Part I - Seven Years Later: The Return to White Otter Castle
On July 4th, 2016 (Independence Day for our American friends!) I set out with Diane, Chris, and Lori (our Slate Island crew of intrepid misfits) to tackle White Otter Castle yet again. The others had never seen the castle in person, so I was unanimously relegated to tour guide duties for this 4 day excursion. I merely hoped that I wouldn't get us lost. It had been 7 years since my last voyage to see Jimmy McOuat's remote masterpiece and enduring monument to persistence and ingenuity, and I was looking forward to sharing the experience with the rest of the group. This area really feels special and I was hoping the others would notice this as well.
Here are Chris and Lori in good spirits just before the arduous 2 hour paddle across Clearwater Lake. Before the day would end, the smiles would fade a bit - the challenge of slicing through 12 miles of wind and waves, while fending off armies of relentlessly aggressive ankle-biting flies - would see to that.
In behind we see the Hobie Adventures sitting patiently and stoically, packed full of many of the same items that were carried so impressively on their last visit to the castle. Yes - the Hobies were once again assigned to touring duties - a role they have fulfilled remarkably well.
I was quick to note that unlike my last encounter with Clearwater, the conditions were much calmer this time around. At least inside of the bay....... Our strategy for tackling this wide bodied expanse of water north of Atikokan, ON was the same as before: Head to Big Island and then follow the left-side shoreline to avoid crossing the lake at it's widest point and risk running into problems should the weather suddenly throw a temper tantrum. You can just make out the bay we'd be heading to in the photo - if you peer out towards the far left hand side of the lake in the distance. It looked like a long ways away - and it is.
I'd been thinking about purchasing a kayak trailer for the Hobie Adventures for quite some time, but finally settled on a Malone kayak rack kit for my Aluma utility trailer instead. A dedicated kayak trailer would be ideal, but I wasn't keen on having two trailers crowding my driveway, as well as the hassle of registering and insuring both (not to mention the costs involved). The rack kit is designed for trailers constructed of angle-iron, but with a little bit of improvisation, including cutting down the steel uprights (thanks to help from Chris and my good friend Ron and his angle grinder), everything ended up coming together. I have to say that it's much easier to live with than the car-top rack I was using previously. And it's nice to just dump the heavy stuff in the trailer and capitalize on the extra gear hauling capacity. With that said, even under the weight of the two Hobies, the trailer's suspension is still quite stiff, as it's made to carry much heavier loads (i.e., it still tends to bounce on rough roads) so I was extra cautious about taking it slow knowing the kayaks could experience an unceremoniously rough journey before even getting to the water.
Once outside the security of the bay, the reputation of Clearwater Lake as a body of water that demands respect was evident again. Granted, it wasn't as threatening as my first introduction years ago, but the wind made for a trickier paddle - especially for our canoe crew. In an attempt to "go-to-school" on my last trip and implement some improvements the second time around, I decided to bring along a large and heavy duty WCK Expeditional canoe cart (seen placed on top of the canoe below). I wondered how much work and time it might save, getting our boats and gear across the almost half-mile portage into White Otter Lake.
Aside from the lake itself, another thing that was very clear was that our Hobie Adventures were less burdened on this trip judging from the amount of freeboard exposed in the image below. I chalked it up to forgoing the large plastic jugs of freshwater that weighed down the Hobies the last time out. On this occasion, we'd be relying on Chris to pump lake water through his filter for drinking.
In calmer water, yet still without any passing pedestrian available to ask directions, I opted to peruse a Turtle River/White Otter Provincial Park map to verify the location of the upcoming portage. Unfortunately, Clearwater Lake was not included on this map.
Undaunted, this led me to utter a refrain that would become increasingly familiar during our 4 day trip: "When we get closer, the route will be obvious". There are just so many islands, bays, inlets, passageways, and ever-present greenery that everything blends in to a featureless backdrop in the distance. As you get closer, landmarks and the topography in general become more defined and provide better clues to the navigation puzzle. With that said, it can still be very easy to lose your way. A map is essential. I knew from our last trip that we stuck to the right hand side of the inlet leading to the portage, so this seemed like the most obvious approach. Soon, in the distance, the portage revealed itself (or at least the shiny pickup trucks did). The trucks are used to ferry paying boaters into White Otter Lake.
We were eager to fix the cart to the canoe and get underway to save as much time as possible. You never know when you might need that extra time should the weather change suddenly out on the water. I seem to remember it taking about 2 hours to complete the portage previously with the Hobies, sans cart. Of course, this included not only carrying the kayaks overland, but unloading and then reloading all the gear from them which can be a little time consuming. The advantage in this area definitely goes to the canoe. But even at this point it was abundantly evident that the advantage on the water was clearly in favour of the Hobies. We were outrunning the canoe with very little effort.
