Mar 28, 2013

An unusual approach on Rose Falls

Rose Falls has the feel of an ancient place, where if you touch one of the massive cedars it might awaken from a long sleep and say something profound in an eerie voice. Here gravity pulls water out of Duncan Lake through a narrow cut in the rocks, cascading 136 feet closer to our planet's center. All of us have access to this rare, raw power.

I arrived on the Gunflint Trail in late April that year and everything was old, but new to me. New job, new co-workers, my fishing gear stacked neatly in the corner of my new one-room cabin. I shivered in my new bed the first night, reading Grapes of Wrath by lamplight, chapter fourteen: "muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times."

The cabin wall was papered with park maps, there was Rose Falls roaring above my pillow.

Deek and I spent several days ripping old carpet and glue from hardwood floors in Clearwater Lodge, sanding them down smooth. Strangers still but here for the same reasons, we started making plans for our first day off. Fishing wasn't an option, and with most of the lakes still frozen, neither was paddling.
"Maybe we should take a hike," suggested Deek.

Having spent the previous six years stuck in a cubicle, I was in absolutely terrible shape, but it still sounded like a good idea. I had to get out there. Spring was in the air and my legs were yipping.

It had been a decade since I first climbed the Stairway Portage at Rose Falls, during my first summer working at Clearwater. My dad was visiting, we camped two nights on Daniels and caught a pile of smallies. And we took a day-trip to Rose and saw the tumbling waters and sleeping cedars and all the other tourists eating snacks. It was a great trip.

Ten years later Deek and I sat around sipping beers after a long day of lodge restoration, watching the snow melt, imagining the rush of spring water being pulled over the rocks. Yes, we agreed, tomorrow we would hike an unusual approach on Rose Falls.
 The vast majority of all Rose Falls visitors in any given year arrive by canoe during the months of July or August, and that's a great way to see them. The second easiest route to the falls is snowshoeing across snow-covered lakes, but of course the falls are frozen solid then, very quiet and stunning still.
Here in the springtime, though, when the falls are most impressive and least visited, the approach is by rock... A wild beast feeling.

There are a number of over-land hiking routes leading to Rose Falls but the most direct and difficult is the Caribou Rock Trail, running north from Hungry Jack Road. Even for someone in fit condition, this would be a serious test. Deek and I had originally planned on taking the easier route up the Daniels Spur to the Long Portage, but had found the Daniels Spur a knee-deep stream of meltwater, boots swamped. No doubt the Long Portage would have been even soggier. After a hearty breakfast of biscuits and gravy we decided on a third option: South Lake to the Border Route to Rose Falls to Caribou Rock.

The South Lake Trail was kind to us, and we glided along at a fast pace, shredding layers and searching for moose shed. Dropping into a cool and shaded lowlands, Deek proclaimed, "This looks like a bullpen, I bet there's a huge bull moose watching us right now." He looked serious.

We reached the Border Route before noon and stopped for a break on a massive rock outcropping overlooking South, Rat and Rose Lakes. The day was warm and the legs still felt strong. A light rain started falling. We pushed on along the undulating Border Route, beside a small beaver pond chirping with life and the glowing green of spring.

By the time we reached the falls my legs were getting sore but there we recharged. The falls are at their prime in early May, full of spectacular energy. We could hear Rose Falls roaring ahead on the trail for a full half hour before we finally reached the gorge. Sitting on the rocks below the main drop we had lunch in a cloud of mist, the abundant humidity and thunder erasing all the dry quiet of winter. "That the earth can do that," I said, shiny-eyed, and Deek nodded.
 The sun crept low behind the clouds and we turned south towards the truck along the Caribou Rock Trail. At first I thought the trail builders were maniacs but eventually I realized there is simply no reasonable land-route from Hungry Jack Road to Rose Falls. The trail was steep and mostly slick rock. We'd climb and climb, cling to small branches sliding back downhill, but always keeping an eye out for interesting wildlife.
Deek pointed out blueberry bushes in the making, smoking cigarettes on the top of each vista. Could he be trusted? He seemed to know a lot about plants and I knew almost nothing at the time... and he had worked more summers on the trail, so I paid attention.

We crossed the stream between Bearskin and Duncan and Deek said, "One time here I almost stepped on a huge snapping turtle sitting in the stream." I wasn't sure if he was crazy or a genius. We hopped across the rocks, all of them rocks this time, then pulled ourselves uphill, away from the center of the world once again. My muscles wheezed, then breathed.

And there goes Duncan, and there we see Moss, and there is Bearskin ahead, the lakes were melting in the rain, winter just turned into spring, just then.
The last two miles of the hike something happened, where we got too tired but still kept stepping forward. It was a triumph of will... Or hunger. And this was the same feeling I had the first time I hauled gear up the stairs beside Rose Falls without stopping for rest. The feeling you get in the park so often: lungs and muscles burning sweetly, a wild beast feeling. The feeling after a hard day of work, peeling off your boots. Or catching a toothy fish. Or kissing a girl by the light of a campfire. When you hit the top of the hill on an impossible hike and take a deep breath in a new place.

That you can do that.

But of course there was a price, well worth it: For three days I couldn't hardly walk, let alone sand floors. The hike had the last laugh, but we made it to the falls and back, we heard what the ancient cedars had to say on that day and nobody else did. Or will. After dinner I rolled into bed, by the light of a lamp with no shade, legs whimpering beneath the wool blankets, but laughing. I re-read chapter fourteen of Steinbeck's masterpiece:

"Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back. This you may say and know it and know it."

