Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Our Voyageur Challenge - The Pace Canoe
by TreeBear

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 08/31/2023
Entry Point: Little Vermilion Lake (Crane Lake) (EP 12)
Exit Point: North Fowl Lake (EP 70)  
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 3
Trip Introduction:
Early on Monday morning, we sat overlooking the moonlight-cast surface of Lake Superior. We were tired and sore, but grateful for the incredible experience and the culmination of years of hopeful dreams to achieve this moment. This is our story of paddling the Voyageur Challenge starting on August 31, 2023.
We all knew the stories of the Voyageur and Krueger Challenges. Each year, we watch the progress of those participating in the WaterTribe outing wishing we could pull off the route sometime. In 2019, we had tried to do the Superiority Complex from Moose to Superior, but I came up with a double ear infection the day we were set to leave and the trip was canceled. This year was set to be a busy one. I am building a house that has me with a hammer or shovel in my hand with a far greater frequency than a paddle this summer. There had been talks about fitting a Voyageur Challenge in. Lil’ Grumpy had done the Superiority Complex from Moose Lake to Superior with his brother in July and, somehow, he was crazy enough to sign up for a Voyageur with us later on. A few dates didn’t work or fell through, and we ended up scheduling it for the last day of August so the trip would line up with the holiday weekend. It was a good crew we had assembled, all with backgrounds as guides in the BWCA and time at outfitters, and we’ve shared many canoe miles together. This trip would exceed them all and hopefully push us in new and different ways.

On August 30th, we started the last-minute prep work. I went and picked up our canoe from a local outfitter. We had decided on a Northstar Northwind 20. Despite owning eight canoes between the three of us, none are fast enough or large enough for this type of trip. The Northwind 20 seemed to strike a balance for us of a canoe that’s a little faster than a leisure trip model while having some space for comfort as we intended on taking the entire trip non-stop with a sleep rotation between our three paddlers. I picked up our canoe from an outfitter in Ely and drove over to Grand Portage to wait for the other two to meet me. They arrived at Grand Portage at 11:00 p.m., later than we had hoped. We left our overnight parking permit on the dash, dropped our post-trip sleep set-ups into Lil’ Grumpy’s car, and piled the rest into mine. We left in my car to head back to Ely and turned up the Echo Trail where we stopped for some sleep at about 4:00 in the morning. I was up at 7:00, and the others eventually followed. Three hours of sleep to start a Voyageur’s Challenge? Not ideal, but we had to work with what we had available, and minimizing time off of work was important. First thing in the morning, we worked our way up the rest of the Echo Trail to turn towards Crane Lake. There, we went through finishing touches on gear, began getting to know the canoe we’d be spending the next few days in, and looked out at the conditions on the water. The forecast said plenty of wind and a strong gust was already coming out of the south. Our plan was to have all hands paddling until Coleman Island of LLC when our sleep rotation would start for the remainder of the trip. On another amusing note, we knew that some of the best paddlers in the state would be starting their annual challenges routes just a couple of days behind us. Does that make us a pace canoe? In any case, there was good motivation to not get caught!

Within an hour, we had made it through King Williams Narrows and turned southeast towards the Loon River system. We fought a heavy headwind on Little Vermillion, an early challenge in a long line of what was to come. Little Vermillion seemed to take forever before we finally crashed out of it into the Loon River. This was a new area of the BWCA to all of us which was fun to be able to see and encounter. We pulled up the first railway portage at Loon Falls around 3:00 in the afternoon and portaged our way across into Loon Lake.

