Day 3: Tuesday, September 6: Lac La Croix to East Side United States Point, Basswood Lake
I woke up to the sound of wind on the lake and my watch’s alarm beeping. I could tell it was pitch dark out so slept in a little more. I was mad when I roused a bit later – I gotta get my ass in gear here!! I figured that I could pull the air plug on my secondary air mattress to provide a catalyst to get moving. With a loud “Poooshhhhhhhh” noise, I flattened to the ground, feeling my foam mat underneath. I sat there for a minute before springing to action and shoving my damp sleeping gear to each bag. One of my tent ties must have come off its stake, because the left side by my foot was very floppy. It was a dewey morning and I could feel the humidity on everything. Yuck… oh well. Into the bag you go!
I struggled to get all my stuff set up onto my board and finally got out past 6:30am. That’s at least a half hour late, I told myself, knowing that I could start paddling in the dusk hours. In my tent, I think it’s pitch dark, but it’s really not. I could be paddling at 5:30. I should have been. I was frustrated right away, by starting late and by the wind.
Around a big point, due south to my destination of Iron Lake and I was immediately fighting the wind. Right in my face. Another day of this… I don’t know how I’d do it. I could feel the two big days of paddling in every muscle. My abs, if stretched, were very sore. My back was achey. Hands killed. I forgot to fold my gloves in… they were getting pulled down so I stopped to fold the cut-off sections back in towards my palm. I folded in the cuff on my left watch-side hand so I could see my watch face and perhaps get some solar charging action. I took a moment to plan out my next few miles. I saw a landmark notation for Bottle Rapids and a curving riverway-looking stretch into Iron Lake. Hmm… there weren’t any portages listed except well into Canada. There was another option on the south side, into a far-away bay then two portages maybe over a mile in total. That would be about the same mileage to take the direct riverway/Bottle Rapids, I figured, and probably a lot safer of a bet. I didn’t want to try any type of rapids and I didn’t want to try to find a mystery portage when I got to to the end of a rocky rapids. So, I put my stock into the long portage option to the south. Maybe that’d help me shave some miles down. The mile markers I’d plotted on each map at 5-mile intervals were definitely off by at least one mile. It was easy to run math having paddled exactly 90 miles in the first two days combined. However, that meant I was 10 miles down on the trip so far. I’d simply planned for even 50 mile days, and if I could do two more 50 mile days I’d be left with a 60 mile day to finish off. That means I’d probably finish the trip after hiking Grand Portage by 9 or 10pm. As I logged several 16+ minute miles I wondered what time I’d get in to Basswood or Birch Lake to get 50 miles. 10pm? Plus, my arms and hands were killing. I could feel the strain on my forearms, struggling to maintain a solid grip on the paddle for my poor fingers.
I could see the far shoreline straight on, due south, which I figured was 3 miles straight into the wind. Nah, I figured, I can go around an island. I hooked a sharp right. Bad move, I’m adding mileage. I thought of my people back in civilization tracking me. Were my parents, friends, coworkers, Em, watching me and wondering what the heck I was doing? Going way off course looking on map, but in reality I avoided a choppy god damn headwind for the glassy leeward north edge of an island. So, I took that opportunity to crank miles. Just head south. I finally saw campers and paddlers after seeing almost nobody the day before. Tents at one site, a big morning fire at another one, two canoes on the water behind me, and a sweet towering cliff to my left as I skirted around yet another rocky island on Lac La Croix.
I made it to the final bay on Lac La Croix about 90 minutes in for the day. It looked a little dicey… where was this portage? I checked my watch and map again. Yep, straight back to the bay. A large cabin out of nowhere appeared. What the heck… this is directly in the middle of the Boundary Waters. How did this get built? How does this get maintained? Why back here? Some swampy back bay? I paddled past it, trying to examine the foundation type of the boathouse. I paddled past seaweed and lilly pads on black glass water to a shallow portage. I knew I had lots of portages today, and two in a row right now. My food pack was noticeably smaller, but still swinging from the bottom of my backpack, clipped and hanging off my shoulder straps where they were sewed to the bottom of the pack. To compromise those critical straps could be bad… But I planned it out – clip my blue safety bag to my hydration vest. Remove the bungees from the food bag, push my gear bag towards the nose of my board, remove the bungees from that bag, slide it back towards me and heave the dual bags onto my shoulders. Then, pile my hydration vest on top of that and I’m set. Board under my arm, paddle in hand and I set off on a 63-rod portage.
