Was Alexander Pope paddling Lake Winnipeg when he penned An Essay on Man? Doubtful. Could he have been? Absolutely. How else to explain the tiny spark of optimism latent within six paddlers despite the powerless feeling as wave upon wave upon wave of wind-powered water crashed against rocks, sunny daylight hours slipping away from idle hands trapped in a bay with shorelines that barely fit canoes before rocky cliffs separated sand from soil 40 vertical feet apart.
These wind-bound days were not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the days rediscovering North America. But it was a beginning.
Before the rigors of ocean-like lake travel, we still had the small remainder of the Red River to finish from the Royal Manitoba Yacht Club northward until Lake Winnipeg. It was hard to leave the incredible hospitality of Guy Beriault and the scrumptious pierogis courtesy of Dolores, who was gracious enough to spare a couple dozen late in the evening to help celebrate John's 31st birthday. Does it get any better than those pastries aside onions and sour cream? We tried to get her to come along and cook for the remainder of the trip, but she emphatically declined to swap employers.
On paper, the paddle should have occupied a whole day, but we were able to reach the lake even after a noon departure. Even more remarkable was that as the river's mouth emptied through marshy channels into the wide-water expanse, it was complete glass as the sun was setting late in the evening. Some ripples did eventually disrupt the experience, but conditions were so good we did not set-up camp until 1:30am. This type of schedule was something to which we knew we would have to adapt in order to move efficiently across the near 350 miles of lake that could prove perilous in less than 10 mile-an-hour wind from the wrong direction.
And, of course, this was demonstrated in the starkest of terms the night of May 16th when we paddled just north of Balaton Beach near Riverton, Manitoba. We knew that winds forecasted over 40 mph were expected, as well as two inches of snow, but who can believe weather-casters these days? Apparently, dirt-bag paddlers (also known as river-rat bastards). That's who. And we did. The payoff was some very bombered tents and the solace of comfort despite the conditions outside. The wind and snow came as predicted, and the only surprise came in form of Marvin Hamm, a local boater who recognized the crew as he was driving by, took some of us into town, and provided a BBQ while the wind blew and the snow fell. What a guy! The best part was how he recognized us: "No one around here has tunnel tents - especially Hilleberg tunnel tents. Had to be you guys." Thanks Petra!
But, as our old friend Layne Logue always encouraged, mean old wind die down...MEAN OLD WIND DIE DOWN! And it did, but not after two crazy days that left the shoreline resembling nothing of its previous self. Needless to say, we were happy to depart on calmer water May 19th, with weeks left to paddle yet on the lake.
The biggest surprise still lay in store for us. If anyone had offered the bet of remaining ice ANYWHERE along our route, I'd have bet the house to the contrary. Or, in trail terms, I'd have bet my Pearsons Nut Goody in confidence. And I'd have been sans Nut Goody the afternoon of May 22nd as we paddled around a peninsula to see what appeared to be ice, but it just had to be a mirage, yes?
Nope. Ice. A lot of ice. Rotten, cold, miserable ice. Murphy's Law, I guess.
This depressing development also ushered-in a new concept for the late-spring Lake Winnipeg paddler. Not wind-bound. Not ice-bound. But ice/wind-bound. Nothing new? Yeah right.
We would watch as the wind rose, and the ice islands shifted, seemingly capable of setting an anthropomorphic course for the bay we were crossing, and attempt to stifle all progress. It would, for lazy moments, but after long stares managed to make-out patches of open water on the horizon, dragging boats along the shore and through chunks of ice became the way to travel. A Bose stereo and a safety harness strap later, we were still on the move towards Grand Rapids, Manitoba, our next resupply (progress slowed slightly, but progress nonetheless).
Oh, and those idle days ice/wind-bound? Not completely idle. Just pretended it was a photo-shoot...
We did not make it to Grand Rapids on time, so we had to settle for a road-accessible spot just short of town in order to meet Diane and Greg Trigg within their window of opportunity. So great to see them! As lovely as Grand Rapids was, however, it was nice to be back on trail the next day with three weeks of food in the packs, ready for an extended stretch of travel that would get us well into the much anticipated Churchill River section of the trip.
The Saskatchewan River was the reward for finishing Lake Winnipeg. This is like telling a child that brussels sprouts earns him/her cauliflower. This reality did not set-in right away, thankfully. There is only a short eight-mile stretch of river between Lake Winnipeg and Cedar Lake, the latter only about a fifth the size of the former, but would cost us twice as many wind-bound days given the mostly unfavorable weather.
