Last winter, after much discourse on just how dull life can be, Antoni and I decided to take our wives cruising on Lac La Biche during summer vacation. As soon as the snow was off the ground, I visited Map Town in Edmonton (780 429-2600) and picked up 1:50,000-scale topographic maps covering the entire lake (National Topographic System, sheets 83 I/16 & 73 L/13). They also had a hydrographic survey map so I bought a copy. Unfamiliar with the Lac La Biche area, I garnered a wealth of information from Mandy at the Lakeland recreation authority (780 623-4804). In the weeks leading up to our departure, I contacted Glenda at Alberta Parks (780 623-5434). She was more than helpful in answering my questions and relaying messages back and forth between myself and the back country ranger, Phil.
Day One: Monday, July 15
The previous day Nancy and I trailed our CL 16 from its home port at Pigeon Lake, 300 km up to Heather and Antoni's comfortable cottage at Lottie Lake. They also have a CL 16, named Walküre, and we intended to cruise both sailboats on Lac La Biche for the better part of a week. Since their place is only 120 km south of Lac La Biche, it was an ideal location to prepare the boats and pack our gear in multiple layers of Glad bags before we headed out.After stopping off in the town of Lac La Biche to pick up last-minute essentials, we drove out to Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park on Big Island via the 3 km causeway. At 14:30 hrs. we discovered the boat launch on the south side near the entrance . . . 6.5 km north across the water from the townsite, which sits in a bay at the south end of the lake. Together, the causeway and island with its narrow rock spit, define the mouth of the bay, leaving a passage 2.5 km wide on the west side as the only way north into the open lake. The wind was stiff and steady out of the SE at about 15 kt.
We aimed to sail west along the island until we had cleared the rock spit, head north through the passage at the mouth of the bay, essentially circumnavigating Big Island clockwise, and make for the islands lying north to find a suitable campsite for the night.
We stepped the masts and began stowing our gear in the boats while they were still on the trailers. A short time later, while sitting in Antoni's Jeep, eating our boat lunch and watching marble-sized hailstones bounce off the hood, Ranger Phil showed up. As we discussed our proposed cruise, he told us that the lake was lower than was shown on our maps and it was now possible to walk from Birch to Currant Island. Flicking an errant hailstone off the map, he pointed out some navigational hazards and suggested that we might want to check out the north side of Currant Island. Okaying our request to park our vehicles and trailers at the public launch site, he confirmed that if they were still there on Saturday morning we were probably in trouble. I suspect that, without being obvious, he was carefully appraising us, our boats, our equipment and our chances of survival. Satisfied, he wished us fair winds and drove off to attend to more pressing matters. Having Ranger Phil on patrol clicked my comfort level up a few notches.
At 17:00 hrs. we bent sail and set out on a broad starboard reach, slowly falling off and steering a wide arc around Big Island. We gybed to port to continue our arc and just perambulated out of the bay.
Allowing the wind and waves to take us well past Big Island, we spotted first Birch then Currant Island. Banging the bottom a few times, we came upwind to a close reach in the lee of Big Island and set course for the south tip of Currant with boards three-quarters down. We felt obliged to look at the campsite Ranger Phil had suggested. True to his warning, there were shoals visible as dark fingers of disturbed water extending east from Currant Island. We easily skirted them, reaching well over toward the main shoreline and gybing over to dip into the shadowy, heavily-treed crescent of Currant Island, parts of which stand 25 m above the lake. The place was teeming with bird life . . . solitary shorebirds darting and dabbling on the beach, flotillas of dipping and diving waterfowl, soaring squadrons of gulls and terns feeding on a recent hatch of insects. Seemed pretty crowded. Besides, the airs in the lee between the islands were warm and soft, the sun was still up and we weren't done cruising yet.
