The next morning, we leave the relative comforts behind and learn what Primitive Management Area actually means: war zone. Branches snap and curses fly as we bull overturned canoes through a tangle of brush and tree limbs. "Have we reached hell?" Kooi grins as he mops up a bloody forearm, courtesy of a black spruce that didn’t yield the right-of-way. Earlier, we’d crossed Pitfall’s threshold at Link Lake, then paddled a sinuous and overgrown arm to a short overland crossing to Gift Lake. Now, we’re negotiating a beaver dam, teeter-tottering on the flotsam of sunken logs with packs held over our heads. The logs sink six inches into the swamp under our weight.
Paddling on, we cross into the western expanse of the 30,000-acre Cavity Lake Fire, which burned halfway into Pitfall Lake PMA in 2006. The sun shines brightly here, since there’s no forest canopy. We see rock ridges that were exposed when the duff burned away and boulders that were cracked open by the fire’s intense heat. It’s eerily silent; not even a songbird calls. Only our dipping paddles make any sound.
From Gift we paddle and portage onto Fish Lake, then consult the topo to find a route to our day’s goal–Nawakwa Lake, just four miles from Ester. The shortest way tracks through a clump of bushy green cedar trees. We land the canoes at the cedars and start humping our gear overland, only to meet up with a tangle of fallen trees. A flat, 30-yard portage takes more than an hour as we manhandle our canoes over and under the Pick Up Sticks puzzle of timber. "This had better be worth it," says Kooi, looking at his scratched-up arms and legs.