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BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog

May 29 2023

Entry Point 12 - Little Vermilion Lake

Little Vermilion Lake (Crane Lake) entry point allows overnight paddle or motor (Unlimited max). This entry point is supported by La Croix Ranger Station near the city of Cook, MN. The distance from ranger station to entry point is 45 miles. Enter from Crane Lake. Note: Not the entry point to use for Trout Lake (#1)

Number of Permits per Day: 6
Elevation: 1150 feet
Latitude: 48.2995
Longitude: -92.4268
Little Vermilion Lake - 12

BeaV's 2022 Solo Border Route Challenge

by BeaV
Trip Report

Entry Date: September 03, 2022
Entry Point: Little Vermilion Lake (Crane Lake)
Exit Point: North Fowl Lake (70)
Number of Days: 3
Group Size: 1

Trip Introduction:
Background- in 2017 I set what was the fastest solo time (at least that I knew of) for the Border Route from International Falls to Lake Superior. My time was 91 hours and I had followed the Canada/US border proper thinking this was the route canoe racers Verlen Kruger and Clint Waddell had paddled back in 1968. Later I learned that these racers and future adventurers had taken a more direct route and thus, recent paddlers have too taken these shorter route options. Really, the route isn’t fixed….it’s up to the paddler to choose, as long as there is no support and is in the spirit of Kruger and Waddell. So in acknowledgement and commemoration of what these two paddlers did, we call this route the Kruger Waddell Challenge. Paddling skill, physical endurance, mental toughness, woodsmen skills, and old-school navigation abilities are the attributes required to be successful. Following this new shorter route, Kevin McCann (aka Muddyfeet) of Sartell MN, set a new record of 84 hours 11 minutes in 2018. Of course, this got me thinking “I wonder how fast I could do this new route?”. The seed was planted. There was one problem with both known fastest solo times- they weren’t completely in the spirit of Kruger/Waddell or for that matter, the Voyageurs of long ago. Both modern records were set with the assistance of a GPS for navigation (both Kevin and I had turned on our GPSs only a little but still resulting in an asterisk for doing so). Successful navigation is such a big component of the Challenge that to be in the spirit of history, technology substituted for “woodsmen’s skills” is a disqualifier for direct comparison to Kruger & Waddell’s 1968 80-hour 40-minute record. So now back to the present, my goal was to see how fast I could paddle this route and navigate it with only experience and map & compass. I let a few people know of my plans. I paddle trained in moderation putting in somewhere around 300 miles on the water during the spring and summer. As the planned September 3rd, 2022 launch date approached, I picked up the paddling pace and started portage training, too. But for some unknown reason to me, my motivation did not pickup. I’m not sure why, maybe because I remembered how hard my 2017 trip was- pain, exhaustion, hallucinations, and long nights. Then with only 2 weeks until launch, an old back issue flared up. Terrible timing! I had a hard time just sitting or standing. I didn’t dare portage train with any weight on my back or shoulders. Grrrr!!! I gingerly tried to keep doing a little walking and a little paddling but both activities were painful, and it was hard to train for more than an hour. My only pain relief came from lying flat on my back on the ground- not the way to set a speed record. Motivation did not increase but doubt sure did. Could I sit in the canoe for more than a few hours, could I ignore or suppress the back pain, could I carry weight on my shoulders? This is not what I wanted to face and it kind of made me angry. Self-doubt and lack of resolve is not something I accept. I had no plans to back out. Finally, with just three days until launch, the back pain eased up and I got back to planning the little details of the route, sleep plan, paddling pace, food and gear selection. I roughed out a quick itinerary to figure out where I will be when darkness falls every night and came up with a possible goal of 70 hours. 70 hours…it seemed too fast, but my scribbles on paper showed me it was possible. 70 hours was based on neutral winds, no navigation errors, and my back holding up. Navigation I had control of. My back I didn’t. The winds…well I had some choice here. I didn’t have to launch on September 3rd, I could wait a few days for a favorable wind forecast if need be. Butterflies entered my stomach. September 2nd came with a forecast of mostly light winds but not favorable. Headwinds and or crosswinds only for the next 6 days. I wanted a day or two of west or northwest winds, but none were forecast. So much for “my choice” on mitigating unfavorable winds. I decided to launch on the 3rd regardless. I camped that night in Black Bay of Rainy Lake ready for an early start. I went to bed that night in my tent dissatisfied with the wind forecast but with new resolve to try my best. Butterflies gone!

