May 1, 2020by Jon Kramer

Lost and Found in the Quetico

Copyright 5-1-2020  /   3,141 words, by Jon Kramer
Nonfiction.  These events took place in the early 1980s

In the early 80’s, I lived in the picturesque hamlet of Grand Marais, along the famous North Shore of Lake Superior.  My girlfriend was a nature-minded Irish lass employed as a nurse in the local hospital.   I met her when I took my best friend George into the ER after he had cleverly impaled his foot on a pick axe (that’s another story!).  Kathleen and I immediately hit it off.  We teamed up for several adventuresome treks and paddles exploring the wilds of the North Woods and the Boundary Waters.

One memorable canoe trip took us through the splendid wilds of Quetico Provincial Park, the Canadian counterpart to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  The Hunter Island Route is a lengthy circular series of lakes and portages, some with enticing etymology. One wonders how cartographers of old came up with mystifying lake names such as  Poohbah, Ptolemy, Yeh, Eag.  Some were obviously made up in pure jest.  Take the “Man Chain” for example – This Man, That Man, No Man, Other Man – which runs parallel to the US border.   And then there are the portages – Stairway, Singing Brook, Prairie, Maligne, and, my favorite, Yum-Yum Portage, which lives up to its name admirably if you happen to cross it when the blueberries are ripening.  Some of the more astute Quetico paddlers plan their route to take advantage of just such a yum-yummy experience. We hadn’t, but accidentally, we hit Yum-Yum right on time.  We gorged on blueberries for days after that.

In the course of our three week trip we heard about an unusually clear lake not far from our mapped course, so we detoured east to explore it.  Since I habitually carry a mask and fins on any water-borne excursion, we made a point of heading there to investigate the appropriateness of its title.  Emerald Lake is bordered in part by eroded limestone deposits which contribute to its uncommon water clarity.  A natural bonus of this is the many limestone crevasses and cavities which are home to a large concentration of bats.  The evening bat show here is undoubtedly the best in the Boundary Water country.  By virtue of being remote, if you paddle out a short ways from your campsite at sunset, you’ll likely have the only seat in the house as dozens – even hundreds of – of zinging mammals flutter around your head in an effort to rid you of the mosquito pestilence which has accompanied you from land.

Leadership, Part 1

There are a few ways to reach Emerald Lake, all of them portages from the surrounding waters.  We had just finished hauling in from That Man Lake and were readying the canoe to push off, when, of a sudden, we were startled by a shrill squeal from the trail behind us.  We jumped!  An alarming shriek is not something one expects in the calm woods of late morning.

The shriek sounded again, whereupon out of the woods came a short, portly, balding fellow – reminiscent of Oliver Hardy – blowing a whistle and flailing his arms. He was attired in a Boy Scout uniform of khaki shorts and knee-high wool socks – just like they show on TV.

Ahoy there, ahoy there!… (Ahoy?) he bellowed, as he stumbled into view.  I wonder if I might speak with you kind folks for a moment?  He certainly was polite, but his appearance was one of strange apparition – something out of a comic strip.  We were both transfixed by this amusing creature and thus more than happy to play out the scene.  He needed no encouragement.

Say, do you folks know where you are? he asked, as if we had unwittingly stumbled onto private property.  

 Certainly, I replied, not sure to what he was referring.

OK, then, OK.   If you have a moment… he opened up a map and spread it on the gunwales of our canoe.  Can you kindly point out on this map where you THINK we are standing at this moment.    I obliged his inquiry and pointed to the exact spot the map.

He looked at me quizzically.  In a serious, cross-examination tone, he asked questioningly,  Are you sure that’s where we are?

No doubt about it, I said confidently.

He jammed his puffy finger against the parchment and persisted, You’re positive?  You are contending, then, that our position is here? You would bet on it?

Absolutely, I confirmed.

He was flummoxed,  I’m not sure I can abide your thinking, sir.  I challenge you to prove your contention.  Show me landmarks, bring forth bearings that lead you to conclude we are where you say we are.

 Apparently this guy was of the impression we were NOT at the point I had shown him.   Although he offered no alternative location, it was obvious he thought we were elsewhere.  We were not.  Using his own compass, I pointed out the azimuth of the lakeshore, and triangulated off a tall hill to the east.  There was no question about it, we were on the western edge of Emerald Lake.

There was, suddenly, an about-face in his attitude and he craftily changed his tune.  Ha!  Good Man!  You’re totally right!  I was just quizzing you there – a spot of fun as it were.  I’m a scout leader, you see, and that sort of testing is part of my mission.   It’s important my kids learn map skills.

 He grabbed the compass from my hands and returned it alongside the many items dangling around his neck. He flipped shut the case, stood at attention, saluted and bid us Good day! whereupon the portly apparition scuttled his way back down the trail into the woods from whence he came.  Not less than a little baffled by this unusual sideshow, we pushed off into Emerald Lake.

