This is the continuation of Rhymes with Witch -Part I.
I apologize for cutting off Part I so abruptly. I had little choice. Allegra was like, “K, we gotta go.” And I was like, “K, but I need to write 2 more paragraphs,” and she was like, “K, but I’m you’re only way to get to the river,” so I was like, “K, you’re right.” Anywho, here’s the continuation of Lake Winnibigoshish:
Winnie is a bitch. Let’s get that straight and not use euphemisms. Phillip said so; I thought so; and God even looked down from the sky and said, “Daaaaaaang, dog, that lake is on fire today! I should get on that! Oh wait, house call in the Middle East, gotta run!”
After camping in the Eden of Mosquitoes (Read this; it’s hilarious. See, I’m not the only one who cusses in his posts. This guy’s big-city legit and dropped an F-bomb in the damn title! So back off you foul language player haters!) we headed out per our follow-the-west-coast-to-the-north-shore plan. It was a solid plan. Phillip could not have come up with a better one; but in the words of Dwight Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” When we neared the northwest corner of Lake Winnie, our plans became useless.
“The mouth of this inlet is only a mile across,” Phillip said. “Let’s angle a bit and try to get a little farther northeast. The waves shouldn’t push us out too far, and we can still make that north shore.” Riiiiiiiight. “Shouldn’t” but did. As soon as we were halfway across the mouth, the wind was unbelievable – 35 miles per hour. For those of you who don’t know, that qualifies as gale force wind. So like, um, blowing really hard and stuff. And where there’s wind, there’s waves. Things were looking good… for the first 10 yards, and then we were being blown (tee hee) noticeably east. “Hey dude,” I said. “We’re kinda being blown out here.” “Yes,” Phillip responded, “but what’s the big deal? We’ve dealt with that before. Keep paddling.” I kept paddling. “Hey dude,” I said 2 hours later, “we’re not exactly making that north shore.”
“I don’t know what you want me to do. Just stick to the plan! Do you want to paddle across the entire lake? I sure don’t!” Phil exclaimed.
“Well, I mean, it’s an option.”
“No. It’s not.”
Phillip was still shaken about our experience on Cass Lake two nights before. I remember him that night at the campsite standing in wet shorts and a sweatshirt I gave him. He really thought we were going over that dam. I remembered how grateful he was when we didn’t, when we found the shore and set up camp. He was feeling so good that night, happily building fire and making food… not in danger. Twenty minutes before that moment we had been cursing each other out – “It’s your fault!” “No, it’s your fault!” – and now he was munching on Ramen noodles and talking chipper as if nothing happened. I thought about bringing up our blowup on the big lake, but I thought, This is good enough; he’s in a good mood; if I try to apologize while inciting him to apologize, it’ll just ruin the moment. Let’s just eat and talk of positive things. This is how guys make up.
That experience, the memory of that experience, was Phillip’s fuel for not wanting to cross Lake Winnie. I looked at the situation and thought we could take advantage of the wind to blow us across to the eastern shore. That would, of course, mean no lunch breaks, no pee breaks; we would be in the boat the whole time until we reached the other side, and it was 13 miles across. I would say, by the end of the day, we paddled close to 17 due to the curved angle you need to maintain not to be blown too far south. I know a lot of people have knocked our inflatables, but they saved us that day. The waves were big – 5 1/2 feet at times – and I am not an experienced kayaker. Phillip isn’t either. In spite of my recent boat dumping 😉 (not Sea Eagle’s fault, my fault), the Sea Eagle boats proved to be incredibly durable and stable. “If we were in a canoe,” I told Phillip, “I’d be fearing for my life.” “I am fearing for my life,” Phillip told me, “but, yeah, in a canoe I’d be terrified right now.”
I knew we could make it across the lake. I just knew it. Phillip was intent on maintaining our heading toward the north shore. He had visions of us chilling there and resting, hot food perhaps? After two hours, I knew it was not to be. “Dude,” I said, “we’re not making that north shore.” Phillip was silent. He kept paddling. He kept paddling harder. I waited five minutes. I knew he did not want to hear this. I knew he really had no plans to be out in the middle of Lake Winnie, where two kayakers died in years past under similar conditions. “Anything can happen!” he chided me when I had brought up the possibility of crossing the lake an hour earlier. I know when Phillip is serious about his decisions, and he, I believe, knows when I’m serious about mine. I let it go at that time. At that time my wrist wasn’t hurting. At that time I had plenty of energy. At that time I wasn’t hungry or cold. At that time I truly believed too that we could make that north shore. That was that time. This time, I was hungry, and felt that I was beating a brick wall with my fists. That is what it feels like when you’re paddling into a headwind, into a headwind in inflatables no less: pound, pound, smack, smack. Your hands get bloody, you feel like you’re perhaps making progress, but the wall looks the same. This wall, this lake, looked exactly like it did 2 hours ago. I was mad. “We’re not going to make it, dude,” I said. He tried the silent treatment again. “Listen to me, man! We’re not doing this! It’s useless. That shore has not changed in two hours! We are not closer! I have been checking every 15 minutes our position relative to the northwest inlet and we have gone NO-WHERE.” Phillip tried a pause, then spoke, “Well, so?”
