BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 21 2021
Number of Permits per Day: 6
Elevation: 1150 feet
Little Vermilion Lake - 12
BeaV’s 2017 Kruger Challenge, Border Route Solo Speed Record
September 01, 2017
Little Vermilion Lake (Crane Lake)
North Fowl Lake (70)
Number of Days:
March 2017- bad news, WaterTribe cancels the Minnesota Challenges. I will miss WaterTribe involvement but decide I will continue on (this is the WaterTribe way after all). Besides, I figure, think of all the folks who wanted or may want to face this challenge and won’t have the opportunity. I have a new secondary goal- keep these challenges alive so that other paddlers have the awesome opportunity to push themselves to new unknown limits and accomplish their goal(s). I will get the word out and organize dates and shuttles. [paragraph break] Training and preparations begin when the waters of Minnesota clear of ice. Paddle training and canoe-carrying practice ensues. My neighbors probably start calling me the “walking canoe” as I carry canoes over my head often on my gravel township road. I research some new gear to help with a solo approach to keep portage weight to a minimum- most notably a lightweight fast solo canoe. With a month to go, I start ramping up my paddling and portaging training. During this time I paddle three times a week doing about 10 miles each time. I need to get the feel of this new canoe and find out how fast a pace I can sustain. I practice capsizing and attempt to find the best way to reenter the boat in deep water. I find out that with this new boat, I cannot reenter. This is important to know- I must carefully consider now, how much risk to take if conditions are windy when I’m crossing big lakes. I weigh all my gear and decide I need to cut weight so that I can carry all my stuff in only one trip on the portages. I change my planned food to a no-cook diet consisting mostly of powdered carbohydrates that will allow me to leave cook stove and fuel behind. The last equipment scratch is my tent- I hate not having a good shelter but I intend to be on the move most of the time anyhow (hope it doesn’t rain when I stop to rest). [paragraph break] With 2 weeks to go, I begin writing down my planned itinerary and realize how foolish my goal of four days (96 hours) sounds. Doubt creeps in for the first time as I am faced with the facts of how far and how fast I must travel for four consecutive days to achieve my goal. What I think I can do doesn’t fit within the timeline allowed. I write this down somewhere as:[paragraph break]
-my goal is set[paragraph break] -adjusting my itinerary to fit my goal[paragraph break] -realizing I'm not prepared to achieve my itinerary[paragraph break] -my goal is set[paragraph break][paragraph break]
It really is too late to change. It is too late to train harder. My only solace is I haven’t let many people know what my time goal is; this will minimize my embarrassment if I fail. I am not much of a talker anyhow and I will focus on my goal. It has always been this way- once I commit to doing something then I do what it takes to see it through. With an eraser I change the itinerary and like magic, I make it in 96 hours, on paper that is.[paragraph break] The math is simple- if conditions are good that’s 262 miles divided by four days is 66 miles per day average. That’s crazy! I am all too familiar with what a hard day on the water is as I’ve spent hundreds of days testing my limits. Here’s my scale- 10 miles is easy, 20 miles is tiring, 30 miles is hard, and 40 miles is a long , physically tough day. I have done a few days over 50 miles and that’s exhausting not only physically but also mentally. Sixty or 70-mile days- that’s a whole different level of grueling. Then put 4 of these grueling kind of paddle days back to back with little recovery rest in between, add a bunch of portages that become more numerous and difficult later in the route, and likely some wind and waves to battle; well, not sure what to call it. Some people question me “why try it?” I don’t really have a convincing answer to give.
