Waylaid in Wabakimi… How will we get unstuck? Read on to find out.
The gaseous smoke plume is getting ever larger as I watch. It now begins to take on strange shapes, inflating into monstrous faces that leer back at me. We’ve got to get out of here… now!
I open my eyes to only the dark ceiling above me. Soft crackling from the wood stove. Whuh? Nightmare about the forest fire? Gotta be kidding me. Ugh, cold sweat. Surprised I didn’t wet the freakin’ bed. Must go back to sleep.
Over a late-morning breakfast, Pam and I review our predicament: Our paddling route has dead-ended where a forest fire had ravaged one (if not several) of our portages. With fallen trees everywhere, flames still licking the ground, and smoke veiling the burnout, we’ve sought the shelter of a fly-in fish camp. Thankfully, the place is owned by our outfitter, whose counsel we sought yesterday via two-way radio.
His advice: Pick our way onward through the charred portages and lakes -or- backtrack the 20 miles we’d just paddled on massive Whitewater Lake, taking an alternate route from there. But before making a decision, he’d said, sleep on it. Today’s forecast on the big lake called for mixed rain, sleet and winds upwards of 12mph. We might not be going anywhere in weather like this.
The first option is out of the question for us. We’d come prepared to do some portage clearing—this is Wabakimi after all—but not while huffing smoke and sleuthing around for trails that have burned away to nothing. Not while risking scorched packs and feet on smoldering embers.
But the second option would mean dawn-to-dusk paddling for the remainder of our trip, plus two unplanned days backtracking on the big lake.
Now, having eaten and dressed, we walk to the staff cabin, where we’ll talk again with the outfitter. Along the beach run hundreds of feet of firehose. A flattened mess, it looks like the dead nightcrawlers one finds washed up on the sidewalk after a rainstorm. Just two days ago, the blaze had come so close, that a crew of firefighters had ‘coptered here to lay them, should they need to sprinkle the row of cabins. We’d even been shown pictures taken from the beach, Smoke and flames, visible just above the treeline. Pam and I are amazed they’d not evacuated everyone. Thankfully, the flames had subsided.
Still, with the specter of fire virtually omnipresent along our route, it’s no wonder we’ve seen no bears, wolves nor moose. Moose—our hopes for sighting them had been so high, after all the stories we’d heard in our research. But alas, they’d clearly long since fled the area at the smell of smoke.
Our plan? We dunno. We’re hoping the forecast has changed overnight; that this miniature gale we’re walking through is just momentary. If we must opt to backtrack our route, we’ll need a little more time to muster our energies and let our gear dry out.
“Nobody’s going out on that water today,” notes John, the camp’s lone staffer. Looking out at the whitecaps, he estimates the winds at 12mph already, but the gusts look worse. The outfitter confirms it.
“Yeah, I won’t be flying in this weather. It’s gonna be pretty awful all day. Maybe tomorrow too…” The five-day outlook following that sounds better, but nothing about our next few days sounds good right now—except for the kindness of our hosts, who’ll house us another night. So it seems to be no shocker to them that we’re still unsure of a plan. We need to look at our maps again. Think it over.
Stuck. Marooned. Beached. Even the fishermen several cabins down are laying low. Our vacation is basically over before it’s halfway through. Bottom line, we just don’t have the two extra days needed to re-trace our itinerary. All that remains is to await our bailout via float plane.
My forehead against the picture window, I blankly stare past the windswept scene in front of me. My perceptions and emotions flag about with the leaves and branches. Outside the door, literally, is a boreal paradise, with hardly a soul around. I couldn’t think of any other place I’d rather be. Yet now, I feel a thousand miles from this wilderness idyll. Everything I’m looking at out there is past tense. I’ve officially hit rock bottom. The Griswold Family car’s been pulled over, Aunt Edna’s corpse is on the roof and we’ve been dragging Dinky the dog behind us for three miles.
We radio again around noon. Conditions have worsened outside; another of the fish camps reported snow today? Do tell—it’s been alternately raining, sleeting, even snowing, every twenty minutes here as well. All day. Snow!
But wait now…what’s this? A ray of hope shines out through the storm front: Our ears perk as a third option is offered up.
“I was thinking…I’ll be flying in your area tomorrow, dropping off another customer to the north of you. I could swing by on the return trip, pick you guys up, and just ‘flip’ you over a few lakes; get you past the burnout area.” He’d charge reasonably for the service, as well.
We’ll take it!
Late afternoon. John had earlier invited us to dinner and we’re just killing time now. Outside, the storm rages on, unabated. In the midst of it, a loon sounds its call. Crazy loon, out in weather like this… There it is again, hooting like a lunatic—in fact, a little more like a lunatic and less like a loon. Pam leans towards the window, trying to spot the bird. Suddenly, she straightens up.
“No. Way. You have GOT to be kidding.” she exclaims. Joining her at the window, I hand her the monocle for a closer look.
Two canoes on the sandbar. Four figures standing astride them, embracing and whooping like first-time marathoners at the finish line.
