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."