Troutbirder II

Troutbirder II
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Sunday, July 26, 2020

In Retrospect

In the years that have past, since our Steel River trip, many things have changed. Some have stayed the same. My brother Greg has passed on due to cancer but then, we had young families, mortgages, careers to tend to and other responsibilities. We were not as cautious then. We knew of death but didn't believe it applied to us. We were a long ways from help and there were no cell phones. Today age and health issues would definitely preclude me from dragging a one hundred pound canoe up a cliff….   Still, important lessons were learned about perseverance, self-reliance and teamwork. Today my love of nature and wilderness remains. With vertigo and other balance issues at age 79 I don't go fishing and canoeing anymore.  Sigurd Olson and Aldo Leopold still speak to me thru their writings. Should I never again be able to find my way back to those wild places, like the BWCAW, Canadian rivers or the backcountry of Yellowstone, I will continue to rest well knowing they are still there.

The Steel River country has changed a lot in recent years as well. Several major wild fires charred parts of it. Perhaps, as a consequence, bad floods have occurred there. The floods have created huge logs jams, especially in the lower reaches of the river. This all has created the necessity for much longer and more difficult portages.

Although more people are taking this route now the difficulties of travel beyond low or too high water have increased. There are new routes into the area, as it is possible now to just do the river part of the loop and skip the lake section. This means, above all avoiding the Diablo portage up the mountainside. .

My brother Greg unloading the canoe at Santoy Lake, getting ready to head home.
For us timing was everything. We were among the earliest but not the first to make the journey so we had decent information. The river level was just right. We were lucky.
Now, new threats have appeared there as well as in Minnesota.. Copper, nickel and gold mining are being surveyed. There are people today working to preserve this wilderness. I wish them success.

Later, I took my two sons often canoeing on our local creeks, pristine St. Croix River and the BWCAW (Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness). There was also camping/flyfishing trips to southwestern Montana. Those were the days my friends…..:)

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Adventure in the Canadian Wilderness (Part V)

Rainbow Falls

We had a beautiful and  easy paddles the next couple of days.  The fishing was great, lots of wildlife and fantastic scenery.  Serenity  is a rare commodity for many of us.  We had found it in the Canadian wilderness. Mostly just by gliding along, not a care in the world.  We did not see a single person the entire trip.  

Steel River

The river was bigger now and running smooth and strong as by mid-afternoon we approached our moment of truth. Its name was Rainbow Falls.  More a cascade than a falls, it had about a 80 foot drop, we could hear a low rumble as we rounded a bend for our approach.
While the map we were given had its blank spots and inaccuracies, the falls was clearly marked, as well as the portage. We had to run a "ferry" to approach the portage but fortunately there were no mishaps. To the non-initiated a "ferry" is what you do when something dangerous is downstream from you and its necessary to cross a river to a safe landing on the other side. If you go straight across the river, the current may drag you downstream and sweep you over the falls. The trick is to angle your canoe about 45 degrees upstream and then paddle like crazy. The result is to cross the stream without going downstream any further. As I’m writing this post it obviously  worked! 

This is the view from a rock overlooking the falls.

The portage itself was steep in spots but relatively easy going downhill. We stood below looking back at the falls. The power and roar of tons of water rushing over the precipice almost shook the mind. If you are swept over a cascade like this you dead for sure as you bounce off all the boulders on the way down.

We found a nice pool below the second set of rapids and called it a day.  By this time we were not even concerned about catching our supper. The dehydrated food wasn't bad. We boiled our water and added Kool Aid for drinking. We hadn't gone hungry yet.

The walleye fishing had been good throughout the trip and we usually fished from shore during our breaks and when camped for the night. The walleye had come as a big surprise to us, in the Steel River.... THEY WERE BLUE. 

In Minnesota walleye come with yellow or white bellies. We were not aware that a rare blue bellied type existed. The next morning we entered the lower section of the river as the current slowed , the bottom and banks became sandy and the landscape had a boggy look to it.

