17 Jul 2022
Date: Friday-Sunday June 24-26, 2022
Area: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Trip Plan: Launch at the Moose Lake entry point in the BWCA, go straight to the US/Canada border, then travel east along the boarder to Lake Saganaga. Merge south to Trails End of the Gunflint Trail, then back west to Sea Gull Lake, Kekakabic Lake, and Ensign Lake, then to Newfound and Moose Lakes to complete a loop.
Day 1 – Either rack a huge day of 40-60 miles past Trails End, or a more conservative day of around 30 miles before Lake Saganaga.
Day 2 – Either a lower-mileage, potentially late-start day of 15-30 miles, or a more even day of around 30 miles.
Day 3 – Make it back home my any means necessary.
Day 1: Friday June 24, 2022
My journey to paddle across the Boundary Waters on a stand up paddleboard starts here. As I sat on my inflatable air mattress in my van at the Moose Lake entry point to the BWCA, muggy with the windows rolled up and trapped mosquitoes buzzing in my ears, re-packing for the third time, I wondered what the hell I was doing. This is fairly ridiculous. All of it. Unpacking and re-packing anxiously, sleeping in my van in the entry point parking lot, going out solo in the BWCA for training in hopes of at attempt for perhaps the stupidest of it all – attempting to go west to east along the entire million-acre federally-designated wilderness area in a speedy time. Oh well, just a fleeting thought. KEEP PACKING AND GET TO BED!
To get to just this point was a long, long time coming. I can’t pinpoint exactly how or when I stumbled across the Krueger-Waddell Route on the wide depths of the internet, but I feel like I learned about the “Border Route”, WaterTribe, and racing-style stand up paddleboards all around the same time. For some reason, travel via SUP seemed more appealing or cool than a canoe or kayak. A kayak is probably much more efficient and reasonable for solo wilderness travel across lakes and rivers but something gravitated me towards the stand up. Perhaps it was my running background and boredom from sitting for long periods. Perhaps it was my running background causing me to have a bony butt? Either way, like the proverbial seed or tiny spark that results in a forest fire, an idea and concept clicked. I knew I’d need to amass gear, knowledge, time and fitness to actually get there. The first step was the board. I bought a board in 2019 and it was on. The world opened up somewhat, as Duluth has a substantial number of paddling options within city limits (or within a half-hour drive), and nearly unlimited, very cool and adventuresome options within a 2-3 hour drive. Just like trail running or gravel biking (to name a few passions of mine…), Duluth seemed to be a mecca for paddling and I was so excited to have a new adventure tool with a financially questionable purchase of a Surftech Generator all-around 11’6″ board.
The idea festered for a few years, through the 2020 pandemic and into 2021 I was getting a little more serious and researching different types of paddleboards. I knew the recreational one I purchased out of the gate wasn’t the best option out there for carrying gear and paddling fast, and I pondered what would be. For such a niche and expensive sport, how can there be that many options? All racing-style paddleboard options are hard to find, and requires pretty much exclusively online research. I was lucky enough to find a local paddleboard enthusiast to buy a racing board off of for relatively cheap – $750 for a 10-year old model in good condition that probably cost over $2k new – and even got a couple races in. The stage was set to plan out the big one. So, come January 21st or so, the day BWCA permits opened for the 2022 season, I secured three. A trip in June and a trip in July for two nights a piece, and the trip for the first week of September.
So, to get to the Moose Lake entry parking lot, I had rushed to actually get my permit, finish packing, strap on my board and drive north to get there by 9pm, and now by 10pm I should be sleeping for an early-as-possible start time the next morning. My gear was a point of anxiety and I wanted to make sure I had everything I need but nothing I didn’t, and all my gear would be either accessible or watertight, and I could mitigate anything sinking to the bottom of a lake. Because if anything sunk, depending on the item could create a critical situation except on Sunday where I could simply limp back to my van. I didn’t want to think about the potential issues, but it was prohibiting my sound sleep, and re-packing helped quell my anxiety. When I finally had everything in order I laid down and it was the uncomfortable humidity and sound of bugs in the van that now prohibited my sleep. I turned on my van’s engine for AC but knew I couldn’t and shouldn’t keep it on all night. I drifted off a bit, then woke up to turn off my van and stick it out. It was a pretty terrible first night of sleep out there. I couldn’t believe I had never camped actually in my van before, and told myself I’d make some dramatic changes before trying it again. Tent is way better.
I woke up naturally very early in the morning, as hoped and expected, thanks to the early June sunrise. I started by cracking a caffeinated fizzy water and eating breakfast bars. I could see hungry mosquitoes buzzing outside my windows. Thanks to the prep work just a handful of hours prior, it took no time at all to re-park my car, schlep the board and gear down to the lake, and I set off paddling earlier than expected on a perfect glass morning. It was a bit chilly but I warmed up quick. My gear fit nicely on the board and everything seemed very secure, which was a relief. I checked my gear a few times and it was nice to have simply my main pack, hydration vest, emergency kit dry bag all up front, then the lifejacket either on myself or strapped on the back next to my foam sleeping pad. I could check all three items up front just like that: one, two, three.
Moose Lake was long and it took me hours to get to the end. It was fun to curve around islands and points to get to Newfound Lake, and after a the first few hours clicked off I was nearing my first portage. I saw many campers at sites waking up, and few motored boats zipping around. Their waves were easy to handle and I felt pretty cool out there. How fun and how beautiful is it out here? So fun and beautiful. Checking on my stuff again, which was a very frequent occurrence through the trip, and I was a bit confused why my blue bungee cord in the back was slack. Huh. I turned the other way for a better look at realized one of the glued tie-downs had come up. Ohhhh no. This could be bad. I kneeled down, and the plastic u-shaped component was laying sideways, entangled in the bungee but clearly unattached. I put it in a pocket of my water pack and re-organized. Well, there were still five tie-downs left but they’re all clearly compromised. I kept paddling knowing that nothing would fall right off, but with the pretty serious concern that more tie-downs could pop off. Then what? I pondered what I could do, for this trip and for the future. Would it be smart to have super glue? Can duct tape fix this somehow? I have duct tape… old duct tape wrapped fairly tightly around a pen. Is that even sticky anymore?
As I got closer to the my first portage I saw Prairie Portage on the map and to my left. I started seeing other paddlers as the day progressed. Then, I heard a pop, a plink and a plunk. It was the sound of one of the front tie-downs popping off, bungeeing into the air, then bouncing off the front of my board into the lake. Ohhhhhhhh no. That is critical. One bungee on the back is fine to sacrifice, but my vital gear is all on front, and to lose one tiedown up front was a punch to the gut. I was able to readjust and my front bags were still stable, but to have two pop off within the first half-day was very concerning and the front popping off made me question proceeding. But, I realized there were ways to strap everything down without any tie-downs at all. Not perfect, not optimal, but certainly do-able. I might have misread the map because there was no portage to Birch Lake. It narrowed, I skirted between an island and then it opened up. The entire lake was glass and the paddling was immaculate. I used campsites, easy to find due to the lingering morning with campers still present, as a confirmation that I was where I thought I was on the map. Scanning the horizon to find the most direct route, I wondered if my watch would help get my sense of direction. I looked at my watch and sure enough, the map was right there. I wondered if I should use that tool… As helpful as it is, I had read a few Border Route paddlers who insist on using the same tools as the voyageurs and indigenous people – maps and compass as the most technologically advanced wayfinding devices of the 1800’s. So I looked away from my watch and looked back at my map.
I was on the US/Canada border at this point, and it was so cool. The sun was getting higher and hotter in the sky, and I was enjoying a mix of a slight tailwind or complete glassy water. I figured I’d jump in the lake by the end of this one leading to the portage. By the time I got there, I didn’t feel like it. There was a group just paddling off from the portage as I got closer. One person mentioned the paddleboard as very interesting. Another person in the group asked where I was headed to. I said “Sea Gull” and it took a bit to think about it and they said “wow, OK, go you!” and paddled off. I said it, but knew that’d be a stretch. I have no idea what the dude put together in his head, but I knew myself that’d be at least 40 miles. At this point, I was over 10 miles in and 2.5 hours from my nearly 6am start time. I was making good time right about 4 miles per hour. That is speedy. The first portage was relatively long in the grand scheme of things, but it was easy. There were a few more portages in rapid succession, and I got an idea of how much slower portages go. My steady mile splits were decimated and I was a bit confused why it took me that much longer to walk. I figured I could walk at 3mph or slightly less. But before and after each portage I was essentially stopped for at least a few minutes to get my gear ready to carry, and then back strapped on board. The latter took longer than it should because of my anxiety around my bungee system. I didn’t want to pop any more tie-downs off. I would always take the time at the end of a portage after launching my board and killing mosquitoes to re-examine my map, and I had already re-folded the first map several times and even switched to the second map as I got closer to Knife Lake, which was as a solid northeast/southwest-oriented lake, narrow and several miles long.
I noticed the heat and said I’d definitely jump in the lake before lunch. I loved Knife Lake. The conditions were unbelievably prime and it was easy to determine where I was and where I was going. I stopped paddling only to drink water and refold my map section once I passed the old and was on to the new, although I was constantly scanning the treelines to guess about what was an island, what was a jut-out, or what was a bay. Then I’d look down at the map strapped to my water bladder to confirm my notion. I got a good sense of how far on the map correlated with the real-life landforms as I scanned the horizon.
Splashing water was was a welcome relief and I could feel the sun rays beating onto my shoulders. I became increasingly excited to jump in. As I paddled, I thought about if I should right now. I deliberated that for a solid hour until I made it to the end of Knife Lake where I knew there was a portage to the next lake. I figured I’d finally jump in there, then hang at the end of the lake and eat lunch. At that point, I was already many hours in, getting to the lunch hour and over 20 on the day. Since I was feeling pretty good, the wind would be in my favor for at least another 10 or 15 miles, I figured I should absolutely push through Saganaga Lake, into the light south wind and onto my professed ending point of Sea Gull Lake. As I got to the back bay of Knife Lake, I saw a campsite and camper at the site to the left, then the indistinguishable shoreline where there was supposed to be my portage. There was an island with seagulls laying down and sunning, and a few others swarming around the rocky outcrop. I harmlessly asked one of them what way I was supposed to go, but figured if I just shot for the back left part of the bay where the portage looked to be, I’d see it eventually. Plus, I was really close to my swimming and lunch spot, and eager to take a break. I reflected on how my arms, hands and shoulders were feeling good. I had been standing all day, and I was worst off on my toes, which had been tingly for hours. But, that’s not too bad. I heard birds squawking above my head, then sensed one getting close to me. I stopped paddling and looked up to a swooping sea gull angrily looking at me, yelling. It was soaring maybe 50 feet up from me, then slowly dropped its left wing, turning its body towards me and orienting its head down, then in a snap, it dive bombed straight towards me. It was staring me down, zeroed in on its target, which was my face. It took me a little bit to actually feel threatened. Huh. What the… But it was coming right towards me before pulling up seemingly 5 feet above from me, squawking after the attempted attack. It’s dive-bombing me! I looked the other way to see the one bird preparing for another dive bomb, and communicating to the others. I couldn’t comprehend, but I’m pretty sure they were plotting to kill me. The shore was right there… I suddenly increased my stroke rate to get the heck out of there, and sensed a bird very close to me and saw it swoop up on the other side. I immediately hopped down to a kneeling position and saw the flock – at least 5 birds circling above me. Oh no, oh no, oh no. I yelled back at it – “STOP IT!!” Nope, that made it more angry. Bottom wing dropped, beak pointed directly at me, angry dark eyes focused on my head as it swooped down. Again, it looked like it was going to hit me but pulled up at the last minute to miss me. While one bird regrouped, another one dove. I held up my paddle not to fight back but to guard myself and threaten the bird. Yeah, you’ll hit my paddle first bro. Don’t try me! But they kept trying. I sat down and realized I was probably better off to get out of there than to defend myself to the point where they’ll stop attacking me. I’d never heard of seagulls being aggressive like that – especially out in the middle of the wilderness while I’m paddling in the middle of the lake. I would expect that behavior in Canal Park of Duluth where there are commonly hundreds of humans eating tasty food on land. It was scary compared to my otherwise tranquil and lovely morning thus far, and I wondered if that’d happen at all the rest of the trip. I hoped not for the primary fact that it slowed me down. The other issue of course is that I could be injured and not have the resources to address it. Luckily they flew off as I got closer to shore and I was able to swim and eat my lunch in peace.
Just like I suspected, once I got to the back shoreline and bay of Knife Lake with a very scenic and beautiful rock face adjacent to the portage’s lowland, the portage was easy to spot. They always seem to be in the valleys of the horizon, I remembered, with an excellent example right in front of me. I scanned the air for any birds. Nope, good to jump in. It felt great but was a little stressful just because of the preparation – take off my gloves, take off my lifejacket and shoes, precariously stack those on the board’s deck. Jump off, then crawl back on the crowded board without any big mishaps. Feeling refreshed and back on board, I searched through my pack for lunch items with wet hands. I noticed my water low and filled up my bladder with some fresh filtered water. That was an easy process and my water system was working perfectly. Lunch was good and I was feeling pretty confident on the day so far. However, the wind of long Knife Lake was pushing me towards the back shore and I wondered about the big wide open Saganaga Lake, in the middle of which I was planning a change of direction. I unfolded the map I was on to see the daunting western half of Saganaga, or Big Sag as Jack was calling in earlier in the week. It just opens right up into this huge exposed lake. With a suspected southerly wind, I could be pushed right to Canada! I’d have to hop islands to avoid a challenging predicament of going off course with a cross-wind. At this point, I was off the mileage I’d plotted out and written on the map in 5-mile increments. I thought my lunch spot was closer to 21 miles but my watch had over 23 already. I took all the time I needed and continued on my way with an easy portage. I snaked through the narrow Ottertrack Lake with a keen eye for birds. I was still moving good and the conditions were still prime.
Monument Portage, as it’s listed on the map, was a killer. It was very steep and just didn’t stop going up and up and up to these metal pylons to denote the international border of USA and Canada. It was hot, buggy and I struggled across the 80 rod carry. I started planning out the rest of my day and evening… I figured as I was nearing 30 miles, I could make it to Sea Gull Lake by roughly 40 miles then find a campsite before dusk drags on too far. That would require a fairly efficient paddle across Saganaga. I kept trying to say it and forgot what I thought was the correct way. Is it like “sog-uh-nog-uh”? Or “sag-ah-nag-ah”? Or “sag-uh-nog-uh”? Saggy Naggy? I don’t know. I wondered what the indigenous pronunciation is… probably none of the above, but the correct one. I pondered the thousands of visitors to this exact spot decades and centuries before this was a designated wilderness area. They had to go 40 miles for work. This was their work. I didn’t think I’d like it was much if it was my work. But, this is what I work FOR! How weird is that. They weren’t on carbon fiber stand up paddleboards with 30 pounds of gear, either.
By the time I got to Saganaga Lake, I knew I had a pretty easy shot to the scary open waters of the lake with a nice leeward shoreline blocking the potentially challenging south winds that were forecasted. I started feeling a little tired by that point, and told myself I could take an hour or so along the southeast shoreline leading to Rocky Point on the map. I swapped my maps, and got a better picture of where to go. The second map showed my course all the way through Big Sag, down to Trail’s End and the entire Sea Gull Lake, so I was pretty relieved to know I could keep this one map accessible for the rest of the day. I made really good time getting to Rocky Point and planned my tough push along the big open waters to the first clump of islands. Yep, here we go! Let’s do this! When I got to the open water I was already kneeling in preparation for raunchy waves. They weren’t bad at all, except maybe the wrong orientation for optimal paddling. It’s easy enough if the waves are a direct downwind, or even direct headwind, but the cross-wind waves are a little harder to efficiently paddle in because you have to zig-zag constantly and get pushed around. I was a little disoriented because the lake and islands in my view looked so much smaller than I imagined from studying the map. In no time at all, I was pretty much to the first island group of islands. My plan was to skirt in between two large blocker islands and I had to adjust my course a bit to get there. Zig-zag, no matter. It’s never a bad idea to paddle along a shoreline and so that’s what I did. Around the gap and I felt so relieved. For hours I was concerned about the wide open-looking gap between this Rocky Point and Long Island and I did it in a half hour or so, mostly standing up at a normal effort from the rest of the day. So, it was mid-afternoon and I granted myself a really nice break on a leeward island. I checked my phone just to see, and was pleased to have some service. I sent a few safety messages out and my plans for the remaining hours in the day – make it to Sea Gull. Just like I told that canoe paddler many hours prior! Things were looking up for ole Mikey. After a little rest, I packed up and kept on my way after some orientation. The rest of Saganaga looked very analogous. Jut-outs and islands and trees and water and I didn’t know where to go! But, I had a general direction so set off knowing I had to go east and south. I was 10 and a half hours in for the day, it was about 4:30pm and I had logged about 36 miles so far.
The rest of Saganaga was easy… almost underwhelming. But, at that point I wasn’t looking to be surprised or wow’ed or anything. I wanted a smooth southerly travel and an easy time finding a spot to sleep. The wind had certainly shifted. More accurately, I shifted from a northeast to a straight south bearing and was in a headwind after hours and hours of glassy waters. It was a light wind, but enough to make the miles out of the BWCA, to Trail’s End and into Sea Gull Lake, slow. Despite the minor headwind, it was panning out to be a beautiful evening. Just like that, the day seemingly shifted from regular daytime to evening. The sun seemed suddenly lower and more orange and glowing as opposed to blindingly bright and yellow. I knew I got sunburned during the day and regretted not putting on more sunscreen. I could see the red in my shoulders and forearms, and then I felt it whenever in direct sun. Ouch. It was interesting seeing houses again, and almost unsettling to leave the BWCA proper by paddling past the welcome signs. I wondered if that’d have an effect on my permit. Nah…
Out of Saganaga, it was like a loop…. Narrow paddling with houses on both sides. Go around a corner, narrow paddling with houses on both sides. Go around a corner, narrow paddling with houses on both sides. Go around a corner, and there was a waterfall, several canoes and kids on shore. That’s gotta be my portage. I was using my watch heavily at this point, because the map had so many very small bays and peninsulas, plus the markings – entry points, boat landings, roads and trails everywhere. The difference in scale from my watch to the map was confusing and I got a bit frustrated trying to find where I was. But, when I got to the portage, small and marked on the map, I at least had a sense of direction and knew that I was very close to my last lake. This monster day was coming to an end. At this point, I was confident that I’d achieve my primary goal for the trip, which was to see if 50 miles in a day was possible. If I took one of the first Sea Gull sites, I’d be just above 40. If I kept going, or went for an evening loop after setting up camp, I could easily get to 45 miles, which is a nice milestone. If I had to paddle across Sea Gull… if ALL of the sites were taken, I’d get to 50. I didn’t want to paddle 50 miles. If so, it’d be in the dark. Well, I’d at least be setting up my tent, cooking and eating in the dark. It had been along day.
I asked one of the clearly struggling kids who didn’t look like they were having fun at all how the portage was. They said it was too hard that they went around on the road. Huh… I wondered what that meant. As the adults schlepped another canoe down the rocky embankment, I snugged my board under my armpit and lunged upwards in the same direction they came. I got to a road. Huh. I just started walking the way I thought it’d be. Campsites, campsites, all campsites. It looked very familiar – clearly a Superior National Forest campground. The mosquitoes were getting bad and I could feel them eating on my arms and fingers without a way to kill them. I was getting really frustrated and wanted to keep walking but knew I had to re-orient myself. Two dudes were walking on the road with a bucket of cleaned fish, looking excited for a nice dinner and relaxing evening. I had paddling in store, and had to ask them where the portage was. They knew exactly where it was and I was pretty bummed to realized that I had to do a loop. I got right back where I started. What a waste. I entered the portage trail and found my way again. There were campers at a sweet site right below the waterfall as I clamored into the water for the fifth portage or so on the day, hopped on my board and readjusted all my crap for the final push. It looked like I’d be able to paddle south through a narrow channel, then right onto Sea Gull Lake with no more portages and my pick of island campsites. Yeeeppp, let’s go!! I saw the pinch point straight ahead and on my map. The entrance to Sea Gull. So I stood up and headed towards it.
I was gleaming knowing I had this one feature right ahead to clear and I was right on to Sea Gull. As I got closer, I could tell the water was moving. Aha, yet another flowage! It seemed like all the water was moving in one direction or another, and certain pinch points simply made that more apparent than the otherwise stagnant big lakes. Yeah, this spot was moving pretty good! I’d have to work to get through this! Ok, let’s go! I headed at it aiming towards my right. I knew I was traveling south and right after this ridge would turn due west. I hit the rapids at a slight angle, and it just took my board and tossed it. I had no reaction whatsoever and before I realized what was going on, my gear flopped over the side of my board and I couldn’t stay on. The sheer force of water tumbled me after 40 miles and no close calls to falling off, even by a long shot. Even the swooping birds didn’t shake me close to this! My automatically inflating lifejacket exploded and added to the surprise and shock of the situation. I immediately considered my precious cargo and was able to one-arm swoop it back onto the deck. The lifejacket worked perfectly as intended, at least, but it was quite tight. I slightly adjusted the tension around my neck and hopped onto my board. God damn it… what the hell!!? My last feature… the entry to my last lake and I totally eat SHIT!! WHY?!?! I was pretty frustrated. But, it was good learning experience. The last piece was my paddle, floating down towards Trail’s End portage. Yep, not going back that way again… I paddled both hands on either side and quickly caught up to the paddle. Grabbed it, stood up, then sat back down. Nah, I’m gonna hit this straight on from a lower center of gravity, I told myself. That worked much better, and although I was not grateful to feel the power of the flowing water again, I felt pretty good about conquering what I figured was my last challenge of the night. Now, dripping wet and on to Sea Gull Lake, I was more ready and determined than ever to find a site. In the calm waters I considered and planned out site options. The very first option was right on the optimal course across the lake, if I was to take the direct path to the next portage to be taken tomorrow. Yeah, I was in no way going to be doing any more portages tonight. There’s no way all the sites were taken. Although the very first one was taken, which was a mile from the access point, that was kind of expected and if I was to take a direct route across the lake I’d closely pass five or more sites, by the look of it. The second one was right there, too. And, nobody there! I’m stopping, I told myself. I’m done. But, I couldn’t find the actual site. I didn’t stop to look hard, though and paddled right past after not spotting a landing right away. Oh well, there’s another one here, too. Maybe this site was on the other side of the narrow island. Huh. On to the next site – taken. Another site was visibly taken. Then to the next island heading further south with the wind. I couldn’t find it. Ah! Wait! A landing! I stopped and removed all my gear from the board, and brought my board ashore. Wait… there is no clearing here. This was a fake clearing. Well, the site is close, it’s right here on the map, I told myself. I’d find it… so started tromping through the thick forest up a very steep embankment and stopped. No, nope, not it. I asked out loud if this was a site and nobody answered. I begrudgingly piled all my gear BACK on the board, with two busted tie-downs, kept going around the perimeter of the island was was crushed to see several canoes on shore, hammocks and people talking loudly. Oooohhhkkkkk here… I stopped paddling, kneeled down and inspected my map. Plenty of options, and I wanted to get to a site now. Right now. I scanned the horizon to see two canoes making excellent time to the north, heading east. I looked on the map, and surmised they had no luck at one site and were heading to another site. It was late, probably 8pm, and nobody would be paddling like that unless there were in the same boat as me. Not literally in the same boat of course… no pun intended… but similarly desperate to find a campsite for the night. Well, I said, I’m not going to that one. I figured I could scoop around Miles Island where there were two options, then head due west for three other options. If I’m zero for five, that’d suck ass. Then again, I’m paddling right towards where a group of two canoes were headed away from, likely because they were all full! Oh well, I’ll make the portage if it comes to that. I couldn’t see the very west end of the lake on the map due to how I had it folded. Mile Island, taken and taken. Next island and I had one of my fastest miles of the day for number 45. 13:42. Cool. I liked the mileage. I got to the next island in no time. Again, I thought I got to the site but when I landed, it clearly wasn’t it. I got out again, and figured this island was small enough that I could find the site. But, I couldn’t. I strongly considered just camping on the rocky outcropping. Nah, that’s not smart, I told myself. The last thing I need to do is blatantly break an easily-enforceable rule and put this whole summer’s plan in jeopardy. I paddled around the north side of the island. Yep… bigger than I thought it was. Back around… I’d find this damn site. Around a bend, and I spotted the landing due to two kayaks stuffed into a sheltered bay. NOOOO. I started getting panicky… the feeling of “what am I going to do what am I going to do what am I going to do”. I remembered that feeling from my childhood at the cabin, when I took the canoe by myself on a beautiful glassy morning to the point. At the point, the wind pushed me out from shore and I couldn’t fight it. I decided to paddle backwards across the lake with the wind then back home. I cried like a little girl. Well, I was just a little boy… but I remember the fear and the sense of panic that I had at that time. It was all coming back to me – why the fuck am I out here, I asked myself. Don’t you remember, you idiot?!?
