BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
September 26 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 6
Elevation: 1150 feet
Little Vermilion Lake - 12
2017 Kruger Challenge - as told by Muddyfeet
September 02, 2017
Little Vermilion Lake (Crane Lake)
North Fowl Lake (70)
Number of Days:
I apologize, but this report is not written for you. I wanted to get my thoughts and experiences recorded before the details faded. Every night of this trip, I dictated a one-minute summary of the day’s events as an iphone memo. This is the expansion of that summary combined with my real-time and retrospective thoughts. It was a lot of fun to write; to be forced to replay the details in my head as the lakes outside begin to freeze over. So it is a personal project that ended up being quite lengthy- not at all my preferred trip-reporting style, a length of which I have not written since grad school. I have no photos of my own- only annotated maps and a few photos from others. While the intended audience is me, the few people I have shared it with have convinced me it should be made public in the places where I find inspiration for such things. It is true that I enjoy reading the reports of others, which often provides fodder for dreaming of my own adventures. With that, here is an account -from my sole perspective- of the 2017 Kruger Challenge.
The past two years an endurance paddle sports organization called Watertribe had put together a 1-week challenge to do the route: They are best known for a few big 300 mile events in Florida. The idea is that the time limit of 1 week makes it less of a paddle-tour and more of a challenging endurance event. The guy who puts it together runs it as a small business and single-handedly collects all the fees and makes all the decisions about the course, rules, entry criteria, required equipment, and so on. (mostly necessary steps to protect safety and liability of the great number of people involved, i imagine). Lurking on their website, the events looked like fun, but with very strict rules that seemed to change at the whim of the one guy. I trolled along- following the first two Voyageurs’ Challenges in 2015 and ‘16 that went 200mi from Crane Lake on the Western edge of the BWCA to Lake Superior. Participation was paltry compared to the Florida events, and the frequent portaging common to northern canoe travel seemed to be something that most of the saltwater competitors weren’t used to. Over the two years, 4 teams and 3 soloists had attempted the challenge. Only 3 teams and no soloists had ever finished. So yeah, I guess it is pretty tough.
This past winter, they had again announced a 2017 challenge. I was interested, and considered joining the group to give it a shot. Alas, I balked at the required equipment lists and rules and entry fees of the Watertribe. My stubbornness (and maybe a little bit of a subversive attitude) got in the way and I reasoned that I could just go do the route on my own terms whenever I wanted. The strictly organized event just wasn’t my cup of tea.
Now, my main athletic passion is XC skiing in the winter; and in late February my favorite ski marathon was canceled due to lack of snow. I had trained very hard the past year and would have by far bested a personal record for the race. So while I was in excellent shape, I may have been a bit depressed going into the spring months without an athletic goal.
Around that time, I saw a post on a canoe-enthusiast internet message board from a guy by the screen name BeaV. [Now BeaV is somewhat of a legend around the North-American canoe-world: The biggest trip on his resume is an 8 month, 5000 mile paddle up the inside passage to, through, and around Alaska. This was all solo, without sponsors- just because he wanted to do it. Also, BeaV is a Watertribe member and was on one of the finishing teams in each of the first two years of the BWCA Voyageurs challenge. ] Anyway, the post was an open invitation to join the fall 2017 Voyageurs Challenge. The leader of Watertribe had decided to cancel the event this year and instead BeaV was going to try and scrap it together himself to see if anybody else wanted to share rides and do it anyway. In addition, he would add 62 miles to the 200 mile route and make the start on the west side of Voyageurs National Park in International Falls. No formal rules, no formal route, no entry fee, no liability waivers. Just paddle from Int’l Falls to Lake Superior, without outside assistance. If you finish in less than 8 days, BeaV would buy you a beer. If not, the shuttle would leave and your adventure would continue by having to find your own way home. Suddenly, this challenge had a wild and underground appeal that was calling my name. I had to do it: I was in.
I think the part I secretly enjoyed the most was the uncertainty as to whether or not I would actually be able to finish in 8 days. I honestly didn’t know if I could- and would thus have to battle insidious thoughts of self-doubt from February all the way to Lake Superior. The stats were against me: No soloist had ever finished the 200mile; and this was even further. The most I had ever paddled in a day was about 16 miles. The longest I had ever been out solo was 4 days. I have never been on 97% of this route, and did not have experience paddling big open water crossings. I know nutrition planning for a 5-hour endurance race, but not 8 consecutive days of race-recovery. Many facets of this challenge were unknown territory for me, and the doubt was all around. While it certainly comes with some fear and anxiety, my secret superpower that this kind of thing can sometimes drive my motivation better than anything else. It seems a little cliché, but a true personal challenge really does bring out the best in me.
I have to credit my wife: the next hurdle was asking her if I could take this on, and I was nervous it might be a hard sell. Not only would she get to worry about me, but she would also be relegated to her own challenge of singlehandedly managing our preschoolers the week while I was gone. I remember telling her of the organizational change and how my interest in the event had suddenly become serious. I have forgotten her exact words, but it was something like, “Well you’d better start training”. Sometimes I wonder how exactly my crazy plans are perceived by others, but she knows me well, and understands my needs more than anyone else. Even if she had her own doubts, her outward support was 100%.
Even before the local lakes melted their ice, I was out paddling- driving early morning to the cold (but ice-free) water of Lake Superior to paddle calm sunrises and fish for salmon. I kept my conditioning from the stunted ski season through the spring and summer with daily workouts, including 2-3 paddles each week. I live .6mi (200 rods) from the Mississippi, and the neighbors all got used to seeing “canoe guy” portaging the boat to and from the river.
I kept besting my personal record for most miles paddled in a day, all the way up to some long days of 45+ miles. I also included multi-day back-to-back-to-back distance workouts to practice managing fatigue and recovery, while working out the riddles of nutrition, portage logistics, and preferred gear.
I talked and laughed about my goal of meeting this challenge all summer long, but it wasn’t until the middle of August when it suddenly became serious, and I began to really think about the enormity of what was looming ahead. The doubt was there. I made backup plans in case I couldn’t finish and had to bail. Two weeks before the Challenge I entered a 50mile race downriver on the Mississippi. I got up early the morning of the race and started in the dark at my house, paddling 12 extra miles before even getting to the starting line. It was meant to be a final test of my nutrition plan, which went well. The race itself, however, didn’t build my confidence like I thought it would. While I finished the 62 miles with a respectable time, I was the only solo canoe entry in the race- so while I won the division, I also finished the race dead last and felt like a slug. Going downriver and trying to keep up with tandem racing teams had me paddling a much faster pace than I was comfortable with, and I was tired. I thought about having to camp and then repeat this every day for a week and it didn’t sound good at all.
Daybreak on the Mississippi: Early Saturday morning: https://youtu.be/f_EpQRvPfJk
The week prior to the challenge, I planned packing of gear, and got all my food together: for 8 days it was a lot more than I thought. 3 days to go and I made the call that I couldn’t practically fit everything in the lightweight backpack I had planned to take. I somewhat begrudgingly went in the basement and dug out my larger, much older, heavier pack. Not ideal, but it would have to do.
The plan was to meet Friday for dinner at the Chocolate Moose in Ely. I walked in to find a small motley group of internet screen names meeting in person for the first time. In addition to BeaV and myself, there was a grey-haired gent called ‘Mzee’ who was attempting the 262-mile challenge. Mzee is from Connecticut, and is also a Watertriber who had previously finished the Voyageurs 200 mile as part of a tandem team. This time it was all soloists.
