(All daily mileages are approximate estimates, and certainly underestimates. They do not include any spur trails, portage trail side-trips, wanderings-around to try to re-find the trail, etc.)
July 4, DAY FIVE: Gogebic Lake to Pine Lake (11 miles)
It felt hotter today, somehow. We’d started early, but it got hot too fast. I felt like I’d never sweat more before in my life, felt constantly desperate for water. We kept trudging and trudging, loath to stop with the bugs in the shade and the worse blast of heat in full sun. And then we were almost out of water and we just wanted to keep going, to reach a portage trail to a lake where we could filter more. The trail was more narrow, rough, and overgrown than the day before, and I felt bleary and sleepy and spent, with something kind of like a headache and kind of like a fog swirling around my skull.
We hit the intersection where the BRT crossed the portage trail six miles into our day, our water bottles already empty. In somewhat of a daze, we dumped our packs by the side of the trail and pulled out the filters, our food bags, all of the empty water bottles, and the first aid kit. Carrying these, we stumbled down the portage trail a half mile or so to the lake.
There was a site there, with tents at it, but it was empty – the residents must have been out on a day trip paddling. We could see some canoes far off down the long lake, and hear a dog and person swimming distantly, tiny dots down the water. We filtered water and drank, sticking our legs in the lake to cool off, then rigged up the gravity filter to refill everything while we sat on the ground in the shade with our bags of snacks. I felt like I’d never been more exhausted in my life. The lake hardly felt cool, even, and I still felt sickly hot, like someone was baking me.
“Let’s take a little nap,” I suggested. “We have time. We hike fast. Just lie in the shade for a little while.” We stretched out on the pine needles, in shade that wasn’t quite shade, confetti sprinkles of sunlight making their way through the needles above us, and I went into some kind of half-sleep, half-fugue. I felt dizzy and untethered in a way I’ve never felt before, drunk without being drunk.
Half an hour later, I still felt like shit. Heather was definitively in the same boat – maybe worse off, actually. I ran down a list of symptoms for her, trying to recall all the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and stroke from my WFR classes. She had a headache, nausea, extreme fatigue.
“Okay, we gotta swim,” I said. “We need to cool down.” It felt immediately stupid that we hadn’t been swimming already.
This lake seemed slightly more active, at least by Boundary Waters standards, but we went nude anyway. The lake didn’t feel cold enough – I wanted it to be icy, chill, to shock me back to myself. Instead it was lukewarm in the sun. I pushed out deeper, hoping for deeper, colder water, still feeling hazy, and closed my eyes to dive forward into the lake.
Just a few feet below the surface, eyes closed, my face hit a rock. I thrashed to the surface, panicking, and smeared a hand across my nose and mouth, which already stung and ached like hell. It came back striated with watery blood.
“Shit, Heather,” I called. “I just hit a rock with my face.”
I felt bizarrely like crying. I swam to a boulder poking out of the lake and clung to it, naked, my face throbbing. I kept touching it and looking at my hand, touching it and looking at my hand. Heather, concerned and sensible and inimitable, swam closer and squinted at my face. “It doesn’t look too bad,” she assured me. “No open wounds. Shit though.”
I suddenly hated that we were dozens of miles from anything. Dozens of miles from ice. Dozens of miles from air-conditioning. Dozens of miles from phone service.
My lip and nose stopped bleeding and we swam in eventually, after I’d tried holding my face underwater for several periods of time, with the idea that the colder water would help keep swelling down. Back on shore, we got dressed and Heather inspected my face again. I’d banged up my upper lip and the mucous membranes on the inside of my nose, but it could have been much worse. I took some ibuprofen for the swelling. We both drank more water. I made her promise to monitor me for signs of diminishing mental capacity or confusion or weird personality changes, in case I’d hit my head harder than we thought.
We needed to keep going.
By the time we got back to our packs, an all-uphill trek, the slight boost of energy I’d gotten from the swim and the adrenaline was already gone. Heather was clearly flagging too, and the sun was still high, the day was still damnedly hot. The day continued to be completely still – the air sat flat and heavy. “We have to stop and drink more. Every ten minutes, no matter what.” I checked my watch obsessively, and also obsessively, symptom checked Heather. She was still nauseated. She still had a headache. She still felt like puking.
