They had travelled from the Madison, Wisconsin area, and were the two men Albert had told us would be entering the park the day after we did. Their planned trip was much longer in duration and distance.
As they approached we started talking. One was more sociable than the other, and he and I started discussing things. Our conversation mainly centered around the weather and where we had camped. They had chanced the wind on Douglas the day before; as a consequence one of their canoes had swamped. I do not remember which one had swamped. I told him we made the decision to stop where we now stood. He said it was the wise decision. Considering they had far more experience than us, I was thankful of the compliment. If they had trouble yesterday, we could have easily experienced disaster. The closest help would have been Viking Lodge on Douglas; if you could walk, swim or canoe in a straight, flat line it would still be 10 kilometres (6 miles). Travelling to the lodge through the forest and through the chain of lakes for help would be next to impossible. He then made a comment about our toques; I told him I grew up in Fort Frances, and knew the weather could be rather chilly. A large grin emerged on his face, and he responded he wished he had one. Considering the little amount of weight they add, and the space they take to pack, I'll take one on any trip I go on. He told me they came through my hometown to enter Canada (as many US visitors to WCPP do); it may be an exaggeration, but each summer it seemed there were more US vehicles than Canadian ones travelling the main highways of northern Ontario. On his second trip along the path he asked where we had stayed our first night out. I told him we reached Page, and showed him on our map where we had camped; he told me they had camped on the western shore of Page just south of the creek flowing into the lake. When I recalled passing the area, it consisted of a steep rocky shoreline with little flat land; he confirmed it was a steep landing, and that the site was poor. It made me happy that we stopped when we did on Page. Near the end of our conversation I told him we would be on our way as soon as we were packed; knowing they had come from Page I knew they had been up for some time. He told us they left their site on Page early, without having breakfast. As he left we wished each other good travels. By the time our tent was packed and we had all our gear at the shore they were out of sight.
Although the weather was cold, the sky was only partially cloudy; Crystal looked quite beautiful. The sun lit the western shores and bounced off the small wavelets across the surface of the lake. Albert had told us of a few interesting sites around the lake, but we chose to move on. We pushed westerly across the open section of Crystal and then began our passage north along the narrow western arm towards our first portage of the day. As we approached the portage I had no idea the next three portages would be the most testing series of our trip. My wife and I were about to be educated.
The first portage started out in a wet area; logs had been laid out in a few locations to make the passage easier. With a canoe on my shoulders I was unable to make use of some of the logs; I sunk to my knees in the thick mud. Once through the wet area the trail rose then fell. Past the small rise, the portage became rather interesting; a number of holes filled with water spread across the width of the trail. Some of the holes had logs laid across, over time people had widened the path to go around each of the holes. They looked deep, and I didnít want to find out how deep they were. While passing along the side of a few I had to hold onto the canoe with one hand while holding trees with the other to keep myself standing; the canoe was forcing me to lean out towards the holes where trees were too close to the path. The end of the portage was dry, I was happy for this, as was my wife. Lowering the canoe provided more relief; I wouldnít have to strain trying to stay upright anymore. The width of the canoe was definitely a burden on this portage. Our additional trips along the path were easier as we knew where to step.
Our next small challenge of the day was traversing the narrow creek to the next pond/lake. The vegetation grew close to the sides of the canoe, the water was shallow, and the creek was rarely straight for more than the length of our canoe. Rather than paddle, we pushed and pulled our way through the passage. Thankfully it was only about 100m in length; still, it took us approximately 10 minutes to navigate it. Once through the creek we had a short paddle to the second portage; the portage started at an old beaver dam that had been overgrown with grasses. We were starting this portage only about 15 minutes after finishing the last one.
