Part 1 of 4
[paragraph break] After Matt and I completed the Kruger-Waddell Challenge from International Falls to Lake Superior at Grand Portage in 97.5 hours in September 2018, we had genuine respect for the 80 hours 40 minutes established course record set in 1968 by Verlen Kruger and Clint Waddell. We also thought we understood what it would take, at least in theory, for a tandem team to shave off 17 hours from our time, in order to give the Kruger-Waddell record a serious challenge. [paragraph break] We were also aware, through BeaV, of an International Falls to Grand Portage claim of 78.5 hours by Dan Litchfield and Steve Park of Ely, in a MN 3 circa 1996 via the Namakan River route. We believed this record and set our goal to beat it too. [paragraph break] First of all, we knew that we had slept too much in September. We stopped for an average of 4 hours on each of the 3 nights, then we slept another 1.5 hours at Partridge Falls before starting the Grand Portage. That came to 13.5 potential hours that could be cut if we were tough enough to continue at the same pace without any sleep. Second, we knew that Kruger and Waddell’s route was 21 miles shorter. In September 2018 we started at the far western end of Rainy Lake at the Rainier City Beach, the location chosen by BeaV and GrandmaL for the September challenge, but Clint and Verlen started 9 miles farther east at Sha-Sha Resort and took the Dawson Portage shortcut through Canada, shaving 12 miles off the standard Loon River route. At a 4 mph average, 21 miles might amount to another 5 hours of savings, for a total of 18.5 hours in savings. Enough to beat the record? Perhaps, but barely! [paragraph break]
Practice Launch from Sha-Sha Resort on the evening of Friday May 24. [paragraph break] Matt and I were very constrained by our available dates for a record attempt. Memorial Day weekend was our only option. If the weather forecast cooperated, we would go for it. If not, we would cancel the plan and enjoy a leisurely weekend paddle with our families. [paragraph break] We were keenly aware of how critical the weather was to success. Memorial Day weekend’s moon was going to be late in the last quarter, mostly useless for night-time navigation. If there was a cloudy night on a complicated lake like Crooked or Lac LaCroix, we didn’t think we could find our way. Temperature was also important. If the nights were too cold, we would be in danger of hypothermia in our sleepless state. Most importantly, the wind must be out of the west. The days of headwind we experienced in September 2018 taught us that even a moderate headwind can kill both your morale and your speed. If a bad headwind came up for any significant length of time on any of the large lakes, we knew we had no chance at holding onto a record-setting pace. [paragraph break] We felt that an attempt in late May was a good choice from a seasonal perspective. Although a bit early in the year for comfortable night-time temperatures, close to the summer solstice we could maximize our daylight for navigation. It ended up that the cold might have actually been a blessing in disguise, since it forced us to keep paddling to stay warm, and it helped keep our minds less foggy. We also knew the water would be high on the Pigeon River. After suffering through a nightmare 6 hours dragging our canoe in the dark down the shallow rapids of the Pigeon River in September, we thought we could possibly shave another 5 hours off by doing it in spring. BeaV suspected (but didn’t tell us until after we found out the hard way) that the biggest drawback of a May border route run would be the Grand Portage itself, which might not yet be cleared of downed trees from the winter. After we finished our attempt BeaV told me that he figured we might lose most of the time we gained from high water on the Pigeon to bad conditions on the Grand Portage. His suspicions were right. [paragraph break] In a discussion with GrandmaL, BeaV, and Kendra, we decided as a group that all serious border route record attempts should start at Sha-Sha Resort on Rainy Lake and pass through the Dawson Portage, in order to compare apples-to-apples with the original Kruger-Waddell record. Still, Matt and I wondered why Clint and Verlen chose to start at Sha-Sha instead of at the logical point 9 miles west at the end of Rainy Lake. Had they been staying at Sha-Sha or did they know someone there? We suspect that their reason was that Dove Point at Sha-Sha Resort is the clear division point between the resort and cabin-lined shores of western Rainy Lake and the gateway to the wilderness of Voyageurs National Park. In other words, Clint and Verlen may have been thinking in terms of crossing entire wilderness areas (Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters/Quetico) instead of in terms of crossing a series of individual lakes and streams. [paragraph break] We knew from personal conversations with Clint Waddell and a trip report he wrote in October 1968 that he and Verlen were very comfortable taking the shortest possible route. Clint clearly remembers taking the Gold Portage in Voyageur’s National Park between Rainy Lake and Kabetogama, the Dawson portage shortcut (saving 12 miles on the Loon River) and a shortcut around Coleman Island on Lac LaCroix. He also thinks they took the Grassy Portage shortcut between Namakan and Sand Point Lakes, although his memory of the exact route is foggy beyond those details. Based on this information, we concluded that all shortcuts were allowed, and we spent weeks studying the maps to find the most efficient route across each lake. We carefully planned our route using CalTopo, plotting a course and numbering the 216 mile markers with waypoints for quick reference. In the final days before starting the attempt, my wife and I paddled out to see the Crooked Lake pictographs, exploring along the way and familiarizing ourselves with the quickest route up