Across Canada Stage 4. Lakes & Portages & the Big Portage
Sunday 28th August
An otter was running along the edge of the river bank. It was a cute little thing. We had seen lots of beavers but not too many otters. It was a misty morning which brought beauty to the scene but it didn’t take long for it to clear.
I started ferrying our packs over to the portage point with the double kayak to save us having to pack our boats and unload them again for the sake of 50 metres. I would put a big bag or pack in the back and a few other things, take it across and return for another load. It worked well and we were away portaging in no time. The portages are measured in rods which came from the voyageurs. This portage was only 22 rods which is 110 metres long.
With the next portage only 200 metres away I ferried our packs again. This time there was a litle more paddling, but it was still better than loading and then unloading 200 metres later. On the last paddle across I carried Alaine and she had two packs on her lap.
Back in the water it was only one kilometre to Big Knife portage. After a check, instead of taking the portage route we paddled up the small rapids and over a couple of beaver dams that got us to a pool before having to pull up another small rapid which was more difficult than the first but still better than portaging. It turned out being good fun.
We were now in Knife Lake and the trees were changing colour. The area had been burnt, I think after a big storm had knocked down most of the trees. Pine trees had very shallow roots and many are growing on rock, so when a big wind happens they topple over. I felt the hills at this point looked more beautiful as there was more rock exposed and had a more open feel about it. It reminded us more of Australian landscape.
Lunch was served opposite Thunder Point. It was sunny and calm with beautiful scenery to look at. There was a walk trail on Thunder Point marked on my map but it was a long way from the nearest community to be used.
The lake narrowed and on a steep rock wall there was a plaque that was dedicated to Benjamin Ambrose.
We turned into another part of the lake and met a US couple who had just arrived at their campsite and we had a short chat. They were on a ten day circuit journey.
At the Little Knife portage there was water running through the rapid so we decided to pull the kayaks up the 40 metre tight rapid. It was hard to get big Bertha up the bigger drops and tight corners but the Epic was easy.
The scenery was just stunning, narrower lakes, cliffs and rock faces. I checked a campsite out but it was too small for all our tents so we moved on to the bottom of the small bay but there was nothing suitable for three tents. As we had to stay on the Canadian side to camp we had no alternative but to check out the portage point which was less than a kilometre away.
It was swampy at the portage point so I ran the portage to see if there was a better camping on the other side, but unfortunately it was even worse. We had to settle with camping on the downstream side. We didn’t really like camping at a portage but sometimes we had no alternative. It wasn’t a great camp spot but for tonight it had to do. The small shallow bay that was circled by reeds and mud was called Muddy Bay but as you can see from the photo it looked quite beautiful.
The water wasn’t very clean in the bay for drinking so Alaine and I paddled back out to the deeper part of the lake to get some cleaner water. After stepping out of the kayak into the mud at the portage and then onto dry land Alaine had a big leech latched onto her. You can imagine Alaine’s facial expression. We got the salt and in moments the leech was wriggling and moments later it let go. When it started wriggling Alaine just wanted it off. Awful feeling she said. Like the one that latched onto me, we still have the scars.
It was late but we decided not to put our tents up just in case someone came through. I cleaned my stove as it had blocked jets and just before dark a couple with two teenage children arrived. The start of their day hadn’t been good as they had got lost and paddled several miles out of their way. They had to make a few more kilometres as they were now behind schedule.
It was a quiet night apart from the croaks of all the frogs that kept hopping out of the swamp to keep us amused.
Monday 29th August
We were up by 6.30am and the sun was out for about five minutes then the clouds moved in. We had breakfast and Alaine and I started carrying our gear across the portage. Leo was slow getting ready again. I’m so used to getting up, have a quick breakfast and going, but I think Leo likes a more leisurely start to the day. She did say that she usually had coffee in bed at home and checked her emails before getting up. So different from my mornings.
The portage was steep at first but levelled off. There were three US /Canadian marker posts along the way marking the border. At the other end there was a board walk which saved us from loading in the muddy swamp. A big spider had made its home under one of the timbers. Leo and Alaine had no intention in getting close or putting their feet in the marshy water, just in case another leech latched on to their legs.
Paddling off through a narrow gap the girls were happy to get away from the swamp but within minutes we hit another very short but annoying portage. We checked to see if we could pull the kayaks down the stream but it was just too chockablock with trees. We had no alternative but to unload big Bertha but we were able to carry the Epic across fully loaded. Two canoes arrived as we were leaving and after a short chat we paddled off seeing the family who we had seen the night before taking a self-timing photo of themselves at one of the US camp sites.
The river was narrow and shallow at times. It then opened up and after we had paddled through a narrow channel we were getting close to Cache Bay where another Ranger Station was located. As we diverted into Cache Bay towards the Ranger Station the wind was firmly against us.
At the jetty Janice the ranger greeted us. She had been the ranger there for 27 years. Fancy living on an island in the wilderness with only a few canoeists dropping in for 27 years. After talking to her it seemed that the parks board hadn’t yet recognised her loyalty and commitment.
Janice was taking photos as we were landing. She then took us up to her cabin to eat fresh pineapple cake and have a cup of tea. Unfortunately just as we were sitting down two other canoes arrived which she had to take care of. We ate the cake and waited for her to finish with the others but it took a long time though, as it seemed they all had to sign something and listen to a briefing that Janice gave. They were going along on the waterfall route which we really didn’t know anything about. When they left they didn’t look very confident as canoeists.
As we were no longer camping in Quetico Park we needed to get Crown Land Permits which were $10.00 instead of Park Permits which were $22.00 each. Camping in Canada was much more expensive than camping in the US, but we had to camp on the Canadian side on the rivers and lakes.
We had been at the Ranger Station 2.5 hours, most of that time was waiting for Janice to process the other four guys. She would have loved for us to stay longer, but we needed to get on as our paddling days were getting shorter with all the portages.
It was 3.00pm when we left the jetty and started crossing Saganaga Lake with the wind behind us. We were making good progress as we crossed the rough lake and eventually took shelter in a group of islands which housed a few cabins.
As we took a route towards the Canadian customs post which was abandoned when we reached it there were several cabins on the Canadian side. It was quite a community. There were also a couple of lodges which were closed so the season must have been over for them. The only life around the area came from a couple of power boats skirting around.