I took the time to re-fold my map to show my portage for the next day and was extremely relieved to find that there were plentiful sites leading into a nice protected bay with two portage options to get to Alpine Lake. And, the wind was pretty calm, AND it was only 8pm now. I had misjudged the time a bit. Still, I was getting hungry, it was getting darker every minute, and I reminded myself of the to-do list for when I got to camp: set up the tent and it was supposed to storm pretty bad overnight, cook my mystery dinner with very little fuel and a micro-sized wood stove, and get to sleep at a reasonable hour. I started paddling southwest towards my portage at the west end of Sea Gull Lake and a treasure of potential sites. One has got to be open…
I planned out the group of five islands. Check out the first one first. Then, one, two, three other islands to skirt around, and the fifth has a site on it. Then, there are three additional sites on a peninsula that I’ll ultimately be aiming for. Not too bad. I was right here. They’re all clumped. Two more strokes, and I could see a raging campfire on the first island. Ok… skip that one. I went on the north side of each island and counted them off: one, two, three, and dead on to the fourth island and I could see the site. Oh, how glorious it was! A bald rocky outcropping. No mistaking… I could see the firepit. I paddled faster to claim it, even though there is no way there were other parties around. I almost didn’t believe it, though, after the frustration of probably 10 sites that I would have stopped at on Sea Gull Lake if they weren’t all taken. This one was mine, though. Let’s goo!! What a relief. I saw the fire grate, then the landing. No boats, I’m home.
As I sluggishly pulled to the slab rock landing and took my gear off, I started planning my evening. It was getting to my normal bedtime by now, and I still had to set up my tent, make a fire, cook over the fire and eat dinner. I wasn’t super hungry despite probably being in a major calorie deficit. The adrenaline of not finding a site put me in a fight-or-flight mode and any accumulated hunger waned, but I figured I’d start feeling it soon, so planned to set up my tent first and foremost, then get cooking immediately while I re-organize and try to dry out my gear a little bit, and get my pads and bag set up for sleeping. Luckily everything was really well intact and pretty dry, but I still dumped everything out and scattered it around the site. I got sticks broken and ready for the fire, lit it up and started to boil water. The small wood stove was maybe not the best option for cooking, because it took nearly constant attention to keep a consistent heat and even a couple minutes with no fresh twigs would stop the boil. Once I was certain enough that the boil had killed any germs I added my super-duper tasty meal of a Knorr Rice Side packet. In the meantime I got my pads set up, my mattress blown up, top quilt laid out, took my soaking wet shoes off and put on my rain suit to help with the bugs. It wasn’t that warm out where the rain suit was unbearable. I saw a beaver nearby, it was a truly beautiful night.
I realized I had internet service on my cell phone, which was a big relief because I could send out some check-in text messages and more importantly check the weather. It was set to storm overnight with what looked to be a sweeping system in the middle of the night around 3am. In and out. Then, tomorrow was looking not as sunny, which was great for my increasingly uncomfortable sunburn, but definitely a little bit windier from the southwest which was essentially a direct headwind to where I was planning to go tomorrow. Although, there are always options… I took a peek at my wet maps and laid those out try to dry as well. I figured I’d stick to the plan. I got my big long day in – a total of almost 47 miles – and it was late now, so I was definitely OK with a nice slow morning and the knowledge that I could take it pretty slow tomorrow if I wanted to, get pretty dang close to Newfound Lake and Moose Lake for a short day on Sunday.
Once I wrapped up cooking, I left my kettle of mush to cool down and packed everything in preparation for rain overnight and relatively efficient departure in the morning. It was getting dark and I wanted my area to be clean before relying on my headlamp to collect my things. The constant worrying about losing stuff didn’t stop. But, I got it all in and brought my humble food dish in the tent with me to hopefully eat without the offending bugs to deal with. The food was pretty hot in my little tent and I was hot as well. I had prepared my rain fly for the impending storm, and that trapped all the heat and moisture and even in my undies, it was warmer and muggier than my rain suit outside. But, it was practically dark out and I wasn’t willing to go outside, start a fire, or sit in the dark. So, I mixed in two packets of flavored salmon to my rice mix and ate my dinner. It looked like barf but it was pretty good.
I drifted off to sleep pretty easily but woke up to a rain at some point. I noticed a few light flashes, and a few grumblings of thunder. It rained a bit harder. Then I became a bit more alert when I noticed a very bright light. I swear I could see the vertical bolt through my eyelids. I thought that I should maybe count to predict how far away the lightning actually is, and in the split second it took me to have that thought and then mutter “one” to myself, a very intense crack and subsequent explosion occurred. The thunder noise was extremely loud. The boom rattled me. Ohhh shit, I muttered to myself. That must have been RIGHT there. I know there are other campers on this lake – is everyone OK? My eyes were wide open at this point, and I checked my phone. 3am. I looked at the weather. It looked OK. There were signs of lightning all around but really, the system was passing and it was set to clear up in the imminent future. The forecast was correct and counting other flashes yielded thunder delays of 4 seconds, 6 seconds, then just light rain until I drifted back off to sleep.
Day 2: Saturday, June 25, 2022
I woke up with the light to see a pretty wet tent. Luckily, nothing inside was actually wet. Just damp. There was a small puddle under my water bladder. Huh, was that leaking? I wondered to myself, but just took a sip and drifted back to sleep. Morning sleep is the best. That cycle repeated several times until well into the morning. My body seemed to be holding up pretty well. I could tell the mosquitoes were out in full force, or perhaps just trapped in between my co2-laden tent screen and sagging rain fly. I check my clock and it was well after 8 and I figured I should get going. In addition to the rain and extreme lightning strike, I had been somewhat anxious about my paddleboard and paddle haphazardly schlepped onto the rocky landing and laying on a bush. What if the wind and waves toppled it out to the lake? Would I be able to swim to the other side and find it? I took a peek over the berm to confirm that the board was still there, then hurriedly packed my tent, my gear, and mashed food into my face quickly. I treated some water through my Katadyn BeFree filter and brought my gear down to the shore. I was pretty devastated to learn that somehow another tie-down fell of during the night. How? No idea, but it was off and all I could do is put it in a pocket and find a way to secure my gear. It seemed secure enough by wrapping the bungee around the back of my pack. As long as it crossed in an X shape over the front of my back, I’d be good, I figured. I also clasped everything together and onto my board so at least if there was a catastrophic loss of gear, in theory it would simply hang off my board and I could scoop it back on like I did the day before on the dang rapids up to Sea Gull Lake. Looking out onto Sea Gull this morning, it definitely seemed a bit breezier but definitely nothing unachievable. I knew it’d be a bit challenging on Kekakabic Lake. That big southwest/northeast-oriented lake would have waves building from the southwest. I figured if I made it to Ensign Lake, that’d be about 25 or 30 miles, and I probably had 35 miles total left to go for the trip to make the nice loop. First things first was a short paddle to a long portage of 100 yards. So, I hopped on and set off.
I scanned the lake to see if there was a smoldering tree and dead campers at any of the couple sites right away that’d I’d pass in the morning on my way out of Sea Gull. Nope! Good. Like nothing ever happened. Was it a dream? I started in my tank top again. I had a bad sunburn, and getting the pack on at the portage was not pleasant. The bugs were extreme. In the morning hours, a rather humid and cooler, cloudy day, I was immediately swarmed and the 100 yard portage was too much. If I kept going, I figured, they wouldn’t swarm me. I had to switch one time halfway through, and I was correct in my assessment. The mosquitoes completely attacked me. I tried to hurriedly touch every square inch of my skin within one second and then swiftly keep walking afterwards. I was also partially wrong in that if I kept walking and didn’t stop that the mosquitoes couldn’t latch on to me and suck away freely. I was able to swat with my paddle hand, but you can only touch so much of your own skin with one hand holding a paddle. In a flat stretch of the rocky portage to Alpine, I took a glance over my shoulder and was horrified to see that several mosquitoes were securely fastened to my exposed shoulder. I swatted them, had a minor panic attack realizing that there were mosquitoes ALL over me: on my legs. I awkwardly rubbed my legs together trying to squish mosquitoes between and kill them. There were mosquitoes on my face, so I was twitching wildly and rubbing my chin on my shoulder to attempt more killing. Then, I realized I just had to walk forward and get to the lake. My forearm burned, but I felt cool knowing I could do a 100 rod portage with just one change of hands mid-way. I was so excited to see the lake emerge from the densely wooded horizon. It seemed like the most mosquitoes of the whole portage were at the entrance to lake. I hopped on my board and paddled out to the lake where they’d leave me. The bugs didn’t leave so I killed as many as possible to reduce the swarm. It worked.
The maps cut around Jasper Lake, which is where I was thinking I could camp on the first night under outrageously successful circumstances. Hey, pretty close. One slow mile in and I got a bit confused where I was headed. I could see all of Alpine Lake. Floating on Alpine Lake, I tried to smartly organize my maps, but I needed to flip flop two maps twice. But if I memorized the route, once I get to Ogishkemuncie I’d be on navigational easy-street with perhaps 8 miles on just Ogish and Kekakabic Lakes. So a set off paddling towards a group of islands across Alpine. The winds whipped up once the narrows opened up to a bay. Yeesh, there’s the south wind, I thought to myself. I fought the wind. Yeah man, this is what it’s really all about. But I because quickly overtaken and unsteadily felt I had to kneel for stability. Wait, maybe this is what this whole day will be like. It’s only supposed to get windier, and I go more into the wind as I make it through big Kekakabic. My heart sank a little bit. But, I made it to the leeward side of the islands and was able to enjoy a beautiful, remote Boundary Waters morning on the water. Let’s go.
In no time, there was the portage on the south side of Alpine, and it was short with no hand changes. I just went with the left hand – hopped off my board and straight into the woods no stops. When I got out, mosquitoes violating my entire body head to toe, I kept walking straight into the lake like a robot, hopped on my board and without hesitation paddled out to Jasper Lake. Then freaked out in a mosquito-killing rampage. Then, “ahhh”, and I’m a human again. I saw the portage towards the northwest of the lake, a short 25 rod to Kingfisher, and knew I had to change maps at that point. I kept kneeling before taking off to change maps, but realized Kingfisher didn’t show up on the other map either. How would I know where to go? I looked at the other map, there it is. Gah, stumped again. Here is where I had to memorize. Wait, it was cut out. I had to go on faith that there is an opening? But it looked like just a curve to the south and I’d be on Ogishkemuncie. Oh yeah, had my watch! I remembered that handy resource and checked the map function. Again, it was hard to see. I thought I saw a portage line, though. Or, is that the creek. Wait, the portages are at creeks… Oh well, I started paddling and figured I could check in later. So, I set off on Jasper Lake. It was cloudy and a bit breezy. This lake wouldn’t have been that sweet to camp on, I figured. I made it around a point, the wind pushing me to the portage. Wait, is the this the one? I asked myself, and then kneeled back down and looked at the map. Can’t tell. Watch? It showed a creek, which I could now see, strewn with logs and branches and flowing pretty strong. I’m not paddling back around for another portage not any harder than this… So with four out of six tie downs, I paddled up the flowing water connection between Jasper and Kingfisher until I couldn’t anymore, veered to my right, jumped off and in thigh-deep water waded upstream to the cool-sounding Kingfisher Lake. But this non-portage was really stupid. The water was making me really unsteady, and I recalled what the flowing water did to me in an instant the day before about 40-something miles in! I was happy to reach near the end and wedge my board onto a downed tree. But then the downed tree proved to be a huge obstacle. Whyyy, am I wasting time, I asked myself. With a few more grunts I made it to Kingfisher. I looked for the bird, and didn’t see one. Kneeling, I reached the end of the lake quickly and hopped on another quick portage to Ogish. Ahh, it was a nice feeling to know I could just crank for many more miles just like yesterday. My mile splits were horrendous, at 5 miles on the day in two hours. It was already past 11! It might be another long day, I thought to myself.
Onto the bigger, windier lake of Ogishkemuncie, the wind was bad. I had to not only kneel, but sit my butt down completely between my legs. But, I could actually make good time. This wasn’t fun, la-dee-da paddling, but this is what I sign up for. This is what we work for. I was constantly scanning the shoreline, and checking the map. Couple of paddle strokes, scan the shoreline, look at the map, repeat constantly. It felt like I had to make a navigational decision every 20 seconds, and this was after the winding network of tiny lake from the morning thus far. And Ogish was a nice straight, long lake and I could crank. It was slow in the wind, but I made good time. I tried to pronounce Ogishkemuncie the whole time, and figured I’d be at Kek in no time.
The effort to move through the network of lakes to get to Kek was robotic. I had long sleeves on and was not afraid to get my feet completely soaked and my legs covered in bugs. I paddled to the portage, hopped out, heaved over my terribly sunburned shoulders the dry bag backpack, hydration vest clipped on, and safety kit clipped on, then lift my board grab the paddle and charge right onto the portage, sometimes through dense packs of dragonflies. Ooo yeah, I told them that this was mosquito season. Without stopping or slowing down, I’d reach the next lake’s shore at the end of the portage and toss my board in the water and paddle away, swatting mosquitoes mercifully. Eventually I stopped strapping my backpack down and just paddled kneeling with the pack on to the next portage until I finally landed at Kekakabic Lake. I did 8 portages beween Ogishkemuncie and Kek. I realized that the portages really ate up time, and my pace was suffering. It was about 2pm, near 12 miles in and just over 4:20 in on the day, which is worse than 3 miles per hour. I stopped for lunch in a very covered, leeward bay before the lake really opened up.
I put my food away, drank water and mentally prepared myself for a long, hard grind. Unfolding the map a bit, Kekakabic looked absolutely massive. The wind had been blowing south and west all day, and Kek faced directly southwest with the potential to foster rolling waves that can gather speed for a long time. Luckily, the most efficient route was directly along the north shore, so with luck and a shifting wind to the west, perhaps it won’t be a dangerous situation. Plus, staying to shore is a vital to the bail-out option. I paddled hard. When Kek opened up, it didn’t look too terribly larger than any other old lake. Then again, it was hard to judge the undulations of the land. I just paddled on. Yep, it was windy, but no different than Ogish and I felt like I was cranking pretty good in the seated “froggy-style” position on my paddleboard. I could see the big island or peninsula feature straight ahead and knew to skirt to the right of it. As I got further out into the lake, the winds started whipping. I could see the gusts over the water and although the waves weren’t terribly challenging, the gusts just felt punishing. I could tell on the big mount straight ahead and a bit to the left was getting hazier, and wondered if it’d rain. It was supposed to, and although was cloudy since I woke up, hadn’t rained at all. Then it started sprinkling. It felt good. The rain waned off, but the gusty winds didn’t. I grinded until around the gi island to the much larger belly of Kekakabic Lake. I was to go a bit further than halfway down the lake to the portage on the north shore. Meh, not too bad, I thought to myself, and kept cranking away. My mile splits were decent.
Onto the big side of Kek, it was dramatic. I could see rain clouds from miles away. The waves looked to be forming to whitecaps far off on the big open section of dark grey and black water. Then the towering cliffs and undulating woods along the shoreline was pretty incredible. It was fun to try to interpret the elevation lines on the map to what I was seeing with my eyes. This is fucking sweet, I thought.
I tried to latch to the north shore of Kek around a decently wide-open bay, and the rain started again but a little bit wetter than ever. I felt a slight chill and immediately prompted me to put on my rain jacket. I was skeptical, but my new Frog Toggs jacket was very comfortable and I was happy with the decision. My hat was backwards, and I was thinking of a very lengthy YouTube video about the Border Route that had been very inspirational to me in the previous 6 months, and I had probably watched in full at least four times (albeit, mainly in the background). Scott Baste says “I’m gonna put my mean face on!”, and I said that many times in a battle to press forward. The rain got worse, and all I could do was laugh a little bit, convince myself that this is what I signed up for, and keep an efficient stroke. My mile times were pretty good. In what seemed like about as challenging conditions as I could imagine actually paddling in – 10-15 mph winds head on on a big lake with pelting cold rain – I felt like the roughly 3 mph pace was decent. Waves were crashing over my board and I got nervous about my pack that was bungeed down in a fairly sketchy manner. But, it seemed solid. When I got to the portage off of Kekakabic, I was pretty proud. That’s not so bad, I thought. I also figured that from here on in would be feasible for Sunday, so anything else is gravy. And I got plenty more juice left. It was six hours in, about 3pm and over 15 miles for the day.
The 80 rod portage was full of mosquitoes and hard. I looked at the map and was discouraged by the number of small lakes and portages. It made the big open lake seem not so bad, but it was good to feel out of the wind. The wind is intense. You can’t let up for a second. To have a little break on a leeward side is prime. The glassy water was so desirable. I kept the robotic lake-skipping alive until the sun peeked out on Missionary Lake. I had scoped out the two sites at the end of Missionary as a potential stopping point. But, for now, I had to stop to hang out. I deserve it. After another series of five portages from Kek to Missionary, plus the 180 rod portage to round it out, I had to jump in the lake. It was a buggy ordeal, that portaging. I stopped in a beautiful cove, with a steep rock drop-off. A perfect swimming spot. I saw something out of the corner of my eye – a loon thought it was a great swimming spot, too. In fact, I was encroaching. I was very conscious of my recent seagull ordeal, and treaded lightly. I took my time before jumping in. It felt so good, but it was brief.
It felt so good to stand up after sitting on my legs for so long. My knees and especially ankles for being flexed and smashed down for hours were sore. Missionary was small enough, and the wind had died down enough that I could stand and paddle. I saw a few other canoes out on Missionary, and realized that both sites on the end of the lake by the portage were occupied. Ah, not this again… I looked at my watch. 5:30pm, and I figured people would probably all have sites staked out by now. I had at least two more portages then. So, I put my mean face on again, and belted them out.
On Vera Lake, I knew there were a few site options. I could even go all the way to Ensign, which would be sweet. There are a ton of sites there. And the closer I get today, the faster I can get Culver’s or whatever else I want on Sunday. Nah, I figured I’d nab up the first site I could find at this point. I needed my last map, the one with Moose Lake on it. Sweet. I aimed for a pinch point in Vera with a site on either side of their peninsula. I saw the right-side one first. It just stuck out so prominently on a rocky outcropping. I could see it from across the lake. HMM! No tents, no hammocks, no canoes, no garments flailing in the wind from a closeline tied into several trees. EMPTY! YES! I furiously paddled towards the site. I found a suitable landing and almost in disbelief after the previous night’s panic, and a slight disappointment and subsequent physical suffering about the two sites on Missionary Lake taken, I looked around at where another landing could possibly be hiding kayaks in the brush. Nope!
I hopped off my board, stopped my watch and breathed a large sigh of relief to be at my home for the night. Then, I saw the pack. On the ground just a few steps from the tip of my board was a massive dark green and black canoe bag. This thing was probably 80 or 100 liters and just sitting there, right at the campsite landing. No, NOOO! I couldn’t fathom packing up my stuff AGAIN and setting off to find another site. I just couldn’t bear it. I’d be going to Ensign. Fuck it, I’m going back home TONIGHT. I can paddle another 11 miles, I told myself. No. Nooope. I ran up to the campsite. The camp grate was clean, the sites were empty. I ran back towards the latrine. There was nothing back there. Completely empty except one huge-ass pack. I went back to it. It was damp and dewey, and looked like it had been there for a while. It looked like it had been rained on, and I vividly remembered the days of yore a few hours back. So, this pack was here when it was raining maybe a few hours ago? Definitely not… one hour ago, I reasoned. I went in for a closer inspection, pondering whether to open it or not, and saw a slug. Yep, this thing has been here for a while. Then I got a little mad. Who would come here, claim this site with just a stinking pack at the landing, not take the time to even set up a tent? That’s b-s and I am not about that. When they come back, I promised myself, you’ll tell them that you didn’t see it and it’s too bad and there’s a campsite just across the way that doesn’t look occupied. Then, I thought about how in all reality, it was left here. Wow. That would be pretty devastating to find out. I had been keenly aware of my gear to an obsessive extent nearly every waking minute of the trip so far, and couldn’t imagine the thought of losing 100 liters worth of gear, food, or vital supplies! Yikes. I didn’t look in the bag and retreated. Despite the emotional reaction and state, I rushed to set up my tent and make myself at home. It was glorious.
At about 6pm, I had my gear all layed out, my shoes off, dry camp clothes and bug coverings on, and was enjoying the pristine evening. The wind had calmed, and was blocked by land. The sun was low along the right side of the lake as I looked out to the beautiful clouds and Vera Lake shoreline. What a treat. I also looked out to see if there was a canoe group furiously paddling to my exact location. Not in this fine moment. I pondered greatly my tent location, but first set up intricate ways to dry all my gear in the sweet late June air.
I enjoyed eating fruit snacks on a nice rock seat close to the lake. I slowly set up my tent, gathered firewood, ate food and prepared for dinner. And looked out on the lake. Then, I enjoyed a nice evening. I skipped the wood stove and cooked my second lovely meal over the fire. Knorr Pasta Sides, vacuum sealed flavored chicken, nutritional yeast and olive oil was on the menu. It looked a little like vom, but it was excellent. As dusk set it, I figured if nobody was here to claim the pack by 9, nobody was coming tonight. Then again, prime fishing is right at dusk… which is right at 9. Right? Too bad so sad, we can share. Maybe they’ll cook fish. I didn’t have service so didn’t have a good sense of how the forecast looked for the next day. I also didn’t get the chance to send check-in messages the whole day. Oh well, I’m close. I figured I had 12 miles to go to get back to my van. I remember winds coming out of the west and the last day looking the windiest. Did that say 10-20mph? Oh well, I was probably doing 10 or 15 over big Kek today, I reasoned. I tucked my maps away and eventually slinked off to bed with the rain fly off. I figured I’d put it on later. I drifted off and had a great night sleep.
Day 3 – June 26, 2022, Part 1
I woke up on my third and final morning to wind on Vera Lake. I could hear it. Moving through the threes, the lake moving. I packed up pretty quick knowing I didn’t have lunch, didn’t really have much to organize or plan for except a hasty retreat out of Vera Lake, one nice long portage to big Ensign Lake, nicknamed Trailer Park Lake on my maps by Garrett. Then two small portages to Newfound and Moose Lake back home. I could tell it was a west wind. I remembered better that it was forecast to be a wind. And I had to do a large stretch straight west. If you drew point to point, my route was strongly west-southwest. There was no getting around the wind. I was pretty confident from the day before, though, that I could beast through it. I did it over big Kek, what is this? The wind didn’t seem so much like a strong wind as much as a choppy, whipping wind. I could hear it blowing and blustering, and see the ever-changing kaleidoscope of wind patterns on the water. Better strap down tight and hit it, I instructed myself! The mystery pack was still there. Wow. Unbelievable. I was pretty surprised and in awe about that whole experience and wondered how much longer that’d be there for. I started feeling a little pressed to get on the lake and get out of there right at the landing as I was fiddling around with my gear. Better to get it right now, though, I thought to myself. Then, I launched and it was right about 7:30am. Good time, and I figured with the wind, I’d be back by noon.
I was on a bit of a southwest shoreline and figured it was blocking the wind a bit. Either way, I started kneeling and the wind was definitely pushing me! I could tell the portage was on the southwest side of the lake, and figured I’d make my crossing at the pinch point, then ride the south shore in instead of trying to stick to the north shore and going around the leeward west side. A viable option, though. When I got to the north-end point, around the bend the wind hit me. I told Lake Vera that I knew she wanted to keep me here, but I had to get home! I yelled it. Then I anxiously looked around for seagulls. They don’t like that yelling. I went towards the opposite shore. It wasn’t long, but long enough where I could visibly see whitecaps and a strong wind pushing water right through the pinch point. I was barely in the thick of it. So I paddle on, and realized quickly I was in a losing battle. The wind and waves pushed me down on a seated position, butt on the board, ankles completely dorsiflexed and smashed down onto the outside edge of my board. An uncomfortable position that I spent plenty of time in the day before. Then the wind and waves pushed my board left and right, and I struggled to keep a bearing. Whitecaps were spilling over my board and I couldn’t hold it so bailed out. I took a big swooping paddle backwards, immediately overtaken by fear as I saw a big waved completely capsizing me and my gear sinking to the bottom of the lake in my mind’s eye. Luckily, that did not materialize and the wave just pushed my the exact opposite direction and I rode the waves into the nice cove I had just left. I had to regroup. Those waves were brutal. I could see the other shore behind the point. I thought about Scott Baste. I gotta put my mean face on, I told myself out loud. Then I went back for more.