The Challenge begins- Sometimes making it to the start of an event like this is half the challenge. Only six paddlers make it as many have dropped out due to training injury, family commitments, or self-preservation instincts kick in. Two other solo paddlers join me for the start from International Falls. Challenge volunteer, Lori Johnson, shuttle us and our gear to a public access and takes some photos. Satellite tracking devices (Spot and InReaches) are turned on and we launch September 2nd at 9:05 am with nice WNW 12 mph tailwinds, progress is good until reaching the east sides of the large Rainy Lake basins with a reach large enough for unsettling waves to form. A few of the larger of which causing me to get that tippy feeling. Tippy feeling as in the feel of the boat when I lose control of it’s stability. It’s a thin line between tippy and a full-on capsize and a rush of nervous adrenaline pumps through me.[paragraph break] Most of the first days paddling on these largest of the large lakes to come is somewhat boring (much preferred over “tippy”) as the view of a distant horizon that seems to never get closer is the norm. Even though the winds are mostly in my favor, my speed is slowed by the size of the waves. These sized waves (1.5 to 2.5’ high) travel faster than I so each one picks me up from the rear and then rolls under me to the front before dropping me behind in the trough. For some this constant lifting and dropping probably would cause seasickness but for me it’s only affect is to create turbulence that slows me down. Today’s highlight is racing against an occasional houseboat going my way. My mind wanders looking for something to think about. I ponder why I’m pushing so hard on this trip and I claim I’m doing it for Kruger/Waddell. Just when that thought entered my head, a bigger wave hits me from behind throwing me off balance enough for a little scare. I smile and say “sorry Verlen, I’ll keep the bullshit to a minimum, I got your message”. I never met Verlen when he was still on this side of life but I think we got to know each other on a different adventure of mine. [paragraph break] Blisters form and are taped up with moleskin and electrical tape. With the approach of nightfall, winds turn into my face as I paddle south into Sand Point Lake and a full moon promises a unique paddle to come. Four hours of moonlight paddling later finds me entering the BWCA, wore out, and looking for a place to rest. At 1:00 am, I go to shore, find a flat area on the ground, kick away the pine cones, lay out the sleeping bag, and crawl in fully clothed so I’ll be ready to get up and go in under 3 hours. This has to be one of my harder paddle days ever with 64 miles and one portage covered in 16 hours. Alarm sounds at 4:00 am but it is hard getting up- the bag is shelter and it feels good. I linger too long in the bag and an hour and a half later finds me panicking as I’m scrambling now to get going. Start Day 2 behind schedule with the knowledge that harder days are to come and time will be hard to make up.
Day 2 is just not going good- behind schedule to start and just not feeling the power in my paddle. I think I am falling further behind and decide not to look at the clock anymore as it’ll just make me feel worse. I regret stopping when I did last night- I had pondered continuing up the Loon River but failed to muster the physical strength and mental toughness needed. Nine hours later finds me approaching Bottle Portage and a solo canoer is sighted ahead. For the first time today, I feel motivated and move in to catch up with this person. Hey, it’s one of us. Paddlinjoe is his moniker and we paddle alongside each other for a mile before parting ways at the portage. He asks me about my progress and I tell the truth-I don’t know because I don’t know the time. He offers the time and I refuse saying “time doesn’t really matter anymore, I just gotta keep paddling”. Heading quickly down the Bottle Portage, mud is sucking at my feet forcing me to work a little. After that, I feel a surge of strength that I can only attribute to the mental pleasure of meeting Paddlinjoe and the physical displeasure of portage mud. A ray of hope emerges now that the power is back in my paddle. Time doesn’t matter, only making Basswood Lake before the next daylight does. This will get me back on schedule and allow me the best opportunity to get across this big lake early in the day before winds usually increase.[paragraph break] Most of today winds have been light NNW but as evening comes, wind speeds pick up with strong gusts. Thankfully I am able to find protection by hugging the north shore of Crooked Lake and still make progress. I feel good that the big lakes Lac La Croix and Crooked didn’t stop me. The second night falls cloudy and dreary with thunder and lightning in the distance. I navigate by compass and map so I have a red flashlight shining on my deck compass mounted in front of me. I keep a bright white-light headlamp on my hat for times I need to watch for rocks or find a portage opening on shore. Rain does not help with this form of navigation. Water droplets form on the compass glass and obscure my bearing. To turn on my headlamp now will only reveal falling rain drops to 10’ in all directions. The chill caused by falling nighttime temperatures and wet clothes combined with occasional flashes of lighting help to confuse me. I count the seconds between the lightning flashes and the resulting thunder to determine the storms distance. Mostly it seems to be far enough away, until a closer flash brightens the night and I think I should get closer to shore, wherever that is. Navigation is tough and there are moments of “where am I”. I almost run into high ground that shouldn’t be there. These moments of confusion and concerns of hypothermia force me to shore early tonight (before 10 pm) and short of my goal. But I promise myself to make up for it by getting an earlier start tonight. Again I put 16 hours in the boat today but with lesser miles of 58 produced. With rain continuing, I put a little more effort into my “camp” tonight and set up a tarp. I crawl into the sleeping bag in mostly wet clothes, set the alarm for 3:30 am, and fall into a tortured sleep of sorts. It doesn’t help sleep when an occasional mosquito buzzes around my head or a bug crawls over my face. I keep my food close to my face so if any animals try to get at it, I will awaken. Mice are brave enough to just crawl on me and a bear I should be able to smell its breath. I try to sleep. Next thing I realize is a slight lightening of the sky not caused by the moon. “Oh Shit” I yell, looking to the alarm clock and seeing it isn’t working. The twilight indicates it’s about 5:30 am and that means two more hours behind to start the 3rd day- not good. I tell myself “sleep is my enemy, oversleeping is killing my goal, I need to try to push harder”.
