Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

We Eat Miles for Breakfast, a Kruger Challenge Story
by scotttimm

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 07/06/2022
Entry Point: Little Vermilion Lake (Crane Lake) (EP 12)
Exit Point: North Fowl Lake (EP 70)  
Number of Days: 8
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
Father/son duo take on the Kruger Waddell Challenge before he heads off to college.
"We Eat Miles for Breakfast"

If you don't have a teenager, you might not have thought about how hard the last couple of years have been for them. So many iconic events, traditions and opportunities were lost or delayed to Covid-19. I often wonder how these challenges will affect them in the future. When my son, Grant, was starting his junior year in high school we dreamed up an idea to do the Kruger Waddell Challenge together. This 260+ mile endurance paddle challenge follows the international border from International Falls, MN to Lake Superior and must be completed in 8 days. It seemed like the perfect capstone to all the years we have spent in the BWCA; an opportunity for us to push ourselves before the crossroads of college arrived. It also seemed a little bonkers, but the kind of adventure we wondered if we were up to tackling. I was warned that getting up there is the hardest part and this would prove to be profoundly true.

Covid threw a wrench in our plans, so we pushed it back one year. Grant received special permission to miss school and make an attempt with the coordinated group that completes this journey each September. Then the forest fires came, re-routing attempts were made, but we had to eventually cancel and plan for Spring 2022. He couldn't make the trip with the group the following fall as he would be in his first week of college classes. We were crushed but determined. Then this April, we learned that concern for Zebra mussels had shut down the Golden portage from Rainy to Kabetogama the first 7 miles of the trip. We altered our entry to start at Kab and tried to figure out how to add some miles that we would lack from the re-route. When the ice finally retreated, floodwaters rose as did story after story of capsized canoes, emergency extractions, dangerous currents, and frigid waters. Family and past participants in the Challenge warned us to reconsider- it was feeling like a broken record we relented and postponed again until early July. The only way to officially complete the challenge from International Falls through Rainy became impossible: the zebra mussel cleaning station was closed. We returned to our Kabetogama entry and booked a room at Sandy Point Lodge. Details matter: we decided to paddle north first, walk the Golden portage and then double back so that the added mileage when we got back on track would be our earnest attempt to be as compliant as possible within the stipulations of the Kruger Waddell Challenge organizers. We were ecstatic to simply, finally be on the water whatever their decision. That first morning, July 6, we repeated over and over throughout the day, I cant believe were ACTUALLY doing this...

We had been training hard during our two years of planning, especially the six months prior. But nothing could really prepare us for how physically demanding the trip was. Our daily mantra became, We eat miles for breakfast! We paddled 43 miles on day 1 all of Voyagers National Park before collapsing at the first campsite from the Little Vermillion entry point. Our progress varied each day: night two was spent in Tiger Bay of Lac La Croix, night three we made it to Basswood Lake, night four was spent on Ottertrack, night five the far eastern edge of Gunflint Lake, night six on Mountain, night seven at Fort Charlotte where the Grand Portage reaches the Pigeon River. On day eight, we walked the 9 mile portage and paddled our canoe around the pier in the calm water of Lake Superior at 1:04 pm. Our official stats: 264.7 miles in 175 hours and 16 minutes. Tearing up, we received our official bear claw necklaces in a small ceremony with Lori Johnson who graciously drove up from Minneapolis to meet us. Grant is the youngest (known) person to do the challenge in 8 days or less.

Covering that amount of distance, things are bound to go sideways a few times. We had a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a moose on the Bottle Portage. Glass turned to whitecaps in less than a minute as we were searching for a campsite on Basswood in near darkness. Our boat needed repair twice we were taking on water in the bow from day one, and then a tree branch on the Fowl Portage punched a big hole through the 84 Sundowner on day 7. Storms threatened our Saganaga crossing but tailwinds pushed us across as the storms rattled to the north and closed in behind us. We had headwinds consistently in our face the first 5 days, it was sunny and hot. The hours were filled with heavy, monotonous work with very little downtime in the evening or early morning. Grant never complained, not once. All decisions and daily strategy were discussed and agreed upon as equals. Here we were at those crossroads. He was now functioning as an adult a highly skilled paddler with sound and confident input - yet able to be open, trusting and vulnerable with his partner, expecting the same in return. Each morning he religiously wrote in his journal. I have a feeling Im going to want to remember this, he remarked.

The last two days, we found ourselves slowing down and soaking it in. Besides completing the challenge in 8 days, we didn't care much about our time. We were ready to be done, but not ready for it to be over. Confident in our pace we chose the nice campsite over pushing for more miles, slept in a little, took video of baby ducks and Cedar Waxwings, walked around Ft. Charlotte and imagined the rich history of the spot. We were oblivious to the many friends and family eagerly monitoring our progress closely on the SpotX and over Facebook, cheering us on in the background. It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. Re-entry was a little jarring, to put it lightly. I can attest that, post-Covid, teenagers have learned how to deal with disappointment, make adjustments, and persevere through extremely challenging situations. On this journey, my son and I found deep gratitude pondering all the things we have to be thankful for. The Challenge was humbling, grounding, profound. Now here I am at home slowing down, savoring the moments I have with my paddle-partner before he heads off on his new adventure...confident that my son can take on the miles that lie ahead. After all, the kid eats miles for breakfast.