Paddling with Padres - A spiritual Exodus adventure


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Dates:August 17-23, 2020
Entry Point:23 - Mudro Lake (BWCA)
Type:Canoeing

Monday August 17th, 2020

I finish getting dressed as my alarm goes off at 4:15 this morning. Then it’s a brief, moonlight drive to the rendezvous point at Father Brandon’s hacienda where I meet up with most of the rest of our 9-man crew. After some small talk and cramming a few more items into the already bulging packs, I follow Father Drew up to Ely where the sun begins to rise just as we pull into town to meet the rest of the crew, pick up the 4th canoe and last second items before heading off to the Mudro entry point.

Ely

The long winding dirt road exasperates our impatience to finally get started on this much ballyhooed adventure. Water levels are very low as the loaded canoes barely float and everyone needs to walk their vessels down narrow Pickett Creek a few hundred yards to paddle able waters.

Loading up

While shallow, there is only a couple of spots where we need to get out and easily pull through before arriving at Mudro Lake. Several in our crew have been through this area often; so, the maps stay packed away as we just follow the lowest dip in the horizon which accurately indicate where the next portage will be.

I’ve often heard this first portage referred to as “Heart attack hill”. And, while we do encounter a modest rise; fortunately, we’re traveling in the right direction so as to avoid the infamous climb. Everyone is all smiles as we are able to get everything across with only half of us having to go back across the trail again. Next, it’s a longer trail that sports an extensive stretch of boardwalk across this level path that leads to Tin Can Mike Lake where we take a brief rest stop.

Heart attack hill

Spirits continue to be sky high as we encounter our first real obstacles of the day on the portage into Horse Lake. It appears that a recent storm came through and has knocked a few trees down across the trail. Even with these impediments, we get across with little delay and still muster enough energy to help an elderly crew by hauling their remaining packs across to Tin Can Mike.

As we push off into Horse Lake, I’m totally amazed by the lack of other canoeists out and about. Besides the group we shared the portage with, we’ve only seen one occupied site on Tin Can Mike and one on Horse Lake. Paddling/weather conditions are excellent as we make the turn down the Horse River, hopefully it doesn’t worsen by the time we exit. I smile to myself as I hear Bill (who is something of our mother hen on this trip) instruct his son, “Now Joe, you’ll have to paddle on the left side to get us over there.”

I don’t know if our modern-day Moses (Father Brandon) hit the rock twice with his staff just before the trip but, shortly after river navigation begins, (while not exactly wandering the desert for 40 years) we encounter dramatically shallow water and a short run of exposed boulders. The cumbersome process of unloading all the packs and getting the canoes back on floatable water for the reload begins. No sooner do we get the wood back in the water, than we run into another impressive boulder garden. We begin the treacherous process of boulder hopscotch yet again. An all to brief paddle later, and just prior to reaching the first actual portage trail, we encounter a third shallow area which proves to be the longest.

Obviously, this being day one, our packs are loaded to the gills. And, by this time, everyone looks like a bunch of Weeble Wobbles as they precariously attempt to traverse the latest array of knobby boulders. However, these Weeble Wobbles DO fall down as Ben takes a hard tumble! Providentially he lands on his pack and doesn’t suffer any serious injury. Seeing Bill and some of the others struggle mightily as well; as Captain of the Black Pearl (which contains 2 of the heaviest packs in its cargo hold) I make a hasty command decision and just muscle the fully loaded vessel through the constricted water way and over the small beaver dam and return to help Joe and Sam do the same with their loaded canoe as well. This is a course of action I rarely employ (nor do I necessarily recommend it) but, I could see our spirits needed a ‘shot in the arm’ and this tactic seems to reinvigorate the weary ranks. Ultimately, I would rather see the scars on the Black Pearl than on a friend.