We left the cabins and headed up river towards Saganaga Falls which was trying to hide from us but we eventually found the river mouth and the falls. The falls were only two metres high, but they were still too high and water too fast for us to pull our boats up the falls. There was no alternative but for us to portage.
The portage was rocky getting out and rocky getting in. Leo had a fall but she was okay and we portaged fairly quickly as it was only 50 metres or so long, but in parts it was steep.
The river was narrow and the forest for kilometres along the river had been burnt and looking a sorrowful sight. Another rapid stopped our progress but we were able to drag our kayaks up it. At a fast section, the water flooded Leo’s cockpit and with so much water inside the kayak it was heavy to handle. We were concerned it could get away from us and wrap around a rock so it was action stations as we used two hand pumps to get the water out quickly. It wasn’t a big rapid but it could still do some damage.
It was now getting late and we couldn’t find a campsite. There were a couple of campsites on our map but we couldn’t locate them. They may have been devastated by the fire and a storm as there were a lot of trees down. We kept checking the shoreline but we still had no luck. The sun was going down and it didn’t seem as if we would have any flat ground to camp on tonight but just as it was getting dark I spotted a place and yes it turned out being a good campsite with flat rock to drag our kayaks up and enough flat places to erect our tents. We felt very lucky to have found it.
There was a stunning sunset in the western sky and the red and orange colours also reflected along the lake which was equally as stunning. There were several big frogs around camp, the water was calm, it was silent and the stars were exceptionally bright. The day had a good end.
We called it Saviour Island.
Tuesday 30th August
Squirrels were rustling about in the night. The sun came up and dried our tents which we always liked.
By 10.00am we were heading around a bend towards Devils Elbow. There was a portage trail on our map which was there to avoid portaging a rapid at Devil’s Elbow, but we decided to check the rapid and hope that we could drag our boats up it.
It was pretty around Devils Elbow with a couple of islands on the approach. The river narrowed but there was no sign of a rapid, just a scenic gap. We were very thankful that we hadn’t taken the portage. We paddled through the small Gneiss Lake and then came across a rapid which although small was running fast once we got in it. As the water rushed over a drop I pulled big Bertha up it as hard as I could to prevent it stalling half way up. I managed to get it nearly all the way when I lost my footing and the kayak came to a halt and the back cockpit swamped. The kayak was so full with water I couldn’t move it and all attempts that Alaine was having trying to push it up from the rear failed. She just kept being washed away. I then shouted for Alaine to come and help me pull, but she couldn’t hear me over the noise of the rapid so she kept trying to push the kayak up, only to be washed away once again.
In the meantime Leo was next to her kayak and as I struggled she didn’t realise I needed help as she couldn’t hear me calling Alaine to help me pull. Moments went by as if time had stopped, then Leo suddenly realised what was going on and quickly came across. Between us we managed to drag the kayak up beyond the drop and into an eddy where we retrieved the two pumps and started pumping out. Alaine also used a bailer, so we had the water out in no time.
The rapid became easier
We pulled big Bertha up the rest of the rapid and then went back to help Leo. Being a lot lighter it came up the rapid a treat. The third rapid was much easier. Here we had lunch near some strange looking yabbie holes in the mud and several very tiny flowers.
We reached the 4th rapid on Granite River and had no problems pulling the kayaks up and soon entered Clove Lake where we saw a good beach on the right on the US side. We had another portage coming up but our hopes were to pull our kayaks up the rapid but on reaching it the watercourse was extremely dry with huge boulders blocking the way. I jumped out and checked it closer but there was no way we were going to pull our kayaks up it like we did on the last few rapids. The main portage route was a hundred or so metres further, but we didn’t want to use it unless we had no other option. On our map there was another river entering at the end of our small lake a few hundred metres further so we paddled over to it.
Unfortunately when I got out and checked it was very narrow with lots of fallen trees across it, in fact it was more like a jungle. Although there was water coming down there no way we could get up it because of jungle of trees and foliage, so we had no alternative to backtrack and use the portage trail. Back at the boats two big frogs were sitting on a rock, one next to some deer poo. They didn’t move even when I nearly trod on them. We turned our boats next to the reeds and paddled back to the portage.
The portage was 101 rods long, about 505 metres. We landed on a beach which was the best part of the portage. The first section was steep, but it did get better, although as we had to return three times with the loads getting more difficult, and us getting more tired, it probably didn’t get any better. When we carried big Bertha up the steep hill, I was at the rear and Alaine and Leo taking it in turns at the front. It was difficult but we did get a good view of the forest and lake. At one stage Leo slipped and she went down on one knee. Luckily she didn’t let the kayak slip off her shoulder. Fifty or more kilograms is a pretty big load to carry over uneven ground, up rock boulders, over tree roots and slippery gravel or mud. It was more like an assault course, army training style. I was thriving on the hard work and I could feel myself getting fitter, so I was happy. Alaine wasn’t so happy as it was very hard and not what she had imagined before the trip, yet she did it. With her having done little training before the trip, she was doing amazingly well.
On the other side of the hill where we put in there was a very open area, but the ground was sloping and full of rocks. The water was swampy so it wasn’t the best camp spot. With a little light left we decided to check upstream paddling unloaded kayaks. We soon came to another waterfall. There was two if not three sections but the water was only running down one of them. I jumped out and followed a trail to see if there was camping on the other side. The trail was not the best and it didn’t seem like a portage trail but the view of the cascades was good. I returned with the news that it wasn’t the proper portage point so we looked further and found another trail on the Canadian side only 50 metres or so away. This time it was a portage trail and when I ran to the other end it had a place where we could camp.
We quickly returned for our gear that we had left at the other portage. It was 5.42pm and we were loaded by 6.00pm which was amazing, we were getting faster. After paddling back to our next portage we landed on some awful rocks, quickly unloaded and carried our gear to the end of the portage. The portage trail was thick with berries which we were able to pick on our return journey. At the very last part of the portage we had to negotiate a narrow steep rock section between two small vertical rocks and it was extremely difficult and Alaine tired and tearful broke down.
Our camp was high on a rock outlook, overlooking the river and gorge. It was quite a beautiful camp site. I had a quick swim to refresh from an amazing day. It had also been an exhausting day, and although Alaine had a few tears she still cooked macaroni cheese, bacon and sauce for dinner.