This portage started out nicely, a grassy trail followed by a slight rise over a granite dome. What came next was horrendous. At least 300m of this 400m portage was wet swampy terrain; every step you took in the middle of the trail was a gamble. On more than a few occasions I stepped in the wrong spot and sunk to my knees. The weight of the canoe, a backpack, and the sucking mud hindered quick recoveries. Close to the end of the trail, I could see that the portage rose on another dome. Eager to reach this respite, I foolishly hastened my pace; once again, within a couple of steps of the granite, I fell into the muck. Tired from my previous Ďsinkingsí, I used one hand as a brace, and with great effort freed myself from the trap. Victory! No, wait, we were not even done our first pass; to make matters worse we had to make two more trips. The balance of the portage was dry; both my wife and I were thankful to remove the packs from our backs, and I to get the canoe off my shoulders. We trudged through the swamp four more times each (twice in each direction). I was ecstatic to say the least as we pulled away from that monstrosity. What a wife I have, other than a few mutterings, she wasnít complaining. Most guys I know would have thrown a temper tantrum going through that one. My pleasure quickly turned to dismay as I remembered we would be returning through this same portage in a couple of days. When I mentioned this to my wife she did mutter something. Perhaps a loop wouldnít have been so bad after all.
Looking at the map I knew we had a third portage to contend with after another short paddle through a narrow lake, approximately 1.5 kilometres in length; in my mind I thought to myself, "1.5km! Thatís it! Unacceptable, it should be longer. Who in their right mind likes to portage three times in such a short period of time through such poor conditions? Well to answer the question, apparently we do, and every other person travelling through this area of the park. Why else would we subject ourselves of our own freewill to such an experience." Halfway across the lake we came across the two men from Madison; they had stopped on a large flat rock, which protruded slightly above the waters surface. The sociable one asked what we thought of the portages, and we gave our honest opinions; to sum up our responses, Iíll say we responded that they sucked. They were just packing up their packs after eating breakfast. The sociable one asked that we break the trail on the next portage. We chuckled, its not as if we, or they, would be giving up and turning back. Onward!
The final of the three portages was the longest; thankfully it was mainly dry, and in this direction mostly downhill. It would be the last portage for us today, and this fact brightened my mood. The portage had a few challenges in store for us. Close to the top, the trail crosses the creek that flows into the lake we would be portaging to. A few of the rocks we used as stepping stones were submerged, most were not. Still, with mud on our shoes stepping carefully was advised. Just across the creek the trail had widened where people have avoided a large pool of water. The trail became easier until I reached a tree that had fallen across the portage; it remained 5 ft off the ground. At first I tried going under, but it was too low. I realized I would have to shove the canoe over the tree. The process would have gone smoothly, but a stub of a sawed off branch caught the rear thwart and the stern of the canoe. Past this obstacle, the trail became easy once again. The final hazards, closer to the end, were a couple of fallen trees crossing the trail at a point where the trail drops quickly in elevation; a misstep here would likely cause a nasty fall down the hill. As we began our trip back to the start, we passed the two men; the sociable one asked if we had hit the tree. He told us he had. I could see why, seeing how he was walking here, and remembering his method from our morning encounter, it was obvious he couldnít see more than a few paces ahead of himself. If he was the first of the two along the path he would not have seen the tree across the path and his partner would not have warned him. Not wanting to walk this trail four more times, I decided to attempt carrying the rest of our gear on our second pass, We managed to do it, but with difficulty; I was sucking wind when we rested at the end. When the two guys finished their second pass, the sociable one asked if I knew how to use a GPS. I told him I did not know, and that I didnít have one. A map and compass was all I carried. I knew I didnít need a GPS (at least at a place like this); I had learned to navigate by map and compass while in the Royal Canadian Artillery, and my knowledge was strengthened during four years as a geography major at university. He then asked if I knew our latitude and longitude; I knew roughly where we were, but if he used my guesstimate for the purpose he was planning, theyíd be in a world of hurt. He wanted to enter the info into his GPS unit. I then remembered that the topographic maps would have all the information he needed to enter into his GPS. We pulled out our map and determined where we were. I wondered to myself why he would have brought the unit if he didnít know how to use it properly. Even though I wasnít entirely sure, I assumed that an incorrect initial entry would make his GPS unit useless at best, dangerous at worst. There were items in our bags I was starting to think we wouldnít use, but at least I didnít pay a couple of hundred dollars for those items. Furthermore, if I did need to use them, I knew how to use them.
They left before we did, and were still in sight when we left the portage. As we crossed the unnamed lake, the two disappeared into the creek leading to Indian House. We were told we would be able to see stands of wild rice in portions of the creek; we found a few stands, but due to the time of season they were rather immature. The creek had many turns that prolonged our passage along its length. As we entered the first wider area of the creek we spotted the two men again; we had reduced the distance between us to around two hundred metres. Not wanting to approach too close, we matched their pace into Indian House.