Mar 15, 2013

Drilling through 29 inches of instinct and ice

1 - Across the snow and ice I walk, listening to the lake, imagining the depth contours below, how the fish will swim along this shoreline. Down there lives a beast I seek. Often I look for animal tracks on the surface. Where are you going, wild things? But really I wonder: Where I am going?

2 - There is something invisible in this world that reveals the perfect place for a fishing hole. This force gives my instincts mass. I read an article about a similar mysterious force, the Higgs boson, "an elusive, missing snowflake in our theory of falling snow."*

3 - Looking at a frozen lake blanketed you cannot see a single particular snowflake, or a single molecule of ice. This is impossible for the human eye. But there they are, millions and millions, together a soft quilt across a hard sheet of ice, a barrier between me and them.

4 - My skin perceives the snowfield as it fluctuates and breaks back into singular flakes, shimmering between the sky above and the water below. Eventually I am satisfied and stop my feet, drop the drill from my shoulder, right hand on top pressing down, left hand the engine, driving the blades round and round. This is something I've done thousands of times before.

5 - However: This is the end of February on a big lake. Two feet of snow on top, twenty feet of water below, the ice membrane a deep and strong field in between.

6 - The blades of the drill must be sharp at the perfect angle, creating the perfect friction. It would be a mistake pushing too hard or turning too fast. Great force in short bursts works better. One violent turn of the handle at a time, a steady rhythm, and for each turn I am one inch closer to the fish.

7 - The first few spins are effortless, the blades of the drill just getting teeth into the ice field. The arms whir with youthful electricity.

8 - Five inches down, life is easy. Ten inches down, the hands are still lively. Fifteen inches down, ice particles start grabbing at the blades... And then they grab at the arms, and then the shoulders, and the feet. Friction spreads quickly through the body, soon the lungs and guts start burning, then they howl. It's odd, to a person watching on shore this must seem like nothing at all. Such a stationary and simple thing shouldn't be so hard, but it is. Vision narrows with primal determination: Keep going, keep going. Sixteen inches, seventeen inches...

9 - The muscles become looser, but heavier. The mind must be quiet, but aggressive. Energies increasing against resistance. All of these competing forces pushing towards a breaking point. How much further to liquid water? Can I turn the handle one more time? Three more times? A thousand more times? What is my limit?

10 - When I was 18 I got my first job in the boundary waters. I had never been up here before that. I've been wondering ever since why I sought that job, how it all came to be, that first step in the right direction. Some invisible force, perhaps, something I will never really understand. On my nineteenth birthday I got drunk and watched the northern lights at the end of an old dock. And after you've seen that, what is there to understand?

11 - Then a few weeks later I moved back south.

12 - It seems to me that everyone is just looking for their place in this world. Part of me is upset I didn't see mine right away. Maybe I just couldn't comprehend it. I guess I was stuck in an in-between, I wasn't air anymore but I wasn't quite water.

13 - Twenty inches and the top of the auger blades begin disappearing into the lake's frozen skin, the teeth so far away... At this point each turn of the handle requires a steep increase in energy. A reckoning. The ice and snow fight back now, but I get meaner.

14 - Twenty-one inches, twenty three, twenty five... Managing a small newspaper in the city, married, bought a cute house with hardwood floors. We adopted two kittens, planted lilacs and tomatoes in the yard.

15 - Drilling a hole through deep ice requires great energy but so often that energy is wasted, it seems. Nothing substantial is caught there. It was not the right place. Or maybe, the right time.

16 - Thing is: I'm stubborn. Twenty six, twenty seven... I get what I want. I won't ever stop looking, twenty eight...

17 - The reason I'm always yearning, why I'm grinding ice to slush, is that I'm demanding of myself. I can't take naps. I never get sick. But there is a sickness, this constant cold desire, never satisfied. And I try so hard for optimism, but this world makes it so difficult.

18 - Is the lake even down there anymore? Has it frozen solid? How many turns of the handle has it been now?

19 - My teeth grind and jawbones clench, twenty eight, twenty eight, I'm seeing red... 

20 - As has happened so often in this life the doubt creeps in. Maybe the whole world is an icy heart. Maybe I'll never catch another beast.

21 - My arms are dead, my lungs are empty, my mind goes blank, twenty eight, twenty eight... The last grinding punch is the most difficult as the bottom gives out, but then everything breaks free and the blades taste the lake again, the barrier between us has been obliterated. Every single cell in my body howls with happiness. And there is excitement in this new possibility. Maybe, just maybe, this is the place.

22 - Seeing wild liquid water in the winter always electrifies me. I place my bare hand in the lake and splash it on my forehead, and instantly feel better. I snap back into myself.

23 - Then I realized something I already knew: No energy is ever wasted.

24 - Energy is mass.**

25  - All the hard work, the mistakes and successes, the tired muscles and happiness, each and every infintismal moment big and small, snowflakes falling on a frozen lake, piling up, there is the origin of instinct. What happened drives us to what will happen. These are the animal tracks in the snow.

26 - In my twenty-ninth year I said goodbye to the city and the girl I loved and I moved up north again, to the Gunflint Trail. Some invisible force brought me back here, something I will never understand.

27 - I breathe deeply and bait the hook, always hopeful. Watching the minnow drift down through the ice field into the vast darkness, I know something it does not, but I still know very little.

28 - Farewell, little one, bring me back a big one. It's an old trick, knocking a hole in the ice for water and meat.

29 - And I want that meat badly, I'm so thirsty for cold water, but I want nothing more than this: A permanent life in these boundary waters that have given me everything and energy and mass.

* - "Chasing the Higgs," New York Times, March 5, 2013

** - E=MC2