Wednesday 31st August
It was 6.30am but the girls were slow to get up. Our camp on the rocks was pretty special so different from the weather which was cloudy and drizzly.
We launched off a rock slab, paddled through the narrow rock gorge and within a kilometre came to our first rapid for the day.
It was Little Rock Falls and it was a beautiful sight. It was certainly too difficult to pull our kayaks up the falls as it was vertical with several ledges and too much water spilling. We had no alternative to portage. Someone had left a small dinosaur on a rock ledge, it was quite cute.
Our portage wasn’t long and with the view of the falls while portaging it was actually pleasant to do. A couple in a canoe arrived from the other way and within a flash they had portaged. Mind you they had a light Kevlar canoe and only two packs that they were able to throw in the canoe, so they didn’t have much loading to do.
With Little Rock Falls completed we carried on to the next rapid which we were able to pull the kayaks up. That was the last rapid before Gunflint Lake. As we paddled into a big bay an island with three cabins on looked as though we were in Switzerland rather than on the US/Canadian border.
Minutes later Alaine could smell cigarette smoke which came from a boat about 500 metres away. She had a good sense of smell. Cabins were on the high hill as we reached a tiny gap that led into Gunflint Lake. It had floats lining the gap to ensure that power boats didn’t hit the rocks in the shallows.
Although the day was overcast with a sprinkling of rain, the appearance of Gunflint Lodge brightened up our day. To be able to stop and have a meal and top up our lunch supplies was just the best. It’s good to be out in the wilderness but at times it’s good to have some luxuries.
A beautiful beach with a couple of dozen ducks fronted the lodge. A fairly new complex floating jetty that housed several power boats floated beside the beach. We landed next to the jetties near the rental shed and was greeted by Vince, who helped people who were hiring the canoes and boats. Vince told us what the lodge provided and offered any help. We talked for several minutes and then the girls changed into their going out clothes in his rental shed. The outfitter store where we could buy some lunch food was closed for lunch so we decided to go into the lodge to have a meal first.
The lodge inside had a good welcoming feel. Timber beams, by-gone artifacts, a canoe, old photographs and solid timber tables and chairs but best of all it had good food and beer. We ordered Walleye chowder soup which was delicious, a chef’s salad, which was also delicious and an ice cream. There was free coffee and biscuits and the prices were cheaper than in Australia. We were happy.
Outside I talked to an 87 year old who thought the prices were high but she did admit she was used to prices that they were like years ago.
With the outfitters store open we walked across and checked it out. Janice the ranger in Cache Bay said her friend Bonney ran the shop. They didn’t have too much food for sale but we did manage to buy pitta bread, tortillas, cheese, spam and some chocolate. It all helped to spare us from eating nuts and muesli bars for lunch.
Returning to our kayaks we met the owner Bruce. He talked and gave us information about our route ahead. He must have been over seventy but he still had a good sense of humor. Gunflint Lodge was the second oldest in the area. We took a photo and said our goodbyes to Vince who was there to see us off. Apparently the lodge is for sale but you just might need a few million dollars.
It was sad to leave the luxuries of the lodge but in reality we loved camping and being in the wilderness so in a way it was good to leave. We paddled along the shore and checked another outfitters store for fuel but they also didn’t have any either. We stopped again at another small outfitters and although they didn’t have any, they gave Leo some fuel that was in their sons fuel bottle that he took camping. It was only 1/4 of a litre but it helped as we were sure if the portages ahead were going to delay us we might just need it. All other campers used to light fires but we saw no reason to and it was easier to cook with our stoves.
We paddled to the far end of the lake and made a bee line for a big beach very close to where the narrow river entered the lake. It was a great campsite.
Two men in kayaks with fishing rods and fish nets paddled towards the beach. We thought they were going to camp next to us but they veered off up the narrow channel and into the swamp. It was late and we were wondering where they were going to camp as it was near dark.
Thursday 1st September
As we were having breakfast a powerboat with two people pulled their boat through the nearby shallow narrow gap that connected Gunflint Lake to the Little Gunflint Lake. An hour later another slightly bigger boat went through.
We were ready and on the water by 8.30am which must have been a record and within minutes of leaving we caught up and passed the last powerboat only metres from of the gap. It wasn’t often that we were faster than a powerboat but we were this time as it had difficulties moving through the shallows and the weed.
We paddled up the short swampy river into a swampy lake that was supposed to have been good fishing but we didn’t try. At the end of that lake we had a rapid to pull our boats up but at the time of reaching the rapid there was a powerboat trying to get down it. The water was that shallow the two guys were winching the boat through. All the boulders in the middle of the rapid had been moved to the outside to allow boats to get through, although today the water really needed to be higher than it was to make it easy. It would have taken a bit of work to clear the passage so somebody was keen. There was an abandoned short rail system next to the channel but it looked as if it hadn’t been used for a long time ago.
With the boat blocking the channel we offered our assistance. When I asked the guys if we could help I think they saw a weedy man and two females and had little faith in our ability to help. When he said we would never move it, I said we can give it a try anyway. With a co-ordinated lift/push we inched it down the rocky channel and we had it into the lake in no time. We certainly moved it a lot quicker than the winch and rope they were using. They were pretty thankful that we had come along as it would have taken them a good two hours with the winch. They said it was worth all the hard work as they had caught lots of fish in the upstream lake. As we were leaving one of the men gave Leo some dried venison for us to try.
We carried on into North Lake around a point and towards the Height of the Land portage. This is where the water from this side of the portage flows into Hudson Bay and the water on the other side flows into Lake Superior and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean.
The hills were high around the lake but where the portage was the land was quite low. The flatter it was, the easier for us to carry. We hit the stony beach and pulled the kayaks up. The portage had about 3, 1 metre border markers along the trail. We started off in the US, then we walked across to Canada, then the trail went back in the US and then back in Canada.
The put-in-point on the other side of the portage was all rocks which made it a little difficult loading the boats. The Epic was loaded on shore and we picked it up by its handles. I’m amazed that the handles, ropes and saddles took all the weight when lifting the kayak fully loaded and it was heavy.