the Basswood River. Matt and I also discussed alternate routes around particular islands depending on wind conditions. We knew that Verlen Kruger was very meticulous in planning his trips, so we tried to follow his example. [paragraph break] We originally planned to use GPS as our primary navigation tool, but BeaV strongly encouraged us to stick with map and compass, in fairness to Clint and Verlen. We argued that Clint and Verlen didn’t have a Kevlar canoe or bent-shaft carbon-fiber paddles either, but eventually we agreed to map and compass, bringing a GPS for use only if we became completely lost (we never used it). Matt mounted compasses to the thwarts in front of our seats, and I printed two complete sets of custom maps on water-resistant paper. We did not feel comfortable forgoing the GPS, but it turned out to be easier than expected. In fact, we found that we spent less time pausing to study the route ahead than we did in September with the GPS, since our paper maps showed a much larger area at a glance than the GPS screen. [paragraph break] Obtaining the Canadian RABC permit and the US I-68 permit for entering Canada at the Dawson portage turned out to be painless. In fact, the 24/7 Canadian and US customs offices at the border crossing in International Falls will issue these permits to walk-in applicants. In addition to the permits, our entry into the BWCA was Entry Point #71 - From Canada, since the first paddle strokes within the Boundary Waters were on Lac LaCroix after the Dawson portage. [paragraph break] The big question was: Could we still paddle after 3 days without sleep? We had no idea, and no time to test ourselves. We didn’t even bother trying to condition ourselves for it, because we couldn’t think of a practical way to do so. I asked some endurance athletes for advice, but they had nothing meaningful to offer. Our conclusion: Staying awake would primarily be a mental challenge. We would need to be so committed to the goal that stopping for sleep would be unthinkable. If one of us began to ask for it, the other would have to persuade him to change his mind. We also knew that staying comfortable (but not too comfortable!) would make us less prone to giving up on the fight against sleep. Therefore we needed to plan our diet very carefully and do everything as efficiently and comfortably as possible. We had to avoid getting injured, chilled, sunburned, hungry, thirsty, or depressed in order to focus on staying awake. [paragraph break] The best way to stay warm is to stay dry. Matt wore neoprene waders, which I secretly envied for most of the trip. We packed more clothing layers than we had in September, but we should have packed even more. I forgot to bring a windbreaker, but my heavy extra wool sweater was sufficient. Wearing my life jacket also helped me stay warm, but the nights were still too chilly. [paragraph break] Matt is in great shape and can paddle harder for longer hours than anyone I know. With his power in front, and my steady pace in back, we didn't feel like physical training was necessary. The hard part, we thought, would be staying focused and dedicated to the goal. When we jumped in the canoe on Friday night for a quick practice launch, it was our first time paddling together in 2019. We felt great, and ready to go! [paragraph break]
Packing our food and gear at a hotel room in International Falls on Friday the 24th. [paragraph break] Matt was responsible for figuring out the diet, planning for 80 hours of intense paddling. He decided that we would add Tailwind (a glucose-based endurance powder) to all our lake water. We didn’t think it would be wise to survive on Tailwind alone, despite the advertisements claiming this is possible. Matt packed lots of tortillas, peanut butter, Cliff bars, Snickers bars, and 3 Musketeers bars, as well as Ready-Rice packages and MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) entrees with flameless heaters so that we would have something warm and comforting to eat. We dumped olive oil on everything, and gulped it down like a drink. Matt’s planning was excellent, except that he packed more food than we needed (since we went faster than anticipated), so I ended up carrying a lot of uneaten weight in the food bag on the Grand Portage. [paragraph break] As for miscellaneous items, we packed bivy sacks in case of very bad weather, as well as a single sleeping bag for emergencies. Matt upgraded our Wenonah MN2 canoe with bucket seats and foot braces. We mounted a timelapse camera to the bow in hopes of filming the attempt (but the lens came loose after 12 hours of paddling). We had a spare headlamp and a spare paddle, which turned out to be our single most critical piece of gear. We brought nothing else except spoons, some basic first-aid items, ropes and bungees, a Thermarest pad, and the clothes we wore. After I broke my paddle we wished we had 5-minute epoxy to repair it – let future challengers take note. [paragraph break] We arrived in International Falls on Friday, having obtained our BWCA entry permit for Saturday, and spent the day at a hotel organizing our stuff and anxiously watching the weather and wind forecast. The final regional forecast which we studied (and memorized!) on Friday night is shown below. We were very pleased about the consistent west wind forecasted to start after 6am and continue all day Saturday. This was our ticket to success, and we realized that Saturday would have to be the biggest mileage paddling day of our lives. We decided that we would aim for at least 75 miles in the first 24 hours in order to get ahead of schedule, and just try to hang in there after that. We were also pleased about the clear skies for navigation on Saturday night. We worried about the cloudy skies on Sunday night and the east wind on Monday, but tried not to think about it too much. [paragraph break]
Weather forecast from windy.com for the days of our border route attempt.
