stability and paddled like never before.
Getting to Gary I found he was clutching two bags to keep floatation, staying out as far as he could and one bag was big blue. We worked both bags into the canoe, knowing that having dry clothes were a necessity. I told him to hold on to the back of the canoe and try to provide some stability and I would pull him to shore. I then engaged the turbo, turned on the high octane and back paddle for our lives. Given the amount force needed to tow Gary, I was making good progress. Approximately 80-100 yards from shore another big wave hit just as Gary needed to switch hands from the upwind side to the downwind side. Over I went for the second time.
Then Mother Luck gave us a hand. Big Blue was stuck under the front of the canoe, Gary had the other bag in his grasp. I told him to swim to shore and I would bring the canoe, with no canoe we may have been in a bad situation. There was a point that I was so cold that just letting go and letting the numbness and hypothermia take me was an option. But I decided there was no way in hell someone was going tell my special lady that I died in Pickerel Lake. Suddenly my higher power and I were having a discussion, mostly one side, with me doing all the talking. Then I felt a warmth come over my body, my sense of panic and fear went away and I started to shore. I held onto the canoe with my right arm and power stroked with my left. I really don’t know how long it took, but I finally felt boulders and rocks beneath my feet. They were very slimy and slippery, so I kept going until I was on my knees with the waves picking me up and slamming me down. I finally got to a spot where I could get out of the water. Looking down the shore Gary was still on his knees but out of the water. Pulling the canoe and pack out of the water, I headed to Gary.
He couldn’t get to his feet, I don’t know if it from exhaustion, slippery rocks or hypothermia setting in. I did know that we needed to get out of the wet clothes immediately. Going back to the canoe I quickly dumped the contents of BB out. Helping Gary pull his wet clothes off, I then threw him the heaviest long johns, wool sweater, wool socks and extra rain suit. I then started changing into dry clothes and planning on how to get warm. Were smack dab in front of the wind now coming from the north. With no dry wood for a fire if could get one going. Then I had an ephany(sp), the big Menard tarp I brought. Remembering how they will absorb heat and increase it, I unrolled it and found a spot in the sun, laying down we both out of the wind, dry clothes and had solar heat. Its hard to tell time in those situations, but I eventually felt warm and Gary expressed he was also. Neither of us was mad or upset, things happened and no one died. Heck, everyone should have the opportunity to try new adventures.
Gary decided to walk the shore down to the bay and see if by chance anything had pushed in there. He was going to go in his stocking feet, but I found my Teva’s and he then headed out. Walking to a small point 30-45 minutes later, I viewed a bag that was sitting on shore a long ways away. Then I started wondering where Gary’s brand new purple SR solo was, in the bay or missed the bay and headed to Emerald Island or beyond. 30 minutes or an hour later Gary was back in camp with the food pack.
I had built a shelter with tarp and getting out of the wind we brewed coffee and ate beef jerky and soup. Gary said he found everything but my tackle box. He remembered it floating for awhile but the 3-5 pounds of jigs wanted to go fishing, after all they had the wireless transducer with them. I wonder how long it sat on the bottom and sending out a signal, must have been lonely. He said his canoe was hung up on some rocks off shore and he could see the front end. I wanted to put in at the bay and paddle across while he walked around to get his canoe. He said no its ok and will get it tomorrow, a tragic mistake. Curling up under the tarp with rain starting again with the wind howling we hunkered down for the night. It was a good day, not one that I want to repeat, but hey no one died and I found out that swimming in cold water can happen when you don’t panic.
Day Two- Canoe Repairs for Dummies We woke to clear skies and the wind blowing 35-40 mph out of the east. We then carried the canoe down to the bay, getting out of the big waves. I would paddle across and Gary would walk around collecting the gear he put on shore the day before. We recovered everything but my tackle box, thankfully we had split up the gear beforehand. Paddling over I spotted the rock Gary’s canoe was hung up on, the bow raising and sliding on the rock. Something didn’t look right. Pulling my canoe up and walking down the shore, I found the water between the rock and shoreline was 20’ and about chest deep. Did I mention it was cold, Gary used a thermometer later in the day and found water temps of mid 40s. Getting to the canoe was a moment of regret, I should of went the day before and pulled it out. It was split to within 2” of the bottom, aluminum plate on the front completely gone. The rivets had ground off being on the rock all night. Pulling the canoe up, I found his two one piece rods wedged in the back, one was broken. Floating the canoe to shore, I waited for Gary and my problem solving data banks went into overdrive. Gary came down and we carried the patient to a big sloping rock. I needed Gary’s permission to perform the operation and attempt to save the patient, but no guarantee could be given. He nodded in agreement, and I sent him out to go fishing and relax, he would be called when the patient was in the recovery room.
