Clear skies

We knew it would gush rain all weekend but decided to go anyway. I sliced off the top of a plastic milk jug and said this would be our bailer; we’d use it when our canoe started filling with rain. Seemed like it would work. The really questionable thing was our map.

It labeled the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge as the Kenai National Moose Range — a name the refuge gave up in 1980. More importantly, it included one small blue line which the official, present-day map of the canoe system lacked. That line was the five-mile water passage we planned to take from our final lake to the river that would carry us home.

“Many generations of beavers have lived and died since 1980,” I said to my canoe partner. “Water changes course. What if that passage is impassable now?”

“We backtrack to the fourth lake,” she said. “There’s a land portage to the river there.”

And we imagined how dispiriting it would be to backtrack in the rain through those lakes, which included the widest and probably the roughest on our trip — backtracking after a night outdoors to arrive and portage one more muddy trail to the river. All in the inevitable rain. You’ll recall that the leaves did not fall gently this autumn. They were pounded off the trees by rain and wind. It was going to rain until it started to snow.

“Do you think we’re going to be miserable?” my partner asked the evening before we left, when the gutters were streaming outside.

“We’re going to be cold,” I said. “And wet. But being miserable is a choice.”

“Going on an overnight canoe trip in the rain is a choice,” she said. “And we haven’t made that one yet. But I think we’re going to.”

She was right. September was swiftly blowing away in the chilly wind. Raining or not, this was the last likely weekend for the canoe trip we’d been planning.

There’s an expected trepidation hanging over the beginning of every venture outside, big or small. You suspect that despite all preparation, the good trips you had before were only good because of luck, and this will be the time you have no luck. It’s a normal and meaningless feeling. You have to either think your way past it or just ignore it. I tried to do so while packing. But what I thought was: Have I wrapped my tent, sleeping bag, spare clothes, and fire starters in enough plastic trash bags to keep them dry? Or would plastic make any difference when they’d be laying in the bottom of a boat I envisioned filling up like a bathtub?

We launched the next morning as the sun was climbing into a brilliantly blue sky with not even a wisp of cloud, nor even a light breeze to blow against us. Like a cool mirror, the water reflected the red brush and the bursting yellow of the birches. We started paddling, sweating, covered in our raingear. By the time we’d portaged to the second lake, we shucked our raingear off and wished we’d brought sunglasses instead. The loons seemed to be laughing at us.

We didn’t dare to laugh back. As we glided the canoe effortlessly across one lake after another, there was a smothering feeling of lurking doom. The gentle sunlight on the water made us neurotic as lab rats who know that sometime today they’re going to get shocked. Would that little knot of cumulus in the south (hanging over mountains whose whiteness had such gleaming clarity in the autumn sun) turn into a storm? Could it even snow? To have a perfect day after a solid week of rain was nearly unbearable — like a purchase made on unrealistic credit, and so we wondered how and when we’d pay.

The sky would darken from time to time. Wind and waves would occasionally push against us, and overnight it did drizzle. In the grey morning it was still drizzling, lightly. We looked up and wondered if we’d be paying yesterday’s debt. But in fact nature gave us no more than a perfect amount of opposition. Even this was an unexpected gift: just enough wind and rain to make the trip not boring.

Beneath the overcast sky we paddled into our final lake. Here we’d find (or wouldn’t) the water passage to the home-bound river, mapped before 1980 and unmapped today. This lake was smaller than those we’d just been on — small enough to scan the entire shore from one spot. A high fence of yellow weeds obscured it all the way around. Behind them, the trees did not appear to break anywhere. The drizzle, I noticed, was gradually getting heavier. Where the map showed a blue line between lake and river, the trees showed no sign of a passage.

“Let’s not backtrack,” my partner said. “We know it’s five miles to the river, straight that way. If there’s no passage let’s walk it instead.”

“Just shoulder the canoe and bushwhack it?” I said. “Where should we start?”

“Is this a bad idea?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to backtrack either. Let’s do the perimeter of the lake and see what we find. Let’s start in that corner, where the map shows the passage.”

Behind the fence of weeds we found more weeds. Behind them, the water continued. As long as we kept going, we found that the water did too. The weed-choked passage seemed like no paddle had dipped into it since 1980, but though it frequently became narrow it never dryed up. So we reached the river, and through the river, home.

Fools might go deep into the woods and come out again after having a great, easy time. A seasoned expert might go on a little jaunt and die. Luck is perverse, but sometimes perverse in your favor. There’s just nothing you can do sometimes but grit your teeth, face the facts, and deal with your good luck.

Reach Ben Boettger at

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