The Warm-up

Boundary Waters 2020 Put-In is less than 3 weeks away. It’ll be a small party this year, the hubs and I and the youngest two goombahs, Will and Sarah. We’ll mostly be covering territory we’ve traveled before. Nothing overly exciting. I won’t even try to express how much I’m looking forward to it.

What with COVIDitis and canceled plans left and right, a week in the wilderness is precisely what the doctor ordered, thank you very much. The dehydrator runneth as we speaketh.

We’ve been warming up the sea-legs all season, shoving out into the Red Cedar whenever we have a free morning.

The Red Cedar–at least the parts of it we float often–is familiar. Gentle. Predictable.

Let’s not talk about that time we dumped it and almost died.
On the Red Cedar.
See how helpful I am in a crisis?

As soon as the river reached an acceptable level of post-melt rage this spring, we ventured out. The mighty plan of the mighty youngest was to canoe every Saturday morning. It was mighty. And unrealistic. But the canoes did see the waters of the Red Cedar 3 or 4 times so far, which is more than they can say for most years.

In addition to these highly rigorous floats down the wide and tame waters of our backyard, Scott and I also dipped paddles into more wild and woolly, foreign waters last week.

Whilst prepping for our anti-COVID campout, Scott noted that we would be minutes away from the Eau Claire River, and why don’t we float that for a change? We printed a few maps, read up in a book that once sent us on a trip that nearly killed us–because once isn’t enough–and tied on the canoes once the last tent stake was packed.

The beginning of the week looked mostly like this:

Coon Fork Beach, abandoned

Let me zoom in a little:

Teenagers in pursuit of tans

The excitement in camp was real.

Before the massive river-running adventure, we wanted to get the Grandparents out in the boats, lest we lose all vigor on the river and they not have the joy of a later-in-life paddle.

My folks are not strangers to canoes; they just haven’t frequented them in recent decades. They paddled the Boundary Waters together long ago, before they were married. To each other anyway. ‘Twas a 4-man trip, that one, these two and their then spouses. Funny how life takes unexpected switchbacks.

Anyhoo, we got them out there, on a little explore around the flowage:

The next afternoon, we took a rainy-day drive to scout out landings and water levels for the real deal. As best we could tell, we were looking at a 1.5 hour float, a short 5 miles, but the scouting mission, through dirt roads and dead ends and Amish country, took us nearly 3 hours. This was unexpected. The children were overwhelmed by the beauty of it all.


Our adventure would be along 5 miles of water: 2.5 miles of Coon Creek, and 2.5 miles of the Eau Claire. Our trusty guidebook assured us that in high water, Coon Creek was navigable from below the dam onward. Why not? We’d walked the first quarter mile the night before, after the sneaker road trip, to scope things out, and while fast and narrow, she looked doable. Around every bend lay another set of riffles, but the water was high, and we’d shot much bigger rapids.

Adventure Ho!

When it came time for the trip in question, the children opted to stay in camp with Grandma and Grandpa. Some may say that they have a sixth sense. Some may say they simply know better.

Me preparing for adventure

The story is not very long. It can be summed up in the naked numbers:

The first 2.5 miles–along Coon Creek–took us 3.5 hours.
The second 2.5 miles–along the Eau Claire–took us 45 minutes.

You may not be an experienced paddler, but I would hope by some simple number-wrangling that you can surmise from the above that the two equal halves of the trip were far from equal.

To be fair to the guy who wrote the guidebook, the water was high enough, and the rapids were navigable.* What we failed to plan for were the storms that had been ravaging the area in the previous weeks, and what that might mean for the forest. Specifically the trees of the forest rooted into the sandy banks of Coon Creek.

* Irritating book author gets a pass on this one. There is no such pass to be given for his last indiscretion, whence the Ottinger clan nearly lost half of its numbers to his insane claims. That is a tale of rage for another time.

I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that we were not in our boat for more than 5 contiguous minutes, so many were the total obstructions of Coon Creek.

So. Much. Deadfall.

A photologue, for your viewing pleasure, should the numbers

Below the dam, preparing to descend
Ah, the sweet burble of moving water…
The voyageurs in their element

As you can see, this is where things went off the rails. This was the view from the canoe. You’ll note in the photo that there is a distinct lack of water on the horizon. This 6′ wall of pine came approximately three inches beyond our line of sight at the point where we turned around the night before on our walkabout.

Faces were made.

There’s no good way to photograph this. The above is a photo of the boat sitting 8′ above the water, on the bank we pulled up onto first. The bank smattered with PI and steep enough to require the use of said PI vines to climb it. Grr…

Turned out this was NOT the correct tack to take in detouring the wall of wood, so we quickly shoved the canoe and ourselves back down the poisonous bank and tried again. The below photos are the correct tack, the painful tack, the only tack.

Here we go. This was the ticket. Up and over like billy goats.

Canoe at 45°. Unnatural.

Wow, KJ, how about some consistency in the use of the captions?

Hey, you came along for the journey. Nobody forced you. Try to keep up.

Oh, yes. This is better. Sigh.

*** Two minutes pass ***

Further Faces Made

Yep. The next 6′ wall. The next indication that turning back and portaging all the way home might just be the smartest plan.

This is it. There are no other pictures of deadfall, or us climbing poison ivy, or the canoe being twisted through trees and undergrowth the consistency of a blackcap thicket. The production of photographic evidence was halted in favor of the actual helmsmanship of navigating an 18.5′ canoe along a land journey. Truly, it was more hike than paddle. More climb and heave and limbo than hike. More than we bargained for.

Here’s one towards the end. Let’s pretend that’s the last deadfall behind Scott, that this image captures us victorious over what we affectionately referred to as our Lewis and Clark moment:

We did make it. And I will say that Scott’s expression above fairly captured our moods. We held it together and maintained humor throughout, thought the humor ran thin during the finer moments.

3.5 hours later, we poured out into the Eau Claire, emerging from the Amazon into civilization:

Smooth water and 3 decent sets of rapids. 45 minutes. Felt like the landing came before we even realized we were canoeing.

So that BW trip coming up? Piece of cake. Walk in the park.

I can’t wait.

If you need me, I’ll be on a beach somewhere, biding the time,

Social distancing on the sand

17 thoughts on “The Warm-up

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    1. This is the hope! Every year in the Boundary Waters is a good year in the Boundary Waters. Still, I feel like ‘relatively speaking’ will make this one shine no matter what. I should really shut up; who knows WHAT we could be in for!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Epic adventures make for epic tales around the campfire in years to come! Well done! You survived to tell the tale, and that’s worth the price of admission.

    Thanks for letting me tag along, virtually.

    (PS: Teenagers made the right choice. Smart teens.)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Your teenagers remind me of our three kids (maybe ages 8-13) on a trip through the Appalachian Mountains. I would yell toward the back seats such remarks as, “Look left! O-o-o! Isn’t that gorgeous!”–not looking at them so I wouldn’t miss the view myself. The kids made comments like, “Oh, yeah. Wow. Beautiful!” Only years later did they tell me how quickly they got bored with mountain peaks and went back to their games, reading, etc. Without even looking out the windows, they kept up with the litany of comments to humor me. Kids. / I can’t imagine the frustration of multiple piles of debris to deal with on a canoe trip. Think it would be enough for me to put the canoe on Craigslist and call it quits. You’ve got perseverance, I’ll say that!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We’ve got something. If you’d like to call it perseverance, I’ll take it. There are much less flattering things one could easily call it. 😉 I can just see you sing-singing your way along the AT, patronizing (and hidden) kiddos rolling their eyes behind you. Good times.

      Liked by 1 person

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