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Rocky Lake – Quetico

Posted by Darren Bush on 5/4/2013 to Where We Paddle

“As I said, at the last minute Lynn could not go with me. Eye surgery and two deaths in her family in 3 weeks put her many days behind in her paperwork. I do not understand why people would be so up tight about getting confirmations of their reservations and permits. Canoeists are a strange lot. Therefore, John decided he would come with me. In the 12 years I have known John and Lynn, he and I had never paddled together. This was a treat.” – Kaitlyn

Day One – May 3, 2002


We left Moose at 9:30 AM, down the 160 rod portage and into the water. John predicted a 5 to 5 1/2-hour paddle to Oyster Lake. The Moose is a shallow, windy river in most places not much more than 20 feet across. The nifty part is, as you go north, you go with the current. The river flows north, through Nina Moose Lake into Nina Moose River and does not change current until half way up the Oyster Creek. Some rocks to avoid in places, there was one half-mile rapids/ripple where we got to draw and cross-draw…well kinda. John took stern.

It is a joy for me to paddle bow and get to see everything. I usually am stuck in the stern or go solo, either way, one does not get to have wandering eyes as much as the bow. We were very fortunate, not only were we with the current but a 10-15 mph southwest wind to our back. 3 miles to paddle and two very short portages, 20 and 25 rods respectively. After the 25 rod portage, there is an area where 2 canoes can be beached on the right (east). This gives you access to a HUGE chunk of rock, which is interestingly smooth. Like a dollop of lava in the woods. (I wish I knew more about geology) The top of this is a lookout where one can see the whole area. Nope, we didn’t climb it. We have a time schedule! .

We were entering Nina Moose Lake when John pointed out the very old, huge dead pine that marks the river mouth. A good thing to remember for the trip back. We saw an immature eagle in a huge pine in front of us on the southeast shore near the point campsite. It stayed there a long time as we paddles toward it, then flew east just as a very small bird, sparrow size, dive bombed it! Too close to the little guy’s nest?

There is supposed to be spring on the west shore of Nina Moose near the old Lamb Lake portage. We decided if time allows we would search for it on the way out. The northwest shore has a burn scar from a 1971 fire. Many birches have filled it in. Head towards the sandy beach in sight and you will find the mouth of the Nina Moose River.

A bit wider and more twists and turns. Otters in the water and the wind is sweet from the south. Life is at it’s best. A fast 70 rod portage and a 96 rod put you at the end of the river. We had lunch, bagels and p-butter. 12:30 pm 3 hours on the dot. By now we were both commenting on the amount of wolf scat we were seeing on the portages. I saw more scat in one trip than I have seen in the 12 years of BWCA paddling. I don’t know what that means.

We decided to take the Oyster Creek rather than go into Agnes and do the 160 rod portage over to Oyster Lake. The first mystery is, which I of the three “streams” (they all look like trickles coming out of the marsh grass) is the Oyster Creek? Scout John had the task of standing up to see which was most likely, and we were off. If you have ever watched a child squeeze out a tube of toothpaste as they walked, imagine paddling that. A few of the turns were nearly 45 degrees. Sometimes the width was 7-8 ft going to 15’ and back down. This was the place where the current started running south, against us. I was amazed at the strength of the current in that little dab of water. Then, the beaver dams started. The first one, not too bad.

Run up hard on the dam, get out without sinking into the muck, and hand over hand the canoe over, John on one side and me on the other. (Just before I left Madison, I took out the Tingley boots and put in the 16”Bean-ers. The CCBB has had many threads of the right footgear. I decided to go with the insulation, which was wise as I found out later. John wore his stiff sided La Crosse boots with heavy socks inside. I had polypro sock liners and wool wader socks.) The second beaver dam was a bit more dicey. Getting back into the canoe was going to be more of a challenge as the other side was a quick drop off. Only 3 ft or so, but too deep to stand in. So, Monkey Man John crawled up the middle of the canoe and I got stern. That was ok… little did I know. At the third dam is a 20r portage. We decided to keep the method we were using rather than portage. As were lifting over the dam, John looked down and said, “You’re getting wet”. Yes, I was standing in water up to my right knee as the earth had moved as we began to move the canoe over. “Let’s just get his thing over John”, and we did! I took the stern again and a few strokes away, John turned his head and said with a big grin, “How was the water?”