I begin paddling Day #3 from near Lower Basswood Falls, quickly eating my last Poptart and slamming down some liquid calories. I accept the fact that I am further behind due to a damn alarm clock. I ponder, as is normal, where is my goal for today- how far? What lake will it be? I reach for my written itinerary and decide not to look. It is time for a new game plan- the clock didn’t matter yesterday and now I add the planned itinerary doesn’t matter. New plan- just get through the next lake, cross it off the list, and head for the next. When I feel exhausted, I will try for one more lake. After that one, I will paddle one more. Basswood is first on the list. Winds again are NW-ish and building by the time I round US Point- damn alarm clock. I take a longer route on my way to the English Channel because of the winds. I make it across Basswood without incident, mentally cross it off, and head for the next big lake- Knife. The small lakes in between are minor obstacles and I cross them off quickly. These lakes and portages are crowded with recreational paddlers. I pass them by and they say things like “do you have a motor on that thing?”. I just smile and say “I’m in a hurry”. Winds continue at around 15 mph with higher gusts. Now on Knife Lake rain clouds are closing in from the west and north. Periods of rain will continue the rest of today with some wind bursts associated with each passing little storm. I strangely don’t mind paddling in the rain-but portaging is made more dangerous as rocks and roots become slippery booby traps just waiting to catch the unwary. I think of the other paddlers behind me and hope they’re OK as they cross Lac La Croix, Crooked, and Basswood and am glad those lakes are behind me. A few more lakes and I’m heading out on the last of the big lakes, Saganaga. I am tentative as I start out on this big lake, it deserves respect. [paragraph break] Conditions surprise me- the wind is blowing strong (NW 10mph, gusts to 30) but the lake still allows me progress. I make American Point and decide to take the direct route to the mid-lake islands and begin crossing a vast open water area. Two thirds of the way across, fear starts growing in correlation to the size of the waves hitting me hard broadside. I feel small somehow, as what may happen next is not up to me so much as what the next gust of wind may send my way. I do not like this helpless condition but it’s much better than a hopeless one, so I put more power and speed to my paddle blade and make it to protection of the islands. I feel safe and relaxed again and think back 2 years earlier when my team camped here. Then I think of where my team camped last year- on Maraboeuf Lake and I will be heading there next. Each year my camp moves further east through here. I need to continue that trend tonight but darkness will fall when I make Maraboeuf. To go past there means traversing the Granite River area in the dark- an area which always seems to confuse me somehow even in the daylight. Sounds good- a new challenge to overcome, bring it on. My mind’s acceptance of this challenge is a good sign for I need something to push me beyond my physical body’s cries of pain and need for rest. Fight or flight they say, tonight I will fight. As expected, darkness falls hard on Maraboeuf. It is black and light rain falls. There is no distinction between the water, tree line, and sky. I paddle into a wall of blackness. Beaver splash their tails at me in alarm to this red glowing thing moving quietly down their lake. Then I scare something big out of the water- by the sound it’s a moose 50 feet away but by the time I get my headlamp on, it’s up in the new growth of the Ham Lake Fire. Wolves howl from a distant ridge top, loons cry on the lake, more beaver splash their displeasure and raindrops collide with the lakes surface- it’s a different way to paddle. By necessity, my sense of hearing is more important now than sight creating a different feel to the travel, one that most people find disconcerting and some just plain fear.[paragraph break] Not too far into the Granite River, I can’t find a portage. Rather than waste time and energy looking, I just try to run my canoe up the next two rapids. Rejected, this boat just isn’t suited for such duty. I ad hoc a portage at the first rapids carrying my gear and boulder hopping along the river. Rain, slimy boulders, and a poorly timed gust of wind cause me to slip. I choose to protect the canoe and instead sacrifice me. I smash my shin hard on a rock as I fall; hurting something terrible but there’s no time to worry about looking at it now. The next rapid is no better, but I don’t fall. This is taking way too much time and energy, my leg is pounding. “That’s right”; I think to myself, “this is supposed to challenge me- cross those rapids off the list and just move forward”. [paragraph break] Hours later, I work my way out of the Granite River and into Magnetic Lake. Then onto Gunflint. I’m worn out but decide one more lake and paddle across Gunflint. It is a long one and the wind and waves quartering from behind don’t help- where is the other end? My abused muscles are spent and my tired mind isn’t far behind. I struggle to concentrate on balancing in this skinny boat as unseen waves overtake me. My eyes lids are heavy and want to close. Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I see a silver flash coming from behind in the wake of my paddle wash. Quickly, I jerk my head back to see who it is but when I look, it’s just a shimmering sheen of moonlight in the swirl. This happens many times and I can’t help but keep looking back each time to try to catch a glimpse of what I sense is there. I sense a presence to the flash but when I look closely I do not see. Sometimes the boundaries between here and the other place are blurred- some rest is surely needed. Finally the far shore comes and I don’t have anything left to give. No more lakes today. I have no idea of the time but it feels really late. I’m worn out, partially wet, temperatures are dropping into what must be the 40’s, and the wind is strong hitting this shore. I find a good landing and decide it’s best to make an emergency rest stop. I know I’m approaching my limits. I find an opening with flat ground, pull the canoe broadside to the wind, attach a tarp to the canoe so it breaks the force of the wind, and I crawl into this makeshift shelter. I add a fleece sweatshirt under my raingear and unzip my sleeping bag so I can use it like a blanket. I am too wet, too cold, and too tired to crawl in the bag. I just want to lie down so I do. I feel satisfied with today’s efforts- 3:45 am is when I went ashore, 76 miles and 23 portages traveled in 22.5 hours. A new hardest day ever achieved- grueling it was. I think I have made up for past oversleeping and lost time but at a cost of utter exhaustion. Some deep sleep would be good but is elusive as it’s near impossible to get under these conditions. After a way-to-brief 2-hour “rest”, I’m back on the water at 6:30 am. Not really sure when Day 3 ended and 4 started as they morphed together.
Day 4 begins with the knowledge that today is it. I have today and tonight to find my way to Lake Superior. Plenty far to go with three of the toughest portage to come- the 725-rod Long Portage, the 390-rod Fowl(aka “Foul”) Portage, and of course the 2,880-rod Grand Portage. These three portage names correctly describe what’s to come- “long, foul, and grand”. I am still in the same mode of travel- don’t worry about the clock but now I have no choice but to accept where today must end. It has to be on Lake Superior by tomorrow morning 9 am. Start crossing the lakes off and see what happens. A half a dozen lakes and portages later, I reach Long Portage. This will be a good test of my portage strength to give me an idea of how I will fare on the Grand Portage. “Dang my packs are heavy” I say as I load up. Days of sleeping wet, taking down camp wet, and just plain soaking rains have all my gear heavy. I want to do this 2-mile plus portage without stopping to rest. But what I want and what I have left to give are two different things and I struggle to make it across with only one rest. “Damn it” that’s not what I want.[paragraph break] More lakes come and go until I complete the last lake of any size- 7-mile long Mountain. Almost across and the sun is still fairly high in the sky. This excites me because maybe, just maybe I can reach the English Portage Rapids on the Pigeon River before dark. I don’t want to tackle a mile of rapids in the dark. I push harder now with the thought of that incentive. Reaching Fowl Portage, I now commit 100% to reaching Lake Superior nonstop. I throw away all but a handful of my remaining food saving just enough to snack on tonight to minimize weight. The one-mile long Fowl Portage sucks more of my precious energy from me. I launch into the Pigeon River and race hard to beat the darkness; I approach the first series of rapids and zip through getting stuck on only one rock. My boots are already soaked so I just wade in quickly not wanting the current to wrap my boat around the rock. Twilight is fading fast and it’s getting hard to see when I finally reach the last, biggest series of rapids. Halfway through these I have no choice but to turn on my headlamp to see what’s coming up. This is no way to run a rapids but it’s better than pitch black and I only get stuck in shallows two more times. I am super excited to have traversed these rapids and I know I will accomplish my goal now- heck I have all night to