A Tale to Be Told
The book Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling is the story of a small boy who desires to see the ocean. He sets a carved wooden canoe on the shores of his Canadian home, and the story follows the adventure of this boat as it descends "downhill" from Lake Nipigon through all five Great Lakes, out the St. Lawrence Seaway, and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean. On the bottom of this toy canoe the boy inscribes the words, "Please put me back in the water. I am Paddleto-
When I told my friends I was going to Lake Nipigon, a few folks asked if this was some place near Japan. Chuckling, I pointed to a map showing the largest tributary into Lake Superior, located 80 miles (130 km) northeast of Thunder Bay, Ontario. With the dimensions of 70 miles (110 km) long by 50 miles (80 km) wide, Lake Nipigon has been nicknamed the Sixth Great Lake.
Bed, Breakfast, and Beyond
It was from Thunder Bay that my husband and I transported our trusty kayak 150 miles up Highway 527 to the Wabakimi Bed and Breakfast near the town of Armstrong, Ontario. Our trip began and ended there.
After the "breakfast" portion of our journey, lodge manager Bert Zwicker got us started in the right direction, dropping us off at the end of a logging trail. To our dismay, a thunderstorm had just passed through. You can love a storm, but the aftermath up here on the mainland is genuinely "something else": The infamous black flies are torture, especially after it rains. Donning head nets, we loaded the kayak and quickly paddled away from shore before finding relief among the islands away from the vicious bloodsuckers.
Navigating two lakes and one river en route to our destination, I worried about the 1,000-foot (320 meter) portage required to enter Lake Nipigon, even though
Bert had laughed and told us, "You'll be fine as long as you don't go into the rapids." The water level was higher than normal, and consequently the current was flowing faster. When I saw the rapids in the distance, I made sure I kept an extra-sharp lookout for the portage.
Thus far I had not been able to see any opening in the impenetrable forest, and we were entering the pre-rapids quickly. The map had indicated an approach on the left, so we hugged the shore while looking for a way into the immensity of
vegetation. As the pace quickened, we grabbed branches to keep ourselves from moving forward.
Steadied in place if not in mind, we knew we needed to think things through logically. My husband surmised the portage opening would be near the cataract descent so as to have fewer steps for the land shuttle. He was right. Fortunately, we found the exit just as the waterfall dropped over the boulders. I made a sharp left and rammed the hayak into the slot. I hove a sigh of relief you could hear over the sound of the crashing water.
"Portage" sounds so elegant, doesn't it? Slightly antique. Paddles dipped in shining water, then together shouldering the slender craft and slipping into the green shadows. Well, let me tell you. First you have to unload your gear. For us this meant beside the requisite slippery mud bank. After making two treks transferring our stuff to the other side, my darling husband dragged the empty 100-pound vessel along the jungle-like path, fighting the swarming bugs every inch of the way.
Once below the waterfalls, we hastily re-loaded our equipment to escape the heinous flies. In our haste, my camera fell overboard. Even though it was in the waterproof bag, it took on just enough moisture to end all picture taking. Henceforth all future photos would be taken in my mind only. C'est la vie, et la guerre.
Lake Nipigon is the largest body of water within the boundaries of Ontario. This vast lake has numerous islands of thick boreal forests filled with ancient deadfall. Because this year's water level was above normal, the beaches and high ground were flooded. Finding an area for any respite was difficult. An occasional rock outcrop provided some relief for a temporary break.
Searching for a camping area was even more challenging. We explored countless potential spots, only to move on. Some days we backtracked to the lunch spot for lack of a better evening location. When an adequate tent site was agreed on, we filled in the irregular terrain with dirt hanging from a blow-down.
Our weather window, however, continued nearly flawless: light breezes, sunshine, and little rain.
Sunlight catching the corner of droplets turned the water into a sea of shimmering sequins. In our double kayak, my husband in the front seat provided the power as I steered with the rear rudder.