The Preacher, Part 1

The day was perfect – 80 degrees and only that slight breeze from behind which brushes against your back and encourages you to paddle on and on without the slightest effort.  We rounded a bend where the narrows widen out and the shimmering lake came into view.  As we headed east into the main expanse we noticed a lone figure on a rocky point far ahead.  He seemed to be casting, arms waving back and forth in high arcs.  But as we glided closer, we saw he wasn’t casting at all, rather he was waving, frantically. From the distance it appeared he was calling for our attention.  We redoubled our paddling efforts and soon made the shore.

As we landed the canoe on a small patch of sand beside the rocky point, he stumbled over to engage us.  He was soaking wet – head to toe.  With a stuttering voice and no preamble he exclaimed, Do I look like I need a drink? Well I do! And believe me there’s good reason for it!   He quickly followed up, Yes, yes there’s good reason for it!  We’re in a terrible state  – we’re ruined!

We were somewhat skeptical at first, but seeing his equally downtrodden wife attending a fire, we figured at the very least we could hear the story, whatever it was.  Who knows, it could be interesting.  Indeed it was.  We followed our soggy host up to his encampment and listened as he told his story.

He and his wife were newlyweds, hailing from Chicago.  He was a widower pastor whose wife passed away from cancer a couple years prior.  She was also widowed some years previous.  They met at his church and had realized they shared a common love of nature.  After a respectable courtship they’d married only a few weeks ago and decided a weeks-long trip into Quetico would be the perfect honeymoon.

The trip plan included fish on the menu in a big way.  They figured on about half their meals to be caught, not an unreasonable assumption – one that can be easily attained by accomplished anglers.  I pride myself on my fishing ability, he said, I was something of a pro at it in my previous life. But, I guess I’m not that good with canoes… 

They had set up camp here a couple days ago and were initially content with fishing from shore.  But when the fish stopped biting they took to the canoe to broaden their horizons.  Earlier in the day they were fishing in a cove on the far side when he caught ahold of a sizeable Northern – a fighting fish if there ever was one.  It wasn’t long before the fish took a sharp lunge to one side and over they went.  The canoe capsized and everything in it went straight to the bottom.  The preacher derided himself, Every single pole and lure was in the boat at the time.  What an idiot I am!  Now it’s all lost and our honeymoon is ruined!   The calamity was not only a bad omen, it was going to mean the trip would be cut short.

I asked him how deep the water was at the place they were fishing.  In the area they capsized, our topo map showed the depth between 30 and 60 feet.  It’s way too deep, he lamented, it’s all lost

Well, let’s just go take a look, I suggested, I’ve got a mask and fins.  No promises, but I’m a pretty good diver.  He and I got in our canoe while Kathleen stayed with his wife to cook up some dinner, albeit sans fish.  The preacher and I paddled to the area where the accident occurred.  Around here somewhere, he motioned with a sweep of his arm. What a damn fool I am… It’s all gone…

We paddled to the closest shore.  I got out and dawned my gear.  As soon as I put my head into the water I was amazed by the clarity.  It was as clear as a freshwater spring  – at least 80 feet visibility, possibly 100.  I finned out from shore.  In less than 60 seconds I caught sight of some colors on the bottom and dove under.  It was the pastor’s fishing gear.   I could clearly see everything strewn across the bed of the lake.   It looked shallow – the bottom was right there!  This will be easy, I thought.

I quickly found out different.   On my first dive I took a breath and swam leisurely down.  To my surprise – I couldn’t make it!  I rose, took a breath, and dove with determination, kicking hard.  Still I could not get far enough before I ran out of air.  It was too deep!  It became distressingly apparent that the bottom was far, far deeper than it looked.  Somehow I had to get down faster before I ran out of air.   I came up with a plan and enlisted the Preacher’s help.  I grabbed a large rock from shore and had the Preacher haul me to the spot directly over the site.  Holding on to the extra weight, I power-dove to the bottom while clearing my ears constantly along the way.  I barely made it.

Even then it was the absolute limit of my free-diving capability – at least 50 feet, I estimated, possibly 60.  The temperature at that depth is bone-chillingly cold – less than 40 degrees.   Once down, I had but a quick moment to grab what I could.  I dropped the rock and powered back up, surfacing in the nick of time.  Then we’d get another rock and do it again.  In about an hour I was able to collect everything. I even managed to retrieve some lures that were laying loose in the bottom of the canoe when it went over.   The dive was a complete success.  Everything was recovered – tackle boxes, poles, lures, net, even her sunglasses, and his pocket knife.

As we paddled back to camp I heard the pastor laughing quietly in the bow.  Divine guidance.., he said, God sent you!

 Leadership, Part 2

As we had yet to set up camp, we bid the preacher and his wife good evening and paddled around the corner and up the lake to a nice sloping granite point where we established ourselves. After an early dinner we reclined on the rocks to warm up in the sun.  I was exhausted from the extreme diving and was thankful just to lay out and let the beautiful wilderness evening grow on us.  The lake had become still and the soft mournful calls of a distant loon echoed across the water.   It was serene.

