Category: Trip Report
Pictures from NOLS WRW1 7/1/10 B have been uploaded, go to the pictures page to find them. Writing the trip report is slow going, be patient for it.
I didn’t head out today expecting to go canyoneering, heck, if you would have told me there was a slot canyon anywhere in this state, I would have said you must be from another universe. I guess I have seen a few canyons in Minnesota, up along the north shore for example, there’s a few rivers that flow through canyon like formations, and in extremely dry years I suppose it’s possible to do some technical routes through them. But a slot canyon, reminiscent of Zion national park, yeah right. But, as I said, I didn’t expect to be canyoneering today, and in reality I wasn’t – just mostly impressed by the fact that a slot canyon exists, but we’ll get there.We began the morning by loading up the kayaks and the dogs and heading up to Rapidan, dropping a vehicle off at the CR 90 canoe launch, and starting our trip just below the dam, about a 9 mile journey with no idea of what to expect. Forest started by sitting in my lap again, he seems much more stable and comfortable if he’s allowed inside of the kayak. My dad had Spirit on the front of his kayak, and this time we had a camera with so we could get some pictures. We had a lunch packed and planned on a full day of kayaking. Immediately the current was booking it, and within moments we approached our first set of rapids. Rapids? When I taught Forest how to kayak yesterday, I even said that this will work well as long as we don’t have to go through any rapids! With a name like ‘Rapidan’ I should have expected as much, again, I guess I had no idea what to expect. Forest was sturdy inside of the kayak, with his front paws on the closed cell pad on the front, we paddled through the rapids with little issue. Yeah, we took on a little bit of water, I got a little wet, Forest was a little nervous with water splashing on him but overall it went pretty smooth. I floated, expecting my dad and Spirit to be right behind me, but when I didn’t notice them I pulled over to the shore to wait, glancing back I thought I saw them along the other shoreline, spirit was running along the shore. I waited.
After several minutes, I turned around and paddled back towards where I thought I had seen them, as I couldn’t see them any more. Paddling upstream, hugging the shore wasn’t terribly difficult – I saw them across the river just starting to paddle again, so I crossed the current to check in. The story was a large wave hit the boat, Spirit fell off and was swimming along side, the kayak took on several gallons of water and they both made it to shore. Spirit a little shaken up, my dad mostly surprised, he had never really been through a rapid before and didn’t know how to react. He bailed the water out, put on his spray skirt and eventually continued on. There were similar sized rapids every several hundred feet, sometimes the river was relatively smooth, I thought kayaking with a dog period was crazy, much less navigating rapids (at most class II rapids) with a dog on the kayak. Even when Forest was all wet and dirty and was no longer riding inside of the kayak, navigating the rapids went quite well.
Along the way we passed several canyons with beautiful waterfalls. About the third waterfall we passed was rather incredible, three tiers of falling water recessed into a canyon, we had to stop. All I could think about was how incredible of a place this would be to spend a day on a hot summer afternoon, swimming in the river, showering under the waterfall, cooking on a grill, all with a bunch of friends, I’ll have to let my brother in on this secret if he’s going to be around this summer, he’d have a great time here with his friends. We explored for a few minutes, climbed to the top of the falls and just took in the beauty of the place, had a quick snack, and then kept paddling, as we had only covered 3 miles of the 9 total we had planned.
The next several miles flew by, before we knew it we were most of the way complete. We had been passing several of what looked like slot canyons (I’d love to go back and explore them more), eventually we stopped for lunch at what appeared to be the most impressive slot canyon, and yes, it was reminiscent of Utah’s desert canyons. A beautiful sculpted sandstone slot canyon, accessible only from the river, or it would be a technical descent from the top, which although unnecessary, it would be kind of cool to do a technical descent of a slot canyon in Minnesota, I doubt too many people can say they’ve done that, it’s not exactly a highly prized canyoneering state. We explored, ate lunch, and then continued on.
The dogs ran most of the rest of the way along the shore. Some people caught up to us, the first people we had seen enjoying the beautiful day, a canoe and two kayaks passed us, wide eyed at the fact that we were kayaking with dogs. Very shortly later we were at the CR 90 bridge and our kayaking adventure was over. We considered paddling the same route again, but mostly I wanted to give Forest a rest from kayaking, and get in a round of disc golf. So we drove down to get our shuttle vehicle. The parking lots were empty when we started at 9am, but now they were packed with people out enjoying the day, mostly people fishing I’d guess.
We loaded up the kayaks and went into Mankato to Land of Memories park to throw an 18 holes of disc golf, the place was packed! People everywhere, mostly college kids throwing crazily, seems like a dangerous day to go disc golfing, even saw a kid get hit in the foot with a disc. I didn’t do great, ended with a 59 with a couple birdies and several bogeys. Then what comes next after 9 miles of kayaking, 18 holes of disc golf, how about 13 holes of ball golf. So, we headed out to my dad’s golf course and played a round and a half on the 9 hole course. Was my first time since September or so, so I didn’t do real well, but it’s always fun to get out on the course and relive my golfing days – I was never real good anyway – I’m still shooting about the same score that I was in 8th grade, so at least I’m consistent. Long day, I slept well.
