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The Falling Boot

July 6, 2016

The weather was hot, the water was low, and the traveling was very difficult at times. The result was one of the most memorable trips I have ever experienced in the Quetico Provincial Park. This was the first week in August of 1998. I was beginning one of my wilderness trips with my two boys, Cory, 21, and Tyler, 18, and the friend of my younger son, Mike, 17. This was always a highlight of my year. We had the car loaded the night before. In the past, I had the habit of making a list for my boys so they would remember what to pack. This year, after 10 trips with their “old man,” they were pretty good about preparation of their personal gear.

My plan had always been to teach my boys about wilderness camping and canoe trips, with the selfish, ulterior motive that they could portage the gear and push my wheelchair across the portage trails when I got older. I started trips with them when they were quite young, beginning with base camping and moving on to longer travel trips. This year would push their abilities.

We began this trip at 5 a.m. when I rousted them out of bed. Their mother and two younger sisters said good-bye, and the three boys promptly fell asleep in the car as we headed towards Kansas City. We live about 15 hours from Ely, and I like to take a couple of days driving. This actually turns out to be good sharing time with the boys and even an adventure in itself.

After letting them sleep for a couple of hours, I stopped at a Waffle House for breakfast. My youngest son then took over and drove for awhile. The other two boys also shared in the driving duties. This gave them a chance to get some experience on the interstate, as well as some adverse conditions such as heavy rains in Iowa and Missouri. Stops at the rest areas involved snacks, running around, throwing the football or Frisbee, and oogling girls.

After spending the night in Virginia, we headed out early and ate breakfast at Tower. Arriving in Ely, I gave the boys three hours to do a little shopping and release energy. At the outfitters after lunch, I spent the afternoon with the boys reviewing their gear. Afterwards, they went down to practice in the canoes and play at lakeside.

The next morning the big adventure began. We got up early to eat breakfast at the outfitter’s lodge. I had elected a fly-in trip so that the boys could experience a short bush plane flight as well as see Quetico Park from the air. Since we had two canoes,

we flew with the smaller one nestled inside the larger. That meant that when we arrived, the plane left us in the water, where we unloaded gear and taxied to shore. I spent an hour fighting mosquitoes while I assembled the thwarts and seats on one canoe. While working, I noticed the lake was almost a meter below normal. This should have been a warning. I congratulated the boys on their patience while I assembled the canoe. More would be needed.

We entered the Greenwood River and very quickly lost water. It was horrible! Not only did we have to pull the fully loaded canoes through mud, but also over or around trees that had fallen into the stream bed. I hadn’t really planned on this. The worst aspect was that we had very little drinking water. I must admit the boys approached this like soldiers. We would take the canoes and on the count of three, hoist them forward one length.

This must have gone on for close to two miles. At one point, Tyler said, “This is like ‘Willy Wonka’s Chocolate River,” and the next thing I knew they were hoisting to “…00mpa, oompa. . .” Occasionally, there would be a small, shallow puddle that we could float the canoe 10 or 20 meters. About half way down the river, we began to have enough water to float the canoes and pretty soon, paddle. We carried over one last large deadfall and were floating in the Wawiag River where we rested, ate lunch and tanked up on water. Quite the muddy bunch.

We arrived at Kawa Bay in late afternoon. In one point in the river, we had to stand on logs floating in the river and lift canoes over. This is an interesting memory because I now know that there is a large log jam and a new portage has been created. However, this year we were able to just lift the canoes over a few logs while floating in the river. This was the night for our fresh steaks, salad and even tomatoes. I had no problem getting the boys to bed that night.

The next morning, I arose early before daybreak, prepared coffee, and wrote in my journal. This was my time. The boys would generally sleep until the sun came up, so this would provide me with an hour or so of quiet time. I felt pretty good for an old man. I did not have any sore muscles, but my shoulders were a little bit tired. We decided to spend the day resting and enjoyed a large breakfast of French toast and what was left of the steak from the evening before. The day was spent exploring Kawa Bay and going back up the Wawiag River to some small bays. We were fortunate to quietly paddle up two separate times on moose that were wading and eating lily pads. One was a very large bull. This time of year the antlers were very large and covered in velvet. I was proud of the boys for how quiet they were able to paddle. We were able to come within about 40 or 50 meters of both animals. Returning to the camp, we passed a bald eagle nest with the male standing guard over his family.

