Despite my best intentions, I was off to a late start, as usual. It was midafternoon—late afternoon, maybe—by the time I launched the boat and started rowing up Hanson Bay. I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t brought a watch. Given the jumble of gear I had hurriedly transferred from car to boat after launching, there were probably other things I hadn’t brought. And there were also things I had packed in such a rush that they wouldn’t be seen again until I unloaded the boat to trailer it home a in a week. But now that the boat was in the water, none of that mattered. I had finally managed to find my way to Ontario’s Lake of the Woods, twenty years after I’d first seen a chart of it.
After parking the car, I took what little cash I had on hand into the marina store in a gesture to bolster the local economy, but I didn’t see much that looked useful. I finally bought a candle-powered flying lantern made of tissue paper—a red one, of course: a red lantern is the traditional award for a race’s last finisher, which suited my intentions for a languid cruise quite nicely. I handed over my last few Loonie coins, collected my change, and headed back to the boat.
“SOAR TO NEW HEIGHTS!” the lantern packaging read—and, this being Canada, “S’ENVOLENT VERS DE NOUVEAUX SOMMETS!” The picture on the label showed a trio of glowing red tissue-paper spheres floating through a starry night above a skyline of spruces and pines. Airborne candles in the north woods? Last summer, a three-day stopover in Georgian Bay’s Churchill Islands had given me a front-row seat to a major forest fire. This year I’d be able to start my own.
“YOU WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EYES!” the label continued, “VOUS N’EN CROIREZ PAS VOS YEUX!” Maybe so, maybe not. I pulled the flimsy lantern out of its packaging and chucked it in the back seat of the car, then slid my Lake of the Woods chart into the now-empty plastic bag and pressed the seal closed again. Look at that, I thought. VOILÀ! A waterproof chart case.
The boat was waiting at the dock, everything loaded and lashed down. Dry bags stuffed with books, clothes, food, and camping gear. Water jugs. Anchor and bucket, chain and line. Rudder secured on the pintles, tiller bolted in place. Mast stepped. Yard and sail bundled along the port gunwale, ready to be hoisted. Downhaul rigged. Foam cushions for cockpit lounging. There didn’t seem to be any excuses left. I uncleated the docklines, stepped aboard, and shoved off.
I rowed easily up the bay, a mile-long finger of water so narrow that raising the sail would have been a waste of time. Even as heavily laden as the boat was, I didn’t feel the weight once we were moving; a Whitehall-type hull carries a load gracefully. Before long I had reached the open waters of Sabaskong Bay to find a light wind from the southeast and a broad scattering of thickly wooded islands in every direction. I brought the bow into the wind and raised the sail.
There wasn’t much of a breeze, but it was enough to keep me moving. Barely. At my current light-air, red-lantern pace, the lake seemed enormous—no, it was enormous. On the 1:150,000 Lake of the Woods chart tucked under a strap on the rowing thwart, Sabaskong Bay alone fit comfortably under the palm of my hand, ten miles crammed into four inches: four hours of sailing, maybe five. But the world here was to be understood not with a glance at a chart, but only moment by moment, island by island, mile after slow mile. That’s what I had come for.
My plan was to head northeast across Sabaskong Bay and into Turtle Lake, a connecting bay with an entrance channel so narrow that its opposing shores merged into a single line on the chart. Once through, another mile of sailing would bring me to the northern end of Turtle Lake, where I hoped to camp. Here the chart showed a strip of land perhaps 25 yards wide separating Turtle Lake from Whitefish Bay to the north—a dead end. Or was it?
A thick black line labeled “Canal” connected Turtle Lake to Whitefish Bay, at least on paper. But I knew the canal had been filled in years ago, and I’d heard that it had later been replaced with a hand-operated marine railway capable of hauling small boats over the gap with a cart and winch. But reports about the current state of affairs were inconclusive, even contradictory. The railway would soon be removed by the Ministry of Natural Resources… it had already been removed… it was still in place but no longer functional, as the cart apparently had run off the end of the rails and sunk into the lake, leaving only an empty set of rails to bridge the gap. Who knew what to believe?
If I could get my boat across the portage at Turtle Lake, I would be able to circumnavigate the entire Aulneau Peninsula, a 600-square-mile land mass that filled the center of Lake of the Woods like a small continent, its convoluted shoreline offering a muddle of channels and islands and back bays that were themselves filled with even smaller islands, a confusion of mazes within mazes. Circling the Aulneau would give me 100 miles of sail-and-oar cruising. But I wasn’t keen to manhandle 600 lbs of boat and gear over who knows what kind of terrain to begin.
When I had asked about the current state of the railway back in Hanson Bay, no one had been able to tell me anything. Local boaters seemed surprised I had even heard of it. After I failed to find anyone who had actually used it themselves, I gave up. The railway would either be there or it wouldn’t. Uncertainty is the essence of travel; everything else is tourism.
