Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Solo Expedition 2006 Wood Lake to Cumberland House

When the winds died down and the water sat motionless, that was my time. After all my camp duties were finished, the gathering of wood, making the fire and cleaning up after supper, I was free to explore my surroundings and soak in the natural environment.

On many evenings, I was treated to the best light show nature had to offer. I never got tired of watching and photographing the sun as it slipped below the horizon.

Fantastic sunset over Wood Lake

I had just been driven off the water by a thunder and electrical storm that had chased me all day. At this stage of the trip, the wind and rain was starting to wear on me. I had never experienced a year with some many intense storms. The constant battle to make progress was relentless and exhausting.

Traveling alone, I had only myself to encourage and pick up my spirits so I got a little funny sometimes. A lot of the rapids were swollen and so were the portage trails. Over a particular trail was a boat ladder that spanned a large gap between two large outcroppings of rock. Where it was normally dry, water filled the gap to with in inches of the ladder, which was wet from the rain. Had I slipped, I could have easily broken a leg or been trapped under the ladder, under water. This was a very dangerous portage.

The constant fight against the wind and rain is enough to drive anyone a bit nuts

Mirond Lake is a huge lake with shorelines of rugged cliffs. Lingon Berries grow on many of the granite rocks, which I picked by the handfuls. In camp, I would reduce the berries over the fire to make a great sauce for my bannock. As I made my way along the shore, I spotted a group of otters swimming near a small island, but they spotted me at the same time and dove out of sight before I could get my camera ready. Late that evening, the winds came up again bringing with them rain that continued all night.

Now I'm not going to say it was the best decision I had ever made but the following morning the wind seemed to have calmed somewhat. So I quickly broke camp after eating a cold breakfast, packed my boat and hit the water. One thing that I failed to remember was that the waves always look smaller from shore. So when I got out of the protection of my peninsula I was exposed to the full force of the waves. More accurately, they were four foot swells that tossed my small canoe up and forward before rolling under me. I would then slide down the backside of the huge wave only to have the next pick me up again. What made things even worse was the fact that I couldn't keep the waves at a forty five-degree angle to the boat. I had to keep them at a much shallower angle or risk being swept into a large bay at the south end of the lake. I can't express my relief when I made it across the lake unharmed.

A typical shoreline on Mirond Lake

Scoop Rapids is an amazing place to visit. The Sturgeon-weir River is forced into a narrow gorge and drops over a number of large ledges. Standing next to the rapids and feeling it's power was a very humbling experience. The more time I spent on this trip, traveling through the wilderness, the more insignificant I felt. I was but a little man; how could I possibly fight against or conquer this land, not that I wanted to or was trying. I wasn't out here to conquer anything. But why was I doing this and alone to boot. Many people had asked me that very question and now here I was asking myself. Maybe I had come all this way to find some answers. Maybe I was looking for something.

I think it is vitally important for myself to head off into the woods, on my own. I find, over time, that I start to know myself and become a little more grounded.

Scoop rapids is famous for the many pelicans that sit in the eddies

Of course the wind came up as I was crossing Amisk Lake. The waves seemed to be spaced too close together. One would pick the boat up and toss it forward, while still on the crest of the first wave, another would come from behind and push the boat again. This would cause my canoe to do a little bunny hop while still on top of the first wave. It was a very strange feeling.

Amisk Lake is a neat transition stage in the geology of the area. To the north, is the granite that the Boreal Shield is famous for, and to the south is limestone. Many fossils can be found in the limestone outcroppings.

I spent one night at T&D Cabins. There I met a group of fishermen from Iowa who have been coming to Amisk Lake for the last twenty years. They were very friendly people and even invited me to their cabin for a visit. The following day, as I was loading my canoe, they all stopped by to say goodbye and to do the typical tourist thing, take pictures. They all lined up in a row and pointed their cameras at me all at once. As the flashes went off, I felt a little self-conscious. I'd never been the center of attention before, but I could get used to it.

