Paddle - BWCA, Quetico, Sylvania, and other paddling places

2021 Trips - Gals Trip + Riley

By Riley Smith Print Icon Print Report View/Leave Comments (0)

This would be my first trip with my “brand new” canoe. It was a gorgeous, very-well preserved 1982 Mad River Explorer Kevlar. This would come up a couple times on the trip as a theme since I think we saw three other antique Mad River whose owners complemented mine! The second canoe in the lot was a Wenonah Tuff-Weave Boundary Waters. Side by side, neither canoe is what one would call “fast.” They are both nice expedition hulls, can handle a decent cargo load, and do a lot of things pretty well, but none of them are mileage makers per se. We put in at Snowbank lake and made the crossing north. The weather was really nice, especially for May, as this year I had snuck in an April canoe trip into the BWCA with early ice out. We made great time to the Boot portages and into Boot (where we ran into our first Mad River admirers.) The goal for this first stretch of the route was to see some lakes we hadn’t been to while guiding. Knife is an obvious destination with a group as is Kekekabic, but none of us had split the difference through the middle which would be our goal for the day. The portage into Ensign can be a tough one and was the first real portage experience for our fourth group member. The far side of the portage was a little busy with one or two other groups hanging around. We were having a snack when I spotted a dark dot in the marsh on the far horizon. It’s a moose! Too far away to really appreciate it, but always neat to see on day one of a trip! We made the corner when I put the first scratch in the Mad River. Sigh..... invisible rocks beneath the surface get me every time!!! Step out, back up, gently lift it off the rocks, and carry on into the back bay where the portage to Vera is. By now, we were all reflecting on past trips through here, groups we had led, challenges we had faced, and memories we had made. We made the crossing to Vera. Then it was a nice paddle down Vera, a portage into Trader, then a portage into Missionary. The decision was made to camp on Missionary for the night. Now this is where I begin to relearn self-control. I have learned about myself that I can be quite the pain in the butt early in the season. Those first canoe trips are tough for me because I get so excited that I can’t stop. In fact, at every staff training trip, and the first few trips into the season, I get what I call “trail energy.” I’m usually uncontrollably shaking/bouncing at breakfast before the trip (discouraging, I think, for the new guides) because I’m just so excited to be going on trail again. That carries over unfortunately because, once on trail, I don’t tire, not on those first trips of the season. By the time the group makes the decision to stop, I can be a little testy because I still have so much pent-up energy ready to travel forever and ever, and I don’t like the feeling of a group “tapping out on me.” I have gotten better and tried to work on tiring myself out after the group is done with tasks or side ventures. It’s especially bad on staff training when folks are trying to learn things too. Anyways, the when we would stop or where began becoming a point of contention. This first night though, we made decent mileage and were on a unique lake I hadn’t visited before.

The next morning, we awoke to a nice sunrise lighting up Missionary Lake. We had breakfast and were on the water soon enough. We paddled Missionary, made the hop through Skoota and Dix before hitting our longer paddle on Spoon. More memories of trips past came spilling out here. We made decent time down Spoon before slowing for the beaver ponds to Sema. This stretch of lakes feels so unique and different. There are some similar attributes to the Kek Ponds just the south with high topography and shallow water.

