This first paragraph goes out to my wife, Lois, who read the caption to the lead photo of last week\’s post and asked me, “So have you ever paddled in a large cauldron of orange chocolate sauce?” Well, no I haven’t. She was good-natured about it but obviously dissing my simile because I had no practical experience in such a canoeing situation – so how would I really know. Well, I stand by it. It’s so seldom that a simile, or a metaphor for that matter, raises itself on fleshy arms, like an out-of-shape, former athlete hoisting himself from a weed-choked lake and collapsing, nearly spent, onto the dock and though weakened and out of breath (the simile, that is) struggles over the boggy, gray matter of my brain, sinking at times right in over its head like that poor little fellow did in Lawrence of Arabia when he goes down for the last time in the treacherous quicksand, and finally rises (yes, the simile again, but not the fellow) slowly, quivering but determined, front and center in my consciousness, now a bright star amidst the otherwise vast darkness of space, that I refuse to abandon it, or run-on sentences either for the simple lack of personal experience paddling in the milieu of a large cauldron of orange chocolate sauce. But read on, I beg you.
In the Beginning
For folks visiting the first time, here’s a short video of the launch, filmed on May 1st, 2011. We departed, cloaked in the warmth of friendship, on a decidedly cold, 35 degree day. We began the trip at the old town site of St. Peter (now Mendota) across from Fort Snelling and just above the confluence of two great rivers, the Minnesota and the Mississippi. As planned, my wife went with me the first day and I carried on from there. All present noted with various degrees of trepidation, just how quickly we were gone, whisked down the river the moment we struck the current.
Cornucopia and Beyond
Whether you’re just signing on or followed along throughout the trip, I think you’ll enjoy this next short video. I’m picking up here on Day 25 and actually a little ahead of myself because the morning began much earlier than this, around 2:15 A.M. The previous day’s paddle began with a late start and was cut short by steady NE winds and waves before I beat it back to Cornucopia rather than risk another crossing in scary conditions. As you can see, this next day was amazingly calm and beckoned me to cover as many miles as I could before stopping for the night. In the video, the sun is plenty up and I’m just about to round Sand Point on the NW end of the Bayfield Peninsula (4th pin on left – map above)
How Did Those Voyageurs Do It? In the Dark, That Is.
I kept a copy of Nicollet’s journal beside me in the tent and most evenings I’d read the entry that pertained to the next day’s paddle. Routinely, these guys are getting up at 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. and hitting the trail. At times, that meant facing the rapids on the Brule in near darkness. I didn’t see how they could do it. But once I got to Superior, the advantage of an early start was obvious. It’s all about wind, or more importantly, lack thereof. I snuggled into my sleeping bag in my Cornucopia safe haven, my mind made up to get just such an early start. I rolled over and read 3:15 on the clock/radio. “Gee it looks kinda dark,” I thought, but I was determined to paddle a calm Lake Superior that day. To my thinking, that meant getting up before the wind did. After packing, I checked in with Lois and noted that the phone read 3:15 while the clock/weather radio, 4:15. Fumbling with the dials and buttons the night before, I had apparently re-set my crank up clock and wound up breaking camp a full hour before I’d planned. On the beach and loaded up, I could feel a light breeze on my face but nothing like the steady wind of yesterday. I turned off my headlamp and could then make out the harbor breakwater in front of me and the dark form of Spirit (Squaw) Point on my right which I knew extended 2 miles into Lake Superior. The half-moon lit up the lake just enough to see what I felt I needed to see to get going – that and, strange-as-it-sounds, a certain confidence that it would get lighter as the morning wore on (Hmmm).
I had my on standard gear, the same that I’d been wearing since exiting the Brule and entering Lake Superior two days ago. The air temp was pleasant, probably low 60s but the water was cold, perhaps low 40s where I was. First layer was thin silk bottoms and a, now smelly, poly long-sleeved top. Over this I wore the classic Stanfield 100% wool union suit, heavy and itchy when worn alone – hence the layer beneath. But Lawdy, it sure was warm and toasty. I had on a pair of neoprene booties and over the whole works the Kokatat dry suit. Besides the canoe this was my most expensive piece of equipment.
The dry suit is made of Gore-Tex, fairly light weight but most importantly, is totally waterproof and breathes during strenuous activity. You adjust for the outside temps by changing the layers beneath. Still, I chose a warmer underlayer even if it meant some discomfort because I wanted that layer in case I went in the drink. The dry suit alone is not enough to hold a safe body temperature in water that cold. Latex gaskets at wrist and neck and integrated Gore-tex feet – think baby’s first sleeper – keeps the cold water out. A water-proof full chest to shoulder zipper is your only way in and out of the suit – now think Houdini. I chose a wet over-boot that allowed water in and out – now think wading boot. These OTB brand boots laced up tight and had a serious gripping, rigid sole that made them an excellent choice for walking up the rapids on the St. Croix and making the slippery portages on the Brule. The neoprene bootie/Gore-tex feet/OTB boot combination was “warm enough” in these Spring conditions. Two days into the trip when the air temp was much colder I ditched wool socks and opted for the neoprene because the wool just wasn’t cutting it and my feet were numb by the afternoon. Besides my ever-present paddling gloves, I finished the ensemble with a Kokatat neoprene balaclava. This was a final purchase before the launch and pricey (39 bucks) but I decided after reading about the killing effects of cold-water shock (you never get a chance to become hypothermic) and the high heat loss from an uncovered head that it was worth the price tag. This I wore down on my neck while paddling ready to pull up over the my head in the event of a spill. My concern this morning was not the water temp so much as the wind direction in relation to the 2 mile stretch of sea caves ahead along the coastline NE of Meyers Beach.
