Since I retired, the sun has become my friend and alarm clock. A tad before Sol breaks the horizon my internal light sensor tells me it's time to get up. Usually my unconscious hits the snooze button for an additional ten minutes but this morning we had places to go, things to do, odds and ends to dread and water to make (yup, there it is again), so I rose to face the day. A few minutes later Brian began to stir. Figured the rangers were still sawing wood, no need for us to hurry. Breakfast was first on our list right after coffee at the Mocha Moose.
Grand Marais is not your average small town. In fact, one of the travel services rated it as the coolest small town in the galaxy. Not sure what they meant by coolest since the average summer temperature along the big lake is about the same as the average winter temperature anywhere else in the country. Regardless, the town boasts a dozen or so restaurants, upscale lodging, a micro-brewery, gourmet coffee shop, couple of bakeries, gift shops galore and a harbor chuck filled with fancy boats. In other words, it puts a civilized spin on the end of the earth.
Don't know why but the idea of a lumberjack breakfast held no appeal for either of us. Oatmeal with a side of bacon at the Bluewater Cafe did the job just fine. After the damage of last night's pizza, a soothed bowel was at the top of our list of things to do today (right after coffee of course). Having time to kill we headed to the Ranger Station where we gave the front door the stink eye with hopes our combined mojo could spring the lock. No luck. Instead we sat in Brian's truck honing our patience.
Slowly the parking lot came alive. Through the windshield we watched several trays of food pass in the arms of non-uniformed women. Down below the hill, to the rear of the station, we could see green clad, official looking people sneaking in the back door. Why not the front door? Struck me as suspicious. A sign of the times? Could be motherly types bearing hot dishes gave the government office a warm spin. Made you want to say, "Gosh, I was wrong. The government is all soft and cuddly. Reminds me of my mom. Darn, I think I'll giver her a call. Tell her that I miss and love her and be sure to pay her taxes on time." Or maybe the reason was the large building out back from which the rangers seemed to be emerging.
The video was as exciting as it's ever been. Could be longer as far as I'm concerned. And could have dialog. Or maybe a little slapstick humor. Bears in clown makeup rolling over the portages on tiny bicycles. The followup quiz was simple enough. Boiled down to camping in designated places and not making a mess. The Boundary Waters is a wilderness and at the the same time, it's not. A quarter million people pass over those portages in less than five months. The one heading into East Pike has worn a couple of inches into the earth. That's a lot of boots. Guess it pays to be neat and remind everyone to mind their manners no matter how repetitious and mundane the video.
Fifteen minutes later we escaped but still had plenty of time to kill. Though there were plenty of sleeping bags to be had in town not a one was available before nine. We roamed the streets in search of inspiration and came upon an outfitter we hadn't known existed. Brian pulled to a stop in their parking lot. The place was wood and glass new and looked hi-tec modern. Don't know why we waited but it worked. Could be our need conjured up the clerks. Not only were they early but they also let us in. Brian found the perfect bag, pulled out the plastic and we were finally on the road. (after spending ten minutes discussing the merits of locally made, freeze dried food).
Now nothing stood between us and the access at Little John Lake. Passed a pair of Road Work Ahead signs and came to a stop behind a MNDOT tractor-trailer blocking the right lane for no obvious reason. Appeared abandoned. After a brief discussion of what to do, Brian crossed the double yellow line and passed. 'Bout then, a gremlin in the guise of a yellow-clad road guard popped out from behind the truck, screamed us to a stop and began to spit fury at us. Seems we'd violated four traffic laws including not stopping for an unseen road guard. Damnation. We just couldn't catch a break this morning. Immediately we put on our best please and thank you manners. Easier to swallow the ego then spend the night in the hoosegow.
Hovland's one of those towns that's larger on the map than it is in person. Good thing they've got a sign. However, for me it's big in memories. A mile before town the Brule River rumbles its way into Lake Superior. Once in town, the smaller Flute Reed River does the same but with a more poetic name. Decades earlier the outdoorsman Calvin Rutstrom owned property on the Flute Reed. Immediately past the bridge, the Arrowhead Trail turns inland and climbs the Sawtooth Mountains. Gotta forgive us Minnesotans, if you can't see the top of a hill from the bottom, we call it a mountain. Brian almost shifted into a lower gear for the climb and no doubt would have had we been in a brand new, 1,100,000,015 BC Toyota 4-Runner (they sure don't make 'em like they used to).
About twelve miles up road in 1965, my fictitious Uncle Emil built a cabin alongside a trout stream. Might even have met Calvin Rutstrom (hadn't thought of that till now). If he had, Emil wouldn't have known Rutstrom from Adam. 'Course, unlike Rutstrom, Emil wouldn't have thought of himself as an outdoorsman. If asked he'd have stroked his chin and said something like, "Well, I do like being outdoors and I am a man. But an outdoorsman? No, I don't think so."