While preparing for the trip, I read a story by Scott and Kathy Warner; Scott described Indian House as a lake that one could spend long periods of time admiring its beauty. He is right. At the southern entrance to Indian House we passed the first of many locations that were or could be beautiful campsites. We would use this site on our return. The two men from Wisconsin were still ahead of us by approximately two hundred metres, and they led the way through the narrows to the eastern open section of Indian House. Just through the narrows, the best looking camping site came into view on the southern most large island; we didnít want to stop though, so we continued on our way toward the northern end of Indian House. The two soloists started paddling towards a few rocks in the middle of the lake that marked a reef. We had no intention to follow them, so we continued in a direct path towards the northern end of the lake. As they approached the reef we passed the two men to their left.
I really hoped that the weather would remain as wonderful as it was at the moment, it was a day to remember. The sky was clear except for a few light clouds; the sun made the day feel warmer than it was, and its rays caused the wavelets to shimmer. A slight breeze from the south west kept the bugs down and caressed us. High above, a bald eagle circled as it searched for prey. Along the shores, and stretching to the horizon, a young forest rose up under the guard of the charred remains of the sentinels that stood as reminders of the fire that had ravaged the land in a previous time. The islands and small pockets on the mainland had escaped the fire; they provided a glimpse of what the young forest would eventually become. This is what I think of as home.
We approached a great site on a small island that guarded the bay that led to the first unnamed lake; the site was positioned at the western end of island, and provided a great view of the western section of Indian House. Rather than stop we decided to push on to check one more spot Albert had marked on the map. If the second marked campsite wasnít as nice we would turn back and return to the island site. The second site wasnít nearly as beautiful and we returned to the island site. Shortly after setting up camp the two men from Wisconsin approached. They hadnít realized we had passed them. They planned on camping in one of the small unnamed lakes between Indian House and Knox. As they paddled by, we wished each other well.
After a brief lunch, Tuch and I decided to try our luck fishing. Be both cast off the shore, and within a half an hour we each caught a small northern. Shortly after my wife caught her northern I became snagged a short distance from shore; not wanting to give up on the lure I stripped down and attempted to retrieve the hook with a short swim. The water was very cold, and I gave up before even coming close to where my hook would have been lodged. Although I spent less than a minute in the water, shrinkage had began. With the wonderful weather we were experiencing we decided to try our luck fishing from the canoe. We first tried a sheltered bay at the northern most end of the lake; from our campsite we only had to paddle for 15 minutes to reach the bay. With no luck in the bay, we decided to try a small section of the lake just to the south of our site. Tuch caught another small northern, and we decided to keep it. I was having no luck here, frustrated, I decided we would fish around the islands that protected the entrance to bay we fished in earlier. As the sun began falling towards the western horizon, I caught my own small northern between the western island and the mainland. After cleaning the fish on the small island, we returned to our campsite. We cooked a small supper and then built a fire in the old fire ring. We placed spices and our northern in rolls of foil and baked them over the fire. We made hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps and watched the sun set in the west. After a snack of baked northern, we headed to bed. This was definitely the best day so far.
We had just finished our hour paddle from the northern end of Indian House. I had woken up just after 4am, and heard the wind; I decided it would be best if we crossed the lake before the wind picked up later in the day. We quickly ate breakfast and packed up. I failed to take into account that our campsite was protected by the full effect of the wind. The majority of our paddle across the main open stretch east of the islands bisecting the lake into eastern and western sections was made difficult by a stiff headwind coming from the south-south-east. Other than the first couple hundred metres when we were protected from the wind by a point of land, another short respite provided by one of the small islands in the chain that guards the northern portion of the lake, and the last bit when we approached the southern leeward shore the headwind taxed our abilities. Looking at the map later, the best route would have been to skirt the northern shores of the small chain of islands and the most northern large island, and then travel south along the western shores of the two most northern large islands. We would have then been able to come between the Ďsnoutí of Bull Island and the second large island into the relatively calm waters of the southern end of Indian House. Knowing the direction and strength of the wind after rounding the first point, I should have known to look at my map with more scrutiny when we reached the leeward shore of the small island in the chain. As some say, hindsight is often 20-20.
