I mentioned in my last post how Mike helped me set up for my expedition down the Mississippi River two years ago. He helped me find Blanca (my boat), set me up with the best gear that would be my home for four months, and shared with me his secrets and tips about this river. One piece of advice he gave me that I still remember today was to start paddling as early as possible on Lake Winnibigoshish (Winnie) and DO NOT paddle straight across it. It spans 14 miles across from the entrance of the river to the dam where the river continues on. 14 miles might not seem like a lot but when you’re out in the middle of Lake Winnie, it feels like an ocean. Each coast feels like it is hundreds of miles away and if you get stuck out in it when bad weather hits, you better know how to swim. Trust me I know. No I did not listen to Mike’s advice and stay to the shore. Mark and I paddled straight across it. Being a naïve paddler kept me from fearing Winnie and the possible dangers it possess to a solo paddler.
However, we need to back up to the start of our day. We left our wonderful campsite on Lake Irving and put Mike back in Lake Bemidji where he had gotten out at 4:45 AM. He made it across Bemidji but the winds were already picking up. He had a quick pit stop for breakfast after Bemidji and continued on to meet us at our first portage. Not surprisingly, the site where the dam and portage is located was locked at 5:00 AM so we did some maneuvering and Traci made it to Mike to help him with his first portage.
We set up our next stop point after Lake Wolf and Lake Androsia, another hour or so away from the portage. An hour went by and we did not see or hear from Mike. We set his GPS up to only update us every few hours so we waited until it updated us and found that he had made a small wrong turn at lake Wolf. The path on the East bank where he needed to continue on The Mississippi River was completely covered in high grass and the path was hidden. We found him fast and got him back on track. With the little delay we had to push hard to get through Cass Lake. Luckily the wind was coming out of the North and he kept to the banks where there were no waves. Cass Lake is 6 miles straight across and longer if you stick to the shoreline. He was cruising quick through Cass and made up for the time lost in Wolf Lake. We ate a quick lunch and planned the rest of our evening which included Lake Winnie.
Traci and I drove to Becker’s Resort, one of Traci’s favorite stops where the dock boy remembered her fondly and gave us the run of the place. If you are ever traveling up in this area, please stop there and get a bowl of ice cream and talk to the owners! They love paddlers and are always willing to help out. Mike made it to the resort about an hour later and we planned for his paddle across Lake Winnie. We were hoping to keep to the South shoreline. There is a road that travels along it and we could meet up at certain points to check out how he was doing. However, the wind was coming from the North so going South and then having to push against headwinds was not an option that late in the day. So he went North with no way for us to follow him except for his GPS, or so we thought.
Right after Mike left, Sandy and Jeff, two of the most amazing river angels in Minnesota offered to trail him with a boat in case he had to cross straight through in the dark. We said yes and quickly left Becker’s (with a massive cup of ice cream) and raced to Winnie Dam to meet with Sandy and Jeff. We cross the Lake and found Mike paddling hard in the North East corner. We told him that the lake was glass and that in order to get him to the Dam by sundown, crossing it straight on was the only and best option. We had no way of camping along the North side of Lake Winnie and knew trying to get across in the morning would be hard. He said okay and off we went. Even though the lake and the winds were more than ideal, four hours of paddling across Lake Winnie plus the already 12 hours of paddling before that wore Mike down. We can’t decide if crossing straight on was our best and safest decision but right before sunset, Mike made it Winnie Dam none the less.
He pulled his boat out of the water and slumped to his knees exhausted. I helped him take off his gloves and underneath were soggy hands and mounds of blisters. I wanted to cry for him. Not only because I could see how much pain he was in but also because I could not have been more proud of him and how hard he pushed through those lakes. Winnie is the beast of all lakes and Michael proved to be the beast of all paddlers today! 57 miles in 17 hours.
We camped that night at Winnie Lake Campground and were ready to wake up the next morning and do it all over again, just with less lakes this time!
Thank you Sandy and Jeff for all your support and your help today! You dropped everything like you always do and helped us so much! I am actually typing this post in a hammock in their yard waiting for Mike to come down the river on Day 3! Stay tuned!
You can check out the Minnesota DNR maps of the Mississippi River at http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/watertrails/mississippiriver/two.html.