Friday, November 03, 2006

For the Old Man

The next four posts are different parts of the same story...I've posted them in chronological order to avoid possible confusion. Commentary always appreciated. Thanks for stopping by...Enjoy.

I've decided that I do what I do because my dad never had the opportunity to do them himself. On the drive back from Moose Lake earlier today, I finally sorted out what I'd been thinking for a pretty good chunk of the weekend. My dad always wanted to do things like camp up in the BWCAW...He really was interested in doing things like that. Maybe not the BW specifically, but definitely embarking on adventures along those lines. But, he was dealt a different hand in his life, and was never really able to see those dreams come to fruition. That isn't a bad thing, really...We're all put here for some purpose. He and I didn't always see eye to eye on a lot of things...Most of them being what he wanted for me and wanted me to become. A couple of decades later, I still have yet to figure out what that was supposed to be exactly. Finally, he gave in to the fact that I was who I was going to be and that nobody in heaven or on earth was going to be able to make me otherwise.

I guess for him my life between the time I left home and today is an exercise in vicarious living. Even though I didn't know it or appreciate it, or him for that matter, he was proud of me...regardless of how hard I tried to push him away from me. Nowadays, now that he's gone I wish he were still alive to listen to me ramble on about my last weekend on the lake...Harrowing details and all. I guess I started thinking about the whole thing when I woke up that Friday morning underneath my tarp cocooned inside my sleeping bag.

Moose Lake. Long, narrow, and just a little deep. Well, all of them are, to a major degree. The lakes that make up the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are deep gouges and scars left on the land by ancient glaciers that covered this area in ice eons ago. You can see the scrapes and cuts in the bare exposed rock that surrounds and makes up the area. I woke up just after sunrise to the prospect of undiscovered country...I'm still a pretty green adventurer at this point, so much of what I experience up there is new. I can't really remember if we had breakfast at all that morning. I do know that we made a small fire on the landing after we brought all the gear and canoes down to the water the previous evening and did our very best to kill the remains of a barrel that Tommy had brought along for the trip.

The ground was thick with frost when I laid my tarp out and folded it in half, slipping my sleeping bag into the fold, with a log or two on the bottom and along the side to keep any breezes during the night from blowing my bivouac off of me. Just before dawn broke, I woke up to the sound of a fisherman putting in from the landing with his dog "Lucky." He had a boat with a motor, and cruised off into the crisp morning. After he had loaded up and motored off into the lake, I managed about 45 minute's worth of shuteye before finally having to begin the morning ritual. Gingerly, I eased my arms out of my bag and began peeling my tarp away from me. It wasn't exactly the kind of morning that I had hoped for...fortunately though the breeze was at our backs for the trip into Ensign Lake

Our goal that morning was a campsite in a small bay on Ensign, by way of Moose and Newfound Lakes and then a short portage into and out of Splash Lake. We made that with no problem at all. A nice breeze was at our backs as we paddled up Moose and Newfound to the portage into Ensign. A relatively short trip, if you really think about it. Statute mileage sits at about eight or so from the landing at Moose Lake. But that's also eight miles of blowdown, impassable terrain, water and wilderness. It also seems like weather changes quicker, and often at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, there aren't any bugs (lots of water = lots of mosquitos and other insects) and not many people (lots of water = lots of would-be voyageurs), which is nice because...I don't like a lot of people hanging about. I'm a small town kid. Always will be. (Insert John Mellencamp interlude here)

with a little birch Ensign Lake. A nifty little spot of water a couple of short portages from Newfound Lake. Nice little islands a few hundred yards off the shore and a peninsula in the middle. We hit camp at about noon or so after taking off from the landing shortly after gearing up and putting in. It sat at the end of a small bay on the western part of the peninsula, surrounded by higher ridgelines blowdown and a small old growth cedar grove just to the northwest. Thicket and bramble, hard to navigate on foot. A nice spot, though. plenty of room for everyone and their tents. And our gear. And our food...and beer. We portaged in two five gallon kegs, four growlers (another two gallons), a bit of Windsor, some vodka for Sunday bloodies, and Bailey's for coffee (I brought three pounds of it) in the morning. And add to that a good thirty or so pounds of meat and toss in some miscellaneous food items. We ate and drank and paddled and hiked and lounged and listened to the absolute worst Vikings game in history on the small weather radio we had with us. We enjoyed three lazy days and nights far out from where anyone could find us.

