There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe (or kayak!), a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude and peace.Sigurd F. Olson
Last weekend, I put my hiking shoes away and grabbed a paddle for a kayaking trip on Lake Namakan in Voyageurs National Park. It’s a monstrous water park stretching over 200,000 acres dotted with thousands of islands made of the exposed rock of the Canadian Shield, metamorphic rock that got its start as lava, was crushed and heated and finally sculpted by glacial activity. These are manifested in large cliffs and porticos or decks at pristine campsites. Inland are wetlands, steams and boreal forest of towering White and Red Pine that’s home to many species including otters, moose, loons, and wolves.
The bulk of this unusual park is lake. Three big lakes. The name pretty much tells it all that these lakes provided a super highway through a land that is almost impenetrable by foot. The first nation’s created a series of portages between the lakes and carried their birch bark canoes on their heads, the practice later used by fur traders as early as the 17th century.
So, why a kayak instead of a canoe?
Because the lakes are so big, wind and subsequent waves can build fast. Having a closed-system boat through the use of a spray skirt – I actually “wear” my boat – waves can crash over without flooding me. Theoretically, I should be able to roll with the waves, but at the moment, I have a bomb-proof brace technique (one hopes) to stay upright.
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We drive up late Thursday afternoon, after I gave a presentation on hiking in New Zealand and glad to stay indoors because it poured all night. This past spring, International Falls and Voyageurs suffered intense flooding and it took a few months to clean up the damage.
Our launch is at Ash River, where I quickly pack my boat. After so many years backpacking, finding spots for all my little waterproof bags in the nooks and crannies of a kayak is a cinch. The air is perfect, the sun warm with big puffy clouds and the wind building following waves that push us along and threaten to spin the boat before my paddle puts a stop to that.
Voyageurs is no longer exclusively for paddlers. Houseboats, speed and fishing boats rush by creating bouncy waves. They expect us, though, and my boat is bright red, so I never felt in danger. Unlike the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, these lakes have navigation buoys – green cans and red “nuns,” plus a few tall white rock markers. It’s rocks, trees, water on repeat. It’s beautiful, but repetitious enough that without map, compass and numbered markers, we’d be lost in moments.
A kayak can pretty well go anywhere, and I particularly love the shoreline where soft fingers of White Pine caress the water and moss in thick fluorescent-green humps edges over rock toward the water. A family of mergansers swim past then begin running on the water to dodge me. The wind feels cold on my skin, but the sun bakes and I allow my hand to dip into the warm-ish water.
We pull up our kayaks in waves onto dirt and set our tents at the site – so grand for this backpacker with actual tent pads, a fire ring and picnic table plus a privy. When I go to get water, one of my companions takes my site for herself. Soon, “Chuck Wagon” is up, an MSR double-hooped non-freestanding tent that’s massive inside and has a huge screened picture window. I notice my consolation prize is an 8×8 blueberry patch.
It turns out we pulled up at the wrong spot and our private beach is just around a peninsula. It’s sandy here and spectacularly calm. My clothes are off and I’m in the water in no time, doing the back stroke to the bay’s opening, where someone has built a cairn at the view. I quickly name it “magic spot” and lay out hoping the passing boat can’t tell what they’re seeing from a distance.
Back and dressed, I explore our wee space. A trail winds through the woods and connects me with another cairn then through a bit of overgrowth to magic spot. A black and gold garter snake slithers past, lifting his head for a better gander at me, his tongue out. He’s thick and I wonder if he just ate.
The trees are thick with birds, though quieter than the Superior Hiking Trail. A Black and White Warbler sings his complex melody as a Blue Headed Vireo chortles. Mostly, it’s an island of White Throated Sparrows, hidden but loud, one beginning a major triad reveille, completed by another it in flute-like clarity.
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I collect wood and fuss around with dinner then convince everyone we need a sunset paddle, mostly because tomorrow calls for thunderstorms all day. The sun is intense reflecting off the lake, but we turn soon around the island in a small “circumnav.” Loons call as they fly over us. An eagle stands erect, his white head peeking above the messy-hair top of a white pine. We’re slapped my beavers and several dragonflies hitch on for a ride.
