Loman, MN, on the Rainy River – October 16, 2013
I felt the ghosts watching from the first portage in the Boundary Waters. They stared at the boat cutting into my shoulder. They watched it catch branches and twisted me around. They smiled as I fought three hundred yards to the next lake while a boat lift rattled past me carrying powerboats on a steel track for $17.50 a pop.
“Levé, gents, levé,” the ghosts whispered to each other. “Up, gents, up and look. One of them wants to understand.”
At Grand Portage, after 8.5 miles and three days, I thought I did understand. Then came the Savanna Portage and I understood more standing in a hip-deep swamp before reaching the Mississippi.
From Montreal I followed the ghosts up the Ottawa and Mattawa Rivers, around dams, past rapids, over the divide on the La Vase Portages, and down the French.
“Now I understand,” I thought as I stared out at Huron and turned toward Sault Ste. Marie.
The ghosts laughed.
Superior’s rocky cliffs taught four hundred miles of lessons. Then the Kam arrived and I lost days clawing through forests and bogs, sawing away trails, shoving through branches. I would have taken that first portage a hundred times over and smiled at every one.
The dam in International Falls is the last portage on this trip. It’s easy. Concrete, asphalt, and wheels. Sidewalks and roads. Just watch out for cars and cross at the crosswalks.
I walked through town with the boat trailing behind me. I waved at the three-story Smokey the Bear guarding the town park. He waved back as I rolled past to a trail down to the Rainy River.
Guidebooks call the Rainy boring. The land is flat. Granite doesn’t flank the shore. Highways run down each side. It’s just a long, wide tongue of water running 80 miles across the north, an odd, boring piece in this land of lakes and granite.
“Good fishing, though,” people say.
It’s lazy. There are only a few small rapids, easily runnable, and the current barely pushes one way or the other. Boring. Tedious. Simple.
The ghosts smiled. They called the Rainy one of the finest rivers in the northwest.
I thought I understood from the pain, from the buckling weight of the boat over my shoulders, from the frustration of a swamp, from the misery in a bog. No, that is only part of it, only one side.
You have to understand the joy too. The Rainy is indeed beautiful. It is magnificent. It is everything you wish for when you understand how to see.