Canoeing the Mississipi: Lake Winnibigoshish
Posted: Wednesday, September 12, 2012 at 5:33pm
June 8, 2012 - Lake Winnibigoshish
It seems the river changes at every turn. We wandered through the dead marshes, played canoe-pinball off a bunch of deadfalls, and have arrived at our first set of big open-water crossings. Yesterday we took afternoon off catching walleyes in the clear waters below the Beaver Tail Dam.
We quartered a stiff breeze from the South and successfully crossed Cass Lake this morning. Our Penobscot’s shallow arch bottom rolls and cuts through the choppy waves like a dream. In all, we’ve covered 25+ miles today and paddled 10+ hours already. It’s 3 p.m., and I’m thinking, “Good day. I love this trip.” Our goal today was reach Lake Winnibigoshish and cross safely at dawn the next morning.
Lake “Winnie” is the largest open water crossing on the Mississippi River at 13 miles wide and 8 miles long. Winnie’s volatile temperament is infamous for whipping up four-foot waves without warning. In fact, our DNR maps explicitly state, “paddling across the lake is not recommended.”
But here we sit, 3 p.m. and I can tell by the sly grin on Mark’s face that this, “good day” is far from over. The rest of the crew is silently unanimous. No proposition is made, but I take a pre-emptive strike and start into a court case brief on why crossing Lake Winnie is out of the question today. My months of homework on the river all included explicit caution when addressing Lake Winnibigoshish. I exhausted a tirade of arguments, data, and hearsay. Mark’s sly grin widened, “Eat some trail mix, take a nap, and let’s see what it looks like in 30.”
Clear skies, diamond-dancing waters, and a breeze gentle enough for blowing bubbles; I couldn’t deny the conditions were ideal. My reserves were running low, but I knew Mark was right. It’s always easier to slow down at the end of a trip rather than burn out for a deadline, so set the bar high early. We took an unnecessary vote.
We had already faced some challenges like wild portages and pocketknife tick-removal surgery, but as I squint through binoculars, none seem as formidable as reaching the far shore of Lake Winnie. With an All-American athlete motoring away at the bow, I take the stern of Rachel.
On our tiny radio, between weather reports, we find a Leech Lake Reservation station pumping Ojibwe tribal beats. The rhythm is near hypnotic as our paddles find cadence. Progress is impossible to detect. Our fingers are warmed in the lapping water at the gunwale sides. After a while, the tallest white pine on the far bank focuses from the distant blur. I refuse to admit we are halfway there in fear of disappointment.
The heart of Winnibigoshish is tranquil today. Still, distant, and empty. With 95% of its 140-mile shoreline untamed, she often rages at the arrogance of people crossing without permission. Who knows why she was so serene, but we are thankful for her indifference as we pull into Tamarack Point on the eastern shore. The sun sets, mosquitoes descend, and we agree that it was a “great day.”