Three kilometres to the north lay Red Fox Island and it's 30 m high companion, locally referred to as Onion Island. Leaving Currant Island astern, we enjoyed a brisk downwind run and were soon craning our necks to gaze up at the western slope of Onion Island. Up top, the park-like woodland looked inviting but there was no way we were going to lug our gear up that hill. Around behind in the lee between Onion and Red Fox, the terrain was similar save for a long gravel bar pointing toward Red Fox. Onion is an unhappy medium of steep hills and barely dry gravel bars but thanks to the dropoff on the steep part, I was able to ghost up to the shore and step right out of the boat. Thanks to a thicket of berry bushes, thistle and two metre stinging nettles, I was compelled to step right back in again. It was looking like we wouldn't be camping on Onion.
Meanwhile, Antoni and Heather had come about and were well on their way to covering the 650 m to Red Fox Island. A reasonable course of action in light of the late hour, Nancy and I followed suit. By the time we got there, they had stuffed their boat through the reed grass and bull rushes and were splashing around in the duckweed unloading gadgets and gear. After covering 13 km over the ground, we pulled up in a cloud of mosquitoes around 21:30 hrs. and established Red Fox Island Camp (grid ref. 829396).
We made camp right where we landed, on the broad, sandy beach among the wild roses and marsh marigolds. By no small coincidence, we had settled on bug-proof dome tents as the shelter of choice for this cruise. Out of a little, 4.5 kg stuffsack comes a cooperative set of collapsible, shockcord-loaded poles. Inserted into pockets and bowed like fly rods, these support the nylon and no-see-um mesh inner tent which is topped off with a rainproof, aluminized outer fly complete with vestibule.
Glad-handing a portfolio-sized pouch from the wrinkled depths of a Glad bag, Antoni produced his Pyromid cooker. Untested in the bush, there was some skepticism regarding this clever brazier which deploys hinged, stainless steel reflector segments in a Rubik's Cube-like variety of configurations. But it provided yeoman service heating up a large, foil-swaddled pan of homemade lasagne in less than an hour with just a handful of self-lighting briquettes.
Sitting comfortably around Antoni's folding picnic table, we dined in the dark by candlelight, feasting on whacking-great slabs of steaming lasagne perfectly complemented by a '89 Chianti Reserva. We were entertained by noctilucent clouds from the Lac La Biche townsite 13.5 km to the south, now hidden behind Currant and Big Islands. Nursing after dinner cognacs, we listened to birds calling out in the watery darkness over the distant roar of a gas plant somewhere beyond the Owl River townsite, about 4 km to the east. Snug in our high-tech yurts, it was a pleasant goodnight.
Day Two: Tuesday, July 16
I awoke at 06:00 hrs. and by the gloom in the tent was not surprised to find the sky socked-in from horizon to horizon. Releasing the shiny, new hibachi from its berth underneath the port side bench in the boat, I set it carefully in the sand, dumped in a generous pile of charcoal, drenched it with starter fluid and applied my Zippo. While I was waiting for the briquettes to ash over, a small, private plane flying over the lake altered course for a better look at Red Fox Island Camp. When the coals were ready, I filled the cooking pot with a Thermos-measure of water and set it on to boil. My secret was to use the top part of a Melitta coffee maker and a paper cone filter to drip-brew the coffee directly into the Thermos. This would keep the coffee hot and liberate valuable space on the hibachi for a cast iron frying pan full of side bacon, which was gently sizzling anon. Smelled good.
It wasn't long before rustling and muffled exclamations were heard from the tents. Slurping a coffee and poking at the bacon with a stick, I began to anticipate the appreciation which would surely be bestowed upon me. Cruelly, my moment of glory was dashed by a crack of thunder and the onset of steady rain. It didn't take long to put out the coals and fill the frying pan with rainwater . . . but not before the hibachi incinerated one of its own legs. Disgusted, I retreated into the tent vestibule to take shelter and sulk. Inside, Nancy mumbled something about having her eggs over hard. I silenced her with a cup of coffee. Soon Antoni and Heather emerged from their tent, clearly horrified by the sight of the partially fried bacon floating pallidly in the frying pan. I silenced them with cups of coffee.
Always coolheaded in an emergency, they produced a large tarp. While my companions held it over the hibachi, I restoked it and drained out the frying pan. Soon the entire company was wolfing down bacon, fried eggs and toast, shielding their plates from the pouring rain by whatever means possible. A coven of crows sitting in the lower branches of a dead poplar tree 20 m away showed not the slightest interest in sharing our meal. A family of loons swam around in the calm between the islands, the babies taking turns riding on Mom's back while Dad kept a wary eye on the clumsy, ungainly beasts who invaded their island the night before.
