9–Battle of Cedar Lake

or, Stroke! Stroke!

15 August

No sense getting out of bed early. The wind is still howling and the racket of the flogging tent has kept us awake half the night anyway.

Toward noon, frustrated at our immobility, we decide to try entering the lake from a side stream off the Saskatchewan, which will place us in a much better position to run downwind to some islands in the middle of Cedar Lake. This means rowing back upstream a couple of kilometres — backbreaking work against both wind and current, but better than sitting on our duffs.

We follow the side stream, which branches off into smaller and smaller canals. Fortunately our 20-year-old topo map (the most recent available) is pretty accurate, as our air photo coverage ended back at The Pas. We finally reach the lake, wait for an hour steeling our nerves and blast off into open water, pulling hard.

We reach the lee of the first island without incident, and jump to a couple more. By now the wind has dropped sufficiently to allow a comfortable sail and then a row to Kokuhuku Island. A boat load of natives spots us part way across and comes over. Their boat is much longer than ours and has an impressively high bow, which tells us better than words could just how rough it can get in this lake. As usual, they ask us if we’ve seen any moose. We haven’t, and ask in return where we should be looking.

We stop briefly on Kokuhuku to cook supper, eager to make miles while the wind is down. The radio forecast says north wind, but while we’re eating it comes up fast
from the south. We decide to make camp on the point and wait to see what happens.

16 August

Rain and unpredictable winds force us to go the long way around Kokuhuku. The scenery is remarkable — all this rock after all that river mud — but also alarming, as there aren’t that many places to get ashore. We find a magical island beach composed of flat stones laid up like bricks. Rounding another point, thousands of terns and gulls rise up in alarm. We realize how completely unnecessary and extraneous we are to this scene, and to everything on this lake — birds, stumps, rocks, trees. As if to punctuate the thought, the sharp tentacle of a young tornado pokes down from a cloud, trying to decide whether it has the energy to threaten us. Fortunately it doesn’t.

We reach a bay called Paul’s Harbour. There is no kettle on the stove or brownies in the oven, as we have been hoping since we spotted the cabins, but only the dreary remains of a winter camp (Paul’s, we assume): bachelor clutter, dirty dishes, old Muscle and Fitness magazines, snowmobile suits moldering in the rain. Depressing.

It’s been one of our longest days, rowing in the rain and the cold, but there’s little wind in the evening so we push on after supper into purple skies and amber water. Just ahead of darkness we ease onto a rocky beach, throw up the tent, and sleep.

17 August

Uncertain of the wind, we explore the beach after breakfast. It’s not sand, but is composed apparently of sawdust — presumably the ground-up remains of all the trees that died when the reservoir was flooded. We see a couple of makeshift bird blinds, and lots of moose footprints, but no moose.

We have to cross a large bay before we can turn east toward Grand Rapids. We start out following a tame windward shore, but as the bay curves around the wind comes more onshore and its fetch increases. The sail, even scandalized (reduced) to a mere 20 square feet, pulls as though to burst. Soon it’s plumb frightening: big seas rolling up behind surfing Ambrose Jane ahead on the verge of control. We dare not turn broadside to them or we’ll be swamped in no time. The shoreline, we now see, is a veritable punji trap of tangled logs, with no break to pull in. We’re in trouble.

We hang on for a desperate half-hour, Sylvia bailing, Greg steering. Finally we make the point at the end of the bay, shaving by with metres to spare, and bash ashore onto a rock bar to catch our breath. Truly the craziest ride of the trip so far!

To our chagrin there is yet another point to be rounded before we could get into shelter again. The stuffing beaten out of us, we opt to duck behind a small island to rest on the beach. And a strange one it is. Like this morning’s, it is made up almost entirely of decomposing woodchips that are spongy and springy underfoot. We explore a bit, and discover a section where the ground feels positively pneumatic, as though there were large pockets of gas trapped beneath. We retreat delicately, afraid that we’d disappear if we broke through.

By evening, the wind dies down. We’re already into day six of our supposed five-day leg to Grand Rapids, so we decide to set off again for some evening rowing.

The setting sun looks like a forest fire, and the stars slowly emerge in reflected duplicate as the water goes glassy calm. Dusk obscures the land, as we approach Rabbit Point, creeping among the deadheads in the dark looking for a landing site. If the wind wasn’t so darned unpredictable, and the landing sites so sparse, we’d keep going half the night for the miles. As it is, though, we’re too afraid of getting caught out in a sudden blow. So we bump through the deadheads to a soggy woodchip beach. Luckliy there’s a spot the size of our tent up in the trees, and we have a great sleep in the dead quiet calm. It’s definitely getting colder at night now, and Sylvia wears three shirts and heavy socks to bed.

18 August

We wake up at 0400 or so to the sound of more wind. Disappointed, we don’t get going until 0915, and as soon as we round Rabbit Point we discover the wind is blowing exactly opposite to yesterday’s direction, with the seas even bigger. No shelter for us today.

It’s a lee shore, but at least there are places to land so it’s technically not as desperate a situation as yesterday’s — at least for Greg, who’s facing back toward shore as he rows. Sylvia looks out over the raging lake (five kilometres wide at this point), watching waves rolling wholesale over Ambrose Jane‘s low bow. She fears broaching or swamping, but the mighty punt rides the waves remarkably well considering her 8-inch freeboard.