A few people present had joined the event with partial-distance challenges and their own personal goals. And then there was ‘GrandmaL’. She is an actual grandma who loves canoe camping and has a lifetime of exploring the outdoors. She is an unbridled extrovert and about as friendly as it gets. Early on, GrandmaL had volunteered to help organize and provide much welcomed logistical support for the challenge.
Over a burger and a beer I learned that the plan had changed a bit- and for the better. Originally, we had planned a shuttle to leave from Ely as soon as wilderness entry permits were secured- drop off paddlers at Crane Lake, and continue on dirt back roads to International Falls, where we would launch around 1pm. However, GrandmaL had family in Ely who were going to drive separately to Crane Lake, so that BeaV, Mzee, and I could take highways and launch earlier around 9am. Day1 just got four hours longer, and I was almost certain to make my first-day’s distance goal- and maybe further.
After dinner, we loaded canoes on a trailer and planned to meet the next day at 5:30am. BeaV had brought a Wenonah Advantage he bought just for this trip, and Mzee had a brand-new carbon boat with a beige gelcoated bottom and not a scratch on it. I felt like somewhat of an underdog with my Northstar Magic I had bought used as a rental-fleet return a year earlier. While not as sleek as the other boats, it is certainly not slow, but is a trusted design in a lightweight kevlar layup that I had paddled hundreds of miles in training. I had recently refinished the bottom below the waterline with a new coat of epoxy; so despite the character of a well-used canoe, at least the portion meeting the water was buffed to a drag-reducing gloss.
Everyone retired to local hotels, but I had planned to dirtbag it in the back of the car at a trailhead parking lot just outside of town. I had slept here a few times before. The spot is quiet, dark, and holds good memories from previous trips. I was more excited than nervous, and enjoyed a few minutes to review my morning plan and check weather. Rain was coming in.
I got a good 7 1/2 hours of sleep, interrupted by thunder and heavy rain against the roof when the front blew through overnight. It was foggy and damp when I woke, changed clothes, and ate a couple doughnuts as I went back into town. Adam from Piragis opened the outfitting shop as early as he could to issue our BWCA permits and by 6:15 we were in the car and headed towards International Falls.
We pushed off into Rainy Lake from the public boat ramp south of Enos Island just after 9am. The weather front had passed and the fog burned off into a nice sunny morning. Winds were NW at 5-10, and once out onto Rainy Lake I got my first taste of rolling waves coming in a mostly favorable direction. Not too big, but the interference in the lee of small islands did amplify a few in places; and occasionally I could feel the cresting wave behind me pick up the boat and then quickly decelerate my forward progress as the canoe fell backwards down the trailing face. I changed gears to try and match the speed of the waves and to my surprise the canoe began to surf a bit. If you went straight downwind you would plow the bow into the wave in front of you. If you were at too far of an angle off wind, the following wave would not surf the boat but instead spin the rudderless canoe around to broach sideways. It was a delicate balance to get maximum push from the waves while at the same time maintaining course.
There are some beautiful lodges and homes on Rainy Lake: with room to park all your friends’ floatplanes and boats out front! After 5 miles I waved farewell to BeaV and headed south to Black Bay towards the Gold Portage with Mzee close behind. With the NW wind, I was worried about the bigger parts of Rainy Lake, and thought the alternate route south through Kabetogama Lake as a much safer option. A tailwind pushed me across Black Bay and towards the lower Ash River.
As I approached the outlet of the river, I was dismayed to find it completely choked with cattails and bulrushes sticking 8 feet above the water. I paddled back and forth looking for the river channel but could not find it. Mzee caught me here and he didn’t know where it was either. I got out of the boat and climbed a small hill on shore, but looking down the bay I just saw endless cattail grasses stretching up and around the bend. I double-checked maps, and knew without a doubt this was where the river came from. I considered whether it would be wise to bushwhack portage along the shore instead of trying to wade through the grass. Eventually, Mzee and I both chose to plow head-on into the grasses about 15 yards apart from each other and try to get through. Strategy with this was to sit in the boat grasping handfuls of cattails on either side of you and pull hard, forcing the bow to cut a path- 12 inches at a time- through grasses far taller than you could stand-up to see over. I was mentally preparing to do this up the entire river channel. It got thick enough where I had to get out of the boat and push from the back while standing on the bent-over cattails and trying not to sink into the 3-4’ deep water. Suddenly the bow parted grass with open space on the other side. The channel! I got back in the boat and began paddling once again up the very clear river channel. I went in the direction of Mzee and could hear him thrashing grass about somewhere in there. I yelled that I had found it, and that he wasn’t far away and should keep heading forward. After he acknowledged this I knew he was all right and continued on. I wouldn’t see him for another week.
The river wound for maybe a mile before the start of the Gold portage at a muddy bank. There was a small rapid of water cascading down from Kabetogama lake that the portage went around, but what killed me was that there at the base of the rapid was a flipping big motor fishing boat. I realized that obviously the channel did cut clear through the weeds to the lake; Mzee and I just couldn’t find it and took the hard way instead! Feeling sheepish at the mistake, there was nothing to do but laugh at myself and move on to the first portage of the trip.
The portage wasn’t too bad. As it was the first day, my pack was heavy and my routine was slow. I exited on the upstream side of the rapids and was soon again paddling. When I left the head of the river, I paused to refill water before continuing out into Kabetogama Lake. While smaller than Rainy, this lake is still massive by canoe standards. It doesn’t seem that bad, though, as there are hundreds of small islands all over. I had a tail wind, and cruised southeast in the sunshine. It was Saturday, and there were many fishing boats darting in and out of the islands. A couple hours later and as I was nearing the Namakan River a few small rising thermal clouds developed. I could see some rain shadow behind and to the north of me, but I was still in the sunshine when I heard a low rumble. Probably an airplane. Then I heard it again a few minutes later and I realized it was from a small thunderhead that was chasing me across the lake. I talked myself into thinking it would stop but when I heard rumbling thunder the third time I knew it was time to get off the water. The other boats knew it too and had cleared off as I hightailed it towards shore. I sat at a campsite as I heard two more good rumbles from the cloud that looked like it might be breaking up. I took the time to re-fold my map, eat, and fill water bottles. After 15 minutes of no thunder a group of fishing boats waiting across the bay decided to get back out there. I waited 5 more minutes and then left as well. Nothing further from the cloud as it melted back into a mixed sky.
I passed by Namakan visitor center and saw maybe 50 fishing and houseboats as I traveled through the narrows- usually bobbing over their wake as they sped by. Major channels of Rainy, Namakan, and Kabetogama lakes are marked with red and green navigation markers and buoys, which are also on the map- so navigation through the hundreds of small islands was surprisingly simple. I left the majority of motor traffic and paddled into the main basin of Namakan- with Canada again on the left shore. It was late afternoon now, and the NW wind had not abated. The rolling waves had a fair reach across the lake and grew to where I once again danced across their leading faces in my small canoe- sometimes with graceful forward motion, and sometimes being unexpectedly spun near 90degrees as both of us tried to lead the dance.
I had a 1.5m pop-up sail in the bow that I could clip to a thwart and fly in case of a lucky downwind run. It was a gamble on my part to bring all 23oz of it with (dry weight- it was heavier when wet). While it couldn’t sail up, or cross-wind, it was easy to capture a tailwind and get a leisurely ride, but not a very fast ride: and it was often the case that simply putting down the sail and paddling a normal speed would be much faster. For about 3 miles in Namakan I had it up- holding the control rope behind my neck as I awkwardly paddled at the same time to try and keep both course and speed. For the weight penalty of bringing the damn thing, I’m not sure if it was very beneficial.
