Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lake Pepin

I slept a little better than the previous evening, but that wasn’t saying much. The snow showers that were predicted didn’t seem to be much of a threat as there was blue sky behind us, with the percentage of blue to that of white ever increasing. There was however water frozen on the deck of my kayak.

Our morning began by paddling past what looked to be a semi-permanent camp on a small island in the river. As Kobie and I were discussing the day ahead, a gun shot rang out from the camp. I tend to think the shot was for our benefit; not that it was aimed at us, but so that we didn’t go snooping around the island. It felt like an episode of Scooby Doo.

We had a gusty wind at our back and I wasn’t going to complain, but it took some work to keep from getting pushed around sideways as the wind tends to want to do to my kayak. It was also a battle to keep on the line towards a point in the distance that I would use as a navigation marker.

We paddled though the town of Red Wing, MN, a town named as a derivation of the Indian name “Hupahuduta”, an Indian Chief that translates roughly to “a swan’s wing dyed in red”. It seemed like an interesting little berg and one that I might have enjoyed exploring. I had no real basis for that feeling, but the location and the way the city was laid out in the bend of the river made the city appear somewhat atypical for the area.

Past the city of Red Wing the Mississippi river widened as it led into Lake Pepin. The lake is 22 miles long and varies from one to two miles across. The wind also picked up and changed direction, now pushing us from the side. As the river grew wider the waves increased in size landing in my lap more often. Kobie likened the paddling to riding a drunken horse as we were being pitched about by the waves.

As we got further onto Lake Pepin things grew more serious. Waves were reaching the four foot range and the wind was gusting to 55 miles per hour. It took a fair bit of paddling skill to keep the top of my kayak facing the sky. I grew up surfing and have surfed kayaks before this trip, but I had little interest in doing so today.

On the early part of the lake the wind was blowing Kobie and I straight into Lock and Dam # 3. We managed to fight our way over to the area where the lock was located, but the bigger problem was that I couldn’t take my hands of my paddle long enough to get the marine radio out to call the lock. Each wave threatened to dump me in the lake. After several attempts I riled out the idea of getting out my radio.

As a backup, Kobie tried to reach the small craft pull cord that is located just before the lock. Each lock is outfitted with a cord so that small craft without radios can signal the lock. As Kobie approached the wall though he was just being thrown around and had no chance of reaching the cord without being bashed into the wall of the lock.

I tried again to retrieve the radio, but it wasn’t going to happen without me going for a swim. I watched Kobie back paddle so that he could reverse his direction of travel and make his way out of the main lock area. I tried to remain stationary hoping we would be spotted. When I looked back at Kobie, he had disappeared. I myself then back paddled to try and get away from the lock. As I slowly moved against the wind, I saw Kobie on the side of the river, having been slammed into the rocks on a small shoulder to the side of the lock.

I thought I saw someone in the tower of the lock building, but the lock wasn’t opening. I figured my best move would be to join Kobie on the shoulder of the lock area. Kobie yelled towards me, but even though we were only 30 feet away I wasn’t able to hear him over the noise of the wind.

With great difficulty I was finally able to back paddle and make my way to the rocks where Kobie was standing. Kobie gave me a hand so that I too wasn’t dashed against the rocks getting out of the lake. When I safely made it out of the lake I was finally able to retrieve my radio to call the lock. It goes against protocol to use a marine radio on land, but I was cold and angry. I first asked about portage around the lock and dam, but was told that they would lock us through. I was even angrier. There was a zero percent chance of us being able to get back in our kayaks on the top side of the lock. The wind and waves precluded it.

Another annoyance was the guy at the lock also mentioning that they weren’t expecting anyone today. It is their job to expect people. What really ticked me off though was when the person working the lock came out and said that he was watching us all the while, wondering if we would be pushed against the lock gate or if we would be able to make it to the side. Hey, Mr. Incompetent, here is an idea, open the door for us! At least give us a flashing yellow light on the lock so we know you are making the lock ready so we can soon enter. You could clearly see that we were struggling. I was so annoyed. And cold. I remained calm though as it wouldn’t have done any good to point out his incompetence.

Kobie and I were able to make our way behind the lock and get out of the wind to have an ever so brief lunch. As we stood there, shivering, we hastily ate a crudely thrown together sandwich. Sleet began to fall upon us. It made me immediately think of my 2005 bike ride when I got snowed in crossing the Rocky Mountains.

On the marine radio, on of the functions is that it picks up the weather forecast from the NOAA weather service. I turned on the radio to see if there would be any improvement, but there wouldn’t be. They reaffirmed that winds would be up to 55 miles per hour for the rest of the day, so our afternoon would basically be more misery.

