A quick recap of the initial plan. Drive 7hrs to the Northwoods, get the proper permits needed and stay at a campsite outside of the BWCA to wake early the next morning. At 5 am paddle 8miles to a remote lake, paddle across that lake and ditch the boat. Hike through the bush to a remote lake miles away and survive the week. Plans change and staying malleable is important. I booked our permit in the month of February and at the time I had us entering the BWCA on a Tuesday. Permits in the BWCA are very specific, enter on the date of your permit or don’t enter. Pretty black and white. It’s 11:15 am on Monday and the ranger informs me and my partner that we are permitted to enter that day. I had made a mistake and now we had to change the plan. Stay malleable.
We made the drive to our entry point and assessed the situation over a cold beer which had been packed away in a cooler along with the steak and potatoes which was to serve as our dinner for the evening as we poured over maps, went through our gear one last time and discussed the following day. This was all condensed into about fifteen minutes and two stout IPA’s after which Ryan looks at me with his mind made up. We would be foregoing the relaxing evening on the lake nearby and instead getting the first leg of our journey underway with a goal of being at our campsite between 6-7pm alotting enough time to get camp sorted out and a fire going before dark.
The first leg of this journey is relaxing but by no means “easy” paddle. It could be made easy if we weren’t motivated by a lack of laziness and the potential of a setting sun. Unknowns like water levels and beaver dams hung in the back of my mind. If things were shallower than last year things could get significantly complicated in a hurry. For now, we did a last minute check of gear and got in the boat acknowledging to each other that had we forgotten anything it wasn’t really that important anyway. We had food, shelter, and water the rest was of less consequence. The paddle begins on a slow river through sometimes thick patches of wild rice. The year before we kicked up the same group of geese over and over as we paddled in the early morning hours. This year in the height of the day we saw few birds and instead noted many more turtles. We changed our tactic on the portages we had to complete this year and the consensus is that we are learning. The portages passed relatively quickly and without too much trouble save a newly downed young red pine of which we ended up basically sliding the boat across. The transition from river to stream was just as we remembered. Thick patches of rice initially gave way to shallow water and tight turns making for a significantly long paddle.
At about 7pm we completed the last portage and stood on the edge of our intended lake. No one was here, it was ours again for the second year in a row. We knew we wouldn’t see another human the entire trip and it was only day one, this was a huge box that we knew was checked as we paddled across the lake to our campsite for the evening. At the site we got to work, hammocks hung, fire started and yes we brought the steak and potatoes along for the first night. It was a meal we enjoyed knowing the rest of the week would be the dehydrated meals I had prepared over the past few months. Nothing like a good meal to go to bed on, we knew we had a long day ahead of us and as we crawled into our hammocks the stars came out above us.
Day 2. I woke early and enjoyed my coffee Shug Emery style hanging in my hammock. I tried my best “lord-of-lollygag” impression (not good…). We packed up camp right away and filled every vessel we had with water, the weather was looking good with overcast skies and a lower predicted high temperature according to the information we had when we checked before going in. We made the short paddle across the lake and beached the boat pulling it far up on the back to ensure it wasn’t going anywhere should bad weather roll in. It’s about 10:15 am and we are strapping our packs on for what would turn out to be one of the more difficult things I’ve attempted in recent memory. The maps and GPS had our destination at over three miles away but due to topography and the potential of dealing with two small creeks, I knew it would be longer than three miles. My goal was to try and let the woods direct us in that I was hoping to choose the “easier” path and if we ended up hiking a little longer I thought the tradeoff would be worth it. After the first hour, a change in strategy was immediately needed. We were going too far south and wasting time, energy and water. We stopped and re-evaluated the situation, made a new destination goal and got to marching in a straight line again. This means going through some seriously thick undergrowth, wet and swampy bogs, and my personal favorite the occasionally grove of red pines. Unfortunately, any respite we were given was not enough to offset high-stepping downed trees and fighting through thick young birch trees which seemed to wrap around your ankles like lassos holding you back.
It’s 12:30 pm and we had gone about .8miles, this was not going as I had hoped. Prior to stepping foot into the forest, as we strapped packs on our backs, we discussed the potential for danger. A mechanical injury could be disastrous and dehydration might be even worse. Ryan is 180lbs and in the thick of this place I would be pretty helpless to pull his ass out, likewise, if I went down he would have to leave me behind to get help. We agreed before we left that if for any reason one wanted or felt like we needed to turn around that we would speak up and discuss any concerns. If one wants out then we both go with no questions asked. We attempted to take a “path of least resistance” sort of approach but that quickly turned into hiking due south and we needed to head east, the route was altered and we began traveling in a straight line towards the goal. At .8miles in we were both feeling it, water was consumed and it was beginning to set in that this would be more difficult than either of us had anticipated. We set our second-way point at another .8miles out and kept battling the forest. Sections of black spruce and tamarack bog led the way to an increase in elevation which meant thick underbrush and more downed trees to climb over. Water was disappearing fast and we were slowing as we hit the 1.6-mile mark. Just over halfway and we had a serious choice to make. Sitting at the edge of the first major hurdle a several hundred yard crossing of a smallish creek which could mean hiking in waist-high water, sinking into muck or who knows?