As the evening waned, I tucked south into a bay headed toward the second and final shortcut portage of the day: Grassy Portage- a winter snowmobile trail that would save a few miles paddling around the corner of Namakan. It was marked and easy to find even as the evening sun began to meet the horizon. It is probably a great snowmobile trail, but it was not a great portage. The trail was wide, and while grassy, it was more bog-like than solid- with uneven hummocks providing dodgy footing. At times there were logs laying down that I tried to step on to avoid sinking to my mid-calf. I was still heavily loaded with all my food and at one point I sunk my right foot deep enough that I had to set down the canoe, drop my pack, and pull with both hands just to get my boot back.
At the end of the portage, it was starting to get dark as I paddled grassy bay of Sand Point Lake. I was within single-digit miles of entering the BWCA, but my permit wasn’t valid until the next day. I had traveled much further than I had planned- because of both the tail wind and the early start. Time to find camp. Still in Voyageurs Park, I spotted an old campsite on one of the islands. It did not have an official sign like the other boat-in camps in Voyageurs, but looked good enough for me. Out front there was a crumbling stone-and-concrete dock from a different era: I saw a few similar relic campsites in grassy bay and wondered as to their history. It took me about an hour to change clothes, make camp and eat dinner by headlamp, and the mosquitos swarmed me as I did. I wondered if they would be a problem the whole week, but the few dozen bites I received on that first warm evening would turn out to be the last. The full moon rose above the trees, and I thought that it would be beautiful to be paddling the calm moonlit water rather than making camp while choking on mosquitos. Dinner was a dehydrated cheesy beans, rice, and fritos recipe from Andrew Skurka that is one of my favorite dehydrated meals. I washed it down with a protein shake before climbing in the hammock to fall asleep instantly after 42miles of travel.
Up early to break camp and get on the water in the dark before 6. I was excited to get going and couldn’t get my oatmeal and coffee down fast enough. I watched the sun rise over the glassy water in front of me as I paddled Sand Pont Lake amongst a few early morning fishing boats. Just before entering the narrows, it disappeared behind a high veil of clouds and would stay hidden most of the day. There was a little wind on the open reaches of sand point, though it was not noticed at all after I passed the narrows into the BWCA. I sent a message for the checkpoint and cruised on.
The Loon River was narrow- not more than a canoe length in places- and was well protected from any sort of wind. I was going against the current, but it was so slight as to not be detectable. It was serene paddling- aside from the motorboats. This was the motor route to Lac LaCroix, and not only did fishing boats zoom past every 20 min or so, but 200hp Outfitter boats with 2-5 canoes on top shuttled less-adventurous paddlers to-and from- LaCroix and beyond. It dawned on me that most of these people who didn’t like to paddle far were being dropped off on the east end of LaCroix at Bottle portage, where they would walk a single portage to camp on Iron Lake. [Last year I had visited Iron Lake in the fall and remarked that it was very crowded with heavily-laden canoeists who must have had a heck of a time bringing in all that stuff. It only made sense now- they were motored in.] 10 hours from now this knowledge would influence my decision to not search for a campsite on Iron Lake.
There is one portion of the loon river where the banks widen, and the depth shallows out to allow reeds and grasses to grow. The channel (and the international border, if you look closely at the map) zigzags back and forth from side to side. Of course I had that marked on my map and I dutifully followed the natural sinusoidal path through the weeds. Only after making the first curve did I realize that the motorboats had cut their own channel straight through the center of the weeds in a direct line. Huh, I didn’t see that on satellite images: I guess it would save time to follow that. All fine until a heavy outfitter boat catches up behind you and there is nowhere to ‘pull over’. I parked the canoe off the channel in the weeds to allow the boat to pass, and it did so very slowly as it was quite shallow. The heavy vee hull made a tremendous wake, and not wanting to miss an opportunity, I pulled in behind the slow moving boat boat to take advantage of some of the waves. The outfitter clients were sitting in the back of the boat taking photos of me as I kept the canoe riding the the wake for 50 yds or so, until the boat sped up and pulled away.
There are only two portages to cross all the way from Sand Point Lake to Lac LaCroix- and the motorboats have to cross them too. They are mechanized portages which each contain a very unique marine railroad- the only ones in the BWCA, and only to allow the motorboats (for a fee) to get to LaCroix. Sets of rails climb out of the water and up a hill over into the next lake. A winch house is located at the top of the hill. It pulls by cable a single car on the rails that has a ‘sling’ for boats to sit in as they are moved. The boat parks over the car, to be lifted out of the water much like the act of landing a boat on trailer. It is winched up the hill, and down the other side to be deposited into the next lake. Of course there is a traditional portage trail, too, where I carried my pack and canoe.
Out of the narrow river, I knew I had a lot of paddling ahead. I paddled the bays of Loon Lake and ascended up into the northwest side of LaCroix- with only a gentle northeast headwind. I primarily paddle a fast sit-and-switch stance, but it was here that I figured out a kneeling posture to give an occasional break to my hindquarters; sore from hours of sitting. My boots would not fit under the seat: I would take them off and kneel on the neoprene uppers, placing my seat pad on the hull beneath the seat to rest my feet on. Even my feet had to be fully extended to fit under the seat, and I could only go a mile or so before they would start to get all numb and tingly. That was all the rest my backside needed though, and I could do this every hour or so before clumsily trying to pull my numb feet back into a seated position while not capsizing the boat.
I had never been on Lac Lacroix before, and I was amazed at its beauty. The northern US/Canada border is dotted with hundreds of tiny islands: bits of boreal forest and twisted pine crowning floating rings of migmatite rock. I had an ideal route mapped through the maze of islands, and navigation was not easy, but the landscape was amazing. There were a few quiet cabins and boathouses on the Canadian side, but I didn’t see another person or boat as I paddled the labyrinth on the northern reaches of the massive lake. I made a mental note that I’d like to come back here another time to explore a bit more.
One more open crossing before turning south to the Coleman Island cutoff: about 3 miles of exposure to a gradually building northeast wind. I pushed, and was tired when I made the narrows 45 minutes later. The weather was changing. If there is one thing I know about predicting weather in this part of the country, it is that nothing good ever comes from an east wind. The mostly-overcast/partly sunny day was over, and my parting view to the northern basin of LaCroix showed darker clouds building. It was only 3pm and I kept moving on. I may have heard muted thunder far to the west, but not sure. By the time I passed through Fish Stake Narrows, the wind was up, and it wasn’t behind me. The gusts were more frequent, and at times it was a struggle to keep the boat on course. I could see weather coming in from the west, and with Bottle Portage coming up, I was guessing I would be somewhere on Iron Lake by nightfall. I was physically low on gas, and mentally grappling over whether of not I should stop to camp- even though it was only 5:30 and I still had daylight left. I made the decision to check the last campsite on Lac Lacroix. It was on an island facing east and while it was within visual sight of Bottle Portage, it was somewhat protected from the wind: now gusting from the north. If it was occupied, I might have been tempted to push on and try my luck on Iron, but there was nobody in sight, and I somewhat reluctantly made an early camp here. I wasn’t feeling great: and was beating myself up for stopping early.
It turned out to be a good decision. The increasing wind continued to gust as I pitched my hammock and tarp- taking care to think about how it soon may be needing to shed significant weather. Protein shake, dinner, pump water, and while it was still light out I climbed into the hammock: setting my clock for an early start to make up for it. Despite the wind, I must have fallen asleep instantly. I also slept well, with only vague recollection of the storm that raged soon after I closed my eyes. When it hit I was dry and warm and sleeping, rather than paddling and searching for shelter. I would later find out that I was on the northern edge of a severe warning area.
