Friday, June 20, 2008….first light comes very early this far north at this time of year, almost too early for me. Not that we don’t like getting up early but it’s also nice to check out the night sky void of any light pollution and filled with stars from one horizon to the other with always the possibility of the magical northern lights making an appearance. Usually by the time it’s completely dark with no glow on the horizon it’s already around 11pm and with first light hitting a little after 4a.m. So when you get up early it’s hard to stay awake that long to wait for complete darkness and the stars to come out. The one good thing about it is I don’t invest in a lot of weight in illumination in our backpack. We bring along 1 headlight a piece that I use at work with one pair of extra triple A batteries.
Around 6a.m. Alex told me he needed to make a trip to the woods, so we grab the TP and trowel and off we go. It was here that we received our first taste of the Mosquito population. For lack of a better word they were horrible, unrelenting and just plain nasty and that’s coming from someone who never has been bothered by them to the point of being uncomfortable. Getting back in the car allowed at least a half dozen to join us who shortly met their fate on the windows of the car. Again like last year the windows resembled a bloody battlefield but unlike last year the problem wasn’t limited to the parking lots.
After taking in the view of Gunflint lake and the mix of green and charred forest of Canada off in the distance we’re off and headed towards Seagull Outfitters arriving about 20 minutes or so before the doors open so we travel a little further by the Moose pond and spot a mother moose and her two brand new offspring feeding in the pond on the vegetation. The mother appeared undaunted of our presence yet always kept the watchful eye on us. It was a great added bonus for so early in the trip and my son’s first encounter with a moose.
We continued up to the public landing where a mosquito free out building greeted me and was a much better place to answer the call of the wild then Alex’s earlier trip to the woods. I better get used to it though from here on out its all open air!
After parking our car in the Seagull Parking lot we head out and get the traditional photo ops on the pier, in front of the store and underneath the big thermometer.
Our alumacraft is all ready to hit the water.
Stop in the Seagull store and meet Deb and the staff members and talk about the ride up and conditions in the north woods. Deb finds my sons attire interesting enough to take a photo and posts it on the company blog. Alex couldn’t wait to get home and show mom he made the blog, that’s after I explained to him what a blog was.
As usual Deb and the Seagull staff worked like a finely oiled machine and had us smoothly all loaded up and on the towboat to hook island by our 8a.m. departure time.
For the second time in as many years we were blessed by flat calm conditions on the tow out to Hook Island on massive Saganaga Lake and I crossed my fingers that it would hold until at least we were off the wide open expanses of Saganaga and Cache Bay. With a 10 year old in the bow I didn’t want a repeat of the trip out that I had with Ed back in 2000, where we battled with 3+ footers returning to Hook Island.
Since last fall this area has been hit with a lot of heavy rain which has swollen the lakes and rivers to record highs. Since last fall I watched from home intently the webcam on the Seagull Outfitters website as the water on the small bay that Seagull is located on rise and rise to the point the front grass was being inundated by the cabins.
As our towboat pulled into the shoreline of Hook Island on Sag it really became apparent how much the water has risen since we were here last summer. On past trips there was always at least 20-40 feet of nice gravel shoreline exposed away from the tree line on the island a spot where Ed and I would usually sleep out in the open on our last night in order to catch the early tow boat out the next morning, but this year the water was all the way up into the tree line. If several groups arrived or got wind bound at this spot this area could really get congested.
Our goal is to head for the high point of land in the distance, this is where the north shore of Lake Saganaga comes down to the opening which leads to the Cache Bay ranger station and Cache bay.
Abe the towboat driver helped us unload from his boat and then bid us farewell with wishes of a good trip and then quickly disappeared around the southern hook of the island. This is the very point of the trip when it really hits home that you’re now on your own in this remote part of the world for the next several days. It’s a humbling feeling yet at the same time the pressures of the modern world just melt away and the beauty and solitude of the woods, lakes and sky fill and renew your soul and mind.
After getting our gear relatively organized in the canoe and with the wind still non-existent we shove off from Hook Island with our sights set on the island and the Canadian ranger cabin. Rounding the point I can pretty much tell even from this distance their doesn’t appear to be much activity at the island and no one in back of us is in sight. We arrive at the ranger station within 5 minutes of the only other party around departing from the island and I think to myself when is my luck going to run out.