If I thought it were possible I would say that the afternoon paddling was worse than that in the morning. We still had the four foot waves and 55 mile per hour winds, but along the Minnesota side of the river on which we were paddling were sheer cliffs with absolutely no place to bail out should we need to. It may have been more psychological than anything else, but if either one of us were to be dumped form our kayak it would mean trouble. It was not like we could even stay close together as we were at the mercy of the conditions. I would later discover that the area is called “point no point” as it appears that you can paddle around a point and put it past you. This nonexistent point is an optical illusion as the river bends to the right giving the appearance of a point.

I felt as if I was paddling inside a big washing machine with the agitator set to high. Waves had no semblance of uniformity as they seemed to be coming from every direction and in varying sizes. The majority of waves were coming from diagonally behind me so I spend several hours paddling while looking over my left shoulder for any potential trouble.

I was completely spent having to work my kayak across the waves. You can’t beat Mother Nature, at least not in the long term. I had to tack across the waves to make any progress and it took a lot out of me. I have to admit that I was somewhat envious of Kobies rudder, though I am not sure of how much use that would have been in these conditions.

We pulled into a small cove to come up with a game plan and saw a gentleman, Jamie, walking along the bank of the river. We inquired as to where we might find a place to camp for the night and were told that we probably wouldn’t have any trouble if we wanted to camp right there in the cove, but the area was unlevel and exposed. He also mentioned a campsite with hot showers in Lake City, MN several miles down river. Kobie was familiar with Lake City as he rode through the town on his most recent cross-country bike ride and said he knew it, so we paddled on.

The day involved lots of shivering, cold fingers and toes. I took more than several waves right in my lap. As the waves were largely coming diagonally from behind, they would push water up and on the back of my kayak and then over the combing of my kayak into a pool in my lap. Somehow the water found a way into my cockpit, soaking any stitch of clothing that I wore on my lower body. Worse though was that one wave nearly swamped me and tipped me over. I was able to keep myself upright using the flat paddle blade against the water to keep from going in the drink. The wind pushed harder and harder. I could feel the acceleration when the wind gusted. It was also the first day paddling since Canada that the two herniated disks in my neck gave me any trouble. I would attribute it to having to paddle while looking over my left shoulder for several hours.

We paddled on through the afternoon and planned on camping in Lake City. Kobie mentioned that if we have to pay $20 for a campsite, we might as well pay $60 and get a motel. After paddling in all manner of precipitation and wind all day, being soaked to the bone, Kobie knew that a roof and four walls along with a hot shower was worth an extra 20 spot to me; not least of which that it was to be in the low to mid 20’s at night.

We weren’t exactly sure where to beach in Lake City, but Kobie seemed to recognize and area he remembered where there was a motel. As we pulled to shore a man approached and I posed the question to Kobie, “is that the guy Jamie we saw earlier”. It was. Jamie came over and asked if we were interested in staying with him and his wife to get out of the horrendous weather, throwing in that he brews his own beer and has a sauna. If that doesn’t sound like a closer to me I don’t know what does. He mentioned that he came up with the idea of having us stay just as we were out of earshot following our initial meeting. The major obstacle, as is always the case, was what to do with the kayaks. After deliberating, Jamie called a friend and was able to borrow a pick up truck. While it was the right idea, the bed of the truck was eight feet long, leaving more than half our kayaks sticking out the back.

While Jamie ran home to grab a few long pieces of wood we could use to brace the kayaks, I changed out of all my wet clothes right on the side of the road. I was in the early stages of hypothermia and had a little frost nip going on, so I wasn’t shy. As I was still cold, I went in a nearby restaurant. While inside I noticed large picture on the wall of some women playing cards on a boat with the title, “Everyone has a good time on Lake Pepin”. Really? What is the guarantee, as I tend to disagree with that statement?

Jamie returned with an old set of doors that we used to extend the bed of the truck. We were golden. While we drove the five miles to the town of Frontenac, MN, where we had paddled past earlier Jamie explained to us that Lake Pepin was known for high winds and very little current.

When we arrived at the house it smelled of the most wonderful chicken soup and there was a fire in the fireplace. As far as I was concerned it could have been heaven. We were introduced to Jamie’s wife Jane and had a lovely meal. We lingered over dinner and talked about all manner of things before calling it a night.

I looked out of the window before going to sleep and tried to figure out what Kobie and I had done to deserve all of these absolutely amazing people that have looked after us on our trip.

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