45 miles today, and almost 90 in the past 35 hrs.
I felt refreshed and well rested as I broke camp early. My care in pitching the tarp had paid off, as my hammock and gear stashed underneath stayed dry throughout the storm. The morning was calm, but cooler. I made no haste getting back on the water and was soon walking the muddy Bottle Portage by headlamp. Bottle Lake, river, and into Iron Lake as the sun began to rise. Like the day before, it was a beautifully golden thirty minutes before the sun disappeared behind a soup of clouds. It felt good to be on Iron Lake: I had been here before and knew my way around. I was quickly making the portage to Curtain falls, and then back to the unknown territory of western Crooked Lake.
For the first few miles on Crooked, I was heading southeast and had more-or-less a tailwind. I again tried to fly the sail and paddle at the same time, but mostly just paddled without it. I was feeling good and making good time when I got to Friday Bay. I was excited, as I again had experience traveling this section of the border all the way to Lower basswood falls. It was nice to stop looking at the map for a while and just know where to go. The only difference was that I had only ever paddled this part heading in a westerly direction: I was struck at how different the scenery looked heading east. The wind was from the southwest, though it didn’t torment me much on the skinny windings of Crooked Lake. It stayed cloudy. I made good time and put comfortable miles behind me.
I also left familiarity behind as I passed Lower Basswood falls and headed east up the Basswood River. Things quickly started to go awry. I didn’t find the Wheelbarrow Falls portage right away and spent some time looking for it. As soon as I finished the portage and was about to put the canoe down above the falls, the skies opened in a sudden downpour. I waited a few minutes for the rain to slow, and then set the boat in the water and quickly donned my rain gear. It was on-and-off heavy rain as I continued up the river. I was rounding one particular bend as the rain was coming down so hard it was difficult to see the surface of the water. Suddenly the canoe slammed to a dead stop as I hit a rock head-on. It was a hard hit- I thought I had cracked the nose of the canoe. There was a basketball-sized chunk of rock sticking up out of the water that I didn’t see at all. I thought to myself, “This really sucks and I’m starting to come apart”. In an attempt at a self-motivation speech, I then mustered, “But I’m tough and rugged, and if I can keep going in this, I can probably paddle in anything. It likely can’t be much worse.”
Then it started hailing. Yep. As if I had cued it myself, nickel-size hail. I covered my head with the blade of my paddle, and my thighs took most of the hits. Thankfully it wasn’t more than a minute before it stopped. The rain continued on-and off- for the next few hours. (Let me take a minute to profess my love for gore-tex membranes and quality, breathable, rain gear.) Next, there was a rapid section of the river that I did not know about. I first tried paddling up it, but failed and was swept back downstream as I spun the boat around and tried to avoid both rocks and capsize. I searched the Canadian and American shores for a possible portage, and eventually found the path around. Remembering the rock I hit, I checked the front of the canoe to find a relatively small chip in the bow where only a few weeks ago I had laid thick epoxy and sanded a smooth edge at the sharpest part of the bow transition. Still watertight!
A little more upstream paddling, and it was on to the big portage of the day: the Horse portage around Upper Basswood falls. It is more than a mile long, but the centuries-old trail is flat, wide, and mostly well-drained rock and gravel. I encountered a few other soggy parties leapfrogging gear along, but I didn’t stop along the way. It was a tough push, but the physical effort provided a needed relief from my thoughts. I was at a mental low point, and ready to be done with the Basswood river and its trifles. Perhaps I also had some unease about the upcoming crossing of the large Basswood Lake.
The wind was directly from the west as I paddled out into Basswood Lake. Favorable, but the central part of the lake is shaped like a giant “Z” with segments of about 6 miles each; so no matter the wind direction you will at some point be fighting it to get where you need to go. This happened as I rounded the top of US Point and headed southwest. If I was headed all the way to the bottom of the Z and the English Channel I would have hugged the lee shore, but I had planned on taking an unmarked portage across Canadian Point to cut off the bottom corner of the ‘Z’ and save about 3 miles of paddling. It wasn’t on any map I could find; but in researching the route I had read a report about the portage being cleared just a few years ago, and someone from the message board had told me where it was. I found a bearing for a direct crossing and made my way into the open water. Despite trimming pack weight as far back in the canoe as I could, my boat kept wanting to turn the bow up into the wind; and for 2 miles I was forced to paddle almost exclusively on the right side of the canoe to keep course. This was tiring, and when I spotted the portage I tucked in and rode waves directly into the Canadian shore. While it was still spitting rain intermittently, the sky was breaking into some short blue sunny patches. The Canadian point portage was easy enough to follow through dense pine forest, and it was a relief to get off the water for a bit.
Back in the canoe on Merriam bay I paused to make water before angling southeast around Norway Point. Now the wind was my friend, and since I started Basswood Lake, it had gotten stronger. I popped up the sail and rocketed east with the wind. Only occasionally dipping my paddle to correct course, I let the wind pull me along faster than I could paddle. Once around the point I had two miles to travel due east, but with an open reach of water building waves for four miles behind me. There is no surfing the canoe when you are traveling faster than the waves; I was pushed down the face of each wave and into the back of the next one. (looking back at the GPS track, the average speed here was between 6 and 7 mph!) Holding the sail up with my teeth, I needed both hands to use my paddle as a rudder to keep myself pointed downwind and to resist being spun about by the waves. Muscling all I could against both the sail and the paddle while screaming down the lake was a rush! I started singing the song from ‘Moana’ and thought how the kids would enjoy hearing about that later. Of course the further down the lake I went, the bigger the waves got. A couple times it was a little hairy, but the few miles of downwind bliss seemed to last forever and was the highlight of the trip thus far. I must’ve had a stupidly big smile plastered on me as I came off of Basswood Lake.
Entering Inlet bay, I packed the sail down and swung my paddle once again. I was feeing great. Without even looking at the map I knew that after Prairie portage was Birch Lake and I would definitely make the second checkpoint before dark. I had only used the sail for 3 or 4 miles, and that was the last time I would find use for it on the trip, but man what a needed lift it was right then! Portaging into Birch Lake, I was also once again entering a familiar part of the BWCA I had traveled before. I hit the checkpoint at the end of Birch as dusk fell. Time to look for a camp. There were a few on the east end of Birch, but two were occupied, and the other was behind me by a quarter mile. There were four or five portages until Knife lake, but I knew the route and that it was fairly flat and easy travel. I made the decision to do it in the dark, and make camp somewhere on Knife.
The moon made a brief appearance, but was soon clouded out. I passed the Isle of Pines and didn’t need light to see if campsites were occupied: when I quietly paddled by I could hear the noise and revelry as campers finished dinner around an evening campfire on a cool night. Just as I had begun the day by headlamp on LaCroix, I ended it using the eerie LED beam to make camp on the south shore of Knife Lake. This place was part of the 1999 blowdown, so the trees were mostly teenage poplar and birch, and there was only one logical place to hammock between two small cedars. It was at the top of a slope coming up form the lake, and while more exposed than I wanted to be, it was all the site offered. There was a mouse that lived in a hole in the tree right below where my hammock strap was. I could see his beady eye reflecting the headlamp as I peered in, and he must have been curious as to the blazing light outside because he poked his head out to take a look before seeing me and scampering up the tree. I’m sure he could smell the peanut pad Thai I was rehydrating for dinner.