Part 2 of 4
Day 1, Saturday May 25 – Sunday May 26: [paragraph break] On Friday night we did a practice launch at Sha-Sha, then ate a big meal of poutine and burgers at the Border Bar in International Falls. I slept poorly, waking up frequently and thinking about what could go wrong in the days ahead. This was frustrating because I knew I needed to be rested up in the morning. At 4:30am I checked the wind forecast and saw that the wind would be changing to the west sooner than we expected. I woke up Matt and my wife Rebecca and we hurried to get everything in the car. We drove to Sha-Sha Resort at the end of the Island View Peninsula, arriving in the gray dawn with the west wind already changing. A gentle drizzle was falling that continued for most of the morning. We rushed to load the canoe and get on the water, pressing the OK button on the SPOT tracker to mark the official start time of 6:00am on the dot. [paragraph break]
The actual launch from Sha-Sha Resort at 6:00am on Saturday May 25. [paragraph break] Heading southeast across Black Bay, the still-changing southwest wind was not a huge help, slowing us down a little bit with some larger waves that we had to pay attention to. Feeling anxious about navigation, I worried that I might have aimed for the wrong bay for the mouth of the Ash River, but we were fine. [paragraph break]
Starting the Gold Portage on the Ash River. [paragraph break] Less than an hour after our departure we were heading upstream as quickly as possible, over the short Gold Portage, then up a few more bends to Kabetogama. The west wind was blowing medium sized rollers, perfect weather to shoot across the big lake. Staying out in the middle south of Cutover Island, we aimed for the gap that looked like the right place to squeeze through the narrows. It was. So far so good. [paragraph break]
Big water and rollers on Kabetogama. [paragraph break] Matt called out the hours and I called out the miles. We were doing almost exactly 5 mph, motivated at the end of each hour for a push to reach another 5 miles. We drank our Tailwind steadily, pleased that it actually tasted pretty good. After 5 hours we were crossing the maze of islands dividing Kabetogama and Namakan. Sometimes I wasn’t sure we were exactly on course, but we always breathed a sigh of relief when we saw an island or bay where we expected it to appear. I worried about accidentally turning up the ominously-named Lost Bay, which would have looked fine for hours before we realized we were miles off course. [paragraph break] The west wind calmed a bit, which was nice because I no longer needed to drag my paddle like a rudder each time a roller swept under the canoe and tried to surge us off our heading. We fairly flew across Namakan, turned the corner down to Grassy Bay, and reached the landing at Grassy Portage in just under 7 hours at 12:38pm. Already ahead of schedule and delighted with the progress! [paragraph break] Grassy Portage in spring should be renamed Swampy Portage. On this and all the other portages, Matt carried the canoe with a small daypack, while I carried the food in a CCS hybrid canoe pack. The wet portage was unpleasant, but we pushed through. On the other side, Matt dropped the canoe, and that’s when disaster struck. Unused to the new way Matt had bungeed my paddle under the rear seat, I tossed the heavy food bag on top of my paddle and snapped the shaft in half. I was very upset about my mistake, so early in the trip. We had the spare bent paddle, but it was heavier – mostly plastic instead of carbon fiber. I must use that one from here on, and we were only 35 miles into a 216 mile trip. If Matt’s carbon paddle broke, our trip would be over and our great start would be squandered. Not only that, but as we left the portage I realized that I had left my warm hat behind at the beginning of the portage. We now had only one warm hat between us, and 3 cold nights ahead. Two serious mistakes at once, and both my fault. [paragraph break]
Sunshine and perfect conditions on Sand Point Lake. [paragraph break] I apologized to Matt. There was nothing to be done but get back on the water on Sand Point Lake. Before long I was accustomed to the heft of the spare paddle, and it worked fine. Sand Point Lake was uneventful, still cruising 5 mph behind a gentle tailwind. We passed the 40 mile mark at a narrows on the international border, then turned left into Portage Bay to find the Dawson Portage on the Canadian side, reaching the portage landing in just over 8.5 hours at 2:37pm. A tongue-in-cheek sign at the start of the 4-mile portage read, “Rest Area: 4 miles”. We started up the first climb on the 2-track gravel road, munching on candy bars and drinking Tailwind. The portage runs for most of its length along the north rim of an overflowing creek filled with swamps and beaver dams. It was therefore muddy and buggy, but not too bad. I got some distance ahead of Matt and startled a young black bear on the trail a few yards ahead of me. Unlike the 5 moose and 1 bear we saw on the September run, this was the only large animal either of us saw. [paragraph break]
