Monday, October 6, 2008

Crow Wing River Canoe Trip

Jeff picked me up at the airport in Minneapolis on Wednesday night. Back at his house in Maple Grove we did some broad planning for the next day as I made a pleasant discovery: the beer in Jeff's fridge. Dunkelweizen is one of my favorite styles, but alas not one favored by brewers on this continent. I was happily surprised to find that Trader Joe's has a very good one.

Jeff cooked me breakfast on Thursday morning while we went over our trip lists. At Wal-Mart we bought most of our supplies, including two 1/2 gallon containers: a plastic Tupperware jug and a standard canteen. These, along with an identical canteen that Jeff already had, were to be our growlers for the trip, keeping our Granite City beer nicely sealed until we opened it at the end of a day's canoeing. I had called Granite City about a month beforehand to confirm that they would fill plastic growlers, and the person I spoke to assured me that, since they had their own alcohol warning stickers to make the container legally sealed, they would "fill anything".

We went to Granite City for lunch - Jeff knows how much I love their beer so he takes me there whenever he can - and I enjoyed a mug of Two-Pull and then one of Duke of Wellington IPA. Both of them were delicious, and went well with my burger. Then we ran into a small hitch: the employee I'd spoken to a month before was wrong. The manager said that they could only fill standard glass growlers. He was extremely helpful and friendly, though: he told the bartender to let us borrow the growler for free. Jeff then shuttled three growlers full of beer out to the car and into our unofficial containers. I was in a great mood as we left the brewpub - I kept thinking of that quote by Benjamin Franklin: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." Did I mention that those were 24-ounce mugs?

We went to (the sporting goods store) where we picked up new water filter bottles, and to Trader Joe’s for a few boxes of their particularly yummy granola bars and a six-pack of Dunkelweizen. Back at Jeff's house we packed the supplies and gear in the car, strapped the canoe to the roof, and headed northwest over the Mississippi at about 4:00.

In a few hours we reached Menahga, the nearest town to the Twin Lakes that, according to the GPS, seemed to have at least one restaurant. The barbecue place that was supposed to be there was conspicuously absent, so we went back to the VFW we'd passed a few blocks back on Route 71. We grabbed a beer and a pizza and I looked at the faces and names on the wall, and wondered what it was like for them. I gather that they had a belief in their cause that was much more abundant back then.

We drove a mile or two south to the campground we'd seen on the way in, and set up the tent. We shared a growler of Broad Axe Stout - a very well-crafted beer, but too

All the beer and water I drank on Thursday made me get up about five times during the night, but when our alarms went off at 6:00 I found out that I'd slept much better than Jeff. Apparently there was a kennel next door and the barking - on top of the siren going off at 10:00 and the highway traffic - kept him awake for much of the night. Later, when Jeff kept having to repeat himself, I found myself wishing that my crappy hearing benefitted us as a team like it sometimes benefits me.

We had an excellent breakfast at Cindy's Cafe in Menahga and made our way to the launch site between the Twin Lakes. I stayed to pack the canoe while Jeff drove to Huntersville and returned with Dorothy, the outfitter who was to drop the car off in Motley.

We put in at 9:00 and paddled south and then west across South Twin Lake. It was a calm, cool, and sunny morning - perfect for chatting or just letting our minds wander as our muscles warmed to the routine of slicing the water with the paddle blade and stroking the water just so. On this trip I only made one embarrassing splash of water into the canoe - I think my long-term muscle memory is improving.

We entered the Shell River and paddled east through the silent morning. After a few minutes of observing the channel profile we knew that this would be different than any river canoeing experience we’d had in the Adirondacks. The entire Crow Wing area was sandy and had very few rocks, so the water had swept away a cross-section that was broad, shallow and startlingly flat, like a brownie pan. We didn't know yet that a big old cookie sheet was waiting for us about fifty miles downstream.

Near Shell City Campground we met two parties of canoeists paddling canoes from the campsite. They turned out to be almost the only boaters we met during our three days. The longer we paddled the more well-maintained campgrounds we saw, and the more I wondered whether canoe traffic falls off precipitously after summer, or the DNR operates those campsites at a deficit. I can tell you that the camping fees they got during those three days - which couldn't have exceeded $100 for the whole river - couldn't have paid for the rangers' salaries and the supply and upkeep of the sites.

As we glided over teeming schools of fish - many of which looked like they could've fed us for the evening - Jeff regretted leaving his fishing gear at home. Dorothy had told him that there was no good fishing in that area, but as it turned out there were a few deep meanders on the Shell River where we were just dying to hook a worm, throw it in amongst the fat fish, and see what would happen.

