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Crossing Cass 🌊

Before we crossed Lake Winnibigoshish, we had to cross Cass Lake. It was a harrowing experience that I wrote about and posted on my social media a while back. Here are all three parts of that tale in this blog post. Enjoy 🌬️ 🌊



Crossing Cass Part 1:


We like to say that on Cass Lake we “Found a limit. Learned a lesson.” After making it through the Log Jam a paddler’s next challenge is to cross the Big 5: Lake Irving, Lake Bemidji, Stump Lake, Cass Lake, and Lake Winnibigoshish. The Young Mississippi flows through each of these lakes in turn, and wind and waves can be formidable on each. Espoir and I had already crossed the first three lakes with little trouble when we found ourselves preparing to make a 2-day crossing of Cass Lake.


The first day of our crossing took place in the early evening. It was mostly uneventful save for one truly spectacular sight: the slow, creeping presence of several storm fronts in the distance. Right as we were passing the Potato Islands the storm fronts surrounded us on three sides. All around us we could see the telltale signs of a purplish downpour escaping from blue-black clouds to our north, west, and south. The streaks of rain grew ever closer but somehow never seemed to converge directly over us. It felt like our ancestors had created a little bubble of protection, sheltering us from the cloud bursts until we made it safely to Star Island.


As we rolled onto the island’s sandy southern shore we were greeted by first-time River Angels Jennifer and Tom Coen and their grandson Teddy. After an evening of hot food and adventure sharing we fell asleep in warm beds as the rain poured down outside.

The next morning we knew we’d have a strong tail wind and made a plan to hug Star Island until we could make the shortest crossing possible. As we reached the island’s end we could see the waves and wind picking up in the distance as expected. I zoomed in on google maps and could see a bunch of cabins with docks on the mainland, just north of where we were aiming. Making a note of human presence nearby in case something went wrong, we turned our boat due east and prepared to cross.


Crossing Cass Part 2:

The dictionary defines “fetch” as “the distance traveled by wind or waves across open water.” The more space or open water wind has to travel across, the bigger and scarier the waves. Although this concept was nothing new to me the wind and waves still hit us in ways I had never experienced before.


We got fetched over pretty bad.


As we reached the halfway point the fetch peaked, bringing with it whitecaps and huge rollers. Espoir was in the stern and it was all she could do to rudder our canoe so that it never got broadsided. I was in the bow paddling furiously, silently praying to every ancestor I’ve ever had. Turning around would have been disastrous, resulting in an immediate swamp in the middle of a huge lake. And even if we had managed to turn around it would have turned our frightening tailwind into a nightmarish headwind.


This was before Lil’ Mama, our 17 foot canoe, had entered our lives. At the time we had a little 15 footer that, packed to the brim as she was, already lacked a desirable amount of freeboard. Waves began splashing over our gunwales and into our boat, soaking our packs. At one point I yelled over the wind “If we swamp, we can grab the canoe and swim to shore. Don’t fight the wind and waves! Let them carry us to land as quickly as possible. Forget about our gear. When we land we can walk along the shore until we reach the cabins in the distance!”


At long last we washed up along what I called the Minnesota Mangroves. Rather than a soft and sandy beach we found ourselves blown into thick tangles of branches, briars, and rocks on the mainland. The wind had blown us significantly further south than we had anticipated. In order to get to the safety of the cabins we would now have to line (walk) our canoes along an inhospitable shoreline for about a mile before we reached the first dock.

This part was nearly as difficult as the crossing itself. The wind and waves beat down on us the entire time and more than once I tripped and fell on roots hiding below the surf. Soaked head to toe and exhausted, we paused to eat snacks and drink water a few times but otherwise pressed on.


Crossing Cass Part 3:


Finally, after what felt like years, we reached our first dock! Our canoe was nearly full of water but we tied her off and I climbed the steep hill from the dock up to the first cabin I saw. I probably looked like a deranged river monster emerging from the lake and crawling up the bank. When I reached the top I saw an old man in the distance and called out “Excuse me! I don’t mean to alarm you, but my friend and I were wondering if we could eat lunch in your yard while we wait for some of this wind to die down.”


After recovering from the terrible fright I gave him, Buck Brandt immediately started building Espoir and I a fire.


We ate our lunch huddled around Buck’s fire, shivering gratefully. His wife Bonnie came out to meet the two women who had washed up on their lawn, listening intently as Espoir and I told them about who we were and the messages we were bringing with us on our journey down the River. When we finished Bonnie asked us to please spend the night with them. Not only did they have a warm bed and a warm shower for us, she was already making a big pot of homemade turkey noodle soup and biscuits! Espoir and I took one look at the giant whitecaps still rolling across Cass and told Bonnie we would be honored to receive her hospitality.


That day Cass Lake showed us a limit and taught us a lesson, one we would carry with us the rest of the way down the River. We learned exactly what kind of wind, waves, and fetch we were capable of handling, and when to stay on shore and wait inclement weather out. We experienced the joy of having strangers welcome you into their home, effectively becoming River Angels without ever having heard of the River Angel Network. And, after our harrowing experience on Cass, we officially decided to find a bigger canoe.


So many lessons learned, so early on in our journey. I feel grateful that we were able to learn them without disaster.

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