The biggest mistake was by the Ranger who pointed at the map and said “You walk out here.” But I haven’t even started telling the story and I’m already getting ahead of myself, I’ll get to the mistakes that were made, but for the most part the only way we could have avoided the events of that night would have been to stay home. So, I’ll start at the beginning.
After leaving Utah’s Zion National Park in the fall of 2008, Derik, Tyler and I knew we had to return, and almost immediately began planning a return trip about the same time the next year. In sharing the amazing story of rappelling and canyoneering in this incredible environment, everybody wanted to be a part of the next trip. So it was open invitation, as November 2009 approached there were a total of 10 people that had expressed interest in joining us – these being mostly co-workers at the YMCA camp. Each of these people had different times that they would be able to join us on our month long journey through the west. In leaving Minnesota in early November, 5 of us piled in the extra minivan that my parents had acquired. Derik, Tyler and I had the experience the previous year. Carl was quite inexperienced but very willing to learn and rather off the wall. Mick, also very willing to learn, never lets his prosthetic leg slow him down much, though it is definitely debilitating in certain situations.
After driving straight through the night we found a campsite in Mosquito Cove (possibly aptly named at certain times of the year, very pleasant in the late fall). In canyoneering, you must take advantage of good weather and avoid the canyons if there is any chance of rain, so after a good night’s sleep – the first day in Zion proved to be a beautiful day, though I pried for people to hurry, everybody seemed to take their time and we got going a lot later than I had hoped to, I suppose I could have expressed our haste a little more clearly. I made the rounds, checking in with everybody as they were packing, double checking essential items: Warm layers (check), food (check), water (check), rappelling gear (check), headlamp (uhh, I need batteries, I don’t have one, mines broken… check), obvious mistake here – I packed my headlamp. Anyway, we made our way to the visitor center and I had a chat with the back country ranger explaining our situation. Basically I asked for an easily accessible, easy exit canyon for an able man with a prosthetic leg. He said there wasn’t really anything that fit the description that I was looking for, but suggested a few things that may work. The one that sounded the best was Russel Gulch, generally used as an entrance to the Subway. It has a few beautiful rappels, 3 in total, with the exit being the alternate approach to the Subway, this is where the ranger pointed at the map and told us to walk out here. We had the maps, had the Tom Jones canyoneering book, we got a permit and headed out.
The drive took us to the far west end of the park, by the time we started hiking, it was nearly noon. We hiked the first stretch with an overly friendly (read annoying) guy that was just looking for a hike. He continually reminded us to follow the ‘hoodoos’ they mark the trail (misnaming the cairns), to Mick, this was imprinted in his mind as ‘follow the cooters.’ So, we followed the relatively well marked trail across the slickrock past the sign that said we needed a permit (our friend continued to follow us, constantly warning us that we needed a permit to be here – we had one, he didn’t). Eventually he went on his own way and we were soon in the bottom of Russel Gulch. We had a quick lunch in the sun before beginning our decent.
The decent itself was beautiful, so far, everything was as smooth as we could have hoped for. Each rappel had an anchor, each one was 75 feet or so, really a great introduction to canyoneering. The trip down went quick and smooth, everybody had the time of their lives, especially those that had never rappelled before. Upon reaching the bottom, it was approaching sunset, we maybe had two hours before it got totally dark, so we made our way to the “Walk Out” hoping to get back on the trail and most of the way back to the van before the sun set. This is where we were completely sandbagged, this route should hardly be recommended to anybody, much less somebody with a prosthetic leg, this is where everybody had at least one “near death” experience, this is where the mistakes piled up. All I could do is stay calm, methodically work through each problem, and attempt to keep everybody alive.
After scouting, studying the map, reading the description, I found what had to be the ascent, to continue scouting would have meant going for a swim up canyon, so we began climbing. After the first move – a relatively unexposed technical 5th class move – probably about a 5.8 move easily spotted, Derik and I found ourselves on a ledge. Derik continued scouting as I set up a belay rope to get the others to that point. With a little bit of effort I belayed Mick to that point, I taught Mick to belay so he could get Carl and Tyler up while I attended to a problem Derik had encountered. All I heard was “we have to turn around, there’s no way we can climb this.” Our only other option was to decend the subway which involved several long swims, wetsuit highly recommended and up to 12 hours for an able group. I was quite hesitant to even consider that option, people come down this route without ropes, it has to be possible to ascend it. Getting over to Derik should have been quite easy, a couple steps across a relatively protected ledge, I held onto the belay rope (which i had not tied off securely), my foot slipped, I put my weight on the rope, it pulled free, I stumbled, I caught myself at the edge of the 15 foot drop off, my heart began to race as I stood there. A sigh of relief, Mick had seen me, I played it off as nothing serious, no need to increase worries. Then I approached Derik, leaving Mick to belay the others, I looked up to see a very exposed, approximately 20 foot vertical section, I’d guess a series of 5.8 moves. I didn’t even hesitate, the adrenaline was pumping and I didn’t want to consider the other options, I needed to get everybody out of this canyon, I had to work with what daylight was left, it would soon be dark and cold.
