During a busy week at the hospital where I work, it is announced that we need to be fit-tested for N95 masks. It has been two years since the start of the Covid 19 pandemic and this particular yearly task dictated by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1996 for medical institutions, has been allowed to be extended to two years. We have been wearing regular surgical masks throughout this whole time continuously and also wearing N95s during high-risk aerosol generating procedures and other contacts in the operating room. Covid numbers have now dropped significantly, and Employee Health has the time to concentrate on making sure all employees have the proper fitting N95s to wear.
There are to be several days during work time when we can sign up to be fit-tested at the hospital building. There is only one day available that I actually work. I find this requirement somewhat useless but decide I might as well sign up and get it over with. I try to follow the rules most of the time. One of my co-workers gives me the phone number to make this appointment. I dial the number.
“Do you have a time available on Tuesday for me to be fit-tested for the N95?” I ask.
“Yes,” says the Employee Health nurse, “We have a 12:30 slot that day. But wait… There is a note here that you need to have a medical evaluation before fit-testing.”
“No,” I say, “I don’t. I was fit-tested when I started working here almost two years ago and nothing has changed. I have been wearing an N95 for this whole time.”
“Well, let me check on this and I will get back to you,” she responds.
I don’t understand this. It makes no sense to me, but I let it go for the time being and go on with my day. My cell phone rings late in the afternoon while I am waking my last patient of the day from their surgical procedure. I let it go to voicemail. Once I am done, I call the nurse back.
“Yes, you need to be medically evaluated before you can be fit-tested. I don’t feel comfortable having you wear a mask until you are medically cleared.”
“What…..??? I don’t understand. I answered that questionnaire 18 months ago and no one seemed concerned at the time. Now they want to hold me to some standard from something I answered months ago. “What seems to be the problem?” I am totally frustrated.
“You marked some things on your pre-evaluation sheet that red-flagged you. You marked that you have had broken ribs, an arrythmia, and a stroke. You also marked that you have anxiety when wearing a mask. You should never have been fit-tested a year and a half ago before being seen by a doctor. I don’t know how you got through.”
This is totally ridiculous and now I am angry. My broken ribs were 10 years ago. The arrythmia has existed since I was a teenager with no one being concerned about it. The stroke several years ago was a mild one from which I am totally recovered. I have gone through the Covid 19 pandemic wearing my N95 without a problem. I have done my job diligently. I have never called in sick or even remotely been ill in the last 2 years. I have not contacted covid either but now suddenly I am too ill to wear an N95 without a doctor’s permission. The sheet I filled out 1 ½ years ago should be being replaced by the current one that I have ready for the appointment that will now not occur. What is even more ludicrous is that the medical establishment has been telling the public that they should all wear N95 masks now to protect themselves, but I apparently need a doctor’s approval to do so.
“Apparently, I need to stop being so honest and just check the boxes as you want them checked,” I grumble. “How about you write down that I refuse to be medically evaluated,” I shoot back at her.
“Then you can’t wear an N95 mask,” she follows the script set for her, “you will have to wear a C-papper (a large over the head hood). And I will have to notify your supervisor.”
I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. If the anxiety of mine is one of employee health’s concerns, then how is the astronaut suit going to help? Does she realize how irrational she sounds? I am not opposed to being fit-tested or wearing the mask. I am opposed to sharing my medical history with a physician who has no reason to even question me based on responses from time long gone by. I have proved I can successfully wear an N95 mask and that I am not going to die from doing so. The rest of this process is so unnecessary. I should be able to sign off that I am medically capable of successfully wearing the mask at this point. It is not my fault that they didn’t follow through on their proper procedures in 2020.
So this is what the medical field has come to? It is guided by protocols and algorithms from which one is to follow without question. No one is allowed to think anymore. No one is to analyze a situation or to think critically. The public especially the sickest people are told by the CDC that they should be wearing N95s at all times for protection from this virus, but the medical profession is still following a standard set forth by OSHA 25 years ago. And no one dare change how those who are responding to the pandemic on the front lines are treated or advised. If wearing an N95 is so potentially dangerous to one’s health, why are we asking millions of people to wear them and why haven’t millions of people keeled over from doing so? Have we all lost our ability to be rational? But then maybe I should just go back into my “I don’t care hole” before I lose my frickin mind.
“We invite you to participate in the Tapestry study, whose goal is to understand how patient care may be impacted when results from DNA sequencing are in the medical record,” states the message that appears with my downloading e-mail. “The Tapestry study is a screening test. It looks at 11 genes associated with BRCA-related hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, Lynch syndrome and familial hypercholesterolemia. It is not a diagnostic test, nor does it look at all of the genes associated with hereditary ovarian cancer,” continues the dialogue.
Hmmmm…. My attention has been captured. Should I consider a genetic study or is this a really bad idea? I did have ovarian cancer when I was 38 years old. But that was 25 years ago, and nothing has happened since. I am pretty sure I don’t have any genetic mutations for cancer. I have no family history of breast or ovarian cancer. But still . . . I do have a daughter who has become concerned here lately as to her risk of ovarian cancer. If all this testing were to come back negative, it would provide her with peace of mind.
Three days later on October 23, 2020, I respond to the e-mail and join Mayo Clinic’s Health Tapestry Genomic Sequencing in Clinical Practice study. I am sent a kit into which I am to collect a specific amount of sputum. I spit into the collection container and mail it off to the lab in the pre-addressed box. Then I wait. The information given me was that the test results would take up to twelve weeks to be reported. That was simple.
Several months go by and I do receive the fun results for the ancestry and genetic traits part of the study. I am 95% of European ancestry with 5% of Middle Eastern and African heritage. Mixed in there is a 0.8% Ashkenazi Jewish. I find out later this is important as 2% of those of Ashkenazi Jewish descent have a BRCA mutation. The results say I am not lactose intolerant (knew that). I have not adapted to be able to avoid malaria (Oh really!). I do not have the adaptation to be able to thrive in lower-oxygen environments at high altitudes (guess I’ll stay on the plains). I do have a genotype associated with the ability to adapt in cold climates (Brr… doesn’t seem like it some days in this cold MN climate). Along with lots of other useless tidbits, I learn I have brown eyes, tend towards curly hair, am taller, and tend to tan rather than sunburn; all things I have somehow managed to figure out after being on earth for 63 years. But what I really want to know, do I have a gene coding for cancer, is suspended in the health results that only say, “pending.” I think this very strange.
Towards the end of January 2021, my husband is also invited to join this same study. He signs up on February 2, 2021, and submits his saliva sample a few days later. Ten weeks later, on April 19, 2021, his results are flashed to us as “ready.” He is negative for all eleven of the genes they are testing for that code for cancer. Hurrah, at least our daughter has a fighting chance!