We paddled on leisurely until we came to the outlet delta into our old friend Santoy lake. There we camped near a sandy beach knowing tomorrow we would cross the lake and return to civilization. The next morning found us up early and after breakfast we headed south into a dense cold fog.
My brother Greg leading the way across Santoy Lake and end of the loop.
Knowing it was a long paddle we followed the western shoreline not trusting our navigation abilities in the fog. There was somewhat of a headwind with whitecaps but we were well conditioned to hard paddling by this time. We arrived back at the Santoy landing landing about 10 a.m. and had a long drive ahead of us to return to the Twin Cities. Arriving back in "Civilization" the two survivors (especially Troutbirder) look rather bedraggled....

It had been a great adventure. I hope you enjoyed coming along.....:)

Next:   Our Steel River Adventure in Retrospect.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Adventure Into the Canadian Wilderness Part IV

 Into the Steel River
Duluth packs and gear stowed and ready to go.

 On the morning of our fourth day in the canoe, we had an easy two hour paddle, completing our long paddle  up Steel Lake, to the first of several portages leading into Aster Lake. Aster Lake formed the apogee of our long circular route. We initially found the river to be smooth sailing . From that point we would turn south and begin thankfully to run the Steel River. We initially found the river to be smooth sailing with only a few minor rapids. If the water had been higher, with sweepers and log jams, it would have been dangerous or have required many more slogging portages. Lower and with rocks and boulders to be avoided, the river would have been too "technical," i.e. crashes into hidden boulders and wading and dragging the canoe would have been the order of the day. As Goldilocks once said it was just right and so was the steel River
Upper Steel River
It was a big relief to be able to follow the strong current thru easy chutes and minor rapids. We had little paddling to do other than some steering and avoiding the occasional rock.
An easy rapids

 At one of the first rapids, where we could see straight ahead to the very end, a duck appeared. I wasn’t into birding then, so I’m not sure what kind it was, possibly some kind of merganser. He would be at the head of the rapids and then dive underwater. His reappearance several hundred yards downstream amazed us at first. This little guy seemed to be leading the way as he repeated this performance several times. The idea was, if this little duck could make it ... so could we!
We sailed thru without a scratch. The scenery was stunning with rocky bluffs and the forest for a backdrop.We liked to set up camp by mid-afternoon as that gave us time to catch our supper and relax around a campfire.

About that time, we found a flat area about twenty feet above the rocky shoreline. It was covered with moss and lichens and looked especially soft and comfortable. This proved to be a big mistake. In our tent, that night, we found ourselves being bitten by a mysterious insect we couldn’t see. "No-seeums" they are called. No-see-um ... yep, you sure can feel-um even if you can't see-um! Apparently we had disturbed their home in the moss. Our only alternative was to spend the night out of harms way, our heads buried in our sleeping bags. Not good as it was too warm and stuffy.

The next morning we began our second day on the Steel River confident we could handle any more challenges. At the crack of dawn it was foggy as usual. The rapids we did encounter would best be described as Class II technical. We checked them out carefully, decided our route and with only the occasional "eddy turn," had no difficulty negotiating them. In those few cases, where we were uncertain as to advisability of running the rapids, we chose to portage. The thought of wet sleeping bags and clothes was not appealing.  And yes we did some fishing along the way. 

Troutbirder eyeing a walleyed pike for supper.....

To be continued...............

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Adventure into the Canadian Wilderness Part III

Steel Lake

The next day we awoke eager to move on. We  followed a narrow winding little creek thru a series of beaver ponds, short portages, lifts over beaver dams and muddy shallow wades, finally into Steel Lake itself. Steel is a very long lake, maybe 12 miles,  oriented on a north south axis. There was a slight breeze and drizzle  out of the West as we followed the eastern shoreline at a leisurely pace.Wildlife abounded here. We saw two black bear, several moose, in shallow bays, munching in the water, beaver and even some playful otter along the way. They basically paid us a little attention perhaps never having seen humans before.

 We had not, however, seen another soul since leaving Santoy Lake. The view ahead consisted of the lake and low hills on both shorelines with many small coves and rocky outcrops.

We didn’t fish much that day as it seemed a good opportunity to cover the miles. According to Ontario Fisheries, Steel Lake is excellent for Walleye, Northern Pike, Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Lake Trout and Yellow Perch. Some days though you just have to keep moving on.
We had seen a few fishing boats "cached" along the shoreline previously that day and assumed some “locals” knew a less strenuous route into Steel Lake than we had pursued. A few isolated logging tracks were known to exist.  They certainly hadn't carried their boats and outboards up Diablo portage. The soreness of the previous day lessened as our muscles slowly became acclimated to the strain.

