Hunting Shack Creek, if you notice it from the Echo Trail in summer, is just a sluggish little beaver stream with a few lily pads flapping in the wind. Over the years, though, I'd often stopped to look down its valley—the way it fades into hazy blue distance, hinting of wildness. And even a dinky creek has some dignity when you think about what the water is up to.
Hunting Shack, dignified by the term river on some maps, oozes out of cold sphagnum bogs and three tiny lakes. It's picked up by the little Echo River, heading for the old fur trade routes along the border. The water runs into Rainy Lake, over Ed Backus's dam; it gets thrashed around in shallow Lake Winnipeg. Finally it joins the huge Nelson River and surges down toward Hudson Bay. Well, used to surge—the Nelson's been thoroughly dammed.
Then I heard that Hunting Shack might be canoeable. A friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend's brother-in-law had paddled it one spring and said, "It's a rush!"
So I checked a topo map. Sure enough, where that skinny blue line turns north, the creek sneaks out of sight of the road and drops, fast. And two canoeing friends were soon arriving at my cabin—they'd be up for a micro-adventure. We met on County 24, shouting between cars. "A little creek no one paddles. … It drops 100 feet in about 3 miles."
"OK, let's go!" said my friends. Then I got cold feet.
"This is a harebrained idea. It's gossip from some guy we've never met. He could be totally lunatic."
"So?" said Carol. "We run I-94 all the time, surrounded by people that we can see are nuts."
"Anyway," Jane added, "we can always portage."
That afternoon we left a shuttle car at a mom-and-pop resort. A wiry middle-aged woman waved us to park under white pines. "Do you know anything about Hunting Shack Creek?" I asked, saying "crick" and not really expecting any information.
"Yeah," she said. "Me and my husband went down it. Once." Dedicated whitewater paddlers never pass up a good audience, but she offered not one detail. "So what's it like?" She gave us a speculative look: three short, middle-aged women, two newish SUVs with fancy racks, a kayak, a brand-new canoe. She wasn't unfriendly, just not very interested, and matter-of-fact.
"Are you tough?"
Once we were on the water, it became clear: If we'd need toughness, it wasn't for the rapids. Not that year, in mid-June. There were three major drops, classic steep "boulder gardens," but with no clear water paths, leaving us to wade or portage. On one drop the water disappeared entirely, gurgling along far under rocks that were like bowling balls—real ankle-breakers. We dragged our boats ashore and thrashed through the alder brush.
Most places you could wiggle your boat down the creek, if you spit on the rocks ahead. There was hardly room for paddles.
"Should have brought pingpong paddles," said Jane.
She'd land on a rock, reach both hands under her kayak, and bounce off in undignified little butt hops. Carol and I bumped along, jumping out to drag the glossy new red canoe. Its unblemished gelcoat skin was collecting battle scars and character lines.
These boulder staircases might be "a rush" with a lot more water—but we were laughing and liking the creek fine, just as it was. A scrapey little creek running through second-growth: popples, scratchy balsams, maple brush chewed ragged by deer. The fun was simply being off the guidebooks. Rapids had no names or ratings. For sure no one was going to come along.
Between drops lay wide meadows filled with that spicy smell I've never quite pinned down—some blend of sweetgale, sedges, rushes. We shoved the boats through islets of floating bog, black beaver-gnawed sticks, and chunks of water lily roots the color of bruises—green, blue-black, and yellow. Moose had been browsing—and recently.
We stopped looking at maps or watches. Free of all that. Just following a little river spooling out before us in the long light of summer solstice.
The sun was low, and we were pretty tired, when the creek opened up at last. A huge beaver pond. The dam stretched hundreds of feet, like a crossbow aimed downstream. Generations of beaver engineers have this pattern down pat; human engineers must have a name for these specific strong angles. We stood on the sturdy wall of logs, sticks, and mud that dropped sheer 6 or 7 feet, figuring out where to lower our boats and admiring the workmanship. Canoeists call a big beaver dam east of Lake Winnipeg the Great Wall of Manitoba. Our local beavers, we thought, deserved recognition for the Great Wall of North St. Louis County.
We were only a couple of miles north of the Echo Trail, as the raven flies. If the raven flapped eastward a mile or two, it could spy on the Boundary Waters, with well-marked trails, campsites with fire grates and pit toilets. Much more comfortable for humans. But poking down this messy little creek led to a quieter world, rich with the dark musky smell of beaver mounds. Here beavers still ran the show.
Across the pond, a hillside had been largely logged off by the beavers; the remaining birches were gold in the low sun. Near that shore stood two impressive beaver lodges, the biggest I'd ever seen, the mansions of old beaver dynasties. The peeled, sun-hardened logs shone silver.
"Pleistocene giant beavers?" someone suggested.
"Or great beaver of Ojibwe legends."
The lodges were inhabited; at this early evening hour the beavers were probably out cruising around, snacking. Maybe keeping an eye on us.
Beavers work mostly at night, but we couldn't stay to watch. We moved along. We had more canoe-dragging to do before dark.
This was decades ago. I've never gone back, although I like to imagine dragging a solo boat down the stream, camping in that open birch forest to watch the light dim, waiting for the Great Beaver.
The memory has hardly faded, because it was a day so well spent. For sheer play and living in the moment, canoeing is as good as it gets. But too often we canoeists spoil our fun, obsessed with guidebooks, online water-level reports, just the right gear. Specs and data. The illusion of predictability. There we go again, dropping out of the lazy summer sun, filling our heads with numbers and goals and competition.
To be very clear, this story is not a Hot Tip. (You've seen those articles: "10 Secret Routes" or "Undiscovered Paradises.") I admit that I'd rather you didn't go there; maybe I should have given the creek a false name. Hunting Shack isn't a paradise, anyway, just a little creek I paid attention to. A lot of creeks must have secrets.