Canoeing the Boundary Waters
May 26 - June 4, 1988
Thirty-one years earlier, Dennis and seven of his buddies took a ten-day canoe trip from Crane Lake, Minnesota, up the Namakan River and back through Lac La Croix and the Loon River. In the summer of 1988 when Dennis and I visited his parents' cabin on Crane Lake, I was fascinated by the area and we discussed doing the trip again (in reverse order so as to float down the Namakan). We planned the trip while in Kano, Nigeria, and timed our springtime return to the U.S. accordingly.
I was thrilled that my dad, Norm, wanted to come. He was 60 at the time and I was especially proud of his adventurous spirit because Dennis' much younger friends said they were "too old" for an extended wilderness trip. Dennis outfitted us with a brand new Grumman canoe for himself and Dad, a Klepper foldable kayak for me, and a motor. The motor was to be used to cross large expanses of water with the kayak in tow.
We were well equipped for camping and our only big concern was weather. It can be quite unpredictable and nasty so early in the year. As it turned out, the sky was perfectly clear and the colors were brilliant during most of the trip. The dense forest duplicated itself upside down in silky calm water as our boats silently slipped along.
We swam in the warm lake almost every day. I'd sit back and read in the kayak, occasionally watching silver threads of fishing line unravel in the sunlight as Dad and Dennis attempted to lure in a lunker.
We ran two small rapids in the Namakan River on Tuesday and camped in spectacular surroundings at High Falls, where we cooked and ate a five-pound northern pike Dennis had caught. The next day was to be our longest portage—148 rods (a rod is the length of a canoe, approximately 17 feet). On one of the maps, only a short portage was shown around Hay Rapids, and on the other, a short one and a long one. After our success running earlier rapids, we thought we could possibly avoid the longer portage by running the first rapids to the short portage trail. It was definitely worth scouting out, we thought. Bad mistake!
Sue's Point of View
We paddled across a lake to the portage trail and Dennis suggested that we go on down in the boats to look at the rapids. I was reluctant and would just as soon have portaged, but it looked safe enough to go a bit closer. In case we decided to float the rapids, I gave Dad and Dennis both back their cameras which were in my lap and they put them in the cooler, one of the dryer and more accessible places in the canoe.
I followed at a distance. If we did decide to float down, we wouldn't want the boats crashing into each other!
When I saw the first rapid, I knew I didn't want to run it. It looked like a waterfall! I saw Dennis hand Dad a life jacket and thought, "Oh, NO! Have they decided to do it?" I suspected Dad was just being prudent.
The canoe floated closer to the edge and Dennis was craning his neck, looking for the best route. They drifted closer and I thought they'd better hurry and paddle back before the current made it impossible. Suddenly, Dennis turned the bow downstream and the canoe plunged over the edge.
For a moment, I thought they'd made it. Water splashed over the bow onto Dad and it looked like great fun. For a fleeting instant, I contemplated following, until I heard a crash as the stern hit a rock. The kayak couldn't have taken such an impact.
Clearly something was wrong. They were out of the rapids but the boat was slowly sinking. It was still going straight and hadn't tipped, but one by one, the cooler, the bags, the thermos and everything else separated from the canoe and floated downstream. I couldn't believe it! Those things were normally clipped or tied to the boat! That morning, I guess, they didn't secure things because it was such a short distance to the portage.
I had been back paddling furiously to stay away from the edge as I watched all this, and I was shaking with fear. I wanted to get down there to assist them, and even had a wild notion to run the rapids in order to get to them more quickly. The current was pulling, and it took a concerted effort to back out of it and paddle furiously into a nearby eddy. I beached the boat, grabbed a rope and ran as fast as I could through the bushes to Dennis and Dad.
They were both safely ashore and had already emptied the canoe and gathered into a pile the few things that were left--the motor, the boat seat, two fishing poles, one paddle, and an empty gas can. It wasn't much. The canoe had been fully loaded!
After assuring myself that they were OK, I ran back and pulled Dad's green rucksack out of an upstream eddy, then raced downstream to see if I could find anything more. The rapids seemed to continue for miles, and I saw nothing for a long time. Finally, as Dennis caught up with me, I spotted one floating red gas can.