Here again it becomes apparent how high the water is. The lake is up over the dock and a ladder has been drafted into a makeshift walkway on part of the pier.
We tie up to the dock gather all our paperwork and greet Lisa the Canadian ranger lady. I can’t help thinking what a cool job this must be. It’s here we pay for our camping fees and buy more souvenirs. This year I got our fishing license over the phone so it was nice having one less piece of paperwork to fill out this time.
Silver Falls is a gorgeous waterfall that empties and drops from Cache bay into Saganagons Lake and a place where we must portage our canoe and gear around. With the water so high this year in the weeks leading up to the trip my concern grew about how swift the current would be at the outflow at the bottom of Silver Falls. The outflow is roughly 1/3 ? of a mile from the falls but it’s a spot that’s fairly constricted. When traversing the current there isn’t a whole lot of room and the current pushes into a large rock wall that will easily tip a canoe that gets caught up in the current. In normal to low water years this spot is fairly benign but knowing how much water was in the system this year I knew it was going to be a challenge.
After listening to the presentation regarding regulations and new rules concerning the park my biggest question to Lisa the ranger lady was, “how bad is the outflow at the bottom of Silver Falls”? Her hesitation was most notable and she replied it’s been fairly strong with at least one canoe a week overturning in the current. She also admitted that Janice the other ranger lady who is stationed at the ranger cabin took a bath about a week ago trying to retrieve gear left behind by a group that had recently overturned in the current. Janice reported standing waves in the current with large whirlpools that you could even see down into to. Knowing that Janice is a very accomplished canoeist and from my understanding even raced canoes with her husband in the past my concern for our safe passage grew even more. Lisa asked if I was familiar with ferrying a canoe to which I replied no. She proceeded to get out a piece of paper and pencil and show me the proper way. Ferrying a canoe involves working your way into the current with the stern of the canoe at a slight angle and then letting the current float you through, the one scenario you don’t want to happen is be hit broadside with the full force of the current along the length of the canoe which will push you into the rock wall and give you very little control. Well, it looked fairly easy on paper and I hoped it would be when we got to that point. Lisa must have noticed the concern on my face since she offered a few different options that would bypass the Silver falls area. One option would take us to a part of the park I have yet to be in and the other was to go through some small unnamed lakes to get to Saganagons that Lisa had been to last year. The downside to that, it was several portages more then I wanted to do and she said at one point she had lost the portage it was so overgrown. I informed her we would go and check out Silver falls first and after evaluating the situation would decide to give it a try or backtrack. As an after thought I asked how was the fishing and Lisa responded, “We’re picking up” which would be the most optimistic response I would hear today.
So we said our farewells to Lisa and headed towards Silver falls with still no hint of any wind. As we passed the two small islands that stand like sentinels guarding the opening of the channel which leads down to Silver falls a slight breeze seemed to intensify in this confining passage slowly our headway. We made our way through the channel with towering granite cliffs to our north, here my mind couldn’t help but drift off into thinking about the battle that was fought here years ago by two warring Indian tribes and how the women and children were said to have taken refuge in some caves that are rumored to exist. The history of this beautiful place is as rich and interesting as the landscape.
Nearing Silver Falls we could see gear and several canoes at the portage landing of two separate groups that were heading back out so we landed off to the side and waited patiently as they loaded up and cleared the landing. I couldn’t help but ask them about the current outflow at the bottom and their reply was it was pretty strong one person solo in their group didn’t think they would make it but did…and the fishing, “was slow”. After their departure we landed and knowing this would take some time got our gear well out of the way of others that may come along.
Here's a pic of Silver Falls from last year, all these rocks were of course underwater this year and would have made this picture impossible on this trip. Unfortunately, I didn't take any photos of the falls this year, and have no photos of the strong current...camera was safely put away in the dry bag.
My plan was to portage the canoe first and get that out of the way, however, just looking at it seemed to sap all my energy and I opted to take a few lighter things first. That way if we could see the outflow and it looked definitely undoable I wouldn’t have lugged the canoe across for nothing. Unfortunately, I forgot you really can’t see the outflow at the end of the portage so it was a no turning back situation now and just portaged everything across. I believe I took the canoe on the third trip and by now was fairly whipped even the power bar didn’t help much. Just the same I got it on my shoulders and headed up the first incline and about 30 minutes and several rest breaks later I made it to the other side. The calm conditions were nice out on the lake but here a nice breeze would have been welcome from the bright and warm sun. My son still has an asthma problem now and then so I don’t want him to try and take anything too heavy which results in several trips for us back and forth. This is ok to because we especially like the hikes back with no gear and enjoy looking at some of the old growth pines and imagine what they’ve seen over the years.