Day 1 of 3


Saturday, September 03, 2022

Day 1- 5 am and I put the paddle blade in the water for the first stroke and off I went. Stars were shining brightly with slight headwinds as I paddled south and then southeast towards Gold Portage. At Gold Portage I had to switch canoes due to a Park Service order that was attempting to slow the spread of an invasive mussel. The canoe I was now in was a Wenonah Advantage that I modified by adding a rudder. This boat is tough to control in quartering winds, but the rudder would fix that. What I always noted as a plus was the boat’s ability to handle headwinds well (this would be important as I was soon to learn).

My first goal was to try to get to the far side of Lac La Croix before nightfall tonight and then once past there, to navigate the complicated Crooked Lake through the night without error. The big lakes started getting crossed off one by one- Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, Sandpoint, and onto to Lac La Croix despite nagging headwinds. Concentrating on my paddle stroke mechanics, the map spread out on the canoe floor, and the next landmark out in front of me, the day went by quickly. I sensed my speed was good and as nightfall approached, still felt strength in my paddle stroke. Some normal pains but none of the debilitating back pains of just days before. This alone encouraged me. Darkness fell as I paddled by Fish Stake Narrows. I was slightly behind where I wanted to be by this time but satisfied with my progress, nonetheless. I quickly switched over to my nighttime paddling mode and made quick work of Bottle and Iron Lakes and their portages. Onto Crooked Lake, aptly named, I was serenaded with northern lights dancing in the skies. The northern lights and the half-moon were gone sometime before midnight leaving only the stars behind. Wow what a beautiful night to paddle! There is something special about paddling at night- if you can get over the desire to be sitting around a cheery campfire or snuggling into a cozy sleeping bag. Making it through some of the most difficult navigation of the route, I went ashore to rest at 1:30 am at the entrance to Wednesday Bay, 83 miles traveled. I set my timer for 4 hours and went to sleep. Rarely do I sleep good under these conditions, but tonight I did.

 



Day 2 of 3


Sunday, September 04, 2022

Day 2- 6:30 am found me back on the water with a wall of fog to contend with. Fog can be worse than darkness to navigate through, but I used my compass and map successfully. As I gripped the paddle, my hands hurt from the hotspots and blisters earned over those first 20 hours of paddling yesterday. This intense pain is normal after taking a break from paddling and it takes about 30 minutes before this subsides. A thought occurred to me…. if I don’t rest again, I won’t have to deal with this. Note to self.

The fog lifts now as I paddle south along the Basswood River and the sun on day 2 shines bright. Across Basswood Lake, Prairie Portage, and into Birch Lake. Mid-morning hits just as I get into the well-traveled series of five portages that lead to Knife Lake. Perfect (terrible) timing as each portage is choked with large groups of novice canoers lollygagging around. I don’t hesitate, I just land, shoulder my two packs, throw the canoe up and go. They broke with the proper portage etiquette first, but at least I say “sorry, I’m in a hurry” and leave it at that.

Once again, the winds are not helpful, mostly on my bow or broadside but not too strong. Throughout the long day I ponder what my plan should be for the upcoming second night. As I approach Saganaga Lake, I now know darkness will fall while on this lake. My immediate concern is to hit the little opening at the mid lake islands before dark. I do it and now the difficult Granite River stretch is next. All the pros and cons of continuing on verses resting awhile are considered and my stubborn side says “just keep paddling”! So I do.