We reached the Crow Wing and made good progress south, intending to beach at Andersonville Crossing Campground. The river had other plans. Dorothy had told Jeff that the rapids just before the campsite were class one, which means that an amateur could make it through them with little trouble. After a few minutes of dodging - and scraping over - rocks, our considered opinion of that advisement was "Bullshit!" The angle I the setting sun made the water black, so when a black rock loomed up ahead I didn't see it until it was far too late. We hit the rock, Jeff yelled for me to brace, I yelled "Which side?", Jeff yelled "Downstream", and as I said to myself "Duh!" and shifted the paddle from right to left, the canoe tipped and suddenly I was in the water. We were lucky in at least two ways: my being flung out counterbalanced the force of water on the canoe so that it didn't capsize and we didn't lose our gear; and the water was a lot warmer than it could've been on Minnesota in October, so aside from the discomfort of being wet and the hit to my pride, I didn't mind that much.

It didn't take me long to realize that, with both air and water as warm as they were, I was in no danger of hypothermia. By the time I pulled the canoe to a point where I could have gotten in I decided it was best all around if I just continued making like Sal the Mule. Jeff shoving with his paddle from the back while I pulled from the front got us over the rockiest bits, then I got in and paddled for a bit. I repeated this cycle maybe three more times as we made our way maddeningly slowly down the next few miles of rock-studded river. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I was hoping to reach the campsite south of Nimrod before dark, and nervous about being met with the most unwelcome wagon if we set up camp on private property. Jeff wanted to make camp *somewhere* before dark. With about a mile of river between us and Nimrod we got hung up on our fourth stretch of rapids and I knew Jeff was right. We hauled the canoe and gear up a bare slope on the western shore. At the top was a good-looking spot to pitch a tent. We needed a fire to dry out, especially considering how the temperature was likely to plunge at night, but I didn't want to light one without asking the property owner - whose house, for all I knew, might have been a hundred yards away. So I squelched off in search of habitation while Jeff unpacked the gear.

I found an old, overgrown fire ring about two hundred feet to the north and then came upon a foot path that led northwest out of the woods to some fenced-in meadows. Running southward along the fence was a larger trail that looked like it was used by four-wheelers, but not very often and not recently. I followed it for several minutes but all I found was a big deer stand - it appeared that there was no human being within miles of us. I came back and told Jeff about all this, and he carried the gear over and set up the tent while I dug out the old ring of rocks and started a fire. Soon we were eating hot dogs and beans while drying out our clothes as best we could. We broke open one of our canteens of Two-Pull and found it good. Very good.

Even with the canoe propped up with the bottom facing the fire we didn't have nearly enough room to dry all the clothes, so I made a crude tripod out of branches and hung my wettest clothes as near to the fire as I dared. I still didn't manage to get them remotely dry - it's beginning to seem like i'm destined to spend camping trips wet no matter what I do. I turned in while Jeff smothered the fire. We'd come miles farther than we'd planned that day while fighting completely unexpected conditions, so we decided to get as much rest as our bodies wanted - we didn't set any alarms.

We rose by 9:00, grabbed a cold breakfast snack of granola bars, strapped the portage wheels to the canoe, loaded it, and started hauling it south along the trail in order to bypass as much of the rapids as possible. After a few hundred yards, as the trail curved west, we cut east through the woods toward the river. Hauling a loaded seventeen-foot canoe over rocks and logs while maneuvering it between trees was preferable to the rocks we avoided, and was fun in a manly grunting sort of way.

We put in at 11:00 and reached the bridge at Nimrod about an hour later. While scouting out the privy at the picnic area across the river I found a spoon on the lawn that some kid had probably used for digging. Since we'd forgotten to bring utensils I took this as providence; I brought it with me into town and gave it a good washing with soap and water in the men's room of JJ's Bar and Grill, where I went to grab a burger while Jeff guarded our gear. The spoon became my second-favorite souvenir of the trip. Another important thing I got at JJ’s was information: a gentleman I met told me that they hadn’t gotten rain in a month so the river was down about two feet! No wonder the rocks were more of a problem than we expected!

While waiting for my burger to cook I went next door to River Market, the little general store, to look for the pastry that Jeff requested and ended up finding not only that, but my favorite souvenir of the trip. On the wall was a red T-shirt that said, in flaming yellow letters,

***different text sizes***

I saw that the shirts were for sale, smiled at what great souvenirs they would make of our hard knock schooling in the rapids, and bought two of them along with my muffins and postcards. I saved them for later, when we'd be able to look back on this and laugh.

Soon after putting in Jeff said that be thought we needed a quick communication system for steering. I had been thinking along exactly the same lines since the previous day when we'd hit the rock - if I'd been prepared and able to quickly communicate with Jeff we would have been able to keep the boat from tipping. Finding out we'd both been thinking on the same problem, we developed our new system very quickly.

Straight = Follow the sweep of the river, i.e. go where a stick would float in our place.