The waves were utterly brutal. I remembered Em telling me I was most stable with my paddle in the water, and remembered the photos from Big Ole 2021 where my paddle was exclusively out of the water. Focus on keeping the paddle in the water, I reiterated. I again aimed for the south shore of Vera. She wants to keep me here! Vera, I gotta get home! I paddle hard, trying to keep my noise pointed perfectly 45 degrees onto the waves to avoid going completely sideways and risk capsizing, but also keeping on the bearing to hit the opposite shore, then follow that right on in to the portage. That 180 rod portage was never more appealing. I got a bit in front of the point, but couldn’t make it to shore. I could see on the map a campsite on the opposite, south shore of the pinch point. I did another complete turn maneuver and rode the waves into the cove. I wondered how I’d be able to get around this pinch point. I figured I’d just stay to shore. There were enough tiny undulations to break the waves a little bit. The wind was pushing waves right into the south shore. Maybe the north shore method would have been better, I pondered. I didn’t stop the forward progress, though. I kept pushing forward, on and on and on. Across Vera right on in to the portage. This would be a rough day. Ensign was much longer, but also skinner with plenty of islands and jut-outs. With this style of playing the landscape to block the wind, I’d be able to make it back just fine. But, it’d take a lot more energy and be a lot slower and less efficient. That, for instance, the first day. I remembered back to the first day cranking out 15-minute miles on glassy waters. Wow, I realized how much the wind would play a major factor in speed.
The 180-rod portage to Ensign was brutal. It was very windy, and there lots of big climbs to exposed ridges overlooking Ensign Lake. The views were amazing, though. It was a pretty grey day. Cloudy, blustery, generally shitty conditions. The portage went up and down. I was tired, and had to take lots of stops. Luckily, the bugs weren’t terrible. I had long sleeves on, anyways. I finally made it to the end and was excited to get onto Ensign. The start of the lake would be kind of fun. A bit into the headwind, then an s-curve out of the wind, then back onto the big lake. A couple sections opened up, and the final stretch had a nice blocker island to work with. I figured it’d be about a 5-mile trip across the entire lake from here. As expected, the first stretch was not super fun, but I stuck to the south shore just like on Vera and made my way. It was just slow and tedious. Yet, safer by shore. And seemingly less windy and wavy. But slow. I made it to the bend and the wind took me right away. The wind seemed to be coming straight west, but I turned the corner and the waves were pushing straight south. Nice. I rode them. Then, I felt the west wind. I had to paddle hard to keep south. The waves were huge. It was fun, but scary. I felt like I couldn’t stop paddling. The paddle in the water was keeping me on track, and even a brief pause took me off course, the exact direction of the wind and the waves. I felt the westerly push harder and harder the more I got into the open water. I saw the point I had to hit, and new it would be a strong wind coming around the bay. If I missed the leeward point and got too far west, I’d have a really, really hard time getting back on track. I couldn’t squander the ground I’d essentially made this far. In seemingly one change from left to right and back to the left side, on which I had to paddle at an all-out effort, I was past the point. I was past the point I needed to turn on, and past a helper island I could have utilized. But, I was headed to the east shore, the waves pushing me right in. I paddled backwards on my right side to get a better orientation. It was a risky move. I thought I could bail. I didn’t know what would happen, but I wasn’t going to try anything besides all out extreme paddling to get to the island. I could see the wind break. Right there. The force of the wind and the waves were seemingly increasing. A wind gust. It was pushing me off course, but I was somehow able to make enough forward progress to get into the leeward side of an island. Then, I was happy to find that I could snake the north shore from here. So, snake I did. Despite being far less efficient, I went in every little bay and undulation. I could see the whitecaps out at sea, and stayed close. My arms were pretty tired from the whole weekend. I was not hoping for this. I didn’t want extreme effort to be what my last day was all about. I didn’t want stressful situations and imminent capsizing to be what my last day was all about, either. But, here I was, chugging along slowly. It was almost funny. How can the wind be like this? It’s ridiculous. The gusts were frequent and challenging. I paddled to a campsite with lots of people at it. They seemed to be hunkered down. I waved and they kind of just looked at me weird. I’d have to snake along the shoreline the rest of the way out, but I was ready for it.
I left the campsite, paddled around the bend, and it was just unbelievable. I was 7 feet from shore. I could see the bottom of the lake, with whitecaps crashing to shore right beside me. I was bouncing up and down with water completely drenching my entire board. The gusts intensified. It was as if someone had a big dial to turn up the wind speed, and they were just slowly cranking on it. I couldn’t go forward. There was another group of a couple people in rain suits on the shoreline. That must be the same group of people, I thought. I wasn’t going anywhere. I looked ahead and it was a daunting widening of the lake. I was at the very entry to this opening, with the big stretch of west-east lake staring me down like through the barrel of a rifle. I became flustered. I couldn’t go on. I had to turn back. The site was right here. It’s too hard. I’m gonna paddle my arms into injury trying to make it back. I had to re-evaluate my situation so pulled a quick turn-around maneuver, once again, and limped into the site. As if they were expecting this to happen, the site’s occupants were at the landing ready to grab my paddle and help with my board. I clamored onto shore, asking if I could hang here for a second, and set down my pack, wet with waves, everything wet, and myself starting to get cold despite wearing all of my clothes. This was looking grim.
When I regained my composure, I started talking to the group at the Ensign Lake campsite. It was a group of nine with three boards, the BWCA max group size, and they’d been at this same site for 5 nights, and were planning to head out on this day. In fact, they had less than an hour to catch their 10am boat ride from Newfound Lake where motors were allowed and outfitters dropped off and picked up paddlers to avoid the long paddle along Moose Lake. Yeah, that pick-up was not happening. Yep. They figured, based on an emergency weather radio broadcast from earlier, that they’d have to reschedule for much later in day. It was supposed to be windy all day. Until 7pm. I set out my maps and looked long and hard. There was no way around the due west bearing. No blocker islands, just brutal waves and wind. I looked out on the lake. Impassable. Impossible. Barely possible. I checked my phone. No service. I paced… then walked out to the bay where I’d seen other people. I wanted to get a look at the whole lake. It was pretty intense.
I estimated the wind was 20 miles per hour with 30mph gusts if not more, and maybe 3 foot waves with whitecaps. This was all a total estimation. I had no idea about wind speed. It seemed so intense, and of course right in the direction I had to go. It did not look feasible to paddle, from what I could see. So I slinked back to the campsite. On the way back, however, I found a signal and tried to send out a text message to Em to let her know I was stymied by the wind. It was one bar of cell service.
There were maybe five or six adults and three or four kids at the site, and the kids seemed so happy, and the adults eager to get going, just like me. I looked hard at my map. I could probably stick to shore and make it, but there was an even more pronounced pinch point a mile or two away. Then, the biggest opening of Ensign, but with several small islands, bays, and not to mention that the further along in the lake, the closer I’d get to the leeward west shore of the lake. What a beautiful shore, I’m sure.
I heard stories of another paddling group that capsized twice just on the other side of the lake. Then, another group of people emerged from the woods. Huh… where did they come from? They were on the west side of the peninsula that this campsite is situated on. That group was with a guide and was mostly a boy scouts troop from Texas. Then, the group showed up that had capsized. It seemed that this was the pinch point. On the map, the one further ahead looks way worse – were there 10 groups stranded there? I realized that if literally none out of four groups couldn’t make forward progress, and the wind wasn’t supposed to die down until 7pm, and it was 10:30 now, and I didn’t have any lunch, and my hands hurt, then this day could suck really bad. If I can’t start paddling by 7, I’d be out by 9pm, home by 11pm. Culver’s would for sure be closed, and I would for sure be exhausted and sad. No way. I went back to the shore. It looked windier. Gah. I figured I should wait to check the weather. I waited and waited. I had one bar but it went in and out. My texts didn’t send, and the weather didn’t refresh. I finally got a glance. The forecast was correct. It was supposed to be 10-20mph winds all day, gusty on top of that, and rain. And just like that, I could see the rain come over the horizon and meet our camp. It was a misty, foggy rain, but wet nonetheless and of course sideways due to the wind. The campsite blocked a lot of it – the wind and the rain – and I found myself with almost everyone else huddle around this nice and comforting campfire. The group originally here were extremely hospitable. Everyone was just kind of bumming around, semi-anxiously doing nothing while wishing they were at Moose Lake. Another group had a scheduled motorboat escort in the very near future as well, and the original group actually talked to the outfitter to postpone their pickup time, and they confirmed my spotty cell phone forecast and their weather radio forecast that wind was supposed to persist about the same through the evening. Shoot. I had to go. I walked down to the shore AGAIN and looked out – still wavy. Maybe more. Do-able? I wasn’t ready to try. Back to the fire. Chit chat. We had fun. Everyone was in the same boat. Nothing to do. The boy scouts set up camp, knowing they’d be here the whole day to hit it tomorrow. I ate some snacks. I was still pretty chilled, but the fire helped and I was at least dry enough under my rain suit. So I sat.
Hours went by. I checked, and paced around, and checked my phone, and tried to get a signal, and sat by the fire, and stirred up some conversation, and studied my map looking for a way, and looked at the lake, then checked my map again. I thought long and hard about what it would take to make it to the portage to Splash Lake. One trip to the shore, it looked like it had died down. Well, there were no whitecaps anymore, anyways. The wind was still whipping, and the waves were rolling just fine. But, if I could make it along shore… then blast past the pinch point and stay north to the island, I’d be right there. So I made the call. I announced I was leaving. Nobody had made a similar proclamation and I wasn’t going to wait around until 7pm. It looked good enough, I felt good enough, let’s go!! So I packed up my stuff. A few gawkers helped me off and I set out.
When I set off from the campsite on Ensign Lake, I was pretty nervous to get straight-up stopped once again. I didn’t want to have to pull the turn-around maneuver. But, I made it past my last turn-around point just past the campsite, and kept on. I looked back to see if they were watching me from the campsite, each separate group and probably 25 people in total wondering if their group as well could set off. I hugged the shore as much as I could, and it was fine. I was seated, just plugging along. Yes, the waves were cresting the tip of my board, pouring over the front, dousing my pack with water and running past my knees protected by my cool new rainsuit. Well, at least I got to test out this new gear! In no time, I made it to the pinch point that I had been scared of and staring at on the map for hours. It was easy. I made it right past and onwards to the island. It was a cinch, and I made it to the leeward south side of the island in a nice cove just like that. I could see the portage. Well, I could see the shoreline where it was probably at, and seemingly could make out where it was at the low point in the southwest corner of the lake. I figured it was another mile of brutal paddling into perhaps the most open part of the lake so far. I could swing it. So, I set off from my island hang-out and put on my mean face once again. When the cap flips backwards, it’s on.
Chugging along the south side of a nice island in the middle of Ensign Lake, and I figured the waves were decent enough where I could cross and go straight to the portage. If I bee-lined it, it’d get progressively easier as I get closer to the leeward shore, I figured. But, that was not the case. Huge gusts came out of that leeward shore straight ahead, due west. The waves were violent with whitecaps smashing my board and pushing me around. At a moment I was certain the waves would push me completely sideways then overboard, I’d get my paddle in for a power-stroke and right myself. That happened a few times until I couldn’t proceed forward. I knew what that meant – I was running out of strength and had to bail. So, again, I made a strong backwards paddle on my left side, rapidly switched to my right side and furiously thrashed at the choppy water with my paddle to make a 180-degree turn and go downwind. When I felt it catch, it was such a relief. Still haven’t tipped, I told myself in congratulation.
I could see on the map, and in person a nice campsite. Well, I thought, I at least fail right next to nice campsite landings. The waves pushed me way past it, and I had to struggle to turn around again, paddle along the tucked away bay adjacent to the site into a nice completely shielded landing. Stupid.
At this point, I was extremely happy to have made it an additional couple of miles. But, at this point it was 2:30 and I still had plenty of miles to paddle. I figured it was about 5 miles once I get past dang Ensign, two portages and onto Newfound and Moose Lakes. I would portage miles and miles instead of this god damn wind, I said to myself. Then, I thought about how I could perhaps portage back to my car. I plotted it on the map and quickly realized that bushwhacking would be substantially worse than paddling into the strong headwind. I also figured that once I got to Newfound, if I could make some big crossing I’d be able to stay on a leeward shore since the lake was in a southwest/northeast orientation instead of a direct west-east direction of stupid Ensign Lake. So, if I could make it out of Ensign, I could be comparatively smooth sailing. But, the wind was still absolutely brutal.
At a second campsite on Ensign Lake, perhaps a mile or less from my highly anticipated portage, I sat below a tree as it started to rain. I was kind of surprised there was nobody at this site as opposed to 25 at the last sad lay-up point of three other groups and two of which going the exact same way as myself. I waited maybe a half hour but became restless. I can make it. I’m on the opposite shore. I should have kept going. The rain had subsided and the sun was out, a cycle that had repeated itself 15 times during the day already. I looked out on the shore. Yep, I can do it, so launched. It was pretty brutal right away, but substantially easier right by shore. Slow going, yes, but manageable. And, more importantly, not critically dangerous. If I was overtaken by waves, my shit was wash right into shore and I could at least collect it and move on with my life. Luckily, I didn’t figure out exactly how that would played out and made my way steadily along the final south shore stretch of Ensign. I was crushed to realize I forgot to start my watch, perhaps through the crux of this whole trek. Oh well, started it and kept paddling. The portage came clear into view. I realized that it wasn’t a portage after all, but a long and narrow channel. But, it had a portage on the map… but that portage was tiny. Into the channel and the waves stopped. What a great feeling. I saw the impassable section and tiny portage after all. Onto Splash Lake, which was also long and narrow. The winds were still pushing me, but at least the waves were majorly reduced on the relatively small sections I was on. Splash Lake opened up and I was nervous about big water. But, it was a relatively easy crossing and I made it to my final portage with ease. I was still seated, not willing to stand in the wind.
I made it through to Newfound like with no issue at all. The portages were all easy. I realized that under 80 rods was pretty easy, and over 150 took a little more pumping up to get done. I was becoming pretty efficient with getting off my board, but getting back on after a portage always took time. The silver lining of the windy day was a big reduction in mosquitoes. I saw one of the famed escort boats tying up to shore near the Newfound landing off that last portage. I yelled at him, to ask what percentage of days were this windy. He said, seemingly more and more. I said that his services were probably in high demand today, and he told me he was waiting for another group thinking that I was going to ask him for a ride. I yelled back that I was paddling the whole way to Moose Lake entry. He didn’t care whatsoever. I just was feeling pretty accomplished that I made it past Ensign. But, I had a long way to go. Probably another couple hours, I figured. It was getting well into the afternoon at this point, and I wondered if I’d make it to Culver’s. I realized I didn’t eat lunch, just some random snacks around the rainy fire around lunchtime. A couple handfuls of chips, a gel, some fruit snacks, and nothing since then. I wasn’t really hungry, though, but knew once I got out I’d be able to eat anything in any amount. I started daydreaming… maybe there’s a Culver’s in Ely. Or I could stop at a fancy brewery that serves fattening burgers and ice cream. I’d figure it out later. For now, get to Moose Lake.
I skirted around a few islands, made it past a couple of wavier breaks and then followed the south shore of Newfound. I was making pretty decent time, actually. I realized that this was probably an area I’d paddled already, and looked around trying to remember the landscape. It seemed like years ago, but it was just two days that had passed! I definitely remembered the couple of points to navigate which probably made the junction of Newfound and Moose Lakes. That was my new crux. I figured it’d be a bit choppy trying to get through, but it was easy. The winds were blocked by numerous islands and sticking really tight to shore yielded completely manageable conditions. I made it to the north shore of Moose, thinking that it would block the wind nicely, especially jut-outs that pointed south. I was checking my watch frequently because I was too lazy, or feeling time-pressured, to refold my soaking wet and probably ruined maps. I knew that the entry point where my van was at was pretty close by now, but at the far end of Moose Lake, essentially. I stood up and it felt great. But, just a bit out of shore or a rogue wind gust would make me seriously reconsider. I wanted to keep standing just out of principle. However, I remembered late on my first day getting dunked and I just couldn’t deal with something like that at this point. I became confused at wayfinding and kneeled down again, being pushed backwards by the waves, to realize that I’d gone too far! Great, because I was now really close. Not great because, well, I had to now paddle a bit backwards and around an island. I did so, and it was nice and calm. I thought I could see my landing, so paddled to it, and of course the wind whipped up again. It looked like rain coming over the opposite shoreline as well. This day just doesn’t stop! I paddle in, closer and closer and closer, to realize that it was indeed my landing. Nice, excellent, finally. It felt like afternoon had already passed to evening time. I was so ready to be off the lake. I landed and hastily got in portage mode to schlep my board up the final portion of stairs to the parking lot where my car was. I hoisted my board out of the water just in time for a last “fuck you” wind gust to push my board towards my head. The massive sail nearly knocked me over but I recovered, probably said a few swear words, and continued up those stairs. It was a sweet treat to see my van, but also not fun to deal with soaking wet shoes, stinky and nasty gear, and the tedious chore of securing my board to my van for the 2-hour drive back home.
I called Em on the way home to let her know I made it. I figured I’d be to Two Harbors for Culver’s by 8pm. It was all worth it. You just can’t beat that type of experience! While I was in Culver’s I almost fell over in the ordering line, and felt really weird in the booth. I could still feel the waves. You can’t stop the motion and just have to deal with it.
All in all, the trip was a resounding success. I did confirm that 50 miles is possible in a day. I didn’t make that distance, but really close with a bit more juice in the tank. A few in a row would be a different challenge, but with some dedicated training, well within reach. My equipment worked pretty well but I learned a TON. First off, I needed to repair the tie-downs, which were a major cause of anxiety essentially the entire trip after the first two fell off within a few hours of the trip. That reinforced my need for redundancy. If something fell to the bottom of a lake or broke, how would I proceed? I didn’t have a backup co2 cartridge for my lifejacket, or a backup paddle. What if my paddle broke? I can easily carry a spare. So, I went back to the drawing board to plan for July with a permit for the Fall Lake entry point and the plan for another two-night adventure.
10 Jul 2022
Saturday, June 9, 2022 – 9am
I was discouraged at the start line to see so few stand up paddleboards, but excited to try to compete and do by best. I signed up for the Vatten Paddlar 5 Mile paddle race in hopes that it’d be a fun training for the Boundary Waters traverse – a project I had on the docket for later in the summer. Also, I had last year’s win to defend. The day started off very similar to last year except I was kind of late getting down to Barnes, which is about an hour’s drive from Duluth, but that hour does not include dropping my board off at the start line, driving to the finish and taking the shuttle back. But, it all worked out and I warmed up just like last year in a perfectly calm, nice and sunny bay where the race started on Middle Eau Claire Lake. Beautiful country.
I did see a kayak that I recognized, and the owner who I tried to draft off last year. The race organizers gave us 15-minute heads up, 5 minutes, and a one-minute notification, and then a GO out of the blue, which caught me off guard. I thought I started my watch and started paddling. I realized… what was I doing? PADDLE!! GO!! Then started thrashing at the water at a ferocious rate, lifting my head to see the green kayak pull out ahead. Two canoes made their way out front, then the green kayak, and I settled into the fourth position, 30 boats or so behind me. I kept my eye on the stand up paddleboard right behind me as well. The glassy water was fantastic. A gust of wind hit me… there it is! I knew the drill – it is so much more efficient to draft and I paddled hard to get to the kayaker in front of me clipping along at a nice consistent rate. I was on either side of him, and at some points really close. I hope that wasn’t a frustration, but I didn’t care enough. This is a race. I finally got right behind in the sweet spot of the wake and the effect was so tremendous. I could stop paddling! I wondered if he started sandbagging to stick it to me for riding his tail so close. When my watch beeped and I saw 11:30 or so, I knew that wasn’t the case. Now, if I could just stick here the whole race, that’d be great. But, a couple buoys and required turns and I lost him just like that
I tried to focus on what I could control, and one thing I learned looking at photos from the Big Ole 17 mile race last year was that I needed to keep my paddle in the water. I was wasting time and energy with my paddle in the air, and had been practicing keeping my stroke the same but getting the paddle in right away and minimizing the recovery time. I had no idea if that was more or less effective, because it was almost a spitting image from last year. One mile in, same exact position with two tandem canoes and a kayak in front, a beautiful northwoods Wisconsin day in July with the sun beating down on me and sweat beading up.
So from there I tried to hold steady, and accomplished that. I kept a 20 foot eye on my kayaker friend, and just made more ground on the rest of the field to the point where on curves and narrows in the middle part of the race were enough where I couldn’t see anyone behind me. I was looking to see, and checking on weeds on my fin. I saw one little stringer and it was enough to paddle backwards and shake it off. I confirmed the seaweed dropped off and furiously paddled forward to regain my momentum. I remembered the shallow areas and had a few close calls, seemingly, going over downed trees and sandy shallow areas. Under the first bridge, through the narrow canal with cheering cabin owners and I got to the dam. Just like last year, this is where I’ll clump up with the slower-to-portage kayak and its speedy owner. I saw him hit sand, and kind of just sit there as I approached rapidly. He got out, got the boy scouts situated to help him and was off on the portage as I landed. I yelled that I was coming through, grabbed my board and ran out of the water to land. I passed the kayaker in the woods right after they looked back like “what the heck is he doing”. I sprinted up the hill and over, down the grassy and steep other side and practically belly flopped into the creek in my haste. I jumped onto my board, crimped my toes to keep my left sandal on and jumped right up to start furiously paddling again. The kayak was just entering the other side of the portage as I got my rhythm and speed back. A few more curves, under the second bridge, and I remembered getting stuck in the sand before the last big lake, Lower Eau Claire Lake. Shallower… shallower… paddle hit sand, then my fin abruptly stopped me and I jumped off and awkwardly, slowly tried to shimmy my way through the sand bar. How frustrating. I wondered how the kayak would do through this. I got to the darker, deeper water, and could see chop coming around the bend already. It was slow going, I saw a spectator and yelled “here is the wind!” and took it head on. Rough. It looked calmer around the bend but I figured the last mile and a half here or so would be slower than the couple of miles I’d racked up already. But also, this is where you put your head down and crank. So that’s what I did.
The kayak was making up ground on me. I wanted to beat him. I wanted to be the fastest solo craft. How cool would that be? So that was my carrot – don’t give up your spot. I figured power, efficiency, and navigation would get me there, and to focus on cutting the corners the best I could helped me ignore the pain of nearly an hour of paddling as hard as I could muster. It worked, but I also knew I was going slower than ever. My focus fell back on a speedy stroke recovery. I had my mean face on, my ugly face, and pushed hard. My left shoulder was starting to get very sore, because I had to paddle in a counter-clockwise direction with the wind coming from my left and really didn’t get an opportunity for relief. The waves and wind subsided tremendously as the finish line came to view. I peered back momentarily and saw the kayak operator no closer than ever. I think I had it. Could I go under an hour? I didn’t think so but was unaware exactly where my time was at. So I focused on bringing it in. I was in pain but could manage for just a few more minutes. On the very home stretch I knew I beat the kayak and it was such a relief to stop paddling at the dock, very warm and happy to finish. The timer yelled out my time: 1:04 and some seconds. Huh. I knew my time from last year. 1:04. Same time? One better placement, though! The other finishers trickled in as I paddled to the bay and jumped in. That was the best feeling ever, and a nice follow up feeling was a cold beer in the sun watching other finishers. After an hour, I just couldn’t wait. I talked to the director Pamela, who like everyone at the race was extremely nice and hospitable. She gave me my sweet medal and $50 in gift cards. I mentioned my request for SUPs to be included in the 10-mile distance. It was funny to see every finisher miraculously have an open Busch Light beer can immediately upon finishing. Not only is it a beautiful area, and a fun and well-produced mom-and-pop race, but the bartender covered my brew since they don’t accept credit cards. Therefore, I’ll be back.
Stand Up Paddleboard: Surftech Bark Dominator 14′
10 Jul 2022
Race Day: Saturday, June 18, 2022 – 6am
Another one. This is such a fun race and it was highly anticipated for me. It is crazy to think that this was the first race I really signed up for way back in 2008 (for the 2009 version). I thought many times during my training cycle how I’ve now been running for 14 years, and I don’t think there is a race that I’ve had bigger goals, bigger expectations, and more anticipation for over the years. The Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon is just so epic! I don’t know why the half has been more, how do I say, anticipated, compared to even the full marathon.