On the Dawson Portage. [paragraph break] The Dawson portage was plenty long enough. It was littered with abandoned busses and trucks, used over the decades to haul people and gear over the shortcut to the fishing camps on Lac LaCroix. It caused us to drop an hour off our 5 mph average, but that was hardly unexpected. When we finally got to the “rest area” on the other side, we were ready for a 10 minute break. Then back on the water across the Wilkins Bay arm of Lac LaCroix, to reunite with the border a few miles farther on. The 5 mph pace was becoming a chore. Turning north, the now northwest wind was briefly not in our favor, but then we turned east again to go across the top of Lac LaCroix. There was little to talk about, just the occasional comments about which point or island we were passing and how fast we were going. Amazingly, we realized that we were ahead of pace to do 100 miles in 24 hours, far better than we had hoped. If only we could hang on through the night, we could cross Crooked and maybe reach Basswood by sunrise. [paragraph break] The islands at the top of Lac LaCroix can be tricky to navigate, but we slid through without incident. Then there is a long, slow crossing of a big bay far from shore, which seems to drag by. The wind was mostly calm, and the miles were still clipping. After 13 hours and 60 miles at 7pm we turned south to shortcut around Coleman Island. Through Fish Steak Narrows, the wind was still gently blowing from the northwest, perfect conditions. Down the final miles of Lac LaCroix as the sun got low, and we pulled up to the Canadian side portage to Bottle Lake right at sunset, 15 hours from Sha-Sha. [paragraph break] As the sun went down I started to get chilly without a warm hat. We needed something warm, so we heated up a rice pouch and an MRE for supper. Seeing that I was shivering, Matt offered me his wool hat. He graciously let me wear it for the rest of the trip, using his windbreaker hood as his only head covering. We took a 10 minute break at each end of the portage, then felt better. [paragraph break] The warm food and the hat helped, but now we had our first challenge of night-time navigation on Bottle Lake and Iron Lake. We watched Mars rising in the southeast, and the Milky Way came out. Often through the night I found myself using Mars as my reference, staying a few degrees left of that heading. We followed the north shore of Iron Lake, found the channel we were looking for and popped out within earshot of Curtain Falls, exactly where we wanted to be. [paragraph break] The Curtain Falls portage went quickly, then back on the water on the western end of Crooked Lake. It was very dark now, but all night long the bright starlight created enough of a glow to make out the silhouettes of islands and shorelines. We picked our way past island after island, constantly checking the map. Suddenly Matt spotted a string of bright lights in the sky, directly overhead and moving fast. We watched them in amazement for about 2 minutes as each light brightened and dimmed, wondering what they were. Perhaps it was a satellite or large meteor that had broken up into many tiny pieces? After the trip we learned that it was the SpaceX Starlink launch, bringing the first cluster of 60 broadband internet satellites to orbit. [paragraph break] The hours wore on. The 5 mph pace was long gone, more like 4 mph now. I found myself continually shaking my head in order to clear my mind and focus on navigation. If I was already getting tired, how would the next days go? Not long after midnight I made a couple minor navigational errors. Once I ended up 100 yards left of the point I needed to hit and ran into an island, but we soon figured it out. Another time I expected a channel between two islands to open up in a place where none appeared. Then I thought I saw the correct channel, but we found ourselves heading southwest instead of southeast. Retracing our steps and going a bit further, we located the channel with only a few minutes’ delay. As we started to turn due south on the eastern side Crooked, the moon finally rose at 2:30am. It was orange and weak, and did not help. We passed a campsite with a roaring bonfire, no doubt they wondered what we were up to at that hour. Slowly we crawled south, ticking off the miles one by one toward the end of the long and challenging 17 mile lake. The sky grew slightly gray, and the temperature dropped. We passed the pictographs and decided to take a shortcut portage through Greer Lake, avoiding Lower Basswood Falls and leaving Crooked Lake at 3:22am. That portage, along with one out of Greer, were both crummy and overgrown, but they were mercifully short and we were very glad to stretch our legs and put Crooked Lake behind us. [paragraph break] Cruising up the Basswood River at 4am, we realized that it might still be possible to reach the 100 mile mark just south of American Point on Basswood Lake within 24 hours. That motivated us to redouble our efforts. We hurried up the rapids and started the long Basswood Portage. Without hesitation we jumped back in on Basswood Lake at 4:50am, stroking hard and glad to see the sunrise. Regaining a 5 mph pace for a few miles, we passed the spot which I estimated to be 100 miles just as Matt’s watch chimed 6am, the end of the first 24 hours.
