Lesson learned: You take what you're given. And maybe grow a little smarter on the way. The year we were frozen out of the Boundary Waters, Allan and I made up for it with a three day trip in August. It was a last minute deal and the pickings can get mighty slim in the BWCA without a few months lead time but there are always a few entry points that never seem to fill up. Leftovers are better than going hungry. Our's was two portages and five paddling miles from the access. Sounds a whole lot worse than it was. If you didn't know you weren't in the Boundary Waters on the way in, you'd have thought you were. Not sure why they drew the line where they did, but they did.
Once again Mother Nature made us feel unwanted. The forecast was for continued strong winds from the west but we went knowing the water would now at least be in a liquid state. That the going might be tough was okay with me. I've always learned a whole lot more from my mistakes. Mainly I've learned most of my mistakes are self-caused. We all know excrement flows down hill but it takes a lot of wallowing and a bit of thought to realize if you looked up that hill, you'd probably see yourself refilling the bucket.
I didn't take the weather forecast personally. It'd been windy a lot that summer, the woods were tinder dry and a forest fire of size was working its way across the Gunflint Trail. With conditions like that, it might have been smarter to stay home and weed the garden. But we had those three days, a permit and the never flagging hope that conditions might improve.
At 3pm on Thursday, right after work, we hit the road with a song in our hearts and a slim chance we might make the Grand Marais ranger station before they closed at 8pm. Under the best of conditions it was a five hour drive. Trouble was Highway 61 out of Duluth. Hwy 61 is a two-laner and didn't have but a couple of stretches where a person could legally and safely pass. One dawdler out to enjoy the beauty of the north woods would put us in the stink hole. Any chance of beating the rising winds of the next day with an early start would be gone. Not to mention about three hours of our precious time on the water.
By 6:30 I knew our chances were pretty much kaput. Dawdlers from hell ruled the road. Then an angel arrived on the scene at eighty mph. A maniac in a Cadillac Seville pulled up within kissing distance of our rear bumper. Before I had the chance to express my opinion of his parental relations, he - or she - pulled out, passed and resumed warp speed. Here was an opportunity sent from on high and I did not fail. With a hearty "Hi-ho, Silver!," I stomped on the gas. Went by the two near cadavers in their '61 Rambler like they weren't even there. For the next ninety minutes it was balls to the wall keeping that Caddy within firing range. Me and Al weren't alone in the van anymore. A flying death into the birch trees was now calling the shots and riding shotgun. We blew by one terrified Minnesotan after another. They weren't alone in their fear. I'd sweat myself dry by the time we pulled into the USFS office just in time to watch them lock the doors.
Crapamundo! Thank God for Al and his nimble mind. Instantly he looked me in the eye and said but one word, "Chinatown." The incisive brilliance of that single word told me he was gonna do just fine for the rest of his life. I flipped Al my Swiss Army knife as we ran to an open window on the side of the brown log building. We pounded on the frame till a ranger arrived. By then Allan had an open blade up my left nostril. The look on the ranger's face when Al, in perfect Roman Polanski voice, clipped out, "Thinks he's a tough guy. Thinks he's a tough guy. Open the door or I slit the old man open," was worth a million bucks. Ten minutes later we walked out the door, permit in hand. Didn't even have to view the mandatory video. Fifteen years haven't dulled the warmth of that moment for the two of us.
We camped out in our van at the John Lake access. My ears didn't sleep that night. They told my dreams the wind was dying, then dying a little more, all the way to sunrise. Looked like our lucky day. The serenity held for at least six minutes after we pushed off. Shazbot (or whatever the heck it was that Mork would exclaim)! An hour later, North Fowl was a barely doable maelstrom. But the winds didn't fully crank up until the end of the Moose Lake portage. The foamed surf on the rocky shore bade us, "Come fools. Bathe in my waters. 'Cuz you sure as hell ain't gonna get out in the whitecaps right side up." Down went the gear and so did Allan. He'd already pulled a comfy slab of bedrock out into a sunbeam and fallen asleep immediately. Two billion year old stone and the kid thought the Grand Plan was all about his nap time.
For me, the next few hours dragged by one minute at a time. Guess I'd been in the work force too long. Enjoying being where I was, especially when I was where I wanted to be, just wasn't in my deck as yet. I wanted to be over there, not here. I paced, counted my paces, thought, tried to stare the waves into a calm, laid down for a nap at least fourteen times and woke Allan constantly to ask if he was comfy.
I'd thought I was an outdoorsman, a real modern day Voyageur, but I wasn't. A true outdoorsman takes advantage of the lulls. Learns birdsongs, ponders existence, listens intently to that perfect C-sharp thunk as he repeatedly beats his forehead against a jackpine. The pile of blood stained bark at my feet grew even slower than the time passed.
Finally the waves dropped maybe an inch or two. A sharp, "Screw it! We're outta here," got us moving again. And that moving was inch by inch into the never-ending wind. But move we did, following the foam line twenty yards out from shore. The Alumacraft liked to thump every third wave and give Al a little holy water sprinkle. Shhhh. Shhhh. Bang! The bangs got me laughing. Seemed so ironically stupid to be doing what we were doing. Stupidity, especially mine, makes me happy. That and the growing knowledge we wouldn't drown.
A few years later in Manitoba, windbound days became a part of the natural order. When you're on the water for two weeks, it's a certainty you'll spend a day or two of them stuck in camp. Wind, rain, snow, broken ribs; those things happen. Of the forces that refuse to play your game, it's wind that's the most interesting. The playful little zephyrs scooting across the wave tops giggling, "Hang on. We're gonna stop your ass dead cold. Maybe even move you backwards."
Every time the wind's up, you're always trying to meet it a few degrees off head on. Hard work but safe. Doing so makes you constantly go out of your way. Wind can come from four directions. During a blow, three of them inevitably turn out to be headwinds and the fourth seems to only exist on paper. Go sideways and you're swimming. Or so I'm told. Don't ever want to find out.
I've been crawling through my mental attic. Among the cobwebs there live only three brief memories of shushing along with whitecaps. Its not quite like surfing for the waves continually build, break and ebb. But the melody of the wave as it breaks is a couple of seconds of ecstasy. On the flip side are at least a half-dozen full days of enjoying them head on. You'd think the numbers would balance out but they don't. When entered into the flow of my entire life I suppose it more than does. I've mostly paddled in a downwind life. But believe me, my friends will tell you to never stand down wind pos my path. Unless you're one of the few who relishes the bouquet of a freshly manured field. Guess I've grown to be a man of the Earth in all ways.
Being windbound has its upside. If you're on a good site, everything set up and strack, its time to putz and putz well. Food, camp chairs, rods strung, maybe a little red wine. Keep flipping the spinners. See who comes to pay a visit. Read aloud. Imagine that. We read a lot. Time frees the hands and the mind. During our three months in Canada, being in camp, for whatever reason, was never tedious. More than that, it was a pure pleasure having the time to do whatever we wanted even if only to watch the sky change color. Or maybe watch Al play and land a thirty pound pike. Not bad at all.
Staying off the water when the wind told us to, was a growing sign of savvy. Relishing that time, a blessing.