August 24, 2008 — Winchell Lake to Long Island Lake
Gentle ripples and quiet air met us Sunday morning. Reprieve had been given in the night, and the atmosphere seemed angry no more. Our group had rested and was eager again to find the rhythm that brought the North Woods to our bow. When humbled by a force like yesterday’s barrage, humility continues within the gift of new permission to move, and gratitude for it is a specifically holy event.
It didn’t seem like Sunday, but I thought the day was mighty worshipful. I wondered about my congregation back home, praying for them before and during their appointed time of gathering. And four canoes steered around a bend and paddled away from the open length of Winchell Lake.
We had done no portages since Thursday, and each one we would face today was remarkable in its own way. The first one would take us from Winchell to Omega Lake. Of 46 rods, its primary feature was that nearly the entire trailbed was made of big rocks and boulders. This made the act of walking while carrying canoe and gear a technical undertaking. It slowed our progress, but I enjoyed the required concentration.
After a little more than a mile of paddling on Omega Lake, we landed again and prepared for the walk to Kiskadinna Lake. This portage of 37 rods went over a steep hill, recalling climbing angles of many of our previous mountain hikes. Not only was it a workout for the legs and lungs, but it was an extra challenge to balance the canoe on shoulders, not banging the bow against the ground during ascent or the stern during descent.
Kiskadinna Lake was a skinny enjoyment of two miles’ length, featuring some breeze, but nothing rude. We spoke to some other paddlers moving in the opposite direction, and they warned us about the portage we had next, being that they had just experienced it. Phil’s map told us it was 185 rods, the longest we would face on our journey. We encouraged each other to rest as often as necessary during the walk — it’s better to be a resting man than a macho cardiac event…or fatigue-induced fracture.
So we landed and prepared to hike across. Along the way the terrain turned uphill, and the climb was higher than expected. Then back down, and up, and down. Except for the final descent, I don’t think these several hills were as steep as the previous portage, but this one did require work. It wasn’t the smoothest trail, either, with big rocks and roots plenty enough to keep us watching the ground. The warning of the other paddlers had become clear. It was time-consuming, someone timing the crossing at 30 minutes under load and 20 minutes on the walk back for more gear. We had lunch once everything and everybody had made it to the shore of Muskeg Lake.
The paddle across Muskeg was short, about one-half mile, another pleasant cruise. At the other end was a pair of portages that were hard to understand from the maps we had. Phil’s map showed a 20 rod followed immediately by another 20 rod, with a creek or marsh in between. John’s map (which he had me using so more than one canoe would have map support) showed a 4 rod followed by the 20. Either way, marsh was involved and we expected some mud — correctly, it turned out.
John and Phil landed first and walked ahead to see just what it was we were facing. The distance to next water (a navigable creek) was pretty short — I’d say 6 rods — but they determined that putting in there with a load would be impossible due to the deep thick mud. They scouted further up the creek to a place with relatively better footing and chose that as the launch. Since the distance was short (10 rods?), it was thought easier to have four men grab the canoe by the thwarts and carry it to the creek still loaded, instead of hauling everything piecemeal. Somewhere during the first trial of this, John got into the mud and almost lost his sandals trying to come back out. A short time later he noticed blood and found ten or more leeches attached between his toes, inside his Keen sandals.
We finished carrying and sliding the other three canoes across the tall grass and began the next paddle. Moving down the narrow channel was fun, but it lasted less than two-hundred yards before the 20 rod portage was reached. This was another rocky one, with the beginning being the most inhospitable snaggle of boulders, yet. At the other end was Long Island Lake. (I wish that I had taken pictures of the portage action, especially on this day. My loss.)
Some small wind helped us remember from whence we’d come, and less than two miles later we were landing on the shore of a very lovely campsite, home for the night.
It was the clearest night of the trip, and Steve and I stayed out to watch. At first two, and later four, of Jupiter’s moons could be seen with my binoculars. A Common Nighthawk hunted insects over the water briefly; when it was gone, some kind of bat did the same. As with Thursday night, when Phil and I were watching, there were meteors, a few satellites, the oddity of a jet, its occupants not guessing any detail of a quiet campsite miles beneath their travel. The red-and-green pulsing star that was visible Thursday was there again, just above the next island.
A loon wailed. Then it wailed again.
Above us our galaxy paled the black, Milky Way’s millions of suns igniting their nuclear portions of universal fury. We know the God who put them there, and we watched, the most absolutely catastrophic brilliance that can be seen by human eyes, softened by distance to the glow of a dream.