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Day 6

Sat. August 2nd, 3:50pm, Helen Lake, Site 173

Today was a day of lessons.

Lesson 1: Never think you know better than the park people.

The 2525m portage from Nellie to Helen Lake gets a longish writeup in the Friends Guide describing a number of options for getting to Helen Lake. Did I memorize it? Did I study it carefully? No. Here's what was going through my head as I see a trail with a couple of logs placed across it as if to say: "not a trail - leads straight to boggy hell," and a shiny new yellow dot marker with an arrow pointing down a bank to a small creek just past a beaver dam.

"I recall reading something in the guide about an option to paddle down the creek and skip the last of the portage, but that that route hasn't been possible of late. This must be the place where you take creek route. Doesn't look like much of an option to me. Better push on."

Unfortunately, I convince Irene of this and on we go. "The trail looks pretty rough," Irene says, lifting her legs over her third fallen tree. "Are you sure this is it?" I answer in the affirmative. After all, I reason, we've seen trees fallen across far more mainstream portages than this. Why would we expect this one to be manicured?

"Are you sure this isn't just a moose trail?" Irene says. "There's animal tracks, but no human ones."

It is indeed starting to feel more than a bit like bushcrashing. And this with a canoe and a pack on your back after 2.something km. I'm beginning to get tired. Yuk.

So we follow what could loosely (if you use your imagination, think laterally, have a little faith and ignore the massive pine limbs thwacking you in the face as you ram the canoe through the brush) be called a trail out into the open.

We emerge in a bog with tufts of tall grass on little lumps of dirt, covering the "ground." The creek winding through it is impassable. Every horsefly and deerfly for kilometres around has converged on it for their annual convention it seems. And, after being cloudy all day, the sun comes out with a vengeance.

We're hot, miserable. Irene's ankle is hurting from our subsequent lesson. I follow the creek a ways, trying to find a point to cross over. The map says the portage crosses the creek and heads over a ridge. I walk a few hundred metres and see nothing. On my way back, I think to myself, "why don't we just trust what the park people say we should do?"

I tell Irene I have two suggestions: go back and follow the friggin' yellow dots, which means backtracking some 300m or so, or bush crash, hop the creek, and try to find a way over the ridge into Helen Lake.

It wasn't a difficult decision.

We went back to the dotted pseudo put-in and discovered, lo and behold, that it is, like the map says, where the portage crosses the impassable creek. So on we go, arriving at Helen Lake exhausted, over-portaged by about 600m but relieved.

Lesson 2: We are mortal.

I am writing this with my left shoulder in a fair bit of pain. And, Irene, sitting next to me reading Jon Krakhauer's Into the Wild has a twisted ankle.

I don't know where I picked up my injury. Irene went over on her ankle on the portage from Leech Lake to Murray Lake. I'm worried about being able to paddle. We don't have a lot of big portages left but we've got a good distance to go.

Lesson 3: There is no Lesson 3.

Today from the top:

We were up by 7am and on the water after a nummy birdseed stew breakfast supplemented by local blueberries.

We paddled down Van Winkle (site #162 looks the best of the three sites on this lake). We did the 120m from Van Winkle to Hanwood. It starts with a sharp climb, and wear pants to avoid prickly undergrowth, but we're not going to complain about the distance - not after yesterday.

Hanwood looks like a beautiful lake. It has one site that looked promising - on an island. On the map it's site #182.

The 150m into Leech Lake (and temporarily out of the park) was easy. Again - pants are good.

Leech - despite the name - is a pretty lake, and despite being outside the park, the portage into Murray Lake is marked. It was on this portage wherein we learn half of lesson two.

Irene picks up and carries on after going over on her ankle. She is made of strong stuff is our beloved Irene.

This is another portage to do with long pants. The raspberry cane, hawthorne, etc etc would leave raw legs looking rather like they'd been to a BDSM party where someone forget the thuddy instruments.

Irene soaked her ankle when we got to Murray. At the putin for the 1470m to Nellie/Carmichael we ran into a multigenerational party of Americans. There were nine humans and a dog in the family, aged everywhere from 15 months to 65.

The grandfather was friendly though not helpful when I was asking about routes and portages. "Oh, we went through this one long lake, and then another one. We came in from a lodge over there, and then we're doing a bit of a loop, and we go straight out of the park that way," he said, pointing over at the portage east of Murray into Howry Creek.