There was no suitable tree to hang the food bag, so I just put it on top of a big rock in the water: mice wouldn’t get it there and if a bear found it I would at least have a good excuse to abort the challenge early, and I was only a few hrs paddle back to Ely. I hung a clothesline rope with hopes of drying what gear I could overnight. I also checked my maps and ran some quick calculations as to my pace: I was doing far better than I had thought, and was on track to finish in 5-6 days instead of the planned 8. To lighten the load I got rid of 2 whole days worth of food. I went back in the woods away from camp and off of any trail. I found a chair-sized rock that I could move, and underneath it dumped and buried the extra food. I wondered if I should feel guilty for not packing it out, but at this point the almost 5 lb weight savings seemed worth it. No trash, only food: It will be part of the earth by springtime. I finally changed into dry clothes and got into the hammock.
49 miles today from LaCroix to Knife.
The night didn’t treat me well at all. The wind came up off the lake and swirled beneath my tarp all night long. It rained on and off. I woke before dawn, but it was difficult to get up and get moving in the cold rain. I’m not sure I could have without hot coffee and Granola. The most difficult part was putting on my cold, wet paddling clothes; which may have gotten more wet overnight. The temptation was strong to keep my warm, dry sleeping clothes on beneath my raingear, but I knew there was only one way to keep them dry, and it was not by wearing them. This was my least favorite part of each day.
One other peculiar thing this morning was that upon waking, I noticed part of my right hand was numb. I didn’t think I was that cold. It was limited though, to my thumb, fore and middle finger, and only part of my ring finger. I knew that was exactly the anatomic distribution of the median nerve, and that it was likely carpal tunnel syndrome. I’ve never experienced it before, but of course the last three days had been nothing but repetitive arm movement and use of grip strength, so it made perfect sense and I wasn’t too worried about it. Sure enough, the feeling came back to normal once I was on the water and had paddled a little while. This would happen every morning for an hour or so for the remainder of the trip.
The cold, wet darkness changed to a cold, wet gray haze as I paddled northeast on Knife Lake. The wind was from the north and I kept to the northern shore to stay in the lee. It wasn’t fun, and I didn’t think I’d travel very far in the rain. I was ahead of schedule and the thought of resting for half a day in the warm, dry hammock sounded nice. “Oh well”, I thought. “I’m out here and miserable already, I might as well just try and put some miles behind me- even if I‘m not moving fast at least I am still moving.” I knew that Knife Lake was long and skinny, and there wouldn’t be any portaging for a while. The rain tested me. It never completely stopped, but would alternate between a misty drizzle and a torrential downpour- every 15 minutes. You could see the clouds with heavy showers enveloping the shoreline hills about 5 minutes before they were upon me as well. I continued up Knife, past the area where I had previously been. The rest of the route to Lake Superior would be through unfamiliar territory.
Ottertrack Lake was next, and was beautiful, even in the rain. The hills of eastern Knife had steepened to meet Ottertrack in cliff faces on either side as the water meandered amongst them. There were a few groups camped here, with smoky fires of wet fuel adding a familiar scent to the earthy aroma of damp forest. It shouldn’t be a surprise that by this time I myself smelled quite strongly of unwashed fitness, so most any other scent was welcomed. Ottertrack Lake was added to the list of places to come back and visit in the future.
It wasn’t until two lakes later, however (at the beginning of Swamp Lake), that I came upon a family of otters. More than 5 or 6 of them playing in the narrows just after the portage into Swamp Lake. They saw me as I came closer, and a tandem canoe heading west paused to watch and point. The otters would take turns poking their heads up 8” or so above the water to have a look at me, give a disapproving hiss, and dive back down. It was a brief distraction from the cold, soggy paddling. Soon after, I crossed the main part of the lake and the first northern exposure of the day showed me that the wind was deceitfully stronger than it seemed on the narrow lakes I’d been paddling all morning. I started to wonder about the last major open water crossing: Saganaga.
Sag is a big lake. The route goes straight across it with miles of open water. Skirting the shoreline would add double-digit miles to the trip. I knew the north wind would have a huge fetch across the lake, and I’d have to judge things carefully. I planned to follow the south shore 3 miles east towards American Point. Because of the shape of the lake, this would expose me to gradually increasing northern wind/waves; and if anything went wrong I’d just be blown against the shore.
It started out windy, with a moderate chop. Crossing south of Cache Bay gave me a taste of big rollers from the north. By the time I got to the end of the point, I was bobbing in 2’ waves from almost a mile of clear open water to the north. But I sat low and balanced, and was doing fairly well rolling with it, and only the occasional ill-timed wave was breaking into the canoe. Not only was the lake trying to get me wet, but also the heavens were still alternating mist/downpour every 10 minutes. You could clearly see the squalls coming from across the huge lake and beyond, and it was only a matter of time before each one was upon me.
As I rounded the point, a two-mile crossing lay before me, and it was decision time: can I safely make it, or should I wait on shore for conditions to improve? I took stock of the situation, and paddled on. The first mile went well. I could keep my bearing if I fought for it, but my main priority was managing the waves coming from my left side. I dug in, and pushed on: I was committed to the crossing now. I’m not sure if it was increasing weather or increasing exposure, but it was here that conditions rapidly deteriorated. It seemed to suddenly worsen with much stronger gusts of wind, and consequently larger waves. I had reached the middle of the lake, and now had almost 2 1/2 miles of open water north of me being picked up by the wind into a breaking swell that was tossed at my canoe.
Nevertheless, things went from sketchy-to bad; and fast. I no longer had my bearing, but instead just tried to keep the boat pointed in a general easterly direction: knowing that safety was in the lee of any of the Munker islands. I didn’t watch the compass, or the map, or the terrain ahead. My focus was purely 60 degrees to the left and about 20 feet away from the canoe; watching for the next wave that was coming to get me, and deciding in a few seconds how I was going to handle it. Quarter the wave and paddle brace windward, brace leeward, or take it completely broadside and roll my hips to bob over the crest. I would have trouble estimating the size of the waves, but the big ones would loom tall enough to temporarily block my view of the northern horizon. A capsize here was not within the realm of recovery, and I would have been blown south for more than a mile before I could get back into the canoe. That would be a bad day. I barely noticed the rain at this point- my entire attention was turned to bracing for each wave; catching a few rapid forward strokes whenever I could. I was later reflecting on how focused I was: I wasn’t hungry, or wet or tired or cold; I didn’t have sore muscles or blisters; my butt wasn’t uncomfortable from sitting. All that went away and I was perfectly tuned to only the immediate environment: it was just me- and the next wave. Time slowed down as I read each swell of water barreling toward me and executed one or two strokes in response before the next one was in view.
The crossing seemed to last forever, and once I found the lee of an island it was suddenly over. I stepped out on a rocky shoal to stretch and empty the water that had accumulated inside the canoe. A few minutes ago, there had been some real fear and uncertainty, and it was exhilarating to know I had made it! I shook myself out, hydrated, and ate some fuel before continuing east through much easier water. There was another four miles of lake left to cross, though the remainder was protected from large waves. The rain had increased and the wind was again pushing me around.
Once I passed Connors Island I turned south toward the Granite River System. I had beaten one of the biggest trials I’d faced. As the large lake was about to pass out of my view, I turned over my shoulder and sharply barked, “F* you, Saganaga!” It scared me a bit to hear myself out loud- after not saying anything for a few days. I don’t normally curse like that, but it was more something of raw emotion belching forth from inside. I was at a place where polite social mores had a far distant importance to the animalistic triumph of successfully crossing the angry lake.