I began climbing, my first handhold gave way as a large rock went racing down the narrow gulley “ROCK!” I thought for sure it was going to hit someone, after checking in, I made sure everyone was in a safe place before I began climbing. I reached for another hand hold, it gave way, debris crashed down the gully, everybody was OK. Another step up, my footing gave way, rocks crashed down the gully. This was not going well (my heart is racing just typing this), I knew everybody had found a safe spot, but I could help but think somebody might be peeking around a corner as soon as I let a rock fly. I steadily continued up the loose scree, as soon as Derik could no longer spot me effectively he found a safe place, I made a move that may have been about a 5.6, but with a free fall of 15 feet and no assurance that I wouldn’t find myself tumbling to the bottom of the canyon (about 35 feet at that point), the cold, and climbing in hiking boots, the move felt like a 5.10. After pushing myself through each move, continually letting rocks fly, I found myself on a large exposed nose 50 feet above the floor of the canyon, I built the best anchor that I could, set up a belay line, made sure they were set to belay each other up the climb and I continued to scout. Tyler belayed Derik up, then Derik belayed from the top and Mick began to climb. At one point Tyler felt a very large rock brush his hair, very near disaster (I know Mick and Carl had helmets, but at that point I think we were short a couple of helmets as well).
I scouted, I climbed up about a 300 foot 4th class scramble as the sun was setting, eventually I found myself at the top, I should have brought gear to set up another anchor, I didn’t know what I would find. I decided I’d need some gear to set up a static line prussic ascent. It was dark, I had a little difficulty finding my way back down the gully, but I eventually made my way back down to Derik, told him my plan, grabbed the gear, and hiked back to the top, Mick was just beginning to climb. I set up the anchor, set a static line and returned back down to Derik to find that Mick was struggling with the climb, at that point he was already telling us to leave him there and save ourselves. I wasn’t about to leave anybody behind. I considered setting up a haul system, but decided to attempt pulling him up first. I roped myself in, set up a prussic so that he would not lose progress, and “one, two, three, PULL!” Derik and I pulled, Mick clawed at the rock, each time making a few inches of progress. My thought process was that if we got Mick past this difficult section (maybe a foot or two) he would then be able to use his own power to climb to the top. That didn’t happen, we continued to pull, he continued to claw at the rock, we continued to make inches of progress. This was all made more difficult by the fact that I had the only head lamp, it was pitch dark, Mick could not see the rock, all he could do was reach blindly and attempt to grab anything that might give him purchase. At that point, Tyler had the only other flashlight. (Come on, You’re a NOLS instructor Martin! I know, I’m also invincible, I can work through any problem that arises with whatever supplies I have, I realize the mistakes I made, and yes, it was up to me to make sure everything runs smoothly, I’m the expert here).
After a long struggle, we welcomed Mick to the “top,” they didn’t realize the extended climb that was ahead of us, I roped him into the prussic that I had set up. Then Tyler and Carl struggled through the dark to the top, I roped them in. After a short break, getting some food and drinking the last of the water (I was exhausted, just what I need, another mistake to add to the list, there was water at the bottom, we didn’t fill up). I gave a brief explanation of how to climb the prussic line – a prussic is knot attached to the rope that can be slid up along with us as we climb, but if we fall it will prevent us from falling to the bottom, quicker and easier than a belay, we can all climb at once, and the climb wasn’t terribly difficult (4th class scramble) but we were all very tired, it was pitch dark, and there was still lots of loose scree. We all roped in, and made the ascent through a narrow gully. The most difficult section was probably at the top through thick brush continuing uphill. Eventually, we reached the anchor, took another long break taking a sigh of relief. Everybody was alive, we were at the top, all we had to do now was “walk out.”
The trail was intermittent, well worn through the dirt, scattered cairns across the slick rock. We found ourselves pausing several times, searching for cairns, trying to keep ourselves on the trail, figuring the trail was most likely the best option, rather than hiking aimlessly across the desert in the direction of the van. This continued for hours into the night. My first priority should have been water, in my mind, it wasn’t, I just wanted to get back to the van. An hour or so after midnight we crossed a low canyon area, a likely place for water. We continued on for another half hour or so past that point when Mick collapsed in a heap. He was conscious, but incoherent, though it should have been obvious, I didn’t realize until that point how desperate we were for water. Tyler and Derik stayed with Mick, Carl and I went on a water mission. We returned to the low canyon area we had passed and immediately found water, we had walked within 20 feet of a large pothole full of murky water. We filled up all of our vessels, added Aqua Mira treatment and hiked back to The guys who were signaling us with a flashlight. Everybody drank their fill of water. Mick begged us to leave him there and we would come back for him in the morning. There was no way I’d leave anybody behind, at least not by themselves. Mick was completely convinced I was trying to kill him – he continued to plod along, I kept pushing him, and everyone else to their limits. In reality I was not trying to kill anybody, rather I was trying as hard as I could to keep everyone alive. Though a few lapses in judgment and a compounding of mistakes was making that increasingly difficult.