Surgical instruments and supplies were found and laid out carefully, lets begin. With the bow split the way it was it was impossible to pull the sides together and keep the from flexing. They needed to be flush to pull against each other. Pulling the unsterilized Fiskar surgical saw and unfolding it things began. Cosmetic surgery is so easy, pulled the sides together and took 2” of the front. Using the rivet holes to pull the sides together, the front became rigid and very minimal flexing. The nylon cord used can be found in some stores, the braided type not twisted. This I had purchased off E-bay and holds ~150 lbs, if you pull and break it, expect to hear the sound of a 22. The old saying about Duct Tape will fix anything is true, especially with Kevlar canoes. Cleaning the sides and letting them dry, the final step began. Running several strips of tape top to bottom and overlapping about ½ way. Then start from the bottom, began pulling tape across the front, starting 6” from the bow. Each layer was straight, no bubbles or creases and each overlapped ½ way. This layer was covered on the ends by another layer of tape vertically, then the horizontal was repeated and finally the vertical was applied and carried out to only a single layer.
Gary was called to the recovery room and told to take the patient home. At home on the lake he paddled for ½ hour and found no leaks and no flex. We then faced a major decision, head back to Stanton Bay, stay where we were or keep going. With a majority vote, we decided to go forward the next morning. Then it began to rain and we pitched the tent on a slope and fell to sleep listening to the rain. Bags packed and gear ready to go the next morning.
Day 3 Rising early with a fresh pot of coffee divided between us we headed out. Strong wind from the west, white caps, steady rain and a pucker factor of 7. We both were gunshy and took awhile to get our canoe butts back. We headed to Deux River, paddling into the wind or quartering most the way. Stopping once to rest behind a little point before crossing the last bay. We made it to the portage and paid homage to the canoe spirits. The portage was easy and we shortly were down to the next lake, I can’t remember the name. We then paddled into the wind never getting more than 50’ from shore. It wasn’t long and the next portage to Deux River was found. We unloaded and remembered this was a longer portage with grade. Upon arriving at the other end we meet two gentlemen that were coming back from Sturgeon Lake. We exchanged names, the normal canoe talk of how’s the trip was, what the weather was like, how’s fishing, how long your out, etc etc. Then they inquired to why I was wearing sandals with wool socks in 50 degree weather. We shared our “wash day”, looked at the canoe and talked about what we lost. They then gave us a dozen 3/8 and 1/2oz jigs, walleyes were deep.
Paddling down the Deux we watched for swimming logs they had told us about, but saw none. Coming out on Sturgeon we found the wind allowed us to quarter our way to Blueberry Island, I believe the first island in the north end. Getting to the island we spotted a cow moose and a newborn calf. Starting down the shore line the wind began to blow with more fury and the rain was coming down hard. Getting to the southern point it was apparent we were done for the day. The campsite is large and flat, easy to sit a tarp up, tent underneath and a dry cooking area out of the wind. We made coffee and supper and sat back and talked about the trip, family, friends, other trips and how we were blessed by the canoe spirits. We decided with the wind conditions and being still nervous with SR canoes we would avoid Sturgeon and head back the B-Chain. The next day was going to be a layover and fishing day.
Day 4 Rising the next morning we followed our ritual of making coffee, eating breakfast and gathering our jerky and cheese for lunch. We headed to the northeast to the first set of rapids, Gary looking for bass and I was on the prowl for walleyes. In less than two minutes we were both hooked up with our chosen fish. I was keeping walleyes to eat, he was letting bass go. Shortly the supper was on the stringer and it was catch and release. During this time I hooked several big fish, really big only trouble was I couldn’t get them to the surface to land. Gary was laughing as I was pulled around the pool and around the pool. Eventually the jig would straighten and they were gone. Tried bigger jigs and stronger hooks but same results. Didn’t want to sacrifice a fish to catch a sturgeon I wasn’t ready to land out of a canoe. I headed back to the island and intended to fillet the fish and start supper. Gary followed about 15 minutes later. Don’t know why but paddled into the wind and white caps to camp.
