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What if the Plane Doesn't Find Us?
A Cautionary Tale..
By Grant Pastuck  "the Otter"

By far, this was the trip with the worst weather ever.  At times I felt like Samuel Hearne, but he actually got paid!

It was the last week of August, 2003 and the weather was hot and dry.  The Commander, the Chief and the Otter were at it again. We never learn. We drove to Lac du Bonnet and flew to Haven Lake without even driving on a gravel road. So you leave the city and instantly find yourself on an island in the wilderness, with a ton of gear, and a plane flying away from you. And there's no one else around. Now that's culture shock. Nice, but kind of expensive.

Our plan was to fly to Haven, meander for ten days and get picked up by the same plane in Irregular Lake. There were route options and we weren't on a strict schedule as long as we were at the pick up spot on day ten. A lot of the trip was new country for us.

Before we left, I did a little research and came to the conclusion that Irregular Lake was not very hospitable, having been burned and regrown about fifteen years ago, which led me wonder if the narrow river from Haggart to Mather to Irregular was even passable, or was it blocked with fallen trees. We've encountered this kind of thing before you know. And my hunch was this wasn't a well traveled route, so it wasn't likely someone would clear the debris.

But the plan was the plan. But before the plane took off after depositing us on the beautiful island in the southern bulb of Haven Lake, I drew the pilot aside and spoke to him in confidence. "Are you the guy that's picking us up?" He was. "Do you know Haggart Lake?" He knew it.

"Do you know the twin sand beach island?"

He did.

"Okay. On day ten, when you come for us, circle Irregular Lake a couple times; if we're there, you'll see us. If you don't find us, make for the beaches at Haggart Lake. we'll be there!"

"Got it!"

He climbed in his plane and flew south. The Comm and the Chief didn't know about our talk, but I wanted a contingency plan, because there were some aspects of this route that made me cautious.

So there we were on the island in the southern bulb of Haven Lake, as described in the story "Fly In Paddle Out" except there were three of us, more chances for ganging up on someone, two against one, survival of the fittest, Lord of the Flies, Live from Haven Lake - the original "Survivor Reality Show", someone Will Be Voted Off the Island!

We spent the first day at this spot, paddling to mainland for fire wood, Beef Stroganoff for dinner with a glass of Burgundy, nice fire, stayed up late. And same as the last time on Haven, the next day the wind was from the south and blew us off the island and into the northern bulb where we stayed at the same beautiful spot mentioned in the above mentioned story.

Happily ensconced at this camp, we played in the water, went for hikes into the forest and discovered a great set of cliffs that overlooked the lake in all directions. There was even a fire pit and tent spot up here, but the terrain would be a bit tricky in the dark so we watched the sunset turn the forest pink, hung out for a while and went back down.

The next day was hot and dry and windy from the south, so we stayed put, rather than try to head into the teeth of the gale, three in the canoe with all our gear. We actually had quite a lot of gear, especially consumables, (three guys, ten days, do the math; that's allot of food and drink), so we took what we didn't need for the next two days just to be safe, and ran it up through the two portages to Adventure Lake and cached it.

We paddled back to camp. We had days to spare. So we played for the rest of the day, swimming, walking, paddling, reading, even inventing a game involving tossing firewood like horseshoes. Spaghetti Bolognese for dinner, avec. Burgundy. We ate well and lots. There are some advantages to camping later in the season. It was cool enough to be hungry, cool enough at night to have great fires and stay up late, and there were no bugs! So stay up late we did.

We weren't surprised to find the next morning was really windy but it was time to move. We portaged across our campsite to the south shore and, tucking into the lee of the islands, made it through the wind and on to the portages to Adventure where we picked up our cache, and paddled straight into the wind to the lee of the far shore. Never been here before. We paddled along the shore towards the exit we would use, looking for a campsite. We found a pretty good spot in the south end of the lake, dropped our gear and ran down the river to the next portage with our excess. This was working out pretty well. We headed back to our spot, passed around some beers, set up, and ...whatever.  Nice supper, Vegetarian Korma, dal, rice, chutney.

That night, the Comm went to bed early, around midnight, and the Chief and I let the fire go out and stared into a completely moonless night sky full of stars. As our eyes got adjusted to the darkness, you could see the black areas in the sky where there were no stars. We spotted dozens of meteors shooting across the sky and then the Aurora Borealis started displaying their colour. All in all it was a spectacular sight. We finally headed for the tent around 3:00A.M.  I'm glad we enjoyed the sky that night because it would be the last star we would see for the rest of the trip.