The sun had sunk below the horizon well before I reached Turtle Lake, but I kept rowing through the long twilight after the faint breeze had dropped away to nothing. I continued into the entrance channel, passed a couple of small islands, and crossed Turtle Lake in the full darkness of a night lit only by stars. Twenty yards from the far shore I pulled out a flashlight and managed to find the buoys marking the entrance to the canal, or railway, or dead end—it was still impossible to say which.
And then, with the flashlight’s beam, mosquitoes. They swooped down on the boat in ravenous thick-thrumming clouds—biting, biting, biting, biting—swarming my face, my eyes, my nose, my ears, my feet. I pulled on my raincoat and rain pants, rowed at full speed to the channel’s end, splashed awkwardly to shore, and began to set up the tent in the dark with a rush of slapping and swearing, not even bothering to look around for the railway. Biting, biting, biting. My arms, legs, and face were smeared with blood. Mosquitoes crawled wriggling up my sleeves, under the brim of my hat, up the legs of my rain pants. Biting, biting. The air was thick with them, their buzzing the live-wire hum of a high-voltage transformer. Biting, biting, biting. I held my hand over my mouth and nose to avoid breathing them in, and still a dozen mosquitoes fluttered in my throat at each inhalation. I unzipped the tent, threw in whatever gear I could reach, and crawled in after it. I spent the next hour killing every mosquito that had found its way in. By the time I was done, the walls were covered in streaks of blood, and the floor was strewn with heaps of crumpled bodies.
In the morning the mosquitoes were gone. I crawled out of the tent and looked around. A rusty set of railroad tracks rose from the dark water, up and over the narrow isthmus, and down the other side. A sign—“Welcome to the Turtle Portage Marine Facility”—stood alongside the center of the railway, with a notice nailed on top of it:
Public Notification for a Category B Project Evaluation
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry intends to decommission the Turtle Portage Marine Railway System in 2019. Maintenance and operation of the current system is cost prohibitive.
The cart was submerged deep in the water at the end of the track. The dock above it hung limp and half-submerged from its rotting pilings. The railway was knee-deep in weeds. It all looked distinctly unpromising. But when I spun the wheel that wound the cable onto the drum, the cart creaked slowly up the rails. I winched it all the way up and halfway down the other side for a test run. Decommissioned or not, it appeared to be functional.
Good enough. I manhandled the boat onto the cart, tied it to the rails, and winched it over the low rise separating Turtle Lake from Whitefish Bay, where I left it tied to the dock on the far side of the portage. Then I took down the tent, carried my gear to the boat, lashed it in place again, and finally winched the cart back up to the center of the railway for whoever might need it next. The sun was still low in the sky by the time I finished, and the surface of the lake was rippling and wavering under the first faint stirrings of a west wind. I cast off, rowed a few yards out, and raised the sail. My circumnavigation of the Aulneau Peninsula was underway.
The rest of the day was sublime, sailing a broad reach northward up Whitefish Bay past Alfred Inlet, Devil’s Bay, Atikaminike Bay, Camp Bay. I jibed and slalomed my way through chains of rocky islands that rose from the water like long-forgotten ruins, and stopped ashore for a view from one granite-slabbed summit before continuing on. A group of white pelicans bobbing on the surface eyed me suspiciously but declined to take wing as I passed. A lone cottage stood tucked away on its own tiny island above an empty dock. I saw no other boats, heard no motors.
Late in the morning I rounded the easternmost point of the Aulneau Peninsula, rowing through a narrow passage overrun with lily pads to emerge into a gusty southwest wind that swept across the open water in a flurry of whitecaps. I fought my way to windward into the lee of an island thick with tall pines, where I dropped the sail and considered my options. A southwest wind was perfect for this northward leg of my journey—but a southwest wind gusting to 25 or 30 miles per hour was hardly ideal. There was plenty of daylight left, though, and an almost infinite array of options for ducking into shelter if I needed to. After thinking it over, I raised the sail and continued north triple-reefed, the 85-sq-ft mainsail reduced to well under half its full size.
Reef early, reef often, I reminded myself, leaning back on the sternsheets with the tiller tucked casually under my arm. The boat was making an easy 4 or 5 knots, I guessed, and remained perfectly docile and well-mannered, surging ahead and surfing the wave crests, showing no tendency to broach. Of course, speed is a relative thing; even with the wind on the port quarter, our pace was barely faster than a brisk walk. Not that I was in any hurry to put miles behind me.
After an hour or two I set my bungee-and-line autopilot and started slicing thin discs from a sweet potato to eat raw—call that lunch. As I rounded the northern tip of Bell Island, the last slice of sweet potato in hand, a bald eagle swung down from a treetop to snatch a fish from the water not ten yards off the port bow, then lurched clumsily into the air with a startled glance as I sailed past. “VOUS N’EN CROIREZ PAS VOS YEUX!” I thought.