Part 3 of 4
Day 2, Sunday May 26 – Monday May 27: [paragraph break] We were spent. There was a tiny rocky island on Basswood just a couple hundred yards away. We paddled straight to the little island and took a half hour rest in the sunshine, not sleeping but just sitting or lying on the rocks. My back was hurting from a full day of hunching over. I took some acetaminophen and we ate snacks. We were very happy with the progress so far, but uncertain if we had pushed ourselves too hard. We joked that we were currently on a sub-50 hour pace for the trip, but we knew that from now on we would have to slow down or risk burning out. Still, at this rate we might not need to try to go 80 hours without sleep. The faster we paddled the sooner we could sleep! [paragraph break]
Dozing (and hallucinating?) in the sun while paddling across glassy Basswood Lake. [paragraph break] Crossing the rest of Basswood was almost like taking a break. Down to 4 mph, with the warm morning sun shining down and a big chunk of the route under our belts, we felt comfortable and more committed than ever to breaking the record. The wind was calm and the water glassy, as it had been all night long. We took a shortcut around Ottawa Island, then allowed ourselves to doze as we paddled across to Prairie Portage, passing the 108 mile half-way mark and reaching the portage at 8:45am. Our minds felt pretty foggy and disoriented in the warm sun. Matt started imagining faces in the trees around this point, and I found myself struggling more than usual to hold onto the heading. [paragraph break] I wondered if we were letting ourselves slack a little too much, but I couldn’t find the motivation to go any faster. The start and finish lines were too far away to think about. Ahead of schedule, we didn’t have a clear idea of how far we should try to go today. Remembering the 3rd day of the September trip in which we made it from Lower Basswood Falls to Gneiss Lake on the Granite River, we decided that we would shoot, at minimum, for a crossing of Gunflint before the end of this next 24 hour section. Since the weather was still nice, we needed to keep going strong. A 75 mile day would be good, if we could manage it. Up Birch Lake we cruised, seeing other paddlers on the water for the first time. The string of portages between Birch and Knife Lakes slowed us down a bit. [paragraph break]
At Prairie Portage. [paragraph break] One paddler called out to me at a portage landing, “Knife Lake is beautiful! Enjoy!” I thanked him. “Where are you guys camping?” he asked. “Just passing through.” I replied without emotion. “Oh, what’s your goal?” he asked. “We’re trying to beat a Boundary Waters speed record. We haven’t slept much.” “Actually, we haven’t slept at all,” corrected Matt. “That’s nice, good luck!” he replied. [paragraph break] Some time later another guy called out, “Where are you two going in such a hurry?” “Grand Portage,” said Matt. “Well that’s a haul. I did the Grand a few years ago. Take a rest every 15 minutes, it works wonders.” [paragraph break] Since we had so little interaction with anyone but each other, these short conversations stood out in our memories. [paragraph break]
On a small lake amidst the series of portages between Birch and Knife Lakes. Our timelapse camera continued to work intermittently up to this point. This is one of the last stills before the image went completely blurry due to condensation and a loose lens. [paragraph break] Knife Lake seemed to drag by. It is very hard for me to remember on which lakes we had hallucinations, but I think they started for me on Knife Lake and continued on-and-off until Moose Lake on the last day. It was weird and disorienting, often more like imagining nonsense conversations rather than seeing things. We were always subconsciously aware of what was going on. Matt started seeing things on Basswood Lake, but he says that by that last day he got used to them and was able to fend them off more easily. Since all he had to do was paddle (no thinking about navigation), he was able to relax more and doze frequently. Many times he fell completely asleep, and I would notice that the strength was gone from his strokes. Then I would wake him up with a sharp, "Paddle harder!" and he would snap back. Occasionally I fell asleep momentarily, but Matt would notice us drifting off the heading and wake me up. [paragraph break] We took turns paddling and eating food on Knife Lake. Matt seemed to be in slightly better shape, but the food break helped both of us greatly. The sun was becoming covered with clouds. We passed the narrow spot and continued northeast, the wind still calm and the miles still moving steadily by until we finally reached the portage to Ottertrack at 1:29pm, having come 126 miles in 31.5 hours. [paragraph break] Ottertrack Lake with its lichen-covered cliffs is one of my favorites on the Border Route. We passed the Benny Ambrose cabin site, where there was still a snowdrift on the southern shore. The temperature dropped as a drizzle began. Through the narrows to the portage, finding ourselves struggling more and more to hold the steady pace. [paragraph break] We crossed the series of small lakes and portages toward Saganaga, hoping that the wind would remain calm long enough to cross the big lake. Matt noticed that I wasn't interested in eating food, which concerned him. Several times throughout the final 2 days he called for a break so that we could warm up rice and MRE entrees, even though I didn't want to stop. This was wise, because I did feel more clear-headed and renewed after eating something. For his part plenty of food was absolutely necessary, since he was burning calories more quickly with his faster strokes in the front. Occasionally on the portages he got light-headed and I would hurry to dig out some candy bars for him. [paragraph break] While still sheltered on little Swamp Lake, we pulled up to a campsite and flopped down in the drizzle beside a rock for a few minutes to heat up rice and an MRE. While we were resting, two fishermen out of Seagull Lake paddled up, talking loudly and playing music on loudspeakers. Their canoe was the most overloaded, ridiculous sight we have seen in canoe country. There was at least 300 pounds of gear. Coolers, tents, fishing tackle, bait, at least 6 fishing poles, and chairs, all piled high in a huge heap in the middle and held into the canoe with straps and bungees, plus two dogs. The gunwales were just a couple inches above the waterline. [paragraph break] “That’s the most stuff I’ve ever seen in a canoe.” I remarked. “Travel in style or not at all,” one of the men retorted. [paragraph break] It turned out that they had recently left this campsite, but were returning for a fishing pole one of them thought he had forgotten. He tromped around the campsite, ignoring us, didn’t find the missing pole, gave up (saying that it was probably buried in the canoe), and grumpily got back in. They paddled off. It was an amusing juxtaposition of two groups with totally opposite paddling goals and philosophies. We finished our meal and headed out too. [paragraph break] The wind was picking up. We worried that there might be a bad headwind across Saganaga, and we were glad that our overloaded friends hadn’t tried to go this way. They would have swamped for sure. When we came through the narrows out to open water, it wasn’t bad. More of a gentle crosswind out of the north. We stroked up the southwestern bay to the point, then chose our heading carefully in order to cross the big open water and reach the islands at the correct opening to get through the maze of islands beyond. As we worked through the islands some didn’t look right, but I was worrying too much. Our heading was good and we made it through to Saganaga Falls without trouble at 6:58pm. Another big lake safely crossed. 