I blitzed the muddy, overgrown and dense portage in the morning hours nearing 9am. I saw clear moose tracks. Massive divots in the mud where my feet wouldn’t even make prints. Yeesh. I looked around. What would I do if I saw one on the portage? I yelled out? “Moose??” No response. The other side came quick, but I was a little disheartened to see a beaver pond to cross, with no open water and strictly lilly pads. Hmm. I wondered if I’d see beavers as I pushed off from the muddy, swampy shore. I didn’t even know where to go! Across somehow, towards a large beaver den seemed to be the way. I relied on my watch, which showed lines to denote a portage if I zoomed in enough. Plus, I knew direct east would work. It looked like several portages from my watch but the map had just one. East it is. A very nearby beaver to my left slapped its tail, startling me. I had my bags still on my shoulders and was kneeling on my board pushing into the much with my paddle to move forward through the dense vegetation. I felt I didn’t have lot of protection against a beaver attack. Do beavers attack? I precariously and quickly paddled past a large beaver den with endless layers of sticks piled up to my kneeling eye level. I could see a rough pathway through green, presumably from other paddlers and followed it. I found the portage, but there were many downed logs and thick weeds in my way. I got jammed up but really did not want to get off my board. I figured I’d sink enough to submerge my food bag if I tried to stand up, so just slowly poked and prodded and eventually scooted around a log to landed ashore with a great struggle on the final 10 feet of the dang beaver pond.
The landing was muddy but I didn’t care. I trudged on and attacked the portage. Time to crank, no time to stop. I had been siphoning time thus far this morning, between a detour to attempt to stay out of the wind, and the slow travel through two portages and an unpleasant beaver pond to get to Iron Lake. Gah. The portage was long, at 226 rods on the map, but went quick and I landed in no time to Iron Lake and set right off. After into Iron Lake, I strapped my bags back down and fiddled around for a bit. Drink a bit of water and secure the hose, secure the map, eat my remaining breakfast. I could see the low spot back to my left where Bottle Rapids likely started and paddled away from it towards my next portage at Curtain Falls. I took 5 minutes, then stood up and cranked right away. My estimation was that right after the upcoming Curtain portage I’d be at 100 miles on the trip. My map said 99 at Curtain Falls and my next lake, Crooked.
I made it across Iron Lake easily. The wind wasn’t too bad. I saw a cool site I’d stayed at in July, and people occupying a site near the portage. I remembered falling in at the Curtain Falls portage landing, yet couldn’t find the exact spot as I neared a back bay to the south of the actual waterway and rapids. I landed at a nice rocky ledge and was again pretty slow to get my gear onto my back. Somehow this portage was harder. Maybe the mile portage took a bit out of me. That wasn’t an excellent sign knowing that after 10 miles of brutal direct headwind paddling ahead of me, right after about 10 miles of Crooked Lake with a series of open bays to battle side winds, I’d have four back-to-back-to-back-to-back portages with the one-mile Basswood Falls portage to finish it off. It was going to be a slow day from here on out, and already had been slow. So, I walked a bit faster.
At the other side of Curtain Falls, onto Crooked Lake with the winds suspected to be about 10mph from the south, I thought the portage was actually pretty easy. I cruised it – stopping for one change of the hands. My hands are strong, I told myself, then launched right in off the flat slab ledge rock that served as a great dock. I ate food and drifted to a bay across from the falls. It wasn’t windy in the cove. I refolded my map. Lotta south. The bays on Crooked backwards from Sunday were intimidating. I thought of the voyageurs before me, trying to hit an efficient shot with plenty of leeward land wind-blocking options. The border had to be this way for a reason. I pondered to what extent the US/Canada border was laid on on the unquestionably most direct travel route to Grand Portage as I paddled away, thrashing at the water and trying to get into a good rhythm.
