Monday, January 12, 2015

Phalen Chain of Lakes Trip

By William Zajicek, RWMWD Citizen Advisory Commission Member

Romi Slowiak, Zajicek's wife and co-pilot for the adventure

I've thought about going up the Phalen Chain of Lakes for years, decades to be honest. Like many things that seem interesting but too close to home they are put off to a time when everything more immediate is done. I had paddled from Phalen to the weir in the channel between Round Lake and Keller but no further. I've biked up to Keller Lake and looked at its connecting channel to Gervais Lake. For a time I believed that Vadnais Lake was next but looking at the map it was apparent that Kohlman was next and Vadnais would be very difficult to get to. In fact Vadnais isn't part of the same watershed. I had no idea that Kohlman connected to Markham Pond and then Casey Lake in North Saint Paul.

I've never actually owned a canoe. My family had canoes so growing up I learned well the skills needed to use this mode of transportation. A friend stored his at my house for over a decade. I would take it out on Phalen on occasion. Then he had a greater use for it. Recently my new renter brought along 2 kayaks when she moved in; a single and a double kayak. So I suggested to my wife that before the snow flew we make a go of the lake chain this year. This would be the year that I finally did the Phalen Chain of Lakes.

Navigating the Lake Phalen picnic area "moat" that is north
of the picnic pavilion, northwest of Lake Phalen.

On a Thursday in late September with a beautiful sunny day ahead of us we prepared the double Kayak for the trip. It's worth pointing out that a kayak is very different from a canoe and a double kayak is very different from a single. There's good deal to be adjusted to fit 2 in a kayak; seat spacing being the biggest issue. It's a very tight fit and if the spacing isn't right your legs will be cramped or you will be slapping the front paddler with your paddle from the rear. There is also seat angle adjustment but we didn't figure that out until the trip was over. The angle of the seat will definitely affect lower back fatigue.

We planned to start at 8:00 A.M. to give us plenty of time to reach Kohlman, have lunch, and return before an early evening meeting that I had on my schedule. After getting a slow start, making lunch, adjusting the kayak a couple of times, etc. it was 10:30 A.M. before we set off from a fishing stair just south of Sand Point on the east side of Lake Phalen.

With my wife in the steering position, we headed across the lake to the picnic island moat north of the pavilion on the west side of the lake. We followed the moat to the newly rebuilt bridge across the channel to Round Lake. The channels are full of wildlife at that time of day. We chased-up numerous groups of 3 to 5 mallards and single wood ducks along the way.

Mallards in Round Lake just northwest of Phalen.

Our more persistent friends were the bitterns. They would inevitably fly just 100 feet up the channel hoping I guess that we wouldn't come up that way. One started seriously complaining after the third time we chased him up. Finally as we were entering Keller he became distracted by a small fish and let us go by. I suppose the upside for him was that he had found lunch.
The channel also posed the single real tough spot on the Chain of Lakes; the weir before Lake Keller. There is no good way to get around it. Portaging apparently wasn't in mind when the dam was installed. I was hoping there would be three to four inches of water going over the dam but there was only an inch or so. On one side of the channel there are 3' high blocks of limestone and on the other side there was a steep bank of field stone covered with weeds and brush. No easy way to get out of the kayak much less pull the kayak out around the dam and back in again. We ended up more or less dragging the kayak over the dam. Neither a safe maneuver nor good for the kayak. *
A green heron fishes the shoreline.

Pushing out into Keller my wife was tiring of steering and we attempted to pull in to park on the southern end but the shore was held together with chain link fence. Also not a good shore stop surface for a kayak. We went further north to the island to stop; changing positions and took a break. It was already 11:30 and I was beginning to wonder if we were actually going to make it to Kohlman.

Coming up on Keller Island and picnic area.
From the island, we paddled into Spoon Lake which is really a channel between Keller and Gervais. First, one goes under the Highway 61 bridge into the Spoon Lake channel - very noisy! The new hiking/bike marsh boardwalk along much of eastern side of Keller is on the right side of the channel as we moved into Spoon Lake. Spoon Lake has a public picnic area on the east side and a public landing on the west. Then we went under a much more subdued bridge of Arcade St. into Gervais Lake.

Gervais has a very different feel than Phalen and Keller. First, except for a public landing and beach on the far western side it is all private property. Second, it feels much larger than Phalen. It is larger but only by about 15% or around 30 acres. It is broader than Phalen which gives it a bigger feel. It's also quite a deep lake with a max depth of 45 feet and an average depth of 22'. Phalen for comparison has a hole as deep as 91 feet but the average depth is about the same as Gervais. I suspect this significant average depth makes it a great boating and fishing lake. We paddled around the eastern shore of Gervais taking note of the variety of houses along the shore. They vary from elegant lake homes to oddly modified former cottages to really cute cottages left in something resembling their original construction. The channel to Kolhman is not easy to find as you come around the east shore so look for the Keller Parkway bridge and aim for that. The channel will appear as you approach the bridge.

Left: The Little Canada water tower can be seen from Lake Gervais. 
Right: The channel between Gervais and Kohlman can be hard to find!

An egret balances on a small branch above Kohlman Lake.
Moving into Kohlman, one is back into the marsh lands and once through the channel it opens into a pretty good sized lake. It is almost more marsh than lake when you consider the max depth to be only 9'. On the far end are the KSTP trio of radio antennas. That end of the lake is all marsh. As there did not appear to be public access on Kohlman we paddled to the far end of the lake to the channel which would connect to Markham Pond. At this point it was 12:40 P.M., so we had made the distance in just over 2 hours including breaks. There we found a tree that we used as dock to bring the kayak up on. We got out onto something resembling solid ground, had lunch and watched the egrets on Kohlman. One of them landed in the top of tree near where we were eating. He balanced on a thin limb for nearly 15 minutes while looking around and then he was off.

On our return we ran into two other kayakers who commented on how well synchronized my wife and I were at paddling. I'm glad it looked that way to others but to us it was a real challenge. Paddling a kayak is a very different thing than paddling a canoe and paddling a double kayak is another level of difficulty. First you can't use the same strokes. In steering a canoe the main stroke you use is a "J" stroke. You cannot use a J stroke in a double kayak. You will hit your bow crew in the head. You can use a "C" stroke but with difficulty because you have to come close to matching the stroking of the front crew member. The method I found that worked the best was staying in step with the front crew member but pulling harder on one side vs the other to maintain direction. Basically you were trying to constantly make small corrections. If you started to make large changes you would quickly find yourself over steering.

Frankly, the whole thing was pretty exhausting. I was completely pooped by the time we got back to our fishing steps at Lake Phalen but we had done it and it had been a perfect day. We finished at about 3:30 P.M. We pulled up the kayak and took it up to front of the house, dropped it on the lawn, took a short nap, and I made it to my meeting that evening.

A full day for sure.

The route, in red.  Click to enlarge.
* We are currently researching entry/exit portage options and determining the economic feasibility of such a project element.

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