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Tuesday came at us a little differently...

We had every intention of putting in in the morning and making it back to the landing by afternoon, compensating for the general direction of the winds. We'd have to be fighting normal lake stuff, and in the winter, the prevailing winds tend to come from the West to Northwest. Every other morning had been crystal clear. A little cold, but a generally prevalent sunshine kept the days relatively warm.

A pretty stiff breeze had kicked up overnight. Up until sundown the day had been beautiful...possibly the best one of the trip. We had hunted and ate and lived it up for three days and this was the last. Yeah, I know what you're thinking...and you're right. I noticed the change in the pressure right off. Tried to ignore it. Tried to ignore it. Hope that it dies was just a gust. We all did that. Breaking camp the next morning wasn't easy. None of us said anything about the waether, but it had kicked up quite a bit. I for one didn't relish the thought of putting in and paddling in such a stiff breeze, which by now was pretty intense.

We attempted it nonetheless. Thirty five or so knots of cold wind right down my throat. Trying to paddle. With a Paul on back, eighty pounds of gear and twenty five pounds of dog between us...we headed out. A few yards out it was a struggle. After that things were a blur. For about fifteen minutes we fought against the icy wind out into the lake and off toward the portage. After that point, I started to get really tired and panicked a little. My fingers hurt...I couldn't feel them. I kept paddling as hard and as fast as I could, all the while feeling the canoe begin to slip to port and bring us broadside into the wind. We were rocking really bad and threatening to go over, Manau wasn't panicking, but I could feel every shift in her weight in the canoe as I looked at the water I was about to fall slow motion. I almost gave up for a moment.

I've never been at that point in my life. In a way, your life does flash in front of you. The situation I was in at that moment was the most dire I have ever experienced. Big deal...fall in water out of canoe, swim to shore, dry off. That simple. Big problem. Well, a few actually. The least of them being that I don't like water. Toss in air and water temps and proximity to ready heat sources, and there is a huge probability for disaster. So, I was at that point in my life (no not THAT point...the OTHER point), or the closest I've ever been. I was afraid. Really and truly afraid.

Fortuantely for me, Paul was the man on back. Kept me in the shit. Kept me moving. Kept me from losing it, from going into the drink. When we went broadside to the wind, we were a few yards off the bank of an island a few hundred yards out from where we started. He managed to get us started in that direction and we struggled for a few minutes more until we slid around the Eastern point and into the calmer water of the lee side of the island. We landed in a small cove where I got out of the canoe and furiously attempted to warm up my fingers, which by now were pretty numb. I was panicked. How that man ever kept his shit together, controlled Manau and got me on a course where we could safely navigate is a total mystery.

We surveyed the weather from the windward side of the island, where the fire pit and grate was located. The winds were kicking up pretty fiercely by now, and the other two canoes in our party were still trying to make it to the portage, but got turned back when they could no longer make any way, and were actually being pushed backward by the wind. After beaching, the group made the decision to stick it out for a few hours to see if the winds would subside enough for us to attempt the crossing again. This wasn't to be the case as the afternoon turned to evening and then got dark as we munched on the snacks and food we had left from the weekend.

We weren't in danger of running out of that. We just didn't have any alcohol left, so the mood of the camp that night wasn't as lively as previous nights. Everyone was a bit apprehentious as well. I wasn't worried about work so much as I was about my family. I knew that Tamara was worried, and Hazel too young to know what was going on. Tams had told me that if she hadn't heard from us by Wednesday evening, that she was calling out that cavalry. She did jump the gun a bit, as I hoped she might have, and called in just to say that a group was overdue.