Island after island passed by as I kept a close eye on the chart—lacking any navigation gear more sophisticated than a chart and hand compass, I’m careful to keep track of where I am as I go. Better that than to try to puzzle out a location after you’re already lost. And there was plenty of room for getting lost, or at least temporarily displaced, on Whitefish Bay.
By evening I had reached the western end of Long Bay, where I tied up in a sandy backwater and took my tent ashore. The Aulneau lay somewhere out of sight now, six or eight miles off my route, hidden behind a tangle of intervening islands. As I ate my supper, a beaver swam by dragging an entire birch sapling through the water. Catching sight of me on shore, he ducked beneath the surface without so much as a slap of his tail, taking the entire mess of branches with him.
From Long Bay my route would take me west along the northern edge of the Aulneau for forty miles before rounding the corner and turning south again. Forty miles of headwinds—two days, I told myself, maybe more. Probably more.
The wind grew stronger as the day went on. The first reef went in before noon, the second a few minutes later. Before long I could have used the third reef again, but I knew the shorter luff of the triple-reefed sail wouldn’t have done well to windward. I bashed along for an hour or two through a haze of cold spray, easing the sheet in gusts, hoping for the wind to drop. Finally I missed a tack, then missed again, and found myself too close to shore for a third try. I hurriedly doused the sail, dropping the yard on the gunwale with a clatter, and took to the oars. With the mast still up, I was practically rowing in place against the wind. It took me ten minutes of hard rowing to move twenty yards. As soon as I could, I pulled into a sheltered bight in the lee of a tall island, dropped the anchor, and settled in to wait out the wind.
I had come eight miles, more or less, and might make a few more miles in the evening if the wind died down. I adjusted my mental schedule to account for the strength of the prevailing westerlies: five days to cross the top of the Aulneau Peninsula, then another three days back to Hanson Bay. My red-lantern award was secure.
Pleasant days can make boring stories, but even so, I wouldn’t trade them away for more interesting times. For two more days I sailed on across the top of the Aulneau, tacking westward in mild breezes, following each sunset to its gentle conclusion in long-lingering twilight. I rowed past snapping turtles the size of manhole covers sunning themselves on slabs of rock, sailed past herons and deer and white-whiskered otters. I stopped at sandy beaches to swim under the hot sun. After lunch each day I let the boat drift in a quiet cove while I read a few pages from whichever book I had on hand. Aldo Leopold’s essay “A Man’s Leisure Time” seemed particularly serendipitous:
At first blush I am tempted to conclude that a satisfactory hobby must be in large degree useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant…a defiance of the contemporary… an assertion of those permanent values which the momentary eddies of social evolution have contravened or overlooked.
Leopold would have understood what I was doing here, aboard a boat it had taken me seven years to build, perhaps stretching even his idea of “laborious” and “inefficient.” He would have known, too, why I carry oars instead of an engine, a chart and compass instead of an iPhone or chart plotter. A defiance of the contemporary—exactly so, I thought. And mile by slow mile the journey continued, past the crooked corners of the world that reveal themselves to those who have learned how not to hurry past. Light the red lantern and hoist the sail, brother. Hoist the sail.
On my fourth day out of Hanson Bay, I rounded the northwest corner of the Aulneau at last and turned south down its western shore. I spent the morning ghosting along in light winds, sometimes becalmed entirely but not ambitious enough to row. I passed lazily through the long passage of French Portage Narrows and on to The Tug Channel, where the wind returned at last.
That night I camped ashore on a sandy beach fronted by a wall of reeds eight feet high, a perfect screen to hide my bright orange tent. After supper I took the boat out again, empty of gear, sailing just to be sailing, unburdened of all aspirations but this: to inhabit for a while the conjunction of here and now: the surging rush of the waves, the hiss of water rushing past the hull, the pull of the sheet in my hand. By the time I returned to shore, the moon had climbed well over the horizon.
I opened a can of peaches for supper and leaned back against the trunk of a red birch at the edge of the beach to watch the night unfold. A whisper of breeze slipped through the leaves above me. A pair of barred owls called from the forest at my back, and called again. A mink scampered along the rocky shore at my feet, chasing its own shadow through the moonlight. And just off the beach the boat floated on water so dark and calm that it mirrored the stars, a pale green hull adrift in the night sky. “S’ENVOLENT VERS DE NOUVEAUX SOMMETS!” I thought.
Tom Pamperin is a freelance writer who lives in northwestern Wisconsin. He spends his summers cruising small boats throughout Wisconsin, the North Channel, and along the Texas coast. He is a frequent contributor to Small Boats Monthly and WoodenBoat.
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