Vector = Go where the boat is pointing

(Left or Right) (Number of feet) = Turn and then straighten out that many feet from where we are now. For example, "Left 10" means "We need to move ten feet to the left fairly quickly."

Brace (Left or Right) = We both need to plant our paddles on one side of the canoe to keep from tipping. For example, "Brace left!" means I just saw a rock five feet ahead and we're going to hit it with the left side of the canoe, so not only our own inertia but also the force of the water on our upstream side will tend to push up our right side, so we need to get our paddle over to the left side of the canoe and hold fast!

Shove (Left or Right) = We both need to push off with our paddles - in a steady and coordinated way - from from the same side in order to move the canoe sideways off an obstruction.

That was the basic system, and although it needed refining it was light years better than what we'd been doing before. It turned out that we needed that new system almost immediately, because a few minutes later we came upon more rocks.

I had a bit of performance anxiety that yielded a few instances of left/right confusion, and I had a lot to learn about how long it takes even Jeff - a very good steerer - to turn my words into motion, especially when we're going slowly to avoid rocks and so lack the means to quickly overcome our inertia. However, our new system got us through many rocky patches much quicker than we could have done before. The problem was the frequency of those patches - the hits just kept on comin'! Between the rocks, the disturbingly poor marking of campsites, and memories of having to make an ad hoc camp the previous night, we opted to call it a day when we reached (I'll remember the name) at 4:00. I was quite disappointed to hear that we'd only made fourteen miles that day. Granted, we'd had an unexpectedly strenuous evening on Friday and had needed the rest we got, so with the long portage and the stop in Nimrod we'd only paddled for four hours. Granted, most of those four hours were spent zigzagging around rocks. I don't think we were slack. Still, it left us with 29 miles to go in our third day if we were going to reach Motley by water, and for all we knew those 29 miles would be just as full of rocks as the previous 14. I found that daunting. Sure, one of us could just walk the last leg to Motley and get the car, but we wanted to accomplish our original goal.

Jeff filled out the self-registration form and we put the original and the ten dollars in the lock pipe. This was important since the campsite usage is monitored by rangers. Again Jeff set up the tent while I started the fire. The fire was particularly easy because, like other campsites we'd seen, this one had stacks of scrap pine waiting for campers to use. While foraging for hot dog sticks I got a nasty surprise: there's a thorny shrub in Minnesota that we don't have back east! I opened our last can of beans and put it on the grill along with a pan of hash browns. Jeff roasted hot dogs while I wrote on the eight post cards I'd bought in Nimrod. We opened our last growler of Two-Pull and, though it was flatter than the one we had the night before, it was still a glorious companion to our camp feast.

We wanted to be on the water before sunrise so we turned in early and got up at 6:00. We broke down camp in the dark and put in just as the predawn light had waxed enough for us to steer around rocks. I was shocked when we didn't need to. Without knowing it we had stopped just before a long, meandering stretch of river that was blessedly free of obstacles. Not wanting to tempt fate, I kept my mouth tight shut about this.

During the next four hours we made remarkable time as the channel widened and the current got stronger. We also had to watch out more and more for a new problem: sandbars. Paddling along the middle of the channel near a bend we would realize that we were inside a delta of deposited sand. Sometimes we would make it over the edge and into the deep water along the shore without hitting bottom; sometimes we had to grunt and heave our way over the delta. We learned to watch out for those deltas and stick closer to the edges around bends but, since their positions were unpredictable, we mostly had to take them as they came.

We beached at McGivern at 11:00, satisfied to have canoed 15.5 miles in about three and a half hours. We wolfed down sandwiches made from English muffins, summer sausage and cheese, stretched our muscles a bit, and got back in the water. Only fourteen miles to go - but were those fourteen miles like the previous stretch, or were they full of rocks? Would we make it to Motley before dark, or would we be forced to ignominiously split up while one of us walked to the car? You might think we should have known the answers to these questions before we started. Jeff certainly prepared well, consulting books and Internet resources and Dorothy. However, none of those resources seemed to know one important fact about the Crow Wing that I ended up hearing from a guy at JJ's diner in Nimrod: They hadn't had rain in two months, so the water level was down about a foot! No wonder I'd gotten thrown out of the canoe near the start of some "Class 1" rapids! All this goes to explain why, even though the last stretch wasn't supposed to have any surprises, we took nothing for granted.

The last stretch was the cookie sheet: wide and shallow beyond anything we'd seen. There were many times when we steered left or right and found a temporarily deeper part of the channel, but also a good number of times when it seemed that no matter where we went we were in constant danger of grinding to a halt. Then it started raining - lightly at first, but eventually hard enough to tease out the rain jackets. Thanks to Jeff's weather radio we had actually expected rain sooner, so at least it didn't take us by surprise.

