It’s strange to turn a corner, watch the water open, and feel like you’ve jumped three hundred years forward in time. Imagination runs wild along the lonely rapids and portages of the Granite and Pine Rivers. You can almost forget who you are. But in a single turn, the wilderness runs out.
Voices echo across the water. Lodges and cabins crowd the shore. Motor boats fly past, trailing lines of white wake behind them. Gunflint Lake feels like a metropolis.
I thought about stopping. I thought about hamburgers and grease-soaked fries. I thought about ice cream and chocolate cake. Then I thought about the next portage and how badly I wanted to cross it. Not just to leave the motor boats behind, but because I’d imagined it for hundreds of miles.
No stream or river flows between North and South Lake. No waterfall crashes down and forces you to trade your paddle for your feet. There is only a quarter-mile of muddy path through a low-rise.
But it’s there that the curving line of the Laurentian Divide passes my route. There, at the Height of Land, where one side drains to Hudson Bay and the other to Lake Superior. There where I trade working against the current for working with it.
I thought about this portage paddling the Rainy River. I thought about it fighting up rapids and lifting the boat over rocks. I thought about it almost every day for the last month. Every time I felt the water pull me backward I knew that one day I would be here.
Hamburgers and ice cream can wait. Motor boats can have their docks. The Height of Land calls.
When a newcomer reached the portage, the voyageurs baptized them with water from a cedar branch, made them swear oaths, and called them hommes du nord, Men of the North, for the first time. Then they celebrated, drank, and fired guns into the air.
I had no cedar branch, alcohol, or gun, so I just lifted the kayak on my shoulders, left the motor boats behind, and jumped back in the time machine.