So, it was only 13 C. We were here to cruise and not about to get discouraged by a little rain on our parade. We did our chores and finally got underway at 14:30 hrs. In a steady, cold rain, we sailed counterclockwise around the island in calm water, ghosting west along the main shoreline on a broad reach, looking for our wind. Slowly passing the mouth of the Owl River, we were dubiously serenaded by a multitude of blackbirds concealed in the huge, 150 ha reed bed growing there.
Out of the shelter of the islands, the boats picked up speed and our spirits lifted as we came up onto a beam reach to follow the shoreline SW toward the narrows. Now we had clean, 15 kt. air from the SE and, in spite of the rain, rediscovered the consummate exhilaration of surfing faster than the wind on quartering waves.
Regrettably, it was not to be a long, scintillating day on the water. At 16:30 hrs., after covering only 11 km of lake bottom, we put in, cold, wet and shivering, on the north pinch of the narrows (grid ref. 804301) . . . right beside a road ending at the lake. It would make an ideal jumping-off point for the lake crossing we had planned for the following day.
Haunted by the memory of our rudely interrupted breakfast at Red Fox, Antoni and Heather immediately selected a grassy, sheltered hollow above the beach and carefully roped the tarp up overhead, between some well-placed willow snags and birch trees. The mess table, coolers and water jugs were strategically arranged beneath. We fired up both the Pyromid and the lopsided, now rusty hibachi, if only to get warm. I wrested my day pack from the forepeak and shrugged into a dry jacket. We stood over the coals watching our pants steam and slapping at mosquitos until we stopped shivering. As if to mock us, the sun came out and it stopped raining.
Antoni walked up the road to look at a sign, past some deer languidly taking their ease in a field and returned to report that the sign was posted with a maximum ice road weight limit. Curious, we unfolded the map and ascertained that a projection of the existing road across the lake would end up near the old Roman Catholic mission. Through the binoculars we could clearly see the white, sun-dappled buildings of Notre Dame Des Victoires 5 km across the narrows. Just offshore from us stood the stately, verdant edifice of scattered shrubs and grassland locally known as High Island and slightly beyond, the ubiquitous, mixedwood forest of Black Fox Island.
We refueled on BBQ beef tenderloin, fried potatoes, fresh asparagus spears, corn-on-the-cob and a '92 Rodney Strong Old Vines Reserve Zinfandel. As night fell, coyotes yipping nearby, we gratefully retired to the tents pitched on the grassy beach below the high water mark.
Day Three: Wednesday, July 17
In the predawn chill, my senses were stropped into annoyed wakefulness by some persistent crows repeatedly cawing out "TOM" in Morse code. It felt like 5 C in the tent so I zipped it up tight and burrowed deeper into the sleeping bag. Unlike their more reserved colleagues on Red Fox, these crows seemed determined to roust the inhabitants of Ice Road Camp. Hoping they'd just go away, we ignored them and sure enough, after just a few short hours they moved off and we were able to get back to sleep.
A few hours after sunup, the internal temperature of the tent had risen 20 C. The interior was steamy with condensation, the sun-warmed exterior crawling with bugs . . . an irresistible attraction for the delighted hoards of neo-tropical migrants whirring and scrabbling over the tent fly with cheeping, twittering abandon. Bemused, I grabbed a bar of soap and towel out of my day pack to take a bracing swim before the others awoke.
Some deer had come down for a drink while we were sleeping, as evidenced by the fresh tracks over yesterday's boot prints. The lake was nothing short of frigid. I was soberly reminded that after less than an hour in this water a sailor would become immobilized by the onset of hypothermia and incapable of self-rescue. A small, brown hare watched me gasp through my heart-stopping ablutions. Smug with a sense of well-being that can only be attained by surviving a self-imposed dip in a boreal lake, and snug in clean, dry clothes, I strode up to the cook shelter to run off a batch of coffee.
