Canoeing the Mississipi: Worst Day of the Trip
Posted: Friday, September 21, 2012 at 3:42pm
June 14, 2012 – Minnesota
Stomachs still swollen from the six dollar Americanized Cantonese buffet the previous afternoon, we wake early to get a head start on the big storm that the weather channel promised Brainerd. But the combined factors of a one-hundred year flood’s surging current, a thick blanket of clouds holding down the darkness, and team drowsiness prompted a collective though unhappy agreement to wait in the canoes for better conditions.
Keyholes of vague light emerge between the thickest of clouds one hour later. The time to paddle is here. As we push off the riverbank the first flash of lightning illuminates the low-lying dome of clouds to the north. Flash and rumble are separated by too many seconds to count, but the next flash is to the south. We’re going to get lucky again, I half-lie to myself to rationalize paddling further.
The rain comes. Gentle at first, but like a gradient the conditions transition into a torrential downpour. The deluge is so thick that the far riverbank is blank. At terminal velocity, the piercing drops are unforgiving to exposed skin. This hurts; time to get off of the river. We scampered to the nearest tree. Three of the four teammates huddle on the swampy bank, while the other just sits glumly in the slowly filling canoe. Back under the tree we throw the tarp over our heads and struggle to find a comfortable position; the compromise is Sukhasana pose from yoga class, but this time in puddles. We meditate there for two hours.
Neil Young sang that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. It seems the rain listened to the lyrics on that one, and just disappeared. We resumed our journey under quieter skies, now adjacent to military base Camp Ripley, where thunder claps without flashes. The externalities of artillery training are exciting at first, but obnoxious soon thereafter for the next twenty miles. If only the kabooms could burn out sooner.
Then one kaboom comes simultaneous with a flash. We are target practice for Zeus! Fortunately for us, though, two thousand years buried in history means that the gold trimming on his toga is a little rusty and he can’t even hit a canoe in the middle of a dammed lake. The shockwaves are enough to scare us though, and we sprint towards shore seeking shelter.
At the end of the lake, the portage at Little Falls is the easiest of the trip. After a lunch break and what we think was the only portage of the day, a townie warns us about another dam just downstream. Yeah, okay. Let’s check the map. He’s right, but the map says the portage is only three hundred yards long. No sweat.
Back on the river we are promptly greeted by the usual “PORTAGE” plastered on an upside down canoe. The intense Minnesota summer sun shines down as we pull the boats onto toppled reeds. Only three people need to carry the gear when portaging. I wait behind with the canoes for the others to return. Five minutes pass. The mosquitoes are getting vicious. Ten minutes pass. My heartbeat is now at resting pace. Fifteen minutes pass. Maybe they decided to grab dinner early. Twenty minutes pass. Hopefully they don’t eat all of the trail mix, I’m going to go find them. The three hundred yard portage turns out to be at least eight times that length and resembles a maze from a Dora the Explorer map. Up the (incredibly steep) hill, through the (poison ivy infested) woods, down the (half-eroded) serpentine trail, across the (wobbly) bridge, through the (mosquito-plagued) gulch, and finally shooting out at the rocky beach at the bottom of the dam. The three are still recovering from the beating. The sun is getting lower in the sky; now is the time to retrace our steps and retrieve the canoes.
We pay more attention to the map as the sky begins changing colors. Hey guys, I think we’ll be camping on a fluvial island with a bird sanctuary tonight! With the current assisting us we paddle lightly towards Seven Island Watercraft Campsite. Our approach is poor, resulting in heavy paddling as we fight the current. Rachel the Penobscot pulls up adjacent to the shore with Leah at her side. The mosquitoes immediately introduce themselves. We’re prisoners in our canoes, trying to secure them with nowhere to run. We shimmy up the steep, narrow bank one at a time bringing only what we need to sleep. Dinner is an afterthought: cheese, bread, and barbeque sauce. I open my mouth to say that even sandwiches will take too long, and the mosquitoes swarm my orifice. Dancing around to make a hard target, I cram in cheese and bread to make a jaw casserole. No consideration is given to the topography as we place our tents. I give up on swatting the mosquitoes that followed us in and instead focus my attention on the three ticks latched to my legs.
The next morning we paddle hard for two miles before we lose the last of the mosquitoes in our canoes. This new day will surely be better than the previous. I’m no Roald Dahl, but that’s a story within a story.