This inflamed me. “Sooooo, what? What do you want to do! Beat our heads against the wall? I don’t. I know you don’t want to be in the middle of the lake…”
“Anything can happen out there!”
He was scared again. I don’t blame him. I was scared too. But analyzing this situation, I didn’t think it made any sense anymore to paddle straight into a north headwind. Sometimes that tack works, like when the winds are below 20, but not today. I was in pain and not getting anywhere either with Phillip or the lake. He was paddling harder than ever, determined. I put my oar down. “I’m not doin’ it!” Silence. “I’m not doin’ it!” I added again. “Well…” he started (he could sense I was serious).
“Phillip, this is pointless. We have been paddling hard 2 hours, we knew that shore was only a mile and a half away, and we are barely closer. Yes, we can make it, but at what cost? It’s like saying I can hammer this nail in with a piece of Jello. Yeah, you caaaaannn; do you want to?”
“All right,” he acquiesced. “What do you want to do?”
“Okay, on the GPS it shows a big opening to another sub-lake. Look at those trees over there.” There were tall pines in the distance. Almost imperceptibly there was a break. Water! Water was between those trees. But was it just a small break or was it the bay we were looking for, the one that would lead us to the dam, our final destination? We had been fooled two nights earlier by the GPS. Would we risk being fooled again? Was this our bay? Phillip tentatively agreed with me. “I agree,” he said, “that’s probably our bay.”
“So let’s go for it. Let’s let this angle this north wind and grab a vector or two in our favor.”
“But if we miss…”
“We won’t miss it. I can steer the boat slightly into the wind. I just can’t steer it 45 degrees like we’re doing.” For all you physicists out there – I was going to ask my dad this question but haven’t gotten around to it – what is the difference in work between paddling into a headwind at a 45 degree angle than a ten degree one? “C’mon,” I said, “et’s let the wind do some of this work.”
“Okay,” he said eyeballing the shore. He still wanted to make it.
I played a game to keep myself from going insane in the middle of the lake. Since the north shoreline was still far off, it was nearly impossible to track how far we had gone. Try it sometime: paddle or even walk or jog next to a close tree line. You can see the trees going by clearly, right? You feel like you’re making some progress. Now distance yourself from those trees by 100 or, if you’re dramatic like me, 500 yards. Now try to track your progress by those same trees. Impossible! It looks like you’ve barely moved. You might still be going 4 miles an hour in each instance, but the perceived progress is wildly different. So I took a wild approach given our circumstances. I tried to spot a land marker exactly perpendicular to where I was. That tree looks like a C-clamp, I said to myself. I kept repeating to myself over and over, “C-clamp, C-clamp, C-clamp.” Sometimes I would say it out loud.
“What did you say?” Phillip said.
“Nothing. C-clamp, C-clamp, C-clamp.”
I refused to check back until 15 minutes or so later. I looked exactly 90 degrees from my boat. The C-clamp was farther back. I had made progress. I didn’t know how much, but it was progress. I had, for the moment, successfully averted insanity. I kept repeating, C-clamp, C-clamp. I looked back 15 minutes later. Still there, though farther back. C-clamp, C-clamp! Look back. It’s still there. C-clamp. Look. Gone! I was elated. I couldn’t find the tree. Guess what now? New marker. There’s an American flag. American flag, American flag, American flag.
“What the hell are you saying back there?”
“Nothing. American flag, American flag, American flag.” Phillip shook his head, “Weirdo.”
The gap between the pines was opening up. We could see that we were right. There was indeed a large bay between the two tree lines. Yesssssss! I thought. My navigating skills have improved. It feels good to learn something new. Though in pain, I was elated. I knew the dam was on the other side of that bay, but it was still 3 miles across! We pushed for the end of the lake. It was primal. The wind was blowing, the waves were five feet, the boat went up and down, up and down. From time to time our tow boat would ram me in the back. No time to scream; we’ve gotta make that shore. The wind and waves perk up your instincts as I mentioned in a previous post. It is indeed a primordial defense mechanism to want to be on the shore, to not want to be in the middle of the lake (The image of the two kayakers dying perused my mind: They had been through Lake Bemidji. A kayak outfitter stopped them. “You guys got a hole in your boat. You need to fix that.”
“How much you want?”
“It’ll cost you a hundred bucks. I don’t want the money, but you need to get that fixed and…”
“No way!” they laughed.
Four days later, the would-be Mississippi kayakers were attempting a Lake Winne cross – the most dangerous part of any Mississippi adventure in my mind. Forgoing the boat fix, they had opted for duct tape instead. The waves were high that day; the wind was higher, and they died. Drowned. I searched online but couldn’t find the story. Everyone in the Lake Winne area knew the story and warned us about it. (UPDATE: This could be them. It really puts things in perspective. Don’t ever take unnecessary risks. You are not better than the system. Fate favors the bold, but not the stupid. I think all great endeavors require risks; but, none require ignorance. All I’m going to say. May these two kayakers/canoers rest in peace. Thank you, fellas. We learned from you. It was a hard lesson for you; but, maybe, you saved our and others’ lives. Que descansen en paz.). I cinched my life jacket tighter. “C’mon, Phillip,” I said. “We’re getting closer.”