The Horse River normally has 3 portages and none of them are anything too drastic. However, the recent harrowing experience of boulder hopscotch has changed the countenance of this crew and there is a new demeanor bubbling to the surface as we endeavor to put these trails behind us. While it doesn’t literally play out this way; I do recall the happy go lucky attitude on the first few portages where everyone was sporting a wide grin and giving an enthusiastic thumbs up. As we cross paths along these last few moderate portages, the grins have disappeared, and now an altogether different digit is being used to communicate by hand signals. It is also along these portages that we discover that there is a tenth personality along on this trip.

Now, I feel I have done a fair amount of portaging in my day but, I am here to say I have NEVER encountered a pack as heavy or cumbersome as Ol’ Blue. In fact, I’ve never encountered a pack that had earned its own moniker. And, it’s not like Ol’ Blue is just a little heavier than the previous record holder. I mean the straps and clasps on this pack are literally screaming and are so taut they act like guitar strings, and it is near impossible to tell which side is the top or even if it is a side. And, since it was assigned to The Black Pearl, I had the “good” fortune of having to load/unload this monstrosity at each slimy, boulder strewn landing.

Ol' Blue

As mentioned earlier, we are able to do our portaging in a trip and a half. Meaning about half of us need to head back across to finish grabbing our packs on each portage. Although, now it seems that Ol’ Blue is, without fail, the last pack coming across. The Biblical phrase, “take up your cross” gains new significance on these last few portages of the Horse River. On every trip there is always a longing for a forgotten or wished for item when in the midst of a particular struggle.However, I must admit,this is the first time I wished I had a block and tackle loading system along.As it would have been an invaluable tool to get Ol’ Blue and a few of the others up. Being a greenhorn, Ben’s inquisitive question, “Are you guys having trouble with your arms going numb too?!”, speaks volumes about the physically draining experience of trudging these bulging packs across. Special kudos and Thanksgiving to Fitz and Father Drew who were absolute workhorses throughout, as they took double loads each time across most of the trails today.

With the Horse River portages mercifully behind us, our crew breathes a collective sigh of relief as we paddle for the confluence of the Basswood River and Lower Basswood Falls; which will be our last portage of the day. Along the way a single canoe pokes around the bend up ahead and Father Brandon and I share a chuckle as those poor souls don’t know what they’re about to get themselves into. As they approach; the woman in the front exclaims, “Faaaw-thurrrr!” (I guess it’s to be expected when one travels with a celebrity.) She introduces herself as Jody R from Brainerd. Coming up behind us, Ben also remembers her and asks her a curious question. “Jody, what are you doing up here?!” Her whimsical response, “The same thing you are!” brings the house down and affords our crew a much-needed laugh. Near the confluence of the Basswood River the wild rice is literally choking the waterway. And while water depth isn’t an issue, the expanse of long reeds makes paddling more wearisome for arms that are still just starting to get blood flowing to them again. Nevertheless, we soon emerge just above Lower Basswood Falls and pull into the large semi-sandy landing.

Horse River wild rice

While we don’t officially take a break, we do approach this last portage (Petit Rocher du Lac Croche as the Voyageurs named it) with a little less gusto in our steps and take a little time to enjoy this sublime, wilderness scene of visionary enchantment. More to what I expected to see on this route, all the sites around the falls are occupied and there are several people fishing the shorelines too. Father Brandon tells us there is a crummy campsite about 20 minutes up the Basswood River where we can pull off and have lunch.

Lower Basswood Falls

Ironically the “crummy campsite” is currently occupied so, after briefly contemplating the pictographs we end up paddling further up the Voyageurs Highway. Once there it is quickly noted that that paddle seemed to be a loooong 20 minutes. (This would become a running joke throughout the trip whenever someone asked how long something would take – the answer would invariable come back as 20 minutes.) We take a well-deserved extended siesta as we enjoy a lunch of cheese, salami & pepperoni pitas topped with some delectable horseradish sauce, which came highly recommended by Dan Hammer. (The seminarian who helped at our parish this past spring/summer.)

