Peter and Matt's 2019 Kruger Challenge
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.