Physically, we were good and wanted to remain as such, so we decided to hunker down and get with the program at first light. That night I didn't even set up my tent. Nobody did actually. Just like a few days ago at the landing, I just rolled my big tarp out on the ground and folded it on the windward side a few feet away from the fire, slid my sleeping bag into the crease and jumped in for the night. My companions did the same around the fire as well. A look at the thermometer in the morning told me that it was about twenty degrees out. The frosted condensation from my breath on the tarp above reinforced that. I had been a little worried about the cold, but I knew that my sleeping bag would keep me warm.

Somewhere between four and sunrise, Aaron woke up, sat up in his bag, and started shouting, whistling and clapping his hands..."Hey Bear! HEY Bear!!!" This automatically set off the rest of the camp, and Paul immediately woke up and started doing the same thing. A couple of us joined in to frighten off the invader. Manau was awake and ran over to investigate, barking all the way. Finally, Paul asked Aaron if he actually saw the bear, because we didn't hear any sounds from his escape. Apparently, a chipmunk got into the food pack that Aaron was sleeping next to. It was rummaging around in there and eventually jumped out and landed on Aaron's sleeping bag, causing him to startle a bit. Everyone finally fell back asleep for a while longer until Paul decided that we needed to get up and out. No coffee, no breakfast...just go.

And Go we did...

Generally you have to get up and get out early if you're going to beat any kind of weather. The winds had died down to a tolerable level by sunrise when Paul got us up and we started throwing camp back into our canoe packs and those into the canoes with the rest of our gear. We wanted to be back at Moose Lake by early afternoon if we were going to beat any incoming weather patterns that would interfere with our exit from the BW.

Struggle again. Though this time was far more workable than the previous day. We still had winds, but they were easier to navigate. Still a little intimidating...especially when we headed out into deeper brisker waters on our way to the portage. I didn't want to. I wanted to remain closer to the shore of the lake where the water was, if not a little calmer, easier to get out of if we did indeed capsize. Paul steered us across the lake, keeping me up on direction changes. We fought against many gusty breezes across Ensign Lake until we made it to the first portage back. It wasn't even a portage, really. It was a "throwover" a few yards wide with a small stream connecting Ensign Lake and the lake between us and Newfound Lake. Instead of unloading and loading, we did the same as we did coming in, got out of the canoe and pushed it through the small channel. It was just deep enough and wide enough to allow a fully loaded canoe, sans paddlers, to be slid right through and into the water of the next lake. I don't even remember if the lake had a name.

It did have ice on it when we came through a few days before. Thin sheet ice that just barely clung to the surface of the water. You barely even knew it was there...except when we crunched right through a good section of it, crashing through with the bow of the canoe and the blades of our was kind of a dangerous way. That ice had blown away by the winds, and the wind was again at our faces as we started out across the small body of water. The only ice on these lakes now was that which had built up on the roots of trees and broken down trunks and rocks along the rocky shore.

There aren't many places to put in in an emergency in these lakes. Their shorelines mostly consist of bouldery, sometimes high sheer rock face with dense vegetation all around. Their bottoms can be smoother and sandy, but more often than not, even the deepest lakes have huge boulders that sometimes lie just under the surface of the water, ready to overturn a canoe that strays too close to it. And the shallows (if there are any) drop rapidly to deep dark valleys. In a word, treacherous. Potentially.

Reaching the final portage, we caught a whiff of a campfire at its mouth. A smaller group than ours with motor canoes (with the motors left at the portage from Newfound Lake) had gotten driven off Ensign by the same winds we got bogged down in. They were on a different section of the lake, so we never knew they were there, and had to lash their canoes together just to weather the winds and make it to portage. Paul and I saw them again back at the landing, as they motored up just a few minutes behind us.

Newfound to Moose...More Wind.