Back on the water, we resignedly cruise past Table Rock and continue northward up Crooked Lake before turning westward. As we approach Big Current, Father Brandon begins to point out various honey holes. “I bet we’ve caught 1200 walleyes there. Father Drew! How many walleyes do you think we caught there?!” Without hesitating, Father Drew takes it up several notches, “Oh at least 4000!” And, while I don’t know that anyone takes these grandiose figures as absolute Gospel truth; but we do bear in mind that these are both God fearing men who have given their entire lives to the service of our Lord Jesus Christ and, the Decalogue given us clearly instructs – Thou shall not bear false witness! So, even suggesting that the slightest impropriety has been made, makes me shudder. However, what Father Brandon says next does make me raise an eyebrow. I inquire, “So the guys are pretty whipped, we gonna grab a site around here?” With nary a hint of contemplation (nor apparently compassion) and straight faced, Father Brandon says, “Naw! I want to camp closer to good fishing.” So, our noodle armed crew begrudgingly pushes on towards Friday Bay.

Table Rock

Father Brandon has targeted the island site at the top of Friday Bay. But, as we paddle through Cadillac Narrows where the old Buick is located, the vacant island site just to the SW before entering Friday Bay catches the attention of our near mutinous clan. In a last-ditch effort to maintain his status as “Our Good Shepherd” Father Brandon relents, and we lay claim to this site. At this point I cannot honestly attest if the crew more readily associates Father as our ‘Moses’ leading us to the promised land, or as a hardened hearted Pharaoh?

Old Buick

Father Drew and Fitz pull in first and quickly give it their blessing. Slowly, the rest of us wash ashore in turn as well. (After the trip, I did some quick calculations on the Paddle Planner website.) We paddled 19.1 miles, portaged 2.6 miles and traversed 3 hazardous boulder gardens in approximately 11 hours. I don’t know if this is the “Promised Land” - flowing with milk and honey? But, if not, it looks most hospitable and acceptable to me, and the rest of Father Brandon’s minions. Give us this day our daily bread!

We have arrived! I don’t interview anyone afterwards but, I sense a true feeling of gratitude from everyone as we take a moment to thank the Lord for our reasonably safe journey today. And now we get to see just what, exactly, is in these rotund conglomerations of canvas and straps we’ve hauled up here. Each of us stake claim to our little piece of the promised land and get our respective shelters up shortly before the sun sets. Fitz even takes a few moments to test the waters in front of camp for fish. Supper tonight is grilled New York Strip steaks, skewers of fresh shrimp with asparagus and rice. No complaints, nor leftovers, as everyone relishes our hard-earned supper under a heavenly starlit canopy of the Milky Way. As one might expect, sleep comes easy and early.

Tuesday August 18th, 2020

There are white horses marching around the nearby shorelines as we crawl out to face a new day. Most of the crew is itching to get out on the lake and start their assault on the local walleye population. Not being an avid fisherman, Bill says he’ll hang back and get breakfast going; so, I decide to keep him company, give him a hand and stay in camp as well.

Heading out

We’ve got a couple hours before we need to get breakfast going so Bill grabs a book and I work on stocking our wood pile but, eventually retreat to a hammock to do some reading as well. Yesterday was a whirlwind and it’s good to slow down a bit and recuperate. This is a pretty nice site that can accommodate our large (9) group. The landing has a few bothersome boulders but, otherwise is decent. There are several good tent pads, as well as handy hammock trees. The fire grate area is above average, although the log seating is beginning to show signs of wear. A lot of traffic undoubtedly passes by each day but, the site is situated in such a way that the canoes shouldn’t need (or want) to pass by right in front of camp. Cadillac Narrows is just to the NE and, allegedly, were close to really good fishing.