This training cycle was interesting. After Wild Duluth last year, I knew I was able to still put together a good training program and race, but I was curious just how diligent I could be after practically two years of pandemic and issues with motivation and mileage. I tried a few times to get going with no real traction, but March came – crunch time – I put together a program of 12 weeks or so and started off. I started around 25 or 30 miles with the plan to increase mileage by a solid 10% percent per week and implement a long run and one or two speed work days per week. I’d be able to spice it up with NMTC Spring Trail Series starting at the end of April and ultimately peak two weeks before the race with a week over 70 miles. That would, to my determination, put me where I’d need to be to break my personal best set at the 2017 version of this race. That would be a stretch, but if I could execute my training plan and stay uninjured, it should work.
Training started off great. I was feeling good, it was feeling easy. By the time I got to NMTC, I found that even 40 to 50 miles per week was decently hard from a time perspective. With weekend stuff, work and other (some self-imposed) obligations, devoting 6 to 10 hours a week to strictly running felt hard. It was also hard, emotionally mainly, to run without the dogs. In their age, they just couldn’t go more than a few miles and degrade to 11:30 minute pace very quickly. Their sprints are a nice 7:15 pace… but being about 10 years old each was taking a toll on the speed and endurance for them. Despite that, I did lots of mileage with them, 3 miles at a time. Workouts were going unbelievably excellent, and long runs were fun. I’d kind of clump together my key workouts, like long run Friday night and Saturday morning speed work. I am not sure if that is optimal but it was almost a time implication more than anything else. NMTC was unfortunately spotty. I missed a few due to traveling, and the finale to plant my garden. Kind of a weak excuse but I felt very pressured to get plants and seeds in the ground!
As I zeroed in to race day, I became pretty skeptical that I’d be able to reach my goal of a PR. Mileage/volume was not a concern, but the sheer foot speed was. I was perhaps 5-10 pounds heavier than my historic race weight… probably that difference from 2017, not to mention 5 years older. But the tempo runs were not encouraging. I felt like 6 minutes was my half marathon effort. Running enough races, I can kind of gauge what the feel of different distances should be. For a half marathon, I want to feel like I’m sprinting BUT comfortable enough where I’m in control and can hold it with ease for one hour. Then, the last 15 minutes is all grit. Well, that feel or effort was not towards the 5:45 pace I was hoping for back in the spring. I dabbled between doing tempo runs and workouts at my half marathon effort or my goal 5:45 pace. Effort-based yielded slow running, and pace-based yielded one mile, then slower, slower, slower and I’d lock in at just under 6 minutes per mile. So, I wondered to myself on a weekly basis a month from race how I’d be able to run 13 of those in a row, when I couldn’t do two in a row during training. Either way, my body was holding up. I was doing tempo runs, speed work on the road and on the track, long runs with two 18 milers and one 20 miler on the road, and enough easy running to match my goal weekly mileage nearly 12 in a row except one down week where I was traveling. I had a really positive peak week, but nearly three weeks of taper. I just didn’t have the energy to get that last big week after a 68 mile week or so. So, I let it slide, neglected the long run and went for two last workouts. I crushed a track workout with 8-800 meter sprints at about 2:15 per interval 2 or 3 weeks out. Then, I remembered my ole pre-Garry Bjorklund workout about one week out on the course. I always said that if I could run 6 miles on course by myself and meet my goal pace and feel in control the whole time, with gas in the tank, then I’d make it on race day. I set out 8 days before the race, on a Friday after work, and once again had one good mile, a few slower ones, then locked in right around 6 minutes per mile. That won’t cut it. My expectations hit the floor. Oh well!
On race day, I was pretty mental. I kept going back and forth – I won’t hit my PR. Wait, I will be able to! My training was perfect! Nah, no way, how could I? Look at 2017! I was in absolutely prime fitness that is not matched. Tony and I did a podcast interview with Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon champion Kara Goucher, and that coupled with Tony’s pre-race shakedown talk really psyched me up. That was the day before the race, Friday, and I went to sleep that day with the confidence that I could in fact do it. I drew up a mile chart wristband, and got to bed a decent hour. I slept like crap that night and woke up extremely early.
Em dropped me off at UMD as dusk came. I got out and walked towards the bus line at Kirby Center, and had never seen a bus line so long. It was pretty extreme. And so I waited, and every 5 minutes the line would lurch forward. I noticed a storage locker looking thing with people putting their drop bags in there. Huh, that’s interesting. Then, when I got to the bins, there was a sign that read: “no bags allowed on the bus, drop off here”. WHAT?!? That is new! Should have read the race guide. I begrudgingly put my warm up shirt and phone in my bag and tied it up tight. I took with my a caffeinated fizzy water and caffeine energy gels and finally got onto the bus. I started getting nervous…. it was maybe 40 minutes from 6. How are we going to get all the way out to the start, evacuate the bus, walk to the start line, most importantly find a toilet, and get my starting spot all in 40 minutes? I was kind of nervous about that the whole bus ride, but told myself that everyone on this bus is in the same boat. Well, on the same bus. And they’re not going to drive any faster no matter how nervous I am or if I make a scene. So, I just need to be focused and diligent at the start line.
Once I got off the bus, I chugged my drink, tossed my one gel wrapper, and put my other gel in my pocket. I stopped in two different toilet lines, and bailed on both. I kept going towards the front, towards the front, and there was luckily a huge toilet bank very near the front, that seemed to be the shortest, actually. But, it was barely over 5 minutes to the race start at this point, and they were announcing the very last race details before the start. Yikes. The line moved right along, and I stayed true and got my spot. Wow, what a relief. I did my business, was pretty disappointed to have no hand sanitizer, but got to the start in perfect timing. Ready to roll. I saw spring NMTC competitor Andrew at the start line. He said he was looking for a 1:15 or lower. I’d probably see him during the race, I thought. Or he’d run away right away, never to be seen again. That’d be fun to run together, though. Although he had a stellar 10k time recently and was generally crushing me at the trail series races. Way faster than me. As fast as the pre-race went up to this point, the final minutes took forever. Finally, I could see the horn guy talking to the announcer, making their plans. Then, the countdown, blaring horns, and the 10 courses of people in front of me sprinted forward, sucking me along.
Ah… it is go time, baby!! I went with the flow of the crowd, and couldn’t help check my watch just to see. 5:30 or so, looks good. The first mile came by in a flash. 5:53. Good… The second mile took no time at all, either. 5:45. Better. I was in a big group of very fast women that seemed to be pacing really well. The matching race kits were encouraging, because I figured they all had a specific plan and would stick to it better as a group. So, if I could hang with this group, and we’re on pace through 5k, I’d be in good shape. I tried to focus on my efficiency and cadence, keeping that high turnover. I was feeling good, and essentially right on track to beat my record by one second a few miles in. I kept chugging.
I could sense the threshold pace and exactly when I was overstepping, and exactly when I was locked in. That was a testament to my consistent training. I made it through the north shore sections feeling pretty good about my body, my time, and the rest of the race. I find this race is easiest to break up in three or four sections: north shore, lakeside, and then the home stretch past Lemon Drop Hill, which is about a 4 mile run to the finish. Halfway, and my pace started slipping. It was very gradual. A few miles just bit off pace, a couple more miles, and handful more seconds off, and then halfway through lakeside, the pain started increasing and I realized it’d be a stretch to meet my goal. Just like that, I was a minute off pace with not a lot of real estate to make it up, and the pain setting in. The miles clicked off so fast that I barely realized how I was slipping. I was checking my watch every mile but a few seconds seems trivial until they add up. I saw Em’s mom Joan right where she said she’d be, at 60th Ave East, and friends Garrett, Rachel, Brent, Angela, Axel and Lily. I missed Axel’s high-five but got a nice sweaty one for Angela and Garrett, and had to chuckle a bit after that. I consciously knew that my friends gave me boosts, and tried to capitalize on that.
At the historically hardest part of the race for me, up to 40th Ave East to Lemon Drop Hill, I actually felt great. Mentally, I was a bit disappointed because I was really trying to hold on to my pace, the pain was getting harder to ignore, but I was more than a minute off pace heading up to Lemon Drop. Nothing to see here, there was plenty of race left. But running some quick math, I’d need four 5:30 miles to close it out compared to my average of 5:50+ on the first 9. That’s a tall order. But up and over Lemon Drop and I let it rip. I ran as hard as I could down London Road on the nice downhill. It was all downhill from here. I could crank. I wasn’t thinking about efficiency, just raw speed and grit. That was perhaps a bad strategy, because my next mile was over 6 minutes. It was terrible. I saw some cheering squads at Duluth Running Co. and straightened my back and picked up my pace. I saw my mom and Em and the dogs, which was a boost, but I couldn’t muster anything. Two strides past, my neighbors Pete, Susan, Clarence and Eleanor were cheering and I yelled “THIS IS WHAT WE WORK FOR!”. That had been my mantra all day, and despite being a little bummed, I kept reminding myself that I worked really hard to get here, and I should finish it off strong. My next mile was even slower, and people started passing me. But, I held on. I kept it going and tried to keep my grimace down through downtown Duluth. I knew it was just a few miles, and even thought the final miles through Duluth seemed so long, I tried to tell myself that it was a brief sprint on to the finish line. But despite feeling like I could have increased my pace in the early miles of the race, at this point I couldn’t accelerate. There was no way to increase my speed by 10 seconds per mile even for a quarter mile.
It had been just perfect, optimal weather all day. Cool, a nice low sun and tailwind. But, that meant turning at the DECC would give me a headwind. I attacked it, and led out a nice pack of people. I wanted to generate some late adrenaline by trying to beat these people. They had more than me, and I got passed. I peeked at my watch, and 1:16 came a went. I tried to bring it home as strong as I could, but just knew my form was crap and the low cadence, hard running style that I had adopted was not at all efficient or fast, really. At the turn under the Lake Ave bridge, I saw Em and my mom and the dogs again and again kind of ignored them. I didn’t know what to say. The final sprint in was a little disheartening. I put in all this time. I was really pretty close and let it slip. I saw 1:17 on the clock. What crap. I sprinted across the finish line and heard very loud yelling and my name. It was Emily, Michaela, Cheryl and Lacey from work. That was cool! I stopped running, stopped my watch and moseyed on over. I think I just muttered “FUUUCK”, and they didn’t say anything, just looked at me like I was a zoo animal from the other side of the barricades that I’d helped banner the day before. I said something broken like “I … can’t” and just walked away. It was a funny interaction in hindsight.
As I walked through the finish chute, I shook my head, hung it down, and was pretty angry. Then, very suddenly, my mood changed. What the hell, Mike?? I just put together a stellar race. I had been able to run just 4 or 6 miles in training at the pace I just ran 13 miles at. I had a super solid race, probably the best paced road race I’ve run. I had zero issues, and was extremely close to a personal best after a perfect training cycle and while 5 years older and a bit heavier. A big goofy smile adorned my face and I reflected on how much fun that race just was. Hell yeah. A person looking very familiar flagged me down and asked if I was Mike Ward. Yep, It was Alex Richardson, a speedy runner that I raced against at the NMTC series. I hadn’t talked to him at all, or seen him before this year. He said he’d lived in Duluth for a little while but just getting back into racing after a college career. He said The Duluth Rundown podcast motivated him to show up to the NMTC runs. Cool! I chatted with Eric Nordgren and it was fun to hear his story… although not an optimal lead-up with covid causing him to miss a big gravel bike race and some vital training time.
I met up with Em, mom and the dogs and continued to reflect on the race. I think they sensed my disappointment but I put it behind me. I felt proud, accomplished, but more motivated than anything. I was motivated to get back to Garry Bjorkland. I was motivated to tweak my training, put more time and effort into conditioning, and give my record a shot. I’m not done with this race.
Shoes: Mizuno Rebellion
Food: 1 Gu Roctane Vanilla Orange
15 Nov 2021
Race Date: Sunday, October 17, 2021 – 9:30am
At the starting line of the Terribly Tough 10k, the very next morning after a solid yet taxing win at Wild Duluth 100k, I was finally sure that I would be able to make the distance. I didn’t know for sure if I’d run the whole way, and I knew I wouldn’t win. The night before, before going to bed, I didn’t think I would even show up. I set my alarm just in case. When I woke up Sunday morning I felt so terrible, I could barely walk. I didn’t think I’d make it to the start line. But, I started rustling, just put on my clothes and Em drove me. After some coffee and just the walking around to get dressed and get to the car and I was feeling tremendously looser. But not running shape. Maybe walking shape. Not up Ely’s Peak though.
After a brief and painful warmup of light jogging, I was ready to go, hatchet in hand. I had asked the race director Andy the evening before if I had to bring the hatchet to the finish line the next day. He immediately responded with an emphatic “YEAH!” but then followed up that I didn’t really need to bring it. He’d have the arrowheads at the finish line for past Ultimate Wildman finishers. So of course I just had to run the 10k with the hatchet. That was probably no advisable. I got a few sideways looks by Andy and Kim, and Em was pretty strongly against me running with the sharp hatchet. I second guessed my decision many times, but clutched it at the start line until the pre-race brief wrapped up and a “3-2-1, GO!” blared over the megaphone.
I sprinted out ahead, but a couple others sped ahead. Yeah, I had absolutely zero response. Oh well, at least I wouldn’t have to suffer. Well, I was suffering. I could see the climb up Ely’s nearing from the sweet, flat, runnable pavement of the Munger Trail and dreaded it. I hopped right up the rocks, a little off balance. I had to use just my left hand for scrambling up the rocks since my right was in use, clenching my hatchet and trying to pay enough attention to not injure myself or others. My heart was pounding right away and I was breathing heavily. Nearly immediately, I tripped and fell, the hatchet somewhat bracing my fall. The incline was so steep, and I was moving forward so slowly, and hunched over so much that I barely fell at all. It was maybe a foot from where my hand naturally was, to the ledge rock that they landed on. Hatchet still intact, I got up and kept going. I had practically nothing to give but just tried to keep it at whatever threshold level I could muster. I tried to keep the legs churning up and up and up. It felt like I had a parachute backpack on. With rocks in it. I noticed people behind me. The two people up ahead, some young speedster guy and Wynn Davis, a regional trail runner with whom I’ve competed in a few races, were out of sight. Wynn is fast on shorter trail races and I pegged him to win. The race was on way up ahead.
At the top of Ely’s Peak I was passed by a tall gentleman who appeared to be wearing cut off jorts. I believe they were running shorts with a unique print, but either way he passed me and I was able to hang on. I asked his name. Kurt. I couldn’t pass him, and didn’t feel like I needed to, and yet hanging onto his tail was easy and I caught my breath up and over Ely’s Peak on the rocky outcroppings on top. There wasn’t anyone behind me. There were a few people out on the trail enjoying the perfect day, and it might have been a concerning scene with Kurt running hard, and me right behind him wielding a hatchet.
We ran together on the technical, rocky section up to Bardon’s Peak. I built up some strength once the running became a bit easier and was really tailing Kurt closely. With some easy running ahead and an opportunity to pass, I took it and surged a bit. It was enough to leave Kurt out of sight. But, it was probably not for long. I would have to keep it up or else Kurt would probably pass me back with no regard. Alone again, I just pushed and pushed. It was an absolutely beautiful morning, and with sweat dripping from my brow I tried to capitalize on any easy running, slightly downhill trail sections. Getting closer to Spirit, I knew it was less just a couple miles – less than two – to the finish from the aid station at Magney. When I got to a little creek crossing with steep embankments on both sides, I knew I was close. But it was the last big climb up from there to the Magney aid station. I saw Kurt behind me, which lit a fire under my butt. My right foot was starting to hurt in the same area as the day before. Right hand turns were becoming excruciating. But besides that I felt good. Pretty strong. No spring in my step, but I could crank pretty good actually. Just like two years before…
I really tried to hammer up the the hill to Magney, and sprinted through the small gathering at the aid station, trying to move my feet as quickly as possible in an attempt to emulate the speed of a fresh runner with the gait of an arthritic shuffler. The shuffle was working. I didn’t see Kurt or anyone else behind me as I passed the cool bridge over Stewart Creek. Nobody ahead, either. They were probably finished. I knew it was just a skip and a jump to the finish line, so I booked it down Skyline. If I just leaned forward, I thought to myself, I’d make third place. Not bad. I hopped back into the woods and leaped and jumped over each root onto the rocky soil leading into Spirit Mountain. I forgot about some of the steep and rocky sections that awaited me. Ugh, I just had nothing. But, I was also very scared and wanted to maintain my third place. With one last bit of energy I surged up a hill by the a very old concrete water diversion structure in the middle of the woods, then back down, up and down a whoop-de-whoop bridge with chicken wire over it, then up and up a slight incline that snaked around mountain bike trails. Nobody biking yet… I just knew Kurt was right there behind me. I could see him.
Sprinting as fast as I possible could over a few longer wooded bridges, I knew I was close. I was excited to get to the catwalk. I was all easy running downhill from here. No more trails. Just one last right hand turn for my foot to endure and then sweet relief. Kurt was behind me. I sprinted with everything I got. He wouldn’t be able to catch me. With the finish sealed, hatchet in hand, I sprinted in. Ahh. No sweet relief, though. My body was wrecked. I was pretty happy with the weekend. A finish was good enough for me. 55 minutes and third place was fine. The success of the weekend was the 100k. With a win at that, all else was fine in the world.
I received an honorary knighting along with the handful of other Ultimate Wildman and Wildwoman finishers, and tied my arrowhead to my hatchet. I don’t know if I’d do the Ultimate Wildman again. It is so grueling! Yet, I’m two for two. It is humanly possible.
Shoes: Brooks Cascadia 13 size 12.5
28 Oct 2021
Race Date: Saturday, October 16, 2021 – 6am
The start line was pretty emotional. I stood there in the dark, probably the only one without sleeves. Kris gave me her jacket and I wore it for a bit, but I really wasn’t any less cold. And she was for sure more cold! As the race director Andy gave pre race announcements, Kris told me to make sure to have fun out there. I was excited. I love nothing more than a long day in the woods. I was nervous. My running mileage on the year, and the past three months, was pretty low comparative to past years of running and racing. I was determined. I really wanted to win this race. There were going to be challengers. I was freezing, and thought I kind of had to poop.
After The Day Across Minnesota bike race, I knew I had a short turnaround. I had signed up for Wild Duluth Ultimate Wildman Challenge before the bike race, and essentially planned it all out with the thoughts that I could slog through Wild Duluth and still have fun. I gave myself a week, then started training right from there. I had a 33 mile week or so, with a long run at 100k goal pace. It was great. Then I built up two more weeks nice and steady to 40. Then I got a cold and a had a down week. I still got in a good effort on the SHT on the weekend. That down week was a little nerve-wracking, because I went right back to a 60 mile week the next, then up to 80+. The whole cycle was full of NMTC Fall Trail Series races, which are probably the best thing for fitness ever, except maybe the long run, especially when one is training for a particularly long race. The training went surprisingly perfect, the climax being back-to-back 20 and 30 miles runs at 4 and 6 hours a piece, respectively. There was a lot of time on technical trail at my 100k goal pace of 12 minutes per mile, which would put me about at 12 hours. The 30 miler in Silver Bay was about the best confidence builder I could ask for, nailing it and feeling good the whole time.
Back to the start line of Wild Duluth, just before 6am in 41 degrees, I remembered that training. I talked to Joe Calaguire a bit about his goals and mine. I asked if Gretchen would go under 12 hours. That was my goal, and she had the pedigree and the season to back up a crazy-fast time like that. He said she was going for the record. I didn’t know what that was. He wanted between 12 and 13. I has hoping for 11:59, and thought that it would be a stretch to get it. I kind of had a race plan in mind. But not a moment too soon, Andy announced he would do a three-second countdown, and proceeded to start the countdown immediately thereafter. With increasing intensity: “three, two, one, GO!”. I took off so fast… I don’t know why. It was fun. It is fun. Someone on the sidelines commented and I heard it all: “you start like I start!”. I knew the somewhat confusing start very well and took off way up front, just like 2019. I felt good. I felt like I was floating. Soak it up, I thought, because it will not feel like this one the way back. Well, maybe when I get back here, but only when I can literally see the finish line. So, up I went into the night towards Enger Tower.
I entered the woods across Superior Street alone. There was lots of dew reflecting off my headlamp’s light. It seemed humid, yet still cold. The air on my arms was definitely chilling me, but it also felt good. The homeless encampment right into the woods was as messy as I’ve seen it, with sleeping bags, clothes, and an industrial dumpster’s worth of trash, spread out all over the woods and literally the trail. You had to dodge the junk just like hopping over rocks and roots. Sheesh. I ran the hills up, feeling like I was keeping a pretty conservative pace. No need to bank time, but I felt so good and was so excited and it was so cold I couldn’t really slow down. I kind of shuffled up a few of the bigger hills. On one of the turns, I looked up to lock eyes with two glowing orbs, then saw the big antlers and couldn’t help yelling “WHOA!”. Then the big buck scurried off and I laughed. A voice behind me asked if I was OK. “Yeah!”.
Up and over Enger Tower and I rang the peace bell for good luck. Zipping around Enger, across Skyline, and down towards the 24th Ave aid station, I was having a lot of fun. I could feel that I’d have to pee soon. There was nobody around me. Nobody right behind me. Everyone behind me… but I had no headlamps or pressure from anyone. As I ran onto the bridge down to 24th Ave West in first place, three miles in and many to go, I thought about how this was panning out to be just like 2019 so far. Hey, not too bad because I won in 2019 and was the defending champion. So, if this is what it takes, I’ll do the race over exactly. And that was true, my training was indicating I was about in the same shape (based on NMTC times and long run performances), and really I figured that if I could roll another 12 hour finish, I would definitely have a shot at winning. But, I was going to race today for the win. Secondarily, I would race for a 12 hour finish. Thirdly, I would race to beat my time from 2019, which was a 11:57 or so. I would do it exactly the same as 2019 by stopping to pee right at Miller Creek. I mean, it’s a nice spot to stop. Surprisingly, there was someone right behind me when I crossed 24th Avenue West, and popped into the woods. I told them I had to pee. “Uh oh”. Then I peeled off to the left, and they told me the trail goes to the right. Then, “oh, nevermind”. They realized why I divulged my personal needs to them. I looked up into the dark night’s sky as I whizzed and wondered how many others would pass me. Hmm. Nobody. Just one this time. The start was uncannily similar. Hopefully not too similar. I remembered what happened on the Brewer Loop, as my stomach rumbled a little bit.
I knew it was 9 miles in to the Highland Getchell aid station, and I was cruising along nicely all on my own. The trail seemed so easy – wide and buffed out. No hills. All runnable. It was giving me everything I needed. Eventually I heard voices behind me, a woman’s timbre. That’s gotta be Gretchen. She is scary. I had done a bit of creeping online, and knew she was having an unbelievable year – two second-place finishes and two highly competitive trail 50-milers, plus some other goodies like FKTs. She was running really well. But maybe, she’s tired from the intense efforts of the year. Either way, she was chatting with someone close behind me. On a couple bends in the trail, I could see them gaining on me. That was probably Joe. I knew they were friends. We all shared a fun run in 2018 as Joe and Gretchen were prepping for Superior 100 Miler, and I was prepping to pace him. My stomach churned a few times and I wondered if I’d have to stop, or if I should, for a quick e-dump in the woods. I really didn’t want to. The sun was coming up, it was getting warmer and felt good, and the dew was burning off from the wooden boardwalks a bit. It was turning out to be a perfect day so far, and I was expecting great conditions for the whole race. I had just a couple more miles to Getchell and kept just chipping away, really eager to get there.
9 miles in and I was feeling really good. I saw Em at the aid station. She asked where I ditched my shirt. I said I didn’t start with hit, essentially threw my headlamp at her and just ran off. I picked a few small items from the aid station – pretzels and coke mainly, then ran right off the portable toilet. I didn’t think there was anyone in there, and knew that Gretchen and at least one other person would pass me up. Oh well. I did what I had to do, and in leaving the toilet I knew it was the right choice. I felt a hundred times better. When I got back onto the trail, I noticed a lot more action at the aid station with people running all over. I saw my new friend Ben Andres running the opposite way. Same deal, probably – pre race jitters and coffee and some early morning jostling of the stomach make for a predictable recipe. I yelled at Em on the way back down to the main trail. “BYE EM!”. She didn’t hear me. Louder: “BYYEE EMM!!!” A few people looked. Not Em. What the heck. Oh well. I wonder where the field was at now. For sure there was one mystery person who passed me over Miller Creek and I haven’t even seen a flash. That was surprising. I’m sure Gretchen and Joe were up ahead. Maybe another person or two, depending on how the pack was shaping up behind me. But, the race was very young, and even though I wanted to race to win, it wouldn’t matter where anyone was until Ely’s Peak on the way back. If someone was out of reach at that point, and I stuck to my 12 hour plan, well, then they are the real deal and I couldn’t beat them no matter what the racing strategy. I wonder if that’d be Gretchen in 30 more miles. Just stick to the plan, roll a bunch of 12 minute miles, I told myself. And that’s what I did.