Rummaging through our cooking gear, I failed to locate the critical Melitta coffee component. Panic mounting, an exhaustive search of the tents, boats and proximate area proved fruitless. Alas, I had to concede that the Melitta had simply joined the other centuries-old artifacts said to lie undiscovered hereabouts. Heading in along where the ice road would be in five months, a police helicopter flew low and slow over our masts. With the sound of rotors fading out behind the hills, Heather and Antoni pressed their battered, old percolator into active service.
As we breakfasted on guava juice, coffee, fresh mangos and toast, it became quite pleasant. With the diffuse warmth of the sun coming through the cloud cover, we further fortified ourselves with a toothsome trail mix of dried bananas, papayas, raisins and cranberries, hazelnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts and sunflower and pumpkin seeds. By early afternoon it was 23 C, the wind SE at 20-25 kt. and we were eager to resume our cruise.
At 15:00 hrs. we pushed off on port tack, reaching west until the narrows opened up. Falling off the wind, we sheeted our jibs to starboard and ran wing'n'wing up the shoreline for about 3 km, steeling our resolve to cross the lake at its widest part. With Antoni getting into my weather, I quickly gybed across his bow and trimmed for a beam reach. We were already planing when I heard his main pop over to starboard and so begin our rollicking race across 9 km of open lake.
Halfway across, planing along in full racing trim and easily taking the 1.5 m swell on the beam, Nancy furled our jib to slow us down and give Antoni a chance to catch up. Post haste, he was romping through our wind shadow making "vroom, vroom" noises at better than 12 kt. Springing into action like an America's Cup crew, Nancy unfurled the jib and we trimmed for fast pursuit. The conditions were perfect . . . even the most jaded sailor on the planet would have been enthralled.
Like all sleigh rides, the fun was over much too soon as we were brought up short by the opposite shore. Wiping the spray from our eyes, we determined that we were hove-to off a built-up settlement about 3 km south of Plamondon Beach. Looking north, we could see down the mouth of the La Biche River 10 km away, fading off into distant mists before meandering out to the Athabasca. Now 23 km from our starting point, we'd seen the entire, magnificent lake.
About 200 m offshore we got on the wind and tacked SE, scouting almost 5 km of steep, rocky shoreline for a sheltered landing. In a deserted embayment of poplar, birch, pine and spruce stands, we spotted a small clearing above a shallow beach and put in on a beam reach at 17:00 hrs. We set up the cook shelter in lush greenery and pitched our tents in what Nancy referred to as a "deer nest" . . . actually a stampled, grassy meadow about 10 m above the lake. And so was established Deer Meadow Camp (grid ref. 799212) after the best 19 km sail anyone could ask for.
We'd been hearing the occasional vehicle go by and had determined from the map that our camp was just off the Plamondon road about 10 km from the Mission. Now we heard a vehicle making its way down a rutted, off-road trail toward us. Engine roaring and tires spinning, it sounded like a tough go but presently a battered, muddy, late-model GMC pickup piloted by a bearded, unkempt-looking young man lurched to a stop before our cook shelter. He was as surprised to see us as we were him. Incredibly, his clothes were even dirtier than his truck, if that was possible, and he looked like his next bath would be his first. Grabbing an old paint can from the back of his truck, he shyly explained in a soft Dutch accent that he was there to look for agates and other interesting rocks along the shore to polish up in his tumbler. Not wishing to disturb him, we left him to his own devices. After about an hour he returned with his paint can filled to the brim, wished us fair winds, hopped back in his truck and wrestled it back out to the road, the sound of his engine fading into silence as he drove off to who knows where.
We enjoyed a mixed grill of beef rib eye and pork tenderloin accompanied by raw vegetable salad and an eminently drinkable '92 Napa Valley Pinot Noir. Sitting contentedly around the camp table in the fading light for a time, we put the hot coals to good use and prepared a round of hot toddies while deep, lingering tattoos of thunder rolled back and forth across the sky. Listening to the thunder and sipping reflectively, I observed aloud that we had actually broken camp, sailed across the lake, made camp again and eaten supper without feeling a single drop of rain, a first for this cruise. With an ear cocked to the sky, Antoni lamented philosophically, "Gee, I wish my stereo had bass like that." Not long after, in the still darkness, the four of us slowly filed up the hill to our tents in the deer meadow and some much-needed sack time.