We entered Newfound Lake after a 31 rod portage. At this point, were on the final section of our exit, but not the final leg of the trip. We had to paddle Newfound Lake and down into Moose Lake with winds that were steadily beginning to increase as the day grew longer. Paddling down Newfound in a stiff breeze was still intimidating as all hell to me, but I was becoming comfortable with how to work through it to get back home. I was bound and determined at this point that I wasn't going to let this lake defeat me. It really wasn't easy. All the events of the previous day were sitting right on top of my head the whole time. My family, the danger that I was in, the possible outcome...

We were supposed to hold to a shore hugging tactic to navigate the waters of the last two lakes we had to cross. Instead, Paul and I paddled out and into the more open areas of the lakes, taking on the choppier water from the breezes. The weren't so intimidating as yesterday's rollers, but were causing the canoe to move around quite a bit. I managed to keep my anxiety in check and went with the course that Paul had picked out.

Newfound began to wear on me after an hour or so of fighting the winds, paddling faster and harder when they picked up and smacked us in the face, and easing a bit to rest before the next gust of wind blew up and at us. I was getting tired, and a little hungry. We had to forego breakfast at the island to be able to get packed and off before it got too late, so none of us had anything to eat that morning. About two thirds of the way down, a float plane popped from over the ridge above the lake and flew low at us and back across toward where we just came from. As he passed, I waved my paddle at him. They were apparently looking for us. I felt a little hope at this point at knowing that at least someone was aware of our presence and position should things not work out for the group. It circled around and came back at us, from back to front and disappeared back over the ridge it came at us from.

By then, we had made it down to the push through between Newfound and Moose. The breezes were picking up in both intensity and frequency as we got closer and close to Moose Lake. We had been making steady ground for the last couple of hours. I focused in on what I was doing by picking out an object on the shore and tried to paddle for it, like a lifeline...but eventually, those lifelines would be farther and farther away, as we rounded into Moose Lake. It was only a mile and a half from the confluence between the lakes and the landing, with a couple of smallish islands a half mile up and the larger island that sits in the middle of and directly across from the landing.

This is an area that the locals refer to "The Slot." Remember that the banks of these lakes are generally steep, often sheer and ringed with ridgetops which capture and funnel the wind, intensifying it as it rushes up the lake. Ensign and the middle lake were roundy sort of lakes, but Newfound and Moose especially were long and narrow lakes, pointing in the direction that the wind was coming from. We now faced the Mighty Moose for the last leg of our trip...and we would earn every inch, every foot, every yard before reaching the landing.

Agian, instead of keeping to the shorelines, Paul and I headed straight up the middle of the lake...paddling through wind gusts and increasing swells on the surface. The bow of the canoe heaved and bobbed. My hands and muscles were cramping as I switched from one side then the other trying to help Paul keep our faces into the wind. Legs cold and stiff, beard full of ice, toes freezing as the leveraged themselves around on the bottom of the canoe. If we went broadside this time, we would capsize. That danger was very real and very near the front of my thoughts for the next hour as we fought our way down the Slot past the smallish islands and toward the larger island across from the landing. It was all I could do to fight to get the canoe where it needed to be, pitching and heaving and bobbing around in the increasing swells.

Clearing the tip of the island, we got out of the wind just long enough to regain some of our compsure and rest tired achy muscles a bit before being hit in the face again by icy wind and waves. On the island, directly across from the landing there's one of those brown Forest Service natoinal park signs welcoming you to the BWCAW. When we hit that the wind started back on us. Fierce and relentless, the final twenty minutes was a struggle the likes I have never been through. Riding swells as the picked the bow up and slammed us into the next trough...grabbing swells with the paddle blade and trying to push us up and across the trough to the next swell. We literally paddled as if our lives depended on it. It was all we could do to keep the canoe pointed into the wind as it hit us a little off the starboard bow, pushing us out into the middle part of the lake. Twenty minutes...that's how long it took, I reckon, for us to get pushed across the final section of the lake and onto the landing and home. Even as we neared the shore, my muscles failing, cold, sweating inside my windbreaker, ice in my beard, on my eyelids...on the bow of the canoe, on the shaft of my paddle...I felt us slowly start to be pushed backwards, away from the landing, but still slowly toward shore.