The miles just clicked off down to the Munger Trail, then back up towards the freeway and Spirit Mountain. I had a bit of buffer and felt comfortable walking up some of the hills around Spirit. I ate a caffeinated gel and was eating really well. I felt way out alone by myself. I didn’t sense anyone behind me, and not really anyone up ahead either. That was fairly normal for a trail race… all the sudden BOOM there is someone 20 feet away. I was making really good time and feeling really good through the east side of Spirit Mountain. I ran on the gravel ski hill access road and knew I had a bit of a buffer on my 5 miles per hour game plan. That’s always nice. I saw Em and the dogs from afar. That made me initially nervous, because I’d be running downhill and she has two maniac dogs. How would she be able to tend to me?? I felt so good, and had a lot of fun bombing down towards the aid station. There were lots of people there, and I was asking questions about who’s who before my arrival. Em said that Gretchen was about 5 minutes up or so, and the guy way up from was looking good. Really good, she said. Hmm, well I told her there is lots of race left. She said he just cruised right up the hill. That was almost motivating to me. Unless this person was really the real deal… I mean we all feel good 15 miles into the race, and sprinting up Spirit Mountain is not always the best play, in my personal opinion. I heard everything I needed to hear, and got my water bottle refilled, drank a bit and ate a bit from the lovely array that Em had schlepped up for me, and took back off.
The miles continued to click off and feel easy up Spirit. I caught and passed a guy, presumably the person running with Gretchen back by Highland Getchell because he mentioned something about her by name. His name was Tony, and I passed him rather quickly near a strange rock and tree formation just up from Skyline Parkway outside of Spirit Mountain. The trail was giving me some easy hills, and good running. I knew the elevation was severe through here, but I continued to bank up lots of time. I zipped into the Magney aid station and saw Adam Schwartz-Lowe and Lisa Byrne. Adam said he heard I started the race fast. Huh, word travels quick I guess. I didn’t think that was that noteworthy… I tried to take some licorice but it was all clumped. The aid station helper helped me, but gave me like 5 pieces. I was hoping for one, but took them all anyways. Plus some coke and pretzels – the magic mixture – and set back off. I was excited to start seeing some 50k runners, and tried to just run conservative. I was feeling good – better than 15 miles in during any of my training long runs. Most of those were around 20 miles. I would have been almost done by now! I didn’t even feel sore or tired. Legs good, everything good. I told myself that it was OK to walk up hills and get closer to 12 minute miles. I was doing mid- and high-11 minute miles, so felt pretty content with that. But, those extra seconds were adding up, and by the time I started seeing 50k runners I was 20 minutes up on my time goal. Sweet!
I saw a fast-looking dude with arm warmers way up, then a couple more sprinkled in while coming down Ely’s Peak. I saw Ryan Soule. I jogged along the Munger Trail feeling a little beat up for the first time of the day really, but generally great. I was looking forward to seeing Em again, and setting off on the crux of the course, the 20 mile middle section. When I got to the station it was kind of buzzing. There were lots of people. Some people came sprinting in like mad, and I recognized all three of them: Chase, Ethan and Bryan. They looked like they were having fun. The intensity on their faces was fun to see. Em told me she was getting VIP Pizza for the next time I was here. Sweet! I ran off after eating a bit, refilling my bottles, and grabbing some extra food for the trip to the turnaround. She asked me what type, and I yelled “Chicken Rueben!!” while running off into the woods.
I was excited for the next stretches because I’d get to see so many people. That’s always fun. But, it’s arguably the hardest section of the race. I really struggled on a 25 mile training run through this exact section just weeks prior. I was dreading the big hills. I knew I had to take it slow and easy and not worry about whomever was ahead of me or behind me. This is where either I make good decisions and set myself up well, or bad decisions and suffer greatly for many hours, or worse. The worst case scenario would be that I couldn’t respond to opportunities or threats later on in the race.
It was a steady stream of people from Ely’s Peak to Grand Portage, practically. It was fun and the time flew by. I still felt very in-control and was running some pretty dang good splits. Maybe too good. I knew, however, no matter how hard I was running, if I could get back to Ely’s feeling halfway decent, I would be in really good shape for the rest of the race. I’ve raced enough to know that I don’t typically blow up spectacularly, and can generally hang on to a decent pace unless I’ve made some really dumb decisions. Then again, going just a minute too fast per mile for 25 miles really adds up! I felt content with that I seemed to be stuck at 20 minutes above my goal pace of 5 miles per hour. I saw my mom, kept plugging along, and then the field started thinning out a bit. I fell down a couple times trying to run around people, but nothing too serious. One was a little dramatic as I stepped off the trail, ran a few strides in the brush and tripped on a branch right onto my hands and knees as a conga line of people passed me. Then, you see the people in high top hiking boots, big backpacks, people literally on their cell phones, people in heavy jackets or jeans. Nobody running anymore. Then, back to being alone. I wondered where Gretchen and this other person was. At Ely’s it sounded like they were both about 10 minutes up and both running strong. Gretchen must have made ground. She was scary. I figured that if she wins overall, and I can re-pass whoever is up front, I’d still get first place in the Men’s division. This is what I thought about as I bombed down the huge hill, on a historic voyageur’s portage route, to the Grand Portage aid station. I got a sip of coke, an orange and some pretzels, and kept on. My feet felt swift on the flat section along the might St. Louis River. They never have felt good running this stretch, despite being pretty flat. So, I kept them moving. Then, I knew it was a massive hill, then some flat running to the aid station. That would be great, to have enough energy to make some time up before the turnaround, and then I could stop there for a more extended time period and feel good about, and maybe have some juice for the flats on the way back, too. So, I justified a nice calm pace up from Grand Portage.
Up the hill… you know you’re at the top of a hill when you see a bench. I was happy to crank away at a few miles on the wide open horse trails in Jay Cooke State Park. I kind of forgot the undulations within the State Park as the race course went down Gill Creek Trail, way down to the bottom, then all the way back up on switchbacks. Oof. It was starting to get a bit warmer out, but still just a perfect day. I tried to remember to keep eating my exercise food and was feeling pretty good stomach-wise. I knew I was at the top again when we got back to the wide open horse trails. Weaving in and out of the Munger Trail, I was excited to see someone. I knew there were two ahead, when would I see them? I ran faster in anticipation. Too fast… but I was excited. I wanted to close the gap up, and put the hurt on my competitors. I ran some really fast miles, but it was doable. Flat, wide open and straight. I crossed over the dam at Forbay Lake, down a little hill, and ran fast towards Olderberg Point. I knew it was close. I saw Gretchen and tried to keep in mind the time. In a split second, I was at the aid station. Em’s nephew Aiden was in a chair next to an open one, presumably for me. I didn’t care who it was for, I plopped into it and immediately started shoving food in my face. Potato chips, Mountain Dew mystery flavor, and emptied my trash and replenished my stocks. I wanted to sit for a while, but they told me that the guy Even was still at the aid station. Oh great! I didn’t want Gretchen to get too far, so cut it pretty short despite telling myself I could take more time there. Em said she got Sammy’s Pizza after all. I told hear that was great, and that I looked forward to seeing her at Ely’s, and took off. I didn’t see Even and so figured I passed him while he was sitting at the aid station. I did some math and figured I was 8 minutes down from Gretchen. Smooth, even, calm. I just needed to chip away at Gretchen bit by bit until Spirit Mountain. Then, the race really begins.
I was pretty excited, and really put down some fast miles right off from the aid station. Yes, it’s the most runnable parts of the course, but they were maybe a bit too fast. I’d have to take it easy on the large hills from here to Ely’s. I remembered at least three big climbs. The biggest of which just past the Grand Portage aid station, right over the road crossing at 210. I saw Joe next, in third place, but many minutes behind. He was probably not a big threat, but ya never know. Plenty of race left. Then, the 100k’ers trickled in from there, steadily all the way to the climb back up to Beck’s Road. I asked Joe if it was just Gretchen in front of me. He stumbled his words a bit as we passed each other: “oh, erm, ah yeah”. Hmm, I must have passed Even at the aid station then! How far back is he??
I continued to feel really good down Gill’s Creek Trail, and down to the river. I saw someone running up ahead. Is that a guy in the 50k who started really really late? I got closer, and made the pass. They said they wondered when they’d see me. I realized it was Even. I was pretty frustrated, actually, and pushed hard to make a decisive pass. This dude cheating?? Joe said he only saw Gretchen. It would be pretty simple to just take 210 all the way back down from Oldenburg to Grand Portage. What the heck? Well, at least ya know, I told myself. He’s right there. Also right there was the Grand Portage aid station. I was really brief there. I did ask how far up Gretchen was. The gal pouring water said she’s right there. I snapped my neck to the left and focused my gaze down the trail. I didn’t see her, but took off in that direction, excited. I ran down the culvert quickly, hopped up onto Highway 210, and across to the big climb up away from the river. I saw Gretchen walking, hands on knees. I quickly caught up, shuffling up the hill. I relegated to walking as well. I told her she was having a great season. She didn’t really say much on that. I passed her and we wished each other well. I wanted to beat her. I wanted to get first place. I ran ahead at the very top of the hill, hard. Now, just like that I was back in the position of 1. Plus, due to several sub-10 minute miles in the miles near the turnaround, I had added to the buffer on my goal time, and was over 40 minutes up. I had made up some really good ground. Was it a poor move? Up and over the historic voyageur’s route then some easy running and I was starting to feel a little tired. I noticed the desire to walk up hills stronger than ever, and my pace when trudging up was slower than ever. I didn’t have the little spark or jump to make it up hills quickly. I had a rash of slow miles, my slowest of the day, and several more over 12 minutes. Oof. Cmon Mike, keep it up, let’s go. I tried to rally myself a bit. I knew this section was hard, though, and would just have to wait it out for some good running.
I knew I was getting close to the hill up across Beck’s Road to the base of Ely’s, where my faithful crew would be waiting with pizza and other goodies. I had mainly passed everyone else from the race. Literally, everyone else from both the 50k and 100k race had passed me. From the lead 50kers through the very back of the pack, from the leaders of the 100k at the time, and the entire 100k pack at the turnaround, to the leaders again, and the very last walkers of the 100k hours and hours from the turnaround. I figured that I put time on the field after moving into 1st place. But I was also struggling. That section – the middle 20 miles – is very difficult. I went pretty hard in excitement to pass Even and Gretchen. I was ready to sit down for a second.
I ran into the Ely’s aid station, into the sun, with perfect posture and strong, springy legs to look comfortable and in control. I immediately spotted the chair and ran straight to it, while yelling “200!”, my race number, to the HAM radio volunteers. I slumped in the chair, looked at the pizza and didn’t want anything to do with it, and immediately barked to Em to get my waterbottle filled. My right foot was starting to develop a slight twinge on some of the turns. I didn’t think much of it, but requested she bring the hiking poles, pack and backup shoes to the Spirit aid station. One slice of delicious hawaiian pizza from Sammy’s (not so delicious at the time), a refill of random gels and gummis and junk food and I was conceivably ready to split. A chug of a caffienated fizzy beverage, and Even ran right out of the woods, looking springy and fresh and strong and immediately over to his crew over yonder. Yep, time to go, I thought. I sprang out of the chair and tried to go hard onto the Munger Trail.
Every step was a heavy, dull thud across the blacktop and railroad bridge to the base of Ely’s. It would be more painful up the scramble coming soon, I knew. The few hops onto tall rock outcropings right off the paved trail stopped my momentum like a wall. Ugh, it was a continuous mental battle to lift my legs and heaving carcass up the climb. I figured Even was right behind me, but he’ll struggle too, and Gretchen, and if I just make it up Ely’s a little bit faster and with a little more juice at the top, I would have an even bigger advantage. It was slow, but I made it to the top and kept running, able to catch my breath in between hopping over rocks on the way to Bardon’s Peak.
It was definitely race mode, laser focused on getting to Spirit Mountain in first place still. I was telling myself the whole day that if I got to Spirit in first, I’d be able to power hike up the side, run down to Mile 50 and be able to hold on for the last sixth of the race. Now was my chance to prove it. The miles clicked off right where they needed to be. I’d lost a bit of time but was still 30 minutes up from my goal pace for a 12 hour finish. I didn’t delay at the Magney aid station, take a small cup of coke as fast as possible, and a 5-second decision on food from the station table, shoved into my mouth as I shuffled along trying not to spill the sugary drink everywhere. Right down the hatch as fast as possible and the relentless forward motion continued. I knew it was a nice downhill to Spirit and it would be wise to capitalize and get there as soon as possible. But running was hard. My gait was tight and choppy and the pace suffered, but I was able to endlessly remind myself to push a little extra. Go, let’s go, let’s go let’s go Mike.
I did make good time into Spirit and was joined by Em in a much less popular aid station environment from the first time many hours prior. I was happy to see new shoes. The Altras had done me good, but they were for sure hurting my feet. I was excited for my old standby, the Brooks Cascadia, to envelop my feet. They might aggravate my sore big toe, but it will be worth it for a little more rigidity on the sides. My tendons were shot. The hiking poles will help, too, I thought out loud. I shoved a few cake flavored oreos in my vest and took potato chips. I asked Em if she’d wait for the next runner to come in and time it to tell me at Highland Getchell. At that point, I’ll be over 50 miles in, with some pretty easy running to bring it home. I just had to get there. I knew the climb out of Spirit would be a slog, but a slog for everyone. I knew what to expect, I knew how to attack it to bring it in strong. I thought.
Off into the trees again and I was actually excited to power hike for a while. Up and up, along the lovely Knowlton Creek, I didn’t get much walking relief as the gravel road presented itself a must-run opportunity. I used my new hiking poles to launch into a run and shuffled along. Up and up, I had a couple slow miles. 16’s. Slowest of the day, really. With the aid station stop, I had now dented my nice buffer. I just put my head down to the bridge over Knowlton and ran. I ran down the access road to the new switchback re-route of the infamous 168 Steps section of the SHT. I don’t know how many steps it was, but I ran up the switchbacks, poling in stride. I ran at the top, through the beautiful open maple forest in the appealing light of mid- to late-afternoon. I used up my slow miles and had to make it up now. I struggled to get barely below 12 minutes on my next split. I hit mile 50 across Cody Street, on a sad shuffle up some very firm pavement I told myself that I could make way towards a fast mile across the ATV trail by the big power line, before arguably the last real rigorous climb up to the second-to-last aid station at Highland Getchell. I was so curious the time that Emily clocked if she did happen to wait for my chasers at Spirit. I was not making up any ground, but I figured I was at least 20 minutes up on my 12 hour time goal by the time I climbed my way to the energetic Highland aid station, where beautiful Em and the beautiful chair were waiting for me. Em said Even was 4 or 5 minutes down from me. My aunt and uncle Maureen and Tom were there, and they immediately started talking about how they were hiking the same section the day before and they didn’t see my mom. I essentially ignored them, probably looking like a deranged person as I shoveled potato chips in my mouth and messily guzzled various pops from the cooler. I kept my backpack on, probably squishing its contents against the chair, and hurried up, continuing on with my poles. 4 or 5 minutes. That wasn’t enough time. I couldn’t have one slow mile. That would be it! It was to be all 12 or less from here on. Even this mile… it was a short stop and I was off.
I had to hike up out away from Keene Creek right after the aid station, over Skyline Parkway, and into the woods. I used the poles to run. The boardwalks were hazards, but I was able to get into a rhythm and crank. I wasn’t hungry at all. My energy stores seemed good enough. I was mainly running off adrenaline. It felt like extra food could mess the whole thing up, and I could be violently ill. I felt ill in general. Just generally fucked up. But I was able to run. My creaky joints lurched forward every stride, and it was a cohesive unit of churning legs and rotating arms driving the trekking poles in each cycle. I day dreamed about the finish line. If I won, I thought, I’m gonna yell. For sure yell, then run right into Em’s arms and give her a big smooch. She helped me here, she made this possible. She supported me through the training and followed me with everything I need and more at every station. WITH the dogs. She had told me the sad story of Chally having eaten nearly the whole Sammy’s pizza from the back when she arrived back from the Spirit aid station stop. I could only imagine the long and arduous day of crewing while I’m out playing in the woods. I thought of how powerful it is, when the struggle is on, to use gratitude as a strategy to find extra stores of energy. I thought about how grateful I was, and how lucky I could possibly be, to be able to do this. To run all day in the woods, to complete and compete in a 100k trail run. To win Wild Duluth again, and finish the Ultimate Wildman Challenge with two wins, two days in a row. Ooof, how would I run tomorrow? I was absolutely trashing my body. I pushed a little harder, though, because I knew Even was behind me and coming hard for me. He wanted to win. He thought he could win. Gretchen? Who knows. I was less scared of her simply because even if she charged past me, which was not farfetched in my mind, I would still beat Even out for first man. I wanted a new water bottle. The thought of both of them charging me made me run just a little harder over the rock outcropping and past some lingering 50k finishers in the back of the pack, and onto the flat clearing across 27th Avenue West. I was making good time. One last climb to 24th and I could drop the pack, then a climb to Enger, then all downhill. Let’s GO!!
I got the jitters coming into 24th. There were volunteers at the roadway, and I prepared my backpack for a fast unloading. I didn’t even want a waterbottle. I’d be able to shred back home on fumes. I ran across 24th Avenue West and saw my neighbor Clarence holding chips and a gatorade as high as he could over his head, about 3 feet up. I ran towards him, grabbed a face full of chips, took a huge swig, and essentially threw my backpack and trekking poles at Em and ran off, so excited to get back. She had said he was 4 minutes back still. She yelled to get me to take the water but I was already off. I had a smile on my face. But, 4 minutes? I’d have to move.
I shuffled up Skyline over Piedmont, and continued to shuffle up and up towards Enger Tower. I didn’t stop the legs churning, which was kind of the theme of the day, and just was able to get more momentum downhill than up, and the uphills were pretty demanding, and slow. I tried to judge if I was indeed going faster trotting than power hiking, even with poles. Hmm? I figured yes, I was going faster. 4 minutes back only, I thought to myself. I passed some more 50k runners, my second time seeing them all. After crossing over Skyline once again, and entering Enger Park, I heard the Japanese peace bell get run, likely due to much more people in the park compared to when I was last there at 6:10 am. I was so excited to ring it myself. When I got there, I was happy that nobody’s hand was on the peace bell and I was able to weirdly run right up to it and ring it quick, goofy smile on my face, and run off into the horizon.
I sprinted across the edge of the park area to the steep downhill bomb, practically down a couple miles right to the finish. I was so excited that the extreme pounding didn’t phase me. I leaned further forward. With finally nothing in my hands, nothing on my back, nothing left but to lean in and fall into the finish line, I cranked ass. The footwork was immaculate, not a second was wasted and I became increasingly excited with each vertical foot that the elevation I was at decreased. Down, down across 3rd Street, onto an avenue across 1st Street and onto the really messy homeless encampment area, which 50k runners slowly trotting in and residents milling about, probably wondering why there was so much traffic through there this day. Or maybe not. It was a big mess down there. I ran through faster. I sprinted across Superior Street, a very fast mile split flashing across my watch. Second fastest of the day, besides the first mile. A vision flashed across my mind’s eye of me finishing and running straight into Em’s arms and giving her a huge hug. I wanted it now. I looked behind me. Nobody. I ran faster. I couldn’t run any faster. I just relaxed and held my posture high upright and ran it in. I smiled. Into Bayfront, onto the sidewalk and onto the path to the finishing stretch, and it was so fun to see my neighbors and my mom and Em and the dogs along the side of the finish. I crossed, stopped my watch and yelled, just like I had planned out for hours. I ran under some tiedowns under the arch right to Em’s arms like I planned. It was awkward because everyone was looking at me, I felt, and I nearly tripped and took down the blow-up arch. I was so happy. I sat in the chair and told myself that I was NOT going to be able to run the race tomorrow. I wouldn’t be able to make the distance!
Shoes: Altra Lone Peak size 12.5, Brooks Cascadia 13 size 12.5
14 Sep 2021
Race Date: Saturday, August 14, 2021 – 12 midnight
The title of this race tells you everything you need to know. A day. Across Minnesota. The subtitle includes: for 240 miles of gravel road racing. I had known about this race from Nick Nygaard, who finished the race at least a couple times with his dad and pal from college Ray Rolling, and Ray’s twin brother Race. Nick told Ryan Saline and I that this year was the last year they’re doing it and we might as well sign up with them, and that the race would fill up really fast. So, without too much deliberation, we did. Ryan and Nick and I had traveled together for Ironman Wisconsin in 2015 so I think Nick was reminiscing of that big trip and big race and it was great to be included in a new big one. After signing up, I immediately thought of how training would pan out. I had over 8 months to figure out and do the training.
Training was all over the board. I started trying to bike a hundred miler each month in May, June, July and maybe August. I pondered investing in a new bike, and found a frameset on the internet via Nick. Building that up took a lot of money and a handful of weeks to just collect each component. Then a week to build. Once I had built up the mostly-carbon Salsa Warbird by the end of June, I was almost scared to ride it! Or at least, ride it hard, like my old bike. I felt kind of scared because I built it myself, and also because it was so expensive and nice and fancy. But, I put miles on it. I had no choice, because of a hot training ride while solo in the Superior National Forest in early June, I crashed by old bike and had to finish my new one up and get right on it.
I got a 92 mile ride in in April with Ryan. It was a great ride – real cold at the beginning but we had a really fun time, I think. Over a month later, behind schedule, I planned another trip by myself in the Superior National Forest. I camped at McDougal Lake Campground and was planning two nights out there in the heart of some lovely gravel roads sprawling in all directions. The forecast was for record high temperatures for early June – in the 100s. With that in mind, I planned out a 60-miler in the morning and then a 40 in the evening. I didn’t think I could, or would want to bike 100 straight through the heat of the day. The first 60 was rough. It felt like a hundred miles, and the last miles were arduous. This was not a great confidence booster, that is 25% of the DAMn ride!! I hung out on the paddleboard for the middle of the day, which was really nice. Then I set out around 4pm with the goal to bike 38 miles to Norway Lake on the edge of the BWCA, and back. I picked some really rough roads and was tired. Luckily it was a little cooler with the sun lower, but still hot, sweaty, dirty. I made it out to a narrow road leading to Norway Lake, and the road got more and more narrow. There were lots of rollers. On one, I couldn’t get up the hill on the singlespeed, or unclip in time, so fell over. That was frustrating but I hopped back on. I was probably 18 miles out at this point. Down another little hill, up another one. The boulders in the road were huge – this would be a terrible road to drive on! Then, down another little hill and BOOM! I’m off. I had two flashes in my mind, one where my back tire is lifting off the ground and I’m being catapulted forward, then the other one where my body smashes against the ground, and my helmet ever gently taps a rock as a final landing. One foot was clipped still, and the other was unclipped and crossed over the other. I was a little dazed for a second. I turned back and saw a big boulder that seemed to be displaced. I got right up. Looked my body up and down and realized that I was OK. PHEW. Yikes. I had some scrapes, I was bleeding on my arm a bit, and really dirty as the sandy, dirty road grime just stuck to my sweaty skin. I essentially yelled “fuck this!” and turned right around and started walking. Forget Norway Lake. I was just over 18 miles in. This will be a long trek home. At the top of the hill I hopped back on my bike and knew something was wrong. My wheel was rubbing along the chain stay – it was crooked somehow. I couldn’t ride it. I hopped off and tried to re-adjust my rear wheel, and was immediately swarmed by mosquitoes and bugs unlike I’ve experienced before. I had to fix the wheel and get it back on. It was obnoxious. I glanced at my legs and could tell there was a thick layer of mosquitoes attached. They were flying into my eyes, my ears, my mouth. I got my wheel back on and it was really night. It worked. I rode down the back side of the hill and left the bugs behind. Then, up the next hill, and when I put any real power into the pedals, the wheel would rub or otherwise have issues. So eventually I just ran up ever hill, and soft-pedaled the downhills and flats. At this rate, I’d be back my midnight… and it was such a challenging ride to get out there. I knew that I could link up with County Road 1, though, and take it back. I had my phone, and plotted it out, and it was only 12 miles back home. Once I got to County 1, it was such a relief. I limped in, essentially, and that was the last time I road the Diamondback Haanjo. I was banged up with some road rash, a few sore spots on my thigh and hip, but the bottom line is that I was very lucky to walk away and ride away from the remote crash site!
