By Donald Langlois
Georgeann, my partner of many wilderness trips, has been working very hard on this canoe trip. We have been faced with portage trails decimated last year by a snow and windstorm. This summer, the many trails that connect almost all the lakes and rivers, are covered with hundreds and thousands of trees, fallen in tangled disarray. Carrying a chainsaw and gasoline, we have been cutting our way from one lake to the next, clearing trails, not for just us, but for others who may follow. These trails have been used by fur traders for hundreds of years and by natives for probably thousands of years. Nowadays we keep them open for wilderness travelers seeking a taste of wild country, a glimpse of the rare woodland caribou, a fresh caught walleye sizzling over a crackling fire or a loon calling in the evening. I had been asked to help clear a route tht needed it badly by my lifelong friend and Wabakimi outfitter Bruce Hyer.
Central Ontario, near the center of North America, is fairly flat and the topography is composed of shallow basins and subtle drainages. Georgeann and I are traveling in Wabakimi country, named for Wabakimi Lake, and part of the waters flowing to the Artic via Hudson Bay. The land is an “infinity of trees and water,” stretching to the north, uninterrupted by much of anything manmade. This is “Shield Country,” named for the Canadian Shield, a three billion year old a slab of granite rock, underlying one third of Canada. There is no soil, only moss and trees blanketing the rock. The endless boreal forest is accented by smooth rock outcrops, creamy white from the caribou moss and making superb campsites. The trees, mostly spruce and jack pine with a few white birch and aspen, are about 6-10 inches thick and 50-60 feet tall.
During the recent Ice Ages, thick sheets of glacier ice covered the Shield. The weight of the ice pressed the Shield down like a thumb pressed into an orange. When the ice melted, the land began to slowly spring back. Remaining “puddles” of melt water are now draining off the interior to the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay. The biggest of these puddles are the Great Lakes. Millions of smaller lakes and streams cover the land and it is this feature, which allows travel just about anywhere by canoe.
Today is a big day in our two-week canoe trip. We hope to reach Smoothrock Lake where we have heard that the trails are already cleared. We long for the luxury of cleared trails where can just portage our heavy packs without the need to cut and clear blowdowns. It is this luxury that we strive for today and our call to arms is “Spaghetti Island.” This is our destination for the day, an island with good camping on Smoothrock Lake. Here, my friend Bruce once had a memorable spaghetti dinner and so named the island, Spaghetti Island.
Our camp is on Elf Lake, a lake about five miles long with an extension to the east with several side arms and islands. We have an expanse of open water to cross and that is always a cause for caution. Getting caught far from shore in strong winds and large waves can be extremely dangerous. Georgeann and I have paddled for our lives in just such a situation and so are very cautious with long, open crossings. I enjoy the decision-making process that is part of wilderness leadership. Lives depend on these decisions. Planning a strategy for the day and tactics to suit the local conditions makes life very involving, and consequently, wilderness travel is seldom boring.
We plan to minimize the open stretches and hide behind islands and points of land. The morning crossing goes smoothly and we are then in more constricted waters, heading southeast to the far end of the lake where it narrows to a point. There we will find the portage trail to take us to an arrowhead-shaped lake, named Iris Lake. One more portage closer to Smoothrock Lake.
Reaching the end of Elf Lake, the trail is easy to spot, the lake narrows so. Easy, that is, if you have done this kind of thing before. The faint markings, which reveal the trail, are invisible to city folks, but with training, they can be spotted from a half a mile. When we arrive at the trail, our portage ritual begins. The boat is unloaded of its three big packs and another pack is filled with extra loose items. Our gear is organized for an easy transition from paddling to carrying because we portage several times each day. The chainsaw is unpacked and filled with gas and oil. I shoulder a pack and, chainsaw in hand, head up the trail looking for the first blowdowns across the trail. The heavy work of trail clearing is harder in this hot weather.
