The ankle-deep mud on Lesser Cherry Portage foretold a change. We’d awakened in our beautiful campsite on Mountain Lake, where even the biffy was memorable, located in a spruce glade, dappled with sunlight. We fried “doughnuts” — all of our morning pastries were variations on a theme of flour and fat — over the fire and devoured hash browns and powdered eggs. Today, June 14, was going to be a long paddle, and we donned extra layers against the morning’s gray chill and light rain. It was day four for our group of five.
Five miles across Mountain, we disembarked for the first of a series of three portages (Lesser Cherry, Vaseux and Greater Cherry) and two lakes (Fan and Vaseux), neither of which was much more than a beaver pond. My son Aidan, 14, carried a canoe for the first time, taking the 55-pound, three-person Wenonah onto his shoulders for a 90-rod portage, or about a third of a mile.
“Way harder than a portage pack,” he told me when I asked how it went. Nevertheless, he continued to impress me with his fortitude.
We paddled the 3 ½ miles of Moose Lake, clear and blue like Mountain. Then we traversed Moose Portage, the sloppiest of our trip — I almost broke my ankle stepping into an unseen hole hidden by a deep puddle. Behind us lay the fathoms of Mountain (210 feet) and Moose (113 feet), and ahead of us the shallows of North and South Fowl lakes. Maximum depth: 10 feet.
Named for its abundance of ducks and geese, South Fowl Lake is rife with history. Projectile points made from jasper (called “Plano points” by archaeologists) dating to around 10,000 B.C., have been found on its shores, as have polished copper artifacts, suggesting that our canoe routes were inaugurated by Native Americans in dugout canoes around 3000 B.C.
Closer in history, South Fowl Lake boasted Fort Charlotte, built by the North West Company in 1779. At the end of a winter of trapping and trading, voyageurs left their canoes at Fort Charlotte and packed the furs they acquired across the 9-mile Grand Portage, running along the rapids and waterfalls of the Pigeon River out to Lake Superior. There they loaded their bounty into larger Montreal canoes for the journey through the Great Lakes and eventual export to Europe.
Our canoes glided into South Fowl, but the lake vexed us. We’d had a virtually island-free journey, and now we gazed across a constellation of islands and wondered which hosted our desired campsite. We pulled our canoes together, looked at the map, looked at the islands, and looked at our map again. Ultimately, we paddled around, sometimes covering the same water twice, until we spied a narrow channel between muskeg and an island. Following the straits, we skirted the atoll and found our campsite.
We suspected that this shallow, marshy lake would be buggy. We weren’t wrong. Aaron Lavinsky, the Star Tribune photojournalist in our group, wandered to the latrine, only to come running back moments later. “You will not believe the mosquitoes back there,” he gasped. “I’ve never heard anything like it!”
We could believe it, because they’d found us, too. We started a smoky fire to keep the bugs at bay and discussed our options as we ate our fourth salami-and-cheese lunch of the trip. We decided to stay because the map showed only one other campsite on the lake — and it would be just as buggy. I commiserated with John Bigsby, who traveled on this lake in 1823 as part of a British commission to determine the borders. He wrote in his diary that “the mosquitoes were in the billions. As soon as the tread of man gave notice of his approach, I saw them rising to feast.”
Tinged with regret
With darkening skies to our west, we made an early dinner of burritos, washed our dishes in the rain, and retreated to our tents for late-afternoon naps and reading. I’d brought newsman Eric Sevareid’s famous book, “Canoeing with the Cree,” the true tale of his paddle with a teenage buddy 2,250 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay in 1930. I read aloud to the group this pertinent passage: “It was queer that so many people saw only the hardships and discomforts of our trip. No one seemed to realize what great sport it was.”
The clouds drooped, leaden and unsettled, after the storm passed. We decided to make an evening dash to the dam that sits at the intersection where South Fowl drains into the Pigeon River. I’d heard that the walleye fishing was good in the pool above the dam, and that species had eluded us thus far. “Walleye is the one fish that doesn’t jump in your boat up here,” chided my buddy Brad Shannon.
We shoved off around 7 p.m., knowing that we had about two hours before dark for the round trip. The wind whipped across the shallow but expansive lake, and within a few minutes I regretted the excursion. We’d already paddled over 12 miles on that, our fourth day, and I worried about Aidan’s endurance, in the bow of the three-person canoe.
As we approached the dam, a large, foreboding red sign came into focus:
Fast Water — Keep Away
Courant rapide — Ne pas approcher
Bob Timmons and I guided our canoe to shore, well short of the dam, and Brad brought the other vessel in not far from us. We grabbed our fishing rods and casted from shore for several minutes with nary a bite. Frustrated with fishing, Aidan said he wanted to see the rapids beneath the dam.
We’d unloaded on the U.S. shore, along a steep, wide jumble of loose granite scree covered with slippery lichen. Slowly, we picked our way along the rocks with the roar of unseen white water beckoning us. Upon reaching the rock-and-concrete dam, built in 1958, we took in the tumultuous rapids, which flow aggressively toward Lake Superior, where they cascade over the 120 feet of High Falls in Grand Portage. It’s the biggest waterfall in Minnesota.
“It’s time to go back,” Brad said after just a couple minutes. The clamber back to the canoes seemed even more treacherous because my legs and my nerves were both frayed, and we shoved off our canoes into a setting sun. Bob and I were paddling hard into the wind without talking when I noticed that the water sloshing in the bottom of the canoe was turning pink. Blood dripped from a 2-inch gash on the leg of my yellow Labrador retriever Crosby. He must have cut it on the sharp granite that we struggled over near the dam, I thought. Now, this excursion seemed even more foolhardy.
Back at camp, by the light of headlamps, we took supplies from the first aid kit, cleaning and dressing the wound. Crosby wasn’t favoring that leg, so I hoped that the injury was only superficial. Nevertheless, I regretted taking him on those rocks.
In our tent that night, with Crosby shivering between us, Brad and I talked about the calculated risk you take whenever you head into the wilderness, far from phones and doctors — and veterinarians. But we agreed: The adventure is worth the risk.
Tony Jones is a freelance writer and theologian, and lives in Edina. Reach him at ReverendHunter.com.