142 miles in 37 hours. [paragraph break] Over the falls and upstream on the Granite River. We were glad that there was still a bit of daylight, since the first portage on the Granite River is hardly a portage at all – more of a wade up a slippery and rocky shoreline - very dangerous for unsteady legs. Across Maraboeuf Lake and the shortcut portage, then on to Gneiss Lake as the light faded. I developed a bad cough, hacking almost constantly for the rest of the trip and partially losing my voice. In September when we attempted the Granite Chain at night in similar conditions we gave up on Gneiss Lake and slept for 4 hours. This time we had no choice but to keep going. We were still far from our goal for the night. [paragraph break] As soon as the sun was gone navigation became very difficult. Although the wind was still wonderfully calm, there was a heavy overcast and drizzle. In pitch darkness, we struggled to find the portages out of Granite Lake toward Clove Lake. At one spot where no portage was shown on the map the water was too fast to go upstream, so we had to bushwhack a portage along the riverbank. Then for a little while we became thoroughly disoriented in the drizzle and fog, forced to blindly trust the compass. Exhausted and discouraged by our greatly slowed progress in the dark, I suggested to Matt that we stop for a couple hours to get some rest on shore, until there was enough light to continue. Matt refused. Persuading me that any progress at all, no matter how slow, would get us closer to Magnetic Lake and freedom from the complicated twisting channels and portages of the Granite Chain, we decided to press on. He reminded me that the wind was forecasted to change to a headwind from the northeast in the morning. Tonight was our last chance to get across Gunflint without a potentially trip-ruining headwind. [paragraph break] Then we ran into a bay of the shoreline that we didn’t expect, panicking for a moment that we were lost. But after consulting the map, we guessed that we were on the left side of a short peninsula at the north end of Clove lake, instead of following the channel on the right side. Back on course, we groped our way through the fog down the left shore of the lake, listening for the sound of flowing water at the mouth of the Pine River. Once we passed that, we found the campsite a bit farther south, and after that the portage landing. [paragraph break] Across the portage, it was time to search for Blueberry Portage, less than half a mile away but nestled in a maze of blind channels. Surprisingly, we found it on the first try, then crossed and continued toward the next portage at Little Rock Falls, which was not difficult to find. We could barely make out the shoreline on either side of the Pine River. I thought I remembered one more narrow spot with fast water, and I was right. We dragged and waded upstream, fighting the fast current, then we were finally free for the last couple bends of the river, emerging wet and tired but happy onto Magnetic Lake at 12:50am. The Granite River had taken its toll on our pace. We were now at 153 miles in 43 hours. [paragraph break] The cluster of cabins on the peninsula at the northeast end of Gunflint Lake (Canadian side) are all owned by the extended Preus family, descendants of the 1921-25 Minnesota governor J. A. O. Preus. Matt’s girlfriend Ruth Preus was spending Memorial Day weekend at the cabins with her brother Peter, both enthusiastic followers of our attempt. My wife Rebecca and baby Annika were also spending the weekend waiting for us at Gunflint, traveling back and forth by motorboat from Heston’s Lodge (on the south shore, where Rebecca had internet access to track our progress) and the Preus cabins. On Sunday they had been checking our status continually, trying to estimate when we would reach Gunflint. While Matt and I were on Saganana they thought we might make it by 9 or 10 pm, but they didn’t realize how much the Granite River section would slow us down in the dark. Little Annika fell asleep. The group stayed up past midnight watching our SPOT track progress, until they saw we were getting close to Magnetic Lake. Then they all jumped into Peter Preus’ motorboat and hurried up to meet us. We saw their boat come through the narrows between Gunflint and Magnetic Lake and speed toward us, and knew it must be them. They cheered and took photos, and motored alongside for a few minutes. They had brought my forgotten windbreaker, which would have been nice in the cold drizzle, but I refused because we wanted to remain unsupported. They asked when we thought we would reach the finish line at Lake Superior, and I guessed that it would be about midnight or 1am on Tuesday morning. [paragraph break]
Paddling alongside Rebecca, Annika, and Peter and Ruth Preus on Magnetic Lake at 1am. [paragraph break] After we passed through the narrows and entered Gunflint, Ruth, Rebecca, and Peter waved goodbye and motored back across to the lodge to drop Rebecca and Annika off for the night. Alone again in the darkness, we were cheered and ready to make the crossing of Gunflint. Although we were both cold and soaking wet from our experience on the Granite River, we stayed warm by paddling hard. Following the Canadian shore, we kept going until 2:45am, when we passed the Preus cabins. Peter Preus was still awake, watching for our headlamps from his cabin. He got out his kayak and paddled out to meet us, surprising us in the dark. We were very glad to see him. He paddled alongside us for 2 hours and peppered us with questions all the way to the end of the lake and across Little Gunflint Lake, giving us an extra burst of momentum and the distraction we needed to power through the early morning hours. A northeast headwind began to blow gently, bone-chilling cold and getting stronger with each hour. My legs were cold so I wrapped them in our foam Thermarest pad to keep the wind from getting through the layers. Our neoprene gloves were soaking wet inside and outside, and did little to keep our hands warm. [paragraph break] Peter stayed with us until the short railway portage landing between Little Gunflint and Little North lakes. When we came ashore, we were both exhausted and I was very chilled. I curled up on the ground and shivered for a little while. We could tell that Peter wanted to help us with the portage, but instead he shook our hands and paddled back toward his cabin, as the gray dawn began to grow. [paragraph break] With one hour remaining until the end of the second 24 hour period, we needed to push hard to get warm and make some miles. We crossed beautiful Little North Lake and came out on North Lake, turning due south toward Height of Land Portage as a red sunrise came up, illuminating the mist and creating a huge rainbow in the west. Over the Laurentian Divide to South Lake, then most of the way across the lake before Matt’s watch finally chimed 6am. The second day was over, and although we had only done 67 miles, we reminded ourselves that (aside from yesterday) this was still the farthest we had ever paddled on flat water in 24 hours.