Fortunately for John, I am not married to him. So, I was not forced to give him the obligatory flat head paddle smack. A rule of the women’s wilderness, do not damage your friend’s husband. “It was 70 degrees, John.” Actually, I have not mentioned to this point, all along the creek was ice about ¼ inch thick and about 3 feet extended from shore. As we paddled along it made a wonderful crackling. Like off tune little bells. The water was soooo cold. The next beaver dam there was not a place for two to stand, so I went along the shore while John pulled the canoe over. This gave me the opportunity to find a big rock, lay on my belly, bend my knees, hold heels up and let the water drain out of my boot. The next hour was tough. The current was running hard and the turns and twists nearly brought the canoe to a standstill. Forward momentum was very difficult to maintain. I was now regretting my stern position. It was a constant fight against the water to keep the canoe directed.

We reached the Oyster Lake portage at 2:30 pm; both of us had Jell-O arms. Across the 60r portage to a beautiful, deep lake with cedar trees and a peninsula that has three sites on it. At the waist of the peninsula is a four-tent size site in a cedar grove that has the water on both sides. One side of the site faces southeast and the other faces northwest. Our only chore now was to head into the wind that had shifted, blowing northeast. Much stronger than the 15 mph we had started with. Maybe up to 25 by now. We decided to head straight north, then tack, and slide into the peninsula. Come on arms, don’t fail us now! 3 pm we stepped out of the canoe onto the 5 star site.

Walking across to the north side, we were completely protected from the wind. Unpack; tents up; dry socks on my numb foot and toes; gather wood which is plentiful. Take the water bottle to the very large granite face leading to the water on the northwest side. Laying on the cold rock, basking in the late afternoon sun peeking over the west shore trees, one can look straight over to the Rocky Lake portage and dream of the adventure tomorrow.

That evening, John fired up his George Forman double fire grate and began to cook 2 steaks. I slaved over the dehydrated potato buds and Sicilian vegetables. Being a lettuce head, I had not had steak in 25 years. Once I got over the thought, it was very good. We did the dishes, and retired to lake rock face to sip our hot lemonade and reminisce about the day. We did not hang our food pack; we did a Cliffy J. and put it low along the lake in the brush. With wood put under the very cool Cooke lite tarp and our gear stored out of the possible weather, we did 3-point landings into our blankies.

Day 2 – Saturday, May 4


I awoke at 5 am to a little bird outside my tent. It sounded like a White Throated Sparrow. It chipped and tweeted while bouncing around my tent. I could see the shadow on the east tent wall. It was telling those silly humans to rise and shine. We had decided to sleep in, as Rocky Lake was a short day trip. At 7:30, the rain started softly and constant, wind whipped up sporadically from the west. I told John this would be a perfect trip if the loons were here this early. I had not seen any last night. We made coffee and oatmeal, hung out under the tarp; told war stories; examined the scratch on the canoe bottom (Hitting a rock in that canoe sounds like a zipper being opened as it runs the full length of the canoe. It put shivers up my spine. “Sorry, little canoe…” I must say John took it way better than I would have.) Then! The loons started to yodel!!! The perfect trip.

About 9:30 am, we decided to go to our tents, and wait some more. I did some note taking and map marking, even a snooze. By 11 am, the rain had stopped and it looked like it might clear up. Although, there was still a stiff northwest wind. We took the food bag with us (ha ha bears!) and headed towards Rocky Lake portage. Both John and I wore our neoprene gloves. The air was still damp and plenty cold. Maybe 45 degrees.