The afternoon was sunny and we enjoyed swimming, washing out the canoes, and rinsing the mud out of our clothes. I had taught the boys that there was no need to wash the clothes with soap, but simply to rinse out the dirt and grime. Another wildlife sighting was the leech on Tyler’s leg that he must have picked up while swimming. The night was cool and the slap of a beaver’s tail in front of our campsite reminded us of the fact that we were only visitors in another’s territory.

We got up early and the boys downed my oatmeal and fried summer sausage. We were on the water before 8 o’clock. I like traveling early when the lakes are calm. We paddled down Kawa Bay and took a break about half way before the turn at Kawnipi, when we found a large hill that had been involved in a fire years ago. We gorged on

raspberries and blueberries and then took off and made the turn into Mckenzie Bay. At that point, Tyler and I passed a mink running along the side of a rock ledge. Paddling close to shore certainly increased our wildlife sightings.

Now, the wind was in our faces and began to get stronger as the day progressed. Before reaching the end of McKenzie Bay, we spotted a bear along a marshy bay and stopped and enjoyed his antics as he searched for something along the water’s edge.

We hit the portage into McKenzie. I had taken this with the boys years ago and remembered that it had a rather steep hill. This year I was able to take it with a canoe and a pack. The boys also were much stouter in conquering this. Halfway through the portage, Tyler, who was just ahead of me with two packs, and I heard a grunt and saw a smooth, dark back run off into the woods. We had apparently interrupted Mr. Bruin’s nap.

We passed by both sets of pictographs on McKenzie and stopped and visited the Indian grave, where I left a small mound of my pipe tobacco as our homage. After a trail lunch and a short rest, we made the turn towards Ferguson Lake. There in the marshy bay, we encountered another moose and enjoyed chasing after him while he sloshed through the reeds.

The water level on Mckenzie was about normal. I was worried about Ferguson Creek and if we would run into the same situation as on the Greenwood River. Except for a few deadfall, we were able to paddle the entire way. Attempting to lift the bow of the canoe over a log floating in the river, Mike slipped and found that Ferguson had no bottom. Although we all had a good laugh, we realized it could happen to any of us.

As we entered Ferguson lake, two loons began to throw a tantrum. I pointed out to the boys that we must be close to their nest. We hit the island campsite and went swimming in the crystal clear water. I lit the stoves and began heating water for dehydrated beef stew. In the past, I had soaped pots and cooked over a fire. This year, we elected to have more time for playing and not have to cut firewood, except for a fun campfire at night.

After supper, the boys went fishing and found a spot where they could pull in three to four pound northern pike on every cast. I was the motor in the canoe as well as the one who helped land the fish and retrieve the lure. This was quite a challenge when all three had fish at the same time. Despite not having any time to put my own lure in the water, I enjoyed a very good night of fishing.

The next day was one of rest. I explored Ferguson by paddling the shoreline with Tyler. We spotted an eagle circling over a family of ducks with a hungry look in his eye. Fortunately for Donald Duck’s family, there was no action. We found the portage out of Ferguson to the Cache River and walked this without gear in anticipation of our trip out the next day. I never saw so many types of fungi, and one had multiple colors like a rainbow. A blue heron was added to the list of wildlife seen for that day.

Back at camp, we prepared fish and ramen noodles. I noted a woodpecker that had a nest in the tree trunk right next to the camp and watched him for some time, sticking his head in and out like a cuckoo clock. It was cloudy and cool, so we all took a nap.

When we got up, the boys decided to mix hot chocolate with coffee and called it their “wilderness café latte.” I had a relaxing day because the boys were experienced enough that they offered to prepare supper that night for the group. My years of patience with other trips was beginning to pay off.

Since it was rainy and cool, the boys came up with their own version of wilderness “homerun derby,” using deadfall for bats and pinecones for the baseball. They must have spent two hours at this game. It was amazing at their age what they could find to amuse themselves. It is a good example to me that even as adults, human beings need to take the time out to play.