"I take it you're not the navigator," I said.

He asked where we were coming from. I told him. "Oh, I think that's one of the ones were on," he replied. I told him about the campsites.

Meanwhile Irene is working on her ankle. More of the family arrive. A four-ish old, also named Irene, the grandmom, a brother and the family dog, Murphy.

We ask if they have an extra tensor bandage. Suddenly it seems as if they're the great explorers who've discovered natives who don't speak their language.

"Dear," grandpa says to grandma, "These people are looking for what they call a Tensor bandage. I don't know what that is, but I think what they mean is an Ace bandage."

"I think I saw one in the river bag," grandma says. "But if you have a scarf, I can help you rig something up with that."

I'm confused. What's a river bag? Does "ankle" mean "thigh" in American? Is that why I need a scarf? I think of the bandana wrapped around my hat.

"Will this do?" I ask, taking it off and showing it to her. Grandma looks at me like I'm a bit dense. She and Irene set off to fix something up. Irene's being respectful, but I can see she's skeptical.

With bandana bandage in place, Irene makes to haul squeaky (aka Fidel, aka the green Sealine) up to the clearing where I've put the canoe when Murphy lunges at her from behind, clawing at her legs and biting at her ankles. The dog tears a three inch hole in her pants.

The daughter is mortified. "He's never done that," she says. "Can I reimburse you?" Irene declines. The woman asks again, but we really want to get going. The daughter, who seems a bit hung out to dry by her kin, offers to carry Irene's pack. Again Irene declines, though later she admits "that was tempting, but it was such a pig, I thought the punishment too severe for a pair of pants that already had another rip in them."

The portage is nasty. The Friends Guide says of it "This is one portage you will not soon forget for both its beauty and its ruggedness." It's 1440m long but the first few hundred are like climbing a ladder. I found this one much harder to take than the much longer Nellie-Helen portage and David-Great Mountain portages.

To make matters worse, it seems dozens if not hundreds of portagers have looked at the official path and said "You have got to be kidding. There's got to be a better way," and promptly headed off into the bush, looking for that gentle slope, that bit of path with not so much cliff in it.

I took one of these non-paths and if I hadn't spied some of the Idaho Family Robinson trekking back for load three, I would have been screwed.

I reached the end, breathing heavily and sweating pig-like.

A short paddle brought us to a lunch spot on Nellie Lake. It was cloudy, so we didn't get the full effect of the park's clearest, deepest water, but we oohed and awed and cursed the park's reservation system.

"All the campsites on Nellie are open," one member of the Idaho Family Robinson told me as she stomped past with her canoe. You can cancel a reservation with only a minor penalty up until noon on the day the reservation starts. It almost makes you want to carry a cell phone just to see if you can change your reservation reservation en route. Though it's possible the people who'd booked Nellie's three sites for that night just hadn't arrived yet. It was only noon, after all.

After lunch, we set off on the 2525m to Helen, which we managed to convert into a 3100ish. We definitely did this one in the right direction. To us it was a long, gentle - at times steep - trot down hill.

With our little diversion, we didn't get to our site until around 2pm, wherein I discovered the shoulder pain.

Today, like every day, it seems, started off cloudy, with rain threatening. There was thunder and lightning last night (albeit far off). But we've had sunny periods and still no rain, apart from a short downpour on day two.

This weather is actually perfect for paddling. You don't overheat or get sunburned while you're travelling, and it gets sunny for you when it's time to make camp.

Something's on our side, it seems but every now and then it sends us reminders not to get too cocky.

Helen Lake is a worthy lake. According to the map there are three buildings on the island opposite our site. But we can't see them. We glimpsed some people in a red canoe down the lake, but we haven't seen them since.

This night and last were the first two where we've felt like we were alone. You've got to expect that - it's a park, people come here. But still, this feeling of solitude is nice.

We think we have a short day tomorrow. We hope we're right, because with my shoulder and Irene's ankle we basically make up one whole person with two people's gear to haul.

Lesson 4: Don't organize your food on the floor if you have a cat. We keep finding Edgar hairs on all our Ziplock bags. I think it's cute but Irene is concerned about the extra weight.

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