John proved again that he has the magic. He predicted where the portage would be and we pulled right up. (We did a head into the wind north and a slight east tack.) The 65 rod portage is easy, a10-minute jaunt at a relaxed speed. From the end of the portage, you can look across Rocky Lake and see a cliff/ridge jut out almost directly across from the portage on the west shore. We decided to check that one first then the cliff/ ridge that was slightly down shore on the same west side. John had a hunch. As we approached it, we talked of how these were made. Who made them? When? An ancient mystery, to which we will never know the answer. As we approached the cliff, we scanned all over for markings. Lichen and some water stains where water trickles over into the lake cover the cliff. Lots of beige, brown, black and gray blended over the face. There, right in front of us, about 4 feet above the water the orange-red catches the eye. I held my breath. Just as Furtman describes, 2 crosses, 2 dots and vertical line hash marks. If only the rock could tell us the story. Would it be about people and their own adventure to Rocky Lake? Would it be a message to others to join them? An announcement of a sacred ritual? We took photos and moved on up the lake to check out the lone campsite on Rocky. That site, on the east shore leaves a lot to be desired. It is flat, close to the water, and exposed. A real brain-frying site in the summer. It is a shame such a pretty little lake only has that site.

A few minutes search west of the campsite found the 85r portage to Green Lake. This portage runs along a ridge. About half way along the path, there is a good-sized pond with a mammoth beaver house in it. At first, when we came up on it, we both thought that was the lake. Very disappointing. Oh, but keep walking and you come out onto a sweet sight of trees, cedars and green water. The wind had picked up quite a bit by now. Perhaps we noticed it now because we were not as sheltered on Green Lake as we were on Rocky. We decided to paddle out a bit, try to get to the campsite midway along the lake on the east shore. The green water enchanted me as we paddled. Even in the clouds and overcast sky, it was definitely green. When we reached the campsite, the wind was blowing harder. John jumped out of the canoe while I held on to the rocks and kept it still. The fire grate in this camp is very close to the water, however the small hill behind the fire grate produced a plateau with a sizeable area to put 2-3 tents and shelter with trees. It is a very acceptable site and one can be the master/mistress of the lake on it!

As the wind began to gust, we knew we had to hot foot it back to Oyster or plan to spend some time on the shore wind bound. Even with that thought, neither of us could resist another look at the pictograph. A small detour, then we moved with fast determination back to our site. When we arrived, the tarp was blowing hard, snapping and cracking in the gusts. When you faced north, your hair could stand straight up in the wind. I was grateful to be back “home.” The day trip took four hours. We grabbed a snack, made hot chocolate, went back into the trees out of the wind into a sunny cedar needle spot, and sat for an hour of talking and laughing.

BBQ John again made a fire and excellent ham steaks on the grate. They were spiced just right. The rest of our potato buds and freeze dried green beans and shaved almonds (YUM). The package of green beans was a six man. We ate every scrap.

From the time we arrived back at the site, through out dinner, the wind increased and the temperature continued to dropped significantly. We sat at the fire with our neoprene gloves on, put some rocks and logs up to make a wind break, but the wind seemed to blow the heat way from us. The loons began a serenade, which made the cold more tolerable. As we sat, suddenly a large chubby silver fish jumped out of the water, just a couple of feet off our campsite. John said it was a Lake Trout. His hands began to wind an invisible reel. Oyster is a deep lake, 130 feet and it held Lake Trout, which feed close to the surface in the cool spring weather. Summer takes them to the depths. John had glazed over eyes for a while. I think he was mentally trolling the bay in front of us, waiting for the lunker to strike!

Colder and colder, we tried to get a weather report on John’s short wave. All the Ely station had to offer was an oldie music show called ‘The Wax Museum”. We decided to call it a night at 9 pm. The fire was not keeping us warm enough. The owls around the lake began to hoot messages to each other and the loons continued their song of the night.

In my tent, my pen was so cold I had difficulty noting the day. The ink would not move down on to the paper. Getting ready for sleep, I began my night dressing. Long Johns stayed on from the day, as did my quick dry pants. Fresh wool socks (better insulation), bipolar under shirt, t-shirt also from the day, thick wool shirt/jacket, very heavy wool sweater with a cowl collar that pulls up around the neck and ears, my Elmer Fudd Columbia bomber hat, with fleece on the inside. Wool socks on my hands completed the ensemble. A Northface Cat’s Meow 15 degree bag and lite weight, full length Thermarest pad. At 1 am, I got up to put on my heavy Codet wool pants on top of everything else. I had to get out of the tent to get the pants and as I stood up, the brightness of the stars started me. It was breathtaking. Anyone who does not believe in The Great Spirit just needs to look at that sight to know there is a stronger force than humans in the universe. It was a crystal clear sky of midnight blue velvet. The stars so white-bright and low they beg to be touched. Just reach out your hand and stroke them. The air was sharp and almost brittle to the lungs. I went back into my tent and wrote, “Too beautiful to be lonely”.