The water is perfectly calm as the wind dies. There’s a hypnotic feel to paddling; gently placing the blade into the water and pulling yourself forward. I use a skeg which leaves my feet free to gently tap the foot peddles and get a smoother and straighter stroke. I can move fast, but mostly, I try to move straight and have full control of my boat as if an extension of my body.
We speak of the “paddler’s box,” an area out from the arms as if a hoop skirt were hoisted under he arms. It matters because the stroke comes more from the core than the arms. Highly efficient, it allows the strongest part of our body to heave us forward and thus lessen the load on our upper body.
I look longingly to tiny islands, no more than a dome of rock with opportunistic pines sprouting from their bald pate. No one is interested in exploring so I file it away for another day and paddle in an adjacent bay. Seven guys sit in folding chairs sit by a houseboat and offer me a beer. It’s a bachelor party and I wonder if they’re regretting choosing wilderness over, say, Las Vegas.
As promised, it rains all night and then some. The morning offers a small reprieve and I encourage everyone to take advantage of the lull for a potty break and breakfast before thunder rumbles and it starts right back up.
Note to self: Always bring a good book. I packed Eric Weiner’s “The Geography of Bliss,” a sensational book by an NPR reporter traveling the world to discover the secret of happiness. He’s witty and keeps me turning pages as I snack on all my junk food inside my cocoon of contentment (tent).
It’s not exactly an all-day affair as the rain lets up long enough for us to explore another island, dipping into a bay of heaving cliffs of gneissic migmitite in swirling colors as if ice cream on a slab. A hummingbird visits some Joe Pye Weed, buzzing loudly, his tail gently twerking for balance. He lands on a nearby branch and peeps at me.
I slip into the water for another swim, then cover up as the mosquitos find us. Kayaking allows for more stuff, and heavier stuff including a tiny folding chair that feels luxurious by the fire. Above us, dragonflies hover as they feast. The sun glows pink on the water. I’m up later than everyone else and head to the swim beach for a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Fireflies are so bright, their glow reflects on the water.
Our plan is to paddle to an historic bar at Kettle Falls, but the wind is intense and we settle instead for two resorts, now “points of interest:” Hoist Bay and I.W. Stevens Resort. These are modest plots of hand-built wooden buildings. Stevens had the requisite sauna, but he stayed on the island all winter. Even our island once held a fish camp which was inhabited by a single woman – even in winter – for many decades.
Turning this area in to a national park didn’t come without controversy. The park service made promises to buy land and slowly ease family’s off, but ended up breaking those promises and instead threatening eviction. It would take over 30 years before a new superintendent came on the scene and began mending fences.
Still squabbles continue over whether to allow jet skis or snowmobiles and the long sough after economic boom is still a chimera. As we paddle, we see several private property signs. My assumption is these people refused to leave and are squatting until they die. Fair enough. They were here first. But Voyageurs is nothing like the pristine wilderness of the Boundary Waters or Quetico. Just to prove the point, our bachelors set off a firecracker – more like an explosion.
The idea for a park was about 100 years old before it was established in 1975 and I remind myself that the relative emptiness of the place is actual not historic. First people’s lived here, and the place was booming with the fir and timber industry. Likely none of the towering trees I see are old growth.
It’s hard to leave, but everyone wants to get home to their dogs. Our winds are mild and in our face, making it hard work, but easy to control the boat. Most fun is rounding a corner on the myriad island and inlets where the waves become confused like a washtub and throw the boat around. We avoid one long peninsula by pushing through an iris-choked channel, heaving our bodies to send the kayak over a berm of mud.
The clouds are magical, puffy and heavy in a long line towards the horizon. In a small bay I notice the white glare of a lily attached by a stem as thing as a rope to the bottom of the lake. Just as we approach the long channel that joins Namakan to Lake Kabetogama, six brightly colored kayaks appear. It’s our friends!
We raft up and share stories, a perfect last day for us becoming their first with a week of rain awaiting. But they seem energized and ready, actually planning to stay at our exact same site. Don’t miss the magic spot! …or the blueberries! Park your boats on the beach then go swimming! The stars are amazing…and we left a whole pile of kindling for you.
After we go, I smile, tired from paddling into the wind but ready now for new adventures.