Wabakimi Project Trip Report July 25 – August 6, 2009
Paddlers: Jerry Storm, Cook, MN; Dennis Peterson, Cook, MN; Ron Maki, Cook, MN; Vern Fish, Waterloo, Iowa (Report Author)
Day 1 – July 26. We spent the night at the campground on the west side of Fitchie Lake just off HY 599. The next day we headed east on Fitchie Lake to Shallow Lake Portage. The first portage is always hard to find until you “get into the map’. In this case “get into Uncle Phil’s head”. Having spent a week clearing portages with Uncle Phil year before, Dennis knew that the portage would not be well marked and would blend into the forest. Once we started thinking like Phil, the portage kind of pop out of the water in front of us. The portage was not well traveled; it appeared that we might be the only people to date. We crossed a few minor blow downs but the trail was in good shape.
The portage from Shallow to Neverfreeze was also in pretty good shape. We found the campsite on the east side of Neverfreeze. The maps shows the portage being south of the campsite. We could not find the portage to Seldom Lake where it was marked on the map. After paddling around and trying to “think like Phil” we decided to go north of the campsite and try the stream that was coming to the lake from the east. This stream widen out to a small pond before it narrowed down to a very small stream.
Because it was the first day, we let our adrenalin and sense of adventure overpower our powers of observation. We continued to bushwhack up this little stream for the next two hours. At several points we had to lift over rocks and logs. Near the end we had to cut our way through several trees just to keep dragging our canoes upstream. When we arrived as Seldom Lake, we paddled north along the west shore line until we found the portage. Walking west, the portage lead right to the point where we left the pond and started bushwhacking upstream. We had paddled right by the start of the portage!
The map shows this 413m portage starting at the tip of a bay south of the campsite. The map maker has “flipped” the portage arc down to create a “smile”. The arc should be flipped up to create “hat” that starts at the pond to the north of the campsite. This simple mistake cost us at least three hours of frustration.
The portage from Seldom to Brenner runs along the south side of the creek. Again, we missed the landing and ran the creek. At high water this creek was very doable. At low water we would have been bushwhacking for the second time.
The portage from Brenner to Elwood should be marked south of where it is shown on the map. The portage landing is east of a small island and just to the left of the creek. This is a hard thing to see on a black & white map at the scale being used for these maps.
We paddled south to the campsite at the end of Brenner Lake. This is where Dennis, Jerry and I have stayed the year before with Uncle Phil. Almost exactly a year ago we had watched two woodland caribou swim cross Brenner Lake from the east to the west. No luck this year.
Day 2 – July 27. The next morning it started to rain and the wind came up out of the northwest. We packed our stuff and paddle into the wind before turning hard to run down the lake to “our portage”. Last year we had spent most of our time finding and clearing this portage. The landing is marked by bed of blue flag iris. I always feel bad plowing a canoe through these beautiful flowers but I had no trouble finding this portage.
The landing is marked by “blaze”. This was the first portage blaze that Uncle Phil had showed us so it brought back of lot of memories from last year. This portage had disappeared under a massive blowdown. It took a couple of hours to find and mark the old path. It then took over two days of cutting and dragging to clear the route. We had used the cut logs to bridge wet spots. We had plenty of logs so we over engineered the boardwalks. We took great pride in carrying our canoes across our engineering master piece!
The portage ends at “Unnamed Lake”. Last year we had spent a fair amount of time on the other side of this puddle looking for a portage into Savant Lake. There is an abandoned Hudson Bay Company compound on the west shore of Savant Lake less then 500 meters from Unnamed Lake. It was logical that there should be portage linking the Savant Lake to Brenner Lake.
We never found a portage and Uncle Phil did not want to drag his canoes across a beaver dam to try to get into Savant. Jerry and Dennis were willing to carry their canoes over the dams and off we went. With high water this not an unreasonable way to get into Savant Lake. We cross at least one more beaver dam before we pull out a hanging bog in sight of Savant. We pushed, pulled and waded our way into Savant. Again our adrenalin and sense of adventure got us to the other side.
As we paddle around the south end of the bay, I saw canoes and tents on a campsite not marked on the map. As I got closer I recognized tall man wearing a yellow Northface rain slicker, with a distinctive gray beard. As we got closer I could see he was also wearing a Mattice Lake Outfitters hat. It was Phil Cotton. Somehow, against all odds, we had cross paths with Uncle Phil in a wilderness area the size of Yellowstone!
We had discussed the possibility of running into one of Phil’s portage crews but figure it was all but impossible. Phil had been clearing portages from the Canadian National Railroad line to the south. He was preparing to clear a portage from Savant Lake back into the Unnamed Lake!
Like the original voyageurs we climb out of our canoes, shook hands, and introduced ourselves. Instead of exchanging tobacco, Phil’s crew poured coffee. On cloudy, windy cold and rainy day, the sugar, cream and caffeine was welcome. For the next hour we caught up Uncle Phil’s activities. We pulled out our maps and reviewed our plans for the rest our trip. Phil asked if we had planned to visit Savant Falls, the largest waterfall in the Wabakimi Wilderness. He showed us how to get there and we marked the route on our maps. Finally we gathered around the fire and someone set up a camera with a 10 second delay for a group photo.