We got up around 9:00 and after coffee and a light breakfast, we broke camp. We loaded the canoe. The weather was a mix of sun and cloud, with a particularly dark cloud just over head, no wind to speak of, and WHAM!! Thunder cracked right over our heads, one blast, like a cannon.  That's all.

We headed south to a river that would take us, after three portages, to Welkin Lake. We picked up our cache at the first portage and headed down the river. The river ended. Where was the portage?  We couldn't find it.  We walked down an animal path that just stopped. We paddled back and forth along the shore and spotted it. It was hidden by a huge blown down Jack pine that required us much effort just to unload the boat and start the walk.  Well it seemed that the wind that blew down that tree blew down a whole lot of trees, many of them lying across our intended route.  No one had cleared any of it and we weren't about to either.  It was a long slow drag to the other side, with us maneuvering the canoe up, over, around, and underneath all kinds of obstacles, not to mention all the rest of the gear that had to be wrestled through this tangled mess of trunks and branches.

The trail ended at a bog of floating sphagnum that we had to walk across for about 40 meters to get to the lake.  It undulated up and down under foot and I hoped we wouldn't fall through. We had never encountered anything like this before and didn't know what to expect.  We walked gingerly, depositing our gear directly into the canoe, which was pointed bow first, at the water's edge and didn't stand too close to each other. As the boat filled with gear, the deeper it sank into the bog.  Then the Chief and I got in, him in the center and me in the bow. The Comm pushed the canoe further into the lake and got into the stern.  We broke through the sphagnum and into the lake.  Perfect execution of a rarely performed feat. At this point we had lots of time and only a short paddle and one more carry to Welkin Lake, which was our destination that day.

We paddled the last stretch up the river and as we approached the portage, it started to rain. On with the rain gear and rubber boots and onto the trail. This portage was much longer, bit in much better shape, no blown down trees at all.  Strange.  We were only about a kilometer from the last portage.

The walk was long and slippery on the inclines and declines, but even in the driving rain, very beautiful. There was a lot of climbing and snaking along rocky cliffs followed by descents into cedar bog with six inches of water on the ground.  Eventually we wound up on a boulder-strewn beach on the shore of Welkin Lake.

Welkin Lake is cuneiform in shape; four long narrow arms stretching in the cardinal directions, with a cluster of islands at the intersection. As we looked south, the wind was driving the rain horizontal from west to east.  The western shore was a high cliff so we stayed in the lee and paddled into the gale. As we approached the intersection, we turned east, with the wind at our backs and entered the island group.  Sheltered from the wind but still taking a lot of rain , we searched for a campsite. We needed something out of the wind with a tent spot and that was about it. "Any port in a storm " was the order of the day.

With daylight fading, we found a promising island, sheltered, kinda flat, maybe it would do. Well, it had to because we were tired, cold, wet and hungry.  The wind and rain continued unabated. We set up the tarp and set up the tent underneath. We threw our sleeping stuff inside and carried it up a cliff to the only flat spot we could find that wasn't six inches deep in water.

This island had no sign of ever being camped and as such, was covered in thick wet moss, as slippery as ice.  Just walking on level ground was hazardous; on a slope it was suicidal. Several times I almost slid into the lake unloading the canoe.

In spite of these wretched conditions, we actually set up a fire pit, cut some wood and split it. We include in our gear a small gas powered chainsaw; the smallest one they make, complete with a waterproof case.  I bought it for the Comm for Christmas one year.  At first he was afraid of it ... now he loves it.  You can cut and buck a night's worth of wood in about ten minutes. A long story short, we cut a soaking wet standing dead fall tree, split it into pencil sized pieces and with the aid of an once of gasoline, poof, we had a fire.  We more or less perfected our fire starting techniques using wet wood and a tiny amount of gasoline on this trip.  I won't elaborate because someone might try it without proper supervision.  As always, we endeavour to protect the innocent.

After a quick supper and a visit, we were tired and went to bed. It was around 11:00P.M.  In morning the rain had stopped, so we had coffee and breakfast and went looking for another camp spot in the group of islands.  We felt like a layover day to dry out our gear and enjoy the ambiance. We found another island around the corner that had a well established campsite and moved everything over, and set up just in time for it to start raining again.  We spent the rest of the day under the tarp, drying our clothes by the fire. Thank God for the tarp.

