We spent our first afternoon at a rapids that was just big enough and steep enough to call a waterfall. It was large enough to be dangerous if you weren't careful and if you were in a canoe, I'd say you needed a lot of experience to attempt navigating it.
Above the rapids about one-half mile is a lake called Wesley Lake, and the river that connects Otatakan to Wesley is the Wesley River. The outfitter told us they kept a boat on the river just above the rapids which we could use to explore and fish on Wesley lake. The fishing on Wesley was different, according to the outfitter. There were not as many fish, but the fish were bigger.
As our week on Otatakan progressed, Wesley Lake became a siren call and we just had to go.
On Thursday, we loaded up as usual and headed straight for the waterfall on the Wesley River. We took the motors off both boats and carried them along the river until we came to the boat the outfitter told us was there. Then we went back for the other boat and the rest of our stuff.
After about an hour of work, we were ready to explore and headed up-river to the lake. Autumn was suspicious of everything by then and spent plenty of time sniffing the new boat before she decided it was safe to ride in. Above the waterfall, the river was dotted with large boulders and rocks, so we motored carefully with one person in the bow watching for rocks and directing. We did not need a repeat of the near disaster we had on the Root River two days earlier.
As we came into the lake, we found it was entirely different than Otatakan. The shoreline was weedy and the bottom soft and mucky. It was not a great walleye lake, but we knew that already. Our primary targets were the large, northern pike reputed to lurk in the dark water.
The day was warm and the fishing was lazy. All the work to get up to the small lake sort of wore us out. For a while, we just explored and did a little fishing. We caught some decent northerns and threw them back. Then Dad caught a big one. It was almost forty inches long and skinny as an eel. If you ever heard northern pike called "snakes," this is where the term came from. This fish looked almost like a snake. It was not the fat, well fed fish we were used to catching in Otatakan.
We spent about six hours on Wesley lake and caught some decent sized fish, but nothing like we were hoping for. Eventually, we gave up and headed back downstream.
Carrying the motors and the boat did not seem like much fun when we came to the take-out point. It was there that I hatched a plan to make the trip quick and easy. It was a hare-brained scheme if I ever heard of one and in retrospect, really stupid. It also sounded like fun.
Dad argued against the plan, but apparently Chris and I were looking for the next adrenalin rush and he joined my side of the argument. Probably in the interest of peace and harmony, Dad didn't argue too hard, but made it clear he was against the plan. Mom looked very skeptical and didn't say a lot. Autumn already knew we were crazy.
We took the motors off both boats and put them on the floor of the boat we had to take downstream. Autumn knew something was up and didn't want to join us. Chris and I got in the boat and pushed off into the river.
At first, it was an easy ride. We were several hundred yards from the big-rapids/small-waterfall and we used the oars like paddles to control the boat. As we drew closer, the boat picked up speed and it wasn't long and we were really moving along. We had picked our intended path previously and headed for the center of the rapids where the water looked deep and where it appeared there were fewer rocks and boulders. Please do note I used the word "fewer." There were plenty of boulders along the way.
We passed the point of no return. There was no going back. No changing our mind. The thrill of apprehension and danger sent a chill up my neck, but there was no time to even think about it. We were suddenly moving very fast―faster than I'd ever been moving in a boat without a motor.
For some reason, perhaps some older-brother, protective instinct, I was in the bow of the boat and Chris was in the back. He had more experience steering a boat with paddles anyway. Sure... uh huh.
We passed between two boulders and into a chasm of white water. The bow dug into a mound of water and it crashed over me, leaving me soaked through. I shook my head to clear the water from my eyes just in time to see the boulder coming up. I hollered "Right!" and somehow, Chris turned the boat the boat right enough that we would only scrape by.
The roar of the water seemed deafening and we were only half-way though. I dug my oar in and we moved into the next passage. From the shore and from below the rapids, it had looked wide and reasonably safe. From my new vantage point, it was clearly no longer a rapids and definitely a waterfall.
"Hang On!" I yelled.
From somewhere on the shore, I heard Autumn bark, but there was no time to look and see what she was barking at. The cascading water pushed us through the passage and onto the wall of water that dropped about twenty feet down to the pool below the rapids.
It was at that moment that I experienced something extraordinary. It seemed as though time slowed to a crawl. Everything was crystal clear from the droplets of water that sprayed about to the pounding of my heart. The roar of the water subsided to a dull, background noise.
We went over the waterfall.
The boat plunged towards the pool in an amazing dive of death and I wondered in that split second if, in fact, that was what awaited us. Down we went. No paddling, it was pointless at that moment. It seemed to take a full minute to reach the bottom and we were traveling at a dizzying speed. I know it took less than a few seconds, but it seemed forever.
Ahead, at the bottom of the fall, was boulder jutting out of the water about four feet and it was directly in front of us.
"Right!" I yelled again. But this time Chris could not turn the boat and did not even try. Like me, he was hanging on for dear life.
Somehow, miraculously, the boat did turn a little, but we were still going to crash. Instinct took over. You know, it's amazing how instinct can save your life. You don't even think about it. Your brain automatically operates, does what it must to keep you alive and you do things without planning or deciding to do them.
We were in trouble and had been since the moment we pushed off the shore several minutes earlier. Once we passed the point of no return, we were in danger and I do regret that. It was a foolish decision based on laziness and being tired. We were out in the middle of nowhere and there was no help, no hospital, no anything for two more days when the pilot returned to pick us up.
The rock loomed ahead and we approached at considerable speed in an eerie slow motion and I knew we were done for. I leaned forward, reached out and put my left hand on the rock and pushed.
It was almost enough. The boat moved right as I pushed, but the force of the water was great, even for guy who could at that time, bench press nearly 300 pounds. Although I shoved as hard as could, the gunwale of the boat crashed into the rock, except it didn't actually hit the rock. It hit my thumb which was in the way.
The shock numbed my thumb and hand and sent waves of pain up my arm. And still, I shoved. I wasn't thinking anymore, just operating on instinct. The boat moved off the rock and we were in the pool below the rapids. Incredibly, we had survived one of the most foolish things I had ever done. And trust me, that lesson was never lost on me and has followed me through my entire life.
For two days, I would believe my thumb was crushed. I could not move it, it was swollen to three times its size and it hurt constantly.
The Friday and Saturday following the fools-trip down the rapids were anti-climatic. Thursday evening there was a tremendous mayfly hatch which was incredible to see. You could sit in the boat and watch the insects emerge from the water and spend a moment drying and exercising their wings. It was at that point they were the most vulnerable and the vast majority were eaten by the fish.
Still, many were not eaten and swarmed above the lake to perform a final ritual before they died. They mated, deposited their eggs on the water―at which point even more were eaten―and then died, leaving even more food for the fish to consume. The fish gorged themselves.
Friday, the fishing was clearly over with for the time being. The fish were stuffed with mayflies and it was difficult to catch enough for lunch and dinner. The fishing had been so amazing, we didn't think it would quit and then it did. We had to work hard to catch enough fish to take our limit home. On Saturday, we fished for a time in the early morning, then packed up our stuff.
The pilot arrived and we headed back to civilization. It was one of the greatest adventures of my life. I've thought about going back to Otatakan Lake. The outfitter is still in business. The lake is still there, but Mom could not go and Autumn has long since crossed the rainbow bridge. Without Mom or Autumn, it just would not be the same. Even with them, it could never be quite the same. So, other adventures would do, but none were quite the same as our week on Otatakan Lake.
A true story by MJ Logan
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