Heading south, not only was the wind at my back but also the route was through more narrow, protected lakes and river channels. The Ham Lake Fire burned this entire river system ten years ago. Young poplars and birch were just starting to cover the large black branch-less trunks pointing up to the grey sky. Burnt landscape is absent the majestic beauty of a mature forest, and has always given me a sense of bleak unwelcoming. I was glad to be just passing through, but began to give thought as to where I would make camp for the night. Practically, It would be difficult to find a suitable hammock location in the burn area, and I wouldn’t exit the burn until Gunflint lake- at least another 20 miles. The daylight was mine to waste or paddle on.
While the afternoon paddling today was easier, the dozen or so portages were not. I stumbled and nearly fell traversing the washed-out Horsetail Rapid portage. Heading upriver, there were a few sections of rapids without clear portage landings and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to paddle up, or portage around. Sometimes it was trial-and-error to find the path that would let me through. The Pine River section is particularly difficult to navigate. The river splits into multiple small channels and streams as it braids its way in every direction around bedrock obstructions. The combination of varying water levels and ill-defined portage trails over exposed bedrock means that the route tends to change from time-to-time. On one difficult portage I had the canoe on my shoulders and my head down concentrating on following any semblance of trail when I suddenly stopped with a thud as the bow of the boat met a rock wall about 7’ high. The trail didn’t go around, but with a few rocky steps went straight up and over the obstruction. I did think, though, of how beautiful this area must have been before the fire, and that I should make a point to come back here sometime. Somewhere along the Granite river, the rain that was my companion all day finally let up. As the evening closed, I reached Magnetic Lake and could see the channel on the other end leading to Gunflint.
Gunflint Lake is 7 miles long, and while I knew I’d again be making camp in the dark, I also knew that Checkpoint #3 was at the other end of the lake. I was going to make it tonight! Once again, the somewhat arbitrary checkpoint was motivating me to push it. And push it I did. I stopped on a gravel beach on the Canadian side of western Gunflint to pump water and get out my headlamp. In the last of the twilight, I watched a family of beavers heading west make a wide circle out in the lake to avoid me. It was uneventful paddling Gunflint in the dark. I was able to hug the northern shore and keep out of the wind. Reaching the other side, I checked-in with the inreach and started to think about where to camp. The most eastern campsite on Gunflint was on an unburned island of mature white pine and cedar trees. I went to the lee side (south) and found the landing. Disappointing that there wasn’t much here for a campsite. In the dark, I followed one of the trails back into the woods and to my surprise the main camp was located in the middle of the island, and it was enormous. After a poor sleep on Knife Lake, my priority was finding a protected place to hang the hammock where I wouldn’t be bothered by the wind. I found it between two huge cedar trees, with the root ball of a down tree blocking any wind from the north. Perfect. As my hot food rehydrated, I changed into dry clothes and again hung clotheslines to try and dry my soaking wet gear overnight. Everything not sealed in a drybag was dripping wet. I hung the empty pack on the line and it immediately sagged to the ground under the weight. I was soon well fed and fast asleep after a trying day that carried me another 43 miles.
Up a little later than I wanted, but still on the water before dawn. I was happy with my choice of camp and had a great rest. While a wet mist settled in soon after sunrise, there had been no rain overnight, and my gear was, well....a little less wet than it had been. I left Gunflint Lake on the winding channel to Little Gunflint. Still going upriver, the channel from Little Gunflint to Little North was narrow, rocky, and with small rapids. I thought I might be able to paddle up some of it, but it was probably not wide enough to turn the boat around if the current was too much. I made it about halfway up the channel before bailing and stepping out to the side. From there it was easy enough to grab the bow rope and line the loaded canoe the rest of the way up the channel. As I did, I noticed some rusted iron rails on the opposite bank: this must have been an old rail portage at some time.
Once on North Lake, the sun peeked through just enough to illuminate the low clouds over the lake. The glowing mist was flowing in and out among the hills that surrounded the lake and it was beautiful. I actually stopped paddling a moment to take it all in. After crossing North Lake I came upon the historic Height-of-Land portage. The continental divide. North Lake and all the waters I had traveled on so far flow northwest to Winnipeg and Hudson Bay. At the other end of the portage, South Lake and all the waters remaining flow southeast to Lake Superior and the Atlantic. This is the portage where fur trade Voyageurs would have a ‘baptism’ ceremony for new hires crossing the height of land for the first time. I checked mileage, and while I didn’t know how long it would take to paddle the Pigeon River, I thought it seemed reasonable I might make it to Fort Charlotte and the start of the Grand Portage today. That would be excellent: I could camp at the fort and dry out/repack everything, and the next day would involve no paddling whatsoever.
South Lake had the same illuminated clouds as North, and the hills seemed to get bigger. I had entered the east-west ridges of towering diabase cliffs of the Rove geologic plate. My favorite lake here was Rose Lake. Rose Lake is almost 5 miles long, but begins as a small channel, which becomes an elongated bay that snakes around the terrain before it opens into the main basin beneath the high cliffs. Even though I was in a foggy mist with intermittent rain most of the day, it was incredibly scenic. Rose lake was another addition to the list of places I want to return.
Up next was the Long portage form Rose to Rove. 2 miles long, and with a forked trail in the middle. Knowing the 9-mile Grand portage was tomorrow, I was resolved to carry the whole 2 miles here without rest. I hit the landing at 10:30 and began. The first section of trail was fairly flat, but dry. (I had read that it is sometimes flooded out by beaver activity.) When the trail forked, I met a group of older French Canadians who were traveling the opposite way and did not know about the fork leading south to Daniels Lake. I assured them of the correct direction of Rose Lake and kept on. They had gear with them but no canoe, and I should have asked if they had people on the trail in front of me still. My load was starting to feel real heavy, so I put my head down and picked up the pace, balancing the boat on my shoulders and pack without using my hands, and just watching a few feet of the trail in front of me for solid foot placements. About 200yds further, I heard a sharp, “Hey!” right in front of me and immediately stopped. There were two guys facing me: portaging a larger canoe on their shoulders, fore and aft. The lowered bow of my canoe had gone clear underneath theirs without touching, and was inches from the chest of the front guy, whom I almost rammed with my canoe! They hadn’t seen me coming either. We exchanged a good laugh at the near miss, and I stepped into the woods so they could pass.
I didn’t know how far I had left, but the rest of the portage trail got much more difficult: up and down climbs and sidehill sections with tenacious footing. It took forever. It seemed like my pack didn’t have much weight on the hipbelt, and I thought my shoulders were going to explode. When I finally came to the landing on Rove Lake, I was beat. I hadn’t stopped or rested the canoe on the entire two miles, and it had taken me almost exactly an hour. I put the boat and pack down in the water, climbed in the canoe, and just reclined back on top of the pack for a few minutes. That was a tough portage, and if it was a test run for the Grand, it didn’t give me any sort of confidence for tomorrow’s 9-miler. I fueled and willed my arms to slowly start paddling across the three miles of Rove and Watap lakes, still nestled in a deep valley between 500’ hills. The portage to Mountain lake wasn’t bad, and I checked the time as I pushed off into Mountain: 12:30. The day was half over.
Mountain Lake was 7 miles long, but I knew it was 7 miles without portage and I had an opportunity to make good time. I broke the lake into 2-mile sections, and put on the gas. If I was going to make Fort Charlotte tonight, I had to move. No wind to help me, but I hammered the paddle in a fast rhythm. I began to seriously sweat beneath my rain shell, and took it off- even though there was still a wet mist in the air it felt good. I worked hard to get to the end of Mountain Lake, averaging faster than 5 mph. It was a success, but I was tired. There were three separate portages (about a mile total) to reach Moose Lake. They were muddy and swampy and difficult to find, and it took me more than an hour to traverse the set.
