Arrrrrrg. This story is daunting just to write. The last two days were so epically weak, so tragically hard, yet so stupidly simple, I can’t do it justice. It needs some good cinematography and a soundtrack. Perhaps David Attenborough could narrate as he watched the sad yet comical struggles of this young pair. That’s how it plays in my head. Keep that in mind as I try to conclude this story after two years of procrastination.
Day 18, spirits started high. The wind was at our backs. It was cold and sunny. The small lakes had begun to ice up. Without a doubt this would be the penultimate day of this wilderness honeymoon. So we stopped to marvel at the sound of water gurgling under thin ice.
We played with breaking it and tossing it and paddling through it. Then four trumpeter swans flew over. Their calls reverberating through the crisp air and the deep quiet of winter coming. They turned and circled over before leaving us.
By late morning we made it to our last lakes. North and South Foul Lake. The wind had turned, we would be paddling straight into it. After much miserable paddling we stopped angrily at a marshy rocky island. The sky was clouding over. Will’s mood was now foul. When we finally reached the far shore we ate lunch.
I cheerfully told Will that the worst was over. We were done with scary wind and confusing portages. Pigeon river had to be easy. The current would just push us right along. The map showed a perfectly uninterrupted blue squiggle straight to Grand Portage. There were no campsites along it’s 9 miles so surely it would be swift and simple.
We probably should have taken the map’s warning more seriously.
“POSSIBLE PORTAGES ARE NOT MARKED ALONG PIGEON RIVER USE CAUTION NEAR RAPIDS AND FALLS”
“It’s so peaceful and quiet in the marshy reeds.” I said encouragingly as we put into the Pigeon river.
It started out well enough. Then we came across low water and rocks scrapping under the canoe. I hopped out and pulled us along to a deeper spot. But it kept happening. Soon we were hopping in and out of the canoe so often it hardly seemed worth it to get back in. We tried to keep our eyes open for portages but the banks were riddled with muddy beaver trails, any of which could have also been a portage. The rocks and depth became more uneven. Soon my knee high boots were flooded. Progress had become tragically maddeningly slow.
Will digressed into endless streams of cursing. It was late afternoon and it was becoming clear that we were not going to make it to Grand Portage that evening. We plowed on though. All the surrounding land seemed impossible to camp on. I had given up any pretense of optimism. Will became furiously frustrated, jerking himself and the canoe around obstacles.
Dusk fell fast under thick grey clouds.
“Stop.” I declared. “We are camping right here.”
The river was braided around some low land. We pulled the canoe up on to pebbles and threw the bags down onto tall dry marsh grass. Will began to hack down some dead wood for a fire and I set up the tent on the impossible grass. In the dark we sat on the edge of the grass, warming soaked legs with the fire. We ate and I gave Will the last swallow of whiskey. I hugged him and assured him that as miserable and scary and frustrating as it was, we were safe. As long as we kept our wits and didn’t actually break something we would be out of the woods tomorrow. We crawled into our lumpy tent exhausted.
The next morning we woke to even thicker grey clouds. We put on wet clothes and boots. With quiet resolve we walked our canoe back into the evil Pigeon River. As the morning went on the river got deeper and we could actually get in and paddle. We had some amusement at the frequent beaver that would scold us on our way.
We were shocked when we came upon an obvious portage and then heard the roar of Partridge Falls. That thing was lethal. How was this not more clear on the map?
Just before noon we docked at Grand Portage. We made it. All we had to do was walk 8 miles out of there.
Next: Crippling Grand Portage
Previous installment: Raging for the Final Push
To read from the beginning you could start with my first installment A Beginning where stewing in my tent on day 17 I share how it was all dreamed up in the first place. Or And We’re Off where the trip actually begins.