I began to lose hope.
Dennis and I pushed our way through the tangled bushes. My adrenaline was still pumping and I hardly noticed the branches snapping and the thorns scraping my arms.
"Poison ivy everywhere," said Dennis. I hadn't noticed that either.
We finally worked our way back to the trail. Dad had already portaged one load. Fortunately, it included my pack, because my flip-flops had torn as I struggled out of a mudhole and I could hardly walk in them. I changed to tennis shoes.
We ran back along the trail and found Dad at the other end just ready to leave with another load. Dennis and I followed him with the kayak. It was a long haul but my adrenaline was still pumping, so it didn't seem difficult. We launched the kayakat the bottom of the portage and paddled out to recover the gas can and anything else we could find. We looked and looked without success before returning to the portage trail and hurrying back to the top again. Nothing had changed since we'd been there before.
"I wonder where Dad is," I said. Before we had a chance to think about what to do next, he appeared around the corner, paddling the half-loaded canoe. Last we'd seen it, it was at the bottom of the rapids. It seemed like a miracle!
We completed the portage and set off downstream, each boat carefully combing one of the shorelines. The current finally slowed. I had little hope of recovering much, but Dad and Dennis weren't so pessimistic. I found myself praying that we'd recover at least a few things, in particular the cooler with the camera and binoculars.
Dennis found his tennis shoe first. He was ecstatic! Then he saw the cooler. I got to it first. It was floating upside down and everything was inside. Unfortunately, everything was soaked!
On downstream, we picked up the missing paddle, a life jacket, and the thermos. At last we saw a gray duffel floating in some reeds. My $85.00 MRS cook stove was in one of the gray bags, the food was in the other. Unfortunately, this was the food bag. As much as we appreciated lunch at the next portage and were grateful that we were safe and had recovered so much, I grieved the loss of my best camp stove.
No one even suggested that we float Lady Rapids....
Dennis' Point of View
Convinced that the river was high enough to allow passage over some rapids that were normally portaged, and based on our experience with previous rapids and a short discussion with a local fisherman, I though we should consider floating Hay Rapids. Seeing that the portage trail, the longest on our trip, was quite a distance from where the rapids began, I decided to take a closer look to determine whether to attempt them.
As we came near, Norm asked for the life jacket, a sensible request. As he put it on, however, the current began to tug on the boat, and before I knew it, it was too late to turn back. To my horror, I saw that we would be going over a three-foot drop. "Keep the boat straight," I shouted to Norm.
The bow dived underwater when we plunged over, but when it bobbed back to the surface without the canoe taking on much water, I thought we'd made it. Then came the crash of aluminum on rock. The canoe slowed and the current overtook us from behind. Gallons of water poured into the boat.
We were still going straight. The canoe was very tippy, but I thought we could make it to the eddy.
"Just balance the boat!" I shouted to Norm. "Don't move quickly!" He did exactly that, but now there was so little freeboard that the waves from the rapids splashed over the sides. The boat was swamped and the packs and other stuff floated out and down the stream.
The water was warm and comfortable. Norm asked what to do and I said swim to shore, forget the boat. But the boat was in the eddy by then and following us to shore on its own. My tennis shoes made swimming difficult so I reached down and untied one--a mistake. The food pack floated by my nose. I was tempted to reach out for it, but thought it wiser to reach shore safely as quickly as possible to avoid being pulled into the next set of rapids.
Then came the welcome feel of rocks under my feet. We were both safe! We dragged the canoe to shore and Norm tied it to a rock. We still had one paddle and the stuff that had been tied in the boat—the motor, a gas can, and a few other things. Normally everything was tied in, but today we expected to have to untie it for the portage on the other side of a lake so had neglected doing that.
Norm's huge rucksack was floating close by in the eddy, but everything else was gone—my Duluth pack, the food bag, a bag with pots and pans and the cook stove, the cooler with our cameras and binoculars, the other paddle, and miscellaneous loose items. I waded downstream a ways but could see none of it.