Next up was Moose lake: at four miles it is the last long east-west lake. I made water and set off fast with the same plan. About halfway across things began to fall apart. It was almost 4:00. I was tired. I rechecked the maps, and had at least 5 miles of paddling and 1.5 miles of portage before I even got to the Pigeon River. With 3 hours of overcast daylight left, I didn’t want to be caught on the Pigeon in the dark. Mainly, I didn’t want to do the unfamiliar rapid sections for the first time in the dark. I did not know the flow level, but knew from research that it had been slightly above average all year. I did not even know the specific drainage of the river, but reasoned that the past few days of rain could only help me over the bony parts. I did not know how long it would take to travel the Pigeon, and had heard reports that low water could easily eat up half-a-day walking the boat through shallow riffles. My BWCA maps didn’t extend to the Pigeon River and through either the forest service or the USGS I couldn’t manage to find a detailed map of the Pigeon river and grand portage trail. Both should be easy to navigate, as they only lead one direction, but I did not know accurate distances or terrain features. I had the general route marked on the Inreach GPS from looking at google earth photography, but a real map (or familiarity paddling the river) would have given a little more certainty to the situation.
If I was fresh I could probably push it, but I was smoked from the day’s effort already. I realized I wasn’t going to make it to Fort Charlotte tonight. It was a blow to my esteem, and another mental low point. Looking back, it seems silly: I was days ahead of my goal, but somehow depressed that I couldn’t make some arbitrary mileage estimate I had made earlier in the day.
I slowed down and took my time finishing Moose Lake, and making the portage into North Fowl. North Fowl Lake was shallow, with wild rice beds extending far from shore into the lake. I paddled south, and at 5:30 made camp on the second-to-last campsite before exiting South Fowl Lake to the river. The camp was on the middle of a sandspit separating North and South Fowl lakes. This is outside the BWCA and there are cabins and motorboats on the Fowl lakes. The campsite was heavily used, and ill kept with more trash and litter than you usually wish to see. The camp had a weird feeling to it. Nonetheless, I was in a ‘foul’ mood about camping so early, and moved slowly as I set things up. I hung everything I could to dry on lines and branches under thick spruce cover. I emptied the boat of almost all paddling gear and thought through a careful repack of everything I needed to carry the next day. I discovered that a critical seam on the waistbelt of my old pack was halfway torn off the pack itself. No wonder it didn’t seem to transfer much load to my hips: I’d have to be careful of that tomorrow. As a consolation, I again ate my favorite cheesy fritos and beans dinner as it got dark. Kind-of a bummer end to the day, and I had only paddled 33 miles.
I woke to pouring rain against the tarp and it was an easy decision to snooze in the warm and dry hammock another hour until it slowed: I knew I had plenty of time to finish the challenge today. I enjoyed coffee and a hot oatmeal breakfast under the tarp, and I packed for the long walk that would define today’s travel: consolidating the daypack and as many things as I could take off the canoe and stuff into my main pack. The irony is that for all my efforts packing lightly and even ditching food weight, the majority of my gear was soaking wet and in the end probably weighed close to the load I had started with 5 days earlier. Lightly raining as I left camp. A short few minutes later I was at the Fowl portage, and thus off my maps.
This mile-long portage on the Canadian side would later come to be known as the “foul” portage. I likened it to attempting a ninja warrior course while carrying a pack and canoe- in the rain. First a climb 80 feet up a slippery talus slope, then a surprise fork in the trail. No signage, though looking closely showed that there were two birch sticks perpendicular across the left fork trail in a loose x. This was very subtle and not noticeable unless you’ve encountered something like it before and knew that it was not natural. Someone had marked it as a spur and so I took the right fork. I remarked to myself how I just blindly trusted whomever had put it there, but took some comfort in the reasoning that anyone who would actually be on this trail would be the kind of person I would probably trust. Hedging my bet, I clicked on the gps 100 yards down the trail to confirm that I was indeed generally heading in the right direction. The next obstacle was more than thirty down trees at waist height (wet) to climb over without tearing my pants or dropping the boat. There were two that required getting down on my knees to crawl under. Once that ended, the trail reached the lowland of the river and the mud started. Almost knee high in places and unavoidably spanning the width of the trail tree-to-tree.
After the slowest mile-long portage I can remember doing I reached the Pigeon river. It was a 15yd wide river with gentle current that wove past tamarack swamps and sedge grasses. I saw many beaver and white trumpeter swans here and flushed numerous ducks from the grasses lining the bank. There were a couple obvious moose trails leading in and out of the water but the large animals weren’t to be seen.
My concern on the river was that there was three shallow rapid sections that I was warned would put a new layer of scratches in my canoe. On top of the list was a section labeled on USGS and historical maps as the “English portage”. However, I had talked with several others who had in the past few years spent considerable time bushwhacking the banks only to conclude that this portage no longer existed and that the best route was to navigate the rocky river itself. The first rapid section was short and mild, and I bounced on a few rocks and had to dismount the canoe once to float it over a shallow part.
A while further and I was upon the English section, which started out with a much steeper river drop through larger obstacles that included a few good standing waves. No doubt I relied on previous river paddling to read the situation 20 yards in front of me and weave the canoe in-and-out of boulders, trying to keep it in the cleanest water through the rapid. Because the preferred lines were much more visible in the deep fast water, I thought this to be easier paddling than the shallow, slower riffles that made up the next half-mile or so. It was then a cringe-fest as I heard and felt the newly refinished bottom of my canoe snag on sharp rocks just waiting to eat Kevlar for lunch, and I was also forced to dismount once again to navigate a tight spot.
The river then leveled off to slowly wind around some hills and ridges for a few miles. The next portage would be around Partridge falls: a towering 50-foot cascade that, in contrast to the nonexistent English Portage, is not marked on any map. This is ironic, because to accidently go over this falls would likely mean death. Thankfully, you can hear it long before you approach the drop, and there is sufficient slackwater to easily land at the portage. The muddy bank climbs to a jeep trail leading down the hill along the river, and you have to almost guess at the right spur leaving the doubletrack to get you back to the water, but I had no trouble finding the right way. There is supposed to be a nice overlook right at the falls, but I had the finish on my mind and didn’t stop to check it out.
A couple easier river miles and I reached Fort Charlotte and the start of the Grand Portage. There was a log dock landing and I took my time reading the sign describing the history and archeological significance of the site. Bonus: I always thought it was a 9-mile trail, but in 2-inch engraved letters the sign clearly said 8.5 miles to the trading fort. I filtered water one last time and hit the trail around noon. There are a few muddy streams and beaver swamps along the Grand and it was certainly wet enough that they would be running, but not anything you would want to rely on for drinking, and I quickly planned a water rationing strategy. 8.5 miles lay ahead. I would bring 1 liter and drink roughly 200mL every 1.5 miles.
The two-mile Rose portage the day before had been tough, so I thought it wise to stop and set the boat down for a five-minute rest every 1.5miles. This ended up working well, and I was surprised at how new I would feel after even a brief rest without canoe or pack on my shoulders. I had a run tracking gps app on my iphone (that I often used when training) that would audibly call out splits. I set it to notify me every half-mile to keep track of where I was and avoid the mental anguish of a seemingly endless portage.