Soon it was apparent that at the end of the bay was undoubtedly the dam, was our put-out point, was the end. I was happy but tried not to show it. I knew that the last 10% percent of the journey is often the point where many beginning explorers trip up. The Obama campaign showed an interesting video to their campaign volunteers when the the ’08 presidential campaign was wrapping up. Here it is:
It was of course to illustrate, “We ain’t won yet.” Many were celebrating Obama’s “victory” as early as October. The campaign was smarter. That video did the trick, and the volunteers put their nose to the grindstone during the final days. You know the results. I wanted those same results. I wanted to win. I wanted to make the finish line. I did not want to die, capsize, flood in the final moments. I kept my landmark spotting technique until the very end. “End, end, end,” I was saying now. We were getting closer. I refused to celebrate. Simultaneously, God had a few more obstacles prepared for us before we could dock.
Those Darned Reeds
Some Bible scholars maintain that Moses did not part the Red Sea but the Reed Sea. The translation was apparently off by a letter. This somehow made Moses’s act more plausible. Obviously these guys never had to paddle through reeds. They’re a lot harder to part than straight water. “Head for the reeds!” I shouted to Phillip when we spotted the damn.
“Why the hell would I do that?”
“To break the waves!” The advantage of reeds, even though they are harder to paddle through, is that waves are literally disintegrated by them. About 10 yards into the reeds, the 5-foot Winnie waves were diminished to kid-playing-in-bath-tub size. We plowed into them. It felt good to not have the boat bobbing everywhere. Paddling would be more difficult now, but at least we weren’t having every warning bell in our neuro-circuitry fired off with every swell, gust and splash that hit the boat. We could, unbelievably, rest a bit. “We still got two miles or so to go, man,” I said. “Let’s get movin’.” I was tired. Phil was tired. We really did not want to paddle. We had seen but a sliver of sunlight all day, and were suffering from mild Seasonal Affective Disorder. It really blew (yeah the wind too :)).
Finally we made shore. I was mindful enough to ask Phillip to turn the camera on. He really hates doing any camera work, or any work, when he’s uncomfortable but tough , I thought. There’s no way I’m letting all this suffering go to waste. My art will be my suffering. “Turn the camera on.”
“Okay,” he said. Wow, that’s a first. I guess he didn’t want all this effort to go to waste either.
He filmed me falling to my knees and kissing the ground. “Here, hold this,” he said and passed me the camera. Though his intention was for me to film him kissing the ground as well, the funnier footage was of him trying to get out of the boat. His hands wouldn’t work and his knees wouldn’t work. He literally could not pry himself up off the seat, lol.
We portaged the boats to the other side of the dam and, relatively quickly, got situated and headed on down the river (what had now turned back into a river, thank God). A lady ran to the bank. “What are you guys doing!” she shouted. “Urrrrr Crrrraaaazeeeeeeeeyyyy!”
“Yeah, I guess,” I replied. I hadn’t noticed but a light rain had started to fall. I checked the temperature gauge – 55 degrees (that’s 13 degrees for all you Euros, Latin Ameros, and Asian-uhhhh-os on the Celcius scale; catch the net! Farenheit is sooooooooooooo much easier! :)… and if you want Kelvin, you’re just weird). It was cold and raining and two guys were kayaking in the middle of it all. For us this routine had become normal. Compared to Winnie, canoeing a straight river was nothing even if it was cold. I really didn’t even notice it. We were just happy to be pushing on, letting the rushing torrent from the dam carry us on; no muscle power required. When the woman had said, “You’re crazy,” she was referring to the fact that it was cold and raining and we had decided to kayak. She hadn’t even seen what we’d been through.
“Yeah, a little crazy,” I added and smiled.
“How far are you going?”
“New Orleans,” I said.
She was taken aback. “Yurrrrrrrrrr rrrrrreaaalyyy craaaazeeeeyyyy!”
How satisfying. How satisfying to make her day. How satisfying to allow my ego to be assuaged. I had, after all, paddled one of the most difficult lakes in Minnesota, and certainly the most difficult lake on the Mississippi River. I had survived. Phillip had survived. Winne was a bitch, but she was of no consequence – We left that bitch behind. My navigating skills were better, Phillip’s were better, everything was better. I was taking a paddle stroke ever y 15 seconds; Phillip, every 20. We were taking ‘er easy. It was nice. “Only 3 miles to the campsite,” Phillip said with a pang of relief in his voice. And so it was – relieving – to be back on the river. Are we crazy? Yeah, probably. But we have also grown. The arguments have made us grow, the mistakes have made us grow. I remember when I needed to find a campsite at night around St. Cloud. My mistakes in using the GPS actually helped me that day. I didn’t make the same mistakes, was able to match my map and Garmin up perfectly and found the site in the dead of night. Nothing was lost; everything was gained. Winnie was behind us, and though she was a bitch, sometimes the bitchy ones… make the best teachers.