Puzzled as to why he has received his results and I have not, I send an e-mail to Helix, the company being used by Mayo for this study, “I signed up for the Helix genetic study back in October 2020. The information originally stated that we would receive results by twelve weeks. It has now been 5 months and there are still no medical results. I did get the basic genetic characteristics results, but I am just curious why I still haven’t gotten my medical results…?” Helix does promptly respond, “Our systems indicate that your sequencing has been sent out for interpretation. At this time, I cannot give you a time frame … Your Health results are taking longer to sequence than previously stated. We are unfortunately back logged due to Covid 19.” I find this all very confusing. Yes, maybe Covid is slowing down their results but that doesn’t explain how someone who signed up after me has already received their results and I haven’t. I am convinced that they have lost my sample and/or my results and are finding it convenient to blame it on Covid. It doesn’t occur to me until later that they are simply not telling me the truth; that they do know the results and because they are positive, they are not ready to tell me. If I could read between the lines, it would say, “Your results were positive. Therefore, we sent them to be confirmed by a second company.”
Three more months go by. I send several more e-mails to this company and each time I am told that my results, “are delayed due to supply chain issues” or “covid testing taking priority.” Finally, on July 26, they report that “it looks like your results are in a recent batch that should be released by Helix any day now.” Coincidently, Mayo sends an email three days later that says “you will receive an email from Helix very soon, with instructions on how to access your results on the Helix website. As a participant in this study, a Mayo Clinic genetic counselor would like to review your results with you over the phone.” This should have been my clue that Mayo has already known the results for some time, and they are not good. Afterall, they never requested to talk to my hubby by phone to discuss his results.
It isn’t until July 31, 2021, 9 months after signing up for this study that I get the results. “You were found to have an actionable* variant in the BRCA2 gene that is associated with a genetic condition called Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC). Individuals with HBOC have an increased risk for certain types of cancer, including breast, ovarian, prostate, and others.”
A numbness spreads over me. Why did I think joining this study was a good idea? I would have been better off never knowing. What I had hoped would provide peace of mind to my daughter has opened a yawning pit of anguish and anxiety. I am now 63 years old and have lived 25 years without any cancer reoccurrence. I have no desire to make any “might be possible cancer” a focus of my life. I can’t live that way. But the question remains, should I ignore what was better unknown or try to pursue some interventions, some of which are of a huge magnitude in order attempt to prevent what might happen? The medical community seems to be in a huge rush now to push me down this path towards interventions. No one seemed to care much before, and my cancer diagnosis 25 years ago has pretty much been forgotten. When I think about it later, the whole process of the genetic testing makes me angry. Helix and Mayo have known for at least 6 months but kept trying to pretend they didn’t by blaming other issues and now, it is all a big rush for me to respond.
I take a breath and step back. There is no emergency here. I don’t have cancer. The first intervention I request is to be retested by another reputable company to make sure this is an accurate result and can be used to drive any decisions made going forward and will be accepted by health insurance companies. After being led along for 9 months, I do not trust the results I am being given. And it is not the first time such a test result has been wrong. I decide to give a blood sample this time as it has a higher rate of reliability than saliva and proceed to do so in early August. But if I was hoping for a different result, I will be disappointed. This test confirms the original finding of a “pathogenic variant (mutation) in the BRCA2 gene associated with Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer syndrome.”
So what is the big deal with this genetic mutation and what are it’s implications? BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes code for proteins that work to suppress cancer cells, mostly in breast tissue, and help to repair any DNA damage that occurs in the course of normal life. If they are missing or damaged, the cells cannot repair themselves and they go on to grow unchecked and become cancerous. BRCA2 is found on chromosome 13 while BRCA1 is found on chromosome 17 so they have slightly different cancer type expressions when missing. BRCA2 is associated with a 45 -83% lifetime risk, according to Mayo genetics, of developing breast cancer by age 70 (the average risk for the general population is 12%), a 27% risk of developing ovarian cancer by age 80 (the general population has a 1-2% risk). I think I have that one covered already. BRCA2 mutations also are associated with a higher risk of pancreatic cancers and melanoma than the general population.
Well, if that isn’t all depressing. And how is one even supposed to begin to deal with statistics like that? My first reaction is to have a double mastectomy without reconstruction and get it over with. I don’t want to be thinking about breast cancer every moment for the rest of my life. But after doing significant research on double mastectomies, I realize that they are not benign surgeries either. Many women have chronic pain afterward. Others have numbness and upper body muscle weakness. I am a fairly healthy 64-year-old by now. I run a chainsaw. I lift weights. I’m active. I do not want a life where I am cancer free but simply existing because I am debilitated and in pain constantly. And finally, having my breasts removed will remove any chance of having a meaningful intimate relationship with my husband. I am distressed to say the least about the dismal statistics but can’t decide what I want to do.
In October, I meet with a doctor from the breast clinic at Mayo. We go through my options: 1. Do nothing (that is not encouraged at all) 2. Have a double mastectomy (see reservations above) 3. Start taking aromatase inhibitors to help prevent cancer and/or 4. Monitor with alternating mammograms and breast MRIs every 6 months. I groan at each of them. I hate visiting medical facilities and doctors and have no desire to visit there constantly. Taking aromatase inhibitors sounds interesting but it is mostly a “hit and miss, maybe” approach. No one knows if I will actually get the kind of cancer that is prevented by drugs that block estrogen production and uptake. So there is a chance that I’m taking a toxic drug that is providing no benefit to me personally. I lean heavily away from their use after I read the side effects: hot flashes, night sweats, join pain by 50% of those taking it, muscle pain, and bone loss. I am back to the same issues of decreased quality of life to treat what currently doesn’t exist. I don’t know what to do.
Before I leave my breast appointment, I am offered the opportunity to join another study, “GENetic Risk Estimation of Breast Cancer Prior to decisions on preventative therapy uptake, risk reduction surgery, or intensive imaging surveillance: A study to determine if a polygenic risk score influences the decision-making options among high-risk women.” The polygenic risk score will take into account genetic risk factors, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) for breast cancer. While individually, these SNP risk factors are of little clinical value, when combined as a polygenic risk score (PRS), they yield a strong risk factor for breast cancer and can be used to personalize breast cancer risk. In other words, the polygenic risk score is an analyzing of 30 or more genes that influence whether a person develops cancer and coming up with a projection for any one particular person as to what their personal chances are of developing breast cancer. At first, I reject the idea of joining another study. I am already overwhelmed by all the information and decisions being thrown at me but the more I think about it, I wonder if it could provide me with the information to make a definitive choice as to the direction I should go. And so I sign up for one more genetic study. While I wait for the results, I try to go about life as normally as possible.