Getting to camp I pulled the canoe up and put it out of the wind. Looking to the eastside of the island, I spotted the cow moose swimming from the mainland and looking north. I figured she had seen me and started back and now was watching Gary. Eventually I lost sight of her. Shortly Gary pulled up and I asked him if had seen the moose. His reaction was classic, he is very animated when talking, looking up to me, I knew the answer was yes. He then explained he paddled to the north side of the island, wanting to avoid the wind and take a rest. Pulling up by shore he looked up and saw the cow and calf standing there. The cow had ears back and her nostrils were flaring out the size of dinner plates, He quickly back paddled and put distance between them. After all his canoe was already damaged once this trip. He was very excited and talked a mile a minute. Filleting the walleyes we were visited by the resident seagulls. Under the circumstances I wasn’t going to paddle to the mainland to fillet fish, and sure as hell wasn’t going to face a mad cow on the north end. Did it out on a rock away from shore that had waves washing over it. One seagull, named Jonathan Livingston came with 4’ and watched. With a supper of fish and snack of popcorn we call it a day.
This part of the trip was delayed to technical difficulties with the broadcast equipment. The culprit was found sitting on the kitchen table, looking out the window. Upon entering the abode, I found the laptop on the floor, monitor only works on top half. The floppy earred child was severly punished! He will go to bed with no snacks for a week, sleep on the floor and eat dog food. No spell check.
DAY 5 If I failed to mention it, rain and wind everyday, almost all day was the norm. Day five was the same, light rain in the morning, but a travel day. We decided to headed to Oliphant Lake. We set the big tarp each night to pitch the tent under and have a wind break. I hate getting into a tent in the rain. One thing I specialize in is setting up tarps and making fires during any conditions. With a quick breakfast and lunch pulled out for the day we headed back to the rapids and fished. I started across the portage before Gary and started through the next stretch of flat water. My memory is failing me now, because I can't remember the exact layout of this stretch. I know we finally came to the narrow area where Oliphant outlet and the deep pool below and short stretch of rapids, catching walley. I was joined by Gary and we fished a little longer but had limited luck.
The next portage was very short and we noticed the wind dying down and decided to bust butt across the lake. Don't really know why, maybe we were just paranoid. Heading along the north shore we stopped at the campsite just north of the island where the lake narrows. High up off the water, nice rock face where the fire ring was and tent site a little higher. Did I mention it was raining. Pitching the tarp and then the tent underneath we decided to make a simple supper, drink some coffee and call it a day. One thing I learned to appreciate on this trip was my habit of keeping a pair of clean, DRY wool socks in my sleeping bag. They never leave that bag except for taking on and off. Having wet feet everyday our feet looked like elephant skin but white! Tomorrow was going to be a day of blessing but the sun spirt.
DAY 6 Gary was up at first light and decided to go fishing back to the little rapids. I noticed something strange, I couldn't figure out why it was so quiet. IT wasn't raining, looking out there was blue sky everywhere with no clouds. I told Gary have fun, I am sleeping. I slept in all the way to 7am. I then started coffee and began looking for firewood, that was an easy task. 20 feet from our fire was a tree that had fallen over and was hanging over the fire area and was dead and dry. Whipping out the dual purpose unsterilized Fiskar operating utensil I had at the tree. With a couple strategic cuts I was able to pull a middle chunk out and the rest fell down. This was right over about a 3' rock face just behind and up hill of the fireplace. The tree measure about 20' long and was about 5" at the base.
The coffee was ready and a plan began to form in my head, a diabolical propartions. The likes of which have been repeated since man first discovered fire. Cutting and splitting firewood, the splitting was accomplished with my old Buck knife and a rock. Let those fancy knives try that!! I began to build a supply of materials for laundry, I was d#@m tired of wet, stinky and dirty socks and clothes. Given that it rained everyday and we were both wet footing, OH did I mention it rained all the time. I dumped out old BIG Blue, looking at what I could of left behind, the shorts, t-shirts and regular socks. I then pulled out Gary's bag and repeated the process. I went to the lake and filled BB with several gallons of water, adding a generous squirt of camp suds and then a big pot of boiling water and wet, stinky, dirty clothes.
I hung BB from a tree branch and began to slosh all the content about. I repeated a cycle that is known to most, slosh to the right, slosh to the left, let sit, repeat let sit and repeat. All the while looking over a calm lake with blue skies and not one rain cloud. Hauling BB back up the hill farther and walking out a ways, the water was dumped and contents taken back to the fire. Where a rinse cycle was prepared and the contents given a shorter version of the process. Most of the clothes were hung on the tarp lines to dry. But a delimea arose, the beloved wool articles were not going to dry in 5 mph winds and 60 degree temps. BUT, I had a plan. Building a fire and getting a good bed of coals next to the rocks, I began laying the socks, pants and sweaters on the rock face. Steam was rolling of them and it was like cooking pancakes for breakfast. Let them get to a certain point of drying on one side and then flip them over, repeat as necessary.
