Monday, October 8, 2007

16. Battle for Big Island

(Monday, 25 June)
We woke up, my dad jogged, he bathed in Echo Lake, we ate breakfast, and then we headed out for the critical adventure of our trip: canoeing to Big Island Scientific & Natural Area in Pelican Lake. According to my guidebook,
"Big Island has escaped significant disturbance by fire or humans for over 150 years. As a result, here one can see a collection of old-growth communities, including hardwood-conifer forest and aspen-birch forest, that seldom attain old-growth status... [Also,] at least 40 bird species are summer residents on the island."
Judging by the map, the island lay about two miles over water from the nearest boat launch.

We picked up ice and more coffee in Orr. The ice bag depicted a man in front of an igloo, apparently urinating ice cubes, grimacing, and thinking, "ICE..." Inside the gas station/grocery/video store was also an A&W restaurant, and I saw the girl behind the counter pouring root beer from a two-liter bottle. Don't they have kegs of that stuff?

Orr sits on a bay on the east side of Pelican Lake, which is about eight miles across. The closest boat launch to Big Island was on the west side of the lake, so we drove over there, past the Vince Shute wildlife sanctuary. This launch was really rustic, pretty much just a big rock going into the water. The sun shone bright overhead, and cumulus clouds raced across the sky. The temperature was in the nineties. A strong wind blew from the south, and the water looked really choppy. But we were men. We had a mission. And we were going for it.

We loaded up the canoe, my dad with his fishing gear, and I with my art supplies. I climbed into the bow, and my dad launched the vessel, past a family bobbing in a speedboat, who might have thought we were crazy for challenging the elements in a canoe. As we paddled into the wind, we found we were trucking along pretty swiftly. Canoeing into the wind is far easier than going perpendicular to it, and we maneuvered in this way, trying to stay sheltered within the lee of the islands.

My map had shown only two other little islands besides Big Island, but in reality there were at least a dozen, and we could not differentiate our destination from these until we had cleared several of them. A couple had cabins on them, and one little one was an SNA. Pelican Lake is aptly named, not because it's shaped like a pelican, but because it harbors squadrons of the huge birds. Big Island became apparent as we approached. It is about a mile wide, with a bay on the western side.

We drifted near the island's shore. I ate a sandwich while my dad cast a few lines into the clear, shallow bay. We traced the shore for a while, looking for a trailhead, but we saw none. We docked at a large rock face. My dad said he'd hike with me for a bit, and then he'd go fishing while I explored. It immediately became apparent that there was no trail here, and the thick brush made for more of an adventure than my dad was looking for, so he left me to continue on my own. It was 2:00 pm, and I said I'd meet him back here (at the southwest side) at 5:00. I turned around and headed into the bush.

I never did find any man-made trails. I made my way through the thick undergrowth by following game trails and paths cleared by massive blown-down old trees. I cut a path directly across the island, heading northeast. It was a pretty strenuous hike, constantly pushing through undergrowth and scouting out the path of least obstruction. I was constantly brushing spiderwebs off my sweaty skin. My light cotton long-sleeve and wide-brimmed leather hat helped quite a bit. I grabbed a cudgel to fend off wild beasts, and it also served to push aside branches and webs ahead of me.

Rocky outcroppings and blow-downs offered respite from the trail-blazing, and at these places I stopped to check my compass. Every time I did, I found my sense of direction intact. I had never hiked in such a forest before, one so thick, and with no trails. I really felt like I could have been the first human to tread there, and that was a sublime feeling. I knew the adventure would keep me occupied today, and that I would not be sitting and drawing.

As the book said, a tamarack swamp formed a waist-line across the island. I saw old-growth white pines, none quite as big as in the Lost Forty, but I saw the gnarliest old birch tree I'd ever seen. Its bark curled off in massive rolls all the way up.



An osprey became perturbed at my presence, and circled above me, over treetops at the edge of a clearing, squawking with annoyance, until I disappeared completely.

In an hour's time I reached the northeast side of the island. I found a shady grove of cedars on the bank, and I sat there on a log over the water, feeling the breeze for a while. I then headed back into the bush. I fancied seeing the southeast side of the island, so I started following the shore. This immediately proved difficult, so I turned inland, not straying too far from my previous path.

Big Island is scattered with little groves of mossy rocks and cedars, stands of hardwoods, huge aspen and birch, and tamarack in the lowlands. Most of the pines are on the western side, but are found throughout the island as well. The western side has the highest elevation. From there, a series of high, rocky outcroppings periodically step lower and lower as one travels eastward.

I found myself at the easternmost of these outcroppings, a southeast-facing rock face scattered with cedars and small, spindly trees bearing blueberry-like fruits. I was certain these were a species of blueberry, although the plants were much taller, and the berries were a shade more purple. June berries? I picked one and squeezed some juice upon my finger. It was reddish, like blueberry jam is when spread across a slice of bread. I smelled of it and took a lick of the juice. It tasted sweet, so I ate it. They were certainly edible, delicious in fact, although slightly more tart than blueberries. I ate quite a few.

I stood quietly, not feeling safe enough to sit and expose my head to cougars. I ate berries, and felt the sun's warmth, tempered by a sweet breeze. I thought it an opportune time to do some birding, so I stayed put for a while, before I'd have to begin the hour-long hike back. I saw a pair of downy woodpeckers, and a pair of black & white warblers. I heard many more birds than I could see.

I soon left this idyllic little clearing and made my way back to my father. I almost walked past our rendezvous point, for I was separated from it by an impenetrable thicket, when my dad heard me and called out. I bade him to keep talking, and I followed the voice to the man. He had caught and released a couple bass, a crappie, a northern, and a pan fish or two. What a day of adventure and diversity for both of us!

I was extremely hot and sweaty. I obeyed my urge to to take off my clothes, put on my trunks, and jump into Pelican Lake. It felt great. I wore only shorts, lifejacket, flipflops, and sunglasses on the paddle back. The sun shone in our faces from between blowing clouds on this perfect day.

It took longer to paddle back than it had to get to Big Island, more of a sustained effort. My dad steered us more directly this time; as a result, the waves rocked us from the broadside. I used my anger at this unsteadiness to fuel my physical effort. It was by no means a leisurely paddle, but neither was it unenjoyable.

After we landed, my dad cast his cap ashore, and we noticed that it lay in poison ivy. Regretful. But he managed to get it back to camp and wash it with no ill effects. We strapped our vessel to the car, sat down, and enjoyed an ice-cold Red Dog in the late afternoon sun on Pelican Lake. It was my first one. Not bad at all.

When we got back to camp, my dad looked into our garbage bag of beer cans hanging from a tree.

"What!" he cried with disgust, "Look at this! We drank way more than this. Don't you think?" He looked despondent. "This is terrible." There were at least a dozen cans in there. "I think the host has been pilfering our beer cans."

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