This time, I do not have as long to wait. Within 8 weeks, the results are back. “I have good news,” are the first words from the doctor’s mouth when I sit down with her. “You are in the lowest 7th percentile on the polygenic risk scoring. Because you had a hysterectomy at age 38,” she says, “I assess that you have a 9% risk of developing breast cancer in 5 years, an 18% risk in 10 years, and a lifetime risk of 27%.” That figure is still high compared to the general population, but I now know which direction I am going. At least for the present time, I will alternate the mammogram and breast MRI every six months. If any abnormality ever shows up, I will opt immediately for a double mastectomy without reconstruction. Now that I have made this decision, we have to come up with a plan for safely performing the MRI as I am allergic to the gadolinium dye that they use. This will be my biggest roadblock to following through on this decision.
In November of 2021, after loading up on methylprednisolone and Zyrtec, an anti-histamine, I successfully traverse the breast MRI. All findings are negative. I can breathe a sigh of relief, at least for six months. I begin to move on with life and focus on the future. And then, “your Cologuard test is positive.” Is there no end to this craziness? Is this what old age is all about? Waiting for the cancer shoe to drop? I reject that premise. I choose to live my life in freedom from such fear, God willing – to treasure each day for what it is.
One day while idly scrolling through my Facebook account I came upon a post by a Facebook friend. “Is God unfair in not choosing to save everyone?” it questioned, “‘Fair’ would send everyone to hell. You don’t want fair. You want mercy.” John MacArthur.
I can feel the heated anger rising. I want to scream against this heretical insinuation. What is this statement actually saying? If you are a die-hard Calvinist of which John MacArthur is, there are certain beliefs that lie behind that declaration. First off, I should say, that I do believe we are all sinners and probably all deserve hell. But I have been taught all my life that Jesus (and God by inference) loves us and gave his life so that ALL individuals would have the opportunity to accept him as their Savior and obtain eternal life (heaven).
So back to the beliefs that underlie this statement that trigger my anger. The first thing the statement is saying is that God “choose” not to save everyone. As a Calvinist, one believes that God actually created man to sin. I had a young preacher sit across from me in his office and declare, “they (Adam and Eve) could not have done otherwise.” I am still shocked by that assertion. After that comes the belief that God has also determined (chosen) before he even created human beings who would be chosen to serve him and go to heaven. Conversely, this also means he choose those who would go to hell. So the statement that you don’t want God to be fair strikes me as totally hypocritical. Yes, I want God to be fair AND I want God to be merciful. I don’t think it is an either/or. If He set up this world as the Calvinist insists, then there is no mercy and giving people no choice in their final destiny is not only unfair, but also cruel and unloving. Holding someone responsible by sending them to hell for behavior they have no control over and has been pre-planned is irrational and heartless. Would I then expect mercy from such a God? Does the Bible really teach this?
My question is, is this the kind of God you believe in? Is God fair if he pre-determined before the world began which souls would be chosen for heaven? Is God merciful if that belief is true? To me the answer seems obvious. The comeback always is “God is God so he can do whatever he wants.” That is true but that doesn’t mean these conclusions are true as to God’s intentions and desires for man. The Bible does not say any of those things, but these teachings have become accepted by the majority of evangelical professing Christians today. In the seminaries and in the pulpits, the meanings of words used in the Bible have been changed to make this systemic theology seem to fit together. How do you invite anyone to love Jesus if you carry such underlying beliefs? There is no point in doing so.
I often wonder, does no one think about and question what they are being taught. Why do so many Christians I know blindly follow this theology. They sit mesmerized under the teachings at church and in Bible studies and no one speaks up. It surprises and saddens me that there is only silence when I write something like I have presented here. There is no negative response and no positive response. It is simply ignored. It is like people think if they just ignore what they know is not right but can’t explain, it doesn’t exist. The great wall of silence allows these teachings to continue on unchecked – with no one to defend the true Biblical reputation of God and His love for his creation. “For God so Loved the World, that he gave His only begotten Son, that WHOSOEVER believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16 This is what Christmas is all about.
Rrrarf…RRRARF…RRRARF… I am met by drawn back lips, a large yapping jaw, and jagged teeth as I peek through the crack I have created in the doorway. I have come here at the request of the owner of this large totally black male German Shepherd to let him out to go potty since she will be gone for about twelve hours. I visited this home just a couple of days ago to meet Jay, a 7-year-old recently adopted dog. He barked at me initially but then was happy and approachable. He rubbed his head on me and delighted in my ear rubs and sociable pats. He seemed like a friendly fellow.
I am always cautious with animals that do not know me, and I am not surprised at this fairly normal response to my invading his territory. I have come prepared with a couple of dog treats. I extend my hand with the treat to Jay through the crack in the door. He takes one look at what I have to offer, turns tail, and sprints off through the kitchen, continuing the hair-raising barking as he goes. Then all is silent.
I fully push open the door and slowly tread through the lighted kitchen and into the living room. I peer into the darkened bedroom where Jay has fled. Two bright shining circles reflect back at me. I flip on the light switch. Grrr… a low growl emits from the trembling animal perched on the bed.
“Jay, it’s OK. I’m not going to hurt you,” I speak kindly and softly while tossing another of my treats his way and taking a few steps in his direction. He continues to stare at me and send that little rumbling growl my way. We repeat this a few times over the next ten minutes with little progress.
“Do you want me to take over?” It’s the voice of my hubby behind me who has followed me after hearing the initial greeting.
“He’s all yours.”
“It’s OK, Jay. Do you want to go out?
The ears perk up and Jay jumps off the bed, heading for the door Dave holds open for him. In a flash he is gone. I am not sure this was a good idea. I am thinking we should have left him for tonight and hoped for the best. My biggest fear now is that he is out, and we will not be able to corral him. He does have an e-collar on that his owner told me that, if pressed, he would return right away. I pace on the porch holding the remote control to the collar while Dave tries to keep a sight line on the dog’s hurried strides around the yard. I am anxious and worried. I think he has gone far enough into the dark, so I push the button, “Jay, come here,” I call. He bounds up the step then back through the door I am holding open. But I am too slow and whatever fear overwhelms him takes over again and all his power is applied to the door as he makes a determined escape.
“Jay, come here,” I demand but I am ignored. He paces a few times in the southern yard than disappears around the house. Dave follows. I wait, hoping that they will reappear but as the minutes tick by, no dark shadows re-appear. In the distance, coyotes howl. I finally walk around the house. There is no one in sight. “Where are you?” I call into the stillness. There is no reply.
Now I am really worried and desperate. Did Jay run off into the field and Dave follow? I dig out the flashlight, shining it into the deepening darkness while I stride out into the field to the west of the house. Where could they have gone? How can they have totally disappeared so fast?
“Dave, where are you?” I call over and over into the blackness. No voice drifts back to me. Now I am panicked. Finally, the light bulb goes on in my head. Use your phone and call him. Dah! As I am preparing to dial, I hear my name being called.