The next morning we left the campsite with a new set of pictographs drawn in charcoal near the fireplace. The boys practiced their artwork the evening before. Since this was a travel day, we started off with the usual oatmeal and fried summer sausage for breakfast. Again, we were on the water before eight. The portage to the Cache River was a little bit wet and difficult. Tyler continued managing two packs at a time. He’ll be ready for his senior year in football.

We started off on the river. Around the first bend, we encountered a cow and her calf. Other wildlife on the river included more blue heron, ducks, a family of otters peeking at us like a set of periscopes from a submarine and several beavers. One of the beavers slid down the bank about three feet from us, and we watched while it swam in the shallow river beneath the canoe and came out at the bow. It just doesn’t get any better than that!

Once we arrived at the bay that would lead us to Kawnipi, I turned the guiding over to my oldest son, Cory. He was supposed to get us to Montgomery. In the meantime, we had to detour for about a half hour to watch another moose. Again, the boys used their skills so that we could get within about 40 meters. This part of Kawnipi was shallow, but floatable.

Coming out of the portage into Montgomery was another group who said they started at Atikoken and were heading toward Lake Superior. My sons picked up their packs and headed off. I was quite proud of their technique and the load they were carrying.

We planned to stay at an island campsite where we had been previously. However, when we passed through some narrows, we spotted what appeared to be a campsite high above the cliff. We found the landing site and discovered what the boys called the “penthouse” campsite. This was 30 meters above water level and looked out over the lake. It was difficult hauling all the gear and water to the top, but it was well worth the effort. There was a nice breeze to ward off the bugs and the view could not be beat. It

sprinkled and we spent most of the afternoon and evening around the campsite eating dinner and resting. We also enjoyed a beautiful twin rainbow.

The next morning, I got up early and did my quiet time and journal writing. While enjoying coffee and the view over the lake, a blue heron landed in a treetop about 10 meters from me and level with my eyesight. A moose came out to feed, and I watched him for at least a half an hour. When the boys woke up and started making noise, he headed back into the woods.

We planned a day trip to the pictographs north of Montgomery. After breakfast, we hung the food packs. We entered a marsh where Mike, again, entertained us as he sunk up to his nipples in water and mud. It was too dry to paddle and cross this marsh, so we entered into the woods and climbed a steep hill that skirted the west side of a small pond. While on the ridge, we spotted a large bull moose in the marsh. We went through a field of. rocks and boulders and encountered a hornets’ nest, giving them wide clearance.

The trip to the pictographs was well worth it. These are very well preserved and we enjoyed both sets. We returned to the boulder field, where we had a trail lunch. Afterwards, I took photos that made it look like the boys were climbing a sheer rock wall.

When we returned to camp, there was a large narrow rock nearby that the boys named the “Vietnam Memorial.” We used this for swimming and rinsed the mud out of our clothes. Gory and I looked over maps in anticipation of him being our guide in the morning. We had to take a break and go down and watch a snapping turtle that Tyler found near our landing site. He also found a small grass snake at the shore and maybe saved its life from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

The boys built a campfire and we made popcorn. We headed inside the tents when the incessant humming began at sunset. A good day… but, they are all good.

At this point, we will head back towards Moose Lake, so I consider this the farthest north advance of the trip. We were all up early and I fixed a big pot of oatmeal with honey. The boys had lined their boots to dry at the edge of the cliff of the campsite. While we were getting ready to leave, Gory and Tyler got into a friendly and brotherly scuffle, and one of Cory’s boots got knocked over the edge of the cliff. Both went down to get into a canoe to retrieve the boot. The next thing I heard was yelling, “Dad, you gotta see this! We found a pictograph!”

I thought to myself, “Yeah, sure.” I headed down to the landing site with Mike and we hopped into a canoe and rounded the bend. All I can say is “Oh my gosh!” The boys had scrambled over a few rocks near the base of the cliff and found a flat face where a pictograph of a stick figure was very clear. This appeared to have three legs, and the boys made some funny comments about one of the appendages. I later found out that this was a fertility figure, so they were right. Here we spent six hours yesterday

traipsing to the pictographs of Montgomery Lake, and we had been camping, swimming and doing laundry right next to our own pictograph!