We were proficient by now at setting up our camp site, and we quickly set up the tent, fly, and tarp. Tuch decided she would set up everything inside the tent and I decided to set up the rest of our site. Tuch finished blowing up our mattresses and setting up our sleeping bags, and informed me she was going to go back to sleep for a while. With numerous suitable trees to hang our food packs from, I decided to rig a pulley system to raise the packs. While attempting to do this, Tuch called and asked for me to join her. Standing on one of the barrels I successfully hung a rope with pulleys attached between two trees. I put lengths of rope through each of the two pulleys and climbed back down off the barrel. Once back on the ground I attached an end of one of the ropes to a food barrel. As I began to lift the barrel the rope between the two trees began to sag. I had pulled the first barrel right up to the pulley when I realized my plan was a failure. I should have realized sooner that my plan was flawed. Even after standing on a barrel, my reach was not great enough to prevent a bear from being able to reach the barrels. At best, the rope hung between the two trees was ten feet off the ground. The sag in the rope between the tree brought the rope to approx 9ft off the ground. The barrels themselves were between two and three feet in height, so at most the lowest most part of the barrel would be about 7ft above the ground. I thought to myself that my contraption likely wouldn't keep a bear from obtaining our food, and might even annoy the bear just enough to put it in a really bad mood. I took down my system and placed the barrels under our kitchen tarp; disappointed that my idea had failed, I decided to join my wife, and have a nap.
Shortly after having changed into sleeping clothes, and getting into my sleeping bag, I began dozing off. My wife was fully asleep. While in the transition from awake to asleep, I began hearing regular, frequent sounds coming from the left rear of the tent; for a brief second or two I remained laying down, almost succumbing to sleep. But the sound grew nearer, and dead wood began snapping. I sprang into a sitting position; adrenaline pumping through me, my heart pounding, instantly I felt fully awake. Something or someone was approaching our campsite from downwind. Tuch woke up, and noticed my alarm. Whatever was out there was still coming, and I started to yell as loud and as aggressively as possible. Hearing me yell, my wife started yelling also. To the left of our tent, heavy footsteps could be heard, and they were falling quicker than before. Both my wife and I tried to look through the window of our tent, but the fly hindered our view; all that could be seen was a wall of brown moving north away from our site. The fly blocked our view of the head of the creature, and the change in elevation combined with bushes blocked our view of the legs.
Both fully awake, with hearts racing, my wife and I started nervously talking again. Our remaining fresh ground beef was giving off a very strong smell, and we wondered if that is what brought our visitor. I found it strange that a moose would come straight upwind to us, but after our trip Albert informed us they are often curious. I knew the ground beef could easily attract a bear if one was downwind. I also started thinking of the disturbed moss closer to the shore. A large section, approximately 10ft by 20ft was disturbed in the vacinity of the fire ring at the site. When I first saw it when we landed I thought back to reading Jim Hegyi's, "Ontario's Chukuni River - Gateway To Woodland Caribou Park," he mentions that he saw crows overturning the moss, but also that the area of overturned moss seemed too large to be created only by them. A written warning I should have heded. When I told my wife of what I knew she was quite understandably "impressed." I should have made the decision to move to the next site; it was less than a half hour paddle away. Nevertheless, we felt very vulnerable. We were both in sleeping attire, in our sleeping bags, inside a tent. I told my wife to quickly get dressed. She didn't want to leave the tent; I continued to insist that she get dressed and get out of her sleeping bag. We made the decision to leave the site for another. Once dressed we tried to look for tracks in the area we saw the creature fleeing, but soft moss covered the ground, and we couldn't tell what the tracks were. As my wife packed up inside the tent, I packed up everything outside of the tent. I kept on looking back into the interior of the island. Like many mature forests, the forest of the interior of the island was quite open, and I was able to see a fair distance. Even though I didn't want the animal to return, a part of me was hoping we would at least see what it was. Looking back, my naming of the island, Bull Island, seemed appropriate for a second reason. Although my wife and I will never know for sure what we saw, it just might have been a bull moose that paid us a visit.