We made our way east to a mandatory stop at Eddy Falls. Despite how overwhelmingly busy this spot can be later in the season, we had things pretty quiet today. It was fun to enjoy the falls in somewhat high water and enjoy them in our own ways without keeping tabs on a group. After a good stop there, we talked routes. Our initial plan was to head through the Gijikiki area to see the high cliffs on Lake of the Clouds and Cherry. I knew this route would be rough and, if T was already struggling with mileage, maybe upping portage difficult wouldn’t be a good idea. However, the scenery won us over and we headed for the Hanson portage. That portage is one of my all time favorites and I stopped at the big cedars and the falls for a few minutes. The group was rushing a bit through here as it began to become clear that T’s idea for a trip may not gel up with three former guides’. The portage to Cherry is always bad. It’s steep, the landings are tough, and the there’s lots of bad footing, but that was only the beginning. The portage out of Cherry I knew to be flooded. This day, it was all sorts of flooded and the great fields of poison ivy I associate with that portage had begun to grow for the season. After losing the trail after the beaver pond and bouncing around on the steep boulder pile for awhile, we finally found our way out. I love that chain of lakes for its challenge and its scenery, but the combination of topography, boulder fields, mud pits, and unpredictability was taking its toll. By the time we reached Gijikiki, it seemed the group needed a compromise. I, of course, wanted to keep heading on to Ottertrack, but the consensus was that, for kindness sake, we should stay on Gijikiki. Thankfully, the island site is beautiful with its high overlook and I wasn’t too upset to be off the main thoroughfare.