Temperatures quickly drop as I approach Saganaga Falls. The cold air becomes moist from the warm surface water and forms a low-lying layer of fog. I turn on my headlight to look for the entrance to a small bay where the portage should be and am faced with a wall of fog so thick, I can hardly see the bow of my canoe. I nervously smile to myself about this new challenge, as if navigating the Granite River in the dark isn’t bad enough. I listen for the sound of the rapids, and I “feel” myself to it and the nearby start of the portage. Fifteen miles to go and twelve more portages to find before I get back to open lake paddling…oh boy! A partial moon was up but was fairly low on the horizon, helping some. The fog did not let up and the headlamp was nearly worthless. I tried to remember where to paddle to avoid hitting rocks and I tried to remember the necessary twists and turns of the route. Every portage found was a relief and the concentration needed to find them prevented me from feeling sleepy. A little after 1:00 am I emerged from the Granite River and onto Magnetic Lake with a sense of relief. I paddled past a campfire with people still up and was puzzled why anyone would be up at this hour. Out on to the 7-mile-long Gunflint Lake, the inevitable sleepiness set in. I felt uneasy now and was concerned I would fall asleep paddling and capsize. For this reason, I took a longer route that kept me nearer to shore in case I woke up in the lake. A new fear struck me- don’t drop your paddle, it’s the only one you got. Gunflint was windy enough to blow me away from a dropped paddle faster than I could probably grab for it. This is not a fear that normally I consider, but now my arms and shoulders are tired, my hands are clumsy from blisters, and my head sluggish. Every paddle switch I carefully and slowly perform the handoff that I’ve done millions of times.

The moon had long since set and the night was dark, but the stars are brilliant, and the sky filled with them. I picked one low on the horizon generally towards the end of the lake and paddled to it. That star acted strangely at times, almost seeming to jump around, and having multiple lights on it. A drone? I thought to myself, “knock it off BeaV, don’t let your head get goofy again”. Goofy as in seeing things that may not be true, i.e... hallucinations. I paddled and paddled and paddled and couldn’t find the far shore. It seemed to be taking too long to find but I know I couldn’t miss it, right? Finally, I seemed to have found the wanted east shore… but where is the beautiful sand beach where the stream mouth is located that I need to enter. Trying the headlight again, to no good. Fog in my face. I look at the tree line barely visible and feel that I’m in the right place. Paddling slowly along the shore, my paddle blade touches bottom and I feel that grittiness of sand. SAND! I must be here. I run the bow onto shore and find THE beach!

This beach has always been a place to rest and stretch my legs in the past. I remember my last intense solo paddle in 2017….I rested here too late in the night. The wind that time was blowing hard onto the shore, I was wore out, damp, and cold. That time I laid on the ground using my canoe as a partial windbreak and tried to get some sleep under a tarp. It didn’t work- mostly due to black ants finding my body an amusing playground to crawl on. That time I was more in survival mode, this time I was refusing to feel that way just like I refused to allow hallucinations to mess with me. I WANTED to do better than I did in 2017, I wanted to keep moving, and I refused to even stretch my legs on this beautiful sand beach- I paddled on into the tiny creek and kept going. I felt satisfaction in refusing comfort and felt motivation to get ahead of my former self! Every mile gained before sunrise, now felt good.

I continued my new “navigation by feel method” as I paddled up this small weed-lined creek. When I strayed into weeds, I quickly paddled the other direction hoping to get back into the open channel. Back and forth I weaved my way towards Little Gunflint Lake. Flashlight still useless because of the fog. Water levels had been high through the Granite River so as I approached the next portage, I aimed for the small channel that connects Little Gunflint to Little North Lake and just pushed my way up the current, saving time.

My pre-Challenge goal, at this last 1/3 stage of the route, was to not get tired out. My moving speed in previous record attempts always slowed down near the end. I could potentially gain a lot of time from here to Grand Portage if I could keep up the pace. My paddling strength still felt good despite not eating much during this night (for some reason my stomach hurt when I tried to eat and my plan was to give my blast furnace a little rest) but I was starting to feel weakness and wobbly on the portages.

 



Day 3 of 3


Monday, September 05, 2022

Day 3- The eastern sky began to lighten up for the new day as I paddled on Rose Lake, a full 10 miles past that Gunflint Lake sandy beach. I felt satisfied and although I wasn’t thinking about what my finish time could be, I knew I was doing well and a new motivational thought popped into my head- “paddle harder now so I set a finish time that won’t get beat, so I never have to do this to myself again”!! Morning of the 3rd period of daylight had arrived as I hurried down the 2-mile “Long Portage”. At one point, I saw movement on the trail ahead of me, so I paused to see what was coming. Cool - two moose calves and a cow were making their way on the trail too. They stopped about 60 feet away and wondered what it was they were looking at. After a few minutes, the cow took the lead and came to within 30 feet before deciding to veer off the trail and lead her calves around this strange looking thing on the trail (me).

