BWCAW 2007 – Day 6

Synopsis: Thomas Lake to Ima Lake. 4.36 miles paddling plus 4 portages totaling 111 rods.


Today’s map.

Base map courtesy USGS; overlay by Reid Priedhorsky.
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If you guessed that the weather would improve... you were wrong. It drizzled on and off all night, though when we got up it had stopped raining and we didn’t have to eat gray mush in the rain. It was windy, though.

Packing up was cold, but we’re used to that by now.

Fortunately, however, the wind was out of the north and we would put in on the lee side.


Loading the second boat.

Photo by Reid Priedhorsky.
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Hanging out waiting for the last boat. It’s cold.

Photo by Bill Priedhorsky.
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Rounding the western tip of the island, preparing to head the mile-and-a-half north across the main body of Thomas Lake.

The rightmost patch of trees is where yesterday’s photos from the “north shore” were taken. The leftmost patch of trees is another island. In the distance you can see what is in store: the far shore is obscured by precipitation. You can’t see the whitecaps in this photo, but they’re there.

Photo by Bill Priedhorsky.
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Once out of the protection of the island, it was a nasty and cold uphill paddle directly into the wind. We paddled towards the lee of a small island and then towards an intermediate shore, in order to avoid the whitecaps visible to the right. It began to snow lightly, then eased up.

We regrouped in the lee of that shore, then rounded the point and headed out into open water again, directly into the wind. It was awful. The waves weren’t big enough to be dangerous (we had bypassed enough fetch), but water started falling from the sky again and was blasted into our faces by the wind. It alternated between rain, snow, and sleet.

In the middle of the lake, I hit a rock. Fortunately Jan was able to step out of the bow onto it and push us off.

Once on the other side, Andy informed me that the crossing had bumped Kek from second place on his worst crossings list.

We made a drizzly portage over to the stream which led into Hatchet Lake, then another shortly.


Cascades along one of the portage trails.

Photo by Jan Studebaker.
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Paddling down the stream.

Photo by Jan Studebaker.
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Andy and Rick on Hatchet Lake.

Photo by Bill Priedhorsky.
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Me, Marilyn, and Jan on Hatchet. It was bright and sunny but freezing cold.

Photo by Rick Kelley.
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Once across Hatchet, we pulled into a sunny, calm portage landing for the 50 rods to Ima Lake. It was about 11:00 when we began the portage.

I was under a canoe, and it seemed to get a bit windier as I reached the high point on the portage trail. A bit further along, the wind noise increased and suddenly I was spun around and nearly blown over.

Suffice it to say that conditions on Ima Lake were ridiculous.


Jan puts down some gear while I look dejectedly at Ima Lake. I am probably watching the next round of snow and rain blow in.

Photo by Bill Priedhorsky.
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We decided to return to the other side, have some lunch, and wait. It started raining again.


Bill: “It looks like the Atlantic Ocean”.

Photo by Jan Studebaker.
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Jan in the cold and rain.

Photo by Bill Priedhorsky.
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We wandered back to the other side, where it had stopped raining, and had a nice, leisurely lunch.



Photo by Bill Priedhorsky.
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Returning to Ima Lake after lunch, not much had changed. It was still blasting wind and freezing cold, with waves pretty much as tall as houses.

It would be a long afternoon.


Otter in Hatchet Lake.

Photo by Rick Kelley.
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Sunny and calm on Hatchet Lake.

Photo by Reid Priedhorsky.
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Jan sleeping.

Photo by Rick Kelley.
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Adorable frog.

Photo by Rick Kelley.
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Around 4pm we held the last of several discussions on what to do. It was a critical point: we had decided earlier that if we were to cross Ima that day, we had to start by 4:30 in order to have enough light to set up camp on the other side. The choices were, basically, to cross Ima despite the conditions, or to return to Hatchet and stay overnight. The former would be difficult and dangerous; the latter would make a very long paddle out the next day, there were only two campsites on Hatchet and at least one was occupied, and if the weather did not break tomorrow we would be that much further in when we needed to be getting out.

We chose to go for it. In retrospect, I believe this was the wrong decision, even leaving out knowledge of Day 7 weather. (I should also note, for the benefit of any mothers reading this, that the risk of actually getting killed was quite low, even in retrospect.)

So, we trudged up and over the portage once more. I was scared. The plan was that Dick and Bill would go out first, and if it was unmanageable they would turn around and come back. Otherwise, they would strike west-southwest towards the lee of an island near the south shore, which was about a half mile distant, slightly left of directly into the wind.

We loaded them up and pushed them off. They bobbed crazily out of the landing’s steep cleft, Bill gave a rapid, jerky wave with his paddle, and a few more strokes took them around the cliff and out of sight. We quickly loaded Andy and Rick and they bobbed similarly around the cliff.

Then, it was Jan, Marilyn, and my turn. I had previously given Jan and Marilyn instructions: they were to paddle as hard as they could on the side that I directed, and if I gave a command to change sides they were to do so immediately. We loaded up and pushed off.

It was terrifying. Task 1 was to navigate the erratic cross-waves around the portage cleft and get away from the cliff, Task 2 was to turn crossbeam far enough to point towards the island, and Task 3 was to survive the wind and waves long enough to reach it.

There was a lot of shouting. Twice a minute or so I would yell at the top of my lungs at Jan to switch sides (“JAN ON THE RIGHT!!!!!”). At less frequent intervals Jan would bellow, “WE’RE TAKING ON A LOTTA WATER!!!”. I would also yell out our current speed sometimes. The GPS unit was a huge motivational aid for me personally — by all other cues, we were apparently sitting still, unable to make progress against the wind and doomed to either paddle like mad in the middle of this crazy lake forever or execute a difficult and dangerous 180-degree turn and then attempt a ridiculous landing back among the rocks. But, the GPS showed us making a fairly steady two miles per hour. I thought that was pretty extraordinary, frankly, given the conditions.

