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Table Rock

The Story of an October Canoe Trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
October 8th, 2004
Pierre Girard

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October 8-10, 2004 Day One: I meet Nibimocs at 5:00 AM, outside Britton's Cafe in Ely, Minnesota. We shake hands and go in for an omelete. By 5:40 am we are through eating and set out for the Chainsaw Sister's. We park in their lot and portage the gear and canoe to the first landing, a beautiful sandy beach seldom seen in these parts. We are on the water by 6:45 AM. It is too dark to see all the rocks in the winding channel among the reed bed - but we miss every one.

We are heading for the fabled "Table Rock," camping site of voyageurs - often mentioned in 18th century fur trade journels - with a history, even among whites, older than any edifice of man within hundreds of miles. A perfect camping spot - doubtless its significance among the Ojibwe, Sioux and Cree - goes back much further.

As we reach Mudro, dawn makes its appearance, doing its best to cut through the fog and mist. A large fog bank stands half way across the lake blanketing sight and sound. When we reach the north bend of the lake I began to turn, only to have Nibi question why we are going to Fourtown. It seems he'd been under the impression we were going to the Horse through Tin Can Mike Lake. Sounds good to me - I haven't been that way for a while. We paddle straight for the fog bank. My fingers are freezing.

As we paddle, I hear the slight echo of stone canoe people talking about us as we pass. When I quit paddling - they are silent. I see their fog like shapes through the mist, but only from the corner of my eye. When I turn to stare, they duck away, snickering to themselves. I am careful not to mention this to Nibi, but he must hear them too. We paddle faster.

I watch Nibi as we paddle. I've never paddled with him before. I am governai (my canoe) and he is avant. I like what I see. His paddle is too long, but he never puts it down and has bow steered us through the winding weed bed whenever the turns were too sharp - and without my asking him to. Some people become a part of the canoe. Too rare a trait.

We take the 80 rod portage into Sandpit Lake as the sun begins to rise. Nibi is great on the portage and we get everything across in one carry. Sandpit is gorgeous with color. Maples are in color with every shade from crimson to scarlet to magenta. Birch and aspen add their golden hues. The green of pines and spruce - all set against the towering cliffs complete nature's palette. For the rest of the trip we are never out of sight of picture post card scenery of the first order.

We portage 160 rods into Tin Can Mike Lake. A poor name for such a jewel. The cliffs and bluffs in this lake are exceptional for beauty. We are silent for long stretches, as we paddle steadily. I feel blessed to be here. Nibi and I say little, but I can tell he feels the same.

We portage 90 rods into Horse. We paddle north, pushed by a light southerly wind. I point out a good blueberry ridge along the western shore. The sun warms us and we began to shed outer clothing. We pull up to a beautiful knob - covered with old white and norway pines - and have our lunch.

A camp squirrel comes to scout us out - and steal food - if he is able. He climbs back among the heights - and suddenly squeals in alarm. A bald eagle, flying low, sounds like a jet plane at tree top level. The eagle stops in an eagle tree on the next knob and screeches his annoyance. We head back to the canoe and paddle east and north up Horse River.

The Horse is low. Two weeks ago we were not able to ascend. I'd heard 11 portages - instead of the normal three. There has been some rain and we are in luck. We ascend with seven portages and two des'charges. Most are short, but backbreakers. Rocks in the water are everywhere. The scenery never quits. Cliffs and stone abuttments alternate with meadowy ponds of river grass. In places blueberry plants grow to the water's edge. After the first normal portage, our way is easier.

On one of the Horse River portages, Nibi asks me how I would like to go to Friday Bay in Crooked Lake and take Papoose River down to Chippewa and Wagosh. I look at him like he is insane and advise him we have a total of three days - no time for that kind of trip. Our plan was a hard day in to Table Rock, spend a day seeing the sights, and a hard day back the way we came.

We enter the Basswood River directly south of the lower falls. We are on the voyageur's highway. We talk about checking out Wheelbarrow Falls, just east of us. We decide we will take a look at it later. We are headed for Table Rock - hoping to camp there. Tomorrow will be soon enough to look at Wheelbarrow Falls. We head for the gravel beach above Lower Basswood Falls. Nibi cautions me not to get too close to a large standing rock. I am slightly insulted, but say nothing. I wouldn't care to send my canoe down that torrent, though the voyageurs did run it at certain times of the year. Expeditions to search the waters below the falls in the 1960s turned up trade kettles, loaded fusils and other relics which indicate they didn't always make the run in safety. We portage the few rods to the base of the falls. I walk back up the trail and study the waters, standing on a cliff where I can see from top to bottom. It could only be run if you were very quick and strong. You'd have to move from one side of the chute to the other in a very short space of time.

We set out for Table Rock. We pass Painted Rock and its prehistory art work. Vermillion depictions by pre-contact Ojibwe show the animals they hunted and the manitous they worshipped and feared. We are set on getting to Table Rock and don't linger. We pass a couple of canoists paddling south. They advise us no one is camped at Table Rock. We redouble our efforts, hoping to camp there for the night.

As we paddle, I think of Nibi's proposition. I reject it once again. Too long, too far, and there is a mile portage I've never been over. No telling what that is like.

But the thought keeps returning to me. I haven't had a canoe partner like Nibi since Wing was younger. He keeps his paddle moving and he feels the canoe. Nibi has a compass. I didn't bring one, feeling there was no need following the Horse. Nibi's ever ready on the portage. I think, "Ya know, we could do this!" It will be an adventure!