We walked a few hundred more feet past that point before we lost the cairns completely, I knew ‘exactly’ where I was, but I could not figure it out. We decided to bivy. We gathered firewood, got a nice fire going in the bottom of a canyon, sheltered from the wind and it held a little bit of heat. One person was to stay awake to tend the fire and watch for wildlife while the rest tried to sleep. Personally, I was still going on adrenaline, I knew ‘exactly’ where I was, and I just wanted to get back to the van. I knew that the parking lot would be checked and our permit reflected on, if we weren’t back in the morning SAR would be activated, we were fine, I didn’t need a few hundred people to unnecessarily be deployed to our position. So Carl and I walked back to the van (possibly another lapse in judgment) in reality I didn’t know where I was, we wandered for another couple hours before I realized I was completely lost, I’ve never felt so frustrated, I slowly came to realize that I wasn’t where I thought I was and that I needed sleep, I couldn’t wander around all night. At that point, the moon had cast a beautiful light over the entire landscape. Carl and I backtracked to the fire, I admitted I was completely lost, we found everyone else huddled around the fire attempting to sleep. By now it was nearly 4am. I curled up in my down coat and pulled my backpack over my legs to attempt to keep warm, it was a very chilly night, especially sleeping cowboy style on the cold ground. I slept, I tossed and turned, I slept some more.
Before long the twilight of morning began to show, everybody was slightly rested and we packed up, and began trying to figure out where we were. A moment later, we knew where we were, Carl and I had indeed been looking in the wrong direction. Had we walked 50 feet up canyon I would have known exactly where we were (which was obviously not where I thought we were). We had slept in nearly the exact location that we had eaten lunch the day before. From there, Carl and I headed out ahead of the others just in case SAR may be activated (from what I’ve read, national parks are on top of their stuff, if a party doesn’t return to the trail head in the time that the permit says, they don’t hesitate to send out hasty teams). We easily found our way to the van, and at that point, I realized how completely exhausted I was. We also realized that we hadn’t left the others with any food, and probably not enough water. I can’t imagine how Mick felt at that point, apparently he had considered curling up and staying to die many times throughout the ordeal. I waited at the van and loaded up Carl with food from the van – fruit and nuts for quick energy, water, candy, cinnamon rolls, and even some Mountain Dew. He hiked back to the group, I took a nap in the van.
Shortly Derik arrived back at the van also extremely exhausted, saying that Mick hadn’t made it very far, they had to rest every few minutes, but Carl had made it to them. Apparently the fruit, candy and fresh water was a lifesaver, it fired everyone up and they made the hike back. Before long everybody stumbled into the parking lot, I felt like I should have some victory music playing. Nearly a 24 hour ordeal, everybody survived, nearly everybody thought they were going to die. I definitely learned a lot about myself and my friends that night, I am not invincible, the laws of nature still apply to NOLS instructors, little mistakes that can be avoided should be taken care of (headlamps, water), other mistakes that can’t be avoided, can be worked through (having been recommended this route and completely sandbagged, we could have never known, only could work through it). We then made our way back to the campsite and had a full day of rest, we spent the day sleeping, relaxing and completely recuperating, preparing ourselves for another canyoneering adventure, the next day was to be Spry Canyon.
To view all of the pictures from this trip check out my webshots account.
This is the essay I wrote for a college composition class in high school, so you will probably notice a difference in writing style from then to now as it’s almost 10 years old, I feel that it does a good job of representing the events of those few days at the end of the Hommes du Nord. So, here’s the story that you’ve all been waiting for.
To Be Hunted
This was the Hommes du Nord, the longest invitational trip that camp offered a $4,000 adventure through the pristine Canadian wilderness. Chris (the trail guide), five other guys and I had spent the past 35 days canoeing the Thlewiaza River, this trip of a lifetime was finally coming to an end. Reaching the shadow of the plywood shack that was to be our home for the next two days, we had just finished paddling our final miles. About a hundred miles up the coast from Churchill, our final destination, we expected to spend our next hours lounging around this shack; the worries of the trip were over. As we started carrying our gear to the door, our worst fear came true. The next 24 hours would be the most stressful time of my life, and would change my view of the reality of human existence forever.
I was heading back with Chris and Eric (another guy on the trip) to get the rest of the gear, when Jason came running towards us in exasperation. I knew in my mind what he was going to say, but I didn’t want to believe it. When he finally caught us, he was out of breath. He said that there was a polar bear coming towards us. We had a certain respect for these monstrous creatures, known for stalking and eating human beings, so we hurried. Everyone grabbed something to carry while Chris got the gun out. We ran back to the cabin, the only refuge available to us besides the gun Chris carried in his hands. That very gun may be the only reason I still walk on the face of the Earth today.
The bear walked the shoreline and stopped when it got in view of the cabin. Another followed behind it and stopped in the same place. As they paced back and forth watching the cabin, there was nothing we could do, except wait. This is when I began to feel particularly vulnerable. As these killing machines waited for an easy meal, we could only watch and wait. Maybe they would just pass by, continue on down the shore, and find somewhere else to eat besides the canoeist buffet, but they didn’t. As the sun went down they remained. When we could no longer see the white giants eyeing us, we took shelter in the cabin, and went to sleep. I slept like a rock after such a long day of paddling, the others were a little restless knowing there was a thousand pound killing machine outside the door.
“Hey, who’s out there?” Chris yelled through the door at 3:30 a.m., and waited for an answer. There was an answer, a good shove against the door from the outside. There was no time to think, a bear was on the other side of the door. Chris pushed against the bottom of the door and Jason, the top. There was another shove. James took Chris’s spot and lay across the bottom of the door totally naked. The plywood of the door creaked and gave a good six inches. James slid along the floor, his bare body giving him little traction on the wood floor, his strength nothing compared to what was on the other side. Chris grabbed the gun and prepared to take action. He stood behind James and waited.