Day 3 – Sunday, May 5 (takeout)


Waking up at 5:45 am was quite a shock. It was cold! John was already up. He had gotten a station in Eveleth forecasting 27 degrees for their area. He estimated we were at 20 degrees. “OOOf-Dah!” as they say in Wisconsin. Breaking camp was difficult. Gloves did not do well for ropes, knots, tent clips, etc.and exposed hands were painful. At one point, maybe 45 minutes into packing up, I realized my index and middle finger in my right had had stopped hurting and were completely numb. Maybe not such a good thing. Therefore, I went around for the next 15 minutes with my hand in my armpit. Now that was cold. The fingers screamed as they warmed up. They are fine now, except the index finger peeled some skin this week.

John and I had talked before we left about exploring Ramshead Lake and Lamb Lake if we had time. Even though he had been on three or four trips on the Moose River, Nina Moose route, he had not had time to check out these lakes and their sites. So, we decided to explore. We wanted to get on the water early before the wind picked up.

A fast breakfast of oatmeal and coffee put us on Oyster Lake at 7:30 am. It was like a mirror. The kind of vision where you look down the lake and it is hard to tell what is the reflection of the trees in the water and the actual shore. The crossing that took us 30 minutes 2 days ago, took approximately 12 minutes. We were hoping going with the current on Oyster Creek would help our time also. It did until we reached the beaver dam on the 20r portage where the current changes. At that time a southwest wind started and again. We fought the current and the wind. Fortunately, we knew what to expect as far as beaver dams and it made the journey a bit more predictable. It took a some sharp watching as we got into the marsh grass. Again, gotta stay on that middle creek to get out.

Ramshead Creek is just a few twist and turns from Oyster Creek. As we approached, John whispered “Look, deer.” On the portage entrance, there were three mammoth does, eating green grass that had started to grow out in the open sun. We slowed and watch for a couple minutes. I got out the camera and the auto lens does its whirr-whine, alerting one doe. She watched us for a bit, then started to walk away. The others took her cue and swiftly there were three long white tails straight up and deer hopping into the brush. I was taken at the size of the does. John reminded me that northern Minnesota has big deer. “That is what survives here.” When I asked for an estimate of weight, he replied “180 ­ 200 lbs.”. Those ladies impressed me! However I could not keep focus on the deer for long, we were pulling into a nice wet, mucky portage entrance. A real boot sucker. Oh, joy. 160r was not bad, just wet and mushy. A small incline helped stretch out the muscles that gotten stiff paddling. The creek on that side was dark, silty and had some sizeable rocks. It was hard to paddle and avoid them as they were covered with black silt. I wondered why. Around the corner, across a waist of water, before the lake, is a glorious beaver dam, maybe 30-35 feet across the entire creek. That was why.

By now we were far enough into the open we could feel the southwest wind had picked up to a nice blow. We wanted to hurry. Ramshead was gong to be hard to cross with that speed of blowing at us. Pull to shore, very mucky, get a boot full of water-mud delight trying to get out of the bow and move the canoe up to shore so we could pull around the dam. Not enough time to empty the boot. It was easier on the other side of the dam. There were some large rocks for us to use for take off. John’s constant utterance for the whole trip was, “Those pesky beavers.”

Coming out the channel, we realized we were in for a hard paddle. John decided to head for the island across the lake, pull behind it, lee, then make a second paddle to the portage. It was around 9 am. I was not keeping close track of the time by this point. Focusing on the paddling took my concentration. Holy smokes! Did we paddle. Our intent was to check out the campsites so John had some more info to help his customers on this route. We decided we would look at what we could as we paddled and keep moving. The wind was whipping up much more. The first west site was hard to see. The island site looked ok – a little exposed. As we approached the island, there was an eagle on a low to the water rock, just to the east of the island. It watched us for a long time then flew east. The second site on the west looked fine. We pulled in behind the island to rest and John pointed out a very tall, semi dead pine tree almost due south of us.