With our turn to the north, we finally caught a tailwind and cruised up Loon, across Beatty Portage, past the first pictographs on LLC, and made time up to the corner. We found and took the shortcut portage at the corner of LLC; it felt great after so much time sitting.
As we made good progress east, the sun began to set. The lighting on LLC was beautiful this night with light rain clouds and a rainbow adding to the show overhead. I personally was in the worst physical shape of the trip at this point as crazy elbow tendonitis flared up starting in the Loon River and was now becoming excruciating. I have always had plenty of tendon issues paddling, but nothing like this except at the very end of my longest guide season. My hands were tingly and my arms were on fire. I couldn’t imagine paddling the rest of the trip this way! I took one small dose of ibuprofen near Coleman Island, hoping the inflammation would drop enough to get me through until my sleep shift. It worked and the tendonitis didn’t bother me again this trip! I was so grateful.
At this same stop, we had an incident with our canoe that NONE of us had ever seen before. In going to shove off, one of us utilized the gunnels to pick up the canoe slightly to ease it into the water. This was a motion which we knew better than to do, but everyone that has ever owned a canoe has done it. It should hold. Ours didn’t. The kevlar tore out at twelve rivets as the gunnel disconnected from up near the bow cap most of the way back past the thwart. It was a heart-stopping moment. More than just knowing what we had done to an outfitted canoe in the middle of the night, it started the big “what-ifs.” Would this force our trip to end at Basswood with a broken canoe that can’t hold its form!?! We would watch it closely from here as we tied a tight paracord hold from the thwart to the seat in hopes that keeping it under pressure wouldn’t allow it to tear out more. Further tear-outs could compromise the yoke and definitely end the trip. We let Dan-in-the-Box take his scheduled first sleep shift as Little Grumpy and I buckled in for a long night of paddling. I had worked out our route in the months leading up to the trip, optimizing the best possible track of the shortest distance and navigable water. I then drew this route on our stack of paper maps, making meticulous notes to keep us on course. We stuck behind Coleman Island as I navigated us through the islands. A decent headwind was working up the channel as we worked our way southeast under partially obscured moonlight. Our pacing left plenty to be desired as a stiff wind out of the south continued throughout the night. We reached the pictographs west of Warrior Hill at about midnight and the Bottle Portage around 2:00. Iron Lake was a mess as my energy faded quickly. We reached Curtain Falls just before 5:00 and portaged across. Gratefully, my first sleep shift would come after the portage. The other two paddled for a few hours on Crooked while I slept. We all were struggling with energy, a consequence of the meager sleep we had the night before the challenge. It’s not a great foot to start on, let me tell you! After I slept for a few hours, we stopped for 15 minutes at a campsite to grab a better snack and figure out a plan. I was scheduled to sleep for most of Crooked to help carry us in the lakes after but stepped back in midway down Crooked so Dan could sleep. It was on Crooked that we saw our first other canoe groups. It was a pretty quiet weekend in the BWCA it seemed. I got to rotate back in for an hour more sleep at the end of Crooked before we turned into the Basswood River. We portaged around Little Basswood Falls and reflected on all the memories tied to this part of the route from our earliest guide seasons together. Lil’ Grumpy caught some sleep as we worked our way through portages. After the mile portage at Upper Basswood Falls, we pulled into Basswood Lake at about 4:15 in the afternoon.
Noticeable whitecaps were coming from the south on Basswood now, a sign of what was to come. Lil’ Grumpy tucked in for more substantial rest while Dan-in-the-box and I buckled in for the fight ahead. Riding the waves north to the end of US Point was wonderful. Turning the corner is where the horror started. Big white-capped swells were cruising up the lake. We took it at a slight angle as we made a push for the far shore. The waves were large but demonstrated the sea-worthiness of the Northwind 20. The detached gunnel provided some concern for the structural integrity, but it held up alright. We definitely left the water with the bow on the big waves and took a few into the canoe. It was quite the ride for us to reach the Canadian Shore. We rounded a corner in search of the shortcut portage across Canadian Point. It’s a beautiful trail. On the far side, Lil’ Grumpy moved back into the bow, I moved to the stern, and Dan-in-the-box moved for more rest. We headed southeast again, navigating a little more headwind and crosswind as we made for Prarie Portage. We reached the portage around 9:00 and sat down for our first substantial meal on the dock at Prarie Portage, a nice backpacker meal of Beef Stew, under the beautiful moonlight. This is where the struggles really began. We paddled our way down Birch Lake where Lil’ Grumpy and I were truly starting to show fatigue. He caught some shut-eye on Carp to Knife, a few short naps really, while Dan-in-the-box and I tried to just keep paddling and get us into Knife.

It was my sleep shift again on Knife which, on one hand, was much needed. On the other, apparently, all the cool things happened when I was sleeping. The guys woke me for a small bit of it, but they enjoyed a marvelous northern lights show over Thunder Point as they paddled. A beautiful foggy sunrise greeted us on Little Knife as we all marveled at the persistent beauty of this place. I swapped back into the stern after the portage into Ottertrack and we headed for Benny’s Cliff. It’s always a pleasure to see. We crossed Monument Portage into Swamp (sidenote: the boardwalk has seen better days) and then we were on to Saganaga at around 9:30 a.m. Dan-in-the-Box took the stern and I took the bow. We set off hopeful that the south/southwest wind would provide us somewhat of a boost. We did alright for ourselves and made Sag Falls by 1:30. We would work through short sleep shifts on our way down the Granite. Knowing where portages should be was helpful as maps are often inconsistent with this stretch. After portaging out of Clove, we were in for a shock. Where did the water go!?!? The whole river was low, but the water in this stretch was catastrophically low like something maintaining the levels had broken somewhere. It didn’t look like this when I last visited in 2020. The water was nearly 8 feet lower now! This left some long walks out from the portage and an awkwardly perched campsite. The rest of the river was only down a couple of feet, so I am curious if anyone knows what happened to this part? In any case, we finished off the river well, crossing Little Rock Falls at around 7:00.

