The weekend before last, there were four of us middle-aged white faces that set out in two canoes on a 2 day overnight camping trip in northern Minnesota. We had 3 rivers to choose from depending on water flow. We ended up putting into the Whiteface River at County Road 52 about a mile west of the town of Cotton. The river originates in the Whiteface Reservoir and flows southwest finally feeding the St. Louis River. We did not put in
at the reservoir, although the fastest water runs between there and County Road 52. The main thing is that we were 4 middle-aged guys who packed to travel in comfort. We had 2 aluminum canoes, 2 large tents, 2 large coolers, 4 captains chairs and 4 backpacks. We just wanted to paddle, camp, eat, mix Jeremiah Weed lemonades and enjoy the outdoors for 36 hours. And believe me, we ate like kings!
The real adventure began when we started about an hour late putting into the river. As it turned out the only other people we would see for the next 36 hours happened to come floating by as we arranged the boats under the county bridge. They were 3 guys, 2 in a canoe and 1 in a kayak…and they were traveling LIGHT. They had the real-deal equipment: light weight canoe, small packs and a water proof pack for food and tent.
They smiled, waved and gave us words of encouragement as the 4 of us loaded our gear like we were at a private campground and not sparing the luxuries.
Off we went, and I must say that once you’re on the river, it’s quiet, full of wildlife and peaceful. There were several class 1 rapids to navigate and we did pretty good. Although the flow coming out of the reservoir was reported less than optimal. So in several places we had to get out and push the canoe through rocky, shallow spots. There are very few county road crossings along the way. Much of the stretch has long expanses of state-owned land with no access, so there’s literally nobody around. There are spots with private land, a few houses with barking dogs and many hunting shacks buried in the woods. We saw mostly deer, geese, wood ducks, mergansers, beavers, song birds, and otter and raccoon tracks. This river is just one of 32 waterways totaling 4,400 miles designated by the Minnesota DNR as “water trails”. If you scout the DNR website, you’ll get references to books and online materials that provide phone numbers for water flow rates from dams and reservoirs that would affect your experience. If you go to the Whiteface, you can dial for discharge readings: 218-720-2777. A discharge of 150 cfs is enough to get by with a bit of scraping on the bottom of your canoe.
Most of the trees are maple, cedar, conifers, aspen, birch and pine. Most of the pine is gone. It was logged long ago, but you’ll spot the occasional red or white one standing tall amongst the rest. The forest is mostly made of large ferns that look like something from the forests of
Avatar. There aren’t any official campsites along the way. So part of the adventure is making your own. However that can be a bit tricky because you must respect the private property and then you must find someplace where you can access the river bank easily. And that is where the challenge is. Other than the rocky class 1 rapids, the rest of the river is mostly a weird mixture of charcoal colored sand and clay. This stuff sticks to you like putty and if you’re not careful will suck you in down to your knees. This leaves you wondering how you’ll extract yourself without loosing your shoes and not falling completely into the river.
Oh, if you go, beware, there are mosquitos. They fly faster than you can paddle. However, I was prepared. I had doused my clothing in permethrin before the trip and we all sprayed clouds of deet on ourselves. Amazingly, I didn’t have a single insect bite. They buzzed me incessantly, but I never itched from a bite. And once the campfire was going, the bugs simply stayed away. I only had one tick find the palm of my hand as I was out gathering firewood, and he ended up in the fire.
Earlier I told you that you might see beavers on your trip. If you don’t see any, you’ll certainly run into their handiwork. Mother Nature does her best to add to the fallen trees through wind and erosion. There is a stated log jam about 3 quarters of the way toward where County Road 133 crosses over the river. This is a HUGE log jam. The maps list the portage around the log jam as 50 rods, but it is MUCH
bigger than that. At a minimum, I’d estimate it to be 200+. The kicker is that you think it is the only one on the trip. Not so. We ran into 3 log jams. And the only way around most of it is by portaging through ferns and stinging nettles. The copper colored waters of the river feel really good after burning your legs on the nettles! Originally we intended to exit another 7 or 8 miles south of County Rd 133, but the log jams slowed our progress and we were thinking one of us would have to hitchhike a ride from someone to our van. But as luck would have it, the 3 guys that had passed us the day before
ended up behind us on the following day. We had set our earlier and they eventually caught up to us at the 3rd log jam. They rescued us as they had a ride waiting for them at County Road 133. In exchange we shared our 2 coolers full of food and we all exchanged stories of our trip and spent a few minutes enjoying God’s provision for us all.