Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thawing Out in Thunder Bay

Splashing through a film of ice stark naked, I had a strange moment to contemplate the absurdity of my position. It was November in northern Minnesota, and this was the first sunny day after nine snowy days of continuous gray.

This was no sanitary bathing or life affirming communion with nature; rather, I was chasing my boat which had come unhinged from its locking place amid the rocks. Now, I grew up with canoes in the vicinity of seventy pounds, and in one job ran wood and canvas monsters of 100 pounds, even. In November's Minnesota and the 2800 miles previous on this expedition, it was a thirty pound kevlar canoe, the miracle of space-age materials science. While in every corner a tremendous boon, the featherweight character of my dependable friend causes it to literally fly off when a duck, two lakes over, has the occasion to sneeze.

Upon returning from a twenty foot carry around a short, angled drop on the Basswood River, this is precisely what had happened. In 12 seconds of inattention on a day when none of my senses could detect a breath of wind and the cove had no current to speak of, Casco, my trusty partner in cross-continent voyaging, had sprung its bounds of rock and ice and was currently 30 yards out from shore and accelerating.

Habits mark the experienced outdoor person long accustomed to environment and activity, and good habits and reliable consistency mark the pro's. When something goes wrong, it is always the sum of a series of small and seemingly inconsequential bad decisions- one or more of which is either a bad habit followed or a good habit not. I always pull my boat on shore and tie it up whenever I am more than a few feet from it- always, except this time.

Shikata Ga Nai. There is no other choice. I shed my clothes, layer upon layer that had been with me without break for much too long, and waded in.

My breath came ragged in dying hot exhalations, air steaming on the iced water's clean surface as I started to swim. Happily, I am no slouch in the water; I swam competitively for over a decade and got my name on record boards at a handful of area high schools. I swam too fast- my boxers started to slip off almost immediately. Holding them on was slowing me down, so I let them go with the intention of retrieving them on the return trip. Unfortunately, they promptly sank, though given their age and state that may perhaps have been a blessing.

Climbing into a canoe from the water is necessarily an awkward maneuver; being cold, wet, and naked added a novel element. It was not until I was standing on shore quite pink and without a stitch with the secure boat at my feet that the hilarity of the event overwhelmed me.

I laughed.

I could do little else- the consequences of my mistake, my first real mistake on this trip, revealed dauntingly post-swim. I dried off and got my clothes back on, perfectly comfortable within a few minutes, but moving on with humor protecting me from the shuddering thought of what could have happened. The swim capped off a string of mistakes- I dropped my spoon in a lake during a snack break and let the wind catch and carry off a waterproof mitten shell during a snow squall. These things hit me hard- scary mistakes a hundred miles into the half-wilderness of the Boundary Waters.


I wrote the above in an empty bus station in Thunder Bay, Ontario. That was three days and a forty-four hour bus ride ago. Now, I am home and relaxing comfortably with all the hot water, fresh food, and central heat I can stand. The moment post-trip when one ceases relying on their metabolism for homeostasis management comes as relief that is hard to appropriately describe. My run across the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota saw me push 300 miles in fifteen days, consuming forty-five pounds of food.

I had planned for 13.5 days to reach Lake Superior, but the weather had other ideas. Seven sunless days of snow flurries and wind-driven sleet was followed by a few calm but portage-filled days. On one particularly calm afternoon I was forced into my parka at dusk- about an hour early. The lake was glassy calm and the sky cloudless- this would be the night. In the north, this is a special night: the first cold, calm night when the last warmth of the lake is sucked into space. The next morning, ice as far as I could see.

It forms first in crystalline lines that if given a chance stretch out into perfect angel wings, singular as if shed, deer-like. These coalesce and disappear into the first sheet, 1/32 of an inch thick and growing. By the second day in areas of perpetual shadow the ice was ply-wood thick, 5/8". The larger lakes stayed open, but in the narrow areas the ice slowed me down by at least a day, so the margin of error in my food was in the final counting not much of a margin at all: I ate full meals five times a day right to Superior, but ate my last handful of dry roasted peanuts thirty feet before I sighted the Great Lakes, that being the last ounce of food. Good timing.

The Boundary Waters are the most traveled canoe area in North America, and I traveled it from end to end and did not see a single person in fifteen days. It deserves its reputation; it seems an endless string of clear lakes bound by living rock and conifers. In my experience this string was domed by skies either gray or angry and precipitating. By the time I reached the Pigeon River and the last of the lakes, the lack of sun had long since begun to hurt. In fifteen days I had maybe thirty-five hours of sun. The days were short, the nights long- sleeping for ten hours and reading a book every two days became the norm as I hid from the dark and cold.

In a fury of portaging, I hauled my boat and kit nine miles down the Grand Portage as the voyageurs did, having crossed from the Arctic watershed to the Great Lakes and Atlantic. As I came down the old and long beaten trail to the shores of the largest lake on earth, it began to rain once again, tiring after its hour long respite. On shore at the end of the Portage is the reconstructed stockade of the Northwest Company, a fur-trading concern of the late eighteenth century. It is a National Monument and the kind superintendent allowed me to store 'Casco' in the warehouse there- my slim, space-age canoe leaning against the wall amid thirty plus foot birch bark Montreal canoes of ages past. It is an odd juxtaposition, but one I keep telling myself fits in some odd way.

I made it out with winter at my heels, the way closing even as I emerged. The gales of November will blow on Superior, and I will rest. Come May, we'll see about the third and final leg: the way down to the sea at Portland, Maine.