After something like four more miles, we stopped for a break under a huge tree, and I realized Heather had tears in her eyes.
“Liz I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Here’s what I’m thinking. There’s a campground on the map tomorrow. Maybe we get there and we can try to talk to someone and then while we’re talking I’ll pretend to faint and you guys will have to call an ambulance and they’ll take us to a hospital and it will be cold there. They’ll have air conditioning.”
This was not good.
It turned out she’d eaten almost nothing all day, feeling too gross, so I made her eat a few bites of salty things. We needed electrolytes. (She revealed later, while reviewing this post actually, that she had mostly been licking her granola bar, as even eating one bite seemed too hard.) We sipped more water. We sat on the moss under the tree, and I said of course we can stop tomorrow at the campground, obviously. And we said, we’re going to make it to the campsite. And we drank more water.
Eventually we kept hiking and we hit the turnoff for the Pine Ridge campsite almost comically fast – we’d been basically there. The site, it turned out, was atrocious – sunk in the trees, no water in sight, cloaked in buzzing mosquitos. This was untenable. At a minimum, we needed easier access to water – to drink, to cook, to swim. We decided to keep trekking down the trail and then take the spur to Pine Lake. Maybe there’d be a spot to disperse-camp near the water.
At one point on the walk there, I got turned around – when we rejoined the main trail from the site spur – and Heather eyed me, concerned. “Is this what I’m supposed to be keeping an eye out for?” she asked. “Is this the decline of your mental state?”
We made it to the water – it was insanely far from where they’d put the campsite – and there was nowhere to camp except right at the portage mouth. Everything else was a steep slope up away from the water, and densely wooded. Camping at portages was illegal, but we were in a sorry state, it was nearly turning into evening from afternoon, there were heavy gray clouds on the horizon, and no one was around. We pledged to pack up very early in the morning.
With rain clouds imminent out there, we set up our tent and tied up a tarp in the trees to make a waterproof eating area before swimming. The lake stayed shallow a long way out, with a pebbly bottom. After a swim, we made dinner on a sloping flat rock on the water’s edge, taking breaks every five minutes to re-up our bug spray. Dinner was packets of instant tomato-y pasta that we stirred tuna into. It started sprinkling by the time we were done, and we yanked on rain coats to wash dishes, hang the bear bag, re-fill the gravity filter’s sack and hang it on a tree by the tent. We tidied up camp and watched rain drops coat the lake’s still surface in polka dots. As we were messing about, a couple around our age came down the trail with the same gravity filter sack – more BRT hikers, just coming into camp after a long day on the trail. They were hiking the opposite direction of us, the same way as Ghost Woman, and had decided to disperse-camp at the top of the slope. They were friendly but efficient, scooping up water in their sleek raincoats and then disappearing back into the trees.
The rain wasn’t too heavy, but the wind picked up, and I nervously inspected the trees around our tent. There were no birch close, and nothing that looked dead, but there were birch further down the shore and a couple other smaller trees that made me feel slightly nervous in the gusts of wind. Still, what were we going to do. At least, blissfully, the temperature had dropped slightly. We clambered early into the tent.
We’d debated back and forth for awhile about whether or not to share a tent. Two tents meant our own little space at the end of the day, and maybe less COVID risk – but one meant a few pounds less to carry between us, one less flat tent pad to seek out at each site, and anyway, neither of us minded the idea of cozily reading in our sleeping bags beside each other. Between sharing a car up, a narrow trail and meals for nine days straight, if one of us had COVID the other was certainly screwed, shared tent or not (and we’d both been working from home, seeing folks only outdoors, wearing masks vigilantly on grocery store runs.) This night, as the wind flattened the tent against us and the trees nearby moaned, I felt especially heartened by Heather’s presence 2-3 inches away.
For the first time, I zipped my sleeping bag up halfway and draped it over my aching legs. The tent was occasionally lit-up from bolts of distant lightning. I fell asleep to the sound of the wind.
(Photo Credit: Photos were taken by Heather. Cartoon drawing is from Brendan Leonard at Semi-Rad.com.)