I left work as planned about noon last Wednesday and made it to Mackinac City that evening, time for a couple of brewskies in a town pub. After a 5 hour nap in the van I resumed driving and arrived at Chief Woodenfrog campground about 2pm. 20 hours actual driving time.
The campground was deserted. Out of 70 campsites only one had an RV on it; things were looking good. I just strung up the tarp and slept in the van so that I could launch early Friday. Weather was cool with intermittent showers, but more importantly the winds were light when I launched. I should add that packing the yak was a real chore. At home I had no difficulty, but the cool temps made the rubberized plastic on the dry bags very stiff and they would not fold like they did at home. I'm afraid in my forced efforts to cram things in, I may have dislodged the foam bulkhead, separating the watertight seal I caulked around the edges. I leaked water from the cockpit the whole trip - or a hatch is leaking. I'm going to have to run some tests.
My initial course was west toward the Gold Portage, but to get to the river entrance I had to navigate through a maze of islands, something I would eventually become much more adept at doing. This first experience was clumsy. It took awhile to get used to the scale of the charts, I was covering a lot more distance than I thought. After floundering around paddling up dead-ends, I consulted my old GPS, one that lacks any basemap. I had used Google Earth and preloaded some waypoints, one of them being the entrance to the river. Not knowing how accurate this procedure would be, I was hesitant to rely on it. But it turned out to be spot on and took me right to the river.
This river runs north, so I was going with the flow and soon reached the dock where you take out for the portage. You could hear the rapids/falls around the bend. Carrying the drybags was just like the BWCA, a piece of cake. But that kayak was another story. Worst part of it all was the terrible mud at the put-in. By the time I got back on the water, I was filthy, the boat was filthy, and the paddle was covered with a muddy grit that would not easily wash off.
The river ran through a sea of reeds, like from the movie African Queen. Once it opened to a big bay I almost made a costly navigational error in my search for the narrows leading into Rainy Lake. Only an approaching motorboat made me reconsider my course, and correct it. I was learning quick to ignore my usual infallible sense of direction and rely on compass headings and constant attention to the chart. I took a few minutes and set up the chart on the deck under the decklines (Chart is waterproof) so that I could simply look down and consult it at a glance. This became the procedure for the entire trip. You absolutely had to keep track of your progress or else it became very difficult to figure out where you were.
After a few minutes on the new course I could see the Rainy Lake Visitor Center, confirming my course. The visitor center made for a nice pit stop and allowed me to refill water bottles without having to break out the filter. Again, no one was around, the park appeared at this time to be almost empty. Except for the one boat, no other person or occupied boat had been spotted.
Leaving the VC, I almost made another navigational error paddling out into the main body of Rainy Lake, missing the passage to the east that was my goal. The scale of the map in relation to my expectations was rapidly becoming clearer, and from this point things began to fall into place directionally. What saved me was a high-speed motorboat flying down the passage, drawing my attention to what I was about to pass. This was another experience where the motorboats helped me.
You have to bring a separate set of expectations to VNP. If you expect pristine wilderness, you will be disappointed. But there is good and bad in this park management philosophy for the paddler, which I'll talk more about later. I was intending to camp at an official park campsite, but after checking three and seeing them all occupied, I gave up and selected a small, nameless island in Rainy Lake. It turned out to be a very nice place to camp, someone had obviously used it before and left a fire ring. Day one was done, great weather, calm water, and about 15 miles and a tough portage covered.
Like a lot of the north country lakes, the hazards for power boaters are many. Often far from shore underwater boulder piles lurk just beneath the surface. The park service has installed a series of numbered buoys that describe a route completely around the peninsula. Usually this route is far out in the main body of the lakes, and the paddlers can avoid these high-speed traffic lanes by slaloming amongst the islands.
Seldom did I see a power boat outside the buoy lanes, only locals that knew the water did so at anything above trolling speed. That being said, the power boats were simultaneously annoying and impressive. They were driven at incredible speeds, it seems any engine under 75 HP must be illegal, with the preferred range in the triple digits. They sent up a banshee howl similar to the Formula 1 racer. While the wilderness enthusiast in me recoiled at the shattered silence, the guy in me was awestruck at these machines and the speeds they reached.
After a night of being serenaded by loons (btw I saw and heard more loons on this trip than any to Maine or the BWCA), my peaceful breakfast was interrupted by a literal train of power boats roaring uplake. The island I camped on was well out into the lake, and I could see the traffic lane from my campsite. Had I chosen an island closer to the mainland I would have had a buffer, but make no mistake you would still hear these beasts such was the sound. The boats were spaced about 100 yds apart and through much of the early morning they headed for some unknown fishing hotspot further uplake. Never did find out where they all ended, I only saw them underway and never a concentration of them anywhere fishing. I can imagine during peak season this racket might be intolerable, it was ok in the off-season, and provided me as a solo paddler a little comfort in knowing that I could get help if needed. The VHF band was alive with chatter so I knew I could call for assistance in the event of a calamity.