Ultimately, throughout the spring and early summer I felt I had logged fairly low average mileage, but was able to ramp it up for over 500 miles in the month of July when it really counts. My main issue was getting out every day. When I did get out, I would do 40 or 6o or 100 miles. I biked to work a fair amount, but definitely not enough as I should have. I got four 90+ mile rides in, which was adequate, and a 127-miler in early July was my longest yet. All on singlespeed. My old bike probably wouldn’t take gears due to a slight bend in the frame by where the derailleur hanger connects. I had kind of decided that doing the DAMn on singlespeed would be pretty badass, and I like riding without gears anyways. So, when I built up the new bike I kept it singlespeed. The 127-miler was at the cabin near Alexandria, MN, in one big loop all by myself, so to finish that was pretty relieving. But, on my two triple-digit rides, both on the new bike, I had knee pain on the left side, on different spots, but that both got progressively worse in the final 10% of the ride. I was pretty concerned going into race weekend with my training volume, left knee pain, and the singlespeed. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to finish.
The plan was for Em and me to drive right to Gary, mull about until the midnight race start, she drives across the state while I bike, and then sleep in Red Wing hopefully after finishing the race. We set off in the afternoon with hopes to arrive in Gary, South Dakota, around nightfall. Em’s car was packed full of my bike, gear, and a bunch of food and drinks. We got to the race start area right at dusk, got my race bib and some fun goodies, and went back to the car to sleep a little bit. It was a nice little nap, just 30 minutes, and my phone was buzzing as my comrades arrived and started setting up. We met everyone and it was fun to see the nervous energy of Nick, Ray, Race, Ryan, and Dave. And, myself. And, our respective crew members. We got an updated crew guidebook that Ryan put together, although I had entered our stops into Emily’s mapping app on her phone. Then, we retired for another half-hour relaxing session in the car. (“Nap” is not a fully accurate description). With a half hour until midnight, I got changed, got my bike tires pumped up and right on cue, the rest of the boys rolled right up. We headed to the start line.
We kind of nervously just stood in the middle of the street in Gary as midnight approached. More riders conglomerated around. We shifted down the street a bit. The pack tightened. We all knew the start was near, and I saw it first. The bright flash of a firework, then “BOOM!”, the explosion a picosecond after. The crowd lurched forward. We were off! Yippee. The scary dark hours were upon us. The whole road was full of riders, and we exited Gary and entered a gravel road. Oh yeah. The road was narrow and loose. Oh jeez. I was gripping my handlebars tightly. I could feel gravel flicking up onto my face right away. I should have put on my glasses right away. The night was cool and clear, perfect conditions really. I couldn’t focus on a single thing except steering – I felt completely engulfed in the moment. It was an exhilarating start to the race.
After just a couple minutes of feeling gravel flick into my face from the hundreds of bikers in front of me, I decided that I ought to put on my clear safety glasses. I glanced down for the shortest time possible to orient my hand to my bike bag, and fumbled trying to open the zipper. I had to look down for a second – I couldn’t stop pedaling, though, because of the massive group of hundreds of bikers behind me! I got my bag open, and searched by feel for my glasses. I finally found them, hopeful that nothing spilled out of the bag, but on removal from the bag I realized they were totally entangled with a charging cord for my electronics. I shook the glasses in frustration, and it actually worked to get my spectacles loose. Nice. Now, to put them on my face without crashing my bike. They went on surprisingly easy, I zipped up my bag and was again hopeful that nothing of high value (which was every item in my bag, really. Why would you carry a low-value item across the state of Minnesota on a bike??) fell out onto the dusty gravel. Nice, time to rock.
With gravel flicking onto my face and shielded eyes, and dust lingering about the air like an explosion’s aftermath, we sped through the night. It felt like we were going fast. The first five miles went by so fast, and the split was really fast. 16:59. Wowie. I felt like I was soft pedaling, just getting sucked along by all these other riders. The single speed was no issue. It was perfect actually, even for the fast speed. I zig zagged with my crew. I’d be behind Race for a while, then we’d get shaken up and I was out front. Then I’d realize that Dave was behind me and had been for a handful of miles. Then Ryan led out a long train of riders motoboating past me on the left while I was in the right line. There seemed to be two wheel ruts on the road that were the best path, and one was generally better than the other. The gravel was different than up outside of Duluth, but definitely not bad.
Eventually, the field seemed to thin out a little bit and we reconvened as a group. Someone yelled to pull over at the next intersection for a pee break. It was perfect timing because I had to go. I wasn’t really drinking water from my bladder… it was so cool and I wasn’t thirsty. I was ready for a bite to eat, though, and I grabbed a Twizzler and it was delicious. I got to stay up on eating. It was hard to do so in that mess of riders. I was pretty jacked up still, and the late night hours made it even more fun. We set back off and were soon consumed my more riders. Everyone was all over the place – a big train would pass us like we were standing still, then we’d just truck past other riders seeming to go so slow. The field was definitely still shaking out in the early miles of this long, long race.
I had been questioned by my outfit choices as the start line, as everyone else was in long sleeves and windbreakers, and I was in a tank top. Not a lot of running singlets at the start line. I felt good then, and I felt good riding. My fingers were maybe the only part cold, but really it was almost a perfect temperature for me. The air was definitely cool against my arms, but it felt really good. Meanwhile, Nick was getting cold. He said it just like that. I think everyone else was doing OK, but Nick mentioned it a couple times, and it made me think to myself that maybe I was a bit chilly as well. We turned onto another farm road – they were all named something in the high hundreds – 475th Avenue and 330th Street or something. When we turned, immediately the gravel changed from rocky with a firm wheel divot, to deep and soft sand. I might have unclipped and pushed a few steps, and Nick zinged up right beside me, his wheel turned sideways in the sand and dug right in, and he went down. As quick as it happened, I rolled by him and he popped right up and remounted his bike. Well, if he was frustrated about being cold before, he’s probably hating life now. He jetted out in front as everyone else struggled through the sand. I hopped right onto his wheel and stayed there for a while. It was nice.
My eyes were kind of irking me a little bit. With the glasses, and the thick dust, and being 2am, and the bright white lights shining in front, and blinky red lights dotting the horizon, and lots of shadows… it was intense. I tried to not think about my eyes freaking out. I tried to just turn my mind of and focus on the line I wanted to take and keeping into Nick’s draft. It was almost a ghostly setting, like what you’d see in a horror movie, in the scene with the graveyard. I don’t think I’m in this photograph, but it’s a good representation of the first four hours of riding.
I was excited to get to our first aid stop – our longest planned segment of the day at 50 miles. I know Nick was frozen and counting down the miles, and I was pretty excited to warm up a bit and recharge my light as well. I had forgotten what the battery lights meant, but there was a type of code (double green, a green and a red, a double red, and red blinking I think?) to denote how much battery life was left. There was some red in there. Red, BAD! I was so nervous I’d have to put on my headlamp over my helmet or under my helmet and it would squeeze my brain and I’d be so uncomfortable. I liked my setup! 43, 47, 49, 50 miles. Gah, I thought it was 50? Someone said it was actually 51. We eventually caught up to Ryan in there and he was by himself. So, we were all back together as we rolled into the aid stop with the three vehicles parked and ready to help us. I saw Emily with the back of her car open and the seat laid out. I told her that I wanted to sit in the car, actually, if that was OK. She was definitely OK with it, luckily, and I felt bad because I knew I was already filthy with dust and it would get everywhere. It probably will get everywhere anyways…
Em cranked the heat and it felt great. I knew I would be cold once I stopped, and I was freezing. I had felt pretty dang good the whole time, but I knew I was getting colder and colder and it would only get colder for the next three hours. I drank pop, ate one and a half donuts, which were so good, and had Emily fiddling with my bike lights. We plugged the front one in as-is, on my bike, and the back one was taken out and plugged in in Em’s car’s USB port. I was nervous that everyone else would be ready to roll and I’d be unprepared, but every time I looked out they were all shuffling about. Nick had put on a puffy winter jacket and stocking cap to warm up. I kind of scoffed at him since it was still above 50 degrees probably, but I was cold myself and had to put on the one long sleeve layer that I brought. Yeesh, good thing it’s not much colder! I would be screwed! I wasn’t too confident that the long sleeve would provide any warmth, really, since it was super thin. But, better than nothing. I was so cold getting back out of the car, and I didn’t stock any foods or drinks with me – just plugged the lights back in and we set back off from the first aid stop. Two more to go.
It seemed like the pack at large had left us as we stopped. The road seemed much lonelier once we set back off, compared to the frantic, dusty, eerie start. Nick had put on pants, jackets, layers. I had my long sleeve on and was pretty cold once we got up to speed and the cold night’s wind was breezing past me. And we just kind of kept trucking away. I was feeling pretty good. I hadn’t drunk hardly any water, or eaten much food, but stocked up at the aid stop. We stayed together as a group really well, and the road conditions were great. The miles flew by until a winding road near the Minnesota River. We were aiming for Morton, a planned self-supported stop around mile 85. The first sign of dawn came to the left on the large bluff opposite of the river. That was nice. We made it through the scary night. It got lighter and lighter and lighter until I flicked off all my lights. I was pretty excited to get into the next stop. I could feel myself getting a little uncomfortable, a little tired out, excited to sit down on anything but my bike seat. I started counting down the miles to 85. I knew we were close, and we zipped down a big paved hill right to a gas station. Oh, that was a lovely sight.
The probably-normally-sleepy gas station in Morton, MN was teeming with dirty cyclists. It was great to stop. I went inside, and the glory of all the gas station food was overwhelming. I went right to the coffee. Then I saw breakfast sandwiches. I had to have one. I got the goods and waited in line to pay, but then second guessed myself. Maybe I should stock up on candy, chocolate, chips, pop, fizzy beverages, ice cream. Oh well, I just got my sandwich and coffee and sat down and ate it. It was nice to sit next to the Holaks from Duluth, fellow competitors, and hear their story. It was funny seeing some of the presumed “regulars” drinking their morning Saturday coffee and then here are all these cyclists walking around in their spandex shorts. It was maybe a 10 minute stop and we got back together as a group and kept biking down the road. On the way out, we somehow saw Emily driving to the gas station! It was like a mirage, we just goofily waved and she waved back.
We rode on the paved road for a bit, feeling rejuvenated from the stop. We started chatting and talking, and I was eager to hit a few milestones – 100 miles and the halfway point around 120 miles, which was about where our next aid stop was planned to meet the crew. The morning mist was heavy on the leaves and bushes as we turned onto a gravel scenic byway. I started drafting on Dave and we made a bit of time on the group. I requested to stop to take a leak and grab some food, and my bike bag zipper got jammed up while I was fiddling around in there. I tried to inspect it as the rest of the crew biked up and stopped. Without holding up for too long, I was able to jam the zipper into place halfway through the bag. I was worried my stuff would fall out – my food, my cell phone with money inside. That would be pretty detrimental if I wouldn’t be able to notice that and bike away. I looked down repeatedly and all looked safe and sound. The boys started chitter chatter about a hill coming up. I was excited, because the chitter chatter before this was all about the hilly final 60 miles, and we haven’t really had any big climbs yet. There was a bit of questioning of me, on how I’d make it up the hill. It was exciting. We turned onto a minimum maintenance road, and I jetted ahead, trying to get some momentum. I could see the deep crevasses where water had cut into the dirt and drained to the Minnesota River now behind us. I could see the boulders and loose sand dotting the areas of packed dirt and gravel, where I aimed my bicycle. I stood up and pushed hard on the pedals, my heart rate skyrocketing. The dirt path curved to the right and I could see the top. I passed another cyclist spinning out, and got to the top, gassed. Nick was behind me, and we pedaled a ways out and I stopped to address my zipper.
One of the guys exclaimed that if the zipper was busted it wouldn’t go back together. I wouldn’t accept that. I kept trying but to no avail. I couldn’t close my bike bag, and we set back off. We seemed to be atop a plateau, now away from the riverbed roads that we were on for the past several hours, since dark. The sun had risen and it started to feel more like the actual daytime. It was about 7:30am at this point and we were in the heart of farm country. There was either corn or soybean fields as far as the eye could see. The roads seemed designed specifically for farm vehicles, and were essentially one-lane, sandy and loose gravel roads. Once we got back going we made good time. It was a nice mix of cyclists sharing the morning with us, some groups passed us and we overtook and passed others. There weren’t too many solo bikers out there – mainly groups clumped up. Some of the roads up here were really sandy and soft, and that killed the momentum immediately. It was sometimes a struggle to turn onto a different road to find that there was just barely one line to take that didn’t involve fishtailing and sliding around like crazy.
Before long, as we surpassed 100 miles, I started thinking about the next aid stop. This would be half-way. I was feeling good – really good. I had concerns about my left knee, that had given me grief once hitting triple digits in my only two triple-digit rides. I could feel a bit of a tinge, especially if I stood up and cranked on the pedals. Maybe it was in my head. Really, it was great to know that my whole body was feeling pretty good. Hands, neck, nether-regions. All good. I figured I’d tape my knee up. Also, take off my shoes, put on sunscreen, and eat some food. I didn’t think I needed a refill yet – but maybe I’d get a top-off of water in my bladder. I still hadn’t drunk much of it and was peeing pretty frequently. I think everyone was feeling pretty good, as well. It sounds like Race maybe was struggling a little bit, or his knee hurt or something. We had a long way to go. The miles clicked away until I knew we were close. I kept looking at my watch. There were crews at every intersection, and eventually, ours came too. It was great to see Em, and she seemed to be in great spirits.
I first taped up my knee. I had to wipe away the dust and dirt first. I took my shoes off, and Em had a platter of food and drinks for me to pick from. Ray and Race’s crew guy came over with a large sack of McDonalds breakfast sandwiches, and those were great. Also, Em had made some coffee on the side of the road. I divulged in a little bit of everything, and took time to relax in the chair. I put on the sunscreen, and pondered what else I’d forgotten. Elizabeth walked over and chit chatted, and I only tuned back in momentarily to make sure I wasn’t holding up the group. I took a leak in the corn fields behind Em’s car, and eventually stumbled back onto my bike and rode around to find everyone else gearing back up to get out. The tape on my knee was pulling at my leg hair uncomfortably. We set back off, and unlike the other couple stops, it was a little bit laborious to get back going. It wasn’t nice to sit back down, and I finally started feeling the miles. I’d ditched my shirt, and it was starting to get warm as the sun rose higher in the sky.
The miles flew by, and the roads seemed to get bigger and wider as we got closer to our next stop, 30 miles away, in Henderson. We criss-crossed a couple paved roads and generally stayed together as a group. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits. The heat was certainly starting to take its toll, and the vets started talking about some big downhill bombs. They didn’t mention the big uphills. We started climbing. Up and down. There were a few big gravel roller coasters. On one of the bigger uphills, I was up ahead. On singlespeed, you can’t really go that slow. Nick started to catch up to me, and I pushed hard to show him that I wanted to beat him up the hill. He got wind of my competitive spirit and shifted down to zoom right past me. I let out a yell of exasperation. I probably shouldn’t be doing that stuff 150 miles into the race.
Up, then back down. Ray was bombing the hill. His bike had broken somehow. He said he back brake wasn’t operating correctly. I couldn’t imagine going down some of these hills without a rear brake. Water was more and more desirable, yet less and less tasty as the water touching my back was lukewarm as I sipped it out of the tube through my backpack. I starting thinking about the tasty things I’d get at the gas station. I thought I’d eat my pizza. Oh, the ice cream! Ice cream sounded so great. And something cold and fizzy. One last bomb, then a couple turns onto paved roads and we were clearly into a town of some sort. A glance at my watch – getting close to 150 miles – it must be Henderson. We planned to stop here for our second self-supported stop. So, after this we’d have one more crew stop at 180 and then another gas station town stop at 210 before bringing it home. We were getting close. I thought that 90 miles is still a really long way, and it was going to be a struggle from here on out, for sure.
It was again almost overwhelming to get into the gas station. It was a pretty small and crammed store, with shelves of merchandise with barely a walking lane between. I had pizza in my bag, and noticed an Icee machine. Oh, I got that for sure. Then I noticed a gummi pizza at the checkout and I walked out. I ate my pizza with the Icee, but ultimately couldn’t finish the cold drink by the time we wanted to leave. Ray’s rear brake looked really messed up as he was fiddling with it. If he pulled the brake lever, it would move the whole caliper backwards. He seemed hopeless on a fix from the field, but surprisingly hopeful to continue on. There were all types of people in the streets of Henderson, all minding their own business and enjoying the perfect summer day. What a nice quaint little town! They said that we had to go up and over that hill, beckoning to the bluffs straight ahead in the distance. We biked through the little main street and then took a sharp right into a small parking lot, then into the woods. What was this? Definitely not gravel. It was a sandy singletrack trail through a creek bed. I figured it was a small detour to get out of Henderson. We had to walk our bikes through a bit of it. I saw Nick mount his bike up ahead. It was rugged terrain. Tall weeds, tree roots. It took almost 15 or 30 minutes to get through. That was rough on the singlespeed, and I was wishing for the nice riding, cool gravel roads of the morning time next to the Minnesota River.
When we climbed the famed bluff back out of Henderson, everyone seemed to be dragging. I got up top and waited for my comrades. It took a while. The next handful of miles were in the baking hot sun, a mix of wide gravel roads and rolling hills. I got going with Dave a bit and we made big time on the group. After a couple turns, we realized we couldn’t see the group. So we eased back and soft-pedaled for a while. The group eventually came back with Nick at the rear. He kind of recommended that we stay closer together as a group. We set back off. It was so easy to get on the tail of someone, usually Dave, and just ride with my head down, staying in the draft, only to look up minutes or hours later to see that we were way off the pack again. So then we’d recognize that, and soft pedal for a while until the group caught up. We passed a few other racers and it was clear that we were getting into the hottest part of the day. The sun was straight up above us beating down, with no shade and hardly a cloud in the sky. The breeze seemed to kick up a little bit, which was great. Endless countryside. We kept pluggin’ away, seemingly playing leap frog over and over and over, except I was never in the back trying to keep up. It was hard. It made me expend less energy, though, and I almost started feeling anxious that the clock was ticking and we were going so slow. The group behind was making their way, and eventually we stopped ahead at a big tree that was providing shade and everyone grouped together. There weren’t many word spoken. We just all took a little break, then got right back to it. Then, the hills came.
In a past Day Across Minnesota event, Race had had a physical meltdown and had to drop from the race. He knew exactly where the spot was and that we were edging closer to it. It was a fun milestone to bike past that. We had some other milestones during the ride – I hit my longest ride hours before at 128 miles. My watch was about 2 miles behind everyone else’s, somehow. We hit Ryan’s longest ride at about 145 or so. Then Race’s somewhere in the Minnesota countryside. He seemed to be struggling once again. I was lucky that my knee was holding up, and actually felt much better with the tape on it. If anything, my right knee was getting a little sore. Perhaps, I should tape that one, I thought.
The thought of getting to 200 miles was daunting and just kind of crazy to think about, and then several hours of riding to get to 240. We were inching our way. The roads we were riding seemed to be dead straight and rolling, so you could plainly see the impending hill climb right ahead, then once atop, the screaming downhill and series of hills beyond. They came one right after another. I got more and more comfortable with the downhills, but still nervously clutched my brake lever as my momentum picked up right after the hill’s crest. It was pretty exhilarating to see big nasty washerboards pass right by as you hit the perfect line down a tear-inducing descent.
My equipment was working out perfectly. I hadn’t adjusted my bike even once, which wasn’t the case with hardly any rides on my previous bike. That was great. The bike bag was still open and flapping in the wind. Nothing had fallen out, to my knowledge, and I was continuously pulling gummis and twizzlers and chex mix out of there to much on. Phone was still there, that was the important one. And, my body was holding up great. There was a point before the final crew checkpoint that I had a realization. I think I was thinking about what to tell Em. I would tell her that I was feeling great. Yeah, I was tired, but just sheer fact that we were closing in on 75% of the race completed, through the night, through the heat of the day, up and down some monster hills in the past couple miles and I was feeling good – that made me feel great. As I cranked up another hill, dedicated to stomping up every hill and not walking my singlespeed bicycle up any of them, I looked back and noticed Dave right there, Nick right there, Ray a bit back, then Ryan and Race way back. The trend continued up and over each hill. It seemed like the hills were taking a toll on those two more than the rest. From biking with Ryan, I knew we was kind of a watt-weenie and would limit his power output on uphills. Even in training rides, he wouldn’t push at all, he’d down shift and spin up any little hill. So, this was normal. Race seemed to be hurting on the uphills, as he told us. He told me at one point he’s not an athlete like us guys, or he’s not built for this type of thing. I was shocked to hear that. We’re out here, nearly 200 miles in. Yeah, you’re cut from a different cloth that most people, dude!! The difference in fitness or grit, or whatever it takes to finish a ridiculous race like this, in any of us compared to the general population is probably 1%! But, it made me realize that we were in this together, and I had to do whatever I could to boost the morale of the group and not focus on my own physical status or how I’m feeling or anxiety to finish the race. I thought about Nick telling me that he thought I would be one, of any of the group, to not stay with the group and go at it alone for the time and for the glory. I had told him that I really considered that, but ultimately, I did promise him that I’d stay with the group. Not for him or anyone else, really, besides myself. I needed the group, and the trust dissolves if I were to go off now, just because I thought I felt good. The group has brought me this far. They’ve provided a draft, and directions. I hadn’t even pulled out my cue cards! So I had to show my squad some respect, and crank away as a unit. At the next hill, I was up and over it and out of sight. What the hell is wrong with me.
Nick had told me that the next checkpoint was typically kind of hard for the crews. In the heat of the day, now they’ve been at it for hours and hours as well, and at this point the boredom starts to set in, and the feeling of “c’mon guys, just go get it done so we can shower and eat and sleep”. I was expecting that, and otherwise really excited to sit down in the shade, take my shoes off and drink some cold beverages. I started planning it all out – I’d drink a lot of gatorade, drink some delicious pink mountain dew, and fill up my bladder one more time with ice cold water. We got to the checkpoint and just like I planned, the first thing I did was tell Em that I was feeling great. Once it came out, I don’t know why I felt the need to profess that to her. She said she was glad, though, and was buzzing around like the bees to my pop. There were terrible bees around where I was sitting. Em grasped the can of pop from my hands and poured a bit across the roadway. She gave it back to me, and said they’d go after that splash now, instead of my pop. Interesting logic…
We had lots of time. As I sat, the updates came in. Dave came over and said that we really can’t be biking ahead like we have been. It was serious. I agreed with him, and said I’d focus on staying with the group. Nick came over and said Ryan was thinking about dropping. He was in rough shape. Hmm, that was a big surprise to me. I thought he was in control. I finally loaded up on some snacks that I thought might be appetizing as we started to gear up to attack the final 60 miles, allegedly the hardest part of the entire course with lots of steep hills. The consensus was that Ryan wouldn’t be coming with us. He had heat exhaustion and was in the AC-blasted car. If he could recover, he’d be behind us. Oof. That was a blow. I wanted to shake him up. I wanted to rally him. I decided that that’d be inappropriate and I just biked away. I told Em I’d see her at the finish line. She was doing so well – chipper, happy, excited. She was going on and on about the dead animals she’d seen on the back country roads getting to these remote checkpoints. I was looking forward to seeing her next more than anything.
We immediately started a slow roll, and the pace never really picked up. There was lots of talk about the impending hilly section after we crossed I-35 then Highway 52 a while later. The hills got pointed out several times, and it was kind of a feeling of anticipation – “we’re almost there – to the hilly part” – for hours. Either way, the end was in sight. We were riding together as a pack and I really didn’t want that to change. Luckily we hadn’t hit any big up and down hills yet so I didn’t feel the need to mash my pedals. I could just tuck in behind one of the boys, get sucked along in the draft and just pedal a few strokes at a high cadence whenever I started falling back slightly. We were kind of feeling goofy when a local landowner erroneously told us that we were on a private drive and to get off. We told ourselves that he was going to have a long night! I wasn’t feeling appetized by any food I had on hand. A handful of cheese-flavored chex mix did the trick. Gels, oh hell no. Gummis, nope. Anything with excess sugar sounded pretty foul. Warm water will have to do. The sun was getting a little more angular and it felt like we were out of the heat of the day, which was nice. It had been really an ideal day for biking. If it wasn’t really hot in the middle of the summer in the middle of Minnesota I’d feel jipped!