My fears rose with the climb. Wasn't so much I was scared, more that I was extraordinarily apprehensive. I knew for certain what the portage would be like, knew it well. Also knew we'd survive it. Also knew loading a canoe with two hundred pounds of gear and paddling off in the opposite direction of the nearest hospital was no longer the mindless thrill it'd once been. Nope, unexpected stuff can happen faster than you can snap a bone. This wasn't northwest Manitoba but it sure wasn't Lake Nokomis back in south Minneapolis. Also, 'bout a half mile down the cedar lined shore of Little John a stretch of rapids runs that'd once turned me backwards as I exited. Then there was the portage. A hundred eighty rods up and over a fair sized hill paved with rock, root, mud and huffing, puffing, wheezing pain every labored step of the way. Back in the nineties this little carry had been no more than forty-five minutes of sweat. Not so anymore.
And then there was what awaited us at the end of the portage. Would there be any open campsites on East Pike Lake or would we have to push on? Plod and paddle till we ran out of daylight and were forced rollup in a tarp, bodies coated with leeches, on a hummock in the middle of some God-forsaken swamp. And if we did find a campsite, would we be greeted by clouds of back flies and mosquitoes? I'm not making this stuff up, those thoughts were up there dancing in my head where the visions of sugar plums should have been.
So, why in the hell was I on this trip? Good question. Last winter a trip to the Boundary Waters sounded like fun. Also might have to do with my failing memory which blanks out the bad till it's too late and finds us tooling up the Arrowhead Trail on our way to adventure or, more likely, self-inflicted torture.
First stop was Portage Brook. Called it Aspen Brook in "Emil's Cabin." Spent a lot of time last winter looking at the stream from the satellite and she looked to be a friendly valley with a meandering stream that'd easily lend itself to building a forestry road, two track driveway and a cabin. One look from the Trail told another story. As did the cloud of black flies we drew (see comments above and why my fears now rose to a boil). The brook was a beauty as it tumbled over and about a boulder field twenty feet beneath our boots. Weeks earlier, in my mind's eye, Brian and I were going to ease ourselves down a gentle descent, amble along the inevitable trout fisherman's stream-side path and shoot a few photos. Give me a picture to describe in the Cabin story. Well, if there was a path, I couldn't see it. And if there had been, it'd be one we'd have to slide down on our butts. And if there was a stream-side path, it'd be an up and down, over boulder and around bush or tree, acrobat act along the steep sided bank. Not happening today Roy. I made do by firing off a few from where we stood.
Those few minutes won't leave me alone. Could be they're trying to tell me something. I wrote "Emil's Cabin" driven by ease. Liked the general gist of it but realized it lacked any kind of spark. No life in it. The Portage Brook Brian and I saw was definitely alive and had been since the last ice age. It was scary alive. Raw and real. Time for a rewrite.
A pair of men paddled into the access while we unloaded canoe and gear. They'd been camping and fishing on John Lake. They gave us a thumb's up as to their luck and confirmed what the ranger back in Grand Marais had said, "Yup, there were bugs." However, they made no fuss over the numbers and my hopes were raised a little. 'Course they may have been ex-Marines who found clouds of black flies as nothing more than seasoning on their morning's bacon and eggs. We continued our off-load. Brian pulled his truck into the little parking area while I stood beside the empty canoe scratching my head. I knew for a fact the gear had to go in the canoe. Exactly how that would happen was a mystery I hoped would solve itself as we threw in the packs.
My mind's not as sharp as it once was. All the necessities of decision making are still there but float around in a cloud. Willy-nilly. I don't envision like I once did. The picture in my head needs a helping hand from reality. However, once step one was solved all the fuzzy corners crisped up. Stove under front seat, food pack next, cooler, big packs in tandem, tight to the rear thwart, rod tubes and spare paddle jammed between and Brian's waist pack behind the stern seat. Trim, tied off and balanced. We paddled onto Little John.
We floated in my amber colored Wenonah Spirit II. The Spirit was Wenonah's first design and okay in every respect, compromised to the point of being able to do everything in an adequate manner. She's neither as fast as a flat water canoe nor as maneuverable as a river boat. But she's deep and good on big water with a heavy load. Never shipped a drop and I hoped it'd stay that way. Turn the Spirit over and the history of every Canadian Shield rock I'd ripped her on is written like glacial carvings in greenstone. Put those scratches together and you'd have the story of each trip she's floated. Could kevlar be translated into English, I'd have sent the boat in for publication. All afterthought of course. At the moment I was happy the floor was dry and we were moving easily.