At about mid afternoon we pulled over about two thirds of the way up Steel and called it a day.  Some skinny dipping was in order to wash off the mud, sweat and assorted grime. That's my brother Greg straight out in the lake from the canoe. Obviously he had not been working on his suntan.It all felt wonderful! Then after setting up camp we dug into our dehydrated food that night for some variety. The  stroganoff was surprisingly good along with some hot cocoa and gorp. We had boiled water to fill our bottles.

Chef Troutbirder touting the stroganoff

My brother Greg stoking the campfire

As the sun set over the western horizon we sat by our small campfire and listened to the sounds of the wilderness.

Some loons were calling long distance. Then a howling. Wolves? The lake was lapping along the shoreline. Quiet now. Time for bed...

To be continued…..

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Adventure into the Canadian Wilderness Part II

 Devil of a Portage

Ontario’s Steel River route makes a giant loop clockwise from Santoy Lake, north of Lake Superior, and back to the starting point. If all went well (including lots of fishing) the trip should take about ten days. We had been told by the "locals" that none of the portages were marked. In the days before GPS systems this would take some skill or a lot of luck. The next morning we began by heading north going up the west side of Santoy Lake. The Devils Portage was a long climb up a very steep bluff to Diablo Lake. This climb of what ultimately would be around five hundred feet gain in elevation and over a mile would make the circle route possible. From Diablo Lake we  would head due north, along a long series of lakes and portages, through some of the most beautiful landscapes in all of Ontario. Then we would turn south into the Steel River drainage, facing rapids and cataracts, to return to our starting point.
Santoy Lake and Diablo Portage
We had difficulty even locating the portage. This route was known by the locals but was not, at that time, heavily used to say the least. There were no trail markers like we were used to in the Minnesota Boundary Waters. The day was warming up rapidly and it soon became obvious to us that carrying a heavy canoe, climbing up a mountainside  around huge boulders the size of cars would be a very difficult struggle.
It was some years before I was able to purchase my 45 lb. Mad River Kevlar canoe, so it was the old battered Alumacraft, weighing over 90 lbs. that made this trip. Then stupidly we didn’t have any water with us as we intended to stock up when we reached pristine Diablo Lake. This and several other errors, like having a heavy axe strapped inside the canoe, began to add quickly to our misery. It was all simply hubris on our part. We were not prepared to challenge a portage that turned into a mountain climb. The portage from hell was basically divided into three parts. The first section was the worst. We must have gained 300 feet in elevation in only several blocks distance. The gradient at that point might have been forty  degrees. Although I have only seven years on my brother, Greg his physical conditioning saved the day. At the steepest points, I pulled the bow and he pushed from below, holding the canoe over his head. When we had to retrace our steps to get our gear, he always took the heaviest loads. The second section was easier but dangerous in that moss and ferns covered the so called trail making each step an ankle twisting nightmare. The last section saw us having to negotiate over and around more huge boulders . Fallen trees and root tangles didn't help either. Four hours later, totally exhausted, we collapsed, having finally reached the Diablo Lake.
Our first priority, after catching our breath, was to rehydrate ourselves. We paddled out into deep water, filled a large kettle, then transferred the water to our bottles and applied the proper awful tasting pills. This was to make sure giardia (beaver fever) did not become a problem. The parasites involved there can create a long-lasting and miserable form of diarrhea. We were very grateful for the water, safe water if not if not the taste. The rest of the trip we boiled all our water to be safe.
Our first campsite on Diablo Lake with me frying up a trout dinner......
It  must be said Diablo Lake itself was absolutely gorgeous. The locals had informed us that it harbored some very nice "specs" (brook trout) and with that in mind we decided to make camp on the first island we came upon. Islands were always preferred because any breeze from any direction would help reduce mosquito attacks. It turned out to be perfect. A swim in the cold water was all it took to make things seem a lot better. Was supper waiting there in the crystal clear water as well? It was. There is nothing quite like sitting by your tent, on a log , cooking supper, a trout dinner actually,  in front of a small crackling campfire, in the lengthening  darkness of the wilderness. A million stars overhead. We heard the haunting cry of a loon in the distance. Life was good.  
To be continued……