Day Four: Thursday, July 18
Around daybreak, which comes indecently early in mid-July, I was abruptly awakened by what sounded like an exceptionally sloppy spinnaker takedown on a gusty day . . . only without the cursing. It was only the tent fly flapping in the gale which had blown up during the night. I knew the fly was secure. Now mindful of condensation, we had taken to guying and staking our tents securely to ensure good ventilation between the fly and inner wall. Listening to the din hissing through the aspen groves and watching a spider web up a bug in the apex of the tent, I thought of the boats down on the beach. Last night a soothing lullaby, this morning the sound of the rollers had taken on an almost subsonic, ominous, rumbling quality. I was nagged by the notion of the wind backing to the north and endowing our little bay with 8 km of fetch. If the waves were as bad as they sounded, all hands would have to be rousted for bailing and toting.
So I clawed my way out of the sleeping bag, contorted into my pants, unzipped and zipped through two layers of tent and finally homo-erected into a standing position, blinking against an overcast, unusually bright sky. Alarmingly, the wind had ramped up to a jackpine-swaying 40 kt. but our bay was still sheltered, the water relatively calm and our boats safe and sound for the time being.
Just beyond a point of land about a kilometre upwind of our camp, the lake was dark and ugly, heaped up with breaking waves and mean-streaked with white foam. The deep, reverberating roar originated from waves crashing against the windward side of the point. It was a cinch we wouldn't be sailing anytime soon so I retrofitted myself back into the tent for a few more hours of shuteye.
Much later that morning, gathered round the Pyromid waiting for our backup coffee percolator to kick in, it seemed that everyone had noticed the fresh, force-seven breeze howling unabated straight out of where we wanted to go. We cheerfully bantered and kidded each other about it. An innocent observation that it would make for a fast, invigorating beat was met with several playful kicks from dissenting parties gently countering with the idea of giving up sailing forever. By the time we had downed our first cup of coffee it was generally agreed that it would very likely be a lay day. Popping fresh blueberries and munching pate de fois gras on toast, a quick inventory of our dwindling provisions revealed that we probably had enough left to survive for another two maybe three days. As we lingered over breakfast discussing the situation at great length, our wives encouraged Antoni and I to hoof it up the beach to the point and take a look. Ever brimming with concern for our welfare, they admonished us to be careful as we set off . . . something about not hurrying back.
The sailboats were lying below our camp on a gently sloping, coarse gravel beach with occasional gentle waves lapping barely up to the transoms. About 300 m from the boats, the beach narrowed out and we stumbled across some scattered pieces of bodywork and the skeletal, corroded chassis of an ancient auto.
As we proceeded along the steepening shoreline, the waves increased in intensity, the bush pressed down to the lake and the rocks gradually became larger, sometimes forming long, neatly graded ridges scoured up by massive sheets of ice. Wind roaring in our ears, we soon found ourselves picking our way laboriously over loose, moss-covered boulders made slick and treacherous by the spray of three metre breakers abruptly ending their wind-driven, 10 km journey down the lake. Cresting the point, leaning against the wind, feeling the thunderous rumble of the waves beneath our feet, we beheld our demon. A CL 16 driven ashore here by this crazy southeaster would be crushed like a Styrofoam cup in a bench vise and pounded into flotsam PDQ. Awestruck by the sheer power of this big lake, I can imagine what unspeakable fury must be spawned further east along the shore when a prairie nor'wester is blasting down 17 km of open water. Probably waves as high as my boat is long. Yes it most definitely will be a lay day.
Rather than backtrack, we scrambled up the steep slope and traversed a muddy, well-used game trail, a regular deer highway, more or less following a contour line through the bush. When we finally staggered back into camp, sweaty, thirsty and bug bitten, we were greeted by the tantalizing aroma of fried potatoes and onions artfully prepared by Heather and Nancy. By the time we washed these down with tea and had a couple of oranges for dessert it was mid-afternoon and, by almost imperceptible degrees, the wind was diminishing. Our hope of making at least a short hop eastward before nightfall was rekindled.