We finally reach Table Rock. We've been ten hard hours on the trail. Table Rock looks different than I remember. The rock is still the same, but many trees are missing, and the caribou moss I remember covering everything is long gone.

It is a good campsite, and I soon have a fire going. Nibi watches otters for a bit, until they start spitting at him, then sets the tent while I begin broiling the two largest steaks I was able to locate. The food pack weight goes down by half. When the tent is up, Nibi comes to the fire and begins drooling. He's not used to this kind of fare on a canoe trip. After the steaks we munch on bannock and I have coffee while Nibi drinks hot chocolate. We discuss the mysteries of wild places and give thanks to the Creator who allows us to witness His gifts.

Soon it is time for bed and we roll in, expecting a cold night. When the night is far from over, we start shedding clothes - it is far too hot for all we've worn. It is an unexpected gift in October.

Day Two:

We sleep late. At 7:15 AM I finally start the fire and begin cooking bacon, eggs, and hot Tang. Two of the eggs have cracks, but they have not burst. Pretty good after all those portages. Moose have left their footprints through our campsite during the night. At 10:00 AM we are back in the canoe.

We paddle west and slightly south on Crooked Lake. Inattention brings us to the Wabasons Portage. We backtrack and head north, following the international boundry. We pay closer attention to the compass. There's a reason it's called Crooked Lake.

We pass near some incredible pine covered cliffs. I urge Nibi to take a photo, but the light is wrong. We pass eagles very close on the shore and a flock of ducks. The eagle screeches, heaping abuse on us, just like the one we saw on Horse Lake. I find this somewhat disconcerting. Something large dives near us. Was it just a diver duck, or machupichu, the antlered serpent? Cliffs and narrow waterways always remind me of the underwater people. Much easier to believe in them up here all alone.

We enter Thursday Bay from above, near the riffels. The strong south wind strikes us broadside near a windward shore. The motion is uncomforatable, and we head southwest then northwest. The quartering breeze sends us along at a great pace and we cover a lot of water in a very short period of time. We decide it is nothing to write home about - we've both seen worse - but great fun, none the less.

We paddle another long haul through islands, shoals and spits to the top of Friday Bay. We head south into the wind. I'm perfectly content and wish the afternoon's paddle could last forever. This changes with the sun beating down and as the afternoon wears on, it is directly in our eyes. We can see nothing. We take lunch on a beautiful long sand beach at the southern end of the bay. The sand shows the prints of every animal who's walked here since the last rain. We take canoe and soon come to the 90 rod portage into Papoose River. This is a low portage, but not too bad and we are soon winding our way down the river. On the sides of the river we see blueberry plants, pitcher plants, spruce and tamarack. We paddle into Papoose Lake, a very low lying lake, then back into the river and out into Chippewa Lake - a gem, and a lake I'm going to return to someday. Following the river beyond Chippewa, we come to an easy des'charge over a beaver dam and then into Niki Lake. An easy 45 rod portage brings us into Wagosh Lake, another low lying lake, which has, however, a good campsite. We eschew the campsite, wishing to make our one mile portage from Wagosh to Gun Lake before the day is through.

I have nothing good to say about long portages. Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age, but I consider anything over 160 rods a long portage. As long portages go, this one is great. No complaints, except it is too long. Something large crashes through the underbrush as I walk along under the canoe. I'm too tired to look and see what it might be. I'm sure glad to see the landing at the end of the portage.

We paddle down Gun and take the first campsite. I make rubaboo for supper and find out Nibi doesn't care for it. I think, "Too bad, more for me," then I'm ashamed of myself. We watch otters swim by our campsite in the fading light. Field mice take over our kitchen and we shake the packs several times to root them out. Bed looks good and we roll in bushed. It is even warmer than last night.

Day Three:

We are up a little earlier this morning, and I start the fire and put on steel cut oats with craisins and maple sugar from my sugar bush. We eat and hit the water trail. We paddle west and south on Gun and do the 50 rod portage into Fairy and the 15 rod portage into Boot Lake. Both portages are a breeze, and Boot lake is a beauty. Every time I'm on it, I think, "I want to camp here," and I've never yet done it.

We do the 35 rod portage into Fourtown and see loads of wolf scat at the landing. They have apparently been eating well at the expense of the moose population. Nibi takes photos of the small islands in the bay and we head out, passing Naked Man Point, and then south toward the river into Mudro. We stop at one of the last campsites on the lake for lunch and spend an enjoyable hour basking in the sun.

As we leave the lake, we exchange greetings with a fisherman casting from his canoe towards shore. He is the first person we've seen in almost two days.

We paddle on, coming to the first short ankle breaker portage out of Fourtown. The water is much higher than two weeks ago, and we have a hard time getting out of the canoe. We cross in short order, are back in the canoe and soon out at the 140 rod which we make in a single carry. The tree completely blocking the south end of the trail doesn't help anything, but I'd figured out how to take it without breaking stride - last trip. The last of the ankle breakers, a 30 rod portage, is soon done, nasty as it is, and we paddle back up the river to the sand beach at the Chainsaw Sisters.

We are done. A great trip with a great companion and I'd be glad to paddle anywhere with him - anytime.

Copyright Pierre Girard 2004

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Copyright 2004 by Pierre Girard