Speaking of fishing; considering the self-proclaimed wealth of knowledge, experience and electronic advantages many of the veterans of the crew espoused on the trip up yesterday, it comes as absolutely no surprise that on this Christian retreat; our 2 young tenderfoots Joe & Sam (who don’t even have a stringer – those that would be first will be last etc. etc.) are the first ones to catch a few walleyes. Bill and I get our pancake and fresh bacon breakfast going as the rest of the fleet begins to gravitate back to camp.

First fish

Walking on water after our late breakfast, Father Drew is the first to take the plunge on this warm, somewhat humid day. Jason and Ben clean the fish and then put the fillets on ice to, hopefully, be added to later tonight. Everyone then spends the early afternoon finishing unpacking our voluminous packs and getting camp properly situated for our extended stay.

Before we head out for the evening bite, we are treated to an extraordinary experience. (At least for me). While I have done innumerable trips at this point in my life, I have never experienced being able to worship God by celebrating the Mass in the BWCA. While on several occasions I have figuratively referred to canoe country as Heaven on earth, that now becomes a literal reality. Much the same as most of my faith journey has been; there is no dramatic moment where a beam of sunlight breaks through the clouds and shines down, butterfly’s in the belly nor hairs standing up on the back of my neck but, this transcendent reality instantly catapults to the most memorable experience of all my trips.

MassEucharist

Afterwards, we all head out for the evening bite and to make the number 4000 an insignificant distant memory. While we don’t set any new records for quantity or size, we do catch more than enough fish to finish supplementing our fillet count for our fish fry tonight. And, after gorging ourselves with the bounty the Lord has provided, I think we can all relate to how our packs (if they could talk) must’ve felt on the way up.

Fishin Friday BayFr Drew

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Truly sleeping in at this site is apparently not an option as the daily incessant clamoring chatter of our vociferous resident squirrels starts up just after first light and continues well into the day. Being the young father of 6, Ben is usually an early riser anyways and crawls out to try to enjoy the sunrise amidst the prattling; while the rest of us linger in our sacks awhile longer.

The sleeping arrangements are as follows: Ben and I are in my tent nearest the lake, Bill, Joe and Sam are in the their tent which is back away from camp, Father Drew and Fitz share a tent just off the trail to the latrine, Jason has a small tent a short distance behind the fire grate and Father Brandon is sleeping in a hammock he borrowed from Father Nick Nelson. I secretly dub this contraption “The Holy of Holies”.

Holy of Holies

I am not a coffee drinker, so my early morning priorities are skewed from most everyone else’s. However, I make note that Jason has got his early morning coffee making down to a science, as he not only uses a jet boil but, has an electric mixer as well. Betty P, an extremely good-hearted parishioner has baked and sent along copious amounts of cookies & cupcakes for our consumption. I try to justify continually “sticking my hand in the cookie jar” by convincing myself that I burn a lot more calories when camping. Beyond the indulgence of these heavenly treats, the contributions people like Betty (and several others who also aren’t on the trip) made to the enjoyment and success of our adventure is a truly inspiring witness to the faith.

Bill and I stay back again today, basically repeating our chores and activities from yesterday. However, today the wind becomes something of an issue; especially out on the lake. We marvel as a group, with the wind at their back, effortlessly cruises by just south of our camp. While I utilize one of or camps hammocks, Bill finds a nice spot in the shoreline rock face that conforms to his body; where he does some reading.

