Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spring of Devil's Track

The hand of Winter refused to relinquish it's grasp, as the air grew cold again. The morning came slow to the land and the sun rose sluggishly under the cover of a smothering blanket of grey. In the meantime, the snow had floated gently from the skies and the land was garnished with its white hand.

And so the masses slowly trickled from the Northern Shores of Lake Superior. The urbanites retreated from the cold to their respective lives. The nomads of paddling heard other water's calling and continued their migration. I spent a day or two recovering from my bruised thigh as it's colors transitioned from purple to yellow's and blues (due to a boat taking me out on the DT portage). I deemed the leg usable and so I joined small and stalwart midweek crew to paddle. Andy Mcmurray, Kiffy, and myself met with Paul Hooper and had the North Shore at our disposal. Neither Andy or Paul had done the Devil Track this season and felt it pulling to them. So the shuttle vehicles tore down the dirt road barreling toward the beginnings of Devil's track.

The crew was largely familiar with the river, with the exception of Paul having his virgin run on the DT (Devil Track). And so we plodded our way way to Triple Drop light hearted. The river's level had improved from the prior runs providing a more cushioned feel and less contact with the river's bottom. We arrived at the triple drop and each probed our gumption in thoughts of running the drop. Andy's shoulder remained injured and painful and thus he reluctantly chose to portage and Paul elected to do the same. And so Kiffy and myself made a small pile of twigs and started a miniature fire atop triple drop, warming our hands while awaiting Andy and Paul to portage and set safety below. A short while later, we mounted are boats and dropped over the beautiful horizon lines of the DT. At the base of the second falls I emerged unscathed and was again feeling the pure elation of the vitality of life.

 Kiffy Runs Triple Drop Amongst the Snow
Photo credit: Andy McMurray

As we put on below the majesty of the 40 ft falls known as the "Admiral", the crew felt cohesive. The bond between paddlers on the river is unique. The group has an reliance on one another for not only safety, but for an energy that can ignite a motivation and can uplift your paddling to levels you were previously unaware. And conversely poor group dynamics can be disastrous. It's as if the river's spirit can sense and reward the unity among us, and yet will evoke wrath on groups bent on the individuality of its paddlers. A mile downstream, this phenomena would be enforced.

We had moved on from serpents slide and were navigating the shallow class II and III making our way towards Portage Down the Middle. A particular section I recall being frustratingly shallow as the river divided. Thus I took the lead and directed the crew down the river right channel, hoping for more volume. I slithered my way down the narrow channel, but looking ahead noticed an unusual smoothness to the water and saw a 5 inch diameter log across the river's entire width! Frantically, I worked to the river left where 2-3 inches of water made it's way over top the log while the river right the log was nearly 3 inches from the water line. I knew the gravity of the situation and threw a hard stroke and  pulled my knees upward to raise the bow of my boat as I impacted the log. I narrowly maintained momentum as I slid over. I caught the first feasible eddy and leapt from my boat screaming at the other's behind me to eddy out. It was too late. Andy successfully boofed over the log, but to our dismay Paul's boat slid halfway up, lost momentum, and fell back upstream of the log. His boat was instantly sucked under the log, and with the log about his waist he held on. Kiffy being in close succession behind Paul narrowly maneuvered around Paul and boofed the right side. We each tore up the shore on foot towards the log, myself of the left shore and Andy & Kiffy on the right. When I had made it log and seeing its diameter, I attempted to lift it up. I gained only a few inches and Paul remained pinned, there were few nearby trees for an anchor, and I hung poised to throw my throw bag . Meanwhile, Kiffy and Andy rapidly set up a Z-drag on a nearby tree, and Paul slowly began to get sucked under as we worked furiously to help. Fortunately, Paul arrived downstream of the log intact, still in his boat, and wide eyed. We all relieved and went about removing the log. Z-dragging the log across the river we freed the river and future paddlers from it's grasp. I was satisfied with the rapidity that the group responded to the situation and the action we quickly took. But it was an effective reminder.

Myself going after "Portage Down The Middle"
Photo Credits of Andy McMurray

We moved onward, making our way through Portage Down the Middle and had good lines all around. We quickly took out of the river and watched the beads of sweat build as we huffed ourselves and boats up to the canyon rim and back down again. The runs climax remained ahead and we prepped Paul for the virgin run of his life, ahead lay "Ski Jump" and"Up Against the Wall".

I distinctly remembered the first run of these drops. Andy McMurray was in the lead and when I asked what lie ahead (most likely the 20th time I asked). He quickly exclaimed..."nothing for a mile", with a shit-eating grin on his face. A 100 yards down river, I watched Joel Decker drop from view over a large horizon line. When the scene came into view, my eye widened, and I have never grasped a paddle so tight! But on this day, we crested the horizon line with a large "woop" rising into the cold air and the acceleration began. Gleefully and cautiously I hurdled down the 30 ft steep slide before nailing a reactionary at the base and lining up for the final onslaught of the DT. The velocity was again regained as "Up Against the Wall" had begun. I took taking a left line and knowing I would be pushed right down the burly slide. Ahead it loomed... the water collided with the oncoming canyon wall and leapt up banking 90 degrees to the right. The paddle strokes became more poised and I punched up over a seam and found myself nearly in a violent eddy in the corner adjacent to the banking water. My stern caught and I banked through the wall backwards and thankfully upright.

Kiffy readying for the meat of "Up Against The Wall"
Photo Credit: Andy McMurray

The river then gradually calmed until it meandered quietly to the expanse of the Lake. Coming to the river's mouth we found a new onslaught as the surf immediately rose up and pounded into me. We paddled out beyond the break, did our ceremonial roll in Lake Superior, and took the final joy of surfing back to the land.

We had a festive night by the fire, carrying the torch of the fore fathers of paddling before us. These Northern shores are steeped in personal memories and historical lore, yet united in the commonality life giving waters that feed the past and present. I stood enveloped by the depths of contentment.

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