Swamp between Lac du Milieu and the Savanne River – September 29, 2013
I broke through the last line of tangled bog between me and the railroad track and stopped short. It wasn’t a railroad track, it was a road, gravel and smooth and open, beautiful, but there was a twenty-foot-wide, flooded ditch between me and it.
I stepped close to the water. Black and murky, it dropped off the steep bank and down too deep to wade across. I looked for a fallen tree or a thin place to jump. Nothing. Then I laughed.
The boat. I have a boat. What am I worried about twenty feet of water for?
But I didn’t have it with me. I’d abandoned it a half-mile back through the bog. Left it on the edge of a clearcut, unsure about dragging it through the forest.
But that road looked so beautiful, empty and open, sitting across the water. I could take it to a drainage canal I saw on the map, a straight shot down toward the Savanne River. I dropped the bag of gear on a small rise next to an old telephone pole and disappeared back into the tangled bog.
The day had started well. The mile and a half across Lac du Milieu felt like heaven. Water and nothing to fear. But the boat ate up the distance like a starving man, gone in a heartbeat, and the lake died into a swamp with a thin, snaking creek.
Two miles to the Savanne if I were a bird.
There used to be a portage between Lac du Milieu and the Savanne River, but it doesn’t exist anymore and I’m not even sure where it was. I knew from the beginning that I would have to fine my own way, that this would be a slow, painful battle for inches, but the last. From the Savanne River to Lake of the Woods, the path is clear.
The creek tightened in a hundred yards. Its twisting, narrow channels squeezed me out of the boat and onto floating clumps of mud held together by grass that sunk under my feet and disappeared if I stood in place too long.
I hauled the boat over them for an hour, dragging the seventeen-foot hull down a three foot wide, twisting channel. After a few long bends, the creek disappeared in a tangled thicket of ropey bushes. I stared at the wall of branches then abandoned the creek and all hope of an easy route.
There was no dry land, only a side bank into a pine forest whose boggy floor sunk into puddles under my feet. Thirty yards away, I stumbled out into sunlight pouring over a clearcut swath of forest. The blue sky hung over stumps and discarded trunks tossed to the earth in ragged piles. I walked across the trunks, over the sinking bog below, dragging the boat behind me, feeling like the last living thing in a strange, alien world.
At the cut’s edge, I looked at my map and saw the railroad track a half-mile away. I grabbed a bag of gear and set off, knowing the full boat would be too heavy to drag through the maze of branches, bog, and fallen trees. It took me two hours to get back.
Every time I stepped, I didn’t know if my foot would stick, would sink to an ankle in water, or punch through to my knee. Mud sucking at my shoes, almost ripping them off. Ground disappeared under me. Logs crumbled and sunk.
I stumbled and fell, but kept moving, crashing though the trees with the boat behind me, willing it forward, knowing it would all be over if I could just reach that road.
Branches and limbs squeezed and snapped against the bow, groaning, bending away under the boat. They ripped into my clothes and tore at my skin. Mud splattered across my body up to my hips, black and grimy, full of dead, rotting wood. The swamp grabbed at me with a thousand hands.
Something would break, me or them, but surely one of us. I crashed forward. Leaning into the fray. Pulling. Shoving. I planted my foot down into wet mud and the ground disappeared underneath me. I twisted sideways, my leg trapped, and fell, my shin cracking against a fallen tree.
I heard a laugh from deep inside and imagined Wally smirking at the log. I would not break. Not today.
I yanked the boat forward a few feet at a time, switching hands, resting, pulling, heaving for breath, knowing the road was out there, that the end was so close, that I only had to hold it together for a thousand, for five-hundred, for fifty more feet.
Then I was there, floating in the ditch, ferrying the bag of gear between my legs, the road waiting, open and beautiful.
Out of nowhere, a semi-truck rumbled past me, the driver waved and I waved back, staring at the giant machine like an animal might, then following it down the road toward the canal that would take me to the Savanne.
A straight shot, the map said. Deep and clear, the map said. Plenty of water, the map said. Or maybe that is just what I dreamed looking at it.
I heard traffic on the highway in the distance. Cars and trucks raced by at seventy miles an hour, their engines echoing over the swamp. The Savanne waited there, the end of all this unknown, the end of crashing through forests and swamps, of searching for lost portages. I could hear it, racing by, so close.
I dropped into the canal and hit a beaver dam fifty feet from the gravel road. Then another and another and another. The straight shot, the plenty of water, the easy way out, was a lie.
I pulled over them, sometimes bullying over low spots, sometimes standing on the dam and dragging the boat over the top, sometimes reaching out for branches and yanking it up. The water spread and thinned. The channel narrowed into a tight, suffocating slip. The sun raced toward the horizon.
I wanted out so badly. I wanted to sleep knowing I’d wake up to open water. I wanted to feel like I could breathe again
I pulled along, ripping out handfuls of grass, dragging myself forward on tree branches, poling off the mud with my paddle, crashing over dam after dam. The highway rung in my head. The sun dropped. The channel tightened, choking away, grinding me to a halt on a smudge of high ground just seven hundred feet from the highway.