I attacked Sunday Bay, no time to look around at what I remembered as some sweet campsite options and rocky landscapes. I could only focus on paddling strongly through the cross wind. It was manageable standing up, but was also very tedious. I experienced a dull overarching ache from every muscle I could possibly use to paddle. My hands, forearms, triceps burning. Lats, shoulders were yoked, my neck, abs, groin, god damn second toe going numb! I had to focus to wiggle that toe and lift it up in my shoe to try to regain feeling. And flex up from my ankle. But that required giving up a too much balance in choppy seas. Who cares about the dang toe.
A 20-minute mile across Sunday Bay wasn’t encouraging. That was 12 miles on the day, a bit less that 4 hours in. It was 10am. Time moved strangely. How in the world is it already 10am? Time just flew by. On the other hand, I went through so much shit already this morning, and if I wanna paddle to 7pm, that’s 9 hours. 9 more hours. Unbearable. Unbelievable, unachievable. I was feeling it in every stroke. But stopping was worse – switching sides became a chore because my hands would get used to the position, no matter how grueling, and the reminder of the other side’s pain was worse to bear. That led me to favor paddling on my left side. The wind was pushing me left, so just like previous days fighting the wind to the side or at my face, little choppy waves always splashing on my board, I could paddle exclusively on the left and go straight as an arrow. I’ve been fighting the wind this whole time, I complained to myself.
I made it across Sunday Bay with no issue. It was great to get to the leeward side of a big island before having sweet relief on a south shore with only one more southerly opening. My mind was on big openings and leeward shores, miles and the shortest line I could possibly formulate by staring at my map and thinking really hard, all while churning up the water with machine-like paddle repetitions and heaving myself forward for maximum paddleboard propulsion. No stops were afforded.
Going across Saturday Bay was a treat, and I made up time. The mile splits jacked me up: 14:31, 14:32, then 14:11. It was just a game of playing the wind, following the map, and paddling efficiently and accurately. It was a fun, fun game. I cruised across each day of the week. Friday Bay – couple choppy crossings with cool views across the long southerly body of water. I wouldn’t want to paddle down that, I told myself, and continued to hug a convenient shoreline. I was careful about Canada. I wanted to do it right – stay on the BWCA side even if I thought it’d be a shortcut. Thursday Bay was intimidating but smooth and pretty fast. Nice. I was switching between standing, kneeling and sitting depending on the wind, and that worked well to even out the stress on my body. I made my way to a nice downwinder to a narrow stretch to the final part of Crooked Lake, Wednesday Bay. I was getting hungry and picked a campsite to stop at, near a dreaded point of the day requiring straight south travel for a mile or two. The wind was pushing up some decently inconvenient waves through a narrow channel in from the border as I veered south. Just beyond an opening straight on, I landed on a long bald rock face that blocked the wind. 23 miles, about 1pm. At this rate, I was way, way off 50 miles by sundown.
I sketchily drug my board in a little divot between rock slabs, into some weeds. I just stood right up in the shallow water, my shoes having been wet since the last portage hours and hours earlier at Curtain Falls. I schlepped my various bags all on shore and up the sloping rock face for a place out of the sun to sit. It had been pretty bright all day, paddling right into the sunlight headed east. I hunkered down on a nice rock in the shade and kicked off my soaking wet shoes. Lunch was good. I wanted to slam cheese knowing that it would be less appetizing as time went on. It was actually looking no more raunchy than the day before. It was good. The spreadable cheese that was not refrigerated at the grocery store was very smooshed down in a big ball. Meat sticks and a string cheese eaten as fast as possible were tasty. Same with cheetos. I filtered water. I was encouraged by my good drinking on the day. My lips had been chapped since day 1, though. Luckily, not too bad and no worse than the first day. I was encouraged every time I peed because it was a bit of reassurance that I was drinking enough. I checked out my maps and requested a weather forecast from my inReach.
The campsite I ate lunch at was a very discouraging yet beautiful location. I could see right down the pike – a long, long, fairly narrow due south stretch right into the wind. The wind was blowing right at me. I got nervous halfway through my break as I realized that if a tiny wind gust nudged my board out of its little parking notch, a breezy point pushing waves into my nice wind-blocking landing could catch my board and take it. I rushed down there, nervous about how if the wind could carry my board way far away, the exact way I’d just came. A terrible vision overcame me, of swimming through the wavy channel I had just paddled hard through to make lunch. My board was only slightly askew, and I wedged my leash strap around a rock. Back to my lunch spot, I began to pack up my stuff and took a few photos and a video of the wind blowing in my face.