As the day wore on, Heather buried herself in the pages of a moist Anne Rice novel and Nancy putzed around on the shore with some rocks, frogs and birds. Antoni and I attended to the boats. While checking over the fittings, I noticed that the clevis pin for the becket block on the boom vang had somehow gone missing so I replaced it from my box of spares. Losing the boom vang isn't such a big deal but the shrouds and forestay are also attached using clevis pins. I have a very close relationship with my standing rigging and, concerned about it becoming detached and remote, safety-wired the pins with stainless steel wire. Antoni was having problems with his rudder floating up on the pivot so he jimmied up the downhaul to haul down harder.
Our ministrations complete, we noticed that the wind had died down to a stiff but manageable level, the whitecaps past the point had dissipated and the skies were showing some patches of blue through a gray, translucent cloud cover streaked with dark, horizontal bands. It looked like we could shove off anytime. It was already 17:00 hrs. and we were still a little unsettled from our taste of the conditions this lake could dish out. We decided to take it easy, eat a relaxed dinner of canned ravioli and venison pepperoni and, if the weather was still stabilizing, break camp, stow our gear in the boats and take off.
It was 19:00 hrs. when the centerboards went down and a pair of pelicans gate-started us out into a heavy, slate-gray chop. On the open lake, the southeaster had to be gusting to 30 kt. so we decided to forgo our jibs and proceed on mainsails alone. We had about 3.5 hours to either bash past Black Fox and through the narrows or until it got dark, whatever was sooner. Nancy and I shared a poignant moment when we discovered a stowaway sliding bodily up the centerboard trunk. Entreating it to "be free," she tenderly pitched the pseudopod into the drink.
We made good the bad, old point Antoni and I visited only seven hours before, leaving it 150 m to starboard. The shoreline dropped away to the south and the wind steadied out at about 20 kt. With no jib to tend Nancy had it easy, delicately perching her 45 kg bulk on the windward side bench amidships. Out on the weather gunwale, with a foot hooked casually under the hiking strap, I was able to keep the hull trimmed impeccably. For the moment, fibreglass-based life forms belonged on this Pleistocene lake as much as any other.
We continued close-hauled for about 2 km, making good speed and pointing high. Now about 2.5 km offshore, we could see Black Fox and High Islands in the narrows 5 or 6 km distant, lit up like blazing, orange beacons by the slowly setting sun off our starboard stern quarter. I stole a quick glance at old Sol over my right shoulder to see how we were doing for daylight and was startled to see that the general, low altitude cloud cover we had left astern had towered up into a wispy, flat-topped bank of cirrus moving quickly north off the shoreline. It was already raining back there. Warm front, maybe. I think I felt the wind freshen up a tad.
The sun was quickly obscured by ripped-up, ragged patches of icy-looking cloud thickening and darkening along the south shore, filigreed by weak flashes of sheet lighting. No thunder, though. The wind was definitely picking up, veering to the south and giving us a much appreciated lift, thank you very much. Conventional Alberta sailing wisdom dictates that if cumulonimbus clouds threaten to cross your path, head for the nearest dirt because you are about to become the guest of honor at a banquet of heavy wind, rain squalls and lightning. If it got real ugly, we could make the 20 minute reach for Black Fox Island and hunker down there for the night. Thing was, I couldn't see any cumulus clouds anywhere, let alone a thunderhead.
Contentedly admiring our wake, Nancy let out an exclamation when she noticed that the horizon had vanished. Turning, my mouth went dry as I slowly comprehended. The entire southwest end of the lake was obscured by an impossibly solid, white wall, 20 km long and extending down out of the twilight to the surface of the water. The mother of all line squalls was coming right at us. Antoni and Heather had seen it too, if strangled cries and animated gesticulations are any judge. I advised Nancy to sort out the main halyard, we might have to drop sail in a hurry.