I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do without getting in the way. So all I could do was sit back and watch. I was scared beyond comprehension. There was no thought process going on in my brain, just the fear of death. If that bear got through, if he came inside, there wouldn’t be anything except a bloody mess left behind for the next passing Inuit to find. I sat along the back wall with my knees against my chest. All of my senses were in overdrive, my constant breathing was deafening, the stench of 35 days of perspiration filled the air, and all of the exertion raised the temperature to well above comfortable.
Eric sat poised and ready with a can of bear spray; it’s effects on polar bears unknown, but worth a try in a life or death situation. This can could possibly save our lives, if he wasn’t ready to spray eight seconds worth of pepper spray in his own face (yes, he was holding the can backwards, nobody ever taught us how to use it). Luckily we didn’t rely on him to deter the bear, or he would have been a spicy treat to accompany the rest of the bear’s meal.
On the other side of the door, the bear continued pushing. Now was a good time to realize that the only thing keeping the door shut was a three-inch bolt held to the plywood with two small screws. Suddenly, the bear left and we could hear him walking around the cabin. Maybe he was strategizing, looking for an easier entry, or maybe just taking a break, whatever it was he was back within a few minutes, pushing as hard as ever. James couldn’t take much more, and Jason wasn’t going to last much longer; holding back 1,000 pounds of muscle was not easy. The whole time Chris was searching for what to do, a gun in his hands he didn’t want to make a decision that was to be regretted. This was the end; we weren’t going home, this small shack was going to be our grave. I was beyond fear and didn’t know what to think any more, I just sat and waited. There wasn’t anything left to do when, in a dead serious voice, James said, “Let’s cap this fucker.”
“Everyone cover your ears,” Chris called out a warning, “James, move your head to the side.” There was a moment of silence, and then Chris pulled the trigger and a smoking, half inch hole appeared in the door. At that moment the bear stopped pushing, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The next few hours were tense. We built a brace against the door, several stray pieces of wood and a frying pan held the door in case the bear were to return. Someone was always on watch with his face pressed against the door, and an eye peering out the half inch slug hole, waiting and watching. Our radios worked, but there was nobody around at this hour that we could call to for help.
After three hours of wallowing in the stench of our bodies, we opened the door and the heat of our sauna rushed out. We all took in the fresh air like it was to be our last time to breathe. Chris pointed the gun out the door, and Eric followed with the bear spray, pointing away from him this time. The coast was clear, drops of blood and blubber spotted the ground and there wasn’t a bear in sight. As we cooked breakfast Chris radioed a passing plane for help, we didn’t want to spend another night locked in that jail. Within a few hours our ride was there to pick us up, a 30 foot boat captained by a native of Arviat, an Inuit village just up the coast. I was glad to leave the relaxing villa of that shack behind, never to return.
We spent the night in Churchill, in a hotel safe from the reality of the world. As I lay in the comfort of a real bed that night, I began to realize what I had just gone through. My view of human nature had changed drastically. We are not always in charge, there are things bigger than us. A human being tends to believe he overpowers all living things, but an encounter like this taught me to have a respect for certain things. But at the same time we do have power, the shotgun shell that Chris took home with him is proof. I will never forget that night; the picture of James lying clothes less across the bottom of the door will remain with me for the rest of my life.
Friday morning I slept in to the late hours of the morning (7am, I wish I could teach my body to be able to sleep in!), after 5 hours of sleep I was ready to go on our kayaking weekend adventure. My dad came home just after 10am and we packed the van and headed out after 3pm, Forest got to stay home with Mom and my parents’ dogs. Our first stop was in Albert Lea, we decided to check out the disc golf course there. Yes, I’m getting my dad addicted to the sport as well, he’s even considering joining the summer league. The course was nice, a few holes through the woods, the remaining holes were mostly wide open. The baskets were some kind of off brand, or homemade. The wind made it quite difficult to accomplish any decent scores, but it was a good time. My dad lost one of his discs on the last hole, I nearly lost mine on the first hole. It was rather quiet, especially compared to the other courses I’ve seen recently.
The next stop was for a quick supper at McDonald’s, then on to Perrot State Park, in Wisconsin on the border of Minnesota, on the Mississippi river. There was only a handful of people in the campground, so we had our choice of sites, the best site in the park was empty, so we got on it. It is a beautiful site, number 43, right on the water, Pine creek, a backwater wetland of the river. We had just enough daylight to put in the boats and paddle into the sunset. We ended up going on a several mile paddle, well into the night with a mostly full moon guiding the way. It was a great paddle, through the flooded marsh, we had free roam of an area that is usually accessible by only a narrow stream through marshy grasslands. Occasionally we were startled by the splash of a muskrat, or the sudden flutter of ducks taking flight, overall it was a beautiful night for a paddle. By the time we made it back to the van, I was good for a quick game of cribbage (I won), but I was beat, no matter how hard my dad prodded for another quick kayak run, or a hike in the moonlight, all I could think about was crawling into my sleeping bag, so that’s what I did, and I was soon out cold.
