Cache River Passage
by Jim Carrier (1 of 5)
My brother Gary shoved our Old Town Penobscot into the icy waters of French Lake, stepping in about calf-deep. Instantly he re-discovered his leaky left boot, christening our May, 1996, adventure with a howl and a few choice words. It was an auspicious start to a long and challenging day.
Our planned trek into the northeastern sector of Quetico was U-shaped, taking us in through Cache Lake, Cache River, Kawnipi, and returning us via Russell, Sturgeon, and Staunton Bay. We would push hard for Cache Lake on Day One to maximize our opportunity with Cache's Lake Trout... a special treat for fishermen from Texas and North Carolina. Solitude, wilderness, and, perhaps, aging brotherly bravado were other big reasons for heading to the region. We would celebrate my younger brother's 40th birthday somewhere in this rugged area of Quetico... reason enough to test ourselves.
Our spirits were pumped-up as we plunged forward against a surprising current on swollen Baptism Creek en route to Baptism and Trousers Lakes. It had been a late thaw and the air of this May morning was fresh and cold. It was nearly Noon before the climbing sun warmed our chilly hands and faces. The warmth seemed to encourage the chipmunks, squirrels, and birds, too. We began to notice them hopping and flitting among the brown remains of Winter as we made our slow passage upstream. Budding birch and aspen contributed bright green splotches to the landscape. Pine and tall brown grasses seemingly swayed in the breezes to the quavering, high-pitched song of whitethroat sparrows, hidden high in the trees above. Our sultry South was only a day behind, yet Dorothy in Oz could have felt no more "transported" than we did. My brother aptly observed, "Hey, Flash, we ain't in Kansas anymore!"
That afternoon we met two trail-worn looking guys paddling toward us on Trousers Lake. Just coming off of Cache Lake, they shared a few words about fishing conditions there since the ice-out, which took place earlier that week. We judged from their rough appearance that the notorious 2.5 mile Cache Lake portage was already plenty sloppy, despite the late thaw. Their advice: "allow plenty of time" and "don't get caught on that portage with a canoe on your head after dark."
Arriving at the long portage before four o'clock, Gary and I figured to complete the trail, set up camp, and sink our teeth into our Day One steaks well before nightfall. As the sun stays high in the sky late into evening that time of year, we even speculated there might be time to try our luck with the lake trout. And, in consideration of Gary's cold wet foot, why not complement dinner by tapping into our special birthday flask of whiskey a few days early? Motivated and confident, we attacked the portage with vigor and slugged our way through the slop.
The portage into Cache Lake was as miserable as we expected... muddy, slippery, and wet. Ice and snow still lingered in patches along the trail. Gary had a canoe on his head and a heavy pack on his pack. His boot leaked badly with every sinking step, eliciting a steady stream of expletives. One messy mile later, we reached the Cache River... a stream, really - about three canoe lengths broad in Spring flood - bisecting the portage. There would be another mile and a half of trail to deal with after the crossing but, so far so good. With no pesky mosquitoes or black flies to distract us, we had hustled and were well ahead of schedule. It was only quarter past five. There was plenty of daylight left.
In hindsight, our fine progress to that point may well have been our undoing. We were, perhaps, a little too cocky. Throw in the fact that Gary's duct tape boot patch wasn't holding up so well and maybe our subsequent, rather confounding, decision becomes better understood. In a burst of mid-life, testosterone-induced foolishness that I have lived to regret (fortunately), I exclaimed, "Yo, Chief. Are you up for an adventure? How about trying a shortcut?"