Thursday, February 06, 2014

Open Water Memories

Here are a couple more days from one of my late fall Quetico paddling adventures.

October 9, 2012 Batchewaung Lake Quetico Provincial Park

 Cold winds usher out the rain overnight, and we pack up under low hanging clouds.  The featureless gray ceiling of clouds we have become accustomed to begin breaking up, and the seemingly unsympathetic sun appears.  Our damp crew heads north, towards our first portage.  Multiple beaver dams are overcome before we reach the actual portage.  I am happy to deal with them in daylight, instead of the gloom we would have surely fumbled through last night, had we not found a site.  We haul over into Walter Lake and elude increasing winds by paddling the shadows of steep shorelines.  Walter’s black waters open up and we are forced to deal with the wind.  Carefully we quarter into northwest breezes.  Nefarious dark blobs whirl out of the horizon and spit bitter drizzle at us.  It is the beginning of a trend.  Throughout the day we would work to stay ahead of capricious skies, constantly doffing and donning rain gear.  After a short carry into Elizabeth we reach the 740 meter portage into Jesse, the longest since our struggle through the quagmire south of Trant Lake.  The well-worn track winds through open stands of jack pine, and up and over numerous slight hills before opening up into an expansive beach.  Obviously wolves use it more than humans.  A dozen picturesque islands provide shelter and we easily paddle up Jesse.  The portage into Maria is immaculate.  Portions of it have been built up with gravel and channels for drainage.  It is clear we are getting close to the edge of the park.  After a short paddle and a shorter portage we drop packs on the shores of Pickerel Lake.  Temperatures have been dropping all day, and the drizzle turns to snow.  The snow squalls pick up in frequency and intensity, making for painful progress.  A nasty one rears up as we turn west.  Our red bare hands are easy prey for the biting gusts.  Whizzing chunks of slush sting the face and jab our eyes.  I can barely look up.  We fight our way into the Batchewaung Narrows and gain some respite.  The idea we would make it up to Nym Lake disappears with the sun and the sight of hulking whitecaps blanketing the surface of Batchewaung Bay.  We’ll be lucky to make it much farther at all.  We linger long enough for the squall to taper, make our move and swiftly work towards the closest island.  The cry for a fleece glove from our red aching hands is ignored as we thrust paddles out of necessity into the frosty water.  Try not to dwell on the pain.  As soon as our canoe reaches the leeward side of the island we shove stiff fingers into armpits and double over.  After warming our throbbing hands slightly we move on down the shore and find a campsite.  Half of the site is exposed, but the back half offers much needed protection from the bracing gales and the thickets surrounding the site are choked with dead downed trees.  Considering the strenuous day we seem set up for a pleasant night.  Northwest winds pick up during our stir fry dinner and the snow starts accumulating.  I take one last look at an increasingly wintry scene as I draw the zipper on the tent, and dream in color.  Golden reflections of emerald and cerulean loom over a tiny white canoe.  Beneath a cloudless sky it drifts towards a warm horizon where it teeters a second before sinking with the sun.
October 10-11, 2012 Atikokan, Ontario