Time and again we encountered scatterings of rocks that forced us to hone the steering system we'd just invented the previous day. Sometimes I'd steer around slight surface disturbances that turned out to have no visible obstruction beneath them, while at others I'd cringe as we'd glide by massive rocks whose tips were two or three inches beneath the surface yet didn't cause the slightest ripple. Then there were the times when we didn't glide by: I'd yell "Bump!" and then "Brace left!" and then we'd "Shove left!" in order to shimmy off the rock. That was the easy kind. Sometimes we'd get hung up and the current would sweep up around so that we'd be forced to go backwards around the rock and straighten ourselves out afterwards. That's rather harrowing when you're not sure what's just downstream waiting to hit you while you're perpendicular to the flow!

Speaking of the flow, it seemed more fickle than ever on that last day. Sometimes it seemed much harder to move to one side than it should have been, as if the river didn’t want us moving that way. My biggest problem was my tendency to overestimate how quickly we could react: I’d see a nasty bottom-biter, say “Right 10!” and realize that it was too late for us to avoid the rock. The problem, aside from the force and non-uniformity of the stream, was that we were faced with a Catch-22: in order for Jeff to steer, the canoe has to be traveling at a significant speed relative to the water; but we were proceeding with caution because we didn’t want to slam full-tilt into unseen rocks! Eventually I got better at properly estimating what we could and couldn’t do, and this helped: I became more likely to simply say “Brace right!” so that we would prepare to hit the oncoming rock slightly off-center, rather than to say “Left ten!” and risk slamming into the rock sideways as we were turning! And I became more aware that, when I did say “Left ten,” I had to paddle for all I was worth to give us the motion Jeff needed to steer us that way.

Now and then amid the dim silver of the rainy sky we were treated to the sight of a bald eagle or a great blue heron soaring over the channel ahead. Long before that last day I’d lost count of the number of each bird we saw, but I think we might have seen more eagles than herons! This was quite a pleasant surprise for us, since in all our Adirondack canoe trips over the years I don’t believe we saw more than one bald eagle.

After a few hour the rain was pouring down and we were in the thick of the rocks. It seemed like no matter where we went we were forced to scrape our way over a bunch of them in order to get to the next clear spot. And the sandbars! After a few cycles of "grind to a halt, spend a while heaving and shoving along with Jeff to try to plow over the obstruction, and eventually get out and drag the canoe to the end of the sandbar," I gave up the hope of having dry feet. The boot-length galoshes I'd bought two years ago had a number of small tears in them and anyway I'd gotten water over and into them a few times. At one point, in a desperate bid to find a spot to get back into the canoe after a long stretch of me furiously pulling and Jeff furiously shoving and heaving, I dragged us over to a bit of marshy shoreline. The muck turned out to be quite excitingly deep and fetid. I swore a great deal than then accepted that my boots would be full of water and muck until we beached.

Jeff kept saying that, based on the map, we were still on schedule for reaching Motley around 4:00. I could hardly believe it because it seemed like we'd been making a snail's pace through the rocks and sand. But sure enough, just before 4:00, we saw the Route 210 bridge through the rain ahead. We got hung up briefly on a few more sandbars before we reached the boat ramp, but by then we were just laughing, because we'd done it.

We got the sopping wet gear out of the canoe and into the car, marveled at all the shiny new scrapes on the underside of the canoe as we maneuvered it out of the river and onto the roof, and covered the front seats with garbage bags so that our sopping wet selves wouldn’t leave them soaked and muck-crusted. Jeff got the heater blowing and we made for Maple Grove – by way of St. Cloud, which just happens to have a Granite City. “I love you, twenty-four-ounce mug of Two-Pull! I’ll never leave you!” … “I love you, twenty-four-ounce mug of Duke of Wellington IPA! No, really, that other mug meant nothing to me… you’re the one!” The meatloaf was also yummy and amazingly substantial. And there were, of course, waffle fries.

We got back to Jeff’s house and I sorted through our gear so that I could start washing the damp clothes. I had a pint or two of Dunkelweizen while I waited for the laundry. Then I slept the sleep of the just. Over breakfast we looked at the route maps and Crow Wing River websites, still scratching our heads over how the water level estimates seemed to differ from what we’d experienced. Jeff figured that we’d covered seventy-two miles altogether.

Jeff had some great suggestions for filling my last few hours in the Minneapolis area. First we went to the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, which is attached to Como Zoo. I was fascinated with the gigantic lily pads at the entrance, the poison dart frogs and the tailless whip scorpions, the sloth, and the multitude of beautiful orchids. We went to yet another Granite City location for lunch (Thanks Jeff!) where I filled up on my now-standard two mugs of beer. This time I tried the Bleu Peppercorn Burger, which is now my favorite meal at Granite City.

1 comment:

SheepMan said...

hey hugh and jeff...looks like a great trip. you just need some friggin deer to jump in the canoe!

andy zygmunt