Logs like trreacherous pick-up sticks littered the sawdust beach
Logs like treacherous pick-up sticks littered the sawdust beach

After a few hundred hard-won metres we fetch up on a vast boneyard of bleached jackpine trunks and spongy woodchips, and wait out the rest of the day, disgusted at this contrary weather. Come evening it settles a bit so we strike out again, on principle — mainly because we can’t bear the thought of camping within sight of last night’s campsite.

After an hour or two of sloppy beam seas and Greg cursing as he rows, Sylvia exercises her veto and announces that it’s time to stop for the night. The next likely looking spot is mostly rock shelf and breaking waves, but just ahead there are a few stands of skeletal trees. Compared with the rocky beaches, we now seek out the woodchip-and-sawdust ones. Once you get past the toe-sucking muck along the shore, it’s solid, friendly stuff that is comfortable to sleep on and a good safe landing for the boat. (At least we hope this is the type of beach we will find as we surf in towards the shore in the near darkness.) Once ashore we set up the tent, make chocolate ovaltine and amaretto as the stars come out, the northern lights shimmer, and the orange egg-shaped moon rises over the lights of Easterville, the native settlement on the far shore of the lake.

19 August

As predicted, we can sleep in, for the bloody wind has not abated one iota. Neither of us has ever been in a place where the wind comes and goes so unpredictably, and so thoroughly boxes the compass in the course of a day.

It’s immune to our many complaints, of course, so we resign ourselves to a day off. We listen to the CBC (which we are finally close enough to Grand Rapids to receive), and read, and wash some clothes. Sylvia feels energetic and starts collecting driftwood sticks, from which we build a lean-to shelter to get out of the wind. But the blasted sawdust penetrates everything, and there’s no escape except in the overheated tent.

Cowering in our makeshift stick windbreak.
Cowering in our makeshift stick windbreak.

Does this wind have a name, Sylvia wonders, like the French mistral that is reputed to drive people mad? Cedar Lake is going to drive us mad if we don’t get off it soon. We are long past our expected date for arrival in Grand Rapids, and just two days away from our red-alert, overdue date. We’re only 30 kilometres away from the dam, but it’s quite apparent we aren’t going to get there any time soon. We hope our relatives don’t call out the search-and-rescue troops, as they’d find us lounging around reading and playing the harmonica!

20 August

Is it possible? The wind is gone! We set off rowing in lumpy, leftover waves, making good time. Two motorboats race past in the distance, and one veers suddenly in our direction. We figure the sight of someone rowing is interpreted to mean trouble in these parts. A boatload of natives roars up to see if we are okay. Several families have spent a disappointing weekend camping on a small island, windbound, and are now returning to Easterville.

The day gets calmer, grayer, and glassier as we row shift-and-shift for the final dam. We float across several sunken rapids that once challenged Ambrose and his boys but now show up only as narrow spots in the lake.The wind picks up again in the afternoon, kicking up a chop that begins to alarm us. But we’ve got the end in sight now, and we push on undaunted to the boat ramp where someone from Manitoba Hydro was supposed to meet us five days ago.

It’s evening when we crunch ashore. A few vehicles drive up to the nearby lookout point, then turn around and head back down the gravel road — no sign of our Hydro contact. We whip up a quick supper, level off the beach stones, and pitch the tent as the sky turns evil black with cloud. We are just nicely into the sleeping bags when a thunderstorm splits the heavens overhead. At least our timing today was good.

21 August

In the morning we stash the bags and the boat as best we can and start walking toward town. It’s a lonely gravel road with no sign of civilization. After exploring a wrong fork or two in the road, we flag down a white rental pickup truck. The driver rolls down his window. ‘I’m George,’ he says. ‘Are you the paddlers?’ We affirm that we probably are, though technically we’re the rowers. ‘I’ve been looking for you since last Wednesday,’ he says. (It’s now Monday.) We apologize for our tardiness, climb aboard the truck, and go on a great tour of Grand Rapids for the next hour. George drives us to the RCMP station to check in, shows us the Manitoba Hydro power station that is the town’s economic mainstay, and through the town, which is a much smaller place than we’d thought.

'Seen any moose?' Not one on the whole trip!"
“Seen any moose?” Not one on the whole trip!

Using a trailer from the Hydro works yard, we move Ambrose Jane and her gear around the dam in a trice. Water levels rise and fall visibly as we load the boat and point her downstream for the last kilometre of the Saskatoon River. Lake Winnipeg glitters away, just a few hundred metres downstream, under the highway bridge. It’s seven weeks and a day after we so tentatively launched in Medicine Hat.

We notice a small, private campground on the riverbank in the middle of town, so we pull her ashore and scramble up the bank. We can’t register, since nobody is home, so we head out on foot in search of ice cream.

We’re pretty burned out and in no condition to make a big decision. We really want to continue, but after our troubles on Cedar Lake we aren’t sure we’ve got the right boat to handle Lake Winnipeg. As well, we visit the local food store and discover to our horror that the shelves are all but bare. No fruits or veggies, no bread or granola — nothing that we like to eat. If we have to stock up here, we’ll be living for the next few weeks on boxed macaroni and cheese!

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