The trail went past two unoccupied campsites with elevated tent platforms near the river and then took a gentle and wide path into the forest. Six feet wide to be exact, and cleared very well. I kept seeing pieces of red twizzlers liquorice on the ground, and would later find out that there was actually a parks crew that had cut blowdowns and weed-whipped the entire trail less than a week earlier. The liquorice was in fact broken pieces of trimmer string. It was very nice not having to dodge down trees and it made for a fast pace; when not resting I was able to walk bet 2.5 and 3 mph. The terrain was rolling, but I knew there was an overall drop of 600 or so vertical feet down to Lake Superior. The wet conditions held plenty of mud on the trail, but with calf-high boots the best option was usually to barrel straight through the mud sections focusing on balance alone- and I ended up dirty, but fine. There was perhaps two dozen or so sets of short board walks through swampy ground, which consisted of elevated 12”x 3” planks laid end to end. The trouble, though, was that most of these were shaded under heavy tree cover and kept in such perpetual dampness that their topsides were tinted green with mildew and algae that was deadly slick. After a few near-falls I learned quickly there was more reliable footing walking beside the planks when possible- even through ankle sucking mud. The pack soon began to show its insufficiency at keeping weight at my hips, and with maybe 70lbs of both pack and canoe bearing down, my shoulders would be screaming before every 1.5 mile rest. Food and water were managed well, and the phone app kept me motivated to keep at pace. I could feel the hotspots on my feet, but wouldn’t realize until later that night how large the blisters actually were. There was mixed rain showers and sun, and the humidity was way up. I drank the last of my water and spirits were high as I passed 8 miles after about 4 hrs of portage. The phone reported 8.5 miles and the fort was not in sight. I crossed a paved road and still no fort. Crossed Hwy 61 and still no fort. Now this trail was actually endless.
Suddenly I came out of a clearing and saw people waiting. GrandmaL and BeaV were there with cameras, and my mom and uncle who had unexpectedly driven up to greet me at the finish. They took photos as I walked through the fort stockade and I sent a final Inreach message to document an official finish time. Just as I put down the canoe and pack on the fort lawn the phone chimed with a GPS distance of exactly 9 miles.
Instantly I felt awesome. Congratulations and muddy hugs were given all around. The fort was still open and there were a couple living history reenactors who greeted me as well. I was told of a ceremony for newly hired Voyageurs who after their first season traversing the Grand into the interior would be voted upon by their peers. If they proved themselves an asset to the rest of the brigade they would be deemed true Hommes du Nord, or Northman, and given opportunity to paint their paddle red with vermillion. For my 5 1/2 day crossing I was presented with a ceremonial red paddle and more photos. I was sure to warn the park staff that should I ever return to Fort Charlotte, I may find it necessary to deface the sign to accurately state the 9-mile distance. To complete the journey I carried the canoe down the bank to Lake Superior and paddled 400yds south to the marina. I said thanks and goodbye to my family, stashed the canoe behind the marina office, and gladly took a ride to the casino hotel to see if there was a room available.
After a needed shower I enjoyed the wonderful experience of putting on dry clothes. I assessed my feet and drained a half-dozen blisters. One was under enough pressure that when I poked it, the blister fluid actually hit the ceiling. Gross. I hobbled down the hallway to meet GrandmaL and BeaV for dinner and beer, and another beer. And another, as we regaled with stories of the past week. BeaV was a whole day ahead of me and had set a solo record for the course at 91 hrs. At one point it was suggested we have another round, but we had somehow missed last call and found ourselves too busy to drink- talking late into the night.
The town of Grand Portage is not too well developed. There is the casino, a gas station, the marina, and the national park history center and fort. Verizon has no coverage here at all. There was wifi at the casino hotel, but otherwise communication was very limited- as were things to do. I rigged a clothesline in the hotel room and hung just about all my gear to dry; and the smell was of such wet-dog-meets-locker-room that I hung the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door just so the housekeepers wouldn’t have to go in there and risk death by asphyxiation. I took the fort tour twice from different reenactors and park rangers and watched the film and examined every exhibit in the history center. The Ojibwa tribe had actually given back reservation land to the federal government to create the Grand Portage Monument, which is today co-managed by both the Department of Interior and the tribe. As such, there is almost as much Anishinabe history included alongside the early European history- emphasizing how co-dependent the two groups were on one another during the fur trade era. I learned a great deal about the human beginnings of the place I live in. In the late 1960’s there was a series of archeological digs and dives at both ends of the Grand Portage trail unearthing some quite amazing artifacts surviving from the fur era. I think the historical value to me was so much higher having just completed a paddle from Rainy Lake and walking the Grand itself: It is incredible to think of the relatively primitive methods employed for people making that same journey long ago. Things that might seem an interesting factoid to a casual visitor struck me as very real and vivid. The park staff were passionate about their work, and knew everything: we tried to stump them with history questions but each one provoked a small lecture about life and commerce and politics in 18th century America, Britain, France, and Canada.
Once I was in the nearshore environment of Lake Superior, the weather improved dramatically: with sunny afternoons and clear nights. Of course it did. BeaV and I decided to stretch the paddling muscles a bit and venture out onto the big lake- trading canoes to test the performance of each other’s canoe. It was beautiful to paddle the gentle swell wearing dry clothes in the sun; and with great care to not go for a swim in the cold water I did even manage to get the boat to surf a little bit.
Having nowhere else to be: for three consecutive nights we closed down the hotel bar trading stories of past adventures. The forced downtime waiting for the Sunday shuttle back to Ely was enjoyable. Friday evening a husband/wife couple finished a shortened challenge route they had started around the halfway point outside of Ely. Saturday, we received satellite messages requesting a rendezvous with the final paddler Mzee who would not be able to finish that day. GrandmaL and BeaV drove to meet him at a landing close to the Fowl lakes. I thought there might be disappointment at the non-finish, but he was in good spirits and happy with his effort. Even more impressive to me was learning that he is almost exactly twice my age. That’s some inspiration to tuck away for later. That night we all had dinner and drinks as the stories continued (around a campfire by the lake) about our shared-yet-individual adventure. “Where were you when the hail hit? How much trouble did you have finding that portage? Where do you think you passed me along the way? etc etc.”
Sunday morning was time to depart and after breakfast we met the Shuttle van that collected gear and canoes and drove back to Ely. From there I took off fast and arrived home just in time to see the boys before bed and tell Molly of my adventures.
The very next day it was back to work and ‘real’ life. The transition was easy, and likely because I had a few days in Grand Portage to decompress a bit before returning. There were congratulations from people who knew what I was doing, but early on it became clear that few really understood what it was that I did: toe the line of the unknown to push the limits of my capability, and learn more about what I’m really made of. It may sound like I’m waxing poetic, but completing this challenge turned out to be more than miles and time. It was such a personal trial, though, that can only be understood through hindsight of such an event. If you’ve been there, you know. (and by ‘there’ I don’t necessarily mean IF to GP).
Before embarking on the route, I had made my plans and tracking page public to my family and friends, and I was surprised at how many people followed my progress every day. Thank you all for the prayers, and cheers, and congrats. Despite the above paragraph, I truly appreciate everyone that cheered me on or sent a text or a high five. I didn’t really want a stage or an audience for my half-brained underground adventure challenge, but my hope is that someone has found inspiration from this. Maybe the inspiration is to challenge yourself. Maybe it is to avoid big lakes on stormy days. Maybe it is to just get out there. Whatever the takeaway is, I urge you to dream of grandiose things, because you may not know where your limits actually lie.