The morning came all too soon, and the overcast, frigid day wasn’t very inviting, but I soon dragged myself out of my sleeping bag for a quick breakfast before a morning paddle. This time we explored farther, more able to enjoy the sights, as though the moonlight cast a beautiful glow over the entire area, it was rather difficult to see anything more than shadows. There was a noticeable lack of vibrant colors in the endless browns of trees and grass that had yet to begin to show signs of spring. But, the wildlife was out in full force. Through the course of the day we saw, if I can estimate: 5000 ducks (or the same 1000 ducks 5 times each) mallards, wood, and teal mostly; 100 sandhill cranes (or the same 25 cranes 4 times); 200 muskrats (or the same 50 muskrats 4 times); 4 bald eagles; countless songbirds, geese, and an assortment of other wildlife. We paddled a loop through the marsh, basically around the entire outside of the wetland without going up pine very far.
This brought us back to the same area we had explored on Friday night, to an old abandoned Trailer house that looked like it had been opened with a sardine can opener, most of the siding was missing and parts of the roof were gone, but most of the interior was still in tact. So naturally we had to get out and explore. Stepping in the doorway of an addition was like stepping into the past, after snooping around for a while we had figured out that it had been relatively untouched since the early 70′s. We were now in 1974 digging through the remains of what was apparently a trailer that had been hit by a tornado, bowling trophies were on the shelves, popular science from 1961 sat on the coffee table, clothing hung in the closet, food was still in the cupboards, and the closet was fittingly filled with 1970s dirty magazines. I took a handful of magazines for further inspection, a 1970 playboy, 5 popular science from ’61, True Confessions 1965, Master Detective 1959, 1973 Penthouse, and a few others that sounded interesting, they were all in relatively decent shape, and should prove to be an interesting read at some point. If there had been anything of value, it had already been looted.
We continued on our way back to the van and headed into the nearest town of Trempealeau, WI, we found a nice bar and grill right on the river, had a few beers over a game of cribbage (I won again) and bacon cheeseburger baskets, was decent bar food with the perfect kind of french fries, great food to fill up on after a day of kayaking. Upon returning to the campsite I paddled out into the water and laid down on the floor of the kayak to take a nap, was actually quite relaxing. Then we got a fire going, it was very cold, had to wear my winter gear most of the day (snowpants, winter coat, hat and gloves). But that all came off when we decided to toss the frisbee back and forth, a game that I have missed, this is the reason I can toss the disc as well as I can, I grew up throwing the Frisbee as far as I can back and forth with my dad as far back as I can remember. Once we were warmed up and worn out we made our way back to the fire to cook a dinner of hot dogs and Velveeta shells and cheese, easy food for those of us that are lazy cooks when we’re car camping. We did one last kayak in the dark, it was cloudy, but the moonlight still illuminated the area well enough to see where we needed to go, and it helped that we had been through there several times already. Then, as it started to rain, I crawled into my sleeping bag for another well earned sleep.
Stay tuned for the conclusion, Sunday will get its own post!
Turn on any news channel this weekend in the state of Minnesota, and you’re sure to hear: ‘Roads under water,’ ‘Millions of dollars worth of flood damage,’ ‘Thousands of volunteers flocked to the area to sandbag.’ So naturally, I had to check it out, in a less conventional way I suppose. I say less conventional only because we didn’t see anybody the entire time we were out. Originally I was going to play the role of gawker, driving around taking pictures out the window. This was my Dad’s idea, he wanted to return to one of his favorite outdoor destinations from his childhood. He brought up the kayaks and met me at the parking lot. The lack of any body else out there may be because of the 100 rod or so portage we had to do to get to the water, or possibly because it wasn’t legal (hush hush, we didn’t even figure that out until we were finished). As much work, or as rebellious as it was, it was all well worth it.
We were in the Louisville Swamp district of the Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, also part of Minnesota River Valley State Park Trail System. We did have to carry the kayaks, weighed down with a cooler full of refreshments and a variety of day trip gear, about 1/3 of a mile to the area that would, in the drier season, be a swamp. Today though, it was a huge lake, or even a river as there was quite a current throughout. Poor Forest had to stay in the van, I haven’t taught him how to kayak yet, and this probably wasn’t the place to attempt it, though I may try go get him on the kayak in the future. We paddled upstream along sand creek, no signs of the actual creek were visible as there was a mass of flowing water pretty much everywhere that we could see.
We maneuvered the kayaks through the trees, over debris, and got to see this area as very few probably ever will. The countless number of people flying overhead get a good view I’m sure, but they don’t get the close up personal experience of being in the flood. We paddled along the hiking trail, past signs directing us towards “Floods road” simply ironic. And yes, we did ‘cross’ the area directed by the sign not to cross during high water. I’m sure the person who placed the sign wasn’t anticipating that we would have kayaks.
The wildlife was out in force, the chatter of snow geese was constantly in the air. Eagles and hawks made their rounds through the treetops, I did notice a significant lack of small mammals such as squirrels, though the beavers were out and about. Dad paddled right up next to one without noticing until the “Splash!” of the tail nearly startled him out of his kayak. We took a significant break on what was now a large island, taking a short hike on the trails, and spending plenty of time soaking in our vitamin D that the sun provides, what another beautiful day.
As we sat, with our back against the tree, avoiding the light breeze, and the sun was cooking, my dad shared stories of this area from his childhood. I discussed my crazy ideas of living in the back of a van, living on the road, and performing on the street, I am lucky to have parents that allow me to do all of the crazy things in my life and just live. So he nodded, smiled, and asked when I’m leaving. As we discussed life, we heard the “Crack, snap, crash” I looked across the way to the top of a ridge just in time to see a large oak tree crashing to the ground. It’s amazing, with so little wind, the sun shining, that a tree that size (probably the largest in that area) would choose that moment to fall right in front of us. Which i’m sure begs some sort of question about trees falling in the woods with two guys not paying attention how much noise it might make.