At that point, it was difficult to leave Montgomery Lake, but we had quite a ways to get back. As we loaded the canoes at the landing site, a large bull moose was seen about 200 meters away at the lakeside. Montgomery, you have been good to us!

We headed back down Kawnipi to McVicar Bay. After taking the portage from Anubis to Bird Lake, I was resting at the end of the portage waiting for the boys to appear. As I looked at a pile of deadwood in the water, I discovered the blade of a paddle. When I pulled this out, it had CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) engraved in the blade. What a souvenir! As we tried to leave Bird Lake, the southern part near the portage was a chocolate pond that was just thin enough we could trudge ahead without having to step outside the canoes. Low water challenged us again!

We found an island campsite far north on Agnes that included a trail that encircled the island. I told the boys that this was a Buddhist meditation path. A mother duck came out from hiding as I took this trail, and I counted 23 ducklings trailing her! Obviously, she had protected her prodigy well from eagles and northerns, or maybe she was babysitting. Again, we washed down the canoes and packs from the mud that we collected in Bird Lake. After supper, Cory and I headed out to a quiet bay to look for moose. When we spotted a beaver, he let us know that he was a little bit bothered by our presence. After the boys turned in, they were awakened and frightened by a raccoon who was attracted to something around their tent; probably a hot chocolate puddle. I noted at that point that the night was cool enough that there were no mosquitoes. We all came out of the tents and looked at the night sky and even enjoyed some northern lights.

The next day, we elected to take it easy and took a side trip into Dack Lake and then found the old portage to a small lake with a stream leading to Schwartman Lake. The stream leading to Schwartman was so low on water that it was miserable to walk through. We had enough experience with that that the boys did not feel like going all the way over to Schwartman to see the pictographs. After all, we had seen plenty of pictographs on Montgomery!

When we arrived back at the campsite at noon, the boys showed me that they needed their energy stores replaced. I could not find enough macaroni and cheese to fill them up and an entire loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter disappeared. We spotted a pair of bald eagles, and everything was quiet in camp. All of a sudden, Mike began to rag

on Tyler for stealing his socks. He apparently had hung these over the strings on the tent stakes to dry. Tyler was trying to convince him that he had nothing to do with it when a red fox popped out of the bushes, snatched one of Tyler’s socks, gave us a quick look and ran off again into the brush. I pitied the poor animal, because I knew how those socks smelled.

Again, the boys let me take it easy, while they fixed chicken teriyaki and blueberry cobbler for supper. It was a little bit cool and windy and a good night for a campfire and another batch of popcorn. When we were fixing the popcorn, my son Tyler looked at me and said, “Dad, you’re a doctor, an astronomer, an explorer, you’re bilingual… Dad, you’re cool!” If I had not written that in my journal years ago, I am not sure I would have remembered that moment and how important it now is to me.

On the following day, we fought a headwind and made it all the way to Sunday Lake. That is one long drag down Agnes. The boys are now taking the portages like soldiers. We did take the time to go by the two sets of pictographs on Agnes, as well as a bathtub stop at Louisa Falls. We were finally seeing other parties after not seeing anyone for over a week. I picked up a couple of small, pretty stones at Louisa Falls for my daughters. Although I remembered the portages from Agnes to Meadows and Sunday were difficult in the past, this year they were not bad at all. I think at this point the boys are certainly carrying their load.

That evening, we headed into a small bay off Sunday and spotted two moose. The boys reminded me that on our first trip about 10 years earlier this is where they saw their first moose. When we were sitting in the bay patiently waiting for the moose to come out to water before bedding down, I looked over at the boys and realized that they had matured and gained enough experience that they would be able to do these trips in the future with their children.

The next day, we decided to take on one last challenge. We followed the small creek and entered Poacher Lake and took the long portage into Basswood. At that point, we only had a 10 or 15 minute paddle into Prairie Portage. The outfitter came to give us a tow back to Moose Lake, and as the boys chattered about being “back in civilization” and discussed the upcoming activities of the new school year and their friends, I actually had tears in my eyes. I did not want to leave this north country. The trip had not been long enough. I wanted more time with my boys!

I have made many memorable trips with them, but THIS is the one I remember with tears in my eyes.. .”The Trip of The Falling Boot…” and my crew of men.




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