Noticeably calmer winds and colder temperatures greet us as we wake.  Heavy frost encases everything.  As the weakening sun pokes through the tree line we stoke a fire and decide to leave camp set up while we spend two days in Atikokan.  This allows for a quicker departure and soon we are moving easily into light headwinds.  The sun breaks free of the horizon into a sky filled with tiny gray wisps, which rarely diminish its full potential.  It has been a week since the sun has warmed our backs and the glorious natural warmth encourages us to move consciously towards the only portage of the day.  Minds reflect and stomachs yearn as we coast towards the completion of the first leg of our journey and Poutine Deluxe.  The portage out of Batchewaung is heavily dusted with glittering snow.  An uncontrollable smile creeps across my face as I climb towards Nym Lake.  There is a curious magic in portaging through a white wilderness.  Invigorated, we make double time across the cabin blemished shoreline of Nym.  The whole time our eyes are locked on a blurry green and white sign that I know is the landing.  We know we’ve made it when finally our eyes discern the mystic word “Quetico”.  Canoes are stashed, and we begin following a faint yellow stripe down the middle of a long neglected public access road, soon it deposits us next to a bullet hole riddled stop sign and the Trans-Canadian-Highway.   We drop our pack and paddles on the shoulder as a bulky logging truck roars by drawing with it a swirling cloud of freshly fallen snow.  A Wednesday morning is apparently not the best time to try and hitch a ride in the middle of Ontario as we stare down an empty highway in both directions for 10 minutes.  Just as we start thinking of walking the 11 miles the first truck to pass stops.  Synthetic warmth oozes out of the passenger window as he asks us where were heading, Atikokan of course.  We hop into his cozy cab and within a minute are hurtling dizzyingly past a blurring landscape.  A bit of small talk reveals that the hydroelectric plant (who knew?) is currently being overhauled by men and women from across this great province.  As we swing into the insipid outskirts of Atikokan I wonder what effect an influx of non-native construction workers will have on the availability of rooms in the few local hotels.  Quickly we realize it is having a total affect as the words “No Vacancy” glower from every hotel window in town.  I have never seen moods shift from resplendent to despondent so swiftly.  We ask our gracious chauffeur to drop us at The Outdoorsman Cafe where we can at the very least accomplish packing our gullets to capacity with poutine deluxe. 
For most corn-fed Yankees the term poutine might conjure images of peculiar colored bits of what appears to be food meticulously arranged atop pure white plates.  Thin artsy swirls of orange crisscross the square(!) plate making the whole meal even more befuddling.  This surely is one of the very few plates of food in an Americans life that would cause them to stop and ask “How do I eat this?”  Poutine deluxe is the opposite of all that, and I cannot comprehend how this meal is not an institution in the States as it is in Canada.  Essentially poutine is gravy on fries, or as The Outdoorsman sees it, fries in gravy.  What makes it deluxe is the addition of ground beef, onions, tomatoes and shredded cheese.  This makes it a meal that one could not possibly find peculiar, or confusing to eat.  The only question’s you’ll ask is how to acquire more, and where a napkin is.
The gorging distracts us briefly.  We come to terms with our dire situation over bloated abdomens.  At 2pm we find ourselves four hours removed from our beds in a bed-less town.   A town that would typically be ecstatic to give away a hotel room to an itinerant wolf is apparently and vexingly booked solid.  Either we need to force a retreat back to camp immediately or find a bed.  The only other place in this god-forsaken town I can imagine offering us repose is Canoe Canada Outfitters.  While the others come to terms with the onslaught of gravy I totter up town towards a faint possibility.  From a block away I can see stacks of canoes, parked transport vans, and boarded doors and windows.  Being this late in the season I wouldn’t be surprised if they were closed, but fortunately the plywood door opens.  Obviously they are not up to full operational status, with stacked boxes of merchandise and cleaning materials blocking the entrance.  After a brief explanation of my sordid crews’ desperate situation the owner and operator Jim (who seems as shocked as we at the lack of rooms in town) offers us a bunkhouse for the night; I almost jump and click my heels together.  Successful, I strut back to my gravy laden comrades and break the news.  Our glorious moods return and we spend the rest of the day resupplying in leisure, guzzling Canadian lagers, and returning to the Outdoorsman for massive pizzas, knowing warm dry beds await us at the end of the day.        
                Through the foggy window of our eerily empty bunkhouse I stare at the orange glow of a single streetlight illuminating the blowing sleet and ruminate.  I find myself fortunate to be in this warm wooden building full of wool blanket, hot showers and mattresses, but I can’t wait to leave.  Atikokan in October helps one appreciate the untouched wilds of Quetico more than any city I’ve ever visited.  Our adventure up to this point has been just that.  It has been filled with daring and exciting moments; unusual and hazardous moments; character elucidating moments.  Enthusiastically I anticipate more.  Its why we’re here.  

Friday, January 17, 2014

Cabin Fever

Even though the days grow longer, we are still in the heart of winter.  Thoughts of soft water, warm nights and new routes through the BWCA and Quetico increase as we draw closer.  The mind travels, but unfortunately the body cannot follow, yet.  At best we can relive old trips, and plan new ones.  The best part about keeping a journal during Boundary Waters trips is enjoying them on cold January nights.  Even entries involving driving rain and heavy winds entice when the thermometer drops below zero.  Maybe some of my experiences will stir your imagination in planning this summers adventure...