Finally, the canoe stalled out on land as we hit shore. We landed on the very last section of landing there was...a few yards down from the main part of the landing. We didn't care...Paul jumped out of the back of the canoe and beached it...I was so exhausted from the crossing that I didn't get out right away...but when I did...I almost fell over. My legs were cold and stiff, my feet like icicles. I tossed my paddle to the ground and Paul and I shouted and hugged each other. The lake didn't defeat me. I had won...well, WE had won against it.

All that was left of our trip was to worry about our other companions some minutes behind us yet. They had opted for the longer bus somewhat safer transit by hugging the shore more closely. They still had the fight at the end, but were spared a lot of the turbulence b hugging the shore. Twenty minutes later, we had all beached out canoes and portaged our gear and the boats back to the vehicles and loaded up. A half hour later we were headed into a blinding snow fromt that pushed up and into Moose Lake, obliterating any visibility. A half hour after that, the six of us are at the Ely Steakhouse downing burgers and cozying up to the fireplace and planning next year's trip.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Modern Voyageur...

December was my tenth winter in Minnesota. I landed in Minneapolis on Dec. 21, 1995 with two duffle bags, a backpack, a pair of Sorel boots and an extreme cold weather field jacket (you know, the kind with the furry snorkel zip hood that they wear at the North Pole...). Immediately, I was amazed that, being smack dab in the downtown area of a major city, how quiet things seemed to move around me. Granted, there was a good amount of snow on the ground. The winter of '95 as I understand it, was a good cold one with plenty of snow, and even a couple of ice storms that made the trees look like crystal chandaliers in the crisp early morning.

Growing up in Texas, winter was regarded as something of an annoyance. It never really gets extremely cold, and only freezes once a year or so. When this happens, everything turns chaotic, with scores of people mobbing grocery and hardware stores in search of enough food to last the next three months, generators, skids of water, gloves and mittens, 350,000 BTU propane heaters and batteries by the case. You name it, they're buying it. After the frigid doom finally passed, which took no more than three or four days for the mercury to push past the point of freezing, folks would begin emerging from their houses and rejoining the world. It always seemed like no matter how strong (or weak) the storm actually was, that particular meteorological event was hailed as the worst anyone had seen in at least a decade.

Surviving in the winter in this region is, for the most part, a highly refined and complicated science if you spend any amount of time outdoors in a recreational capacity. Fortunately, I've managed to cull together a decent amount of winter gear to allow me to enjoy the outdors in winter. I found that if you shop properly, you can outfit yourself rather easily and with a modest amount of ching.

I'm not saying I look like Nanook of the North when I'm snowshoeing through the woods. I haven't gone that far. Yet. I will admit that some small part of me would really like to. I think I was a voyageur in a past life. Perhaps that's why I was so drawn to this place. I can picture myself plowing a trail through the woods wearing thick wool under a canvas tunic, Ojibwe snowshoes and a red toque. Ezra-Jean Pierre or something like that. It's something I experienced a century or more ago, and I'm just reliving it. Only now, I'm able to do it with aluminum, GPS, polypropelene and Gore-Tex. Quite a far cry from portaging huge bundles of pelts, and four person birchbark canoes over miles of trail between the lakes. Bugs and swamp, natives and some really rugged terrain in the summer, and steeling against bitter cold in winter. We still "do" it like the Voyageurs did, we just do it with the help of technology.