Setting out early, I anticipated a big mileage day. The stretch along Rainy Lake was the most exposed on the trip and I was anxious to take advantage of good weather. With a slight tailwind I made excellent time, far exceeding my anticipated distance. Navigating amongst the hundreds of islands was very tricky and required constant attention. At the end of the day I recognized that for the first time in long while I thought only of what I was doing, not fussing over work issues, and felt mentally refreshed at the break. But at one point I was so flummoxed at my position that after whispering an apology to Muir, Leopold, Abbey, Adams, Marshall and the like, I paddled out into the lake to read a number off a buoy. Now I knew exactly where I was.
I successfully rounded Soldier Point, a milestone for paddlers because it puts you into the open lake with a three mile open water crossing to continue. Many have had to wait here for calm weather, for me there was barely a difference in sea state. That night I found one of the designated sites unoccupied - an excellent, secluded cove with a sand beach. Again, the purist may recoil, but the picnic table was welcome and the waterproof bear-proof locker was great to throw stuff in for the night.
When it rained that evening, it was nice to know everything was dry and secure. A brief but violent storm passed and I watched Rainy Lake turn into a wild wave-tossed cauldron in minutes. Really glad to be off the water for that one. If you had been too far from shore, there would not have been time to seek shelter. I watched a small fishing boat struggling out in the lake, amazed that no one on-board donned a PFD. Nuts. I should add that the power boat description should fairly indicate that there were long periods of calm and quiet. The boat traffic for the most part was in the morning and evening, with only occasional traffic during the day. And the paddler was able to get pretty far from the lanes except when the routes converged at choke points. But again, in peak season it might be a different story. Distance covered today was in excess of 20 miles.
Day three contained a bizarre experience. The day was very unsettled: sun, rain, sun, repeat, repeat again and again. The rain showers were benign so I ignored them and continued paddling. But at one point over my shoulder came this loud, deep rolling thunder. I looked behind me and close by was this isolated but very nasty thunderstorm. There was no warning, no distant thunder to warn of the approach, all of a sudden it was on me. Cloud to ground lightning flashed and I knew I had to get off the water pronto.
Landing sites were few, but my chart showed a small cove ahead that may or may not provide a beach. Before I could get there, the skies opened, blasting me with a wall of wind and water. This propelled me around the point and into the cove. Incredibly tied up to shore was a huge houseboat! The occupants spotted me and a couple of guys came out on the enclosed back porch and began frantically waving me aboard. I skidded up on the beach, popped the spray skirt and dragged the yak into the trees. Then I sprinted to the gangplank and in less than a minute, I went from fearing for my life to sitting in a warm living room with a cup of coffee and a peanut butter cookie. Seven guys, a father, sons and some nephews, out for their annual fishing trip. We talked until the sun reappeared and I declined their invitation for lunch, wanting to make it to the Kettle Falls Hotel. Which I did about mid-morning.
This hotel is part of the park, operated by a concessionaire and accessible only by boat. The place was open but deserted. I entered the lobby and began to poke around. Eventually a guy came out and I asked if the restaurant was open. Yes indeed, though I was the only customer. I ordered pancake, sausage and eggs, and thoroughly enjoyed every bite. Were it later, I might have gotten a room just for the experience and to tip brewskies in the bar that evening. The bar is famous and I had to check it out before I left. At some point the hotel began to settle on its foundation at that end and the result is a tilted floor that is ridiculous. They have the pool table shimmed up on a pedestal that compensates for the floor. The nickname is the "Tilton Hilton." The hotel also marks the point of the Kettle Falls Dam, requiring a half mile portage. OR you can ante up 15 bucks and they will ferry your boat and/or kayak around on a trailer. Hey I just turned 50, I deserve the break!
The route at this point followed the international border which was interesting. Small white posts were mounted on rocks where appropriate, and the water route was well marked by buoys. You are legal to cross the border as long as you don't set foot on ground. The wind and rain increased but I was comfortable with a full brimmed rain hat and paddling jacket. However eventually I worked my way through the Nutra-grain bars in my pockets and began to chill in the constant cold rain. At some point it occurred to me that I was slipping into hypothermia and that I better take some action quickly. With a shot of adrenalin, I found a landing, set up my tarp, and cooked some pasta and rice. I immediately felt much better and continued paddling until nearly dark.
This had to be a 30 mile plus day, it was simply more comfortable and warm in those conditions to paddle than to sit in a wet, windswept camp. I improvised a campsite on a point of land which looked pretty but turned out to be an unfortunate choice. There must be some underwater structure just offshore because a collection of fishing boats set there all evening, giving me no privacy. I was only 12 miles from my van, but all of it against the prevailing wind in the open waters of Kabetgomama Lake.
I arose very early, before sunrise and launched in the early morning dead calm. As the sun came up the surface was covered by a dense fog and I was very concerned about being hit by a speedboat. I could hear them roaring by, but could not see them! NUTS! Navigation was by dead reckoning compass bearings, which as the fog burned off I could see worked perfectly. I was at the van by 10A, spent two hours drying stuff in the fresh breeze and sunshine, then began the long drive home.
A wonderful trip, really enjoyed it! I recommend this trip for anyone, but it's especially appealing if you want to rough it lightly. The Kettle Falls hotel, the official campsites, and the help available in the event of emergencies all take the edges off a true wilderness trip. But with very little effort, the paddler can escape the people, at least in September, by simply avoiding the main traffic lanes. Some kayakers I encountered said at least one outfitter offers shuttle service around the Gold Portage, making the trip even cushier.