Limestone cliffs of Amisk Lake

Namew Lake is a large and exposed lake. I was lucky that it was calm on the day that I had to cross it. It was one of the few calms days I had so I took advantage of it and paddled many kilometers. There were only days left to the end of my journey. Every paddle stroke took me closer to my goal, yet the end still seemed far off.

The south shore of the lake is lined with lime stone cliffs and perfectly level shelves; perfect for camping on. In areas like these I felt alone, not lonely, but just alone. I felt as if I was the only person for hundreds of kilometers and it was a very satisfying feeling.

Looking out over Namew Lake from inside one of the many large crevasses in the limestone cliffs

Throughout the entire trip, locals, fishermen and other canoeists had asked me if I'd seen any bears. I had no bear sightings to report, which kind of surprised and disappointed me. On the second last day of the trip, I was sitting in camp resting with a bag of granola, after a tough day of fighting the wind. I was relaxing when a medium sized black bear appeared at the edge of the trees. I was sitting down wind and could tell that he was just as startled to see me, as I was to see him. My bear spray and camera were in the tent so all I was left with was the bag of granola and it didn't make a whole lot of noise. I didn't want him to get too comfortable around my camp because I had to sleep there that night so I stood up and yelled at him. He turned and took off into the forest like a canon ball. I could hear him breaking branches as he fled. The interesting thing about bears is that they are silent, you can't hear them coming.

My final day on the water was windy again! I was, of course, sad that it was all coming to an end but to tell the truth, I wasn't going to miss the wind. Cumberland House is on a island which is surrounded by reeds. Finding the open channel through the reeds was no problem.

My journey ended as unceremoniously as it had begun. There were no cheering crowds or fan fair. There weren't even any locals at the boat launch where I was to meet my ride home. I guess it was a fitting way to end the trip; I started alone, traveled alone and finished alone. There was just the dirt boatlaunch and me. After an hour of waiting, my mother finally arrived to pick me up. It was nice to see a friendly face again.

After the slow pace of canoeing all summer, the drive home felt like reckless abandonment. I kept asking her to slow down.

Self portrait with the Cumberland House boat launch in the background

1 comment:

Prairie Voyageur said...

Thanks again for taking the time for this trip report. An epic journey to be sure. A nice momentary escape from my office “cell”, sealed off from the “natural world” :-)

I appreciate the honesty in the question of “why?”. It is a question I have often asked myself. Why the costs of time, energy, $ and (calculated) risk to haul myself through the outdoors, stripping away most modern conveniences our civilization has strived so hard to attain. Why, after battling the bugs, wind, mud, fatigue and weather, do I return?

There is likely no simple straightforward answer. However, I have recently learned more about the psychological need humans have to connect with a more natural surrounding that the urban lifestyle typically provides only in glimpses. This seems reasonable considering the thousands of years our ancestors spent in such surroundings. Our senses, instincts, minds and bodies are still quite adapted to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, though I’m sure we are gradually losing some of that adaptation over the generations.

I wrestle with the question of whether the hassle of the outdoor adventure is worth the costs. My conclusion so far is mixed, especially since having kids, which make the risks seem more serious than before. But I think at least occasionally it is something many of us need, if only to satisfy that deep, subconscious hunger to connect with the lifestyle of our ancestors in some way.

These journeys clear the mind and what some may call the soul. It appeases and awakens the latent senses and synapses in our brains (adapted for interaction with nature) that are otherwise growing dusty with cobwebs from lack of use; or calms those senses/synapses over-stimulated by modern life. For example, I was thinking the other day about how moving ads on the internet so effectively catch the eye, a now over-stimulated reflex to detect prey moving in the forest.

What humanity will eventually evolve into is unknown. For now we straddle a time of transition between the wilderness and, for most people, urban living. We perhaps need to keep a foot on both sides of the river, so to speak, as we ford this transition.

Looking forward to future trip reports.