Bill lounging

Upon everyone returning to camp, they relate a bizarre story of a group of young men in nothing but underwear pulling up basically right where they were fishing and setting up a hammock camp. (Which is nowhere near a designated site.) This sets the tone for our crew as we begin to share our experiences, frame of mind and sordid tales of our entry in. Remarkably, as we were going through it, I don’t recall anyone seriously complaining about our arduous ordeal. However, now comfortably in camp, the gloves come off and everyone opens up. I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “The secret source of humor is sorrow/suffering. There is no laughter in Heaven.” And, the unassailable truth of that pithy statement cannot be denied. But we have a great and merciful God, and while it is true there will be no suffering in Heaven; He is able to use all suffering on this side of the veil to bring about a greater good. Often, in our earthly lives, we are unable to discern just what that greater good may be. Although, in this instance, I feel the great spiritual lesson and reward taken from our misadventures is readily apparent. The abundant blessings of prolonged, almost painful belly laughs that we share when talking about the long paddle, stumbling on the boulders and lugging Ol’ Blue around etc. more than compensate for the sore backs and scraped knees. Literally, we are rolling on the ground! And quite honestly, it’s experiences like this that will forever be burned into our memories to be relived and enjoyed for years to come. I think if there weren’t any struggles, we would fail to fully appreciate when things do turn our way. So, in something of a strange paradox I say, “Thank you God for allowing me/us to suffer in this way.”

Ben's walleye

Another spiritual fruit of wilderness travel and camping is regaining a more acute sense of awe and wonder. So many things that are taken for granted back home are set front and center here out in the woods. Something as simple as the weather, which rarely attracts much of my attention, makes for an interesting diversion and photo opportunity. Case in point - Several of us marvel as a storm system passes overhead this evening, brilliantly illumined by the giant orb in the sky. The ever-changing structure of the clouds mesmerizes a few of us before the sun officially sets for the night. By the time the sun fully sets the sky has opened and we enjoy another star filled evening around the fire; tastefully enhanced by Father Drew's strings of party lights.

Weather 1Weather 2

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Not that I am necessarily giving in to our noisy neighbors (squirrels) but, I do crawl out early to join Ben by the lake shore to join him in praying the Rosary while we watch the sun slowly poke over the tree tops on this hazy morning. This morning Father Drew and Father Brandon have promised to cook their egg, cheese and Canadian bacon & English muffin breakfast for the crew. Of course, there’s still plenty of Betty’s goodies to tide us over while we wait. Breakfast is every bit as good as advertised!

Breakfast - Fr DrewFr Brandon cooking breakfast

Afterwards, Ben, Jason, Fitz and Father Drew all head out to do some more fishing. Here in camp, the board game “Ticket to Ride” is pulled out. I am not familiar with this game but, the reverence both Bill and Joe show for the previous winner tally sheet is on par with how a devout Christian would handle The Holy Grail. They delight in broadcasting the fact that Father Brandon’s tally is quite deficient. Sam is somehow an unwitting participant in the midst of all this afternoon showmanship & bravado.

Ticket to ride

After daily Mass we head out yet again for an evening of fishing. We change things up up a bit, while Father Drew and Fitz remain boatmates; Jason takes Joe and Sam, Father Brandon takes Bill and Ben and I partner up. Everyone is catching a good amount of fish but, no one has boated anything too spectacular size wise. Suddenly Bill’s pole doubles over; and by the way it’s staying down it’s almost certainly a walleye. Being the least experienced fisherman of our crew Bill struggles to wrestle this one up to the surface. However, his boatmate Father Brandon offers excited and free unsolicited counsel. As the leviathan continues the battle, the initial commentary goes something like this: Father Brandon “Loosen your drag Bill!” Bill, “What’s a drag? Where’s that?” At this point Bill opens his bail which of course straightens his pole out. Realizing what has just happened, this sends Father Brandon into about as demonstrative of a display as one could have in a canoe without swamping, as he throws his cap down. (I tell you if there was even an 1/8 ounce jig on that cap it would’ve gone right through the canoe.) Just as Father was beginning to emphatically scream, “That was our chance at the big one boys!” Bill (cool as a cucumber) matter of factly states, “No. It’s still there.” Game on!!! Ultimately, however, Bill is unable to figure out the drag and the unseen monster eventually snaps his line. I cannot say if the snap I heard was Bill’s line or Father Brandon, as Father lays into Bill. What Father Brandon said is probably best conveyed by relating Ben’s comments to Bill immediately thereafter. “Bill! Don’t pay attention to any of that. Always remember that you are a dignified human being, created in the image and likeness of God and we all love you.”

