The railroad right of way bisected the bog. It also stopped me from paddling deeper into the bog. I could have dragged my kayak over the high embankment and pressed on, but dusk was approaching and I needed to get off the water. Another full day remained of my long weekend in northern Wisconsin, so I had ample time to return to the same spot and explore the far side of the tracks.
My original plan for the following morning was to have a big breakfast with my friends, write for a few hours, and then go kayaking. After a meal of eggs and pan-fried potatoes, I told my friends that I would take care of the dishes so they could head out for their day’s hunt. Even as I was washing plates and rinsing coffee cups, I knew there’d be no writing that morning. I was too eager to get back to the bog. After finishing up in the kitchen, I jumped in my boat and paddled to the tracks.
The railroad embankment in the bog was a solid earthen dike. The only break for hundreds of feet in either direction was a pair of trestles that allowed the water in my narrow channel to pass. The space between the surface of the water and the lowest beam of the trestle was barely a foot in height, so I assumed I would be portaging my boat.
When I paddled right up alongside the trestle, however, I realized that while an occupied kayak would not fit into the gap, an empty one would. An alternative to portaging would be to climb out of my boat, leave the boat in the water, and send it through without me. This method, while easier on both my boat and my back, required me to give my kayak a shove, then scramble up over the railroad bed quickly enough to catch the boat on the other side before it drifted out of reach. Failure to accomplish this maneuver would leave me with no choice but to go for a swim.
Water in a northern bog is as dark as coffee. With tannins and dead organic matter, visibility in the water is less than the length of my hand. The only other time I ever submerged myself in such blackish water was to seek relief from a relentless swarm of mosquitoes. That had been in late June of an especially hot summer, and I didn’t want to relive the experience in mid-October.
Still I chose the float-the-boat option over portaging. Unfortunately I was overly cautious. I ended up not pushing my kayak hard enough, and it stopped dead directly under the tracks with neither bow nor stern poking out beyond the trestle. I could not reach my boat from either side. I’d carried my paddle with me when I scrambled over the tracks, so I was able to slip the paddle down between the railroad ties and nudge my kayak along. Unwittingly, I’d devised the perfect method for sending my boat through. I was in constant contact with my watercraft, and there was no chance it would float away without me.
I climbed back into my kayak and was in paradise. The terrain looked no different from the bog on the lake side of the tracks, but now I felt I was in a place where no one else had been.
After only five minutes of paddling I came to a series of beaver dams. At first the dams confused me, as I could not figure out why beavers would hold back water in a bog. There were almost no trees, and the ones that were there were inedible tamarack. The whole thing was odd. Other than the dams themselves, there was no evidence of beaver. I’d seen no lodge, no tree branches jammed in the mud, not even an occasional beaver trail leading out of the water. I concluded that the dams weren’t to flood the bog, but to maintain a constant water level on Deer Lake a full mile upstream. These were enterprising beavers.
The water level on the upstream side of each dam was even with the very tops of the dams. This meant I could ram the dams at full speed and let momentum carry me halfway over the dams before I ran aground. This made portaging fairly easy. After clearing the last of them, I’d gone not a hundred yards when I reached the end of my journey. The ecosystem below the dam had changed from bog to forest, and the channel had gone from flat water to a flowing creek. The forest, however, was an impassable wall of downed trees and overhanging alder, and the creek was so shallow that it was no more navigable than a dry creek bed. I had no choice but to call it quits and retrace my steps.
Not that it would have stopped me from going, but I hadn’t fully taken the challenges of my return trip into consideration. Specifically, I should have known that it is harder to go up a beaver dam than down one. High water and gravity help in one direction, but hinder in the other. As I lugged my boat over the largest of the dams, my foot broke through the topmost layer of tangled branches. I did not drop far, but my momentum threw me off balance, and I caught myself with my free hand. I was fine, but had I’d fallen any harder, a busted wrist or a sprained ankle would have made further paddling and portaging difficult.
It was then that I remembered that I hadn’t told anyone where I was going that day. The omission had been intentional. Having no one know where I am adds to the solitude. It also adds to the risk, but risk is a part of adventure. Without either the solitude or the risk, my day in the bog wouldn’t have been as memorable.