Day three was the last that would go more or less according to our initial plan. We made the portage a little while after sunup before heading straight down the ridge to Ottertrack. I guided the group through to Benny’s Cliff and we stopped off to visit his former homesite. What a place to lead a life! We followed the border and took some time getting over Monument. There was another group on the boardwalk so we waited our turn. Then it was east over the swamp portage to Sag. It was funny, in a way, to have paddled from Ely to Sag since I had spent the previous summer running some towboat routes there. To cross the span by canoe is a bit of a space warp considering how far a distance it feels by car. The lake was pretty calm this day as we made our way towards American Point. We stopped for awhile on the point to enjoy the light breeze and a snack before heading down Red Rock Bay. The portage to Red Rock is an easy one and we made decent time weaving through Red Rock and Alpine. By the time we made Jasper, it was obvious that the group dynamic was souring some. T definitely didn’t appreciate the length of the days. The paddle on Saganaga to get from Swamp to Red Rock is a long one and the pace we had set the first three days didn’t feel sustainable to her. The more considerate members of the group were intended to agree. I was, as established, antsy about stopping and antsy about the potential for not getting where we were going. We were aiming to swing as far south as Fishdance to see the pictos since the fourth member of our crew (C) really loves them and Fishdance the surrounding area is one of my favorites. Since my grumpiness was showing, I decided to go for some extracurriculars. I paddled over to the rock face just north of camp (in the bay by the Kingfisher portage.) I hiked up around the face and bushwhacked between high points enjoying view after view of the setting sun. After my hike, I still was feeling way too much energy for the day we had, so I took a lap out around our part of the lake and returned to camp in the dark. It was a good night’s sleep as we thought about how the remainder of the trip would go.
It was decided that we were not going to follow our route plan. Primarily for the sake of T, we would instead head towards Kekekabic. We worked through Kingfisher and into Ogish making good time as we passed plenty of groups sitting in campsite through that stretch of the route. Annie and Jenny went well and soon we were in the Kek ponds. The ponds are another iconic stretch of route. The small rapids were flowing well beneath the high ridges and it was easy to enjoy the beautiful spring day. On Kekekabic, I had a surprise. We had read in old manuscripts that there was a single small pictograph on the lake and the previous year another guiding friend of ours had tracked it down. It may not be Fishdance, but at least we would see something for C. I followed the directions and we did find it: a single canoe painted on one of Kekekabic’s many faces. We swung down to the ranger cabin to connect with that piece of history before working west towards a campsite. When we decided on a site, we pulled in and began to set up. That’s when T said the most infamous line of the trip: “now aren’t we all glad we took a shorter day today?” And to this day I feel bad that all she heard in response was crickets. Three former trail guides do not come to a stop easily apparently! We stayed in camp for awhile before C and I took a canoe back over to the ranger cabin. I have learned since that D (now my girlfriend) was pretty disappointed that we didn’t invite her as she didn’t much like the idea of sitting in a campsite either. Our perspective was to leave D with her friend T so T wouldn’t get left alone in a campsite, but I guess that was a fumble. C and I hiked up the trail from the ranger cabin to the Kekekabic in search of the old fire tower. I had some vague descriptions, but nothing particularly current. There was some flagging tape which ended up leading us to the concrete footings, but where is the tower? We knew the rangers hadn’t hauled the whole thing out with them. The reports said many of the old towers were cut and felled to be left where they landed. After 30 minutes of searching, C found something. There was a strange swamp perched on top of the ridge, hundreds of feet above Kekekabic. That seems odd. Upon further inspection, we noticed this was no natural swamp at all. It was the hole where the tower was buried! We began to find piece of it: twisted steel here, section of ladder there, and a few other artifacts. They took much better care to conceal this one than say the tower at Angleworm or at Norway. Perhaps more people walk past this one. In any case, it was a fascinating connection with history to imagine a tower standing here. I can’t imagine how amazing that view would have been! We headed back down the trail and made a pit stop at Kek Lake before turning back to our campsite.
The next day, we headed south over the old familiar route back. It’s a place full of memories since our old staff training route came this way so my first trip with D came this way (C didn't make staff training the year we were on staff together.) Wisini is a favorite of all of ours and it was easy to admire the big rocks there. We made decent time south into Fraser and Thomas. There I had another lead on a former homesite with a “d-day memorial” we had to see. It took us awhile to find, but was another incredible look at history.
Through Jordan Narrows, we stopped at another not often marked pictograph site (again, making things up to C.) At the portage out of Jordan is where things really began coming off the rails. As my early-season energy was getting a tad bored with the route (despite still loving the scenery of course) C and I detoured to line the rapids alongside the portage. We would meet back up with D and T on the far side to go visit Cattyman Falls, or so we thought. This is where apparently poor communication and some misunderstanding really came to the surface. When C and I had cleared the rapids, the other half of the group was nowhere to be found. Shouldn’t they have waited for us? Maybe they went to the falls? So C and I paddled down to the portage around Cattyman falls. No Tuff-Weave. Hmmmm..... We hiked down to the falls and enjoyed the scenery before heading up in search of our friends. We knew the pre-established route, but it still felt very weird to ditch us completely. We portaged into other half of the group. Jitterbug....nobody. one there. Now we were really confused. If I had split off, wouldn’t I have waited at a portage? We knew the next stop was Disappointment, but we had not discussed where in the lake we would camp. Without any other way of communicating, we handled it like a search and rescue. We would go campsite to campsite until we found them or someone who had seen them. The first campsite on Dissapointment was empty. From campsite two and three, we could see the far west site with binoculars. Our group wasn't there. We worked down the eastern shore from campsite to campsite without any success. We were getting discouraged at this point as the sun moved late in the day. Would we even find our group today? It had been hours since we had seen each other. We pulled up to the next island campsite and there they were! There was a lengthy explanation for everyone involved. We still haven’t come to a complete understanding of what each other were thinking, but we’ve moved on. It wasn’t any of our brightest moments. T was ready to be done for the day and they didn’t know how long we would be. D had somehow never been to the actual Cattyman falls so she just thought it was the little rapids next to the portage...nothing too exciting. We brushed that under the rug since that also meant T didn’t get to see the falls. All’s well that ends well I guess. We sat down for dinner and enjoyed the last night of our trip under the giant pines.
The next day was the paddle out to the Snowbank landing. This was quite the trip with lots of incredible sites, good mileage covered, and good company. There was frustration, challenge, and some good growth too and it’s always good to see comfort zones challenged all around. All of us made mistakes or did things we regretted, but those were also moments to learn and grow. They were moments to "practice what we preach" with groups in acknowledging that, no matter how many trips a person takes into this special place, there's always mistakes to be made, lessons to be learned, and new experiences to discover. The wilderness is ever equipped to meet people where they are at, push them, and ultimately hopefully make them all the better for it.

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