We were soon on our way heading along South Lake surrounded by high hills. The lake was only a few kilometres long so we reached the end in no time and found the portage behind an island. The stream joining South Lake to Rat Lake was chokers with trees so there was no way we were going to pull our kayaks down it. There was a campsite on the US side between the stream and the portage track. I walked across the portage track to check it out and found a couple in a canoe just starting to portage back into South Lake. I carried one of their packs across when I returned to the girls and they were very thankful. On their way back to pick up their canoe they carried a few of our items across.
We decided to have lunch at the start of the portage as it was sunny sitting on the rocks and grass. Laurel and Sean soon returned, Laural carrying the canoe. She had wanted to see if she could manage it. She was the first women we had seen carrying a canoe. We gave her a rousing welcome. Laurel and Sean sat down next to us and had their lunch as well. They were celebrating their wedding anniversary. They had left their two children with Sean’s parents near Elk Rapids, Minnesota. They wanted to get away for three days and with a canoe rental coupon they acquired from Gunflint Lodge for $200.00 which included the canoe, being dropped off at a lake and all their food for the three days they couldn’t resist such a great deal. They had been given too much food so they offered us some meat and pitta bread. Sean was from Elk Rapids and Laural from Santiago. They used to work as rafting guides. They now live in Santiago. They were a delightful couple to talk to.
We finished lunch and started our first carry. When we reached the end two guys had turned up in a canoe who had a similar package to Laural and Sean. We helped carry their gear across and they were very grateful. We chatted for a while before we had to get going. The portage was 79 rods which was 400 metres.
It was another rocky portage point so the kayaks got a few more scratches. We crossed the small Rat Lake which had two swans and a cygnet moving around it. Then minutes later we came to another portage. It was only a short one, but it was annoying that we had to unload our gear and carry so soon. We managed to carry the Epic across without unloading but the double was just too heavy. It was too heavy with no gear in, let alone with gear in.
The first part of Rose Lake was shallow which made us grunt for a while but it eventually deepened. To help us enjoy the paddle there was a mountain with a cliff face ahead which looked quite spectacular. Unfortunately it was a little cloudy and there was a touch of drizzle so we couldn’t appreciate the lake surrounds so much. We cut across the lake and found our next portage on the American side, but we couldn’t find the one marked on our map on the Canadian side, which was a shorter portage.
We really wanted to camp at the portage so we didn’t have to spend an hour or so loading and unloading in the morning, but it just wasn’t a suitable place, so we paddled across the bay to where a campsite was listed on our map. The campsite was a beauty. It had a flat rock to pull the boats up and a lot of space. It also had a lot of flat rock along the ridge which enabled us to walk along it for a few hundred metres. It also had some fantastic views of the lake and islands in the west, and a cliff face in the east. It was one of our best camp sites.
I went for a swim, a walk around the cliff top and enjoyed mash potato and venison that Leo cooked.
It was interesting to watch the clouds build up and pass over in the western skies.
Friday 2nd September
It rained in the night, but the sun was trying to peep through the clouds when we tucked into breakfast. It was sad to leave such a perfect campsite but we had another long 3.6km portage ahead of us. We paddled across to the portage point and by the time we started our first long walk it was 10.00am. We weren’t looking forward to the long portage but it had to be done.
The trail was pretty flat with a few slight inclines, some rock, a few wooden planks over a swampy area. There was also a section of water on the trail where a beaver had dammed the stream and the water in the creek had backed up. We weren’t that pleased with the beaver as our footwear got a little bit damper than we would have liked.
Having weight in the pack wasn’t so bad but the bags I carried were a pain as they were heavy and caught on the undergrowth. My height has shrunk over the years, but my arms have got longer.
With tired bodies we dropped our first load of gear at the junction of the two portages and walked back for our second load. On the way back we took pictures of mushrooms, fungi, flowers, trees. It was a bit of a nature study. We needed something to take our minds off the hard portage. I usually carry the Epic by myself but this time we decided to carry it together, the girls taking turns at the front, me at the back. It seemed harder to do it that way than when I carried it alone. By the time we returned for big Bertha we were tired and we still had a third of the portage to do all over again.
Along the trail there was fungi, mushrooms, flowers, berries etc which made our 20km walk for the day a little more interesting
The next section of portage I carried the Epic and a backpack and it felt a little better. The track however turned and twisted, went up and down, over and under logs and over rocks and tree roots. It was a much harder portage and the only good thing about it was that it wasn’t as long as the first part.
It was painful stepping over the logs but we had to keep our spirits up by laughing about the difficult portages that we were doing. Who in the right mind would take on such a kayak trip?
We met two female walkers on our return. They carried no pack, no water, no insect repellent and were only wearing shorts and T-shirts. It was a mystery to where they had come from, although there were some lodges on the lakes to our south, but they still didn’t seem very prepared.
By the time we fetched big Bertha it was 5.15pm. That was 7.5 hours including lunch to do the portage. That was one hard days work. We saw a tailless squirrel but we was told later it must have been a chipmunk.
We packed the kayaks as fast as we could as we needed to find a campsite before it got dark. Rove Lake was a beautiful small lake with a cliff face but it was riddled with small swamps, trees and vegetation right down to the water. We didn’t think we had any hope in finding a camp spot but after paddling through a couple of narrow gaps we sighted a camp spot in the dense forest.
Suddenly the day got much better, having to find a camp in the dark is no fun even for hardcore campers like we were! Our bows hit the shoreline rock as we pulled up to the narrow gap in the vegetation. I jumped out and pulled big Bertha, with Alaine still in it, up the shore so the stern was in shallower water for her to get out. It was muddy underfoot.
The camp spot had been cleared with a fireplace and a few areas for tents although most were on a slope or had tree roots poking up. The pine trees towered above us so it was impossible to see the stars. Nevertheless we were more than happy to be there, although the mosquitoes were really bad. Considering how many days we had been on the water we had been fairly free of severe mosquito plagues, so a night now and then wasn’t so bad considering Canadian forests are renowned for mosquitoes. I think a much drier year helped to keep the mosquitoes down. Saying that we are now in a different watershed so it may have rained more in these parts over the summer and that is the reason the mosquitoes were worse.
We needed water and the water near the water’s edge was murky so using a couple of fallen tree trunks that were poking out well into the river I was able to walk along them like a tight rope walker and get cleaner water. The trouble was, the trees were slippery, but I was lucky enough to get water without going for a swim although Alaine was urging me to fall in.