“Where have you been?” I demand
“Jay came around the house right to the other door, so I let him in.”
All this time, I have been desperately searching, he and the dog have been safely inside the house.
“I thought I should let him in if that’s what he wanted even if it wasn’t the right door. I don’t think he peed but that’s the way it is. I was able to get him to eat the treats. He let me rub his ears and his belly and I got his e-collar off.”
Well, Dave gets the prize for being the dog whisperer. Not sure we accomplished what we set out to do but at least the doggie is safely back in the house.
The wind is quiet, the stars twinkle in the heavens, and the night is calm. I sleep like a rock and do not wake up until 5:30 a.m. The sky is cloudy but the air feels invigorating. I am feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the tent packing task. This morning, I have twelve rocks to throw out of my sleeping abode before we even begin. The thought was that they would keep us from blowing away if necessary. It seems like a whole day’s work before breakfast.
Bananas with blueberries, French toast, and sausage is being served. Along with my hot chocolate, it hits the spot. By 9 a.m. and launching time, the sky has begun to clear. Everyone is in the big rafts today as there, apparently, are larger and more numerous rapids on this stretch of the river. It also seems warmer temperature wise with a cloudless sky allowing for sustained hot sunshine.
The guides start out rowing and every so many minutes, we navigate a new rapid. Dodging rocks is the main activity necessary in maneuvering through these low water rapids. Several times throughout the morning, we get hung up on a rock in the churning rolling water. This leaves Marla with the necessity of coming up with a strategy for getting off the hindrance. Marla is a 46-year-old high school English teacher during the school year. She is thin and of a slight build – not at all your body builder type. Soon instructions are issued to haul heavy objects to the opposite side of the boat and then more instructions for jumping up and down. Colin has been recruited for our raft as he is a big helper in getting us unstuck.
It is right before lunch when we beach our rafts along the shore just above the class III rapids known as Joe Hutch Canyon Rapids. The purpose of the stop is to allow Haden and Marla to scope out the rapids and develop a plan of approach. They confer for a few minutes and then we push off again. The dips and rolls are a thrill for me, and our raft makes it through the rapids with no issues. Marla is delighted when she looks back and realizes that Haden is stuck on a rock and not her. Haden is much more experienced and almost never gets hung up, so she feels accomplished.
Once we are through these rapids, it is time for lunch on another sandy beach. Some of the group jumps into the river to cool off. I opt to dump water on myself instead. The water is muddy, I can’t swim, and hearing aids don’t do well in water. I tell myself all these reasons but mostly, I just don’t want to be soaked all the way to my underwear. While everyone cools off in the water, Marla and Haden pull out a makeshift table and throw together a taco salad wrap. It is scrumptious. They are wonderful cooks.
Once our stomachs are full, our guides make a decision to lash our rafts together again and put the outboard motor back on. We stop at a very muddy beach for this task. Jumping off the boat lands one in a thick black mud that sucks off my sandals. Getting the motor back on seems to be a struggle and then it doesn’t want to start. Haden and then Alex pulls the start cord over and over before it finally sputters to life. Through calmer water, we motor along at a faster pace than rowing allows. A quick decoupling occurs at the head of a rapid before we tumble through it. From there on out, each guide rows his own raft until close to supper time. Marla is tired and slowing down from exhaustion. Two other groups are closing in leading to concern for getting a campsite. Therefore, a decision is made to have Haden motor on ahead and claim the next site. We will catch up later.
We roll into the campsite around 6:30 p.m. This evening the sun is shining, at least, but the wind has picked up. The site is located on a sandy hill and our choice for tent placements appears limited. I sigh as I consider the work ahead to erect our tents. Dawn and I drag our fifty-pound waterproof bags up a steep sandy hill. My breath comes in huge gasps and my feet slip back in the sand each time I take a step forward. There are little thistles growing sporadically and I manage to kick a couple during my trek. Ugh! Each time requires sitting down and pulling out the thorns. As we pull out my tent, the wind howls and it threatens to blow away into the great beyond. While Dawn hangs on for dear life, I collect ten rocks to weigh it down. Even that is not enough. Beads of sweat roll down my face and into my eyes. This is exhausting and frustrating. I am already dehydrated and becoming more so by the minute. Inside the tent, the temperature is like an oven. The sand which has collected the heat all day radiates it back to me like a floor with radiant heat. Finally, everything is situated, and I flop into a lawn chair to wait for supper. I am so glad this is the last night as I have had enough fun erecting tents.
With a little hydration, I recover enough to enjoy the tasty evening meal of mashed potatoes and steak. Then it is time for bed. The night starts out wild and noisy again as the wind picks up more shortly after flopping out on top of the sleeping bag. It whistles across the canyon and the tent rocks back and forth. Will I and my ten rocks hold it down. I hope so! Off in the distance, I hear the clattering sound of some of the kitchen equipment flying freely across the beach. I lay there awake for a couple of hours listening to the gale and the roaring water of the rapids close below. I finally decide I probably won’t blow away and drift off to sleep.
It is light when I awaken at 5 a.m. Dawn and I soon begin our last day task of taking down the tents and stashing our gear in the waterproof bags. We have become experts at creative stuffing. It goes much faster this morning, and I am soon ready to lug my bag down to the raft staging area. In my early morning wisdom, I decide to roll the heavy bag down the hill instead of carrying it. I aim for the open area between the tables and give it a push. But instead of rolling where I expect it to, it makes a left curve towards the liquids breakfast table. Oh no! I see horrified aghast looks on the faces of everyone on the beach as I make a running dive after the runaway bag. I catch it just as it touches the table leg.
“Good catch,” Alex comments, “That was the save of the day.”
Breakfast for me is the last of the hot chocolate, some grapes, and a bagel. Our guides are pushing to get moving this morning and soon have the boats loaded and ready to go. The sun has topped the canyon wall and it promises to be a sweltering day. The family of three starts out in the kayaks while Dawn and I each choose a raft. I decide to spend the day on Hayden’s raft for a change. Hayden is the lead guide on this trip and the one with the most experience. He is tall and thin and sports an unruly brown beard and matching hair. I learn Hayden is the son of a Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot having been born in Africa. He loves the outdoors and doing these trips. On Hayden’s raft, I actually have a backrest and spread out in the scorching sunshine. This is our last day and we have twelve miles to go.
Hayden and Marla methodically row through calm water intermingled with short rapids. The water today is extremely muddy indicating a stream entering from storm runoff in another canyon. We stop for lunch on a sandbar around 12:30. It consists of a tasty wrap of lettuce, tomatoes, and other goodies.