Over the next couple hours we shared the portage with a few other groups and each one received the same question from me regarding the current outflow and the fishing conditions. Every response was pretty much the same, easier going with the current then up which I recently read is when most accidents happen. Some other comments were very strong, stay three canoe lengths from the rock wall, point your nose into it and paddle hard, it’s a little less strong then when we went in a week ago and what I feel was one of the most important pieces of advice from one gentlemen and that was, “make sure you have a strong bow paddler coming back out”….more about that on the day coming out. A little over halfway back on my last return trip I was surprised by a couple young trippers carrying our 65lb + food pack and one of our fishing bags. They said they had to come back anyway so why not help a fellow tripper. In my mind I couldn’t thank them enough considering my condition after several trips back and forth.
After all this time on the portage trail with the dense canopy of forest overhead it was hard to see exactly what the sky was doing. Apparently, a storm front moved in the area and gave us a brief thunderstorm just as we were about to load the canoe and head off. We took shelter under some of the smallest trees in the area and enjoyed a little refreshing rain.
With the storm moving off to the east we loaded the canoe and secured everything with rope in case of a mishap in the upcoming current. Pushing off we came around the bend that hid the outflow from the portage landing and got our first look at what lay before us. As we sat off to the side in the calm waters we could tell it had just about all the aspects that had been described to us; standing waves, heavy current and large whirl pools. We sat in this same area probably about fifteen minutes trying to analyze the situation as best as possible looking for the best entry point and trying to judge how the current would carry us and hopefully spit us out dry. The one good thing was the heavy current was a fairly short stretch and if we did get thrown against the rock wall we would be right near shore.
Well, it was now or never I told Alex no matter what happens don’t panic, push off and away from the canoe if we start to overturn and when I say paddle, paddle as hard as you can on the left side. I pointed the bow downstream just ahead of the standing waves and slowly eased the canoes stern into the current. At first it didn’t seem too bad and I felt I would have a lot of control at how we could almost easily float through. As we moved more into the main current flow however, it became harder and harder to keep the canoe from turning completely sideways to the current. As the current grabbed a hold of us and moved us quickly towards the rock wall that had been the culprit of so many dunkings I told Alex to paddle and changed my paddling from a holding steady and steering pattern to a forward paddle. Just as it seemed we would be another victim of the current and granite wall the current turned us bow downstream and spit us out into the slower moving current and away from the wall. The whole experience took less then 20 seconds but made for a pretty heart pounding exhilarating encounter.
Moving downstream through the narrows we both admitted we were pretty tired so we decided we would take our campsite from last year if it was open and then move on Sunday farther down the lake. The campsite that Ed and I had back in 2000 was occupied but as we grew closer to our campsite could tell it was vacant which brought a smile to both of our faces.
With the water so high this year the landing at this campsite wasn’t as easy as last year and even though the site is up above water level there was water in back of the campsite due to one low spot way off on the side of the site. After getting all the gear unloaded I immediately got the tent setup in case of more rain while Alex went around the campsite doing some cleaning up. Since the first time I stayed here back in 2000 the fire, kitchen and log sitting area has been abused a little. This area used to have a nice log sitting area on three sides of the fire pit. Most of what remains on one side has been moved around, burnt and hacked on with someone with an ax that looks to have been bored. Some of the other dead trees and stumps around the site also bore the scars of fresh ax marks. After a little rearranging and cleaning up the site was almost as good as new.
It was now around 9pm, with the tent setup, the canoe and gear secured we both escaped to the tent in order to get some relief from the mosquito’s that were relentless. I couldn’t help but think the mosquitos were bad due to all the standing water in back of the campsite. However, a few days later another camper confirmed their site was just as bad and had no standing water around.
So as the first day’s sun hits the horizon we watch the sunset from our tent window and believe it or not never even wet a line today. We’re both pretty beat after a long day in the car yesterday and a long day today. We decide to hit the sack relatively early tonight with the thought of getting a good nights sleep in our comfortable sleeping bags, pads and pillows and look forward to being refreshed for an early start and good breakfast tomorrow.
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