Upper Wedding-Cake Falls
Land of the Lost
West of Lake Nipigon, in the rocky shield country of Ontario, there flows a spectacular river called the Kopka. Along its length is one of the most magnificent falls within the tree line. Here, at what was once called "Mink Bridge Portage," the entire contents of the river spill tumultuously downward 250 feet in three successive drops, creating one of the most spectacular white water areas on the continent. You can stand at the top of a high hill near the first falls and watch the stair step show in its entirety. As one Voyageur commented: "It is the land of the lost."
Getting canoes and gear around the falls requires strength and good balance. At the start, there's a mile long portage which descends through swamp and the waist high boulders of a long abandoned stream. The huge water-polished rocks are so slippery that only agile long-legged folk can negotiate them without falling. I've done the Kopka five times and have adopted the following system which, so far, has not resulted in any bodily damage.
First, everything is carried to the start of the boulder field where one or two determined athletes take over. An assistant stands by at each end of the canoe ready to grab anything that comes crashing down. One slip, and a broken leg is certain. Even with help, the route is tortuous and precarious. In rain, it is impossible!
The portage ends at the base of a large rapid, in rushing water and more boulders. Loading gear into the canoe and casting off requires careful placement of feet and help from a friend.
A half-mile of paddling brings you to a series of three falls, around which are two portages, one of which requires lowering the canoe 20 feet straight down a slick canyon wall. Here, you struggle over more boulders then paddle across an intensely beautiful pool, at the end of which is the final drop. The portage begins in quiet water well away from the falls. It follows a ridge for a few hundred yards then ends abruptly at the edge of a broken out cliff 70 feet above the river. You can claw your way down to the river but a strong rope is needed to lower your gear. I can't imagine anyone coming up this portage, even with a rope and team of experienced friends.
View from the top of the cliff. Canoes must be lowered by rope to the water--about 70 feet!
Lowering canoes down this cliff (70 feet) requires a strong rope.
I told my crew that once we reached the first drop of "Wedding Cake Falls" our isolation would be assured.
Imagine my chagrin when at the top of the "canoe drop" portage (the 70 foot drop), I encountered a muscular man in his twenties with a Kevlar™ Mad River canoe on his shoulders. A trim, gray-haired lady carrying a light pack and two paddles, plodded unhappily behind.
Unearthed by the chance meeting, I jammed my canoe into the crotch of a tree and stepped out to talk. The tired looking young man grinned weakly and continued speechless down the trail as the elderly woman collapsed on a damp log and coldly pronounced, "My son is trying to kill me!"
She said she was 62 years old, though she didn't look a day over 50. She had canoed and backpacked the wilderness almost every summer as a child and had passed on her love of wild places to her son and daughter. Together, they had paddled many routes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico. For years, she and her son had talked about paddling a wild Canadian river. In the past, she had planned the trips, now it was his turn.
The man had heard about the wonders of the Kopka and the beauty of its stair step falls. Neither one had any white water experience so they decided it would be safest to travel upstream. "If we pack light, we'll make it," the man told his mom.
In great detail, the lady told how they had gotten the Kevlar™ canoe up the steep cliff. "Thank God someone left a rope there," she said. "Maybe I can relax now that the hard part is over."
At this, I told her about the next portage (a shorter vertical drop) she would encounter and asked if she had a rope. "No, just parachute cord," she answered weakly. Then, I described the final portage and bone-breaking boulder field.
Again, she groaned and delivered another round of "My son is trying to kill me!"
Minutes later, the dark nimbostratus clouds which covered the sky gave way to a chilling rain that could persist for days.
As I put on my sou'wester hat and waterproof parka, I again warned the woman about the boulders ahead and admonished her not to attempt them in the rain. "Maybe you can crash out a campsite around here and stay until the rain stops," I suggested, knowing full well that the dense vegetation prohibited it.
By now, the man had returned for the behemoth sized pack which sat along the trail. This, plus a pair of small nylon day packs comprised the entire kit.
"Got a tarp?" I asked, hopeful they could rig a quick trailside shelter to protect them from the chilling rain. "Nope. Never use one. Besides, there's no room," quipped the man. Then I asked if they had an axe and saw, which they'd need to maintain a fire if the rain continued. Again, a firm no.
"I think you'll need a rope to get your canoe and gear up the next portage," I said, with hopes of convincing them to abandon the trip and go out with us.
"Got this far without one. We'll make it," said the man.
With this, I shrugged a "whatever" and asked him to tell me about their route. The man described a long loop which began at Bukemiga Lake, ran westward to Uneven Lake, then north beyond the Canadian National Railroad tracks and east back to Armstrong. I had done most of the route with husky high school kids ten years earlier and it had taken us eight very strenuous days.
"How long you out for?" I questioned. "Ten days," came the reply. "You gotta be kidding!" I admonished. That's doable if you're going downstream and know the location of every portage. "But upstream? First time I did this route, it took us quite awhile to find the portages in this section," I said, pointing to the area north and south of Aldrich Lake.
At this, the man smiled courteously, zipped up his parka and plunged confidently ahead. Momentarily, he halted, looked back and called. "Better get going, mom, before the rain gets worse."
The gray-haired lady struggled reluctantly to her feet, put on her pack, and with proud cynicism, again proclaimed that her son was trying to kill her!
It was a day's paddle from the base of Wedding Cake Falls to the public landing at Bukemiga Lake and our awaiting van. As we posed for a final photograph, I told the woman who had shuttled our vehicle about the man and woman we had met on the Kopka. I asked that she share my concern with the charter float plane companies which serviced the area.
Below the final drop
Several months later I received a phone call from a crew member who had seen the woman at a canoe event in Minneapolis. She told him that disaster struck within hours after we parted. Her son had slipped in the boulder field of the first portage and sprained his ankle which became so swollen he could not walk without the aid of a makeshift crutch. Going back the way they had come was impossible. And so was staying put. Reluctantly, the pair decided to continue with their plans, hopeful they would run into a canoeist or fisherman who would help them out. But the remote route they had chosen skirted the casual canoe traffic and fly-in fishing trade. Their ten days passed and they saw no one.
Remarkably, the pair made it as far as Aldrich lake before they collapsed in exhaustion. The man's ankle had swollen to the point where he could not remove his boot. They ran out of food on the twelfth day then relied on fish which, fortunately, were easy to catch. In desperation, they lit a large smoky fire which they hoped would attract an airplane.
In late afternoon on the fourteenth day they heard the low thumping whir of a de Haviland Beaver. Quickly, they piled green branches on their campfire and said a prayer. Moments later, the plane touched down and rescued them. The pilot said that the woman's daughter had called the police when her mother was overdue. However, all she knew was that her mom and brother were canoeing upstream on the Kopka. This, plus the sketchy information I had supplied initiated a search of the Aldrich Lake area. Ironically, several aircraft had flown over the couple earlier in the week but none had seen them. Their blue and green clothing and light gold Kevlar™ canoe were invisible from the air. It was the smoky fire that brought down the airplane.
The following spring, I saw the woman (who prefers to remain anonymous) at a canoe symposium in Minneapolis. When I asked her if she would ever do another Canadian river with her son, she replied: "No way! He has too much testosterone! Next time I'm going with my daughter: she has estrogen, the 'gentle' hormone."
There is no official name for these falls. Because of their spectacular beauty and layered look, my wife Sue Harings named them "Wedding Cake" falls.
*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on "how to safely canoe difficult rivers."
*My teen book, "Justin Cody's Race to Survival" mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type. Adults love it too!
*My classic book, CAMPING'S TOP SECRETS, details scores of camping procedures and comfort tips that only the experts know.