Part 4 of 4
Day 3, Monday May 27 – Tuesday May 28: [paragraph break] This was it. The final day. With our great start, we were thinking that we might still be on pace to reach Lake Superior at the Grand Portage Stockade in about 66 hours, if the good weather held. But the bitter northeast headwind was getting worse. Still not enough to slow us down, but enough to make us anxious. [paragraph break] On South Lake I was again delirious. I had difficulty maintaining a straight heading, even though it should have been one of the easiest lakes to navigate on the whole route. Suddenly beside the right bow of the canoe I saw a large road sign with a right-turn arrow, and I swerved the canoe to obey. [paragraph break] An endless rapid stream of complete nonsense words were tumbling through my mind, and I couldn’t turn it off. We were both having trouble staying awake while paddling, so we kept waking each other to maintain the pace and heading. [paragraph break] At the portage from South Lake to Rat Lake I was very cold and miserable, desperately wishing I had more layers to put on. We started heating some rice and an MRE, which steamed as we crossed tiny Rat Lake. At the landing Matt took a bathroom break, and I put my hands into the food heater bag to try to warm them. The relief was wonderful. I huddled behind a tree trunk, holding the MRE heater packets, and fell peacefully asleep until Matt returned a couple minutes later. Then we ate our food and got back on the water to face the cold and drizzle on Rose Lake. “Come on, Peter,” said Matt, “we have to make it to the Pigeon River before dark.” I knew he was right. I couldn’t imagine safely running the whitewater rapids of the Pigeon River at flood stage without plenty of light to see the rocks. [paragraph break] The hallucinations continued. Matt kept seeing faces in the trees, and I saw my daughter playing on the shore. We understood what was happening, and kept on fighting them. Talking about them helped a lot. We couldn't imagine how BeaV was able to do 91 hours on his own in 2017 (on a longer route with no shortcuts!) with no one else to keep him motivated or distracted. [paragraph break] Rose Lake was long and we were paddling hard after the refreshing food. We were soon comfortably warm in spite of the gradually rising (but still gentle) headwind, focused on reaching and crossing the 2 mile Long Portage as quickly as possible. Warmth seemed to correlate with hallucinations and sleepiness. Being cold seemed to make us paddle and portage faster in hopes of warming up. [paragraph break] Long Portage went quickly, then on to Rove and Watap Lakes where the headwind grew rapidly stronger, causing us to really work hard. Although we were very tired, the tunnel vision toward the end was strong, and we felt like we were on the home stretch. [paragraph break] We portaged to Mountain Lake and found that the dreaded headwind was there in full force, coming down the 7-mile long narrow wind tunnel lake and whipping up choppy waves. There was no choice but to plunge on, hugging the south shore for shelter and calmer water behind each slight point of land. We crept on and on, making slow but consistent headway. We stopped at a campsite for a bathroom break and snacks. The back pain from the first day was still bothering me, especially on the portages. The hallucinations got worse for me. I became convinced that the hills on the far shore were covered in strange writing which I couldn’t decipher. Perhaps they were billboards? Eventually I realized that they were just trees. Suddenly a small white blimp appeared next to the canoe and floated alongside. [paragraph break] “I’m losing it,” I told Matt, “we’ve got to talk to each other to stay focused.” [paragraph break] For the next hour we asked each other questions and tried to maintain a conversation, successfully keeping our minds clear, then we fell silent again. Gradually we worked up the shore of Mountain Lake, passed the narrows, and fought more headwind and hallucinations across the last 2 miles to Lesser Cherry Portage. There the cold wind helped us wake up and stay alert through the 3 short portages and 2 small lakes between Mountain and Moose Lakes. [paragraph break] The headwind on 4-mile long Moose Lake was not lessened, but we were awake and learning to turn off or ignore the hallucinations. They didn’t come back for the rest of the trip. Half way across the lake the headwind began to slacken, finally dying to a gentle manageable breeze as we reached the other end. Across the long Canadian-side portage to North Fowl Lake, we felt like we were finally in the endgame. It was 4:52pm. We had come 191 miles in 59 hours, with 25 miles left to Lake Superior (including the 8.5 mile Grand Portage). We thought we had enough time to make it to the Pigeon River rapids before dark, but we would be cutting it close. [paragraph break] We hurried south across the Fowl Lakes, then crossed the nasty 1-mile Fowl Portage as quickly as possible, reminding ourselves constantly about the rapids ahead. At 7:10pm we finished the portage and jumped into the canoe on the beautiful, glassy, fast-flowing Pigeon River. It was wonderful to fly down the river, carried by the