Time passed.  The next day was dry and not much wind. We broke camp and headed west, through a small carryover, to Beamish Lake.  From here, you can go south and portage west a long way into Irregular Lake, but we weren't due to be picked up for four days. Or you can go northwest up a river with between five and ten portages, depending on the map and the water level, to Haggart Lake.  From there it is one or two days to Irregular.

We headed south to find the portage into Irregular. About halfway down the lake, as I expected, the shores showed all the signs of having been burned, and the new growth was dense, impenetrable pine forest about ten feet tall.  We scoured the western shore for the portage as it was marked on the map, and found only the same dense forest, with no sign of a path. The Comm and the Chief were determined to find the passage and I was convinced it wasn't there anymore.  After some delicate negotiation, I convinced them to head north again, to go to Haggart via the river.  It would be one day to Haggart and hopefully one day to Irregular, but I had me doubts.

We camped at the north end of Beamish Lake, on another never been visited island, near the first portage towards Haggart. Over supper, we wrangled about our progress and about how far we had to go in how many days. That's when I dropped the hammer. I told them about my clandestine conversation with the pilot. They were dumbfounded.

A fight ensued. You can imagine.  I tried to convince them that I did it for their own good. The Comm kind of got it but the Chief wasn't convinced. To me it made sense. The weather had been bad and looked like it could get worse. From what I'd seen in South Beamish, it was likely Irregular was burned too, so going to Haggart was a pretty good bet, which is why I told the pilot to look for us there.  We left it there, on to Haggart and then decide.

The next day we set sail for Haggart up a small river with about eight portages. It rained most of the way, but we made really good time.  The logistics of traveling three men in a canoe, even a seventeen foot, are much more challenging than with two. Entrances and exits at portages can be hard, but we did well and got to Haggart in the early afternoon and headed for the twin beaches island.

I've described this spot in a previous story so I won't belabour the issue. Whenever we're here, we spend a lot of time walking up and down the beaches, both sides. There are two long beaches here, and both have millions of footprints on them by the time we leave.  Even in bad weather, this is one of the most beautiful spots I've ever camped.

We got there, set up in the rain, tarp and everything. When the rain stopped, we gathered firewood.  This spot has been much used, although not abused, but firewood was hard to find. We had to go well into the forest to find standing dead fall and even then there wasn't much.  Our fire that night was small and smoky, and the swirling wind whipped the sour fumes into our faces no matter where we sat.  But we had a party anyway, telling stories and toasting our good health until early morning.

The next morning we arose late, having no plans to make for Irregular Lake. That's when the doubts started settling in.  What if the pilot forgot our fallback plan? What if a different pilot came and didn't know about it?  What if...? Well, the day was warmer with a promise of some sunshine, so the Chief and I decided that as soon as the sun came out of the clouds, we would have a wash in the lake. The water temperature wasn't bad, the air temperature was the problem. The sun came out and in we went for our first bath in many days. The Comm demurred. We washed and dried and no sooner had we gotten dressed, the sky clouded over and it started to drizzle.

The doubts again. If the plane didn't come, we had enough food for three days if we were careful, without really suffering. But what if the weather got really bad? We were cold and wet in spite of the tarp.

We decided that a survival plan might involve using the rarely used fishing camp about thirty minutes away. There would be no one there, but a plane would look for us there as a logical place. We set off to reconnoiter. Arriving at the camp, it was obvious it had been empty for some time, and it was locked, which surprised us. As a refuge in the wilderness, we assumed it would be open in case of emergency. In a real emergency I suppose one would just get in however was necessary. After looking around we realized we were better off back at our camp, but we found a stash of dry firewood under a shelter. We took enough for a few days, said thank you very much, and paddled back to our camp. It rained.

Back on the island, we split wood, carried water, had a fine fire under a tarp in the pouring rain, ate supper and had our last party of the trip.

The next day, we packed up and waited for the plane. At 2:30 P.M. the plane landed, half an hour after it was supposed to get us at Irregular Lake. We left.

This is kind of a long boring story. That was kind of a long boring camping trip.  Worst weather ever.

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Copyright 2004 by Grant Pastuck