After lunch, Haden makes the decision to strap the two rafts together again and start the outboard motor. The kayaks are strapped to the sides, and everyone jumps aboard the extended boat. Soon we are tootling along at a nice clip. The sun beats mercilessly down on us. It is hot. I am guessing it is close to one hundred degrees and everyone is eager to make some time towards our takeout location. Pouring water over myself does help but it dries in as little as ten minutes. We cover five miles in record time. Then our guides break the rafts apart again for the last 2 ½ miles. Alex’s family resumes their trip in the kayaks.
“Look, some mountain sheep,” someone points out. Along the riverbank are a couple of ewes, a ram, and a couple of babies. We have been rewarded at the last minute with spotting one of the animals we have been looking for our entire trip. Then around a few more curves, through a long rapid, and there is the concrete ramp for our takeout. As we drift up to the shore, an elderly man with a PFD on is standing in the water.
“Sir,” Marla calls, “You need to move so we don’t hit you.”
The man takes a step and falls right over. He floats in the water. It is evident that he is unsteady and unable to get up by himself.
“Do you need help?” Marla inquires.
“No,” he responds, “I’ll just float over here to the dock.”
As I watch him, he struggles to get on his feet. He grabs a stick floating in the water and tries to stand up but can’t. I can just see him floating through the rapids just beyond the dock and drifting down the river.
“I think someone needs to help him before he floats away,” I implore Marla.
Is he not with anyone? Is the question. She finally goes looking for someone who might be family or friends. Eventually, two men do appear and haul him out of the river by his flotation device. Talk about leaving someone in a perilous situation.
A cool air-conditioned spot right now will feel really good. But nothing surpasses a few days in the vast wilderness God has created. It was a trip of solitude away from the chaos and craziness of the everyday world.
I am up by 6:30 a.m. because of a need to visit Grover. Grover is the portable toilet that gets placed in the great outdoors usually with a lovely view of the Green River. There is a 5-gallon bucket to balance upon for urine only and another little toilet shaped canister for number two. The instructions for disposing of human waste out here in this wilderness seems rather strange to me. The urine gets put in the river and the stool gets hauled back to headquarters. And yes, one is supposed to pee in the river in front of one’s companions during the day. Privacy is forgotten as someone of importance has decided that this helps the environment.
The next task is to take down our tents and stuff everything back in the big blue watertight bag for the day. Dawn and I each have separate tents, but we find that performing this task is much easier as a team. We drop and roll each tent and then do some creative stuffing. The tent goes in first with our personal duffle bag stuffed down beside it. On top is positioned the sleeping bag and any extra items. One person can hold the bag open while the other person reaches in and guides the items past each other. Lastly, we roll the top down three times and fasten the fasteners. This will keep everything snug and dry until we need it again tonight.
Breakfast is waiting by the time we are done our morning chores. Mine consists of an English muffin with fried egg, Canadian bacon, and cheese, along with hot chocolate. It takes our guides 1 ½ hours to get all the supplies and utensils stowed back in the rafts. I watch Haden for a while and realize he is pumping air into the rafts. Is that a bad omen?
“Is there a leak that you need to pump air into the raft,” I question.
“No,” he says, “The air expands during the day but at night when it cools off, the air contracts so we fill up each morning” Whew! That’s good to know.
The sun is coming over the top of the ridge by the time we push off. The rafts have been broken apart today and the motor stowed away. Haden will be rowing one raft while Marla rows the other. Dawn and I hop onto Marla’s raft. Alex, Colin (14 years old), and Casey (17 years old), the other members of our party, are trying out the inflatable kayaks. They will paddle between the rafts.
The sun is bright today as well with a smattering of clouds. As we start out this morning, the wind is gusty and in our face. Marla struggles to keep the raft moving downstream. At one particular bend in the river, the wind catches the 2000-pound raft and spins it into an eddy, or an area where she rows and rows and rows without making any progress. Finally, she is able to get us out of our predicament and continue the slow paddle.
Rapids are intermingled with areas of calmer water that require full body powering of the oars by Marla. A roar announces the arrive of a rapid and the water bubbles and churns over the rocks submerged beneath. These hidden rocks present a challenge with the entrance into each rapid. At one of these rapids, Marla enters in an area that looks to be obstacle free but as we bounce over the rolling swells, the raft scrapes over a huge rock and comes to a halt in the rushing torrent. Marla tries to bring the craft around, but we are stuck. Before I know what is happening, Colin has bumped into the back of the raft with the kayak and flipped. He is left clinging to the side of the raft. His water bottle and paddles have floated away downstream. Marla’s priority now becomes hauling Colin in by his PFD. Once everyone is safely on board, it is back to the work of freeing ourselves. Dawn, I, Colin, and Casey, who came on board earlier, are instructed to move to the front and jump up and down. Now jumping up and down on a rubber floor for two old ladies is a hazardous activity and isn’t about to happen unless one wants more people in the river. Dawn and I mostly bounce while grasping the side. Colin and Casey are left to do the jumping while Marla gets out in the rushing river and tries to pull the raft off the rock. Several versions of this procedure occur repeatedly throughout the day as we hang up on various rocks. As an alternative to jumping, I decide to grab both sides of the raft and rock back and forth. Amazingly, this actually has better results than the jumping.
Further down the river, a voice calls out, “Did you lose a paddle?’
“Yes, Colin did,” we shout back.
“The park ranger has it up ahead,” we are informed.
Thankfully, the Bureau of Land Management ranger has caught Colin’s missing oars and returns them to him as he rows by.
Just as yesterday, around 3 p.m., the sky darkens, and a downpour begins. Today we planned for this, so I have my rain jacket. And no ice balls clunk on our heads either. But the water still wets our heads and trickles down into my pants and underwear before ceasing twenty minutes later. The sun comes out and the canyon wall sparkles with the moisture. We soon pull over and proceed to hike to an old abandon homestead from the early 1900s. Swedish immigrants who were given free land in the new world made an attempt at farming in this hostile climate before abandoning the efforts after just a few years. There are the remains of a stone roofless house, a wooden shop with star gazing potential, and a small stone chicken house. The fences were constructed with pieces of tree branches positioned at various angles. Soon we are drying out and warmed up and we tromp back to the rafts to continue on to a camping site.
A couple more hours bring us to our overnight camping spot. The sky is again clouding up and the same mad scramble ensues to get the tents up in the wind before the next downpour. I am getting rather frustrated with this crazy weather every day. Casey has come up with a new name for Desolation Canyon. She calls it Bipolar Canyon.
The alarm is set for 4:50 a.m. but we are awake by 4:40. We have been told to meet at the airport at 6:30 a.m. for our air flight to the put-in site for Desolation Canyon. As I walk out our hotel door at 5:15, I am met by wet payment and the smell of rain. Light sprinkles touch my face. I didn’t know that rain was expected but it has cooled the atmosphere from the prior day’s heat. By the time we arrive on the north skirts of Moab, it has stopped drizzling. The cloud cover is starting to move on, and the sun’s rays are peaking through. It is sixty-eight degrees – a beautiful day.