It had been a hard day but we only paddled about 3-4kms but we had walked back and forth for 20 kilometres.
Saturday 3rd September
It was a misty morning and a squirrel was running high in the pine trees from one pine tree to another and dropping pine cones on our camp and tents. It was as if, it didn’t like us being there and it was trying to make us move. At ground level there were several huge mushrooms that had or were pushing up through the dirt. It was amazing how this fragile plant was able to move the dirt and forest litter and still be intact after it had pushed through.
I walked the two logs again to get water and I’m sure Alaine wanted me to fall in the water so she could have a good laugh. The camp even had a shallow toilet back in the forest but it wasn’t as hygienic as digging a hole. The mosquitoes were just as annoying as the night before, but Alaine and I donned our bug jackets which made life a little better, although it was more difficult to eat breakfast trying to keep our faces covered.
The mosquitoes were the worst at this campsite
Over the next hour the mist started to clear leaving some of the trees shining brightly with the morning sun. Alaine had tummy troubles so she visited the toilet several times before she left.
We managed to get going by 9.30am paddling along a beautiful lake that had a steep cliff and high hills. Unfortunately the cliff was in the shadows so the view wasn’t quite as good as when we saw it the previous day.
Rose Lake was small and soon turned into Watap Lake which also was only a few kilometres long. We soon arrived at our next portage which was just over 500 metres long. Although rocky we were able to get the kayaks out of the water with few scratches. We noticed that the people using rental canoes, which the majority of paddlers on our route have been doing don’t seem to care if they scrape over the rocks or not. We needed our kayaks to last so we took more care, but it was still hard not to get scratches.
At least the portage was much shorter than the previous day and there was a rock slab that we could launch off at the other end. After packing we had lunch in the sunshine which consisted of pitta bread, tuna and cheese and then cheese and jam. The girls washed their hair while we were there which made them feel more human.
There was another cliff about 600 metres away from the portage that looked pretty special. Mountain Lake was like a loch and we could have been in Scotland with it’s cliffs and high hills. We passed an otter that kept lifting it’s head out of the water and chattering. We tried getting a photo but then it would dive.
An otter gives us the eye
A few kilometres down the lake we started seeing a few canoes. There were about four scattered around the lake and two more at a camp site. We even saw a power boat but I was baffled to how it actually got onto the lake as the mountains blocked any way in from the US side, although there was lower ground on the Canadian side. My map said no power boats allowed on the US side and they were on the US side.
I decided to put out my lure and fish and as we passed a point I caught a small fish but I let it go. I put it out again and caught a big fish that jumped clean out of the water, but it spun off the lure. I put the lure back in and caught another. This time I pulled it in, but as I only had the line on a small reel I pulled in the line. Now I had the line tangled and all over the place and I had a fish in my hand that was struggling strongly and trying to get away.
The shore was close by so Alaine paddled me over to it and then I was able to deal with the fish. Fishing from a canoe is much easier than fishing from a kayak. It was a nice size and it would complement our evening meal very well.
A nice fish for dinner
Meanwhile Leo was looking for a campsite. When I reached the portage point I noticed a very small area about 50 metres away where it would be possible to camp. Hoping for something better I ran to the other side of the portage, but I only found a swamp. We settled on the small area.
As we unloaded on the rocks a small snake started slivering around. It wouldn’t leave us, it just continued to go back and forth, in-between the rocks and logs and under our boats. We managed to get a few photos. I went for a swim before having a good wash.
A small snake didn’t want to leave us
For the first time we lit a fire in a circle of rocks and cooked the fish which tasted beautiful. The girls put garlic in the fish and sprinkled lemon zest with salt and olive oil over it.
The fish was delicious
Sunday 4th September
It rained in the night so I got up to take some washing off the line. The skies were grey when two guys passed by at 6.45am, shouted and paddled towards the portage. I walked over to talk to them and they were going to Grand Portage as fast as they could which meant they would get there today. I tried to get a bit of information about the Grand Portage, which is a 20 km one, but they were in too much of a hurry. They were traveling light. They had a light Kevlar canoe and two backpacks that looked half full.
We started portaging at 9.15am carrying our packs 66 rods, 330 metres. Of course we had to walk that distance 6 times. There was a swamp on the other side with two different routes. We liked the nearest route as it wasn’t as muddy as the other route. Because the lake was low I jumped into the kayak and checked the route before we made a final decision. We were lucky we could get through the reeds at the nearest portage trail, which saved walking through a bog, so we started loading. It looked as if the other route was used when people arrived there because they couldn’t see the channel that we were taking through the reeds.
Yet another swampy portage
Once loaded we paddled through the reeds and lilies for about 300 metres and then we had to get out again for another 220 metre portage. Another canoe with father and son in caught us up and passed us. At the end of the portage, where we were just finishing loading, three guys in a canoe came along, threw their canoe in the water, had a brief chat and said they were doing 100 miles in 36 hours. They only slept for a few hours last night. Within a minute they were off.
Paddling the lily ponds
The put-in point was not good. When we were leaving I put my foot in the water and sank up to my thigh. It was really smelly and not the smell I wanted to take with me all day so I washed the mud off quickly.
We paddled through more lilies to get to the next portage which was 630 metres long. Apart from the first part, this section was level or downhill.
We had a good vista of Moose Lake and had lunch after taking the first load over. When we started paddling down the lake with the wind pushing us along, it had great scenery and we saw no-one.
The start of Moose Lake
At the portage at the bottom of Moose Lake I ran to the other side to see what it was like and again it was swampy but there were two campsites near where we had landed so we picked the one on the Canadian side. It was better anyway. We erected our tents on grass high on a rock cliff. It was windy and chilly with rain storms threatening to come down the lake. We watched them develop and get within 500 metres of us and then they would blow across the lake and be gone without reaching us. It was just amazing how they suddenly changed direction and disappeared.
The end of Moose Lake
We managed to get email coverage so we were able to send a few emails. After dinner we didn’t stay up long, it was too windy and cold. It was much more cozy in our sleeping bags.
Camped high over Moose Lake and wasn’t it cold
Monday 5th September
The wind had dropped overnight and the lake was calm. It was cold though but the view of the lake from our camp was exquisite.