Looking across the lake I saw Gary paddling back, for the first time he was gently paddling and gliding, until now a pleasure we hadn't enjoyed. When he arrived it was time for fresh walleye, pancakes and coffee and sitting and relaxing in the sun. We were in heaven. My afternoon was spent fishing in the inlet of Oliphant and the narrow stretches of the lake. Many walleye and bass that day, lots of fun. Gary stayed and finished the laundry, packed the bags and the day ended with fish supper, popcorn and coffee. While unpacking BB I found 2 boxes of Swisher Sweets that were strategically placed in the first aid kit. We kicked back, watched the fire and stars and talked about the journey and laughed.
Day 7 The sky was blue to the south and west, but we were heading east, making for Fern Lake or B-chain of lakes. Drying the tent out and folding the tarp was accomplished before the coffee was ready, so I started cutting and splitting firewood, leaving a very abundant cache of firewood and kindling. Hope the next groups left wood for the next. Gary went to the lake and found an otter trying to get the top off the leach locker. We were using one that had a screw on lid and a smaller snap-on lid. He chased it off and came back up to the camp. With 32 oz. of coffee, a little jerky and Swisher Sweets, I was ready for the day.
We agreed that we would fish the stretch of water between Oliphant and Fern and meet at the upside of the Fern portage. Getting to the canoes and packing the bags we were ready to head out, but were missing one snap top leach locker. Gary paddled down the shoreline to the NW area and I headed along the NE shoreline and working east. After 20 minutes Gary found no locker, but did find the family of otters. About that time guess what happened? It started to rain, no kidding, big drops, little drops, a few drops and then lots of drops. When we found rain that year, it was accompanied by strong winds for the east. Meaning they must be at least 25-35 mph with gusts, after all it wouldn’t be challenging otherwise.
Fishing the falls/rapids inlet of Oliphant Lake the walleye and bass were hitting hard, we fished hard expecting to have time to make it to Fern by 3pm and then find a campsite. The big pool below the Fern Lake was pushing water hard and made it hard to maneuver the canoes. I finally strung a rock for an anchor and was catching small eyes and bass. Gary stated he lost a huge walleye, but didn’t have a photo or anything. We had a steak dinner on the biggest walleye. Having worked our way to the top of the pool we had two choices; A. We go back to the end of the portage and start from there or B. We pull the packs and canoes up about 70 feet to the portage at the middle and make for the top. We choose B, but why not, hell anyone can do a long portage, but going almost straight up for 70 feet, now that’s fun!!! It’s even more fun when the rocks and slopes are slippery and the wind is trying to twist the canoe out of your hand. I never take a watch on trips for two reasons. I hate to be on a schedule, being willing to take things as they come. I don’t want to know how long it takes to accomplish some tasks.
Part 2 of 3
Once we pulled the gear and canoes up to the portage trail we stopped for more coffee, jerky, cheese and Swishers. Philosophers that we were we philosophized and sat and relaxed. Talking about the section of water we fished and where we each caught fish. Looking at the map we though it would take about 40 minutes at the most to the Fern Lake portage to B-chain. Being delusional and not being of sound mind, we agreed to not fish Fern until the portage. Jumping up like a heard of racing turtles we headed east, it was our destiny and we would not be denied. I crossed the goat portage first and arrived on the east end to whitecaps and a brisk wind. Joined by Gary, we laughed and thought if we just stayed in the portage area we could live for several months and abscond with food and necessities from groups moving through. Hell, it was the bears that did it! But with wet feet and smelling of wet wool we decided to head out.
The plan was to hold to the north shore and meet at the portage on the NE corner of Fern. The whole trip I used my BB bent shaft paddle and would paddle away from Gary, he could keep up or make a little more progress with his kayak paddle. With my Popeye forearms and shoulders of sinew, I headed into the tempest. I could only hope Gary was following and would stay on the shoreline and not try to cut across the small bays. I can paddle for hours and put miles behind me either solo or tandem. I paddle straight and steady with power and efficiency. You wouldn’t know it this day, keeping into the wind was especially important because the gusts would grab the canoe and attempt to swing you around. I was loaded heavier in front trying to get the weather vane effect to keep the stern where it belonged. It took some hard draw or pry strokes to keep going straight.
I glanced back several times for Gary making sure he was following the edge and not out in the open. He was falling behind but still moving. I noticed people on the island site watching our progress, they waved but being the way I was, never waved back. Hell, I didn’t dare. I found a small cove mostly out of the wind and backed into shore and waited for Gary. A large section of the north shore was hit by fire, not very much blocking the wind. Gary paddled in and we took a long rest, maybe all of 5-10 minutes. The portage at the mouth of the river dumping into Fern was our goal and then we would push on.