….As the proverbial dust is beginning to settle on this chilling episode there is a period of uncomfortable silence. Just then I have a fish on. It turns out to be a chunky 19” smallie that peels off some line before I am able to bring it in. As this is taking place, Father Brandon shatters the eerie silence and exasperatedly exclaims, “Bill! That!!! is what a drag is supposed to sound like!” A cacophony of laughter echoes across the expanse of a previously silent Friday Bay.

Friday Bay fishing

Later that night, after watching a gaggle of mergansers coast by our site, savoring Master Chef Father Drew’s grilled pork chop supper, we enjoy the warm ambiance of yet another picture-perfect starlit evening amidst long shadows and the ambivalent glow of a crackling campfire. For me, these are some of the most treasured moments of the whole trip. One of the Biblical quotes Ben is oft apt to repeat is Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” And each evening around the fire, I feel there is a lot of ‘sharpening’ is going on. I’m not a real big conversationalist but, tonight, the Holy Spirit (or maybe it was the black box wine – fruit of the vine, work of human hands it will become for me a spiritual drink etc.?) prompts me to overcome my character flaw and I spend the better amount of the late evening getting to know and chat extensively with Father Drew. While we don’t discuss anything overly profound, the sense of Holy Joy that fills my soul in conversing with a like minded man on fire for our Lord Jesus Christ is indeed profound. And, I relish the experience of laying the groundwork of building a true Christian friendship. We are the last two to cash in our chip’s tonight.

Chops

Friday, August 21, 2020

The plan tonight is to have another walleye dinner so, after breakfast Ben, Jason, Fitz and I head out to make that a reality. We barely leave camp when Fitz realizes he forgot his pole. He says I should just troll as we paddle back to camp. No sooner does my hook hit bottom than I snag up, and then, trying to extricate it, my rod inexplicably snaps in half. In the other canoe, right off the bat, Jason loses his anchor. We’re off to quite the start! Eventually we get things straightened out and manage to catch enough walleyes for supper tonight.

Fitz fishWalleyes

It’s a bit humid so, after returning with our catch, we lounge in camp throughout the early afternoon. Father Brandon vociferously announces who won 2 games of Ticket to Ride while we were out fishing. He says as pastor it’s his job to teach those in his flock humility, although I’m not sure if it’s humble pie or crow that Bill & Joe are force fed. Sam, who won the 3rd game, is quiet as a church mouse about his victory. Apparently, the odd duck out among these 3 other ‘humble’ Christians?

As our chairs rotate in correspondence to where the shade is throughout the afternoon, there is some splashing down at the lake that is undoubtedly the walleyes we have on the stringer. Both Fitz and I presume it’s a snapping turtle trying to get a free lunch but, we are both flabbergasted when we discover it’s a garter snake. It’s about a foot and a half long and, while the walleyes are certainly not world beaters, it’s quite a stretch to imagine that this garter snake could do much with a 14” walleye.

It’s an afternoon of small talk as most of the crew just linger in camp or take a short swim. Ben has a special knack for stimulating conversation so there is rarely a lull. However, in one attempt to keep things moving, he asks Father Brandon a seemingly innocent question. “Father, you’ve been on a number of trips, what’s the most memorable fish that’s been caught on one of your trips?” Before he can respond, a snappy reply comes out of the crowd, “Because we know for certain which is the most memorable fish that DIDN’T get caught on one of your trips!” However, most of the conversation isn’t quite as coarse and, throughout, I notice how Jason speaks about his wife. It’s not that he is shouting from the rooftop a top 10 list of why she’s the greatest but, I really get a sense of just how much he cares and wants to do right by her in just the seemingly mundane comments he makes about camping trips and experiences he has shared with her. The way he’s subtly articulates his fondness while speaking about her is, in my experience, a rare trait that exudes not only his love but, how well he is living out that aspect of being a Christian husband. Once again, several prime examples of iron sharpening iron.