Casting a last, longing eye to the clear, blue sky in the east, I turned to squarely face the approaching juggernaut . . . the Lac La Biche Mobile Waterfall Service. A whoosh of warm, wet wind heeled us over and then the squall thudded down on us with a vitality that took our breath away. You couldn't really call it rain, there were no discernable drops as such. It was a deluge without refuge, like simultaneously being carpet-bombed with water balloons and sprayed with a fire hose. Visibility was near zero around the boat, the bubbling lake surface blurry and out of focus, set aboil by the splashing torrent. Within a minute there was water sloshing over our ankles. We just sat there, calmly suspended in bedlam. No helm. No way. I fished the bilge pump out of the lazarette, handed it to Nancy, tactfully suggested that she jump to it and went to work myself with a big sponge. After a couple dozen masterful strokes on the pump handle, it became woefully apparent that the damn thing wouldn't prime and the interior of the pump was the driest place on the boat. Sheets of water were sluicing down the sail, cascading off both sides of the boom and gushing in amidships with a vengeance so Nancy wisely abandoned the pump and broke out our cooking pot.
After about five minutes the squall was over, moving north up the lake and leaving a steady patter of cold rain in its path. I could see Antoni's boat again, still afloat and upright with Heather giving their bilge pump a good workout. Like most line squalls, this was short-lived and we were never REALLY in danger of being rain-swamped but we felt much, much better when the boats had been bailed dry. Buoyancy is our friend.
Just like someone flipped a switch, the southeaster was back at 20 kt. Our craft were still pointing east toward the slot between Black Fox and the headland separating us from Big Island so they just sallied forth like Volvos at a railway crossing after the gates go up. We could see blue sky again behind a low, innocuous roll of dark clouds marking the passage of the warm front. An enormous bolt of lightning cracked down somewhere way to the south followed some moments later by a faint, far off rumble of thunder. The blue heron winging across our bow didn't seem concerned but I was still worried about heavy winds associated with a cold front.
I scanned the skies for the cumulonimbus which must surely be around someplace. In an impressive display of avian metabolic endurance, a cormorant had chosen to run, not fly, along the water from High to Black Fox Island. At last leaving Black Fox to port, we skulked around in the lee of the headland for a time trying to coax some dirty little zephyrs into lifting us around the point and into sight of Big Island.
We finally caught some clean air a scant few boat lengths off the big reed bed adorning the point. I could now see Big Island about 5 km away and dead upwind. I could see something else, too . . . a towering, cumulonimbus thunderhead. It was a black, billowing, bloated, atmosphere-sucking mantle twice as wide as my field of vision and as high as the sky. Hidden up to now by the shoreline, it filled the entire southern sky, back-dropping the dark silhouette of Big Island, the lights of Lac La Biche town and the oily-looking water of the bay. Perversely, the storm seemed to be moving off totally opposite to our boat wind. We were lucky the winds of the cold front never materialized. Although the damp landlubbers on Big Island were treated to a spectacular show, the boat-tipping epicenter had passed well south of the lake and spared us the indignity of a forced landing. (We didn't know it at the time but we were on its good side. Later, we would read about 160 kph winds, severe lightning, tornados and baseball-sized hail, 100 km to the south on the other side of the storm.) I yawned and looked at my watch. It was 23:20 hrs.
We had a conference. On the one hand, we were all starting to get cold and tired, it was still raining, the thunderstorm might have another squall up its sleeve and it was dark. We still had to beat down the bay until we could lay the south end of Big Island, only to tack over and sail its entire length toward the causeway. Could take better than an hour. On the other hand, we had good wind, familiar waters and flashlights to search the dark shoreline for the taillight reflectors on our trailers. Shouldn't take more than 45 minutes . . . an hour tops.
Pointing back to Black Fox, I reminded the others that, assuming we found the trailers and landed safely, we would still have to extract the boats, drop the masts, upload our gear, rig for trailing and motor back to Lottie Lake. Pointing ahead to Big Island, Nancy declared that it would be better to sleep in the car than pitch camp yet again on a sodden shore. It's unclear where Heather was pointing because Antoni was inappropriately practicing penalty turns in the reeds. They concurred with Nancy's sentiment but I believe their judgement was clouded by the prospect of sleeping in a warm, dry bed totally housed in a rigid structure you don't have to disassemble and stuff into a boat the next day. It might also have had something to do with the cheerful, warmly-lit windows of the cosy cottages along the shoreline. "It's not even dark yet," came Antoni's disembodied voice out of the dark, "let's go for it." So we went for it.