Winter here, however, is something to behold. Spending so much time outside during winter really gives me the opportunity to see and experience things in a completely new light. If you get a good one with lots of snow (by the way, I LOVE snow.), there's an endless supply of things to do. You just have to be able to brave the accompanying cold. Every big snowfall we get here...ones that gove us over a foot are best, I gear up and grab my snowshoes and head for Leif Ericson park, down by the Lake. The main part of the park is a huge bowl sloping toward the Lake, which means it generally gets dumped on during a good snowstorm. I strap into my shoes and tromp around in the fresh powder for while. Then, I'll make my way to the slope with the deepest snow, and begin carving out my name in the middle part of the slope. I like the idea of writing my name in the snow in huge letters. I equate it to building sandcastles on the beach.

There are also very heavy Buddhist overtones to my activities those nights. The prints in the snow are there only for a moment, and then they get covered over by more snow, wind, other people's tracks...time...Impermanence. The idea that nothing lasts forever. Winter comes and covers us in white and cold and solitude, but then winter ends and we come out again. It makes me appreciate things just a little more being able to experience winter as a way of life rather than just a season.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Coffee Haiku #5...Classic Form

The Roaster laments:
If I only had more beans
to roast tomorrow.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Coffee Haiku #4...Classic Form.

Clouds of green dust float
Backlit by the morning sun
Starts a roaster's day.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Coffee Haiku #2 & #3...Classic Form

endothermic change,
exothermic reaction,
hear the beans cracking.
green turns to yellow
yellow to reddish brown roasts
colors deepen fast.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Coffee Haiku #1...Classic Form

if there are no rocks
left in Colombia now
we've taken them all.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


I finally managed to take a bona-fide vacation, probably for the first time in four or five years. This is an actual vacation, paid and everything, which beats the hell out of being laid off or in between jobs. The week that I chose turned out to be a fairly hectic one at work, and I do feel pangs of guilt for leaving my crew in a lurch to run off and enjoy myself while there is so much going on that could require my attention and assistance. Just this morning, I felt compelled to call in just to check in and see how the first half of the week went without me.

I had been up around daybreak on the morning of our last day in after a chilly evening around the fire. Up and off to the East, the first glint of sun that had been seen since sundown the night before we left the landing just outside Ely shone through the morning haze. I was managing a small fire with kindling and tinder when a pack of wolves started up a couple of miles or so North of our campsite on the south end of the lake. The pack was faint, almost disappearing with the twilight as morning broke over camp, and I almost had to completely hold my breath to listen in.

This was the second time I had heard a pack of wolves in the wild. The first being last summer, backpacking solo on the Gooseberry River. On that occasion I was alone on the trail on a very wet weekend in July. I had made camp shortly after the rain had stopped and exhausted, I climbed inside my bag to sleep. No sooner had my eyes shut, they snapped open again at the loud and rather close sound of a small pack of wolves directly across the river from where I was trying to sleep. My heart was pounding in my ears and adrenaline racing through my system as I quietly panicked in my tent, not wanting to draw any attention to myself. I heard them twice more that night, once more downriver a mile or two and then again on my side of things, walking right up the very trail I had hiked in on. Making for Castle Danger the next morning I saw paw prints on the trail a bit bigger than the palm of my hand.

Slipping the canoe into the water later that morning finally brought it all back around to me as I realized I was leaving an intensely beautiful and rugged place for my normal life back in the city. There wasn't even a puff of breeze to feather the water as Nick and I eased into the loaded canoe and began paddling out into the lake, waiting for our companions to finish packing up and loading gear into their canoe and join us for the paddle downstream. Paddling through the calm of Lake Three was akin to paddling through silk.

My first exposure to civilization after four days in the woods was in Ely sitting at a sleepy steakhouse bar inhaling an 8oz hamburger and beer, finding out from the bartender that the world didn't come to an end while we were out, but the Vikings lost and their quarterback could possibly be out for the rest of the season. In that regard, the world did come to and end.

Now I'm decompressing. Front porch watching the world go by in passing cars and sirens and cable television, people coming and going and cell phones...TV and stereo...noise everywhere...a noise I didn't really know was there until I went away from it.

All of a sudden I feel clausterphobic.