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Adventure Into The Canadian Wilderness (Part I)

Well this true story and adventure has been around the block before. And for us bloggers who chose not to Facebook or tweet or whatever,  not to friend and defriend and tell lies and distortions. It's all good.. This particular story leads me back to my blogging beginnings more than a thousand posts ago. Back then when people encouraged me to continue telling stories I did
After Mrs. T's decade-long struggle against Alzheimer's ended in September. I had resolved upon the "new normal"which included renewing old friendships , book reviews, travel and making new friends and hobbies like coloring books . Well I am also the only male member of the Spring Valley ladies book club. The fact though is that my future adventures will be considerably more sedate. Approaching the "new 70"climbing mountains, fishing in powerful trout streams in grizzly bear country etc. etc. will be in of the past. Buying a new and improved camera hopefully but not likely in October you will see some close-ups I have taken of polar bears in Churchill Ontario. I write that because it's our pandemic leaderless as it is is far far worse than Canada or Europe. The borders are now closed to us in all of those
        So now for both new and old followers of this blog let's venture into the Canadian wilderness of years ago and really have a true story. Of danger and adventure. To be certain, the following  story occurred when I young and foolish. Unbeknownst to me, at the time, my young wife, showing more sense than me, and with our first child and a home mortgage in hand, took out a large short term life insurance policy on me and said somewhat skeptically, "go for it tiger."

 Part 1: LaBatt versus Molson (Mid 1970's)

 It was one of famous author Cliff Jacobson’s books on wilderness canoeing that led one of my younger brothers and me to believe "we can do this." We were experienced canoe campers in the semi-wild Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northeastern Minnesota’s Arrowhead Country. "This" was a two man-expedition into the true wilderness of Ontario, north of Lake Superior. We were sure it was not beyond our abilities and experience. The deciding factor was that it was a "loop" route which we would be paddling. No roads, no people and no cell phones in those days in case of serious accident.... you were on your own. A loop route meant we would make a giant arc for more than a week, through a chain of lakes heading north, and then enter the Steel River drainage, completing the circle south to our starting point. Neat idea we thought.

The plan was to drive from the Twin Cities and cross the border into Canada. Then follow the highway, along the northern shore of Lake Superior, till we came to Terrace Bay, Ontario. Here we would get permits and some maps at the local Ranger station and then proceed about 16 miles east to a turn-off heading north a few miles to Santoy Lake. The Rangers told us what they knew about the root but pointed out while we were not the first to explore the route we were close to it and the map they gave us was very sketchy.
I mislabeled the old slide as Steel Lake. I'm on the dock at Santoy 
We arrived at  Santoy early in the evening, and checked out the landing.
It didn’t amount to much but canoes don’t need much either. Santoy was a beautiful lake which stretched north into the distance for more than 12 miles. It would be  some distance  to find our first portage along the western shoreline. We had been warned by the Ranger (among other things) to keep a sharp eye. None of the portages were marked. We headed back to the van for a sandwich supper and intended to turn in early as it had already been a long day and drive. As dusk settled around us, a number of pickup trucks began to arrive down by the lake. Soon a bonfire appeared and much laughter and shouting ensued. Of course, we had to investigate.

It was the Friday night gathering of local pulp mill workers. Discovering that we were Americans, they felt it incumbent upon themselves that they should offer us several choices of  beer. It was Molson or Labatt’s.

As the evening progressed it became apparent to us that one of the most vital controversies facing the Canadian nation, at that time, was the relative merits of each of these fine brands. As the discussion on this sudsy issue became more heated it occurred to me that, at some point, we (the neutral Americans) might be drawn in to "settle" the argument." "Not a good idea," I thought.

I was able to turn the discussion at a few points to the question of fishing along our planned route. Some advice was given but the name of the "Diablo Lake portage" appeared frequently and even ominously it seemed to me. Pleading an early start in the morning, we managed to escape (beers in hand) from further heated argumentation. A "devil" of a portage, they said. How devilish could it be we wondered? We were soon to find out.
To be continued…..