We rode through a couple round-a-bouts, through a developed area across Highway 52. Then it was up into a frontage road and up, up, up. Here they were, they said. I just pedaled normally, my normal mash to get to the top. I was the first on to the top of the first hill. Then, many more to go. The world closed in. This area had more trees and houses along the roads, which was a bit of a change from the wide open fields with sparse farm buildings that was pretty similar throughout the entire day. However, up one, down another, up one, down another hill and it opened up to more farm country. Then up and down another hill – a steep hill – and there was a cool little house at the bottom of a creek gorge where they were offering granola bars and water and maybe beers. Then right back up. I would stop at every top of the hill to wait. The last one was huge and we cheered on Race when he got to the top without walking. He made it – we were all still riding well. We didn’t know about Ryan. If he rallied, he was going to have to make up ground. We weren’t that fast but we were moving consistently. We decided that we all had enough supplies and we’d skip the last planned stop at 210 miles.
I kept plugging away and got ahead of the group. I had to stop. We were going at a pretty slow rate, and I was starting to get antsy to finish the race. We were well over 200 miles at this point and just chugging along. I passed a group of two guys. The one was on the side of the road but he said he was OK. At an intersection, I stopped, and the two guys passed me. I waited a few minutes for the rest of my squad. They caught up, and we kept rolling. We had a nice section of road and we clumped together and drafted for a bit. We seemed so close, but we still had hours to ride when I thought about it critically. Dave had mentioned finishing before dark. We crunched the numbers and it was a good goal. I had a sense of urgency, but I couldn’t speak or think for the whole group. The good part was that I felt good, and I was going to finish. It was such a group effort but all to prop up my own personal goal of finishing the race. Kind of selfish… and I wasn’t helping things by leapfrogging and waiting for the group to catch me. We bombed a huge hill and for the first time it felt like dusk was near. The sun was below the tree line. I couldn’t imagine the fear of Ray riding down this winding, massive hill with no back brake. Nick zoomed down with no brakes at all it seemed. Toward the bottom there was a guy getting off the ground. His shirt was bloody. Woof, bad time to crash. Maybe the best time… if that was 200 miles earlier it’d make for a long, long day. We were near that couple for a couple miles, and it sure seemed like we were getting into Red Wing. There was a cool road along a state forest or management area, then right into neighborhoods. We were spread out as a group, and I stopped with Ray on a curb to let everyone catch up. We didn’t wait long, and we agreed that we would be riding in together, side by side. We zinged around the city. There wasn’t a lot of excitement between us as I sensed the bridge to Wisconsin nearing. We turned off a road onto a sidewalk adjacent to a Do Not Enter one way, and onto the bridge. The bridge! The view was astounding. It was the golden hour. We has just hit 20 hours, 8pm. I was almost at 240 miles on my watch, certain that my pals had more logged. I was hoping I’d get there, just for… I don’t know why. Strava? We went down the backside of the bridge and into a park entrance to the finish. I knew it was right there. I hadn’t studied the maps, but new we were there. Yes. I was so excited for a finish line beer. We rode 5 by 5 down the little road next to all sorts of fans and racers. Then, there was a left turn into the finish chute. It was right there! We couldn’t ride 5 abreast, so we just kind of clumped into the finish. It was over.
I barely muttered to the race director that I was a single speed rider. He didn’t hear me. I told him I was singlespeeder. His mind was blown, I’ve never seen someone more excited! He said I was the last one – the 6th singlespeed finisher to get the last gin bottle. Oh, that was so exciting. I was pretty pumped. I took my bike and my gin and my beer aside to the ground and wanted so bad to take off my shoes. My big toe on my right foot had been numb for hours and hours. As I rested, I saw a guy walk up to the finish line. It caught my eye, especially when he pointed at me, then pointed at his friend in a little huddle nearby. They were talking about something, I knew it. I went up there. It turns out, I was the seventh singlespeed finisher, and they missed a guy right before our group finished. I said I’d give the gin back. They said I couldn’t, I had to keep it and they’d get the real 6th place finisher another bottle. It was a little disenchanting.
All in all, it was an incredible experience. It was unlike any other race I’ve ever done, due to the nature of the teamwork that we experienced out there. That was special. I don’t know if I’d do a bike race that long again. 100 milers are maybe a bit more enticing. Weeks later, my big toe is still kind of messed up. It took me a long time to clean my bike off, and even longer to write this story.
05 Aug 2021
Race Date: Sunday, August 1, 2021 – 8am
In the water of the first Brewhouse Triathlon in about 24 months, my last time at the race losing for the first time in 7 years or so and having not trained for triathlon hardly at all in the meantime, I was really nervous. I knew exactly what to do, but the fitness level was lacking and I didn’t want to be in the mix. I like to be up front at Brewhouse Triathlon short course, not in the mix. I like to win. But the bottom line was, I don’t deserve it.
Leading up to Brewhouse, my running volume was probably consistently lower the past six consecutive months, than almost any other single month in the previous 8 years! And slow running, too. I hadn’t swam more than a 500 yards since Brewhouse 2019, but my biking was extraordinary, especially in the month leading up to Brewhouse. I biked over 500 miles in July, but literally all gravel single speed miles. I had major concerns about my tri bike – namely the pedal, which had fallen off months earlier after seizing up, and literally the day before in a practice ride. It seemed to be spinning freely, and worked well in the morning, but was highly questionable.
I arrived in the morning, my van loaded with two bikes and all my tri gear. I set up at the start and saw Em loitering about. It was so great to see her and know she’d be watching the whole race and seeing me finish. It was like a weight lifted off my shoulder, actually. I anxiously paced about, setting my stuff up, trying to remember the morning routine. Dump, bike, run, get body marked? No, body marking, test the bike, dump, jog a bit. Well the decision was made for me and I saw Ryan on the way to the portable toilet area. Check that off the list. Feeling good, I rode a mile and the bike was working great. That was a relief. Yep, it felt fast, but I was unsure of the monster MPH readings that I know I’d put up in prior years. My quads seemed even a little stiff from a 60 mile gravel ride the day before. I knew the bike was the key today. I ran a bit then made sure everything was in order, put on my wetsuit and hung out by the lake.
I had lost Em but found her on the bluff by the shoreline. It was nice to get a pre-race shakedown with her as Matt Evans got married to Shelly with Rod Raymond enthusiastically yelling into the microphone and people cheering.
Once I got into the water, I felt pretty good swimming a few strokes, actually. I peed in my wetsuit, which is always kind of icky. But I’m led to believe that it helps with buoyancy. I tried to channel my countrymen USA Olympians after studying swimming the night before on primetime broadcast. Bent elbow, generate power from the hips, stay streamline with head down. Yep, it’s all in the muscle memory. I swam around and back to shore and people started congregating in the water. I wanted to get onto someone’s heels right away. They’d pull me along. That’d help right away. When you see Matt Evans in the water you know it’s about to be go time. I faintly heard the countdown from 10 start, and I think it was Paul Rockwood who asked “oh, are we going already?”. We could all hear “3! 2! 1! GO!!” and it was a free for all. I got a fairly good jump but was overtaken by churning bodies everywhere. I could feel my heart rate skyrocket and I was about out of breath after just a few front crawl strokes. Plus the splashing was sending water all up into my gasping mouth. It was terrible.
I avoided getting kicked, and eventually the crowd kind of thinned out. It seemed like a huge group sped off in front of me and I was left in the wake with a few stragglers. I tried to keep a good line and found myself off to the left a little bit. That’s what you get for never open water swimming…
The first buoy seemed like it took forever. The second one was an eternity. Once I got to the first one, I was pretty hopeless about the swim portion. I was dead already. I just kept a rhythm, and by the second buoy, felt really good actually. I felt like I was making good time, kind of out by myself where I liked to be. Maybe there wasn’t that big of a group, or they kind of spread apart. I seemed to be in the front end of the start wave, although I knew that probably wasn’t true. As I turned, trying to stay efficient but not get punched in the face, I thought about just staying calm and relaxed until I knew I was close on the home stretch.
My goggles worked well, the water seemed to be decently calm for swimming, and I was feeling really good getting to the second turn buoy. Bing bing bing, and I was on the home stretch. I focused again on form and keeping a strong stroke. I focused my legs and pushed home, sighting every now again to be surprisingly on course the whole time. Feeling good about my swim, I tried to put on the afterburners once I got past the last buoy and into the swimming area. I didn’t have any power whatsoever, but felt it was a good swim. Furthermore, swim was about done without a scratch. Now, onto the big daddy. Time to crank.
I was able to run pretty well into T1, and even remembered to eat my caffeinated gummis instead of sitting on them like in 2019. It was quick onto my bike and I had a major sense of urgency. The suspense was killing me – how fast can I bike into first place? It was smooth into my bike shoes and I somewhat precariously smashed up to full speed without the concerning pedal falling off. I stopped one pedal stroke to see if the pedal was still on. Yep. I knew it was a tailwind, but was pleasantly surprised to see 27 mph on my watch once I felt up to speed. Keep it up, Mikey. I drank a bit of water over the Island Lake bridge and past Boondocks restaurant. I passed a few people feeling like a speed monster. Reeling people in is so fun. I couldn’t see the motorcycle up ahead, but had a long way to go. No way my swimming is even in the same echelon as some of those. There are good swim-bikers that exist! But might as well try to bank time while I have a nice tailwind, I thought. I knew I had extreme endurance on the bike. So push it.
When I turned to Emerson, I still hadn’t seen the leaders. Shortly thereafter, I saw two cyclists, one with a disc wheel. They were decently ahead, actually. I’d catch them. I cranked and cranked into the wind. My mph dropped. I didn’t make ground. I got into T2 after losing my shoe. Someone yelled “you lost your shoe!”. I was so mad at those shoes, I didn’t even look. It was at my bike after the finish, though.
I tried to transition as quickly as possible, because Ryan and Benjamin put a gentleman’s bet on T2 time and I was confident. I had an issue with my shoe heel folding over as I smooshed my foot inside without elastic laces. Oh well. I sprinted towards the swim exit and knew it was up to the run to seal the deal. Who was up ahead? At the run exit, Emily was standing right there and yelled that she was a minute back. Must be Shyanne. MN Tri News had pegged myself and Shyanne McGregor, local beast triathlete, as winners. That article was the only confidence I had. Now, starting the run, I thought I could run her down. I saw her. I thought there was someone else biking up ahead of me? Maybe I passed them in transition. I don’t know. I just need to run, and run fast. I had major doubts that I’d be able to fend anyone else off. Especially with the likes of Paul Rockwood and Benjamin Welch closing hard. I wasn’t confident in their training, though, but I knew for sure that I couldn’t be confident in my training! So I just focused on hunting down the lone runner ahead. I was hoping to go under 6 minutes per mile. My first mile was over by a handful of seconds. Yeesh, not what I want! Up the hill on County Road 4 past the outdoorsman’s club, I reeled her in a little more and a little more, and I knew I’d catch her. But I was also running very sloppily. My form was crap, I had no endurance and no speed. I could tell I was making traction at the water stop to turn into the boat landing at the run half-way, because when I turned I saw Shyanne running back toward me, then a left where a volunteer was beckoning her. The volunteer pointed me right, and I went, knowing that that way was opposite from every other year that Brewhouse Triathlon has been at Island Lake. Typically we go straight, clockwise to the boat launch parking lot, around the bend, then a right hand turn, and a left to complete the lollipop loop. This year, a volunteer was pointing a different way, and Shyanne had taken a small wrong turn by what it looked like. I finally caught her around the loop portion, and she got confused when the dirt trail went under a low-pass tree out to the main lot. She didn’t fully know exactly which track to take, and I passed her and showed her the way. I felt kind of bad that she clearly wasn’t dead certain on the exactly route to take, but it was a change from previous years and I was a little nervous that I didn’t take the right route! No, there was pretty much the one way, and so I trucked on back towards the water stop.
Before I turned back onto the main road, I saw Paul Rockwood running smoothly onto the gravel. He would be pursuing me. Who else was on the loop? Hopefully no fast runners. Hopefully not Benjamin. I looked back, and Shyanne was in close pursuit. Would she close on me after my kersplosion? Well, don’t kersplode, MIKE!
I didn’t care about the grimace. I channeled the 2020 Olympic Triathlon champ from Norway who gritted his way to gold looking like he was in immense pain. I tried to push as hard as possible. I was so happy to get to the trail, but it was immediately more grueling than the road. I tried to sprint down the boardwalk, and felt like I might vomit if I kept up the painful pace. Don’t vomit, I said in my head. Off to the other side, and I just felt pooped. My form was so spread out and inefficient, I was probably running 7 minutes per mile pace over the rocks and pinecones. I could sniff the win, but just needed to hold on. Once I got out to the grassy picnic area, I was so happy to be done soon. I peeked over my shoulder and knew that nobody was there and I was safe. I thought about the Olympic triathlon champ looking over his shoulder 5 times, then walking in the last few steps. I let it up just a tiny bit to make sure I didn’t yak on the timing mats, but saw 1:05 on the clock and sprinted through the finish, leaning for style.
I crumped over on the ground, totally spent. God, that was terrible. All that effort for slow, arduous, inefficient pace. It was a relief, and an honor and joy to reclaim the Brewhouse Short Course Triathlon title, and to know that I still had the fitness to pull it off. Something is working! Shyanne had a crazy fast race and finished right behind me. Paul was not far back either. Between the finish and awards, I biked 30 miles on gravel on the singlespeed machine. It was grueling. I made a vow to practice triathlon and pull a fast Park Point 5 Miler before the 2022 version.
Shoes: Mizuno Wave Rider
Bike: Specialized Transition
Wheels: Profile Design 78
Food: Bike: 3 Clif Bloks, couple sips of water
05 Aug 2021
Race Date: July 16, 2021 – 8am
I was excited to try my shot at a second paddleboard race in as many weeks. I wondered how much differently pacing would play into a race of 17 miles versus 5. My upper back had stopped being sore a mere day earlier, and I was paddling at an all-out effort to maintain about 5 miles per hour at Vatten Paddlar. That effort seemed unsustainable for over an hour. I was hoping for under four hours this day.
In previous years, and regularly scheduled for this year was a finish line on the lake of my parents’ cabin – Lake Miltona. The start line is just minutes away from the cabin and so when I heard about the race it was a no-brainer to register. I like to think I like long stuff better so I signed up for the 26 mile race event through many lakes. Due to low water the distance was downgraded to 17 miles, and I was OK with that. It was so nice to stay at the cabin the night before, and I made the long drive from Duluth to Miltona the night before, had a nice big breakfast in the morning and drove to the start line relatively late in the morning. (Relative to some other races when you’re up at the crack of dawn).
I saw local Duluth resident Jared Munch, who has some serious SUP accolades, including paddling trips of hundreds and thousands of miles (well, over one thousand miles). He had won the race in the past, and after looking at past years’ results, knew a past winner Craig Stolen was also signed up. Past winning times were at a 5mph average at least, and I couldn’t hold that for 5 miles one weekend before so didn’t have incredible confidence on pulling off another win. But I knew that I could utilize faster paddlers’ wakes to my definite advantage! And Jared told me about that key to the race beforehand as we were preparing.
It was a short time at the starting area, which was nice. I sunscreened up, got my pack and lifejacket all set up, and used the porta-potty at the boat launch. I had no issues putting my board in the water and warming up a bit. I tried my sandals instead of shoes this time, and wanted to try fingerless gloves just to avoid blisters. I didn’t know if that would be comfortable or not. I was fiddling with my stuff and one glove went in the water. Great! One wet glove. Gah. I second guessed my footwear, but didn’t want to set them on the deck unstrapped. What the heck am I doing out here? I was so tired the weekend before after 5 miles, how was I going to triple that plus a couple?
Other boats were circling around the small bay where the race was to start, and at 8 it was clear that the race would start late because not everyone was in the water. What the heck?? I’m here. Anyone? Anyone? There was a brief pre-race briefing, and I learned that there were no buoys at this race, as opposed to buoys lining the course a weekend before, and that the maps were pretty critical to completing the full course. The course was straightforward, but it certainly relied on map-reading and orienting yourself to the land features. Luckily, I felt like I had pretty good experience in that with just a couple Boundary Waters trips under my belt. I tried to study the maps as we neared the start time, and the organizers audibly agreed that 8:10am would be the race start. With a 10 second countdown, the line of boats heard “GO!” and churned up the bay by paddling out towards the opposite shore. A big, sleek solo outrigger canoe took off way fast, with Craig right behind drafting, and Jared somehow caught off guard and paddling hard to get on the draft. They were far to the left, and just took off way too fast. They were immediately gone and I was pretty bummed right away that I missed the draft. It was going to be a long, long day.
The weather was looking really good. A decent wind of 10mph by noon from the south. The first many miles of the race were headed north, affording a nice tailwind for the majority of the race. But, that means we’d have a headwind for the final 6 or 7 miles of the race, and the wind was only set to pick up throughout the day. I glanced at my watch and I appeared to be moving pretty fast right away. 17 miles, I told myself. Long long day. I had studied the little course map as much as I could to start, but wanted to make sure I was going where I was supposed to. Each of the lakes seemed fairly short, and the course fairly simple to follow. Also, I had a group of three up ahead cranking. I did see them going into the first tunnel from Lake Victoria to Lake Geneva. I was dripping sweat already. There were a couple dudes near the culvert with a cooler offering bottled water. I declined and paddled right through.
It was a bit shallow on the Lake Geneva side of the culvert but I got through no problem. The rower and two speedy paddleboarders had made up big time and they were nearly out of sight. I drank some water from my bladder hose, peeked at the map – straight ahead across the lake – and paddled away. Yep, it was gonna be a long day, I thought. I looked behind my shoulder after a paddle stroke and I saw two other paddleboard racers pretty much right there. Gah. My stroke slowed, power decreased slightly. I was gonna draft them.
Trying to keep a smooth, efficient rhythm and I heard right behind me: “you wanna draft?”. I yelled YES and stopped for one second. I was able to lock in with two older guys on 14′ boards. I recognized one of the boards in the pre-race meeting, the announcer talking about the prize drawing at the end and how this person won it and was back to compete in the race with the board he won. Cool board! He was cranking. The other guy had a more racy-looking one. Narrow, sleek and fast. It was nice to draft for a little bit. We chatted a little. Then, I started falling back. Gah, WHY. This was supposed to be easier! I had to get back in the draft. Ahh.. got back right behind the guy in the white board. Nope, fell right back. I HAD to surge if I wanted to avoid losing two more paddlers and being left in no mans land. I surged, and surged hard. It was no avail. They pulled away. Whatttt the heck. What am I doing out here doing fricken SUP races. The carbon kayak-like craft pulling those two fast dudes was way up ahead, out of sight. I was in the middle of Lake Geneva. Struggling. I stopped the aggressive surge and just kept paddling. Something must be wrong, and so I looked back. The leash was out of the water, but there was a huge clump of weeds dragging behind my craft. Typical! How long has this been going on? It must have been before the first culvert where it was a little mucky with weeds and shallow. I stopped, back-pedaled and tried to fish the weeds out. Accelerating quickly from backwards, I hoped to juke the weeds off as one big clump. A clump floated away, so I figured that did the trick. I paddled off, checked back and seemed to be clear.
Wow, just that acknowledgement that it was the weeds slowing me down gave me a bolt of energy. Plus, the brief break of relentless paddling. I felt like I was going faster… The shore was getting closer faster, and I seemed to be making time on my two pals right up ahead. Sure enough, I caught up before the end of Lake Le Homme Dieu. It wasn’t as hilarious of a story to them as it was in my head. They went through the culvert first, and I saw my mom on the road over top. Sweet, that would be nice for some energy potential future tunnels.
Onto Lake Carlos, I felt like I was cruising. I dropped the two older racers, and was chasing the three ahead of me. It was probably no contest at this point, but ya never know, and it’s an out-and-back so we would see everyone anyways. I paddled tight to a point, where there was a boat pointing towards the docks at Lake Carlos State Park where the turn-around buoy is. I saw the gal in the sleek boat just cranking ass way out ahead. She was making real good time. And, I figured, right against the wind. Yeesh. I got closer to shore, and it seemed to be getting a little wavier. It had been perfectly calm on the water with an ever-light tail breeze. In the first place for paddleboards was who I thought was past winner Craig Stolen not too far from the canoe racer, and Jared Munch not too far back from him. I was still a ways from shore, and the two guys behind me were a bit back. The guy in the orange board, the won board, was closer, and the master blaster on the white board was a bit back from there. I started planning my turn-around. Might as well eat a bit of food then. Might as well now, because the waves were pushing me to shore and I could see the buoy pretty close, through a bundle of weeds sticking out of the water. I saw my mom on the dock. I got onto my knees, grabbed a bag of chips off the front of my vest, seemingly fumbling about, just shoving the food into my mouth as quick as possible, a bit more, then shoved the baggie back into the front of my vest. I drank water immediately, then started trying to turn at the buoy. I got pushed to shore a bit, but righted myself and paddled away into the straight-on headwind.
It was over 10 miles in at this point, over half over and I was feeling pretty good. Good pace, muscles good, grip still good. I didn’t think I could make big time on Jared or Craig. They looked comfortable enough and that was just a really big gap. I could hold off the people behind me, and just see how the time would pan out to be. The wind was pretty rough, but I thought it’d benefit me. It was kind of a fun change up. Everyone’s paddling into the wind, if I can just slice through with greater efficiency, I can make up even more time on the field. Just keep cranking. The guy in the orange board made up a bit of time, and he was right there. He had earlier said he was slow in the waves. It was wavy, and a bit tippy every now and again. Not necessarily easy paddling. We were babied on the first majority of the race. But he was right there. He practically caught up to me! But we weaved headed back to the point where a volunteer boat was anchored. I would shake him in the shallows of the point, in the weeds. My board seemed to be in good shape, without weeds in the back. I was checking, and I weaved through the islands of reeds to the open middle part of Lake Carlos and back to the final culvert.
The corner I was passing through, with islands made out of reeds, offered a brief reprieve from the wind. I passed right through it. There seemed to be another jut-out ahead that I aimed for. It was a little arduous. I couldn’t stop for one second without the waves pushing my board to the side. I had to paddle on one side, and if I tried for relief on the other side I’d turn so quickly. I didn’t care about the slow rate, but noticed my mile splits were the slowest of the race so far, by far. I had put a little time on the guys behind me. They were both pretty close to each other, but I had a bit of a gap now. I couldn’t see Jared ahead.
I turned the corner that I had been aiming for and it was really shallow. I paddled hard, confident in my line, and luckily I didn’t hit the bottom. It was close, though. I saw the culvert right at the end of the bay, straight on pretty much along the northern shore. A peek behind and just like that, like a rubber band, he was right back behind me paddling furiously. I couldn’t shake this dude! I wanted at least bronze! I pushed hard toward the final lake, eating some gummi frogs for a last jolt of energy. I got close to the last culvert over a road and there were lots of people – several on the road, plus an angler in the water with waders, and my mom. I didn’t have much to say – I essentially grunted. I was tired. These waves were tough. I had to let it all out for third place, and knew this lake was pretty short, just along the right side to the finish. I was so excited to paddle on my left, if all we had to do was kind of bend around the right shoreline.
When I got to the final lake, it was a nasty cross-wind and I realized I had to paddle on the right to stay on track. My shoulder was killing me. My form seemed to be deteriorating, and I was using different methods to get forward propulsion, like long, deep, powerful strokes, then I’d be doing rigid, choppy, but very rapid paddle strokes. It was all painful. There were a few boaters and I didn’t want them to look at me struggle. I had to put time on this guy behind me, we were both aware of where the finish line was at, and he was strong right behind me, steady. I saw a big building and thought the finish was around there. I just put my head down and cranked away. I thought I got into some weeds too close to shore. I looked back. He was there, but pretty far back. I couldn’t stop. That would be the only way to lose. I saw docks further to the left, and a couple kayaks. That must be the finish. My shoulder was so sore from paddling on my right side. I had to push as hard as possible. It would be over soon. I happened to barely have a peek on my watch in between violent paddle strokes, and noticed I was beyond four hours. Jeez. The finish line became close enough to see exactly how I had to skirt around a batch of reeds, then in between two docks to the beach, then run across the finish line. I paddled it home, feeling so ragged. I pushed my boat onto the sand, hearing it scrape, then jumped off with the leash still attached and ran my board over the finish line. Oof. It was over. I stopped my watch, then barely dragged my board off the finish line to where others were lined up, and almost clumped to the ground.
Due to goose poop, I stayed upright. My mom was there, asking me questions and if I wanted a ride. I couldn’t make a decision, or form coherent sentences, so essentially she left to get groceries and I slowly recovered from an all-out intense effort to capture third place in the stand-up paddleboard division. In a cooler there was water, and in a grocery bag beef jerky and other various snacks for racers. That was pretty tasty. I took the shuttle back to the start line, got my van, drove it back to Lake Darling, stopped on the way at a gas station. I got chocolate milk, 1919 root beer, and a white gatorade and it was all so good. Back to the resort, I hauled my board back to the parking lot and strapped it on. I hit lengthy road construction on the 5-mile drive back to the cabin, and by the time I was back I was so exhausted I didn’t make it to awards! The 17-mile effort was intense, but the format of paddleboard racing is addictively intense and I’m so excited to do at least the two next season, as well as various other paddleboard route attempts.
