August 3rd, 2014
At the end of the day Matt said “This is the day I would tell people about,” so this is the one I will tell you about.
We had had some issues navigating Cross Lake. We were travelling with about 60 maps, & were missing the second one for the lake & put the first & last maps together incorrectly. We had gotten our first taste of “being lost”. Spoiler: it’s exhausting.
The people in Cross Lake – a Pemicikimak (Cree) Nation - are so generous. In the North, there is a constant availability of hunting/fishing cabins free to use. Some are rundown shacks, but the night before we’d found a fully equipped cabin with clean beds, a wood stove, a generator (if you have gasoline) & 3 kinds of berries just outside the door. We were at the head of the Mistasinni River.
Our route info said we would be travelling 2 days upstream, carrying over constant beaver dams. The Mistasinni runs at a gentle meander & we’re laughing at the idea of hurdles. (Until we realized that canoers originally began trapping beavers out of spite, rather than to get their precious furs. Beavered damns.)
We were approaching our first long portage – the Pemicikimak Portage.
We couldn’t find the trailhead of the portage. Internal combustion. Intuitively guessing provided no clarity. Matt suggests continuing in the direction that I believe to be the wrong way. The route info states the portage is clearly where the river ends. We begin following the river too far to where it bends South, plowing through overgrown grass. I’m digging my heels in. We climbed a rock & had a ‘summit’ of sorts
Grabbing a compass with a heading of North, Matt easily intersects the trail marked with orange ribbon. We dragged the canoe through the grass to land & he forges a path with a machete while I cook lunch. I feel better about the situation after eating – after all, we seemed to have knocked about a quarter of the distance off the portage & have found indicators of going the right way! Hooray!
The trail would be a nice hike if we weren’t carrying all our gear. Up onto rocks that identify the Canadian Shield, & down sinking into thick moss. Our feet are wet; we’ve finally hit muskeg. One kilometer takes 45 minutes of winding through the forest loaded down with gear – twice. Even though most of our skin was covered & we stunk of DEET, the bugs were a constant static we tried to drone out with motion. Even at rest we were constantly moving, mentally trying to escape them.
The end of the trail, even at our creative camp-building peak, was a terrible place to camp. (WHO’S THE AWFUL PERSON THAT DESIGNS A PORTAGE WITH NOWHERE TO REST AT THE OTHER SIDE?!?!) There were no clear spaces for a tent or a campfire, the ground was uneven all over, & all the bugs from the last kilometer had followed us there. We looked with thirst at the opposite side of the river, where we could find peace.
So we packed our gear into drybags & swam across in our clothes. The water was amazing!! The sweetness of fresh water cures everything. Massive rocks provide the best campsites. Although this is probably the opposite instinct that most people would have: they have fewer bugs, an opportunity for a large campfire, sand does not get on everything (& in the food), & they also often have perfect flat mossy spots for tents. Not only a great campsite & an opportunity for swimming, but this counts as bathing & laundry too! :)
Neither in good nor bad spirits, we demolished our pasta dinner after our first real portage. Matt points at the trail & says “If I were trying to tell people how James Bond we are, I would tell them about this day. When we couldn’t find it, we walked into the bush heading North & blazed a trail, carried all our gear to the next river & swam it across to build a camp." We definitely had a whiskey-hot chocolate that night.
**We went back for the boat in the morning, saw our first moose at lunchtime, & spent the rest of the next day cursing & pushing over beaver dams**