Paddling hard along the shoreline has a distinct disadvantage at times, I sure could of walked the shoreline and made better time, while skipping stones. It was getting to the point of wearing out some part of the body. Eventually the neck, back, arms or hands are going to drop off and float away with the waves. Did I mention it was RAINING. Rain jackets were kept the water off you body, but it would slip down the back of your neck. Ohh and we were a little off the estimate of 40 minutes. When finally landing at the portage we found it took, 2 ½ hrs. Hitting the shore I waited for Gary to finally round the point and work hard on getting the front headed back to shore. The portage and campsite are the same spot and I didn’t care, we were done for the day.
We broke out the tarp and began setting up a wind break and tent. If someone walked through the site, they would of earned the right. After supper we fished the mouth of the river and caught a few walleyes and bass. Heading to bed we got into dry clothes and socks, Gary was very glad I bought 6 extra pairs from the start of the trip. I decided to head down to the river mouth and fish after dark. Wow, did I have fun! 8-10 casts were a fish, mostly walleyes with a few bass. Largest eye about 27”. Tried to get Gary down to lake to join me but wasn’t moving from his bag. I fished for almost an hour and caught 35+ fish. Throw a light jig up in the current and then wait for a tap or subtle pull and set the hook. A great way to end a another tough day. It was still raining as we fell asleep.
Day 8 We woke to high winds and light rain, got the coffee going and made pancakes for breakfast, a little extra energy for the day. Gary had headed out early and had his bags packed and was fishing until the pancakes were ready. We discussed the wind and rain, how far we could go and the route if were split up and I needed to backtrack to find him. We finished packing, packed the canoes and waded up the river to get past a fast stretch of water. This another of the confusing stretch concerning lake names, we were on the B-chain but not sure of the order. Gary fished the pool below the falls, while I mover across the portage. Since things were slippery and wet I doubled portaged and meet Gary just as he was coming across the first time.
I told him of my plan to slip behind a island to get out of the wind and would double back and watch for him. Given the strength of the wind and waves it made a interesting challenge of keeping an angle with the waves and actually make progress and not be pushed to shore. I rounded the island and worked back in the shelter of the mainland to watch for Gary. I looked over and saw Gary heading out from the portage, since my departure the winds had picked up and waves were big, really big. Gary was headed to the island in the middle, the man had a plan. Getting to the island, allowed Gary to quarter the waves and would give him the wind to his back on heading to island passage where I was sitting. I waited until he was rested and starting to turn his canoe in my direction, and then I stood on the tallest rock and started to wave. He finally waved his paddle and headed my way. With the wind behind him and waves rolling he was surfing coming across the lake.
The only thing was he could do little to try and turn and hit the channel, I scrambled down and waved him to shore, we could portage over a stretch of land and be ok. He was very excited by the time he got to shore. Something about 3ft waves and not touching the water with paddle. This brief moment of talking in “tongues” passed. We headed up the next stretch of river out of the wind and fishing on the way, knowing the whole time that the wind and waves were looming around a corner. Lollygaging along we caught fish, many large boulders to fish amongst. But alas the next lake called! Ohh, it was raining again. Then Gary mentioned meeting a young couple he meet at the falls before and they had capsized in front of the falls but received no injuries and only lost a couple of items to the water. Hug the shoreline and paddle like hell, that was our motto. Hug the shoreline and paddle like hell, Hug the shoreline and paddle like hell, Hug the shoreline and paddle like hell, Hug the shoreline and paddle like hell. Kinda catching isn’t it.
Well hugging the shorline wasn’t hard the waves wanted to smash you onto the shoreline. I decided we were done for the day when I looked over and I was losing or maintaining my position on the shore. It was a small stretch of lake but huge waves. We made it to a point and I called it quits. The rest of the day would be into the wind and no let up in sight. I quickly moved the bags on shore and turned to help Gary get out. We had a established routine, I would help him out and he would always help me in, my knees had started giving out in the last few years. Standing up was ok, sitting down into canoe was hazardous.
The portage was 100 yds away and 10 yds wide. Just as well been across the Mississippi during flood season. There were a group of scouts and leaders camped on the rock ledged between the two lakes. They were standing in the wind, no tarp, barely a fire and only tents for shelter. Pulling the tarp out, we quickly had a wind shelter, tent cover and cooking area setup. Making some coffee and settling down for the day we watched the scout group and shook our heads.