making coffee

Curiously, Ben begins creating songs about our recent adventures. Mainly focusing on Bill’s fishing acumen, inability to distinguish English muffin tops from bottoms so and so forth. Although, he annoyingly uses the melodies from traditional Christmas songs, and soon a few others begin sporadic Christmas caroling. As I inquire as to where and why the Christmas themes seeped into the group consciousness, it’s ‘Genesis’ can be traced back to Fitz who has been lowly whistling the Peanuts Christmas tune for most of our stay, and even identifies a Charlie Brown Christmas tree in camp. Mind you it is mid-August; and I thought Halloween was crazy early for Christmas songs to surface?

This evening our evening fishing foray isn’t quite as memorable as last night but, we still find plenty of Crooked Lake ‘gold’. Since we already have what we need for our fish fry, they are all returned to live another day. Back in camp, it’s another sumptuous, satisfying meal that puts a bow on another fine day in canoe country.

Mergansers

Saturday, August 22, 2020

It’s a hazy overcast morning, and that condition is predicted to last throughout most of the day. Having caught his share of fish over the last few days, Ben wants to mix it up and see Curtain Falls. A coworker of his, is the granddaughter of the original owner of the old resort that was located there, and she has piqued his interest above and beyond just seeing the famed waterfall. I offer to go with, so we head off shortly after our pancake and sausage breakfast.

Throughout the trip the wind has been really manageable, and today isn’t supposed to produce anything severe either. Since we have been sticking pretty close to camp every day, this is an opportunity to finally get out and see some different areas. Having heard about how busy the BWCA has been this paddling season, I have been surprised by the lack of people I have seen thus far on this trip. Especially considering how popular this area is. As we paddle westward, we don’t see a lot of canoes out and about. As we run ashore to take a break at the sandy beach campsite just prior to the entrance to Saturday Bay, we have only crossed paths with one other canoe, who was out fishing. After quick exploration of this beautiful site, we are back on the water and only start seeing a few other canoes as we near Curtain Falls.

Crooked Lake camp #

Of course, Curtain Falls (Le Rideau) is a breathtaking wilderness scene and, we agree that this would have been an ideal spot for a resort. Lingering around the base of the falls we snap a few pictures before the obligatory trek down the portage trail to see Iron Lake. As we make the return trip, we curiously poke around in the woods along the trail and in the tiny bay just above the falls. Without too much bushwhacking, we discover an old barrel and several small piles of old garbage and beer cans as we try to imagine what this area might have looked like back then.

Curtain FallsCurtain Falls

Naturally, the wind has picked up some just prior to our departure but, fortuitously it’s doesn’t amount to too much more than a little walleye chop. On the way back to camp, we pull off at an idyllic sandy beach on an island. There are paw prints here and, while relaxing, we try to guess what it might have been. Ben also makes a point to lead us in a prayer of Thanksgiving for how well this trip has gone and for a safe exit tomorrow.

As we cut across Friday Bay the waves require a bit more effort to paddle through and, as we approach the camp, we spot Joe & Sam on the backside of our island camp making an exploratory trek around the perimeter and stop and chat with them for a bit. Apparently, earlier today, Joe brought in a nice 30+” northern (which will prove to be the biggest fish of the trip). It’s good to see that not landing the big one isn’t a genetic flaw in the family (or at least it skips a generation).

Joe's northern

Mass is celebrated one last time before half the crew head out to do some more fishing this evening. Sam takes top honors this evening as he has the hot hand. Before the sun sets this evening, everyone starts packing a few things away in hopes of an early departure tomorrow.