I walked a load of gear over the portage while the girls finished packing up. We then had less gear to take when all three of us started portaging. Again our put-in point was really swampy but I found another place on a stream just before it joined the lake which was much better. There wasn’t much room though, just over a boats width, but at least it wasn’t muddy. Once we put in, the water in the stream was perfectly clear. We then followed the stream as it filtered into reeds that thickened and thinned for about 500 metres. After leaving the reeds behind and reaching the North Foul Lake proper it was calm and quite beautiful.
The 19kg Epic 18 wasn’t so bad to carry as long as all the gear was taken out
Where the lake narrowed a fishing outfitter and a few cabins appeared on the right but there was no-one to be seen. Behind it a cliff gave the camps the perfect backdrop. We paddled on towards an island which looked as if it was completely surrounded by reeds and impossible to get through. Then a small power boat motored by and weaved it’s way around the island so we knew it could be done.
From lilies to reeds
We followed a channel around the island to the left which brought us into South Foul Lake. Once around we could see our portage point well ahead, below a vertical cliff and near some beautiful hills. There was also a cabin next to the portage point, but on closer inspection that ended up being on an island before it.
This was our last lake before reaching Pigeon River where after a days paddle we would do our big 20km portage to Grand Portage. It was exciting time for us and the beautiful surrounds helped us enjoy our achievement so far.
As we neared our destination we could see the entrance to the Pigeon River. It was like a concrete dam with a small entrance in the corner of the lake under another cliff. I supposed the structure regulated the water. The opening was like a door. A sign posted at the river entrance said, Danger, fast water – rapids. It looked as if it had a sheer drop after the concrete entrance. It was one of a few signs that we had seen on the river since leaving Kenora. None of the portage trails were marked and the maps were not always correct. If you didn’t know how to read a map you could easily get lost. All the US campsites were marked as dots on the map but very, few of the Canadian ones were. It was guess work. The Canadian policy was not to mark their campsites or advertise them, so we didn’t really know how many we had passed by, but there were certainly a lot fewer of them than on the American side.
The scenery was just magical, steep cliffs, hills, perfect for our last lake. It was also nice to land on a beach for our last portage instead of rocks or swamp. With the vertical cliff towering over us, it was a spectacle.
The entrance to the Pigeon River
The portage track was in the corner
We dragged our kayaks up the beach, unloaded and had lunch in the sun. It was 12.30pm. Leo put her solar panel in the sun to charge her batteries but the high cliff would soon block it out. A small squirrel rustled around us as we ate spam and cheese in a pitta bread. We were then ready for our 2km walk to the Pigeon River which was going to be another hard portage but at least it was one of the last overland ones that we have to do.
The walk started with a near vertical rocky slope that really tested our stamina and leg and heart muscles. At least after about 60 metres it levelled a bit and then turned steep again before leveling out again.
After that it was mostly level or down hill with a few ups but it was the logs that were a pain. There were 20 or so of them across the track, some low but many were waist height or higher so stepping over them was often a struggle especially with heavy gear and kayaks on our backs. We also had stony gullies, tree roots, tight turns and a bit of mud thrown in just for luck. This portage didn’t seem to get maintained as the more popular ones did.
Leo and Alaine taking care as they walk down a near vertical rocky slope
More trees in the way
After nearly 2kms of portaging our first heavy load, the Pigeon River that we had been heading to for 4 weeks was there right in front of us. It wasn’t anything grand, in fact it was quite narrow but that didn’t matter it had water in it to get us down to where we could portage to Lake Superior.
It took about forty minutes to carry our heavy loads and 30 minutes to return for the next load. I carried the Epic and a backpack and the girls carried backpacks and whatever they could carry in their hands. Big Bertha was carried last. It was a bit of a struggle to get up the near vertical slope but we did it. After nearly 2kms and 3 rests we came to the narrow winding section where it was impossible to get around without shunting back and forth in the undergrowth.
We finally made it to the Pigeon River but it was nearly 5.00pm and we needed to load and find a campsite before dark.
Put-in-point on the Pigeon River. The first paddle with the current since we started at Kenora
The current was lazy and river narrow and lined with reeds, like paddy fields. The edges were swampy and not good for camping but we were surprised to be able to paddle so easily down the river. The sun was behind us and getting low in the sky but it was lighting up and shining on the trees, the reeds and river ahead. It was beautiful lighting and such a wonderful night.
So calm on the Pigeon River
We could find no camp sites among the river reeds and swampy gullies so we just kept paddling. Then we came to the rapids marked on my map. We didn’t see the portage route but it didn’t matter we were able to walk our kayaks down the small rapids. It wasn’t easy and the sun had now disappeared behind the canopy of trees leaving the valley cold and the water we were walking in even colder. At times we could get in and paddle but it wasn’t for long. I knew the cold would soon worry Alaine as she gets cold very easily, so I was looking for any type of ground that would take our tents as we couldn’t be particular.
The Necky kayak crunched over several rocks as it was impossible to miss them in the shallows. Leo was behind lining the Epic down. She calls the Epic her pony. The chill turned to cold, our fingers started to freeze, well nearly, so we really needed that camp. I checked a spot but it was hugely uneven and would only take one tent so we moved on again.
Lining the kayaks down the small rapids of Pigeon River. The air was cold, the water was cold and there were no campsites
The flow and grade kept varying so at every opportunity we jumped back in. A few metres later the kayak would crunch over a rock or two and we would have to get out again. We were more out than in though. At times we walked into deep holes that we didn’t realise were there, which was most unpleasant and cold. Alaine and I worked as a team to get the kayak around all the boulders, some we left white gelcoat paint on. Leo didn’t have the best balance over the slippery rocks so she took it slowly and managed okay.
Darkness was less than 45 minutes away and we were still wading through water. I checked a small island and it had too many gullies to camp. There seemed to be a lot of high grass lining the river edge but it too was full of gullies. Just before another set of rapids I saw higher ground. I just knew we had to stop before we tackled the next set of rapids as I didn’t know how long they would go on for and it was getting too dark not to camp.
I jumped out to check. It wasn’t level but there was a tiny clearing so it just had to do. We shivered as we heaved the kayaks up the steep bank underneath the branches of a pine tree. When we got the kayaks up there really wasn’t a lot of room for the tents but we found another spot a few metres upstream. This had to be our camp for the night.