Eventually we continued on our way, past a dead pelican hanging in a tree, another victim of stray fishing line. Since the first half of our journey was upstream, once we turned the corner around the island it was a smooth downstream travel, down the middle of a trail winding through the trees, it made for an exciting paddle. We made our way back to where we put in, then we were only faced with the portage back to the parking lot, this time, uphill. Only needing a few breaks, we made it back, loaded the kayaks and then my dad was on his way back home.
Then I met up with a friend and guess what we did, played a round of disc golf (if you can’t tell, I’m kind of addicted to the game). We returned to a course that we had played when I was first getting into the sport, about 6 months ago, it was actually the only course I had played in MN until recently. It was busy with kids enjoying their Sunday evening. It was a nice course through the woods, quite muddy, but rather enjoyable. We didn’t exactly keep score, but we were rather evenly matched, and we only nearly lost a couple discs in the stream that flowed through the middle of the course.
After a trip to Chipotle for dinner, we went our separate ways and Forest and I returned to the house. What a long enjoyable Sunday, I’ll sleep well tonight.
My first day back to work since October wasn’t supposed to go like this. Not that it was a bad day, just wasn’t quite what I was expecting when I woke up this morning. After showering, I checked the online schedule to find out that it wasn’t until next week at this time that I work, well, that makes sense, I knew it was on the 27th, and today is not the 27th. So, today wasn’t my first day back to work, it was another day to figure out what to do with.
Heroes don’t need plans, Forest and I jumped in the van and started driving. It’s Saturday, maybe somebody wants to hang out, after a few phone calls, that was a bust. So I stopped at the first interesting place, only about 4 miles away, a county park, I’d never been there. About a mile of trails was all that the park had to offer, was a decent hike, but it didn’t keep me occupied for very long.
So, the next stop was the Lake Maria State Park, I used to come here when I was younger with the family all the time, but I remember very little about it. So, after purchasing an annual sticker for the van, I walked the trail. It took me through the woods, and every several hundred feet there was an intersection with a sign, it would be impossible to get lost out there. A dense network of trails cross the entire park, I chose to walk the perimeter trail. This led me on about 4 miles of trail, winding through the woods, past several small lakes, through many designated backpacking camp sites and even a few hike in cabins. One of the cabins was occupied, it smelled wonderful, as it must have been heated by wood, I could smell the smoke.
I decided to finish the entire loop, though my stomach was telling me otherwise, having not eaten anything all day I was pretty hungry by the time I got back to the car at 2pm. I made my way to Arby’s for a chicken sandwich and some delicious curly fries. While I was in Monticello and the sun was shining, a balmy 40 degrees was begging for another round of disc golf, so I had to check out the local course
A number of people about my age drinking beer made the course rather inviting. I let Forest run, chatted with the locals and tossed 2 quick rounds on the very short wide open course. A few of the pin placements had some interesting approaches, working around shrubs, small trees, and some metal towers. The course was extremely simple, and again the posted par was at least a stroke, if not two too high. But it was a fun round, a good place to practice the short game, which for me, needs work. And it was a great place to hang out with locals and get to meet some people, which I haven’t done much of since I’ve lived here.
In this coming week I’m going to flash back to my past, I’m going to write a number of posts outlining significant events of in my history that have led me to where I am today, that will be in addition to my daily journaling.
I’m not sure where the Blue Hills got its name, but it must have been similar to Blue Mounds, which was named after its distinctive pink cliffs. A. I only saw one hill, I got a kick out of the sign that said steep grade 1/4 mile, it was maybe a 50 foot climb, and not very steep, but it was the only hill in the area, and B. The single hill in the area was not blue. I had made my way to the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, in the Sand Dunes State Forest, about 10 miles straight north of the house, though it was about a 30 mile drive as there was a Mississippi River in the way. Now I wonder what the odds are that an attractive female would pull into the parking lot at the exact same time as I, apparently here, the odds are pretty good, as the only people I came across were attractive females. Now, what are the odds that this girl might want to hike with me? Not very good apparently, as she seemed to want to get away from my feeble attempt at small talk as quick as possible. C’mon, I wasn’t even wearing fake nails.
The hike was beautiful though, the hike up the “blue hill” offered a decent view of the surrounding lakes, still frozen. The network of trails towards Buck Lake, though well signed was still difficult to follow, well – I didn’t even want to be on the trail, off trail looked much more appealing. I found myself wandering through the beautiful green matted Douglas Fir stand, the spongy moss floor lightly dusted with fir needles was an amazing stroll, I found a stump to sit on and Forest entertained himself by finding sticks.
After I found my way back to the trail it opened up into a prairie, occasionally winding through hardwood stands along Buck Lake. There wasn’t a whole lot of wildlife, probably because the lake was still frozen over. Towards the end of the hike I startled about 6 white tailed deer from their bed, Forest watched as they bounded through the woods. Then, more attractive females – though my first thought was ‘shouldn’t these girls be in school’ they were also out walking their dog.