You go into the wilderness to “get away” from society and the press of people. However, when you run into a kindred spirit who shares your passion for open spaces you rejoice in the opportunity to share the moment. To find the guy who drew the maps you are using to explore this wonderful area was magical. We all hated for the moment to end but we also want to press on and push deeper into Wabakimi.
We pushed off and paddled across the little bay to the Hudson Bay Company fort. As Phil noted, there was not much to see. It is open area void of trees but the remaining low vegetation made it next to impossible to see any outline of the compound. A few cherry trees at the back of the site were the only clues that marked this historical site. Phil’s research indicated that this site was still active in the early 1800’s. To the causal observer it was hard to see the historical significance of this site. For me it was good enough just to be able to stand on a site that had been occupied for 300+ years.
Now it was time to buckle down and test our paddling skills. The wind was howling out of the northwest and we need to run straight north on Savant Lake. Savant is a big lake and we needed to run the length of this long body of water against a quartering wind. By ducking behind islands and hugging the west shore, we began the process working our way to the north.
Savant is also “fly in lake” with outpost cabins on Turtle Island. It did not take long before we were visited by anglers in a power boat. As usual they could not believe we were trying to paddle in such rough water. Two of them were from northwest Iowa. They offered to share their walleye catch if they could find us later. We keep looking for a place to stop for shore lunch and finally settled on a small island. With no open place to sit we ate lunch standing up.
We pushed north of Falcon Island by weaving behind a series of islands and points along the west shore. After crossing one last big bay, we were finally sheltered from the wind. By now the anglers had caught up with us and left us with six extra walleyes, fish for supper!
The campsite we had worked so hard to reach was high on a bluff at the very end of the lake. Last year this was the last place we camped with Uncle Phil before the float plane landed and took us back to civilization. We forced our cramped legs to climb the hill. The fish were cleaned and Jerry, the cook, prepared a first class wilderness dinner. After a shot of distilled beverages, we settled back to enjoyed the view. According to Phil, the two lumps by the fireplace are the graves of voyageurs. I made a point to pitch my tent back in the bush.
Day 3 – July 28. None of us had ever been north of Savant Lake, so today all of us were entering new territory. We said good-by to the High campsite and its two graves and prepared to paddle down the Little Savant River to Velos Lake. We passed through three small swifts to reach a west facing cliff. Phil had told us last year that his historical research had indicated that the voyageurs gone straight up this cliff with ropes! He had created a zig-zag route up north side of the cliff until he found the trail at the top.
We found this trail but only because Phil’s yellow survey tape was still hanging at key junctions. Because this portage runs along bare rock in places and is not well traveled, it is VERY easy to miss a turn. Plus, this is long portage at 771 meters. The route was clear but I will admit that I lost track of where I was at least twice. Little Savant Lake had a house on the north shore that really seemed out of place. It was a great landmark but it made me want to paddle faster to get back into the wilderness.
The run down the Little Savant River to Compass Lake and beyond was a confusing series of portages, campsites, pools, rapids, swifts and beaver dams. This stretch of water was one of the highlights of the trip for me. It is a beautiful little stream that boiled over little rapids and waterfalls to fill small pools and ponds. The fire pits were green with vegetation and portages were not well traveled. I gave up trying to figure out which swift or beaver dam I was crossing and just enjoyed the scenery and isolation. We may have been the only party to pass through this season. If I ever make it back to this route, I would plan to spend a night somewhere in this chain of water.
Day 4 – July 29. We camped at the last campsite before the portage into Velos Lake. At this point we had decided we wanted to go west and south to see Savant Falls and not go north to Redmond Lake. The map shows two swifts on both sides of the island going into Velos. The south swift was blocked with cedars so we back tracked and went around the north side of the island and ran the north swift. The next portage by-passed a series of small rapids and swifts. A brave soul in a stout boat could run this water and save a portage. However, when one is this far into the bush on a route that has not been traveled, it is better to portage then patch a damaged canoe.
The day was bright and sunny as we paddled west on Velos Lake. Phil had given us directions to Savant Falls because this route was off our maps. Dennis had topo maps that showed where the falls should be but we did not have any detailed maps with portages. Thus, we were sort of going off the map. We followed Velos Lake until we came to “pinch” on the south shore. This narrow spot was both a portage into the Savant River and campsite for fly in anglers.
We found a tied up boat and lots of fresh garbage. It must be a law of physics or at least a common theme that an empty beer can is harder to carry out then a full can. No one left us a cold beer but we found lots of empties. There is also an inverse relationship between being able to drive or fly into a site and the level of respect someone shows for the resource. Phil had mentioned that his crews had collected, bagged and flown a lot of garbage out of these lakes. Obviously, it was a never ending task.