Two anecdotal pieces stand-out here. The first was the red carpet laid-out by Manitoba Hydro as we began our portage over the dam between Lake Winnipeg and Cedar Lake. They brought us in from the cold, opened-up the sandwich bar, salad bar, and dessert bar before giving us a tour of the facilities and an exit homemade ice cream sandwich. We did have to smell the steaks and lobster being prepared for the evening meal, but that was a small price to pay for satiated appetites accustomed to jerky, nuts and fruit...
And the second anecdotal piece. Our very near Cedar Lake exit. The last decision on May 31st was to sail north, away from the sheltered shore to an island a few miles north in some pretty strong wind across some very shallow water. The result was a crash landing (we thought it a paradise beach) on a marshy shore that remarkably had pretty accessible dry land not far inland. We stayed there a couple days, so thankfully the impulsive thirty minutes of sailing did not cost us very dearly.
And back to the cauliflower. The best way to describe the Saskatchewan River is the Red River in reverse, with slightly less offensive mud. But calling the Saskatchewan River shoreline mud would likely insult mud everywhere and not truly convey why it had its own uniquely infuriating qualities. In this case, two parts mud with three parts sand; incredibly diminutive granules of sand. Perfect for traveling with you wherever you go and sticking despite even the best removal efforts. Just ask Adam how perfectly suited Saskatchewan sand is for coating tent bodies and rain flies.
By June 4th, we made it to the quaint northern town of The Pas, and spent the better part of an evening through the next morning enjoying the amenities of civilization and the hospitality of Alan Gibbs, who graciously made a room available at the packed Wescana Inn for showers and internet access. We were also able to get on the air with Mark Andrews for a short while, quite the treat considering how many hours we had spent listening via the commandeered radio that traveled in John's boat to the radio station of the arctic (102.9 CFAR).
The remainder of the Saskatchewan did not go gently into that good night...for Jarrad, at least. Irony saw it fit to strike down the champion by his most trusted weapon - potato salad. His famous last words to me as I scooped a spoonful into my mouth earlier that day was "oh man, no deviled-egg in that bite? Bummer." Nope. Bummer for him. Poor guy had to convalesce as the rest of the crew celebrated Winchell's 31st birthday, Harlems and all. Jarrad did make a full recovery, and has not yet forsaken potato salad completely.
It was around the same time that we noticed a trend that would only be exacerbated in the days to come. Hazy days (seemingly from the heat) turned into incredibly hazy days that soon became difficult-to-see-around-the-next-bend-hazy days and finally we saw the forest for the trees (or at least the smoldering embers thereof). Forest fires were raging in northern Saskatchewan, this reality hardly a week after being confronted with miles and miles of ice lingering on the lakes.
A trip of ice and fire?!?
Thankfully, the Saskatchewan River died an unceremonious death. We had not planned on a short-cut that shaved 20-30 miles off our route, but John was insistent that the water would be there for us, and it was. Cumberland Lake was a sight for sore eyes.
This began one of the more anticipated sections, the Sturgeon-Weir River. Clear water, stiff current, and rocky edges differentiated the Sturgeon-Weir from all of its predecessors, and we were excited to reach it by June 10th, more than two weeks ahead of our anticipated schedule. It took us only ten hours of paddling to climb over 100 vertical feet and reach Amisk Lake. It was not our destined resupply point, but the morning of June 12th proved to be more miserable than we cared to paddle in, so we called the Delanos, likely to be in the area for the resupply only a few days ahead. As usual, they dropped everything, showed-up early and did not forget beers before arriving at Jimmy and Mary Anne's Wilderness Camp ready to assist and depart back to Flin Flon.
Which is where we sit now. Again, we're thankful for the Delanos and their effort getting our resupplies taken care of thus far. Can't imagine being in better hands.
I'll admit that, yes, there was a meager attempt to theme this blog around what poetry came to mind (reveals a rather unsophisticated palate, no doubt). Tom and Jan were kind enough to forward along one of our favorites, and I think it encompasses a crew-wide feeling moving forward:
"Here my sprits are high. Yes, humanity is beautiful. But it's all in them. And it's all in me. Love it all I say. There will be no tomorrow if today keeps on happening. So that's where I'll figure I'll be. That's a scary thought. I just have to do it. The birds of the air. What do they care. And me, I'm Just free." (SJK)