2018 Team BeaVer Fever Kruger Challenge
Fifteen challengers were present at the start of the Kruger Challenge route in International Falls. The distance to Grand Portage finish is roughly 250-270 miles depending on selected route. These events are time-restricted challenges, not races, but human nature had me sizing up the other teams. I had heard rumors that the youngest-age team of 2 guys, Kelso and Nordstjernen, were gunning to beat my previous years’ solo time of 91 hours. I hardly gave that a thought…good for them and good luck- it would have to be earned through some hardship, that I knew.
At 8:30 am all teams launched into the big waters of Rainy Lake and east we paddled into slight headwinds of up to 10 mph. Of course, on a big lake like Rainy, this produced waves up to a foot and a half. With our narrow Wenonah Minnesota 2 canoes, some of the bigger waves came over the gunwales as the bow bounced up and down. I noted my partner MAKK up front was taking the brunt of the bouncing and ALL of the water splashing into her lap. I kinda felt bad for her as no one likes to be stuck in wet clothes and she was already soaked from the waist down and I expected this to continue most of the day. So to lighten the mood, I calmly asked “Kendra, do you ever get sea sick?” She played along and said “no never have!” and she later added that “the bouncing is fun, kind of like an amusement park ride only for free”. Very good! - a positive attitude goes far when faced with unpleasant conditions.
As we move eastward, we set a pace that I think we can sustain for a long day. MAKK and I begin to pull away from the rest of our team and the other teams except for those two young guys whose WaterTribe names I can’t pronounce. Their names sounded of Norwegian heritage so that is what I begin calling them, “The Norwegians”. The Norwegians pull slightly ahead and I let them go. Later as we enter an area filled with islands, I noticed that they stop paddling at important navigational moments. We would nearly catch up and then they begin paddling again going the way we were heading. Hmmm, I think they may be using me to help with what direction to take (or maybe their maps aren’t so good?). I relay this observation to MAKK and we agree not to catch up with them anymore. Instead we use this opportunity to reunite with the rest of our team. The last sighting of the Norwegians for the day is when we dropped south into Black Bay.
The rest of the daylight paddling is noneventful. MAKK continues to set the pace in my canoe and I follow cadence but this puts us in front of our team throughout the day. So every so often we would stop and wait. When canoes #1 and 2 catch up, they want their time to rest, eat, and drink water too. This is not good for progress and was supposed to be avoided. I grow concerned as I know this will cause our average speed to drop and we will fall behind schedule. We finished with Rainy, then through Kabetogama Lake and into Namakan Lake when darkness begins to fall. I turn on a red-lit flashlight taped to a thwart so I can read my deck compass mounted on the floor of my canoe. I had hoped since our plan was to stay close together, the other boats would be able to see the red glow and could follow me at night as I navigate.
Rain begins to fall along with darkness. Thunderstorms are creeping up on us from behind. We are back into “bouncy” waves again. I can’t see the other boats behind…all these things are not good. MAKK and I stop paddling once again and shine headlamps back into the rainy darkness hoping to reunite. It works and I find out they can’t see the red light in my boat good enough. Next we try glow sticks and off we go. Thunderstorms bear down on us and again we quickly lose track of each other. I flee for some protection of the southern shoreline. A motorized fishing boat can be heard approaching fast. MAKK and I both agree we don’t like getting run over. I turn on my headlamp and shine at them and they veer off behind us where the other canoes should be. We can hear the motor heads cursing at our companions as again they run too close to canoes in the night (I’m sure they are surprised and frustrated by these canoeists popping up from out of nowhere). The six of us safely make it near enough to shore as the first wave of thunderstorms pass and I push the “I’m OK” button on my Spot to indicate we were. I’m feeling uneasy for what we just went through and our continued struggles to stay together. And they still can’t see my boat with the dim glow stick lights so JimmyJustice throws out the idea to strap his Luci Light to the stern of my boat. Problem solved! That can be seen well enough and still doesn’t interfere with my night vision.
Lightning continues to flash steadily off to the south and west of us. So frequent are the flashes as to make bow paddlers movements look like a strobe-light affect. With the promise of more thunderstorms to come, there was a chance we will get caught out in a wind burst that could capsize us. Earlier in the summer, I sent out a YouTube video to the team on how to rescue capsized boats using the canoe on canoe method and I had requested that everyone try it. So sometime that evening with capsize conditions possible I asked, “did everyone practice capsize recovery?” Oops, no one did. So we briefly went over what we would do. We were not going to stop for thunderstorms and I trusted my partners would not have problems saving me if need be.
Ahead lay an optional portage called “Grassy” which I was told was more of a winter trail due to wet boggy conditions or we could stay on the water. Timewise it was not much faster than staying on the water but with the nasty weather getting off the water seemed like a good idea. I had never been to this area before and was pleased to find the portage. A sign warned us of traps set nearby to catch wolves. We scatter down the portage with MAKK out in front of me. I have our canoe on my shoulders so I have a hard time seeing her. Suddenly she yells “trap!” and I fear she is caught in one. Nope, she just almost fell over one that was already sprung. Why some dummy set this right in the trail where people walk seems silly to me. We continue along and yes this portage is soft, mucky, and boggy. It is a challenge not to get stuck in the mud and eventually, MAKK falls through deeper than her knee. She is stuck and could use help. That’s right, I recall, I promised not to leave her behind on a rock so I decide it is my duty to help. We just get going again when, from behind us, I hear WhiteWolf yell that he fell in and is stuck. I do not go back to help as I know there is someone else back there that can.
Back on the water of Sand Point Lake, lightning continues an awesome light show and giving me momentary opportunities to see where shoreline is in an otherwise black night. We push on for our planned resting spot still hours away. At times I question if we should take shelter from the storms and especially when I can’t tell if the following 2 canoes are still coming or have lost me in the storm’s confusion. We hug the shore when we can and run for shore when we can’t! At around midnight, we enter the BWCA at the south end of Sand Point Lake. Unknown to us at the time, somewhere near here, the Norwegians are holed up under a cabin deck for shelter. We continue on heading to our destination of the south end of Little Vermillion Lake. Two miles away from camp, torrential rains pour down on us making navigation near impossible and seeing anything impossible. I veer toward shoreline so I can hug the shore and not paddle past our planned camp. I question to myself how the hell we are going to set up camp in this downpour and try to come up with a plan for what I will do when camp is found. The other 2 canoes cannot see me and after some time they go to shore to empty boats of rainwater. At 1:30 am the rain quits, MAKK and I reach the designated camp, she begin putting up tents, I get cold supper pulled out of packs, and with flashlights pointed out into the lake, become reunited with everyone once again. We are 3 hours behind schedule due to slower than planned paddle speed, headwinds, and 5 hours of lightning/thunderstorm-induced confusion. Despite this, we are satisfied and in good spirits for what we accomplished this first day. Adventure is about overcoming adversity and today we did! For everyone but me, today’s 57 miles paddled/portaged is a new all-time high. As we head for our tents, I say we are getting up in 2.5 hours from now. I think some of the team thought I was joking…. Tomorrow will be a new test for all with another long day planned.