It has an eagle’s nest in it. As we approached the last site, we saw the eagle’s nest was only 25 feet or so from the site. We both express concern that whom ever came in had consideration not to use the site and bother the eagle. Passing the site, there was a humming, whirling throaty sort of noise and a head popped out of the nest! Just brief enough to make me wonder if I had really seen any thing. I asked John if he saw it. Being the good stern person he is, he was focused on heading to the portage, and said “no”. I think I did see that little head!

The 150r portage, between Ramshead and Little Lamb, was a bit rocky and had a lot of frozen marsh grass along it. I was in the lead and still thinking of the eaglet and missed the portage path into the woods. I followed what was probably a deer trail into the marsh grass. When John caught up with me he asked if I thought this was the portage, he had seen the path into the woods. He went into the woods and some snap crackles later I heard him put down the canoe. He came out of the woods and announced he had found the portage. I followed, very red faced, still thinking about the “baby”. John very generously told me we could have used that trail for a portage, since the ground was frozen, but could likely break and ankle in all the little holes in the grass. I knew he had broken an ankle a few years ago on a portage. I did not want to risk a repeat and I know he didn’t either. Lamb Lake is a little bitty splat of water, very visually appealing and no campsites. It was sheltered and a few strokes took us to the Little Lamb Lake – Nina Moos Lake portage. We ate lunch on the landing, knowing the next 220r portage is rumored to be a miserable one. Before we ate, John carried the canoe up the hill a bit. That way he felt like he had a head start on the incline when we started out again.

The rumor is now fact. That portage is steep, rocky, rough, wet and awful. Not quite as steep as the Vera Lake portage from Knife Lake, and less densely wooded, but close enough to be kissing cousins. My foot was nice and numb by this point from getting wet at the large beaver dam. Actually, I was beginning to have some trouble keep my balance, as I could not “feel” the ground under my foot when I stepped. I used my lovely Zaveral paddle with the yellow and black tiger stripped blade for a walking stick. About the last 30r John came back to see if I wanted help. There are times when being proud builds character and times when it is foolish. I hefted that pack right over to him. As we walked, he asked if I had been making huffing noises as I walked behind him. “Huffing?” “Like blowing air through your nose.” “No, John, not me.” “Oh, that must have been a moose behind me.” (Just statin’ the facts ‘mam.”)

We paddled into Nina Moose and started looking for the spring that is suppose to be near the old Lamb Lake portage. (We had come down the new portage, west-southwest of the old one.) We looked around most of the west shore bay, from the portage to the area where the first land point comes out into the lake. We could not see a spring or hear one. John surmised the most likely place for it to have been was the spot a large, brand spanking new, shinny wood, beaver house was on. Makes sense. It would be very handy to have plenty of fresh water in your back yard. “Those pesky beavers.”

Looking for the dead pine that marks the mouth of the Moose River we pushed over the Nina Moose Lake. The south wind was fierce. There was no mercy in the river from the wind. Now, again, we were going against the current. It was difficult to keep the bow of the canoe where we wanted it, between arguing with the current and the wind. Once, on an especially sharp twist and turn, paddles were flying at booth end. As we finished, John echoed from the rear,”Pretty fancy paddling, wasn’t that?” That is was. We passed the lookout again. I still want to know more about that strange rock. It is out of place there. I thought of pulling out Carl Gawboy’s book, Talking Rocks when I get home.

The last portage I walked the 20r, while Voyageur John paddled up the rapids. We pulled into the end of the Moose River at point 16 and for the first time in three days saw foot prints that weren’t ours. That felt a bit strange. Up at the parking lot, I remembered what an English professor said years ago in my class, “Life is a series of bittersweet moments”. I could taste the bittersweet as we got into the Suburban and headed for Ely.

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