Last Sunday morning found me leaving the detrius of the Grouse Kill and heading to Red Cliff for an attempted rendezvous with an intrepid foursome coming the Oak 1 site on the south spit. Early rising and an early departure from that event is more easily said than done for multiple reasons, but I figured that only two nights camping would leave enough room in their hatches for at least thirty plus cans of Surly Furious, which would put us on roughly the same schedule. I was wrong. Just as I was launching I was surprised by the PunctualGerman and ManFromSnowyLegs coming around the breakwall with RonO and Newman close behind. They tried to persuade me that Fitgers Brewing would be a good place to be since it was raining lightly and the wind was building, but I was geared up and ready to paddle. I will also admit that after the Grouse Kill weekend the thought of more beer was not a primary motivator.
When I rounded the Red Cliff breakwater I was the only person on the lake. I met some bowhunters at the launch who were coming off Basswood Island with three deer in their boats. They were from a combination of Wisconsin locations, including Rhinelander and the Reedsberg area, and were obviously experienced guys as I checked out their clothes, boats, and gear. They had hauled bows and tree stands to Basswood and had a great weekend with a productive, quality, and out of the ordinary hunting adventure. The fact that they were experienced guys was driven home when one of them asked me, as I prepared to launch and wished them good luck, "Are you gonna be safe out there all by your lonesome?". That question was echoed Thursday by a Lake Superior sailor, actually a competitor in my business, as we stood, bored as two humans could be, at an industry trade show in downtown Minneapolis. He said his wife always insisted on heading back to port when thunderstorms were in the forecast and the 'is it safe?' was always the primary concern out on the big lake. He asked the same question as the bowhunters when I told him about what may be my last kayak trip on Gitchee Gumee for the season.
While a person is never perfectly safe solo on Lake Superior I felt that I was plenty safe. I never want to be 'perfectly safe', I find that even more boring than a Medical Device Manufacturer's trade show if that's possible. I will admit that I did mentally run through my gear list when it became apparent that Fitgers and not Basswood Island was beckoning the Oak Island quartet. Radio with charged batteries, paddle float/bilge pump, first aid kit, dry suit, pfd, spare paddle,whistle, light....check, check, and check. The wind was building from the south, the waves were beginning to cap with about a 20 mile fetch from Ashland, and the rain was intermittent with water temp around 45F and the air just about the same. It was a day when some fun could be had and I certainly had some. I paddled straight across to the Basswood dock to check out the new construction. It's good that the area is out of the wilderness zone. I'd hate to have to put in a new dock with an army of people with shovels. Or would a shovel be a 'mechanical assist'? There are some interesting requirements when we invent a wilderness area. The second wave of fall colors was evident after the red maple leaves had dropped and the golds and yellows of the oak and aspen were in full swing and the smell of fall combined with the fresh smell of the lake was intoxicating. I paddled south to the floating rock at the north end of Basswood, thought about crossing to Oak but was too lazy to paddle back upwind so I snuck south along the shoreline to the south end of Basswood where all the individual campsites are located. I would not have wanted to attempt a landing there with the south wind but, as I mentioned, I was by myself so no one needed to attempt a landing.
I have friends in the area that paddle solo most of the time, either due to spur of the moment decisions where no other paddlers are available, or just to clear the cobwebs from the brain. I rarely have the opportunity to paddle solo, social animal that I am, but I must say I savor the freedom from time to time. The decision not to hit Oak, seen looming between Red Cliff Pt and the north end of Basswood above, required no debate or discussion. I just edged the Explorer, took a couple sweep strokes for the 180, and down the shore of Basswood I went. Not only did I feel (almost) perfectly safe but I also had the feeling that I was the only guy in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore that was on the water. I could see a long, long way and no sail, motor noises, wakes, or paddle flashes were evident. I guess that's what made it the great paddle that it was, the mix of solitude, self reliance, and quality thinking time on my favorite body of water.