Oct 8, 2012~Lonely Lake-Quetico Provincial Park

Considering the forecast rain, the tough days leading up to now, and the desire to fish, we decide to make it a shorter day.  Scripture Island on Sturgeon is our easily attainable goal.  We begin the day as we have the past four, under decidedly complete gray skies.  The map shows four portages between us and Fred Lake.  At this point in the life of Cutty Creek, its waters are much diminished.  The first marked portage turns into two, and our ankles are put through the rigors of traversing algae covered rocks of a drained narrows.  The portage out of Nan Lake is there, but so is an unmarked second portage, around a set of dry rapids.  We portage four times, when expecting to portage twice, it makes everyone angry.  The landings are littered with unstable rocks and muck warming the blood even further.  As we cross the second to last “marked” portage Tori takes a spill and slams her knee cap into exposed rock, and it starts raining.  Tempers are close to boiling over at this point.  It has been a slow and irritating start to the day.  Standing on an expansive beach on the south side of Fred Lake we celebrate our final release from the vexing grasp of Cutty Creek.  We can hardly anticipate the trials still waiting for us.  The precipitation is in constant flux.  One moment it is barely noticeable, the next it drives into us, determined to soak us to the bone.  Our boats thread the narrows between Fred and Heron Bay, and out into Sturgeon Lake proper.  It is early in the day yet, and the rain still ambivalent, so we decide to press on past Scripture Island.  This means we have two more portages if we want to camp on Lonely Lake.  A downpour ensues as we reach the first of two portages.  Again moods sour.  After two short steep climbs up to an unnamed creek we stop for lunch.  Huddled under a clump of spruce trees we enjoy peanut butter and Nutella tortillas.  Nobody says anything, were soaked.  Slick angled rocks invite us for a swim at the landing.  We decide it better to load canoes and be on our way.  The half-way point of the creek is blocked by a two foot high beaver dam.  I sigh as our canoe slams into it.  Tori hops out, I scramble over packs and we both lug the packed canoe up and over, then Tori scrambles to the bow.  This is a skill we would continue to master throughout the coming weeks.  As the canoe slides out into higher water I jump in, and try giving us one more shove off.  My foot hunts for something solid, finding nothing it searches deeper, then my knee starts looking.  From the depths my leg yells out, “Hey, I think that arm should help look, and send Tori down here while you’re at it.”  The canoe lurches to the left; quickly we adjust and send it wobbling back to the right.  Our gunnel kisses the rain pocked surface of the creek, and for an instant I picture us floundering in the bottomless squalid muck.  As the canoe comes back level Tori turns and offers a glare that threatens my manhood.  All I offer in return is, “whoops.”  Through pouring rain we press on, climb over the last portage and start probing for someplace high and dry to lay our heads.  We deem the first site unworthy, and head out into the open part of the lake.  Considering the relentless rain, Lonely Lake is stunning.  An ominous dark blue wall of clouds quickly wheels up from the southwest and catches us off guard.  Swiftly our tranquil (albeit wet) scene turns to chaos.  White caps materialize in minutes and the rain becomes a torrent.  We need to find a site.  Our two diminutive boats move towards the north shore, where the Fisher map promises campsites.  Only one site is found.  Closer scrutiny reveals it could not possibly provide us with safe shelter.  Most of the already flooded site rests on a barren spit of Canadian Shield that juts out into the whipping elements.  It seems like a nice summer spot.  Everybody wants to stop, but we can’t.  The waves are lumbering masses now, making the last mile of the day the most harrowing.  We are relieved to find a tolerable spot on the last point of the lake.  If it had not existed, our weary group would have been forced to press on into dimming wilderness, attempting two more portages, a scary thought.  Hastily we pitch camp in the unyielding deluge.  I plunge into the dripping forest hoping for dry wood.  My rain gear had kept me mostly dry up to this point, but slogging through this water-park proves to be their breaking point.  Every time I bump a tree it dumps gallons of water on me.  By the time I return with a few scraps of wood it looks as if I've been for a swim.  I’m soaked to the skin.  The previous occupants of this modest site were thoughtful enough to leave behind a nice stack of wood under the bench next to the fire.  With this mostly dry wood we light a fire and start drying out, one layer at a time.  After finishing rice and beans with kielbasa, exhaustion hits us like a wet wool blanket.  The rain recedes slightly as we unzip sleeping bags.  They’re the only dry place for miles.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Burning Desire

   Over the years I have come to recognize Clearwater Lake as a fickle temptress.  Every spring afternoon she beckons me to continue my eternal investigation into the whereabouts of the furtive Lake Trout that call her waters home.  I have returned fish-less more times than I would like to divulge and every time the flames of desire dwindle a bit; the 35 pound trout hanging over the fireplace in the lodge never lets the embers die though, and once again I find myself walking down to the waterfront with rod in hand.
   Clearwater Lake is long and winding with a couple of larger expanses of water on its east and west ends.  I decide to paddle out a ways and troll through the narrow mid-section of the lake in hopes of a lunker, or at the very least dinner.  Within minutes my shad-rap has snagged and I start back paddling.  Upon picking up my rod I notice a different sort of weight on the line.  I decide to set the hook and immediately my drag is buzzing and line is flying off my reel.  It must be a massive Lake Trout.  The fish slows and I gather myself and begin slowly working the beast back in.  It is dead weight at this point and it feels as if I’m hauling in a marlin.  I've managed to retrieve half my line when he decides to take another run and in an instant: nothing.

