Labor Day for most people is a time spent relaxing with friends and family, usually centered around a barbecue. So it may seem an odd time for two brothers to set out on a river trip that would span almost 50 miles in 2 days. However, in my mind it seemed somehow appropriate to celebrate the hard work of the American laborer by setting off on a trip that would be sure to provide ample physical and mental pain. This would be no relaxed weekend eating baked beans.
The idea to paddle the Vermilion had been brewing between myself and my brother Donald for a few years. Really, ever since my ill-fated bachelor party, the thought of returning to complete the trip had been rattling around in the back of my head. You see, years earlier a small group of friends set off down the Vermilion river to celebrate my pending nuptials. Not having much experience in whitewater, we’d planned to portage all of the big rapids and spend a few days leisurely floating from Lake Vermilion to Crane Lake. Solid plan….until we came to the first rapid at Shivley Falls which was swollen from spring melt and rains. One member of the party who shall remain anonymous decided that he would just go for it. Long story short: this ended in 1 out of 3 kayaks broken, 1 of 3 paddles broken, all food lost (except for a soggy loaf of bread, which would later be consumed as toast over a campfire), and some serious bumps and bruises to both egoes and bodies. Instead of carrying on downstream, we decided to paddle 2 miles back upstream, and then 15 miles across Lake Vermilion, stopping every hour to empty water from the broken kayak. One member of the party paddled the entire way with a leaking kayak and half a paddle. This is what defeat looks like, and also served as the biggest motivator to really dive into paddling whitewater.
Now, I’ve returned to the Vermilion with friends in the years between, knocking off the big sections of whitewater. It’s a magical place. Table Rock falls and the gorge that follows is among my top 3 favorite places in the world. The view from an eddy while in the midst of the narrow canyon is second to none and the whitewater can hardly be beat. Mossy walls rising straight out of the rapids, cedars overhanging the canyon, and an occasional beaver riding the rapids provides an out of this world experience. The taste of defeat is bitter, and having had so much fun on the sections of whitewater we missed, I began to think that we should attempt the run again and link all three major sections together.
Fast-forward to 2017. My brother and I found our schedules aligning over the labor day weekend. 3 days to paddle 50 miles should be no problem after coming off a summer of paddling all day, 7 days a week. However, work obligations would turn our planned 3 days into 2. Still 25 miles per day seemed reasonable for 2 young men in good shape. So with excitement we packed our kayaks with food, hammocks, sleeping bags, and headed to the northwest corner of Lake Vermilion to get a second chance.
Right away we knew the boats were heavy. Much more than the standard safety and camera gear I was used to carrying. Still, we were able to roll our kayaks with ease and we set off. Running the dam rapids as the river leaves Lake Vermilion was a test of the handling of our kayaks that now handled more like tanks than the usually nimble whitewater machines. As we worked down towards Shively Falls–the rapids that had wrecked our dreams before–we were wondering what we’d find. Once there, we found beautiful, easy class II and III rapids unlike the swollen continuous big water we had experienced before. Running through this section had us feeling great and thinking that we were in for miles and miles of beautiful scenery and rapids.
As this section of whitewater comes to an end, the river widens and becomes mostly a lake and void of any current for the next 7 miles. Wild rice as far as the eye could see, would make navigation difficult at times, but nowhere near as much an obstacle as the wind that soon kicked up from the north. As we began the 7 mile paddle north across the now widened river, the wind began and soon developed whitecaps bearing down on us head on. For hours we struggled into the headwind, hardly making progress. Now, the other sections of whitewater I had paddled fooled me into thinking the whole river would have the same beautiful scenery. High rock cliffs and outcrops, tall pines, and solid ground–much like my day to day guiding whitewater rafting trips on the St. Louis River. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once the river passes Shively Falls, the surrounding landscape is swamp. Swamp for as far as the eye can see. Without the wind, this wouldn’t present any problems, however after battling gusts for hours we were ready to have a rest before continuing on. The swamp and wild rice would provide no cover for us and there would be no rest until we reached Table Rock Falls.
We reached the falls hours behind schedule, now with the realization that we wouldn’t be able to just pull over and camp wherever we wanted due to the surrounding swamp. This would prove to be a problem being that there are limited official campsites and we were paddling over labor day. Table Rock–normally my favorite rapid–loomed large in my mind with the exhaustion of our battle in the wind. Add to that our heavy boats and limited time, and the decision was made to portage the falls and run the canyon below. It did not disappoint! As soon as my boat slipped into the current and I braced through the first play hole, the pain of the earlier struggle disappeared and my mind was ecstatic. Table Rock Canyon is a place where the world outside ceases to exist while you’re in the midst of its rapids.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. At the end of the canyon is a single campsite. It would put us behind schedule, but we’d be able to rest on good ground for the night and pick up the next day. The people occupying the campsite we’d staked our fortunes on waved as we floated by. This left us with two options. Pull over in Buyck and sleep at the boat ramp, or carry on downstream and hope that we’d find some high ground to camp on before dark. After not seeing any high ground for more than 15 miles, we decided not to gamble and pulled over in Buyck.
Rising early the next morning, we were faced with paddling almost ⅔ of the mileage in a day, instead of the ½ that we had planned. Still, the mileage seemed reasonable. Unfortunately, the river between Buyck and Crane Lake is slow and meandering, not providing much current to help our journey. We slogged on through more swamp and wild rice, pausing only to eat handfuls of trail mix and beef jerky. As the sun made a wide arc across the sky, we both began to do mental calculations. We would be reaching the only mandatory portage on the trip (a spectacular class VI waterfall) and the ensuing gorge which spills into Crane Lake right as the sun would be disappearing below the tall north country pines. Normally, running this gorge at dusk wouldn’t present such a challenge, however we would be coming off 45 miles of hard, constant paddling, and running in overloaded kayaks.
As we drew the the Gold Mine Resort, discussion ensued. We were within 6 or 7 miles of Crane Lake, but those last miles presented the greatest challenge. Deciding to stop for a break from paddling at the resort, we hopped onto the beach and it was immediately clear–the Vermilion would defeat us a second time. We humbly walked up the hill and found the resort owner tending to his daily routine. We asked if he’d be willing to give 2 tired, broken down paddlers a ride back into Crane Lake. Graciously, he agreed to return us to civilization and our waiting truck.
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I’m not sure if that saying continues for a third time, but it doesn’t matter. Next time we’ll make it.