We arrive at the airport shortly after 6 a.m. and settle down on a bench outside to wait. The airport lobby door is locked and there is no sign of any other passengers. The air is cool and the morning pleasant but as the minutes tick by, butterflies begin to awaken in my stomach. Did we misunderstand? The clock ticks slowly by 6:30 and still no one has arrived. Two small planes sitting on the tarmac fire up, taxi away from the hanger, roar down the runway, and disappear into the sky. Now our anxiety has spiked, and we begin to pace back and forth. We have no cell phones and no way to contact anyone. Did they leave without us? Are we at the wrong airport? There is really nothing we can do about our situation, and we feel helpless. We check all the doors again– still locked. Finally, a car pulls up to the Redtail Aviation Maintenance building. We rush over to the gentleman who emerges.
“Do you know anything about a flight leaving at 6:30?” I question anxiously.
“There is a flight scheduled for 7:30,” he responds, “I’m the pilot and my name is Dan. I will be taking you today.”
Whew!! What a relief. They haven’t left without us after all. I let out a huge sigh. Now that our panic has been eased, we settle down again to wait some more. Right around 7:30, the remaining people arrive. There is a dad, Alex, and two teenage kids, Casey and Colin. We are soon led out to a small eight-seater airplane. Decked out in red and white, it greets us with an open door. There is no ID required. After a short orientation, I am soon strapped in with a seat belt and shoulder harness. Headphones finalize the ensemble and the pilot throws instructions our way while revving the engine. Soon we are speeding down the runway and lifting into the air.
Below us, the dry barren land of Utah gives way to the sandstone cliffs of Desolation Canyon. The land east of the Green River in the canyon is part of the Utz Indian reservation so we will only be able to camp in the wilderness area on the western side. Our route takes us north along the canyon’s course just a few thousand feet above the ground. A forty-five-minute flight later finds us bumping along the pebble strewn ground of the makeshift landing area of a flat mesa above the river launching area. Soon we are bouncing along a rocky dirt trail in a pickup winding our way around and down to the river.
We have been informed that the river is extremely low this year due to a small snowpack last winter and little rain. The river is at 800 cfs (cubic feet per second) which is the lowest level they have ever rafted at. The two rafts that we will be taking have been lashed together and our guides, Haden and Marla, will be using a small outboard motor to move us along in the slow flow and calm water. Any rapids today will be class 1 or 2. Dawn and I clamber into the front of Marla’s raft. The first thing I notice is that there is water seeping into the boat at my feet. Having water coming into out floating home doesn’t seem like a good way to start out a water trip.
“There’s water coming in,” I point out to Marla.
She chuckles. “These are self-bailing boats,” she proclaims, “They have openings to let the water drain out if we get swamped in the rapids. Otherwise, we would have to hand bail.”
Oh, that’s an interesting concept I never thought about. At least I know we will not be sinking in the first hour.
The sun is bright and warm. With a little breeze, the day is not uncomfortable. We move along slowly, not unlike a barge and a pusher on the Mississippi River. We weave this way and that attempting to navigate in deeper water. Sand bars extend into many areas of the channel. Several times, we get bogged down in the sand and Marla and Haden jump into the water and push our stranded vessel out of its predicament. Then we motor onward.
Around noon, we glide onto a sandbar purposely and our guides set up a table to serve us a meal of pita bread with fixings. The temperature is quite warm, and I wade into the water to wet my feet while simultaneously trying to clean the mess off my pants that I have made from being a sloppy eater. The afternoon starts out much like the morning though clouds have now started to obscure the sun at times. This makes for a much more comfortable temperature. But as the afternoon progresses, the sky continues to darken and over the next couple of hours, the dark clouds advance. By midafternoon, lightning flashes occasionally and rumbles of thunder punctuate the silence.
“Should we be getting off the river?” is the question being asked. We are from Minnesota and electrical storms mean “get off the water.”
Our guides seem unperturbed, “With the canyon walls being ¼ mile high, there is little chance that we will be struck by lightning” is the sentiment and we continue with our water journey. Soon splashes of water touch my skin and bounce off the raft. But what starts out as sprinkles soon turns into a pouring deluge. Then those raindrops begin to feel rather hard. Ouch! Ice balls bounce off our heads, collect in the raft, and create large ripples in the water. It is hailing. I hunch over miserably as the water and ice creeps down my back under the personal flotation device and into my underwear. All our raingear is packed away in the dry bags which is not at all helpful. Haden and the other three guests grab helmets to protect themselves from the onslaught. I am too wretched to move. Marla comes to join Dawn and I bringing a six-foot long by three-foot-wide seat cushion which we hold over our heads while we huddle together shivering. Marble size hail balls sting the skin on our hands and legs. Dawn develops bruises from them. It seems like this ambush from the sky goes on forever. Is this ever going to end?
Just as quickly as it began, the torment stops, and the sun comes out. But we are cold, wet, and shivering. Haden makes a decision to land at the next campsite so that we can move around, dry out, and warm up. We are led along a trail through the desert sand in the sunlight to a cliff with petrographs. This is just what the doctor ordered. The sun warms our torsos and begins the drying process of our clothes. My scrub pants and underwear are still soaked but at least I am no longer hypothermic once we jump back into the raft.
A few more hours of navigating lead us to our campsite for the night around 6 p.m. The sky has again clouded over and thunder rumbles. We grab our dry bags with all our possessions and scramble up the sandy hill. The race is on to get our tents erected before the rain begins again. Then we dive in while the downpour cascades from the heavens. I am exhausted. But soon this shower too has passed and the sun shines on us for a pleasant evening.
As we sit in lawn chairs waiting for our supper, someone spots a small brown head gliding just under the water in the river. As it emerges on the opposite bank, we are able to identify the creature as a beaver. He or she splashes merrily around for our entertainment. The Bureau of Land Management ranger who visits us the next morning reports that a bear was also spotted across the river on this evening. I am so disappointed that we missed this appearance.
