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.  

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