Sue came running down, rescued Norm's rucksack, and walked downstream to try to locate some of the missing gear. I had only one shoe now, so had to borrow Norm's spare boots to follow her. Past two or three more rapids, we finally saw something red floating in an eddy on the other side of the stream—a gas can.
The trip through the woods was brutal. Sticks and branches tore at our clothes, and poison ivy was everywhere. We headed inland to find the portage trail. When we did, we saw that Norm had already brought a load and gone back for another. We were going to have to haul everything, just what I'd wanted to avoid. I guess in a way I succeeded. There wasn't much left to haul!
Norm's Point of View
That morning I got up and knew I should have stayed in bed. Sue said we'd be making the two longest portages of the trip that day, and I wasn't looking forward to that at all! Dennis hoped we could cut off some of the distance by floating over some of the rapids.
We headed toward the first rapids to see what it it looked like. For some reason, I don't really know why, I decided it would be a good idea to put on a life jacket. By the time I got it on, it was too late to turn back.
I really didn't feel much until we started down. The bow of the boat dove into the wave, and quite a bit of water splashed in. For an instant, I thought we were through the worst of it, and we'd come through OK. Moments later, I felt a wave of water hit me from behind, and the boat just sunk underneath me. One minute I was floating along in a canoe, and the next minute I was just floating along.
Next thing I remember, I was dogpaddling like crazy. I could see Dennis about 20 feet away downstream. I still haven't figured out how he got there. He was behind me in the boat! My right hand touched the side of the canoe and I was swimming with one hand and both feet. I held on to the boat partly to hold myself up.
Dennis yelled, "Forget the boat, swim for shore!" I swam a few strokes and looked back. The boat was still right behind me, so I grabbed it and started swimming with it again. I was in the eddy by then.
Dennis came and helped me pull the boat to the bank. I never did go completely under and still had on my sunglasses, my cap, and my hearing aid. My face didn't even get wet, but the rest of me sure did!
We tied the boat to shore. Dennis said he'd lost one tennis shoe and asked if I had any extra shoes. I said I had a pair of socks, then remembered the boots in my green rucksack that Sue had pulled out of the water. We walked back and got the boots, Dennis put them on, and Sue and Dennis took off downstream through the brush.
I walked up and over a point to where the kayak was, and decided to paddle it back to the portage trail. I grabbed some stuff and carried it the length of the portage. It seemed like a mile or two. I looked for Dennis and Sue but they were nowhere in sight so I headed back.
About the time I got back, they showed up. I grabbed another load and they started down with the kayak. I helped carry the kayak the last little ways, then turned back as Sue and Dennis went out in the kayak to recover what they could. "Don't do anything foolish!" said Dennis. That wasn't very specific and I sort of ignored it, but the comment ran through my mind more than once in the next hour or so.
I went cross country through the thickest brush I've seen in my life toward the canoe. When I got to the river, I was right at the rapids. It was evident we couldn't easily get the canoe through the brush. I could see there was a place next to the bank that looked like you could get the canoe up. However, I was not in the least sure about it at that point. I stumbled on down through the brambles and rocks to the canoe.
First, all I was going to do was take it up to where the rucksack was and load the rucksack. As I was pulling it underneath a dead tree, one of the fishing poles caught and the line got all tangled up in the trees. I went back to free it. I was in kind of a little cove then, so I just kept going. I got to the point where the water on the upstream side was too deep for wading. I tied the boat to the point, climbed up over it, and threw a long rope down. I climbed back to the boat, only to find that the current had taken the rope too far away to reach it.
I went back up and threw the rope over the rock point, this time so it hung up on the rocks. I went back down, tied the rope to the boat, and shoved the boat out into the pool as far as I could. Then I raced up the point as fast as I could before the boat floated back into the eddy and I pulled it up along the bank. I just kept going until I got to the rapids. I pulled the canoe a ways, then walked a ways, then pulled it again. At the top, I got in and paddled back to the portage trail. As I rounded the last corner, there were Dennis and Sue. Their timing couldn't have been better!
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