Our tandem strokes became routine. Kerrr-plunk. Kerrr-plunk. Over and over. Time and again. The rhythm was hypnotic. My mind wandered into a reverential place. Suddenly I was jarred from my trance by the chattering of two otters. As they played and swam in circles, we noticed two moose munching in the distance. Black flies are a major annoyance to moose also, and these animals are constantly swinging their heads or ducking underwater in search of reprieve. Binoculars are a useful tool to enjoy these massive creatures in their habitat.
During the search for our nighttime bivouac, an adult eagle made some unusual squawks. Following the sounds, we glided upon a nest the size of a Mini-Cooper automobile a mere 20 feet above the ground. Two well-camouflaged eaglets stood ramrod straight. Looking through the binoculars, I could observe their
personalities, one seeming to be shyer than the other. After they showed their displeasure with us by expelling a tremendous amount of whitewash, we departed.
For one week we did not see another human, cabin, cottage, or boat. There was not even a light in the distance, unless you count the full moon. It was a wilderness so remote there were only otters, moose, cormorants, pelicans, and seagulls. We had hoped to encounter a caribou, but the only sighting of this animal was on the coffee bag we brought in.
Our final day was spent on the river that would allow us to travel north to the Canadian National Railway station in Mud River. At the mouth of the river, we
encountered two grandparents and their three grandchildren in a small motorboat. They were surprised to see us. Grandpa told us the north end of the lake only gets "the odd kayaker every few years." Hmmm. Since we had been skunked after seven days of trying, we asked him about the fishing. We had, we told him, even gone so far as to rename the lake "the Dead Sea". He laughed,
then told us, "There haven't been any fish for 20 years, except for the odd fish that can be caught at the mouth." I guess our name for this lake stands.
Grandpa generously offered us the use of his outpost located beside the tracks of the train we needed to ride out in the morning. With the situation involving the mainland flies, we thanked him profusely for his generosity.
Snaking our way upriver, we began the final five miles of a 70-mile (116 km) journey. Halfway up the river was a backwash marshy area we investigated. The water changed in color from brown to blue as the narrow route opened into a large expanse of muskeg. It was there that I heard the splashing before I saw the biggest bull moose of my life. Waiting until the moose put his head down, we would paddle stealthily toward him. The moment his head raised, we became
motionless. It worked. Even better, because we were downwind, we were able to sneak up to the very edge of the grass without the bull having any knowledge of our existence.
He was amazing. His rack was at least 60-70 inches. Raising and lowering those huge shovels took great effort, even moreso when he shook off the excess water. We listened to him snort the silt and algae out of his nostrils each time he resurfaced. And every minute I was greatly bemoaning the loss of my camera. Apart from that, time had no bearing. We watched until he eventually ambled into the thicket.
Returning to the main channel of the river, our forward progress proceeded at a crawl. The current was gaining momentum, and I was getting tired. We thought we had become delusional when the train trestle appeared at last.
This final portage, which would take us to the tracks, was a rarely used depression in the grass going 200 feet straight up to a field of thistles and wild rose thorns. With a strap fastened over both of our shoulders, we "heave-ho-ed" our way to the bridge. We placed our bright yellow kayak next to the train tracks so the conductor of the CNR would be sure to see the two scruffy and bedraggled people waiting for their scheduled pick-up at five o'clock in the morning. Bless im, he did, and the train took us back to Armstrong, where our outfitters delivered us to our vehicle and a blissfully welcome hot shower.
As we always do, we congratulated each other on a satisfying adventure. Except for those noxious bugs tattooing my neck with Braille-like bumps in a formation of the constellation Orion, the trip had been nearly perfect. I would absolutely
do it again, but in reverse. I may even wear a t-shirt that says, "Please put me back in the water. I am Paddle-to-the-Sea".
*Polly Keith Scotland is a 1973 graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Dental Hygiene and received her Bachelor of Science degree in 1974. She currently practices with her husband, Dr. Lee Scotland, in Bemidji,Minnesota.