Friday, July 3, 2020

Wilderness Gaffe

It was a canoe trip down the Vermilion River in beautiful northern Minnesota that unfairly ruined my reputation as a skilled outdoorsman. Mr. Science (Gary)  and I had paddled north forty miles from Vermilion Lake to Crane Lake on the Minnesota-Canadian border. 
 There are long quiet stretches of the river that have little current and very few signs of civilization.  In between the quiet water are some  wild rapids and portages with names like  Vermilion Dam, Shively Falls, Everett Rapids, Table Rock Falls, Belgium Fred's rapids, DaCaigny Rapids, Chipmunk Falls, High Falls, the Chute, and the Gorge. Some of these portages are long, but all are well worn. Timber wolves, moose, black bears, beavers, otters, bald eagles and osprey are occasionally sighted. White-tailed deer are common.

Four days of awesome scenery, wildlife and some great fishing had combined to make for a wonderful  late summer outing. During the first three days on the river we had not seen another soul. Then a little incident occured, which when told and retold put my good outdoor  reputation at risk. The river was mostly placid on that fatefull day. It flowed gently through pine forest, and acres of wild rice with an occasional Class I or II rapids. Class I rapids are easy paddling for beginners. Class II means some whitewater which is relatively easy as long as you have the basic skills. Class III means the rapids are runnable for experienced and skilled paddlers. There were a few class III rapids on the Vermillion but we had chosen to portage around all of them. Erring on the side of caution because even though all our camping gear was secured by rope in the canoe, we were not willing to risk getting it all wet. Until the last day that was.
 As my canoeing partner and I stood on a bluff, overlooking a rock strewn whitewater river section of about a quarter of a mile, we made our decision. The water levels were low. It was late summer. This left the river more "technical" than dangerous looking. Lots of maneuvering would be required to safely navigate this stretch which gently curved out of sight to the right. In high water it looked like it would be too dangerous. Now it didn't appear to have any insurmountable problems . We went for it.

After checking to make sure everything was secured properly I took my usual place in the front of the canoe. In a two man white water canoe their are distinct roles to play for the paddlers. The person in the back is the captain of the ship. Kirk of the starship Enterprise. Columbus crossing the uncharted ocean. Choosing the course. Making the big decisions . Left on the river. Right on the river. Eddy turn here. Ferry right there.

 The man in the bow is an ordinary seaman. On his knees leaning forward he takes the short view. With absolute concentration, looking only a few feet ahead he must spot the immediate dangers of rocks, hidden or not, that must be avoided. Seeing that danger, he yells "draw left or draw right," and using a draw stroke turns the front of the canoe away  from disaster. It's a lonely job, fraught with tension, but as they say somebody has to do it. That was my job and I was damn good at it. Especially judging the water as it boiled over hidden rocks. I avoided them instantaneously.

 As we came around the bend of the river there were about 100 yards of rapids before the river spilled into a nice fishy looking pool. I spotted the pool immediately having taken my eye off the rock bed ahead only long enough to notice there was a canoe in the pool and two fisherman busily going about their business. However, the woman in the front was clearly topless. Back to my job, we had covered about half the distance to the pool, when disaster struck. I had navigated between two large but only slightly exposed rocks when we hit a third rock HIDDEN in the flow with a loud bang. Capsizing is always a possibility but in this case we spun 180 degrees and found ourselves traveling the last measure of the rapids going backwards. We entered the the pool in less than elegant fashion. When we had hit the rock I thought I heard someone shout. I turned my head to see where we were headed. Straight towards the young couple who were looking somewhat dumbfounded at our unprofessional approach. The "au naturale" blonde in the bow of the boat was making a panic stricken effort to cover up.
 Laughing at our situation, I was helpless, while my sturdy and somewhat humorless partner had managed to begin turning us away so that at least we would not be colliding with the surprised and innocent bystanders. It was left to me, however, to apologize to these wilderness devotees. The best I could come up with,on the spur of the moment, as we drifted by them was to ask the aforementioned woman, "how's the fishing?" In the years that followed, no matter how my partner told the story, it was always me, who upon seeing the topless canoeist, had lost his concentration. Had failed to attend to his duty. Had almost caused a fatal disaster. All for the sake of a Grecian Goddess of the North Woods. I still deny it all.