We changed quickly. The half moon was shining brightly through the trees by the time we got our tents up. We didn’t have much room to walk about but we managed to cook a quick meal before crawling into our tents that were erected on tree roots and spiky vines. To our surprise there were no mosquitoes, but it was cold.
Wow, what a day we had.
Tuesday 6th September
There was a real chill in the air and when we surfaced there was frost on the kayak and the clothing we had left out was as stiff as a board. Because we had finished most of the portages I thought we deserved an extra rest so I didn’t rustle the gang until 7.45am, 45 minutes after we usually get up.
A cramped campsite
It was so cold so immediately I had to find my neoprene gloves to warm my hands. We had a cereal breakfast and a hot cup of tea before leaving our makeshift camp in the hope of finding some sun. Pushing the boats into the water was fairly easy but getting in them without stepping in the mud was much more difficult.
With our legs tucked inside the cockpit we tackled the first rapid which was only a few metres away from camp. There was supposed to have been a portage track close by, but we didn’t see it. We managed to paddle down the first small drop before it shallowed and we had to get out and face the freezing water. Here began the start of a fairly long walk. We stumbled along much of the time leaning on the kayak and using it as support, but when the water deepened we leapt back in and dangled our feet overboard as our ride was usually short lived. Just before, or when the kayak crunched over a rock we would leap out and steer it around the boulders again. It was tedious work but much quicker and easier than portaging.
Lining down the Pigeon River. It beat portaging
With the morning light, the sun enhanced the beauty of the river and it’s surrounds. We took photos of us stumbling over the rocks and Leo easing the Epic 18 down the rapids with a rope. Occasionally we could hear her say something I can’t repeat – we knew she had hit another rock or stumbled on the slippery boulders. The kayaks weren’t really built for white water or being dragged over rocks or up the rocky shorelines fully loaded so they were getting a hammering but they were holding up very well.
The small rapids continued for some time but eventually they got smaller and easier to get through. We came to two small rapids where a beaver had constructed a dam across them by utilising the rock ledges and laying branches across the river to stop the water. Many of the branches were freshly cut and still had green leaves, which were laid carefully across the river. We landed on the branches, got out of the kayaks and pushed the kayaks over.
Crossing a beaver dam and shallow rock bar
In front of us now was clean water without obstruction so our fun with the small rocky rapids seemingly came to an end. We weaved our way down the shallow river which had weed growing from the river bottom. The river edges returned to reeds and grasses and at one point near a place called, ‘The Meadow’ the trees thinned out.
Going with the flow
Two otters bobbed their heads out of the water as we passed them. The trees became thick again and soon after we passed an old cabin and approached Partridge Falls and pulled out about 15 metres before the falls.
We reach Partridge Falls pull out point
At the time we didn’t realise that the falls were 21 metres high and apart from the first 10 or so metres which consisted of two or three small drops they were vertical and dropped into a canyon.
If we had known the drop was going to have been this big we might have taken more care on the approach
We casually pulled our kayaks a little out of the water and strolled to the falls which were impressive to say the least. I don’t think anyone would attempt paddling it, although there are a few mad kayakers in the world. Alaine and I clambered down to the base of the falls and it was just more impressive from there. Water spray was floating around like mist from a steam cleaner. Insects also enjoyed the water vapour.
I’m glad we decided to stop. Partridge Falls
In the meantime Leo was checking the track out from the falls. Although I wanted to go on to the Grand Portage trail, which was a few kilometres further, both Leo and Alaine wanted to walk to the village of Grand Portage from Partridge Falls. Portaging from the falls meant that we could use our trolleys and walk the 20kms using a bush track which led onto a bitumen road and do it in one go. The Grand Portage trail was the original winding uneven walk trail and on that trail we wouldn’t have been able to use our trolleys because of the uneven ground. We would also have to make three trips, which meant 120kms of walking.
Although not as authentic, the easier way had more sense considering we had been portaging for a number of days already and it had been really hard work.
The track was about 400 metres back from the falls so we paddled back upstream to where the old hut stood. It was a muddy exit but we managed to get the boats out without getting too dirty. As we carried our gear up to a vehicle turning point the realisation that we only had one more barrier before getting onto Lake Superior dawned on us. I think we were all happy to have finished all the border lakes but I also think we were a little sad as it had become part of our life and although it was hard, I know I was secretly enjoying the challenge. We had the beauty, the wilderness and the challenge and the portages for sure were a challenge. It was just a challenge not to fall down or injure ourselves. It was a challenge to step or climb over logs with a heavy pack and two heavy bags in each hand. It was a challenge to carry big Bertha. We can, especially the girls be proud of what we had achieved. And our challenge hadn’t finished.
Time to pull out our boats for the 20km portage
We started sorting out our gear to get it in some sort of order as we needed to carry quite a heavy load on our backs and put the lighter gear in the kayak. By the time I fetched a load of water from the falls, where it was cleaner than where we took out, it was 4.15pm. We then thought it was too late to leave and that it was better to get an early morning start and relax for the rest of the day.
Camped near Partridge Falls and the start of our long portage to Lake Superior
Wednesday 7th September
It was cold but not half as cold as the previous night. Two partridges were sitting on the road as I went to find a spot to go to the loo. We managed to start our twenty kilometre walk at 9.30am.
Ready for the long portage
The track was rocky so the trolleys were bouncing and fairly hard to pull especially up the hills which there seemed to be many of. The lose rocks were also a pain especially when the trolley wheels tried to climb them. We stopped for a rest now and then and on that first section we were only doing 1km an hour.
With all the heavy gear on our backs or in our hands the lighter gear was left in the kayak
Alaine and I were pulling the double and Leonie pulling the Epic. I had tied a piece of timber in the hand loop so we both had a grip either side of the bow. It worked well. However Alaine developed an ache in her side I think due to the heavy pack, the weight of the water she carrying in her right hand and of course the pulling of the kayak as well. With bent back she could only see the track beneath her sore feet and big toe. It was hard work.
Rest time at the top of a hill
We passed a skidoo trail and soon after had our lunch in the middle of the track. We had no hope of getting run over as there was no traffic what so ever. It felt nice to sit on our heavy packs instead of carrying them.