On the trail, as I stumble along a muddy section, struggling with my heavy load, I look down to see a tiny frog the size of a nickel, frantically hopping around in my boot print. In the heat of the day, with eye-stinging sweat pouring off my forehead, bugs biting and branches scratching at my face, I see the little guy in a haze. But at the same time something moves me deeply. My struggles are no more, no less than the struggles of this tiny creature trying to get out of the way of some giant monster, thundering through the woods. Life is as clear for the frog as it is for me. Struggle on no matter what. Here in my boot print, God showed himself to me. That is how it works for me. Unexpectedly, in the beauty of a waterfall tucked in a high alpine valley, in the call of a loon in the evening, or in a tiny frog, God is revealed.
Portaging can be the hardest part of wilderness canoe travel and is considered, by some, to be the worst part of a trip. In the beginning of a trip, when the food packs are full and the muscles are soft, portaging is the hardest. On a long trip in the “bush,” the packs can be over a hundred pounds. You could lighten the packs but that just means more carries involved, so the tendency is to carry large loads. Portages blocked by brush are tough, especially without a saw.
And portaging where there is no trail is the hardest of all. I once spent five days in northern Quebec covering only eight miles, as we crossed over some low hills from one watershed to another. Five companions and I were traveling a new route and there was no trail. We cut branches and logs with axe and handsaw, making room to carry packs and 17-foot canoes. We worked like mules to move 1000 pounds of boats, gear and food. It wasn’t all walking though. We found a couple of small lakes and some small streams to float the boats once in a while. Sometimes, a beaver dam could be breached to allow floating an otherwise shallow stream, avoiding portages through dense brush. Tear a hole in the top of the dam, shove the heavily loaded canoe, hop in the boat and ride the surge of water. But one night found us camping far from any water wondering what we were doing with canoes in the middle of the woods. That was a tough one but it is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.
On this portage, there is heavy cutting for two and a half hours. That is a long time to cover a short trail of half a mile. When we reach water again, the canoe is loaded and we quickly paddle across the Iris Lake. At its far end, we must do a short portage. The walk takes about two minutes with a load. In our case, portages involve five load carries: four packs and one canoe. While I am cutting, Georgeann shuttles back and forth carrying packs and when I am done clearing the trail, I carry the canoe and whatever hasn’t been carried yet. On a short portage, we carry the loads straight through, but on longer ones we break it up. Carry a load part way and go back for more. Walking without a load becomes a rest period. This short portage is done in fifteen minutes and it is back to the paddles, moving all that gear across the water with easy, practiced strokes. Despite the work, I like the rhythm of portaging and paddling in this land of many lakes.
At the end of this short portage we arrive in a marshy area with lily pads everywhere, that Georgeann dubs “Lily Pad Slough.” After about a half a mile we reach a “lift,” which is where the canoe cannot pass over an obstruction, but can possibly be lifted enough to drag across the obstruction to open water. It is like a very tiny portage because you might have to unload the boat to get through. The lift is done quickly, but there are two trees across the water, that still block us. I am working in high gear and see a quick alternative to a complete unloading and manhandling of the gear. Georgeann watches with amazement as I get in the front of the boat with the saw.
“Put the bow up to those trees,” I shout. I fire up the saw and reaching out from the bow of the boat, I cut through the trees in ten seconds, saving twenty minutes of heavy work.
The day is wearing on, but my mind is determined: “Spaghetti Island!”
After a short paddle, we are at the next portage. This one rises steeply up a rocky incline to the left. The trail traverses nice Shield outcrops covered with white caribou moss. Soon there is more cutting, but “Spaghetti Island” spurs me on, regardless of the heat and effort. The end of the trail drops steeply amidst rocks to the water. Walking with the canoe is tricky. Almost like rock climbing downhill with an eighteen-foot canoe balanced on my shoulders. Back on the water and there is only one more portage to cut.
This lake is called Smokey Lake and at the far end we spot some blue flagging tape in the bushes. Thinking this is the portage, I start up the brushy trail. Soon it becomes evident that this is not the right trail. We move left through the woods and find the right path. It is always a smart plan to verify that you have the right trail before committing to carrying gear along. Now we know where the trail goes, we must decide weather to keep going today or to camp here.