Another day of listening to rain, hearing waves smash on rocks, branches breaking in the trees and decided we should try fishing from shore. The point provide a good current break, but only provided a few small fish, a loon and a small brown bat. The bat fell out of a big crack after one big wave, swept it up with a net and set him higher up in the crack. We spent the afternoon and early making snacks, popcorn with butter, casadeias, pancakes and coffee. I had my Swisher Sweets. We napped and then went to bed hoping tomorrow would be quieter. Scouts were still standing in the rain. Slipped on the wool socks and fell asleep in the tent.
Day 9 Two days of hard rain and wind put us behind our schedule. Yesterday we made less than two miles and were facing strong winds again, but out of the east. We would have some protection by hugging the shorelines. Rising early we had coffee and pancakes for breakfast, while packing and getting to the tasks of the day. Walking down to the canoes my left knee gave out and I started to roll into the lake, luckily Gary grabbed my pack and I didn’t go all the way in. Getting one leg wet to the knee, legs and arms kicking in the air like a upside-down turtle. Very lucky it was deep water there, having two previous shoulder surgeries I have a hard time getting packs on and off. Hum, faced down pack on top, trying to get out, only want to try that in warm water where I can stand. It was just one more thing we faced and laughed about, one more done that, don’t want to try again.
Loading the canoes and heading all of 50 yards across the lake we hit the rock peninsula and portage the 20 yards at the most to the next lake. Bud, Bernie, Bob, ohh one of the B-chain of lakes. We headed up the southern side of the lake hugging the shore, paddling like hell. Stopping a couple times talking about coming back to this stretch and fishing another year, which we did in 2005. Taking our time to begin with we drank coffee, paddled and discussed areas to fish, but kept pushing forward. The rain and wind picked up and we smiled at each other and laughed, give us what you got because “We ain’t scared”. Getting to the next portage and rapids/falls, I portaged my gear across and came back to fish with Gary for ½ hour, he then moved his stuff across and we headed across to the next portage. This time we were directly into the wind and working hard to make progress, but no complaining just accepting the tasks.
Coming to the start of the river section from Pickerel Lake we started to fish areas and were catching eyes and bass. Finally I moved as far up the river as possible and pulled to shore and headed up the portage, Gary was still fishing. I had most of my gear/bags across before Gary started his portaging. I headed back to help him and he was sidetracked to the pool in the middle stretch and started fishing and catching. I headed to the dam area and looked for the group that had two canoes sitting by the dam. They were camped just to the east of the dam and were settled in for the day. They came over and introduced themselves after awhile. Imagine they thought it was really windy and rainy over the 3 days they had been in. I was shocked!!!
I laid down in the sand and took a short nap, with the rain falling on my rain jacket, the rhythmic pattern that was the norm this trip, not the exception. Gary showed up and we started loading up and reviewed the map and got squared away with the compass.
We headed up between the islands, song in my head, planning to use the islands to shelter us from Tess and Mariah. Our constant companions on this trip, lulling us to sleep at times and beating a rhymithic tune on our coats and hoods. Then snatching us awake with a ferocity of chaos and uncertainty. We headed out to face what would be come a classic one day challenge and search in the Marshes of Lost Canoes. 15 minutes paddling and we were enveloped by fog that dropped visibility to less than 50 feet at times. We hedged our way to the east believing we could keep out of the wind and gradually work north.
The map showed some marsh area but didn’t seem to cover much territory. Tess would be our companion today, tapping us with her drops of magical music, lulling us into thinking we had a plan. While working to the east and north, “I” made the decision to cut through a gap. Little did I or Gary know this was the opening to a maze of cattails, lake weeds and small islands and unseen creatures of the lake. We found ourselves at a shallow area that faced more open water after paddling ½ hour. Stopping to look at the map, there was no telling where we were other than being on Pickerel Lake and in a marshy area. Fog limited our ability to find landmarks get our bearings. But what the hell, we were on Pickerel Lake and would make due.
We covered a large area of shallow water 3-7 feet deep, it looked like heaven for bass and northerns later in the year. The next two hours were navigating the labyrinth of waterways, seen ghostly images out the corner of your eye, fleeting images of islands in the fog, open passages beckoning, come this way. Finding a island with an blow down pine tree we stopped to rest. Pulling one canoe up and putting it over the stump we could then place the tarp over the canoe and stump and have a good area to avoid Tess and reflect on our predicament.
We agreed that our location was just to the south of the mainland and near the area that would lead us onto the main part of Pickerel Lake. To the NE was an area that invited a unwary traveler to conceive the idea of bushwhacking/ paddling through an area to say distance and time. We discussed this option and decided against it, we would look another day. Taking time to dry socks and eat a hot lunch with coffee we rested. Patience is important under stressful situations and wanting for options is best when not faced with a immediate disaster.