We trimmed for a beat on port tack toward the lights of town, enjoying a series of advantageous lifts. I spotted a mast in the gloom close to shore. It looked like a moored centerboard cruiser . . . BETTER be on this lake. We deliberately overstood our layline a bit to set up for an offwind landing and tacked over to starboard to cross the choppy, dark waters of the bay. It's disorienting to sail upwind when you can't see the telltales or even the sail for that matter so I used a flashlight to alternate between illuminating the rig and occasionally signaling Walküre, whose return signal reassured me that she was relatively close astern. I didn't have to resort to the compass because I found I could steer by retinal afterimages occasioned by blue-white flashes of sheet lightning.
So far there had been no sign of human habitation on Big Island but I briefly saw the unmistakable perturbations of a flashlight. A convenient flash of lightning revealed the hull of a runabout onshore. I made a beeline toward it and Antoni, under the mistaken impression that I knew what I was doing, dutifully altered course to follow me in. Nancy and I slipped our boat gently and silently over some sandy shallows, through some sparse rushes and lit right beside the powerboat. The guy with the flashlight I had spotted earlier was gone. Too bad . . . I could have asked for directions. As it turned out, the boat launch was actually about 1.5 km further east around the island.
Leaving Nancy to hold on to the boat and flash the odd signal to Antoni, who was still en route, I walked up the shore and immediately realized where I went wrong when I saw the taillights of a car driving down the causeway to the mainland. I returned to the spot where we had landed just in time to see Walküre nose in. Heather scrambled over the foredeck with mega-candlepower spotlight in hand and disappeared into the bush leaving a trail of storm suit behind her.
Antoni and I conferred in low tones. Stabbing the formidable beam of her spotlight randomly about the immediate area, Heather reappeared looking much relieved. As my night vision slowly returned, I commented on what a fine and powerful light she had there. She graciously offered to lend it to me as there was a spare on the boat. (Apparently it is cheaper to buy a whole unit complete with batteries than it is to purchase the batteries alone.) There was nothing for it but to shove off immediately and sail down the shoreline, probing it with the spotlights until we spotted the extraction site.
So it was once more into that good night with Nancy enthusiastically and thoroughly searching the length and breadth of the dark shoreline with her spotlight. Aboard Walküre a similar scenario was taking place. As helpful advice and suggestions were relayed from ship to ship, I noticed that the happy campers of Big Island had broken out their flashlights and seemed to be relaying some suggestions of their own. It suddenly occurred to me what entertainment we had provided. Borne out of the most spectacular nighttime thunderstorm in days come strange lights and voices from an unseen source out in the rainy darkness of the lake. I could almost feel their gratitude . . . after all, we had spared them yet another dull night enduring the peace and quiet of this unspoiled wilderness. It made me feel all warm inside but I was too wet to feel fuzzy.
About three quarters of the way down the south shore of the island, Nancy bellowed, "There's the Jeep!" and commenced a squishy, little jig on the foredeck. At three minutes before midnight, after five hours of upwind sailing, after navigating over 18 km of lake bottom, it was somewhat anticlimactic as our bows crunched softly up onto shore. It had been a long day and a most worthy cruise.
Day Five: Friday, July 19
Our vehicles were just as we had left them except for a burnt-out headlight each. Go figure. As we were extracting our boats from the lake and rigging for the road, another driving rainstorm rattled down on us. It was met with total indifference . . . somehow a squall on the hard just couldn't faze us anymore.
In little more than an hour we were driving through the lights of Lac La Biche and eventually caught up to the storm which had been throwing cold water on us all night. In thirty minutes we covered 60 km of highway, a far cry from the 13 hours it took to cover the same distance under sail. Even so, we'd do it again.