Day 4 (Part 2): 8 Miles
As we headed out on Lake Bemidji, it was really calm out and only three miles across, so we decided to go directly across instead of hugging the shoreline (this saves us miles). We got across quickly and then headed into a new type of river…a very lazy and slow river. Once we saw pontoons and motorboats tied to the docks of the houses we were passing, we knew we didn’t need to be on the lookout anymore for big rocks and submerged trees that would be a problem. So, we could just sit back and enjoy the paddling. We passed the most northern point on the MS River this afternoon, but never saw the marker we were expecting. We made it to camp around 6:15pm and enjoyed a leisurely evening of bathing, cleaning the boat, drying things out, having dinner and playing cards. The campsite is quite nice and picturesque…just no good trees for hanging, so we are sleeping on the ground.
Today was another day of the “Many Faces of the MS River.” Within two miles of our campsite, we came to a portage around a dam. It wasn’t too long, although there was some up and down and we had to remove most of our gear in order to carry the boat the final stretch to the water. We were able to get through the portage within 15 minutes. After the dam, the river changed dramatically from a wide, deep and slow river to a shallow, rocky and swift river. It was another rock gauntlet and we had to constantly back paddle in order to go slowly enough to try avoiding the rocks and shallow areas. Those sections are always tense, so we are happy when we get through them unscathed. By mid-morning, we started going through a string of three lakes: Wolf Lake, Andalusia Lake and finally Cass Lake. We stopped at a resort on Lake Cass, hoping for lunch, but they weren’t serving today, so we just got soda and ice cream and ate our lunches on their lawn in the shade. It was our warmest day today and we were feeling toasted. Luckily the weather was so calm today, so we felt comfortable going straight over Cass Lake, even though it was 6-7 miles across. The water was super calm. It has been nice going through the big lakes during the workweek, as the recreational boat traffic has been minimal. At the end of Cass Lake, we had our second portage for the day around another dam. This was the easiest portage yet, there were boat launches at both points, so we were able to put the cart under the canoe while it was still in the water, and then roll the canoe into the water on the other end of the portage. We had to roll the canoe about 300 yards, but it was flat, so it was no problem. Our final stretch of the day had us back in the wide and lazy kind of river. The water was really clear and we had fun watching all the different kinds of fish swimming below us. We got to camp around 6:15pm and we are all beat. There is no shelter, privy or picnic table here…it is a really weird camping site…it is basically just a loop of a dirt road. Very weird. We all just ate dinner and headed to bed…not even any cards played. We are really beat after all the miles paddled today.
Day 6: 20ish Miles
Today was probably our hardest day yet. It all started so peacefully with a warm morning and a river so calm it was like glass. We had four miles of lazy wide river before arriving in Lake Winnibagoshish (Minnesota’s 3rd largest lake — which we have renamed Windy By Gosh). There is a lot of talk about this lake, since it is at least 16 miles across the whole thing. There are warnings about going directly across as it can get windy in the middle, and conditions can change quickly. It was windy when we got to the lake, so we decided to follow the shoreline to a point which would make the crossing a bit shorter, then we would decide at that point if we would follow the shore around (adding 12 miles) or just go directly across. We could see two kayaks and a canoe crossing directly as we followed the shore. We ended up deciding to go ahead and cross the lake to a point which we figured was about 7 miles away. The lake was pretty rough, but for quite awhile we were able to take the waves head on, which felt pretty doable. It definitely felt like a rollercoaster and water was coming over the bow, but the biggest issue was how tiring it was to paddle into the wind for such a long stretch. About 2/3 across, the wind shifted direction so it was coming sideways to us and became stronger. Things started to feel a bit sketchy at that point, but we just kept at it and finally made it to a resort on the other side. We were relived to have made it safely over to the other side. If we could go back in time, we would definitely not make the same choice to cross the lake directly. When we got to the resort, the two kayakers we had seen crossing were there. One was John, who we had camped with on our third night. The other one is Jeff, who is also a thru-paddler from Toronto. Then shortly after we arrived, a thru-paddler in a canoe, named Will, showed up. We couldn’t believe that we were meeting three other folks on the same journey this soon in. We ate our lunches on the grass in front of the resort. While paddling across the river, none of us dared to take the time to eat or drink (even though it took us 3 hours and 40 minutes to cross), so we were pretty hungry. We relaxed for a bit, then headed back out to finish up the final miles to the outlet from the lake. We were back to paddling into the wind, but we were in a bay, so it wasn’t too rough. We passed the time playing the Name Game, mostly to distract ourselves from the challenge of paddling into the wind when we were already beat. At the outlet, we had another portage around a dam. We have only completed half of the portage, as we decided to camp at the park we had to wheel our canoe through. Jeff is camping here tonight as well, so it was fun hanging out with him. We waited until just before dark before setting up our hammocks since people have been coming and going from the park.
Day 7: 32 Miles
Since we’re sleeping next to the river each night, it has become a morning ritual to wake up to a soaking wet tarp. We have been putting our tarps up each night to make sure that the condensation goes on the tarp and not on our sleeping bags and underquilts. We got on the river at our usual 6:45am and enjoyed a very calm morning. The middle half of the day was really challenging, as we were paddling into the wind for most of that time. It just takes so much effort to make progress when going against the wind. We were able to do 17 miles by the time we stopped for lunch. In the afternoon we met several other paddlers…one kayaker (towing a second kayak) is planning to go to the gulf and then up the coast to TX, another couple we met were just out for a few days but are canoe racers so we got to see their experienced style of paddling. We took a couple extra afternoon breaks, just because we were so beat from the wind. After the hard day yesterday, we had really hoped for a calm day today…a day full of zombie paddling (our term for paddling while zoned out and usually tired – our end of the day paddling usually qualifies as zombie paddling). We are camping with Jeff again tonight. We really enjoy hanging out with him. No cards tonight…everyone is in their tents before 8:00pm.
Day 8: 20 Miles
We could hear the wind in the trees as we were packing up, so we figured we had another tough day ahead. It seemed like we were paddling into the wind about 90% of the time. Sometimes the wind was really strong and made some small waves to get through. Our arms were so beat from the intense paddling with no breaks. We still managed to make good time to Grand Rapids and arrived at our first portage in time to enjoy lunch at the picnic tables near the dam. We got our canoes back in the water and battled the wind a few more miles to the next portage. This area is unique in that the power company offers portage assistance for a long “through-town” portage. We called them and they drove over with a trailer and loaded our two canoes and the canoe of the racing couple. They dropped off the couple at the other end of the portage and dropped us off at our motel. It was such a nice service for them to offer for free. We’ll have to walk our canoes a ways tomorrow back to the river, but we won’t think about that now. We are happy to be resting in a motel after cleaning up and filling our bellies with Chinese buffet.