Peter and Matt's 2019 Kruger Challenge
by Kelso

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/25/2019
Entry Point: From CANADA (EP 71)
Exit Point: North Fowl Lake (EP 70)  
Number of Days: 3
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
This is a story of setting a goal and giving it everything we had, mentally and physically, across Voyageur’s National Park and the Boundary Waters. Many have asked how we broke the longstanding record by a full 11 hours. It was simple. After a great first day with favorable conditions, we were too committed to let our good start slip away, so we hung on grimly until the finish. There were beautiful moments enjoyed in the most pristine corners of the wilderness, with incredible stars, sunrises and sunsets, a rainbow, a black bear, and peaceful glassy waters. There were moments of fun and laughter as we pushed through goals, ran rapids, cheered each other on, and met family and friends. There were moments of weakness, discouragement, and frustration in the damp cold and dark, struggling to hold together and depending on each other to push through. The pace was grueling and relentless. We were too driven to pause and admire all the places we would have liked to enjoy. Attempting this challenge meant sacrificing many of the good and renewing aspects of a wilderness canoe trip, but now that our crazy goal is complete we can finally relax and return to enjoying the wilderness in the way we love.
Part 3 of 4
Day 2, Sunday May 26 – Monday May 27:

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!

Dozing (and hallucinating?) in the sun while paddling across glassy Basswood Lake.

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.

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.

At Prairie Portage.

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.

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.”

Since we had so little interaction with anyone but each other, these short conversations stood out in our memories.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Paddling alongside Rebecca, Annika, and Peter and Ruth Preus on Magnetic Lake at 1am.

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.

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.

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.