We couldn’t wait any longer to paddle, so we took a canoe to the ice. Spring happened to appear while we were out there.
The canoe’s aluminum bow slammed into the ice sheet. I dug my paddle into the ice, scrabbling for purchase. Torrye and Mary paddled the water behind me. The keel ran up onto the ice’s surface with a grating scrape. The boat seesawed precariously and threatened to slide back into the water. I shifted forward, keeping my weight on my left foot, and pushed my right foot against the slippery ice. My foot fell a few inches when the ice broke beneath it, and suddenly my rubber boot was submerged to the ankle. I continued pawing at the ice with my foot while Mary and Torrye paddled harder. Inch by inch, we slid up the surface until the boat sat evenly on top of about a foot of ice. Keeping one foot on the floor of the canoe above the keel, I pushed with my right leg while Mary pushed from the stern with her left leg. We pedaled the loaded canoe like a skateboard across the mouth of the frozen bay.
We paused to catch our breath a few hundred yards later. An old dogsled track arced across the ice to the right of our bow. The skiers, dogs, and loaded sleds had compacted the snow, which slowed its melt compared to the surrounding area. The ice beneath melted at different speeds as a result, leaving darker, more solid ice beneath the track. Dressed for summer in a t-shirt, quick-dry pants, and a PFD, I struggled to remember when a month previously I’d traveled that very track. The ice had been thick enough to support our 6-dog teams, 500-lb sleds, and even a fully laden train for all I knew. Today, however, the ice near land had already disappeared.
We’d made most of our miles from Lake One down the Kawishiwi River by paddling along the northern, more sun-exposed shore. We followed the effective moat around every bend and jog in the river’s fractal shoreline until the thousandth downed cedar blocking our path proved too frustrating to continue. “Let’s just drag the boat across,” Mary declared at the mouth of this particularly large and iced-in bay. Torrye and I assented, and we back-paddled to give ourselves the room to gain maximum power. Then we rammed the ice sheet.
Even as we walked across the bay, I noticed signs of the ice’s—and winter’s—approaching demise. The ice flexed and crackled at pressure points as we shifted weight from one plane to another. Gently lapping waves ate at the ice’s perimeter, turning solid chunks to slush as the ice “candled.” Loons floated lazily in the nearby expanses of open water, and turkey vultures wobbled overhead. The air filled with calls and trills not heard for months: warblers, spring peepers, white-throated sparrows. Even the trees’ and clouds’ reflections on the still moat replaced the once uniform expanse of ice and snow with motion and color.
We dragged the canoe until we reached the end of the ice sheet. As we neared open water, the ice cracked more substantially. We scooch-footed as far as the ice supported our pedaling feet, and then we simply pushed with our paddles. We forced the boat through the ice, which fractured into huge geometric planes. We pushed them out of the way, widening the lead of water. “Just helping the ice break up,” we joked. Spring (and the soon-to-follow summer) had come with the moat and the birds and the hunger to paddle the Boundary Waters. We were not about to let a little ice throw us back into winter.