I felt the need to use the latrine before setting off. That’s a good sign, I told myself. I got a little nervous after that task, however, because as I unrolled my clump of toilet paper, I realized how little I actually brought. I just used half of my entire stash of toilet paper. Darn. Maybe my old pal Nick was right, I’d be doing some aqua dumps later on.
I got my stuff back on the board, begrudgingly taking the hasty steps I needed to take to continue paddling. Bags down, bungees on, clip backpack to hydration vest, clip vest to board, reattach leash from rock to my ankle, secure map. I set back off around the bend, standing up but having issues. I kneeled. It felt good. Just paddle away, paddle paddle paddle. Paddling is my life, paddling is my aim. La la la la laaaa. All I got to do is paddle and sing little tunes.
I saw a couple canoes riding an awesome downwinder. They said I was going the wrong way. Yeah yeah. I can beat this shit, though. I told myself I can beat this damn wind. And just pressed on. Running some numbers, I figured I’d be around the Basswood River portage in the mid-afternoon, then a big-ass water crossing on Basswood. That’d be interesting. My route would be crossing a section of Basswood Lake with a lot of real estate to gather waves from the south and push me way north into Canada. The updated forecast was encouraging, though. It looked like it was going to remain windy – about 10mph from the south and mayyyybe the southwest towards the end of the day. And the next day was looking prime. That would be… I had to run math on that, too. This was day 3, it had to be. Day 3, started Sunday… Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Gotta be Tuesday. Thinking of all types of stuff kept me busy. The day, my average speed, the average speed I could potentially paddle for the rest of the day, what time the sun would set, what time I could see outside until, if I paddle super hard, how many miles could I get before it’s pitch black? What about if I paddle at a moderate effort, like I have the past few days, to get to camp with an hour or so left before sunset so I can have a nice night at camp, like I have the past few days?? How many miles then? I figured… not many. Maybe I could get to 40. As I got a nice bit of leeward relief near Table Rock, cruised past the cool cliffs where you can see pictograms, and cool water lines from either decades or centuries ago. By the time I got to the first Basswood River portage and started thinking how I can start being efficient with four portages in a row, I was 9 hours in, almost 29 miles on the day, so a bit more that 3 miles per hour. Given it was about 3:30pm, I could probably do the next 5 miles in less than 2 hours, then paddle another 4 miles past the long portage across Basswood Lake in 1 hour with a nice southwest wind pushing me where I need to go, then I figured I could hit a campsite right about 40 miles at right about 7pm. That was a plan contingent on going the right way and having absolutely no issues.
I started seeing campsites with people. Around a little node protruding to the left down the waterway, I saw three people standing around. Fishing, rather. I paddled to where I remembered the most efficient portage to be from when I crossed this portage out and back in July. In prepared for the portage kneeling as I floated in. I unclipped my hydration bag from my backpack. I pulled the backpack and the attached food pack at the front of my board up towards myself then slipped the bungees back around my food bag. I shifted the bundle back towards the nose of my board, slid the bungees closer to me, around my backpack, to snap down onto my board’s hull. Pack on my back, hydration pack and emergency bag tossed on over top, unleash ankle strap, jump off the board, find suitable footing, grab my paddle, grab my board, heave it onto my hip, trudge through the water to land, trudge over land, toss board to the other side, hop on and don’t bash the fin on rocks, and I’m back paddling. It was efficient. This is what I have to do. For now, I figured I’d just sit and paddle sitting down with my pack resting on my foam pad strapped to the back of my board. That was comfortable and fast enough for a bit, but became a little unpleasant, and I was fearful I’d burn out my pack-carrying shoulders before the mile portage coming up in no time. I made my way to the Wheelbarrow Portage. More anglers at the mouth of one river. I quickly portaged and hiked along the other river. I made good time, but it was a little long for no hand switches. Lucky righty. My right hand got pretty pumped out as I pushed its portaging limits. Wheelbarrow is a rocky and tight portage, and not a lot of options to switch hands. I made it, though, but smashed my board down on the other side, scraping the fin on a rock. The fin dragged along the rock. Still intact? Don’t care otherwise! I continued on, pack on my back. I came to the last little portage, up some small rapids. Runnable? I remembered back in July another BWCA user suggesting I run it, as a joke. Right down the pike! Nah, not today. I made the portage quickly. I was onto Basswood Falls portage in no time, and set right off with no delay except to take 5 big gulps of water. I counted.