As soon as we had everything packed and near the shore, ready to be loaded into the canoe, I decided to go a short distance into the interior to see if any tracks would be identifiable elsewhere. There appeared to be moose tracks about 100ft behind our tent. There was one track that sank into the dark soil that clearly had the two toe shape; it seemed quite large. Some of the tracks seemed older. A moose or bear, we didn't care, it was time to move. Still not at ease, we loaded the canoe and moved to the point site just north of the mouth of the creek that empties into Indian House.
We positioned our food barrels at the tip of the point, any scent would be blown across the open western section of the lake before reaching the northwest shore. We decided to cook there too.
We chose a site for our tent upwind of where our food would be, but due to our earlier encounter we decided to hold off erecting the tent. With little unpacked we would be able to make a quick escape if necessary. We decided to cook the rest of our fresh meat, some bacon and the ground beef; we made spaghetti, and added sauce to the meat. Our cooler bag in the food barrel still smelled like the ground beef so we washed it. It still smelled afterwards, but not nearly as bad. After our scare at the other site we were still nervous; many sounds coming from further in along the point made us both turn our heads. With full bellies, we decided to set up our tent. Our chosen site was almost perfectly flat. With plenty of small trees close to the tent it was easy to set up a tarp over the tent as well. Once our mattresses and sleeping bags were set up we decided to go fishing; we both figured fishing would calm our nerves.
We first tried fishing along the leeward shore of the point. With no success in half an hour we decided to try fishing at the mouth of the creek. At the mouth, the creek flows to the west into the southwest corner of a bay in Indian House. The bay opens to the east, and the result is a point at the mouth between the bay and the creek. We anchored in a spot that allowed us to cast along both sides of the point, towards the southern shore of the creek and bay, and out into the bay. In less than 15 minutes we both caught a small Northern on the creek side of the point; shortly after I felt a much stronger tug on my line. As I reeled in the fish began trying to run with my line; I reduced the drag to allow the fish to tire itself. After a struggle of a couple of minutes it had tired sufficiently enough to allow me to get it close to the canoe. It was a large Northern, approximately 2-1/2 ft long; it had a large open wound along one of its sides. The wound was about ĺ of an inch deep and about 1 Ĺ inches in diameter. I am not sure what caused the injury, but it looked like it had occurred not too long before. After about another minute of the fish making a few final short runs, I grabbed the fish and pulled in into the canoe. A net sure would have come in handy. We released the fish and returned to our campsite. The canoe bottom had a fair amount of fish slime on it, as did my pants. To reduce the chance of the odours attracting visitors I decided to wash the canoe and my pants. The canoe was dirty anyway after four days of use.
The rest of the day was spent lounging around, for supper we ate some of the Northern we baked the night before. To further calm us, we poured liberal shots of peppermint schnapps into our hot chocolate. We retired to our tent for the rest of the evening; shortly after a light rain began to fall. To pass some time we played a game of cards, War to be exact. Before we finished the first game we started to bore, we played it through to the end though, and then packed up the cards.
We decided to discuss our plans for the next day; we had reached the point of our trip where we had a route decision to make. We had two choices, cut from Bell, through Morley and Anchor, into Embryo, or, retrace our route back to Hatchet, and then travel through Upper Hatchet to reach Embryo. I told Tuch of what was involved in both.
The Morley/Anchor option was much shorter, but involved portaging approximately 1km between Morley and Anchor with no known existing trail between the two. This was my choice; I wanted to test myself. However, knowing a decision like this would also affect my wife, I didnít want to force this route on her.
The second option was much longer in distance, but followed current canoe routes with established portages. We had also travelled the majority of the route already on day one and two.
Learning there may not be an established portage between and Morley and Anchor, my wife became worried. She asked me how we would know if we were going in the right direction. I told her, "map and compass." She then asked how we would find our way back to the rest of our gear for the second trip along the portage. I told her we could mark our path with the plentiful string we brought, and take it with us as we passed each trail marker on our last pass. She then asked what the area would be like. To this question I didnít have an adequate answer. I could only respond that Claire, the assistant superintendent of the park, had informed me there was a portage long before, but since it did not fall within the park boundaries or on current routes reaching the park she was unsure of its condition or if it even existed anymore.
With this knowledge my wife decided that we would take the established route. With rain still falling we went to bed.
copyright 2006 Chad Gallow http://www.canoestories.com/gallow/woodland/