The track continued to go up hills which was rather disappointing as we had hoped the track would have more down hill than up hill. Silly really as on the map, the road sort of followed a stream to its head waters. Finally we reached the old highway 61 which was much smoother than the Partridge Track so we started making headway. There was even a bit of smooth bitumen, now and then. It still had hills though but not so many.
Finally we saw a pickup truck. It stopped, but the guy wanted directions to his brothers truck which was working on one of the side roads. Apparently it had broken down. Of course we had no idea where he was but Leo tried showing him a map on her iPad. He sped off further down the old highway 61 and 10 minutes later he was back and taking a side road on our right.
One or two abandoned buildings started to appear as well as an abandoned skidoo and a canoe which were on the side of the road. Leo jumped on the ski-doo and I jumped in the canoe and Alaine took our photo. We had our bit of fun for the day. Nearby there was also a big sign which had all the skidoo tracks in the area painted on it. Apparently It was quicker to get to Grand Portage on one of the ski-doo tracks, but they were too uneven and grassy for our trolleys, so we stuck to the roads.
Having fun between the pain of portaging
The road was now straight and in the distance we could see the start of the bitumen road. We were excited of the thought of walking faster on level ground. We soon reached it and it was much better, but then it steepened. We rested and a car stopped and the guy asked us what we were doing. We rested further on and as I was pumping and purifying water, a border patrol car came flying by. It didn’t stop so it couldn’t have been after us. Leonie was ahead lying on the bitumen doing stretching exercises. She had a dicky knee, but it hadn’t stopped her from doing the difficult portages. Alaine had several sore parts on her body also – feet, legs, shoulders but her aches hadn’t stopped her either. They were both tough cookies.
Purifying water. It was thirsty work
On the road there were hairy but colorful caterpillars crossing it. They ran a risk of being run over, but that didn’t stop them. Alaine was worried that our trolley might run over one. She worries about any thing living. If I was to kill a fly that bit me, I would have to make sure she wasn’t looking or she would say that I was cruel. I wonder what it is like to care about everything in the world?
A short rest
The man that stopped earlier, who was trying to find his brother, stopped again and offered us a lift. We declined, we couldn’t walk all that way and then get a ride on those final kilometres. Well that’s what I thought, I hope Alaine thought the same! He stopped next to Leonie and soon after sped off leaving us to continue our tough walk. One day you must try carrying a 35 kilogram pack, a 15 kilogram food bag and at the same time pull a 50 kilogram kayak with another 50 kilograms of weight inside. It is especially testing on the rocky tracks and the hills. We had cleared the rocky track but we still had the hills. The trolleys didn’t have bearing in the wheels so we had to be careful not to overheat the plastic sleeves that the wheels were attached to and melt them.
It was a pretty hot day and sweat was running off our backs. Alaine was really feeling the pain of carrying such a heavy pack whilst pulling the kayak. I was equally as exhausted but I had spent years pushing my body to the limit and carrying heavy packs so it was easier for me.
Time was flitting by. We had prepared our selves for camping along the way but then we realised we were making better time than we thought and getting closer to our destination. Could we reach Grand Portage before dark or would we get stranded nearby?
We rested every so often to make sure the wheels didn’t overheat but it was more because we wanted to rest. Driveways with numbers at the entrances started appearing. We were getting closer to people, we could occasionally hear shouts and voices coming from the forest. We were wondering how we were going to accept being back in civilization. Would we like it?
There still seemed more up hills than down hills but in theory we should have been going down more than up. When giving my opinion about distances, portages and many other things I always said in theory it should be like that, but sometimes in reality things were different to what they should have been. Like the rapid we went over when the water was running in reverse. In theory it should have been flowing downhill against us but the wind was so strong it was holding the water back and blowing it in reverse to how it should have been.
At last we arrived at the top of a hill that had a tiny view of the lake or was it clouds, it was hard to establish. We were excited and not that much longer we were standing at the top of another rise and we could see Lake Superior. We had broken the back of our walk. Our destination was down the hill only kilometres away. We were now super excited especially as we now realised that we had a 99 percent chance of arriving at Grand Portage before dark. We took photos on the crest of the hill and the lake in the back ground. Our exhausted bodies suddenly felt relieved, but when we started walking again nothing had changed, only the fact that we had the kayak trying to pass us and we had to hold it back from running down the hill.
At last we see Lake Superior and it’s a steep downhill
At the end of the road, where it joined the main highway we paused and took a few photos. Within the next 15 minutes we knew our marathon walk would be over and it would be just a memory. All our aches and pains will no longer be felt. In days to come we will be quizzing ourselves and asking; was it really that hard?
Not far now. The motel is calling
A turnoff towards the lake was signed Casino and Hotel. We excitedly towed our kayaks across the major road and started walking against the traffic on a well paved minor road. Suddenly we came to a cross road, and a famous north American 4 way stop sign. To our right stood the Casino / hotel. We paused at the stop sign and crossed over stopping a few hundred metres from the casino for another photo opportunity. We were here. We were happy but in a way I was sad that the portaging had completely finished. No more portaging; it actually felt strange. It had been a big part of our lives, but for no longer.
Flags were flying outside the casino. We got a few strange looks on the way in and one man stopped his vehicle and asked what we were doing towing our boats through the area. Others thought that we must have been paddling the lake. No one really knew where we come from or could imagine what we had been through.
We parked the kayaks on a grass lawn near the flag poles straight out side the Casino door. Alaine and Leo went in to find out if there were vacancies. It would have been disaster if there wasn’t as the thought of a shower and be able to relax in a motel room had been on the girls minds for several day. I did suggest checking out the camping ground as I came in, but I was nearly throttled. How could I think about camping, I think they said.
Yippee we had arrived at Lake Superior and a comfortable motel
They came out of the reception with smiles on their faces. They did have a room and it was pretty cheap and it was overlooking Lake Superior. The security man in the casino said we could leave our kayaks where they were on the front lawn for everyone to see and he would keep an eye on them. They would be safe there, he said.
Sweaty from our ordeal we lifted our packs on our backs and walked into reception and took the lift to the second floor, relaxed showered and then went to the dining room for a meal. Leo and I had steak and lobster. Alaine had a chicken dish. Apart from the lobster the food was good, but the service was very ordinary.
End of stage 4. Next stage across Lake Superior