As we slumbered in the sunshine, we began to hear something of a disruption in the natural cycle of the evening, some far off noise  – or noises – that were not natural in the least.  This disturbance grew in volume until we could define it as the clanging of canoe paddles against aluminum hulls mixed with argumentative discourse between several canoe loads of what were apparently not-very-happy campers.

The beginnings of a flotilla appeared rounding the bend.  In the chaotic fashion of inexperienced paddlers, the canoes zig-zagged to and fro along the waterway, criss-crossing eachother’s path like so many run amok ants.  Soon the lead canoe saw us on the shore and made their way more-or-less toward us in a most deliberate fashion.  When they pulled up within shouting distance, one of the occupants yelled a curious question: Excuse me, are we in the US or in Canada?

We informed them they were, most definitely, in Canada – land of the Maple Leaf flag. That caused a ripple-effect of loud exclamations and heated exchanges between the canoes, most of which were still coming around the bend.  We had yet to see the final number, which turned out to be 8 in all.  Soon came the next query: How far in Canada are we?  I said it depended on the route they were taking, but the shortest distance by canoe was probably about 5 miles by paddle and portage.

If the first response we gave caused a stir, this one caused an uproar!  There was unrestrained pandemonium as the lead canoes turned around and paddled furiously toward the back, relaying the news as they went.  Those in the middle were not quite sure whether to turn around, continue forward, or sit still.  One thing was apparent – none of the occupants were at all pleased by what they heard.  As the news spread, loud voices became more numerous and the commotion ratcheted several decibels higher.  A regular cacophony overtook what was once the placid quiet of the lake evening.

As we watched from shore, eventually all the canoes came into view and through the maelstrom we heard the familiar screech of a whistle.  In the last canoe was the pudgy Scout Leader we’d met earlier in the day, blowing incessantly on his instrument and alternatively yelling, I know where we are! I said, I know where we are! Just keep paddling! Onward! Onward!

The lead canoes were now almost abreast of the flagship and broadsided the poor fellow with all manner of verbal hellfire.  Such language is not oft heard among the wilderness and I dare say the kind spirit of Emerald Lake cringed at the expletives now in use.  All the canoes joined in the fray, attempting to fire their own recriminations at the so-called leader.  It was an altogether humorous scene with canoes crashing into one another as they commenced their not-so-quiet riot.

Eventually things simmered down and the Scout Leader escaped a lynching, at least for the time being.  A new canoe paddled over to our promontory and a tall fellow in its stern asked where we were on the map. When I pointed out the location, he launched into a tirade about how they should tie up the criminal and leave him to the mosquitos and vultures.

Tall Guy gathered everybody together just off shore from our camp for a pow-wow,  It was agree the Scout Leader was to be removed from his position forthwith.  This was not so much a mutiny as it was a plan for survival.   But who should replace him?  Tall Guy volunteered himself.

As to my qualifications, he submitted, I can not only read a map, I can follow it too!  he said sarcastically.  That settled it. Everyone cast their vote for the new leader.  It was the model of political expediency: A righteous coup followed by a democratic election – all in the space of about 20 minutes. The meeting thus adjourned, Tall Guy led the spirited group away, the defrocked Scout Leader frowning in the rear.

The Preacher, Part 2

The next morning we packed up the canoe and pushed off, heading down the line.  We intended to continue with our original route and make it to the border later that day.  We stopped off at the pastor’s camp to say goodbye.  I haven’t slept a wink all night, he said, I can’t get over the miracle of you coming here at just the right time.  You saved us!  He went on to say he wanted to pay us for saving their honeymoon. Kathleen and I told him we would never accept any payment.  Surely there’s something I can do to show our gratification? he asked.

In fact there was one thing, it occurred to me:  Some days previous, on That Man Lake, we encountered a favorable breeze and had stopped to cut a mast for our canoe.  In the haste to get sailing down-wind, I had left our folding camp saw on a rock.  By the time I realized it, we were miles away.  I relayed the story to the preacher and asked if they were heading that way.  Indeed we are, he said, gleefully. We’ll find it and send it back to you.  I gave him the approximate location where I thought it might be, but told him not to spend much time looking because I was unsure of the exact spot.

You can almost guess the rest of the story.  Almost.  We got home and had nearly forgotten about the encounter when, one fine Saturday morning the postman dropped off a package at our family shop in town.  I opened the elongated parcel and, sure enough, there was a folding camp saw.  Only, it wasn’t the one I had lost.  It was similar, but obviously brand new.  The accompanying note told the tail:

We left Emerald Lake and went back via That Man.  We got there about 2pm and searched for your saw, but never found it. We camped there and searched again in the morning – still no luck.  So here’s a new one!.  Joan and I hope you’ll accept this as a token of our deep appreciation for saving our Honeymoon.

Thirty plus years later, I still have that saw.