I took plenty of options to change hands along the lengthy mile at Basswood Falls. I enjoyed that portage. I was thankful for the lack of mosquitoes compared to back in July. I didn’t see anyone at all. It was a nice hike, although pretty strenuous. It’s a lot of work to carry all that shit, plus the big board. That board was heavy. I wondered if water soaked into it. It seemed to have lots of water on the deck all day… but it was also pretty heavy and I was loading the weight somewhat strangely… I felt an itch. MOSQUITO?? Nah. I kept looking back to try and spot a bug on my shoulder or arm. Damn bugs. I lucked out so much, though. It was really another beautiful day. I was tired and wanted to just get this done and to the other side. By the time I get out onto Basswood Lake… I couldn’t fathom a hard and windy crossing of the big bay ahead. It’s gonna push me to Canada, I figured.
On the portage, I had promised myself I could jump in, eat food, drink water, change my maps, whatever I wanted once I got to the end. When I heard the sound of the falls, and saw a clearing off in the distance, then the rock descent to the landing and a clear view to where I could drop my board, I got increasingly excited. Done and done. I was excited to get through that lynchpin section. That’s the crux right there, I figured. At this point, I was getting real close to 125 miles on the trip. That’s about as close to halfway as it gets. Also, I was getting close to the end of the day. I figured I’d be down 20 miles from goal by the end of the day. I had to allot for a sixth day. There wouldn’t be another option. Luckily I was set up for that.
When I pushed off onto the lake I knew now was the time to paddle out to spot to jump in. I had figured during the portage that by the time I got to the lake I probably wouldn’t feel like jumping in, but also that deep down I really needed to clean my shirt. It had three days of grime, sweat, bug splat, wilderness residue, whatever else on it. So, I bit the bullet and jumped in and it was nice, but a little stressful. I had to take off my gloves, hat, life jacket and tracker. I didn’t dwell in the water long and stood up to paddle out. Clouds were rolling in. They looked a little ominous. I checked the weather forecast… 0% chance all the way out. The next day was looking prime, with very light southwest winds. Nice nice nice. Let’s go!
As I paddled on out to Basswood Lake, I started plotting and scheming. I was dead. It was a lot of portaging. The next day was looking prime, and I had some really solid long paddling opportunities with relatively sporadic portaging. I could make miles tomorrow. I planned, what if I lay up early tonight, get some super good rest, make a fire, eat tons of food, sleep, and set out early the next day and crank. That could be nice. Furthermore, that could be strategically advantageous. Furthermore furthermore, that could be critically important to crank miles in order to finish the trip.
I saw lots of campsite options on the map, but as I got further into Basswood, my attention diverted to staying standing up. The winds were whipping from my right shoulder. I could clearly see the point I had to round. It wasn’t quite a downwinder. I had to go crosswind again. Push me west, PLEASE!! I pleaded to the wind. No dice. I got a few little bumps, but it pushed me further away from the point I was aiming at, requiring even more effort from my abused left arm. I still made good time. I missed a shortcut around an island. Oh well, keep moving. I got into a nice leeward stretch around United States Point as listed on the map. I saw one campsite from the middle of the lake. Nah, I can go further. Another site, nah, another one, nah. I passed three campsites right up and was nearing a point to round. I figured it’d be windy on the other side. Maybe I blew my chance to stop for the night! 6pm, 37 miles in. I could make another hour for 40+. I kept moving. I wasn’t going backwards under any circumstances.