Suddenly the fog lifted for a brief moment and we picked out several landmarks from orienteering the map to north and taking headings and layout we could view. We were less than a quarter mile from the spot we needed to be to follow the mainland east to French Lake. We were free! With a sense of relief we relaxed and made preparations to head the next point of our journey. While resting we repeated a ritual that started several day before. My fingers were wet so often and under the constant conditions the skin on my finger tips were splitting. From the nails to the first joint, just the lightest of pressure would cause the to split all the way to flesh. Gary would cut small strips of duct tape and then using paper towels would wrap the finger tips to keep them protected. They would continue to split but it did lessen the pain.
We donned our semi-warm, smelly wool socks and packed the canoes. ¼ mile and we would be moving down the Pickerel to French. Heading north we made to the point, getting closer to the main lake we noticed whitecaps rolling from the ENE, Dejavu. Getting to the point I told Gary to hold still until I found out what the lake condition was just around the point. Coming around the point it was quickly evident that we were done for the day. Yelling back I told Gary to not come out. I was quickly feeling a pucker factor of 8-10 building, but spotted a small cove big enough to turn one canoe around and them work back around the point. Gary was worried since it took awhile to maneuver around the cove and come back, he had visions of the first day. Luckily we discovered a campsite with needles for cushion and out of the reach of Mariah. We were down for the day. Gear hauled up the shore we watched a couple canoes slip out behind some islands and headed to the small island just north of mainland we were on and setup for the night. Out came the tarp, food on the stove and coffee was brewing, we discussed the trip and what could be different, but no major regrets. Things happen deal with them. Sitting on the west shore we watched the whitecaps roll to the island where we spent our first night, in the same conditions. Moving back to the tarp and tent, we worked on drying two pair of wool socks, with limited success. Beat-up but not beaten down we made a beeline to the tent, planning on getting up at first light.
FINAL DAY: RACE TO FRENCH LAKE Up at first light, I let Gary sleep and walked to the west shoreline and looked across the lake. Whitecaps from the north point across the lake with Mariah whistling her song among the pines. Crawling back into the tent, Gary rolled over and I told him to go back to sleep, we needed to wait. My private thoughts started with some anxiety, what if the wind didn’t die down, we would need to wait another day, would it be a day of switching winds or paddling all day into the wind.
Looking at the map, I estimated about 10-12 miles to French Lake. We would wait, patience is the solo caners necessary guidance in many situations. Checking about 3 hours later the waves were still rolling but definitely smaller, but not gently rolling. We decided it was time to leave. My feet were sore from being wet for days, but I had another plan to deal with this predicament.
I needed my feet dry, dry for the whole day, not just for the start of the day. I pulled out a large contractor garbage bag, always carrying extras. Starting from the bottom of the bag, I cut upward at an angle with the cut ending equal to the length of my knee to my toes. I repeated this process with the other half. Taking the duct tape, I carefully ran tape down the length of the cut seam, tight no wrinkles no bubbles. Since this was our final day, I was willing to sacrifice my bone dry sleeping bag socks. Pulling the socks on and following with the plastic water socks. Taping the socks above the ankles and above the calf, they were adequate with the Teva sandals on, but don’t ever try to walk with the just the socks on, then are skis on pine needles.
Coffee cups filled and a small snack eaten we asked each other “ARE YOU READY?”. We loaded the canoes and were determined to make French Lake. Heading north we rounded the first point to head into a strong 20-25 mph wind, few gusts but steady from exact directions we were headed. Tess had taken the day off. Clear skies but it was going to take perseverance and stronger willpower and personal strength.
Much like the days before we would use islands to block some wind and work east. There was a point in the lake that islands would not be an option and I planned to hug the shoreline. I figured we left about 7am that morning. Once we headed east Mariah gradually began to build in strength , but was consistent in direction. We were in for a paddling challenge of determination and strength of which would challenge many solo paddlers. I began the rhythmic pattern of switching sides as needed holding the SR solo into the wind. Focused on holding a straight line, not losing time or distance.
Time was replaced by cadence, strokes automatic with songs from the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker dancing, meditation at the basic level. Body on auto-pilot and brain having a quiet day. Moving along the south shore as needed we noticed the group from yesterday, they were watching our progress and waved. There was a sense of encouragement and protection cast across the water. Gary was having difficulty keeping up with the wind and strong waves. Pulling close to the next island, I pulled his kayak paddle from the back and he pushed it together.