We enjoyed our shore lunch, portaged and pulled out the fishing gear. The plan was to fish our way down to the falls and arrived with dinner. As we fished and floated, a rumble in the distance became louder and louder. When we turned to the west we started to see flashes of white and reflected light. Not knowing if the water came into this lake or dropped out of this lake, I started to pay more attention to the roar in the distance. The last thing I wanted to do was drift mindlessly into a rapid that feed my little canoe down the “biggest waterfall in Wabakimi”.
Jerry and Dennis were dedicated anglers. They were catching fish. Ron and I were doing a far better job of soaking the sun and missing strikes. As we got closer we could see the falls coming into our lake. The campsite was just to the west of a very impressive waterfall. The site came with accessories and improvements. There was a wooden frame for a tarp, two fish cleaning stations and the most disgusting privy set up I had seen in a while. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to tie a couple of logs between two trees and attach a toilet seat. The problem was no one had made an effort to create a pit or to cover the “drop site”.
The weather was beginning to chance rapidly. Jerry and Denis used the frame to hang the tarp. Ron and I started cutting and splitting firewood. Jerry produced another backcountry banquet and we settled in for what would be a cold, wet night.
Day 5 – 7, July 30 – Aug 2. Time and distance become a little fuzzy for the next few days. The temperature dropped precipitately and rain poured continuously for three days. I was reminded of the first time I read a book by Sigurd Olson. He talked about being “wind bound” at the end of Knife Lake. Well, we were wind bound at Savant Falls. The temperature got into the low 50’s during the day and dropped into the high 30’s at night. Between the rain, wind and the low temperatures, the wind chill could not be ignored.
Jerry and Dennis wanted to fish the pool below the falls and I was happy to cut & split wood for the fire. When I was not cutting fuel or avoiding the wind/rain, I explored the portage and the falls. I have lots of digital photos of wet Indian Pipes, soaked moss, damp lichens and spray from the falls. Jerry not only caught fish but he also fixed huge & hardy meals to starve off hypothermia as we waited out the weather.
Day 8 ?? We finally broke camp and paddled back to the pinch/portage to Velos Lake. By now I have stopped trying to keep track of time. The portage out of Velos and into McCrea was confusing. The map shows two portages, a 58m and 74m. We missed the upper portage and had a heck of time finding the lower portage. Again a brave soul in a stout boat could have run this water but age does bring some common sense to the wilderness.
As we made the final portage into McCrea we ran into three canoes going into Velos and power boat fishing the pool below the rapids. When you start running into people paddling towards you with full packs, you can assume that you are getting close to the parking lot.
We stopped for lunch at the campsite on the island at the north end of McCrea Lake. The site was notable for a very fancy outhouse. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to build this privy. The portage into Pashkokogan Lake is 665m and it is obvious that it was once motorized. We found a very old vehicle at the north end and lots of fresh garbage in middle. I can only guess that the garbage came in by snowmobile in the winter.
A northwest wind was kicking up as we made the portage into Pashkokogan Lake. At this point we were committed to making the next campsite on the south shore of Pashkokogan. We tied down our gear and tucked behind point to the west to hide from the wind. We round this point and cut straight into a series of white rollers. Head down and elbows flying, Ron and I plow into the waves on our way to the next point. We pulled into the calm water behind this point to catch our breath. I used this time to pop another butter scotch hard candy and swig some Gatorade before the next sprint. As Dennis noted, if we flipped, it would not take long before we washed up on the opposite shore.
At this point the sugar and adrenalin had kicked in and the motivation was to get safety to the next campsite. The only option was to paddle hard and keep the packs in the boat. When Jerry and Dennis were ready, both canoes rounded the second point and angled into the wind. Ron took some water over the bow, but both canoes made it safety to south side the next island. A piece of cake, now all we have to do is paddle around the south side of this island and make a short run to the campsite on the next island.
The gap between the two islands did not look that far on the map. However the northwest wind was screaming straight down that gap producing major white caps. The adrenalin high had peaked and everyone was in agreement that it was time for a snack. The only place we could find to land that was protected from the wind was a beaver house. With great care and difficulty we wedged ourselves up on this pile of sticks to eat and rest.
I watched the clouds race by as I tried to think what day of the week it was. After a while everyone just kind of looked at each other and we got back into our canoes. I remember struggling to keep the bow straight into the wind. At least twice I thought the wind was going to turn us broadside to the waves. After what seemed to be an eternity, we pulled safety into the campsite. Looking back to the beaver house, it did not look like we gone that far and the waves did not look that high.
Next day was an easy paddle to the last campsite in the southwest corner of Pashkokogan Lake. After we settled in the wind came up, again. The last day was a short paddle and a portage up to Highway 599. Dennis and I hiked the three miles up to the outfitters to get the truck. We both agreed that we should just go buy some more food and head back out!
It was a great trip with three very experience paddlers. I look forward to paddling in Wabakimi Wilderness again.