    There’s no let down more instantaneous than feeling that much weight vanish in a flash, and for a second I think I might cry.  As I wind in 50 yards of limp line I swear off fishing.  It really is a pointless endeavor I tell myself; a complete waste of time.  Screw that fish, I hope he chokes on that lure; it probably wasn’t that big anyway.  Who am I kidding, it was a monster, world record most likely, and I had to go and mess with the drag.  I’m an idiot; I’m a pathetic excuse for fisherman, a pathetic excuse for a man.  Take a deep breath, get a grip and know that it was only a fish.   As the sheared end of my pitifully flaccid line comes into view I pull out a new snap swivel and start thinking about possible lure selection.  I snap on a copper ¾ ounce daredevle spoon and flip it behind the canoe and continue trolling.  As I pick up speed the line goes taut.  Within minutes the rod tip twitches then quickly doubles over from the weight. The flames of desire burn white hot, and as I reach down to set the hook I think about all the times I've sworn off fishing.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A night of family fishing fun

 Last Tuesday, taking advantage of a slow day in the Lodge we decided to grab the monster 4 man canoe down at the waterfront and head out for an afternoon of bass fishing.  With the winds low and the temps in the mid 70s we thought that even if the fish weren't hitting, it would be a great day for a short canoe adventure.  
After portaging into Caribou Lake the fishing commenced.  After only a couple of casts Kasey landed the first big fish of the day.  A nice 19 inch smallmouth slammed her 5 inch watermelon senko, and after posing with her big fish, Kasey successfully released the fish to be fought another day.

 Wasn't much later that I had the opportunity to land a big smallmouth.  What a day!
 Kasey's cousin, Cameron, wasn't to be left out of the action and he too landed a nice sized smallmouth.  The only person left in the boat without a fish was Ady.  Ady is now 6 years old and while quite experienced with fishing off the dock, she she wasn't sure about fishing out of a canoe.  Besides, she was spending more time rifling through the day pack looking for snacks than she was fishing.  After some coaching she managed to land a 14 inch smallmouth and declared her time fishing to be over.  An hour and a half and a dozen fish later Ady announced that she was board.  We all looked at her, by this time she was laying down in the middle of the canoe.  Not wanting to leave while the fish were biting but also being worried that Ady would have a bad experience on her first fishing trip, we told her that if we caught 3 more fish we would go.  Upon hearing that, she immediately sat up, picked up her rod, grabbed a pumpkin seed 4 inch senko and casted for the shore.  Upon watching the soft plastic hit the surface, Ady closed her bail like a pro and begin a slow retrieve.  She had only gone around 2 or 3 times when the end of her rod dipped and Ady leaned back to set the hook.  Immediately, the wonderful sound of the drag zipping out line from the reel's spool could be heard, and I felt my own pulse quicken as I realized she had a big fish on the line.  A few seconds later the fish broke water and we watched the bass shake its head trying to spit out the hook before falling back into the water.  All three of us reeled in our lines so as not to have her line cross ours and snag up.  Twice more the fish jumped out of the water and I tried to coach Ady to keep the line tight but not to horse the fish in.  Ady continued to reel in the line and fight the fish while we watched the fish get closer with each pass.  After a few minutes Ady told us that her arms were tired and the reel wasn't getting the fish closer, it just kept pulling out more line.  Once again we urged her to continue fighting the fish and not to give up.  Finally, after another minute or two the fish was alongside the canoe and Kasey was able to scoop it out with the net.  Beaming with pride Ady wanted to have her picture taken, but said she was afraid to hold the fish since it might flop around she could drop it.  Not to worry, Kasey stepped in and held it for her while I snapped the photo.  Here she is, 6 years old with her first big smallmouth bass.  She did it all herself and I hope this is the first of many great fishing stories for her.  Enjoy her picture!
Adyson Van Tassell 6/18/13 19.5 inch Smallmouth Bass