So how well did the cart function? With a carrying capacity of 350 lbs we figured we were likely over-extending those limits with the canoe. Yet the cart handled the weight, ruts, rocks, and undulating ground with aplomb. We were duly impressed. Granted - it still wasn't a walk in the park pulling and pushing the boats up the hills along the portage. Yet it was much better than traipsing back and forth numerous times along the length of the road, covered in - and awkwardly carrying - gear. And then transporting the boats the same distance.
Once on the other side of the half-mile portage, we just wheeled the boats over the wooden ramp and into the water. Even with a lunch break, the overwhelming consensus was that the cart had earned its keep. We were done in about a third the amount of time that we estimated it would have taken us without our wheeled wonder.
Back on the water, I figured it would take another 2 hours to reach Fish Island, our destination for the day. We were pleased that we had completed half our days journey. The first part seemed relatively easy. But the second leg would definitely take its toll - especially on the paddlers. They were simply working harder. Chris is a seasoned paddler while Lori is not and it was evident that her strength and determination were waning. Yet, they still pressed on. Diane even admitted that she was becoming stiff and sore with all the time spent on the water. I usually recommend that we take a break every hour on shore. But with darker clouds looming in the far distance, we decided to forge ahead with no stops. We had also given ourselves an extra couple of days leeway in our trip - just in case we were wind or storm bound. This was a good decision.
Here is one part of those legs now, on White Otter Lake.
When you're tired, stiff, sore, and generally exhausted, it's heartbreaking to find that your campsite - your final destination for the day - is already occupied. The last thing you want to do is to keep pressing on - desperate to find another site. By the time we navigated around the rocky shoreline of Fish Island we were pretty weary. Fortunately, the site was empty. I raised my arm and fist in triumph. This is a really beautiful campsite. And it would be ours for the next three days. We had earned it. I normally like to set up the tents, cots, mattresses, and sleeping bag myself while the others relax and enjoy the moment. But Chris refused to let me take on those duties alone. The women? As the photo below depicts, they were more than willing to let me have my way. Unfortunately, the relaxing didn't last much longer after snapping that shot. While I was finishing setting up the second of two tents, a stealthy wind suddenly emerged - and quickly grew stronger. The wind caught the tent and sent it for a ride down the beach - despite having had it pegged in at the time. Once we returned the tent to its rightful spot - we loaded each interior corner with a large, heavy rock. Then proceeded to look for the stakes. Fortunately, we eventually found them all. Some were thrown quite a distance. The addition of more large rocks covering each stake would ensure that the tent wouldn't again launch like a dirigible. At the same time Chris managed to get a tarp up over a large wooden table (the kitchen area) and the others sprung into action, putting gear away, and readying our site for the rapidly approaching storm.
It wasn't long after I snapped this photo that the storm hit. It's hard to describe how much driving rain and fierce, intense wind we battled into the evening that first night. We were under two tied out tarps and were holding onto them to provide extra support. We even wrapped part of the tarp around us as we huddled together, hiding from the hard driving wind and rain. Yet - in little time we were all drenched. The wind was so strong that we had to yell despite being shoulder to shoulder. We had not eaten since lunch and settled for some pepperettes, cheese, and hard-boiled eggs. We wouldn't be cooking in these conditions. When the wind abated somewhat, we all retreated to our tents to put on dry clothes and rain gear. Hoping that things would improve enough to begin cooking supper, the weather turned once again with the wind and rain increasing their ferocity exponentially. It made me think of Armageddon. But the strange thing was...... we all secretly loved it. Embraced it. We were together in the middle of nowhere, fighting a common, unrelenting foe. Actually talking under the tarp. No cell phones. No other distractions. Everything felt so palpable - immediate. The weather really brought us closer together. This is what adventure is all about. That night, we experienced what many might consider a disastrous evening, and turned it into an exciting, stimulating, and memorable one. Over the next few days, when we encountered other travelers on the lake, we would ask if they experienced what we had experienced that night, and each group recounted with awe, how they endured and enjoyably suffered through - a storm for the ages.
We all agreed that our next day would be a peaceful and restful one. The castle could wait, even if the storms would not. But amid all the challenges so far, we knew there would be light. We had made it to our destination - and we all shared a certain amount of satisfaction with that. It rained well into the night. Yet when Diane and I woke up around 3AM - like clockwork - when nature called - we were astonished at how clear the night sky suddenly appeared while staring up from next to the tent. There were just so many bright stars. It had been a long day. Needless to say, we slept very soundly that night.
Little did we know, we would soon have some visitors to share the island with the next day.
What events unfolded on Day 2?