I had a thought while I was hiking, I have a decent supply of pictures that I’ve taken over the last several years. Many of them people have expressed interest in wanting copies of. Well, an addition to my routine could be to supply a copy of a picture to anybody that tips over a certain amount, say $20. I think I’ll give it a try and see how it goes, when I take to my first busking attempt, I will also carry a supply of pictures to share, what’s the worst that could happen, they won’t sell.
In 1998 I went on my first organized canoe trip with a Lutheran church camp, we spent five days on the Crow Wing River. It was enjoyable, but not entirely memorable, and they still didn’t teach me how to paddle correctly. The life changing experiences didn’t take place until I went to Camp Menogyn. My dad talked it up, he had gone in the 70′s and thoroughly enjoyed it, constantly selling it to me. We had visited the camp a few times, right away it was incredible and it only got better from there. Driving to the parking lot isn’t entirely impressive, the caretakers house looks nice, but is mostly off limits. These days there’s a welcome center and a garage, back then, there was only a small wooden cabin (Brown’s), and a couple canoes. The first paddle across and into camp, I knew that this was the place to take my paddling addiction.
In 1999 I signed up for a 14 day Boundary Waters Canoe trip. After day one of packing, preparing food, learning the route, and taking part in the shuffle (a kind of orientation), I had finally learned how to paddle. Wow, they would have been good skills to know on any number of trips I took down the Chippewa River. We put in, it was July 1, on Sag, and planned to end on the grand portage, taking a route just below the border lakes. Anybody that’s from Minnesota, is a fan of wilderness areas, or has been to the BWCA since then, knows the story of what happened 3 days later. July 4, 1999, the day of the infamous blowdown that took out over a million acres of trees in and around the BWCA. It was myself, a single trail guide, and two other campers near my age, I was 15.
We hit the portage trail between Round and West Round Lakes (bonus points for originality whoever named those ones), just as the dark green wall cloud rolled overhead. As soon as we started portaging, the rain started, by the time we had finished, the rain was coming down in sheets, the sheets were horizontal. I stood on the shore of Round lake admiring the fury of the storm, my jaw dropped in awe. The other three scurried to set up a rain tarp (I know I should have helped them, but I was too impressed by the show going on in front of me). I heard the first tree fall behind me, it crashed across the portage trail. Then a few trees feel into the lake, first on my left, then on my right. I could hear the crashing of trees all around me. A glance to the top of the nearby ridge revealed the true fury of the storm as the entire ridgeline was leveled of it’s trees. I decided it was time to take refuge under the tarp shelter that had been set up. I was already soaked, and it was probably safer where I had been standing, but everybody else was under the tarp so it must have been the safer place to be. I didn’t sit there for long, a few minutes, before we heard the very nearby “CRACK” then the “CRASH!” followed by a kind of crunching, snapping, crushing noise. In moments, the actual safety of the shelter was realized, as I was covered in tarp, and I could hear “Is everybody OK!?” Everybody checked in as fine, and we found our way out from underneath the jumbled mess. The nearby dead tree (we had taken note of it as we set up the shelter, but couldn’t really avoid it) had fallen into one of the trees that we had tied the tarp to, a domino effect took out that tree, and a second one that we had tied to. The nearest tree fell within a foot or two of the other three of the group, very lucky on that one.
We decided that the water was probably safer than land, where we were surrounded by trees. We quickly threw everything in the canoes, minus a life jacket which had been pinned between two trees. And paddled out into the very rough water, we stayed near shore, and waited out the remainder of the storm. Soon, the wind let up, and we made the portage into missing link, found a campsite and enjoyed the natural fireworks in the distance. This was the beginning of my 4th of July superstition (2003 a tree took our part of our house). The trip from then on mellowed out a bit, but not near entirely. The portages were a hell. Trees cris crossing all along the trail make it very difficult to carry a canoe through, especially an 80lb wood canvas canoe (canoes are sacred, the bottom of a canoe should never touch anything other than water, air, your legs, or the occasional pizza crust, we had to break this rule many times). At times we were 20 feet or more above the ground dragging the canoes through the treetops. The 300 rod (nearly a mile) Muskeg-Kiskadina portage, is normally a very difficult one, steep uphill and rough trail. On a good day it should have taken about half an hour to 45 minutes. Four hours later, we were finally back on the water, or in m case, in the water – I was sweating like crazy after that haul.
Eventually we paddled ourselves into camp, that wasn’t originally part of the plan, but we figured we should check in after that chaos. Camp had called everyone’s parents, my parents got a phone message something along the lines of “We don’t know where your sun is, or if he’s ok, but if we hear anything we’ll let you know right away.” Like that’s supposed to alleviate their worries. Then we made the decision to finish our route, even though there was some feelings of wanting to quit and go home within the group. From there on the portages got easier, until we hit the South Fowl-Pigeon River portage. Quite a bit of deadfall and a poorly marked trail made it very difficult to follow. One of my fellow campers got heat stroke, we decided to turn around and go back to the lake, all over the course of several hours. Eventually we walked the canoes down the shallow/rapids section of the river that the portage was to avoid. We made our way to the Grand portage and finished the trip strong.
It was a trip of a lifetime, definitely had a strong effect on me though still nothing hugely life changing. I still had the canoeing bug and I couldn’t wait for the next year, I had to do another trip.