I rounded the United States Point and was happy to see pretty minimal waves. I still tried to hug the shore to stay out of guaranteed rough waters towards my left out in the middle of the eastern slab of Basswood Lake. I’d take any campsite by now, I figured. Especially one facing south, right into the wind, I can blow dry all my gear out and make sure it’s nice and dry for the night… I was fantasizing about my glorious night at camp to come. The waves were sloshing, pushing up to the shore and bouncing back at me. I was standing up but didn’t feel too concerned about the waves bucking me off. Across the whole trip, I’d hit a few rocks with my fin, bashed my board up a little bit here and there. But now, under clouds and sloshing water, a rock hit my fin and stopped me dead. I jolted forward after the crunch of my fin impacting the rock. I hit the deck and rolled off to the side on accident, right into the lake. My board flipped over, my gear precariously hanging by the bungee cords as I shuffled my arms under the board and tried to quickly react to what was happening. I flexed my legs down and hit rocks. I was waist deep and stood up. I flipped my board back over, soaking wet and with my gear having taken a total dunk. Damn. I hopped back on immediately and paddled out a bit further from shore. Stupid, STUPID!! Damn fuckin rock! My shirt just dried out!! I paddled even harder. I’d make 40 now, I gotta dry out my stupid shirt again. Idiot….
The sun peeked through the clouds a little bit. My worries of rain had all but subsided, but I was bummed it had been sunny all day except in the past hour. Clouds come out, I fall in the lake. Heading southwest with the sun falling below the towering treeline, I realized I’d be blocking the sunset with any of the upcoming campsites. I kept looking alongside the back of United States Point for my spot for the night. I picked one off the map, a few sites down, and told myself I would definitely stop there if it were available. The next site was occupied. Nothing to see here… I could see the people from a long ways away looking out toward me as I paddled by. Nah, I didn’t fall in, I was hoping to have a shirt wet. I had a fake conversation with the person, tiny in the distance.
The next campsite was taken as well. Sheesh. Here we go again. I still had plenty of light, though, and coming from a major deficit of miles, would be OK paddling into dark a little bit if push came to shove. Yet, I was eager to get to shore to set up tonight, which would set me up well for the next day. If I want this trip to go well from here on out, I’d have to really rack miles tomorrow, I told myself. So, with the next available campsite in range, I became more committed to stopping as I got closer. It looked different from my previous sites, this one kind of nestled into a rocky hillside as opposed to being out and exposed on a ledge. This, however, would do just fine.
I got to land and tried to throw my shoes ashore. I got all my gear tossed on to the nearest rocks and schlepped my board way up onto land, with the fin sticking out over a small bedrock step-down, so I could inspect it after smashing it hard. No damage done. I opened up my bag to start setting up my tent.. the normal drill. I was welcomed first by my camp slippers. What a great choice to bring for creature comforts, I commended myself. I hadn’t even stopped for an afternoon break like I had the first two days. Nearly 40 miles on the day, I didn’t care about 39.something. A minute under 12 hours on the day and just past 6:30pm made me feel pretty good. I’d have plenty of time to set myself up.
First things first, I set out my wet stuff. I emptied the food wrappers and uneaten calories from my soaking wet hydration vest and set them out. I ate a bunch of super tasty trail mix in a few mouthfuls and chugged water. With my water bladder pretty much empty, I took the 3-liter water bag and filter out and figured I’d get that going soon. I emptied all of my sleeping gear out and tried to string it up to dry. My tent was especially moist, with the crumpled ground tarp nearly able to wring out. I spent a bit flapping it around in the wind, as well as the tent itself and sleeping bag. I saw a little chipmunk exploring my wrappers and scared it off. This site was a little weird. It was kind of a dank little corner, not a lot of airflow or natural light. It was tucked away on this cove. I set up my tent on a tiny patch right next to my paddleboard. I got a fire going pretty quickly and took a dip in the lake to soothe my weary muscles. My hands were probably the most sore. Wrists, hands, fingers and forearms. But, all my back muscles, arm muscles, shoulders and core were also all sore in their own way.
I had a nice meal of dehydrated Pad Thai, gourmet from Trail Fitters. I was wasting time all evening with my shit spread out everywhere. I seemed to just be organizing and reorganizing for 2 hours in between eating and filtering water until I ended up in my tent for the night. I left the fly off again, and set my alarm for 5am this time. I focused on repair, restoration, recovery, and dozed off with my hands behind my head.