The first few hundred yards were the worst, but then I figured out that the situation was managable, that we would probably make it within 15-20 minutes, and we just had to paddle hard and not screw up. I had two basic tasks. First, keep us on a reasonable course towards the island, which was tricky because the canoe’s direction was totally unstable due to the waves. The canoe wanted to go either directly into the wind, sending us into the middle of the lake, or directly crossbeam, where there was dire risk of capsizing. That was my second task: don’t flip the boat. I quickly learned to watch for big waves and turn the boat to take them head-on, then turn back and continue. I was only caught off-guard once, but fortunately we didn’t go over.

About halfway across, a guy came out of the woods on the island and watched us. Then we saw two more, at the campsite on the lee side of the island. I assume they were watching to see if a recue was necessary.

Anyway, we finally reached the island’s wind shadow and pulled into calm water. We landed at the campsite and the three guys helped us pour the water out of our canoes.

Andy later informed me that I’d successfully topped his worst-crossing-ever list.

Here’s Andy’s take on the crossing:

It’s difficult to tell from the pictures, but from the portage put-in, there was a large rock to the left. What this meant was that there was about 10-15 feet of semi-calm water, and then the large waves fully hit you. We were headed to the left, and it was also the case that once a boat rounded the corner, it was no longer visible. Reid and I bravely sent the canoe without either of us in it first. They paddled out the 15 feet, started bobbing madly, then rounded the corner.

Rick and I were up next, so we quickly loaded up. I was waiting for Dick and Bill to come back into view, either pushed by the wind and waves, or with a capsized canoe, but neither happened by the time our canoe was loaded, and so we pushed off as well. As we rounded the corner ourselves, the wind hit me full in the face. I had felt it earlier, when we scouted the lake by climbing over the obscuring cliff, but now I was in a canoe that was riding the tall waves, which made it quite a bit scarier.

To my surprise, Dick and Bill’s canoe was actually about 100 feet ahead of us. It surprised me because it looked like a remarkable amount of distance that they’d covered in such terrible conditions. Having been in a similar situation before, I knew that my main goal was to keep the canoe from being turned crossways to the waves. The wind had other ideas, which made for an extremely tiring paddle. On top of that, somehow the strange topography of the lake with the island we were heading towards made it so that although most of the large waves came from one direction, every once in a while a large wave came at the canoe from about 20 degrees starboard, which also pushed us crossways to the waves. After a few minutes, I learned to watch for particularly large waves coming from that direction and turn the canoe into them.

In the face of the wind and waves, Rick occasionally yelled, “This is a pretty stupid idea!” He was right each time.

As an aside, the main reason that this lake crossing topped my other worst lake crossing was because the other time we chickened out earlier. I believe that the conditions were worse in the other case, but we simply gave up before it became too exhausting. The consequences were more of a pain, though. (Carrying Duluth packs up a hiking trail, as opposed to a portage trail, is quite difficult.)

And Bill’s:

The first leg onto Ima Lake was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. We had convinced ourself that the waves had calmed in the course of the afternoon, although it was probably not true. The portage let out onto the roughest part of the lake, where waves entered a funnel between the cliffs, and the incoming waves were reinforced by reflections from the shore.

Unfortunately, I loaded myself far forward to lean over the water for a better paddle angle. Once we had committed to the lake, I could not adjust myself farther back, and we could not turn to return to the portage. Our canoe tipped forward, as I significantly outweighed my companion, Dick Opsahl, in the stern. Every big wave brought water into the boat, and as we sunk deeper, the intake increased. I paddled as hard as I possibly could, and we could see shelter, the lee side of an islet, a few hundred yards ahead. With just 100-200 yards to go, we had several inches of water onboard. I paused and we began to wallow, feeling seconds from capsizing.

Fortunately, Dick, an experienced canoe hand, yelled at me to paddle, and the interaction of the paddle with the water restored a little balance. The waves slowly died as we approached the lee side, and the native Minnesotans in camp, standing ready to help, watched as we turned the canoe over to drain it.

The fall water was fairly warm and we were lifejacketed, so we were probably not at risk of our lives. But the shore was rocky and forbidden, so we faced soaked or lost gear and a cold night a long way from home. Paddling to prevent disaster was a focused moment that I will not likely forget.

The men at the campsite told us that they though the other site on the island was free. After a brief interval, we pushed on to check it out. I was worried about what lay in store once we rounded the corner and were in the wind again, but surprisingly it was not so bad — quite windy and choppy, but nothing like what we’d just experienced.

Sadly, though, the campsite was a loser. It was spacious and had a great view but had absolutely no wind cover and was very cold and windswept. Given the improved conditions (due to less fetch, lower wind, or whatever), we decided to keep going, and we could now run directly into the waves.

After a breezy but uneventful crossing of the second half of Ima Lake, we found a great (if muddy) campsite behind an island on the western shore.


Setting up my trusty Half Dome 2.

Photo by Reid Priedhorsky.
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Marilyn and Dick at the center of camp.

Photo by Bill Priedhorsky.
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View from our “front porch”.

Photo by Dick Opsahl.
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We made supper (including not one but two chocolatey desserts) and went to well-deserved bed.

Please continue reading on Day 7.

Copyright © 1999-2013 Reid Priedhorsky. Last modified: 2010-01-31 22:02 CST. Disclaimer.