I swapped in for another longer sleep shift, and again, this is when all the fun stuff happens. The guys saw an otter, a meteor, and lots more northern lights as the moon soon rose at Gunflint’s eastern shore. We pulled up to the beach for some good food before heading east through the channel. Lil’ Grumpy and I would have the canoe from the Railway Portage until the Long Portage. Fatigue was definitely setting in and we began to drift heading through South Lake. Of course, groups were camping at both portage sites on either side of Rat Lake! We were moving as quietly as we could, but the group on the portage from Rat to Rose was awoken by their dog growling at us unloading our canoe by the water. With all the recent bear activity, that’s exactly where their minds went. They started shouting and making noise. We calmly tried to reassure them that we were just normal people passing through the portage at two in the morning. It seemed best to get out of there quickly! Rose Lake was a major struggle as our wearied pace ground to a new low. We hit the long portage at 5:00 a.m. For a portage I have taken many times, it was odd to see it so changed from the last time I was in. The beavers have made major renovations even since I was last here two years ago. It’s always fascinating how much this place changes with time. I slept more on Rove and Watap as a beautiful sunrise crested over the ridge. On Mountain, I saw the damage from the tornado for the first time. I knew it would be bad, but it was awe-inspiring to see the trees sheared off across the ridge and down to the portage.
Though we all love this part of the BWCA, our eyes were now set on Superior. Time to crank it out. We made decent time down Mountain Lake and into the Lilies. A little bit of muddy walking got us over into Moose. The weather was blisteringly hot and windy and we were all reeling from our various sun and wind burns accumulated thus far. After a muddy portage, we dropped into the Fowls. We had a small headwind here, but we were paddling well and made decent time down the lake. Midway down, in one of the wild rice patches, we saw five young swans ahead of us. We just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As we worked south, one of the parents came on with a vengeance as it began to swim with purpose toward our canoe. If that’s not a motivator to paddle hard, I don’t know what is! We made it away unscathed. As we pulled up to the beautiful cliffs near the end of the lake, we braced ourselves for the portage ahead. Lil’ Grumpy told us stories of his previous time here and we prepared for the worst. The portage is brushy with loads of down trees and tight corners. This was not a good place for a 20.5-foot Northwind! Many of the corners seemed to be only made for a 12-foot canoe to turn comfortably and required some serious pivot work for us to get around. Also, was the person who made this less than five feet tall? Haha. There’s no clearance for a portager and a canoe. Lil’ Grumpy and I swapped partway and I got us to the Pigeon.
Our previously enjoyed optimism at our success was swallowed up in the brutal nightmare that the Pigeon can be. We walked every single rapid and riffle for what felt like miles. What we would have done for 8 more inches of water! The walking dragged on and on. At one point, near the old English Portage, we did find a small trail that skirted around a single piece of a rapid set, but otherwise, we were left to our own devices. Again, tight rapids are not the best place for a 20.5 ft Kevlar canoe. We finally hit the Partridge Falls portage around dark and fought our way around to the end of that one. It would be another evening paddle to the Grand with a few landmine rocks catching us in the blackness. Darn it! We reached the Grand about a quarter before 9:00.
At the Grand, we went through our gear, ate a bunch of food, and stashed snacks in our pockets. This was it, the legendary Grand Portage. We were weary and beaten, but determined to finish before our 90-hour mark which was set at 4:00 the next morning. Each of us said a brief prayer together, as I remarked how many prayers were once said in French at this very spot. We determined to work a 1-mile rotation utilizing one of our group member’s fitness watches for timekeeping. Each of us should have three shifts with the canoe before we reach Superior. The guys had decided that I would have the honor of having the final shift to Superior for my role in trip planning. I was touched by the gesture. We trudged on through the evening, stopping at our rotations for 10-minute naps or snacks. Our physical condition was deteriorating. We had obviously not been intentional enough about getting our feet dry mid-trip. Each of us had been taking our shoes and socks off for longer stretches early on, but this practice faded some east of the Gunflint as our eyes set on Superior. This is where I paid for it. My feet were on fire now as each step was accompanied by stinging foot pain. The others were not much better with blisters and wet-foot symptoms inflicting all of us. It was a confusing evening as the fatigue kicked hard. I was borderline shuffling the feet by shift 3 and gritted my teeth through my second shift with the canoe for shift six. This shift, coincidentally, came at the exciting middle section of the Grand with a bridge and a long staircase (a rather unwelcome, albeit amusing surprise at this point in the trip.) Lil’ Grumpy had the eighth shift. I was struggling to keep up now as their headlamps seemed to drift further ahead. Staying on the boardwalks was proving difficult at times. Why does the NPS love boardwalks so much!?! Those minutes felt like hours as I pushed my feet as fast as I could get them to move in a bid to try to keep up. Finally, finally, I saw him hit his watch and set the canoe down. We had talked earlier in the portage about this moment. He had suggested we sleep an hour or something on the trail so we could finish well and enjoy it. I said, “But what about the sacrifices?” We have chosen not to stop and sleep really on this trip and do we discredit that by stopping for rest on the trail? Now, at the beginning of shift 9, we knew the end was in sight. Lil’ Grumpy warned that the portage might be longer than we thought and to be ready for it to be awhile for Superior. I knew the feet would protest, but I was finishing with this canoe on my shoulders no matter what happened. It was only a short way over the next ridge until we hit a pleasant surprise: MN 61! We snapped a picture crossing the road and headed down the hill. I was finishing this now and kicked my pace up a few notches. My poor feet were on absolute fire. My pace was probably slow compared to earlier in the trip, but I may as well have been running. It mattered none what I was feeling as I dug in deep to march my way to Superior. It was around this time that an unfamiliar lump started in my throat. Was I getting emotional? I was rather suddenly overwhelmed by the significance of this moment and this place. There was personal history, of course, my previous dreams of this route and my previous 70 or so overnight trips in the BWCA. All the memories seemed tied together now. There was the history of the place as my battered body crossed over the same portages trod by voyageurs, native peoples, and other modern challenge seekers. There was the pride of what this group had just accomplished in nearly four days together. And then there was this moment that the other two had given me, allowing me to carry the canoe to the finish. I would have this moment. I fortified my mind now, one foot in front of the other, hand latched in a tight grip on the right gunwale. The soft sound of surf was upon us as we reached the monument road. The guys quickly passed me as we turned towards the small park instead of the fort this evening. It was well after hours and we wanted no trouble, so we quietly worked down to the water. I set the canoe into Superior at 3:21 a.m. It was a rush of pride, success, and accomplishment. For the sake of tradition, we took a brief paddle out into Superior and sat in the cool waves watching the moon and the stars as each of us took the moment in our own ways.