Pam nearly yells it: “I see two pirate hats on their heads!”
Well, buh-low me down.
I whip on a jacket and run out to help our dear Swiss friends bring their boats ashore. Urs, Roland, Daniel and Martin tell me they’d paddled hard from the far corner of the lake yesterday, eventually camping on a nearby island. They’d laid low today until the afternoon, and hit the worst of the weather coming here.
John graciously puts them up in the cabin next to ours.
Dinner with John feels like home. He makes BLT sandwiches and a fresh salad. Dessert is the only ‘special’ thing we can think of to bring: dried mangoes (woo hoo.) No matter; the talk is great. We ply him with questions about his job, his Cree-Ojibwe heritage, and his knowledge of that famed hermit neighbor, Wendell Beckwith. John seems to enjoy the company here on this lunar outpost, too.
After the meal, Martin (the appointed cook among the Swiss) invites Pam and I over for Dinner #2. “You come, we have spaghett!” he says.
And not just “spaghett”—they’re cooking a whole grocery store in that cabin! It’s amazing: bannock, cured meats, dried fruits, Swiss chocolates, gallon-size Ziplocs full of tea. There’s like, a 5-gallon canister of Nescafé…
Acquaintances quickly meld into friendships. Stories and histories are shared. Especially interesting to me is how Urs, a forester by trade, came to bring his friends across the globe to this relatively little-known wilderness. Don’t they have places like this in Europe? Surely, as a forester, he’d know about them?
“We don’t have this,” he says, spreading his arms wide. “These lakes, these woods, the animals… We have some animals; far fewer though.”
What about way up in northern Scandinavia? Lapland and all?
“Most of it is clear-cut. Here… we saw a black bear the other day. We see beavers… There is so much here.”
John soon joins us all, and the more becomes the merrier. There’s laughter and true fellowship; language isn’t even a barrier.
Looking around the room at this assembly of strangers from three disparate lands, John and I share an observation: We have all truly found the Center of the Universe. And by no surprise, it’s in the Middle of Nowhere—the wilderness—a place where solitude teaches you the value of company; where fleeting glimpses of the little things grant you a better view of the big picture; where even chance encounters with your mortality breathe fresh life into your lungs.
How very true, Urs: There is so much here.
Whitewater Lake to Funger Lake.
Morning brings with it an early departure. So early, in fact, that we’re whisked away before our Swiss friends awaken. Wait… no time for a group picture? At all? Really? Good thing we all swapped email addresses last night. A pathetic goodbye wave is exchanged from way out on the dock; our farewell as abrupt as that first hello was. ‘Andy and Pam from the United States’ will never forget these guys.
Before we board the float plane, John hands us a parcel wrapped in paper: A gift? We’re extremely touched by his generosity (crap, do we have any more mangoes we can give him?) Here, too, is a friendship just barely begun; our leaving suddenly feels ill-timed. But what can we do?
Soon, we’re soaring over the wide blue lake, then briefly over the green of the boreal forest.
That’s when we see the Black — over 9,800 acres of it. Trees littered everywhere. Boulders, once draped in moss and lichen, now bare and exposed. Smoke still emanating from the singed forest floor. This was the fire that had chased us, plagued us, confounded us over the last four days.
As we fly over McKinley Lake, I spy a crude scattering of field stones — the foundation of what had only days ago been a cabin. The stones are all that’s left of it; they and a small, orphaned dock.
So this was the fire that had chased us, plagued us, confounded us over the last four days. I can’t really find anything to say for several minutes. By then, we’ve bypassed the burnout and are circling over a landing on the long, narrow Lonebreast Bay.
Once again, the dropoff is very quickly executed, and we’re back in the saddle again.
Despite the rather breezy conditions, there’s a lot to be thankful for. Clearer skies and a trip we feel has been rescued; redeemed. Free again. The day goes happily without incident, and come mid-afternoon, a gorgeous site is spotted in a serene inlet of Funger Lake. No wind. No smell of smoke. Several loons are swimming about. This is finally—mercifully—beginning to feel like the trip we’d hoped to have.
As we begin to prep dinner, out comes the gift from John. The papers are unwrapped. Two freshly-thawed steaks from last season’s hunt. Yes, sad to say: these represent what will be our only encounter with moose on the entire trip.
This feels strange, so out-of-place. We would so rather have seen one alive and flourishing! To have captured only its image—not the the thing itself! Yet we’re reminded of what the hunt means to the hunter. It is providing food for those he looks after, those he cares about most: It is for his Family. Unbidden, he has given us this gift, one that we mustn’t squander or take lightly.
The sun sinks, the wind sleeps and the water stills. Calm. Serenity.
Looking ahead, we still have the big waters of Caribou Lake and other adventures awaiting us these last few days. But for now, all the ordeals of the fire are safely behind. We lay prone in the tent, drinking in the silence and basking in a revelation:
Best frickin’ steaks we’ve ever had.
The conclusion to our Wabakimi adventure will post later this week. Keep watching for it!