To Rove, Watap, and Mountain Lakes I paddled/portaged with noticeable headwinds renewed once again. For the first time on this trip, frustration mounted in me- the winds had been forecast to be southerly by now and should be broadside….”why are they always blowing in my face then as I travel east?” I whined. Mountain is another long lake comparable to the size of Gunflint going west to east. I set a straight-line route down the center of it to keep the miles to a minimum. But the winds slowed me down….I can tell how fast I’m traveling by the pace of my paddle stroke….and I knew I was going slow. I paddled harder to try to overcome the wind. Now on Moose Lake, the winds worsened, and I veered towards the southerly shore in the hope of finding some lee. But that didn’t help. I saw my finish time slipping and I couldn’t do anything to fix it. Finishing Moose Lake was a relief! But the present portage to North Fowl was not- my feet began to hurt from chaffing one of my heels and a few blisters on my toes, oh well.

North Fowl Lake was no relief to the headwinds and paddling hard to overcome them was lessoning in the wanted effect. But as I entered the last lake of the route, South Fowl, the wind did subside, and I felt the speed of my boat back up to where I expected. What a relief and a pick me upper!

When I reached the start of the Fowl Portage, I repacked my gear and threw away food that I wouldn’t need. There was no question that I would continue nonstop to Lake Superior now. But it was hard to throw away some of the treats that I had been saving. Stuffed my PFD into my canoe pack and now was prepared for the long portages ahead. Up the steep rocky slope I went, pausing many times to catch my breath. Then I turned right at the trail fork and ran right into a big fresh blowdown tree. Couldn’t see anyway around, or under unless I took off my canoe and pack, so I just climbed up and over it using it’s big branches to balance on. Phew, I made it! As expected though, there were over a hundred more downed trees to get over, thankfully most were from years ago and could simply be stepped over.

Down the Pigeon River I paddled despite the low water levels until reaching the rapids sections that now under these conditions are shallow rock gardens. I weaved with the main trickle of water trying to get through the maze of boulders, getting out of the boat to drag only when absolutely necessary. I took my hiking boots and socks off to keep them from getting any wetter than they already were, hurting my bare feet in the rocks. I used my carbon paddle as a push pole and the hull of the boat as a scratching board for the rocks- I didn’t care about abusing either, now was the time to sacrifice all for a best possible finish time. I must have jumped 80-100 trumpeter swans in the upper reaches of the river and it amazed me how badly they had the river mud stirred up from their feeding techniques. And the ducks jumped had to be 1000 or 2. The river is lined with ripe wild rice and the waterfowl were loving it. I thought back to photographs I’d seen of old-time commercial waterfowl hunters and imagined how I could have filled my canoe to overflowing with ducks, geese, and swans if I had a shotgun and enough shells.

Taking out at Fort Charlotte, I wasted no time with starting the Grand Portage, as everything was packed and ready for the nine-mile portage. The 3rd dark period was beginning but I refused to turn on my headlamp until absolutely necessary. I wanted to run some of the portage but was concerned about triggering another back pain episode plus I was just plain losing my agility. So, I decided to just walk as fast as I could, sometimes staggering side to side losing my balance a little bit. This was not at all surprising considering all the miles of portaging and paddling I had done since my last break on Crooked Lake. Crooked Lake!!!- that was forever ago it felt. (That was 38 hours and 140 miles ago without even a 10-minute rest). I continued to push hard and put extra concentration when walking on the 12” wide wood plank sections. I made good time at first but slowed later as I was forced by shoulder pain to take the canoe off my shoulders with increasing frequency. But I kept making progress and I felt pretty good considering. Not at all a hallucinating wreck like I was in 2017. Blisters and chaffing made for pain in my feet but I did my best to not give it much credence.

I purposefully hit “OK” messages on my Spot when I crossed the three roadways knowing my friend Lori would likely be watching and waiting for me at the Grand Portage Fort. I didn’t want her waiting unnecessarily too long for me. Sure enough, as I emerged from the woods at the Fort, Lori was there as well as my friend Marci. I hurriedly continued to the Fort gate (the finish line), touched the bow of my boat to the gate, and set it to the ground. Our watches read 11:47 pm. Hit my Spot “OK” for my official finish time. Lori and Marci had to do the math for me- 66 hours 47 minutes. A good finish time!

Only two things I wanted at this point- get my boots off and close my eyes.

 


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