Suddenly there was a ringing coming from my big pack, MY PHONE had risen from the depths. Submerged 9 days earlier it had finally dried out enough to tell me the battery was low. While I found the phone Gary headed to the next island. Following Gary, he suddenly headed toward the south shore and something of color on the shoreline. When I arrived he was pulling on a rain fly that was buried under a foot or more of sand and gravel. The tent itself was farther down the shore, but buried to deep to recover without shoveling and working for hours. Time we did not have, Gary threw the rain fly and a water bottle in his canoe and we headed out.
We had talked about the conditions in the last week and how ad it would be to lose your tent. Made us wonder about how that group faired and if the went back, forward or faced a tragedy. Silent prayers were sent across the lake to help protect all. We were making progress but it was slow, turtles could swim faster then us. We decided to take breaks when we could, knowing our energy was needed if Mariah decided to call louder. I can’t tell you the timeframe or stops needed, but remember shoulders calling for relief, but being encouraged by instinct that the next shelter was just ahead. Keep a straight line, keep a straight line.
Part 3 of 3
We reached a point just before the PINES that was open to Mariah and she was hailing us to stop, turn back, but we continued. I watched Gary try and make it straight across the bay to the Pines, I decided to avoid the bay and went into the previous mode of “Hug the shore and paddle like hell”. I watched Gary and hoped I wouldn’t have to make a dash for him if trouble happened. If I went over it would be close to shore and little swimming needed. I struggled to making a quartering route to the south shore, it was hard to keep Southern Rock in my brain, when I was cussing a SR solo. Give me my MR solo any day, I have faced these waves before and didn’t feel a pucker factor over 6.
Finally Gary decided to start side slipping working his way to shore. Half way down the bay, the Pines forced Mariah to tone down her song, a little farther and the bay became quiet with only a ripple. Every muscle in my body began to relax, a slow paddle, lean back and stretch, watch for Gary’s progress and finally pull onto the sand beach at the Pines. I pulled the canoe up and took of the water socks, stripped down to my nylon shorts and laid in the sand. My body saying thank you to each other, thankful to be there, dry and safe.
Gary joined me shortly and had trouble getting out of his canoe. He was very tired and needed the rest more than me. We slept for ½ hour or more, had a light lunch and viewed the white caps rolling around the point. Strategy was planned and ways to handle the transition on the point. I was worried about the point where the canoe would be sideways to the wind. Then needing to make a turn into or quartering with the wind. I planned on working to the point and making the change before hitting the wind, working out gradually to control the canoe direction before hitting the main water and quartering the waves to shelter of the north shoreline. Gary planned on going to the point and just turning and heading straight across. He had a 5 minute lead and was around the point and paddling hard.
I started the quartering, mostly focused on the far shore. I suddenly heard a hello and looked up to see two canoes riding the waves head in the opposite direction. They asked about our trip and days progress and seemed to be surprised we had started from the dam around 7am. Well duh, they weren’t even paddling, and I was working hard, not much time to talk. Mariah was singing her song and everyone was listening. It seemed like and hour to get across the bay and into the river between Pickerel and French. I beat Gary across and waited for him, we paddled slow taking a rest for tired muscles.
Paddling up the river we heard a boat motor and shortly meet a park boat headed out to Pickerel Lake, we wondered if someone had drowned or needed help. Quiet prayers for all. We both knew the final stretch would be the toughest, the wind was howling, whitecaps from shore to shore. Entering the final stretch of river to French Lake the waves were partially blocked by the reeds, but we found ourselves in shallower water to avoid the waves. We agreed to hold the south and east shore lines and hope for no repeats of the first day. Mariah switched her song to another octave and from another direction.
The last mile or so would be the hardest of the trip. A challenge thrown down by Mother Earth, finish the trip on the water or walk through the woods. There was no way in hell I was walking, I would not stop now, shoulders and back tired and sore but they could take more. Waves over the front, waves be damned, finish on the water, not listening to the winds scam. I kept the shore on my right and paddled, short strokes with the bent shaft Bending Branches that has made every trip. How long I don’t know, the focus was on moving forward however slow it was, occasionally looking back to check on Gary.
I finally looked up to see the parking ramp area. 50 yards, 40 yards, 50 feet, 20 feet and finally land. Trip finished, looking back I didn’t see Gary. Apprehension was building, he was struggling, did he turtle or was he coming. Finally after several minutes he came along walking the shoreline, a trip finished or just stopped short. This was the toughest trip ever, for challenges and trials faced. Fears and dangers were faced and driven back or quietly embraced. A trip with a great partner, one who didn’t get wound up about the events, never giving up.
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