Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

BeaV's 2022 Solo Border Route Challenge
by BeaV

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 09/03/2022
Entry Point: Little Vermilion Lake (Crane Lake) (EP 12)
Exit Point: North Fowl Lake (EP 70)  
Number of Days: 3
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
Background- in 2017 I set what was the fastest solo time (at least that I knew of) for the Border Route from International Falls to Lake Superior. My time was 91 hours and I had followed the Canada/US border proper thinking this was the route canoe racers Verlen Kruger and Clint Waddell had paddled back in 1968. Later I learned that these racers and future adventurers had taken a more direct route and thus, recent paddlers have too taken these shorter route options. Really, the route isn’t fixed….it’s up to the paddler to choose, as long as there is no support and is in the spirit of Kruger and Waddell. So in acknowledgement and commemoration of what these two paddlers did, we call this route the Kruger Waddell Challenge. Paddling skill, physical endurance, mental toughness, woodsmen skills, and old-school navigation abilities are the attributes required to be successful. Following this new shorter route, Kevin McCann (aka Muddyfeet) of Sartell MN, set a new record of 84 hours 11 minutes in 2018. Of course, this got me thinking “I wonder how fast I could do this new route?”. The seed was planted. There was one problem with both known fastest solo times- they weren’t completely in the spirit of Kruger/Waddell or for that matter, the Voyageurs of long ago. Both modern records were set with the assistance of a GPS for navigation (both Kevin and I had turned on our GPSs only a little but still resulting in an asterisk for doing so). Successful navigation is such a big component of the Challenge that to be in the spirit of history, technology substituted for “woodsmen’s skills” is a disqualifier for direct comparison to Kruger & Waddell’s 1968 80-hour 40-minute record. So now back to the present, my goal was to see how fast I could paddle this route and navigate it with only experience and map & compass. I let a few people know of my plans. I paddle trained in moderation putting in somewhere around 300 miles on the water during the spring and summer. As the planned September 3rd, 2022 launch date approached, I picked up the paddling pace and started portage training, too. But for some unknown reason to me, my motivation did not pickup. I’m not sure why, maybe because I remembered how hard my 2017 trip was- pain, exhaustion, hallucinations, and long nights. Then with only 2 weeks until launch, an old back issue flared up. Terrible timing! I had a hard time just sitting or standing. I didn’t dare portage train with any weight on my back or shoulders. Grrrr!!! I gingerly tried to keep doing a little walking and a little paddling but both activities were painful, and it was hard to train for more than an hour. My only pain relief came from lying flat on my back on the ground- not the way to set a speed record. Motivation did not increase but doubt sure did. Could I sit in the canoe for more than a few hours, could I ignore or suppress the back pain, could I carry weight on my shoulders? This is not what I wanted to face and it kind of made me angry. Self-doubt and lack of resolve is not something I accept. I had no plans to back out. Finally, with just three days until launch, the back pain eased up and I got back to planning the little details of the route, sleep plan, paddling pace, food and gear selection. I roughed out a quick itinerary to figure out where I will be when darkness falls every night and came up with a possible goal of 70 hours. 70 hours…it seemed too fast, but my scribbles on paper showed me it was possible. 70 hours was based on neutral winds, no navigation errors, and my back holding up. Navigation I had control of. My back I didn’t. The winds…well I had some choice here. I didn’t have to launch on September 3rd, I could wait a few days for a favorable wind forecast if need be. Butterflies entered my stomach. September 2nd came with a forecast of mostly light winds but not favorable. Headwinds and or crosswinds only for the next 6 days. I wanted a day or two of west or northwest winds, but none were forecast. So much for “my choice” on mitigating unfavorable winds. I decided to launch on the 3rd regardless. I camped that night in Black Bay of Rainy Lake ready for an early start. I went to bed that night in my tent dissatisfied with the wind forecast but with new resolve to try my best. Butterflies gone!
Day 1 of 3
Saturday, September 03, 2022

Day 1- 5 am and I put the paddle blade in the water for the first stroke and off I went. Stars were shining brightly with slight headwinds as I paddled south and then southeast towards Gold Portage. At Gold Portage I had to switch canoes due to a Park Service order that was attempting to slow the spread of an invasive mussel. The canoe I was now in was a Wenonah Advantage that I modified by adding a rudder. This boat is tough to control in quartering winds, but the rudder would fix that. What I always noted as a plus was the boat’s ability to handle headwinds well (this would be important as I was soon to learn).

My first goal was to try to get to the far side of Lac La Croix before nightfall tonight and then once past there, to navigate the complicated Crooked Lake through the night without error. The big lakes started getting crossed off one by one- Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, Sandpoint, and onto to Lac La Croix despite nagging headwinds. Concentrating on my paddle stroke mechanics, the map spread out on the canoe floor, and the next landmark out in front of me, the day went by quickly. I sensed my speed was good and as nightfall approached, still felt strength in my paddle stroke. Some normal pains but none of the debilitating back pains of just days before. This alone encouraged me. Darkness fell as I paddled by Fish Stake Narrows. I was slightly behind where I wanted to be by this time but satisfied with my progress, nonetheless. I quickly switched over to my nighttime paddling mode and made quick work of Bottle and Iron Lakes and their portages. Onto Crooked Lake, aptly named, I was serenaded with northern lights dancing in the skies. The northern lights and the half-moon were gone sometime before midnight leaving only the stars behind. Wow what a beautiful night to paddle! There is something special about paddling at night- if you can get over the desire to be sitting around a cheery campfire or snuggling into a cozy sleeping bag. Making it through some of the most difficult navigation of the route, I went ashore to rest at 1:30 am at the entrance to Wednesday Bay, 83 miles traveled. I set my timer for 4 hours and went to sleep. Rarely do I sleep good under these conditions, but tonight I did.