finish. [paragraph break] To Fort Charlotte, the Grand Portage trailhead, I go. Reaching the shore, I take my boots off and wring what water I can from my socks before retying my boots. I know the abuse my feet are about to endure because of wet boots. As quickly as my exhausted mind and body can perform, I pump one more pint of filtered water into my drinking bottle and repack my canoe pack incorporating my daypack and it’s contents all into one. With no food remaining and only one pint of water, my pre-trip calculations told me the pack should weigh 32 pounds now. I lift the pack slightly off the ground and I swear it must weigh 60-65 pounds. I think to myself “this can’t be” and finally accept it is for what it is and shoulder it. I figured I could walk the 9-mile Grand Portage in 3 hours if my load was light and my body rested. Neither are the case now but the need to finish this thing is strong. No time for rest and I hope to be able to go a mile at a time between breaks. On the first carry I couldn’t even go a mile. Tired, just too tired. Move again, stop again, move again, stop again. Where is the beaver pond? I know it’s only 2 miles down the trail. Finally I get there and I’m exhausted.[paragraph break] The trail is wet and clay mud holes slow me down, suck at my boots, and make me slip and trip like a drunk. At every rest my eyes want to shut. Immediately after dropping the weight I want to fall asleep but fight it back. “Gotta keep going” I tell myself. I slap myself in the face to try to stay awake. I yell at myself to “toughen up”, “keep going”, and “concentrate”. But the further I go the worse I get. It is like I’m falling asleep walking. The 12” wide slippery boardwalks are now obstacles and require extreme concentration not to fall off. “This is not like me I have great balance” I say. My mind slips further and further into another place- what place it is, I don’t know. I cannot balance, I cannot think, I cannot walk straight. I just want to close my eyes, just for an instant. “It’s a trick” I say, “don’t fall for their tricks BeaV”. Walking this in the dark, canoe blocking the world above me and headlamp casting light into the dark only a few feet in front of my path, it feels like I’m walking in a tunnel. Where is this tunnel taking me? My mind is drifting away and over and over I am confused as to where I’m at. But each time it eventually comes to me, “I’m walking on a trail, the portage trail, and I’m going to Lake Superior”. But to focus is so hard and my rest breaks increase in frequency. My body wants to shut down, even after a 10-minute rest, muscles and joints become stiff. Every restart is painful to get things working again with only a short time of progress before shoulder pains and muscle fatigue wants me to rest again. But to rest will only bring stiffness- there is no happy medium. This cycle continues for what seems like all night and I fear daylight will come soon.[paragraph break] I start planning for the end of the portage. What will I do? My plan is to just get to the finish, walk up to the closed Fort, drop all this pain-producing weight, and collapse on the ground. The opportunity to close my eyes is all I want. Suddenly, the night silence comes to an end as a car or truck motors down Highway 61 right in front of me. Awesome! This means I’m nearing the Fort. With renewed enthusiasm, I make a push toward the end and try for no more rests which doesn’t work. Nearing the Fort, I see a car parked nearby with running lights on. I’m thinking this can only be tribal security at this time of night. At the Fort’s gate, I institute my plan- gear is dropped and I hit the “I’m OK” message on my Spot device indicating my official finish time. I kneel on the ground alongside my canoe pack and lean on it so I don’t fall over. I see the security guard coming my way and try to think of an argument to convince him to just leave me alone, let me sleep here in the grass for a little while. I’ll promise to get out of site before tourists arrive in the daylight. The security guard emerges into range of my headlamp and turns out to be our Challenge volunteer, Lori Johnson. A welcome site- a friendly face that can confirm I finished. Lori tells me to hit my Spot message and I tell her I just did. I ask her for the time and she says I arrived at 4:00 am. She doesn’t like my sleeping plan and convinces me to let her drive me to the casino hotel and book a room. A few finish photos are taken. On the short drive to the hotel, we do the math- September 2nd 9:05 am to September 6th 4:00 am equals 91 hours. 91 hours is the new second-fastest recorded time from International Falls to Grand Portage Fort. I will claim that record now and be proud of it. Can I close my eyes now? Yup, go ahead.[paragraph break]