Does the whole package make for risk-free paddling on Superior? Hardly. But, it was the solution I came up with to at least address the danger of cold-water paddling. So off I go. I paddled into dark swells as I rounded the water break at the harbor and headed into the bay. The lake was easy to maneuver in and nothing like the wind-driven waves of the day before. Two miles along the coast line of Spirit Point with my headlamp off and the moon lamp on, I rounded the Point in a little under an hour and headed 2 and 1/2 miles across the mouth of the Mawikwe Bay toward the sea caves. The wind was out of the east and very light. My good pal, Dave, an experienced boundary waters’ paddler and Apostle Island sailor, went eyeball to eyeball with me before the trip and made sure I understood his warning against paddling this stretch if the wind was anything but favorable. Wind off the land or none at all but certainly not in a W or NW wind that would push you towards the caves, into the caves and under the caves with a guaranteed bad-outcome. He didn’t say anything about the dark. I could hear the caves to my right and kept a very conservative and far distance from the shore. I could visit this much heralded spot on a day trip in perfect conditions at some other time. The sun was still below the horizon and now time really seemed to slow down. I bobbed in the light swells and watched the orange sky contract to the bright orb that peeped above, then squatted on and finally detached from the horizon and moved quickly to fill the notch between Sand Island and Sand Point. And the water looked like…yes…yes… a large cauldron of orange chocolate sauce. The low-light photograph doesn’t hold up to enlargement but here goes.
Once around Sand Point, I headed to the nearest beach. To say I sensed an urgent rest-stop in my future is putting it delicately. With slow, deep breathing combined with lightning speed and a contortionist’s abilities (never knew I had them), I exited the dry-suit in record time and enjoyed the inland scenery. Later I relaxed and walked the beach for a while before setting off across Little Sand Bay and around the Eastern end of Peninsula. I’d been paddling for 6 hours or so and planned to paddle past the campground at Little Sand Bay and scout a possible campsite somewhere ahead. My map showed one just short of Eagle Bay and the next, at the Red Cliff Indian Reservation in Buffalo Bay, perhaps 5 hours ahead. If I passed the first campground, I never saw it. Now it seemed to make the most sense to keep going and take advantage of the great paddling conditions. Soon I had York Island ahead and slowly rounding the Peninsula, Raspberry, Otter, Bear and Oak Islands came into view. It was absolutely gorgeous. Granted, twenty-five days into this trip it was hard to have fresh original thoughts and insights all the time, even most of the time – mindless humming, Hapa Haole lyrics from the Hula Pepper repertoire, recalling each campsite along the way, occasional bad monkey brain thoughts, and pondering the “whys” for doing this trip, to name a few. But I certainly understood the value of a lovely vista. As I relaxed and took in the whole picture, I pondered the word “slow”. I thought about the virtues of “slow food”, waiting through the time required to prepare the meal because you know the results would be worth it. What about “slow travel”? In my case it translated to 1 to 6 miles per hour over the last 270 miles through all varieties of fast current, slow current, no current, current coming at me, current pushing me ahead, headwind, crosswind, tailwind (could have used more of that), lake calm and all that weird stuff that happens at points, off high rock cliffs, at the lock-and-dam. But at a roughly average speed of 3 miles per hour, “slow travel” certainly applies. What are the benefits? Why do some people chose trains and not planes? Why not drive to Madeline Island like I had so many times before? I looked up at this point in my internal discourse and my eyes focused on a mature bald eagle flying low across Frog Bay and heading for the shore, Cisco dangling from its talons. It took a long time for him to get there.
Moments later, to my right and rising from the trees, there were two more mature eagles. Soon their talons locked and spiraling down towards the water they separated at the last possible moment and arced off in opposite directions. Okay, that which I may never have seen otherwise just happened, an exclamation point and clear answer to my question and well worth the wait.
I paddled the shoreline between Oak Island and Red Cliff Bay, along the west channel and on to the reservation at Buffalo Bay and my home for the night. But aha, a new casino/hotel going up on the former campground site. Camping? Perhaps when the construction is done. I’m pooped and the nice woman near the social center in Red Cliff (for the Lake Superior Chippewa band) suggested the marina about a half mile further. Her friend remarked upon seeing my radiant two-toned dry suit, “Are you a Vikings’ fan?” I pushed off looking drearily at the last half of mile 23 ahead of me. As I drew near the beach with masts poking up behind I saw a man and dog, tennis ball in the air and the pup in hot pursuit. I asked about camping. No, this was a marina and private housing community and they were not set up for campers. Amiably, we talked about the next campground just north of Bayfield. I knew I could make it but really didn’t want to think about what it would take out of me to get there. Just about then the man asked me where I’d been paddling and I told him about the route. In what seemed like a miraculous change in the wind/fates, he suggested that I go ahead and beach the canoe and together we’d talk with the manager at Roy’s Point Marina and see about a campsite here for the night. As I followed him up from the beach I hesitated, turned and looked out to Madeline Island. Around the northwest tip, not 3 miles away was La Pointe, my destination. It could wait until tomorrow. I wanted “slow travel” to get even slower.