Our guides cook and eventually serve us a scrumptious meal of shrimp alfredo pasta along with a salad. It is topped by strawberry shortcake for dessert. By 9:30 p.m., we are stuffed and ready to crawl into the sleeping bags and tents for the night. I discover after I arrive in my tent that my carefully checked and battery replaced flashlight does not work. Great! Just great! There will be no light to find anything in my tent and no light to stumble my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I also brought along an air mattress and a small battery-operated air pump. The air mattress is waiting for me positioned on top of one of the seat cushions from the raft. This arrangement will work out splendidly. It cushions my body perfectly as I lie there trying to fall asleep. The wind has picked up outside and the tent begins to rock back and forth. These tents are designed to sit on top of the ground without staking corners into the ground. Here stakes wouldn’t stay anyway due to the loose sand that covers the landscape. In the escalating wind, my tent begins to rock back and forth. It bows almost to the ground on one side. As it bends over, everything on that side of the tent gets dumped up on me. Flaps flop up and down like a bird with wings. I lay there in the pitch dark wondering if I am going to be trapped inside this enclosure. I finally fall asleep after I decide I probably won’t smother if it does totally come down on me. (to be continued)
My traveling partner, Dawn and I arrived in Moab, Utah around 5:30 p.m. local time on Monday, July 12, 2021. The temperature is 105 degrees. “At least, it’s a dry heat,” people often say but it is still hot. Red rock rises into the sky on both sides of the highway and the landscape is dry and barren. Nothing grows green. Moab is a sprawling western tourist town with probably more motels than anything else. We check into our accommodations at Bowen Motel and then decide to walk across the street to Wendy’s to get supper. Apparently, Utah is still hanging onto the Covid 19 restrictions yet regardless of whether one is vaccinated or not. Wendy’s lobby is locked up tight but there appears to be cars going through the drive thru. We turn away and stroll south along the sidewalk. There has to be something open within walking distance. However, each place we pass has a “closed” sign on the door. I am getting hot and frustrated. Dawn wants one thing and I want another. We are like two old married people who can’t agree. We finally decide to walk back to the motel, get the car, and drive through Wendy’s drive thru. We are the fourth car in line. Our hopes rise that we will soon be chowing down and filling our bellies. Unfortunately, the minutes tick by while we chomp at the bit. They finally take one order and fifteen minutes later, another. The gas idles away as we wait. Fifteen more minutes goes by.
“Let’s go somewhere else,” I finally say, “This is ridiculous.”
I quickly check the GPS for suggestions of other nearby fast-food places since the ones unique to Moab all seem to be closed or not open for dine-in. I am so glad I brought my GPS along. It has provided useful information on restaurants, gas stations, and rest stops along our route. McDonald’s is just .6 mile down the street. We are met with the same drive through line only there but at least it is moving. We soon have some sandwiches, fries, and a milkshake to satisfy our growling stomachs. We have made it safely to our destination.
The sun is peaking over the cliff just to the east of our motel when I enter the warm morning air. The temperature has not dropped below 80 degrees during the night. Orientation is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Mild and Wild Rafting office in Moab. Dawn has brought along an electric skillet, and she whips up some French toast. This along with grapes is our breakfast meal.
A little before 9:30, we head out for the rafting headquarters. It only takes a few minutes to make the drive. A young lady sits at a picnic table under a shady canvas canopy. There is a light breeze which wafts away the feeling of overwhelming heat.
“Can I help you?” she greets us.
“We are here for the orientation,” we respond.
“You are early,” she says, “but I will go see if I can find one of the guys to do your orientation.”
Soon she is back with a young man, Haden, who is to be one of our guides on our adventure. “You are the only two that will be here for orientation so I will just do it now,” he declares, “The other family is not flying in until this evening.”
He gives us each a waterproof sack twice as big as a pillow. Into this, which already includes our tent, we each are to stuff a sleeping bag, a mattress, and a duffel bag of personal clothes and necessities. With a little creative stuffing, I finally get the task accomplished. And that is the extent of our orientation. We are ready to leave and go about our day by ten. So why did we come a day early?
We make a decision to drive the short distance to Arches National Park. After reading on-line about the overcrowding of our national parks and the high chance of being turned away if one is not there by 7:30 in the morning, I have grave doubts that we will be able to get in. But there is no line, and we easily zip through the ticketing process. Motoring around the park in our vehicle is mostly our means of sightseeing. Large red rock formations rise against the sky. Many of them have acquired names for their shapes. This national park is known for its sandstone arches of which there are many. We swing into a parking pullout every so often to snap a photo. Even a couple of very short hikes are in order, but the heat soon chases us back to the car. Before we know it, our stomach is calling us to head back to Moab for some food. We discover at Denny’s the same issue we had the night before at Wendy’s. They are extremely short of help with only one man seating patrons, cleaning tables, taking orders and delivering food. In spite of this, we are back out the door within an hour.
After an afternoon siesta time, we head downtown on foot to scope out the various shops and enjoy an ice cream treat. Our final task of the day is to deliver our electronics to the rafting company office for safekeeping. Leaving them in a 200-degree car for four days does not seem like a prudent idea.
Sunday, June 20 is Father’s Day. We stay snuggled in our sleeping bag until 8 a.m. We have no where to be. Because it is supposed to rain today, we left the car last evening out at the end of the ½ mile trail to the yurt. I was able to walk back in ten minutes – not bad. That should be a doable hike on Monday morning carrying the rest of our belongings.
The day breaks with the sun shining before slowly sliding into cloudiness. After a light breakfast, we decide to go for a slow meander along the prairie path and down another track that ends at a stagnant marsh. Budding spring flowers line our path and stopping to photograph them is required. Mosquitos swarm us every time we stop moving. A wet splop lands on my nose. What was that?
“I just felt a rain drop,” I report, “Time to start back.”
We spy some moose tracks in the beaten path close to the yurt. That is probably as close to a moose as we will get. One last visit to the lakeshore and we head indoors.
A steady pitter patter on the canvas roof and sides of our abode meets our ears not more than fifteen minutes after getting back from our journey.
“It’s chilly in here. Can you see if you can start a fire in the stove?” is my next proposal.
Soon the fire is slowly burning emanating a toasty warmth. It has become a day for me to write and to read and for Dave to play solitaire while the rain pounds a steady rhythm of song on the canvas roof.
The wind howls in waves throughout the night while the rain continues its steady drumming. Just after midnight, I am awakened by an “Oh, no!” by Dave. His portable CPAP machine which I have bought for trips like this has died. I had bought a lithium battery to power it here due to no electricity but really had no idea how long it would last. We tried to do some recharging using the car cigarette lighter during the day on Saturday when we were driving around but apparently, it was not enough. The whole concept has worked beautifully up until now. But now I spend the rest of the night dozing off and on listening to my hubby stop breathing and then wake himself up over and over gasping.
By 6 a.m. on Monday, we decide it is time to get up and get ourselves together since we aren’t sleeping anyway. The temperature on the thermometer on the pole outside is 42 degrees. Time to hustle if one does not want to freeze while dressing. As I pack up our stuff and put away the rest of the food in the cooler, I notice that the trail mix bag has a semi-circular cut out of it and the mix is scattered all over the metal cart top. I think we had a visitor during the night.
