Ryan has been teasing our readers with brief mentions of our time on two of the large lakes that we crossed early in our Mississippi River journey. These stories are now three weeks old, but I’m going to share them anyways because they are interesting AND I have to correct Ryan about the route we took across the first lake (Cass Lake). As the primary navigator during the first three weeks of our trip, I spent a good deal of time looking at the maps and assuring Ryan that we were paddling in the correct direction. Now I hate to spoil your image of our leisure trip down America’s greatest river, but Cass Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish are pretty huge and very dangerous in bad weather. Nearly everyone we spoke to during the first week of our journey remembered to warn us about crossing Lake Winni. Janice Moberg even tried to make Ryan and myself promise we would not attempt to paddle directly across it, but nobody thought to warn us about Cass Lake itself as we paddled away from the Moberg’s cabin that Saturday evening.
At the far east end of Cass Lake is a dam and a campground which is about a seven mile paddle from the Moberg’s cabin. Peter instructed me that after entering the lake, we should simply paddle along the north shore which would lead us to the campground. We left at about 7 pm which should have put us at the campground between 9:30 and 10 pm. Instead, by 10pm we were caught in the dark with large waves and no consensus on which way to go. And did I mention my tripod is at the bottom of Cass Lake??? Here’s what happened:
We entered the largest portion of Cass Lake shortly after 8pm and headed for what I thought was the opposite shore. Instead we were paddling toward the north shore of the lake when we should have been headed east. Just after entering the lake I commented to Ryan how it was nearly impossible to visually determine distance from our perspective because a shore which is two miles away doesn’t look much different than a shore which is four miles away. So true…so true. So after paddling toward the north shore for awhile, we realized that even in the decreasing light there clearly was not a dam in the direction we were traveling. Time to break out the GPS!
Sometimes people get the idea that because we are paddling instead of using a motor, we are somehow shunning modern conveniences like a GPS, sleeping bags, and toilet paper (yes, someone actually asked about that last one)!!! Nothing could be farther from the truth. We brought 370 lbs of gear with us to Minnesota courtesy of Southwest Airlines who still lets passengers check two bags each which we made sure used every bit of the 50 pound limit. The point is that we like our modern conveniences and skimping on stuff just wasn’t in the plan for this trip. Ryan actually brought a 2.5 inch thick form mattress for the ultimate in sleeping comfort!
But let’s get back to the story… Ryan saw some colored lights to the east which he thought was the entrance to the dam. After reviewing the GPS and the DNR maps, I determined a route going directly east would be correct. The colored lights turned out to be fishermen who were trying to squeeze a few more minutes of fishing out of the now dark lake which was increasing turning choppy from the strong northwest wind. The fishermen assured us that we were traveling in the correct direction and pointed out some lights on shore to help guide us to the dam. I didn’t understand their directions so I told Ryan to just stay on our current course and we would be fine. Paddling a boat with two people requires a lot of teamwork because while I was navigating in the front, Ryan in the rear did most of the actual steering. If both parties were not in agreement as to the exact route, a battle of paddling strength will ultimately ensue.
Upon reaching the dark shoreline, we both realized that we still no where near the dam which we had set out to reach three hours earlier. A verbal fight broke out where my skills as a navigator were hotly debated and I’m pretty sure there may have been a few comments about my mom’s former employment in the male “entertainment” industry… (that’s a joke)!
End result: The last part of the route we had to zig-zag to avoid swamping the boat with 3 foot waves, my tripod took an unplanned trip to the bottom of the lake, and we nearly paddled right over the unguarded dam on the end of Cass Lake. There is nothing like seeing a looming dam 30 feet away that you’re about to be sucked over if you don’t make it to shore. I’ve never paddled harder in my life! The morning light revealed Knutson Dam to be rather small, but going over it still would have been absolutely disastrous.
Ryan was (is?) convinced that I had directed us the wrong way. After spending some time with Google Earth in the comfort of a Nashville home, you can see that although we didn’t take the most direct route, we were traveling in generally the correct direction. My angled route added just under a mile to the total trip resulting in a 7.75 mile paddle to the campsite. See Ryan, I’m right! Right?
Ryan’s not here to defend himself as he’s still on the river. For those of you who didn’t catch that bit in a previous post, I have temporary returned to Nashville, Tennessee and will rejoin Ryan further down the river. Ryan’s now learning what it’s like to travel “Mississippi Solo” and he is continuing to shoot footage for The River is Life “survivorman-style.” One of these days you might actually get to hear his tale of crossing Lake Winni…an even more dangerous lake which tested our skills to the max. Keep reading!