current. The first 4 river miles were flat and clear, but we still paddled hard, going as fast as possible toward the rapids, determined to get there well before sunset. [paragraph break] Then we came around a bend and the water got wild. I picked a route through the rocks and standing waves and Matt paddled hard. We flew through at well over 10 mph. It was done in less than 2 minutes. For one scary moment the canoe hung broadside on a rock and nearly took on water, but then we swept over and flew on. Downstream we went for another few minutes, then came to the second and wilder set of rapids. This time we worked together flawlessly as a team, dodging every rock at breakneck speed until it was over as quickly as it began. [paragraph break] The final miles of the river were slower and calmer, but the current still gave us a strong boost. The sun disappeared at 9pm as we neared Partridge Falls, where we landed at the portage, having covered 12 miles in 2 hours. [paragraph break] Exhilarated by the rapids and truly happy for once, we got out our headlamps and quickly portaged around Partridge Falls, getting straight back on the water for the final 1.5 miles to Fort Charlotte, reaching the start of the 8.5 mile Grand Portage to Lake Superior at 10pm. [paragraph break] At Fort Charlotte we ate a last warm meal, then got ready for the final push. I would carry both of our packs; Matt would carry the canoe. Based on our pace last time on the Grand Portage, we expected this to go smoothly and quickly. Our goal was now to reach Lake Superior in a total time of 67 hours. Although we had been here twice before, we had a little trouble finding the start of the portage in the dark, but once we found it we were off. Not for long. Almost immediately we came to a large fallen pine blocking the portage. Matt had to push the canoe over and then come around to the other side to get it. Then we came to another, and another, and another. The trail was also very muddy, but we told ourselves that it would certainly get better the closer we got to roads and civilization. It did not. We struggled along past downed tree after downed tree. Matt followed me because he couldn’t see whether he was about to walk into a tree or not, and he bumped into several. He told me later that for most of the portage he was very light-headed and disoriented, barely able to see where he was going in the dim headlamp light, and feeling like he was watching himself from outside as he walked. We reached the boardwalk at the beaver pond, then pushed on through more of the same, unable to make even 2 mph. It turned into a nightmare of fighting past leaning and downed trees. Matt couldn’t easily duck the canoe under the leaning trees, which were some of the worst obstacles. We reached the Old Highway 61 gravel road, and I could tell that the trail was taking its toll on him. I was almost feeling fresh, but he was getting steadily quieter and slower. The deadfalls continued to block our path. Matt’s top speed, even between deadfalls, slowed to 1.5 mph. I kept thinking that Highway 61 must be just ahead, but it never appeared. Just more downed trees. We were getting very frustrated with the trail conditions, and we felt that our record was slipping out of our grip. 68 hours came and went. Matt had more trouble staying on the trail and getting over the obstacles. I talked him through each obstacle, telling him how close we were. Once he carried the canoe straight off the trail into the woods. I had to yell at him to call him back and get him onto the trail. He refused to let me take the canoe. “I’m walking to the lake,” he said firmly. Feeling exasperated by the slow pace, I walked briskly ahead for a few minutes to find Highway 61, then dropped my packs and returned to let Matt know how close we were. [paragraph break] Finally, at 3am we crossed Highway 61, less than a mile remaining. And then at last we emerged at the Grand Portage Stockade, where Ruth and Rebecca were waiting and snapping pictures. Past the stockade, and down to the water. Matt got disoriented again and somehow couldn't find the water. He bashed the canoe into the wall of the fort, then I helped him down to the water. He dropped the canoe then we loaded our packs, climbed inside, and pressed the SPOT’s OK button at 3:25pm. We were done. Our final time was 69 hours 25 minutes. [paragraph break]
Canoe in the water on Lake Superior, crescent moon rising behind us. [paragraph break]
With GrandmaL at the finish. [paragraph break] Then we had to pull the canoe out of the water and portage back to the car. GrandmaL appeared, and took more photos. We did not have any good straps to tie the canoe on top of the car, so I stashed it in the woods. We drove to the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino and the girls helped us to the room. Matt took a shower, then I did, then we were snoring peacefully until morning. [paragraph break]
Feeling refreshed in the morning. [paragraph break] A great trip, but one that neither of us ever wants to attempt again, at least not at such a pace. We gave it everything we had, and we are content. [paragraph break]
With our wonderful support crew Ruth, Rebecca, and Annika at Grand Portage.