The sleeping bag is rolled up and tied with rope so Dave can sling it over his shoulders while also carrying a small leather bag and a medium sized duffel bag. I throw a small backpack on my back and hoist up the cooler. We are ready. The ground is soggy with puddles which require skirting. My hands are freezing so I call for a stop to roll down the sleeves on Dave’s quilted shirt which I am wearing. Fifteen minutes of strolling through the cool morning sunshine brings us to our car. We are soon headed homeward. That planning ahead managed to work out splendidly for us. We have survived one more daring trip into the wilderness.
As daylight filters into the globe of the yurt on Saturday morning, the sky is heavy with clouds. Snuggled into our sleeping bag against the 52-degree chill, anxious thoughts flit though my mind. Is it going to rain today? How are we going to get out of here if it does? What about our plans for today? With my stomach all in a tizzy, we finally roll out. We can’t sleep anymore anyway. A quick visit to the car at 7 a.m. allows for listening to the weather forecast. It is the only way we have of knowing what is being predicted.
“Cloudy today,” says the announcer, “with a high of 65 and 90% chance of steady rain tomorrow, Sunday, with a high in the fifties.”
Ugh! That means today is probably going to be OK but what are we going to do about tomorrow. Will we be able to get out of here after it rains for a full day? Hubby and I make a decision to rearrange all of our belongings so that we are keeping only the bare essentials. The rest we will load in the car this evening and leave it at the beginning of this bumpy, rut and rock filled path so when it rains, we are not stranded in mud. I think I could probably mud my way out but don’t really want to do that to my car. What is left of our belongings we will hike the .5 mile with on Monday morning. As we begin reallocation of our belongings, it begins to rain. But it’s not supposed to rain today!! So should we go on our BWCA daytrip or forget it?
The plan for today has been to go pick up a Kevlar canoe from the yurt proprietor and haul it to the Duncan Lake BWCA entry put in site. Our car does not have a canoe rack, but our original plan was to pay the outfitter to haul it for us to the site entrance. But she was very hesitant when we requested this.
“You will have to help me lift the canoe and tie it on my car,” she said, “I don’t have any help this summer and my husband recently had a stroke.”
Feeling sorry for this lady and her unfortunate set of circumstances, our objective is to figure out a way to haul the canoe ourselves rather than burden her with our need. We wrack our brains for ideas. We have front to back bars on my Subaru but no crossbars to take the weight of the canoe. How do we prevent damage to the sunroof? By Friday evening, we still had no real good answer. Then after arriving back at the yurt on Friday, I glanced at the front tire on the driver’s side of the car. The tire appeared low. We do not need a flat tire out here in the middle of nowhere. I wondered if we have any kind of a spare. To calm my apprehensions, I decided to check the trunk to see if we had an acceptable spare should that become necessary. As I pulled up the carpet board covering the “trunk” and spare tire, I discovered a treasure. The “trunk” is fitted with three pieces of molded foam. Wow! Just what is needed to place on each side of the canoe and support it. We had brought along ratchet straps, so we are all set. It struck me as amazing how one potential problem has led to the solution to another.
By 9:30 a.m. on this Saturday, it has stopped raining and we set out for the home of the outfitter to pick up our canoe. Our devised plan for canoe transport works like a charm and by 10:30 a.m., we have set our canoe in the water at the Duncan and Daniel’s Lake entry portage. I have also come up with a plan to wear sandals for launching the canoe and then change to tennis shoes and socks for hiking and portaging. That way, I can wade out into the water without worrying about getting my shoes and socks wet. Getting into the canoe without capsizing is always the first struggle for Dave and I as we age. Canoes are notoriously tippy anyway and we are stiff and not very nimble anymore. Dave struggles to get his feet up and over the side when entering the canoe and even more so when exiting.
Finally, we make it safely into the canoe and we are off and paddling across Bearskin Lake toward the Duncan Lake BWCA entry point. The wind is steady making slightly rolling waves that are at an angle to our direction of travel. This makes for a vessel that wants to rock back and forth. Maybe it is the operators and not the conditions. It has been a long time since we last paddled a canoe. It is still cloudy but not an unpleasant day. The personal flotation devices add just the right amount of warmth to a mildly chilly day. Before we know it, we have paddled across the lake and glided into a shallow smooth rock-covered-bottom portage. There are quite a few people backed up at the portage, so we move our canoe off to the side to rest and catch our breath. Because of neck and back issues for Dave, we agree that I will carry the canoe and Dave will bring the rest of our gear. After a few minutes, Dave helps me hoist the 17.5-foot Kevlar canoe to my shoulders and I am off. The trail begins with a steep upward climb before heading back down onto a more level area. I am puffing with the exertion, but the load is easy to handle. Watching my stumbling feet is the challenge with roots and rocks and gullies to traverse. Slow and steady I trod the 81 rods or about ¼ mile. The last portion of the trail heads steeply downhill again to Duncan Lake. It is not that far of a distance, but it seems like miles. I need a breather and a drink before putting into the water again. Our final destination is Staircase Portage that leads to Rose Lake. Along this portage is a spectacular fall, Staircase Falls, that we wish to see.
All of the portage landings today have been what I call “nice” landings. They all have a fairly shallow water level with a rock or hard sand base. There is no need to worry about disappearing into the mud or drowning if one falls in.
Paddling is a little tricky in Duncan Lake but once we adjust our direction to face the swells, the canoe is more stable. Methodically we make our way over the lake. Three or four canoes are ahead of us making it easy to spot the portage opening. As we glide into the small cove leading to the portage, two swans glide silently along just a few feet from us. Paddling behind the leading swan are two little signets. They seem unperturbed by our presence. I count four or five canoes stacked side by side at various locations around the portage opening. We plan to do the same thing as all these other people – leave our canoe and hike the portage only to see the falls.
We decide to first spread out the lunch we have brought along on a large rock. We will relax and eat until some of the people return to lessen the congestion in the area at the falls. Bread, a salmon spread, chips and trail mix make up our luncheon while we wait.
It is a fairly short trek to the falls once we get started. Staircase Falls tumbles and turns several times on its way to Rose Lake. We descend a set of fifty or so steps to the base of the main falls and then decide to explore the portage a little further. Soon we come to another set of steps that disappears into the foliage on its way down to the lake shore. It is time to turn back. I can see why one would not want to portage this particular crossing. It looks like the portage from hell especially carrying a canoe.
After spending fifteen minutes or so photographing this hidden beauty and enjoying its splendor of cascading water, it is time to head back. By now, it is around 2:30 in the afternoon and the sun has appeared to add its warmth to the day. We wonder aloud if this trek might be our last canoe adventure into the BWCAW. Our stiffness and waning balance have become a safety hazard. Not only that, rowing and portaging is physical torture for these aging bodies.
“It starts to get more fun,” declares Dave, “after I have forgotten all the pain.”