It is now around four in the afternoon. A little early, but we could camp, though the possibilities for sites are slim. I want to camp on Smoothrock Lake and I lay out our options to Georgeann. If the trail is bad, we could be two hours on the portage. That would be 6 pm and then a short paddle to the island. Georgeann and I decide we will push on through and take whatever comes our way.
What comes our way is a trail obliterated by blowdowns. The heat of the afternoon has my face running with sweat and caked with sawdust. The mosquitoes are swarming, but I can’t swat them because my hands are full. In some areas, the trees are intertwined in big piles, cris-crossed like pickup sticks. I wade into the pile. I cut out pieces large enough to open the way and then pull and drag the branches and chunks off to the side. In one spot, it takes twenty minutes to go ten feet!
My mind is locked grimly on the job. I can go all night if I have to! I am determined to reach Smoothrock Lake and our camp on Spaghetti Island but I also am aware that accidents often happen when people are tired. So my determination includes not making any mistakes. Chainsaws can make a nasty wound and we are far from medical help.
Sometimes I turn around to see Georgeann dropping a load and heading back for more. She looks very hot and tired, but I shout “Spaghetti Island” and she rolls her eyes and smiles. More cutting. More tangled masses of trees. After two hours and numerous tanks of gas, I still don’t see the water. We occasionally pause to grab a snack to keep up our energy and then forge onward. “Spaghetti Island!”
Finally, I spot the glimmer of the lake through the trees. A stretch of trail opens up, clear of blowdowns and I shoot forward a hundred yards. Then it is more tangled trees. The water is there below me as the trail drops back to water level. I smile grimly. Cutting is all there is. The roaring of the saw and the steady stream of sawdust flying are my world. Soon, the trail leads a down steep rocky section and now I am a hundred feet from the water. More cutting and finally I step to the edge of the water and set the saw down. There, about a mile away, is Spaghetti Island. Our Shangri-La. Our home for the night.
I head back to help with the loads. I always carry the canoe because it is kind of awkward and I can carry it much easier than Georgeann. We pass on the trail as we shuttle back and forth. Soon enough, all gear is back in the canoe and we are ready to shove off. Georgeann is very tired. She gives me a feeble smile and I shout “Spaghetti Island!” I am looking at the island, right in front of us and know that the only thing that could stop us now would be wind and waves on the short open crossing of Smoothrock Lake. But this time we are in luck. There is only a slight breeze and we will be there soon.
As Georgeann paddles, she asks, “How far is the island?”
I think to myself, “What’s the matter? It’s right there in front of you.” Of course I realize it is the delirium of fatigue, and I say, “It’s a fifteen minute paddle. We’ll be there in no time. Good work, Georgeann!”
We reach the island and Georgeann hops outs and pulls the boat up on shore. She is moaning a bit and I tell her to take a rest while I set up camp. I am on autopilot. The big kitchen tarp goes up quickly; the tent is pitched; firewood gathered; and dinner started.
Spaghetti Island is about the size of a football field. Its shores are sloping slabs of moss-covered rock and there are trees about six inches in diameter covering most of the island. Blueberries abound today and we gather some for snacks and for tomorrow’s pancakes. It is still warm out so Georgeann goes for a swim and soon I join her. The water washes off the dirt and sweat, rejuvenating our energies. Georgeann takes over camp chores and I get the fishing pole out to try my luck. Soon I hook a couple of Northern Pike. They are added to our dinner, fried in oil over the fire. No fish tasted so good as that pike on Spaghetti Island.
Later in the evening, we relax with a view of towering thunderheads off to the west. Distant thunder reaches our ears. This time, it looks like the clouds will miss us, passing to the north by a few miles. The sun peaks from behind the edge of billowy clouds. The dying fire glows, a loon calls and we are content, happy to have reached our goal. Some times the most rewarding things in life are the hardest things. Hell, they always are.
Oh, by the way. Our main entrée than night was …guess what? Spaghetti.