After hauling the gear up to the road, and with Lil’ Grumpy on his way to find the car, we took heed of our bodies and what tomorrow may look like. We slept for a few hours at a national forest spot down the road. My fiancée showed up the next morning with coffee and we celebrated the completion of the route. The crew made it down to Father Baraga’s cross and threw ourselves into Superior for a much-needed cleaning. I was not walking well that day; it’s kind of pathetic what a little wet feet can do! We drove back to Ely, napping when we could, before our trip group headed up the Echo to retrieve the last vehicle. It was amazing to reflect together on the trip, what it meant, and how we felt. There was a sense of accomplishment. There was no sense of regret or despair at the struggles or hardships. This moment was ours, another high point in five years of taking wilderness trips together, and an entirely new perspective into this magical wilderness of ours. This moment, this trip was special, and I am thrilled that it happened when it did. There will be plenty of other stories in the coming days as other challengers finish their official WaterTribe routes, and I am so looking forward to hearing them. But this story is ours, one we paid for and earned with sweat, fatigue, and hardships. It was also one filled with beauty, perspective, fulfillment, and joy. There will be much more reflecting on this I am sure in the days and weeks to come, but for now, it’s this. I have paddled the BWCA from its western end to its eastern, crossed the Grand Portage, and placed a canoe in the waters of Superior not even four days after it left the waters of Crane. I did it with a pair of friends at my side with their own unique perspectives, challenges, and memories. We did it together by way of canoe with paddles in hand and maps at our feet. We paddled in blistering heat, pummeling wind, through the heat of the day, and through the cool moonlit night. We passed through waters we have visited dozens of times before and around islands whose names and stories remain unfamiliar to us. We marveled at ancient trees and walls of stone and at pictograph sets left by people who also traveled these waters by way of canoe with paddles in hand and maps in their minds much as we had. This history, this place, is woven so neatly into our personal stories. There will be many adventures to come, but this chapter will stick with me forever. What a privilege it was to earn it, to share it, and to live it.