Sam's walleye

As dusk settles over camp, Father Drew realizes he needs some new batteries for his light strings and asks if anyone has brought any extra. The response comes back, "There's had to be at least 3 of everything in Ol' Blue coming up." And, believe it or not, a bottle of Steel Reserve (plastic bottled beer) has survived to this point in the trip. We all agree that says something for the quality (or lack thereof) of this beverage. This brings our final evening to a comical close.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Empty Ol' Blue

Ol' Blue doesn't look so tough sitting empty on the ground but, he would soon regain his old swagger; as we all begin ripping camp down before breakfast. The last of our 96 eggs are scrambled, cooked and distributed among the ranks. Father Brandon relates a story of having eggs over at Bill's home awhile ago. When he asked for ketchup (to put on his eggs) both Bill & Joe pushed away from the table and abandoned the room; leaving Father alone with Judy (Bill's wife) whom apparently considers it an absolute sacrilege to put ketchup on eggs. Out here in the Garden of Eden, free from any marital constraints, Bill now shows his true colors, comes out of the closet and 'picks' the forbidden fruit.

Forbidden fruit

As humid as it has been, we are thankful it is overcast this morning as we push away from our island camp; that ably served as our home away from home this past week. And, the slight breeze easing across Friday Bay helps take the edge off as we begin our southward trek. The portage to Papoose Creek is flat and all the mud holes have dried up. Creek navigation is only hindered by a lone small beaver dam & a preponderance of lily pads and weeds, as the water depth is sufficient throughout. The steep, rocky Niki - Wagosh portage certainly gets our hearts pumping but fortunately it's only 45 rods. We share the Wagosh -Gun trail with a group who is heading north. The summit of the hill about half way across serves as a drop point for a few of us but, we still get everything across this portage without serious delay. A summer wanes, (or is it waxes???) the fleeting vestiges of botanical displays provide some color along the trails.

Beaver dam

The sun is starting to break through the clouds as we paddle across Gun Lake. The portages from Gun to Fourtown are about as non-descript and straight forward as a person could hope for and we make quick work of them. We also start encountering several other canoes heading in the other direction. Once we reach Fourtown Lake we take a short snack break before the final push. Wise beyond his years, Father Brandon has waited until now to divulge how many pounds of ice and liquids we lugged up last Monday. No one is surprised by the numbers.

Boot Lake

Paddling down Fourtown, the sky is really opening up and the sun is getting to be more of a deterrent. Pulling into the series of portages at the south end we discover we'll be sharing the portage with another group. At the end of the trail one of the women in the other group approaches me and we trade stories of our recent adventures. She also gushes, "It's soooo awesome that you guys brought that older guy along! I'm sure it was a special treat for him." I don't relate this story to Bill.

With stories that are already bordering on folklore, I think Father Drew took it as a challenge to personally accompany Ol' Blue the entire way back? As much of a pain as this pack is, it doesn't hinder our progress and we overtake the group we share these portages with.

Fr Drew beats Ol' Blue

Finally, we enter the narrow confines of Pickett Creek. It's a bit more of a struggle going against the current but, by now, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We slog the last stretch alongside our loaded canoes to the final landing.

Pickett Creek

It's about 2:30 when we reach the parking lot. I don't have time for long goodbyes, or a quick shower because I need to get to Pine City to pick up Aurora this evening. Dairy Queen drive through in Ely and the long drive. I arrive with only about 20 minutes to spare, and Aurora's first comment is, "Man, it stinks in here!" Whew Indeed.

What a phenomenal trip!

Undoubtedly this was booked as a fishing trip, and we certainly caught our fair share of fish everyday. However, for me, I try not to put all my eggs in one basket in my approach to any trip. And, the camaraderie of like minded men of faith I experienced on this adventure will be a blessed and treasured memory for the rest of my life. I think Henry David Thoreau's comment. "Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after" succinctly sums up what I took away from this trip. And, it wasn't the fish. :)

Lastly, I would like to give a big shout out to Father Brandon. For it was he who brought these varied personalities together and, while they all contributed there own unique and special 'flavor' to the mix it was Father Brandon, "The straw that stirs the drink" who masterfully blended all the 'ingredients' to create a truly transcendental recipe of experiencing Christian manhood.

Group photo