Watercraft: 14′ Bark Dominator
25 Jul 2021
Race Date: July 10, 2021 – 9am
The Vatten Paddlar was the first race I’d lined up for in about a year, and the second in 18 months. And my first paddling race! Needless to say, I was excited for a real race: to compete and push myself and get a finish line flood of the brain chemicals I like.
The morning started by picking up some drive-through breakfast at the coffee shop and hitting the freeway. I was planning to make the hour or so drive to northwestern Wisconsin, to the start line and drop my board, to the finish line to catch the shuttle, and shuttle back to the start. I was right on time, with ample time, despite being a little stressed until I got the start line. The first person I saw was the person I bought my new racing-style paddleboard from: John Mundahl from Herbster, Wisconsin. That was nice to know at least someone, which I didn’t really expect, and to talk about the board and paddling a little bit. I dropped my board and paddle near the launch by other crafts, in a bush, and went off to the start line. I wouldn’t really feel comfortable until I was back to the start line, even though that was hours away.
It was a 15 minute drive to the finish, and I caught the shuttle easily with a couple other paddlers and our nice driver. John shared the back seat with me and I did enjoy talking even more about paddling. It is fairly foreign to me still, and it’s honestly hard to find specific information about paddling, really especially stand up paddleboarding, on the internet. We got back to the start line with an hour at least until the start time at 9. I kind of dawdled around, did a fairly normal pre-race routine no matter what the sport, and got pretty excited pinning a bib to my jersey once again.
I think I was the only one to perform a warm up – I wanted to get into the water with a little bit of time to make sure my setup was on lock. I didn’t know if that was part of the rules. I had found an extensive rules document on the website the night before and was glad I had. Stay between the buoys and shore, no cheating. Eventually as we got within 10 minutes of the race start, the boats all piled in at once. I saw the couple other SUP competitors, and there were certainly a few other 14′ racing boards. My board’s former owner John was in a fast-looking canoe with his wife. The morning was just taking forever as we neared the start. A line of watercraft stayed behind the dock, “GO!” and we were off.
I didn’t look around me, but just paddled furiously right out of the gate to get ahead of everyone. I was wondering if I would regret pushing really hard right away, but I pushed hard right away anyways, and it kind of shook out with two canoes up ahead, a guy in a kayak in front of me, and the two paddleboards behind me. I knew that drafting was going to be very beneficial, and the kayak in front of me seemed to be a perfect option – just fast enough where I maybe couldn’t do that speed alone, but not too fast where I kill myself. I had to surge to get in the draft once I had the first fear of losing him. I took a peek behind me and saw a SUP paddler pretty close behind me as well.
When I got into the draft zone of the kayak, I almost hit him in the back of his craft! The stern. I could feel the draft immediately, and sucked right in. Ahh. But I didn’t have a good stroke. The stand up stroke is definitely different than a two-sided paddle stroke of a kayak, and I would kind of catch-up then fall-behind with each stroke as he had paddles in the water for pretty much double the amount of the time. I was dripping sweat a mile in on the beautiful Middle Eau Claire Lake, and maybe hit my fastest mile ever on a stand up paddleboard as my watch beeped for the first split in 11:40.
Training was spotty up to race day. I had a few 5-10 mile paddles on the new board, and that is about it… Dinking around at the beach or at the cabin, mile here, mile there, but nothing in any semblance of race training. I was going on pure general fitness to keep me in the mix here. And that lack of specific training maybe showed as I wiped the sweat away and skipped a stroke and the kayaker in front of me slowly pulled away from me. The SUP guy was pretty close behind me. I tried to tabulate the number of minutes as I crossed a cabin dock and rounded a corner. I was maybe a couple minutes in front, in first place in the small, small SUP division.
Looking at the race map beforehand, I had kind of broken the race into three parts – the first lake, the connector and the second lake. I knew there was a portage, and that was essentially into the home stretch. That’s what I had in mind as I suffered, trying to eek out every bit of power in my paddle stroke, track the board efficiently, and not lose time. I never realized how much you slow down if you don’t stay constantly paddling, until now, as I had someone behind me seemingly always paddling.
The course was beautifully marked with buoys well within eyesight every time. I was excited to see a river form on the southwest side of the lake and hopefully make up some time on the portage. I already knew I’d run it. The weather was absolutely perfect, despite the sun beating down and seemingly high humidity. I didn’t bring water – and figured I could go without water for an hour. I seemed to be on track for an hour as my watch showed a second split a little bit slower. The race was mostly west and southwest, and the wind was very calm out of the northeast. It was nearly a mile where the kayaker in front of me and the stand up behind me were equidistant to myself. As we entered a winding river-like waterway connecting Middle to Lower Eau Claire Lakes, we all broke up a little. The kayaker kind of took off, and I somewhat inadvertently cut the corner through some weeds. I knew that weeds in the fin would slow me down, but I could also inspect and remove weeds at the portage if I needed. The racer behind me took a wide turn around the weeds. Did I break the rules? Does he think I did? I was slightly concerned for a second, but oh well, no buoys and that wasn’t in the rules! Either way, I put the most distance on the field in the race so far. I pressed hard through a fun winding canal to the portage. There were a bunch of people, the Boy Scouts as it was told, at the sandy landing helping out. I didn’t take the help as I hopped right into the water with my shoes and all, grabbed my board and ran as fast as I could, hoping to catch the kayaker and get a draft in. I did catch him getting into his watercraft, and I tossed mine in right behind. I tried to get going as fast as possible, but the kayak pressed on with equal urgency and despite an intense surge I couldn’t close the gap. I looked behind and saw nobody. Under a railroad trestle, through another narrow channel, and I unfortunately got lodged on a sandbar. I quick jumped off and splashed around until I could push off to deeper water, and I hopped back on a furiously paddled away.
Onto the final lake, I knew it was a mile or so around the far shore to the finish. I just followed the buoys and tried to crank as hard as I could without stopping. I seemed to make up time on the kayaker as I grunted with each stroke. I was starting to feel the burn in my shoulders and wanted sweet relief from paddling so bad. But I wasn’t there yet. A quick glance at my watch and I knew I wouldn’t go under an hour. Oh well, I had so much time on the paddlers behind me I knew I’d at least win. That revelation made me slow down a little bit, as I continued to curve around the west side of the lake into a bay. I saw more people on the water then the finish line. Nice. I looked down and saw blood streaming down my leg. What the heck? It must have been a scab I ripped open on the foam decking when I hit the sandbar and had to jump off and back on the board. I washed it off with water quick, then finished up the race. Oof. I was so beat at the finish line, and my shoulders were dead. It was really nice to stop.
I talked with a few of the competitors, and one was going to the Big Ole race the next weekend. I left quickly, though, to get back to Duluth before noon. First, I took a cookie and grapes. Those were very delicious. The race was incredible – well produced and that is really important for a first timer to feel comfortable. It was different experience than I had before on a paddleboard. The thrill of racing… is great.
Pace: 12:36 minutes/mile
Watercraft: 14′ Bark Dominator
20 Sep 2020
Trip Plan: Launch paddleboard at Sawbill Lake BWCA Entry, paddle in a loop. The loop looked to be about 27 miles, and I hoped to finish within a full day’s light.
Start Time: Monday, September 14, 2020 – 7:11am
GPS Data: Stand Up Paddleboard 29.9 miles
Total Time: 11:55:40
As most cool adventures go, I was thinking of a big paddleboard loop in the BWCA for a while. It was kind of on my summer checklist, but I’d never really put pen to paper, so to speak, until September rolled around and I realized my window for a trip was kind of closing rapidly. I noticed a warm day in the forecast and figured I should pull the trigger and just do it. Well, the warm day looked windy, so the day before was on on my target. It looked like 60s. Well, maybe 60. That’s warm enough… I thought.
I pulled out the maps I had and first thought about Kawishiwi Lake, because I knew there was a campground there and I could camp the night before then hit it bright and early. Well, I couldn’t figure a loop. I maybe had a 40 miler. Yikes, that is too long. I looked at other maps in my arsenal, and saw the Sawbill map, with a campground at the entry point, AND the campground was open! I started plotting, and found a pretty good-looking loop. I did some measurements, it looked like 25 or 30 miles, which was right on target for a really long day, but not impossible given the limited daylight. Perfect. It’s a go. Gotta go for it.
Sunday night rolled around and I just couldn’t get out in time. I decided I’d wake up around 4 and make the 2 hour drive the next morning, with hopes to arrive around 7am to start paddling. I woke up early and got there right at 7. Perfect timing. That was nice, because I slept in my own bed, and was able to enjoy oatmeal and coffee on the drive up. I saw the sunrise over Lake Superior heading north on Highway 61… beautiful. I burned my tongue on the coffee, though. That was not beautiful.
When I got to Sawbill, I knew there was an outfitter and rather large campsite, and I thought I remembered looking at a map or satellite image and seeing a launch and parking lot. Well, I saw the launch but no parking lot. I thought maybe there were several docks… maybe a public one with parking nearby. I drove around the campground area, which was interesting to see… and looked like a really fun place to camp… but felt anxious that I was burning daylight. I took a wrong turn–no public access beyond this point. Crap. I figured I’d just go back to the launch I saw and drop the board and park at the big parking lot next to the outfitters that I saw. If there is another option, I missed it and I don’t care because this will work.
So I pulled up to the landing, took out my board, my paddle, my lifejacket, my tote and dropped them nearby. In my tote bag was a gallon ziploc bag stuffed with various food items, and another gallon ziploc stuffed full with various survival items. I though it smart to bring an emergency blanket, headlamp and batteries, lighter, small screwdriver, a piece of foam for random flotation, fingerless gloves, water filter, microfiber towel, and a small safety kit, at least. I might be forgetting to tally some of the items… I just threw a bunch of random crap that I figured I may need, especially in the case of an emergency, in a gallon ziplock bag and it barely all fit.
I drove my car to the lot, which said PUBLIC PARKING, so I figured I was in a great place to leave my van. When I locked the vehicle, the honk echoed so loudly in the dead quiet morning. I noticed metal grating over the trash dumpsters, to discourage bears. On my back was a small pack with two water bottles on front, and my phone in a baggie in the back, plus the all-important map. In my hand was my dog leash and on the end of that was my dog. I grappled with bringing Diamond. Em and Jack told me that I by all means should not do it. Why? Why take her? It’s a huge risk to have her out there. What if she gets injured? Or what if I have an issue? It’s just a big risk to have her, not to mention the weight on the board, which would inevitably slow me down. I figured that it’d be fun. She’s so good on the paddleboard, and loves running through the woods on a trail so would probably love the portages. But 12 hours doing both over and over? Meh, who knows. But she likes being with me, too, so she’d probably enjoy it. And I could use the company. Just having her out there with me would be nice, to share the experience. I don’t know, it just felt like Diamond had to come, despite the obvious downsides. So as we headed away from the car towards Sawbill Lake, she was yankin’ away, excited to get on the water.
It was cold. My car thermometer dropped steadily as I drove away from Highway 61 and Lake Superior and I definitely saw frost on the way up. The last reading on my car’s thermometer was 31. It was a little precarious setting the board in the water, carefully placing the lifejacket and my crucial supplies under the bungees, and stepping on. Then to get Diamond to carefully hop on! With Diamond carefully aligned in the center and fog everywhere, we were off!
The lake was glassy calm, with low visibility due to the fog. I was wearing running shorts, socks and low profile trail shoes (Altra Superior), a tanktop and 3/4 zip running long sleeve, plus hat. I wasn’t cold, surprisingly and luckily. I knew I just had to paddle straight up Sawbill Lake for the first several miles, one of the longest unbroken paddles of the day. I was pretty scared to somehow fall in or get wet, or for Diamond to jump in in excitement, or to get any of the water surrounding me on all sides on me in any way. That could be devastating in this cold. We neared a land mass up ahead and I had to check my map, even though I knew I just needed to keep the land to my close right for a couple miles. I knew I’d eventually get a really good sense of the scale of the map and the shape of the land, but for now I was unsure what I was looking at.
While shuffling around on my knees to get my phone and map out, my paddle dipped into the water, and I got water on my hands, and they got really cold. I was breathing trying to get them to warm up, it didn’t work. I pleaded with the sun to rise higher and burn off some of the lake fog and warm up the air. In between a narrow strip of water between and island a loon popped up. Diamond was locked in… she would have jumped in. I held her back, then made her sit down and tried to paddle away quickly. It was cool to see a loon super close up, though.
I cranked away further and further down from the Sawbill entry point and was amazed by the beautiful lake in the morning mist. I finally made a turn and got into a bit wider area dotted with islands. Looking at the map, I thought I knew where to get to, but I second guessed myself every 100 feet. The sun was burning off the fog, as I’d hoped just a quick hour before, and it was becoming a beautiful day.
I neared the final bay of Sawbill Lake before our first portage to Ada Creek and Ada Lake. I saw a campsite with people at it, stirring about and enjoying the perfect morning. I paddled by and neared the portage, finding it with ease. I took a moment to relax and let Diamond wander, then contemplated my strategy for portages. I left my lifejacket strapped on the board and grabbed the tote and paddle, then took off with the board down the 80 rod portage. The board was hard to keep level. We made it through to Ada Creek in no time, and put back in to paddle down the narrow waterway leading to the more open Ada Lake.
After another portage, I made it to the beautiful Ada Lake. The sun was out and shining bright, it was warming up and I took my long sleeve shirt off. I saw something to my right swimming along. As I wondered if it was a beaver, it slapped its tail and swam under the water. Cool! Luckily Diamond didn’t see it, but we were far enough anyways, where she probably wouldn’t try to chase it. The third portage was hard to find. It was getting narrow and swampy. The map said a one rod portage and a 12 yard portage with a swamp in between. I was paddling where I could, which was a narrow river-like stretch of water. It was really shallow. I had to get out after getting stuck on logs. The big fin on my paddleboard made it tough to glide over obstructions in the 6-inch water.
I got to Skoop Lake easy enough, and knew that I had a pretty long portage then a questionable paddle down Cherokee Creek. If Cherokee was as shallow as going through Ada, it would be a long, long stretch. I knew that there were two route options at Cherokee Lake, which is at the end of Cherokee Creek, and told myself that if I got to the lake after noon, I would take the shortcut. It was still really early, though.
The long portage to Cherokee Creek wasn’t terribly difficult, although pretty overgrown. I made it without too much trouble and was excited to check out the creek. It was nice and deep! Great! I stood up, and me and Diamond enjoyed the narrow waterway with a different vibe from the lakes. There was one beaver dam that was challenging to get around. Lots of mucky mud. A few more bends in the river and there was Cherokee. I was there way before noon, so we paddled right out into the lake, and stayed left to take the long loop. Cherokee Lake had a lot of islands, lots of bays, lots of campsites so I had to check the map frequently. I saw several campers right away. The wind was increasing a little bit, there were a bit of choppy waves on the big Cherokee Lake. It was good paddling, though. I was generally going with the wind, so we made good time. I was cranking.
There were a couple of paddlers on the lake, too, and those were the first people I’d seen on the water all day. When I got past an island I knew it was the last one and I was close to the portage. The lake narrowed then opened to the final bay before my portage to Town Lake. I couldn’t see the portage, but paddled right towards shore. I pushed Diamond off so she could swim in to shore a little bit and wash off some of the mud from the beaver dam back on Cherokee Creek, and paddled closer into shore but couldn’t find the portage! I circled around a bit, getting frustrated. I figured I could just go straight in then bushwhack. It’s a 10 rod portage… but decided not to bushwhack and quickly found my portage shrouded in shrubbery, then schlepped my board and dog right through. I was getting hungry, and decided to stop for a bite to eat after that portage, on the banks of Town Lake. I hadn’t eaten anything, and barely drank any water all day. It was tasty to eat some potato chips, hazelnut uncrustables, gummi frogs, some candy. Diamond was looking around and sniffing and exploring. I was enjoying the sunshine. But not for too long, and we set off onto the beautiful Town Lake after just 15 minutes. Town Lake was short, and we got to the next 90 rod portage quickly, then a series of short lakes and long portages. The portage to Vesper Lake was brutal. Lots of rocks, terrible footing.
My hand was getting a little sore from carrying the board, and I noticed that my forearms were burning after getting to Vesper Lake. It was all worth it, though, because that lake was incredibly beautiful, with cool exposed rocky slopes with trees precariously hanging on the hill, no soil to be seen.
It was around noon once I got up and over the next challenging portage from Vesper Lake to Gasket Lake. Gasket was a tiny lake, but with huge rocky cliffs jutting up from the shores. Then another tough portage to Cam Lake. These portages were frequent and tough, but also getting the board in and out of the water was tough. At the shore of Cam Lake, there were no rocks, no sandy beach, just a shallow landing. I put the fin-end in first, but the board wouldn’t budge. I figured that my shoes were pretty much wet as could be anyways, I’d just put my feet in and push off. I jumped in and sunk into the mud up over my knees! Oh MAN!! I hoped I wouldn’t lose a shoe, but the sucking muck let me free and I coaxed Diamond on the board just after I clamored on. I was getting frustrated with Diamond because she wasn’t as prompt as I’d hoped, and when we did get all on and all ready to hit the lake, legs coated in black specks of mud, I had to paddle really hard because the wind was blowing straight onto us. It was a tough go, and seemed so, so windy all of the sudden. I was really looking forward to getting to the end of Cam Lake where the land would block the wind. When I got closer, a less risky area for the wind to blow me around, I took off my wet shoes and dunked my legs into the frigid water to wash them off. That answered my question about if I’d want to jump into a lake. Nope. Luckily I’d taken my socks off hours and hours ago. Also, I luckily wasn’t cold. Perfect temperature, in fact. When I got to the opposite shore of Cam Lake, I was a little frustrated. Oh man, how am I way out here? I’m not going to get back until after dark, I thought. I miscalculated. I’m going so slow, it seems like the wind is blowing directly from the south, and I have to travel many miles practically straight south! This will be an arduous journey to complete. Nuts. Dang wind. I finally turned a corner to go south, then this. A south wind right in my face.
My arms were getting really tired. Mostly my hands and forearms. Luckily paddling wasn’t too difficult yet, besides having to rely on my hands to grip the paddle. I think the paddling and portaging were having a dual impact on my hands more than anything. I thought about grabbing my fingerless bike gloves to lessen the impact, but skipped it. I psyched myself up for the long 100 yard portage to big Brule Lake. I was excited that I’d be paddling west for a while once I got out into Brule, given that the wind seemed to be coming straight from the south. I made the portage with no incident, but was so frustrated once again with an extremely shallow and difficult launch into Brule Lake. Diamond had to go way around, and I shimmied for 100 feet to get out of the swampy shallows. The blowing wind did not help at all, and I was yelling and swearing at it. There was more wind now than ever. Just more time lost.
When I finally got Diamond on the board, I had to look at my map. Even 30 seconds was enough for the wind to push me backwards, sideways a little bit. It is so much easier to move with no wind, or downwind. This was terrible. Luckily the waves weren’t bad, just seemingly the wind itself. I tried to kneel, but that didn’t strike me as a good method right away so I stood back up. Oh well, what can ya do? I just utilized my legs and hips to try and stroke as powerfully as I could, making my way little by little, excited to see a campsite on my left which meant I could turn westward. It seemed like forever, but I got a big view of the Brule Lake to my left, an island with a campsite, so then I could turn in between these wonderful blocking islands and head towards a small portage onto South Temperance Lake. That was a relief, and I immediately felt better turning from the south to the west, especially because the wind seemed to be not just a cross-wind, but actually pushing me towards my destination. I decided to try and make up some time and really crank. It was easy navigation, just aim for the back edge of the lake with a small island nearby. I definitely made good time, thanks to the wind that I’d just been cursing. I was nervous about after Temperance Lake, because it’s really all south from there. Maybe the wind would change direction, or die down…
I saw a paddler from afar, then when I got closer and closer to the portage I noticed packs on shore. I saw a person, but before I landed on the big slab of rock to start the next 10 rod portage they were gone, schlepping another load of gear. I coaxed Diamond off and quickly grabbed my things to sneak past this party. When I turned the corner, it was by far the shortest portage of the day. 10 rods? Yeah right! I asked if this was it, just this little portage, in a friendly tone, and he angrily said yes. He had Diamond by the collar and said that he’s grabbing her because they have fish in a bag back there and he doesn’t want this dog getting in there. Whoops! I apologized profusely and said we’d be out of here in a flash. He let her go, they left to get their fish and packs, and Diamond and I were out of sight onto the South Temperance Lake before they rounded the short corner again. Yikes. Oh well, no harm done.
Getting into the fair sized South Temperance Lake first meant navigating a meandering river-like waterway. It was great! It seemed to be flowing in our favor, or at least the wind was pushing us in the right direction. Hmm, I thought, maybe it’s more of an east wind than a south wind. The river opened up to the lake, and I saw several paddlers fishing. One canoe was filming me, and we got close enough where the guy hollered about Diamond being such a nice doggy on the board. Yep! Yahoo!! I saw one other group, plus campers at a site, and a canoe right by the mouth of the Temperance River itself. Cool! I saw a bald eagle hovering high in the air, and made it to the portage in no time. I stopped for a while here, and contemplated my biggest portage of the day of 240 rods. I, for once, unfolded my map fully and looked at where I was in the grand scheme of things. I figured that I was at least 2/3 done with the route. The next few lakes would be the crux, for sure. After Kelly Lake, it’s a pretty straightforward route back home. 3 portages, 3 lakes. Boom. They seemed to be right in my favor, wind-wise, as well. So if I could make it down Weird Lake, Jack Lake, and Kelly Lake in good time, I’d be home soon. That is still a lot of paddling…. I also filtered some water. I was feeling parched, and realized that it was probably a deficit from earlier in the day and that I should actually focus on drinking water. The water was crystal clear out of my filter. Tasty and cool. Mmm. I ate a few bites of food, too. Then on to the portage. Diamond was chasing around a small critter, a chipmunk or squirrel. But when I was ready to go, she bounded in the woods ahead of me on the nice buffed out trail alongside Temperance River. What a relief, to have a trail that wasn’t completely strewn with rocks.
It was a long portage. My hands and arms were getting really sore, and I banged my paddeleboard on several rocks because my grip was slipping. My fingers hurt so bad, and I was constantly scanning the ground for a nice spot to set down my board, and had to rest every couple of minutes. I would count the number of steps before I could stop, or pick a spot up ahead, like over a hill or past a rock garden. I tried to grip with the tips of my fingers but that hurt, so I’d dry to curl my fingers under my board but that hurt my palm and the board would slip around. Gah. I would hoist the board up and try to tuck it under my armpit and against my hip, but my shoulder would burn so I’d drop it down and let my arm be fully extended, and my forearm would burn. I switched hands half way through, but needed several breaks. The whole time, I could see the Temperance River to my left. It was cool to see this iconic river so far inland, in such a remote place. To think it flows all the way from up here down to the visitor-strewn state park was pretty neat.
I was happy to see an opening, and I launched my board as the river opened up into a marshy area filled with lilly pads. The map showed a short, sweeping bend and then another 80 portage. Ugh. I made it through, then more carrying of my paddleboard, then on to Weird Lake, which was full of lilly pads and vegetation. There almost was no open water at all. I saw people at a campsite at the end of Weird Lake as the lake narrowed. I wondered where the next portage was, and figured I should hop over a beaver dam instead of trying to carry my board even further. I saw open water ahead. It was an easy carry-over on top of the dam, and I was glad to be still paddling and not walking. The next brief portage led to Jack Lake, which was super shallow for a long long ways. I had to get off of my board, and luckily found hard ground below my feet, in a foot or less of water, instead of sinking muck. I lifted Diamond and my board so the front could float and the back fin was out of the water, hopped back on, then had to do it again 100 feet down before the water appeared to deepen. Luckily I didn’t have to do that again, and luckily my feet weren’t too cold and seemed to dry out OK.
Jack Lake was full of vegetation. It was this angel hair-like weed, with clumps of tangled strands of vegetation floating on top of the water every now and then. The wind was a light steady headwind, and I was going so slow. Just keep paddling, I told myself. I was pretty sore, my hands and forearms the worst off, but I still had a lot of energy to paddle, which was good. I had to just belt out this Jack Lake, and the narrow and snaking Kelly Lake, and I’d be pretty much home free. But it was a major struggle right now. There were beaver dens left and right, and I wondered if I’d see one. Whyyyyy am I going so slow? I yelled out. I looked behind me and a huge mass of weeds caught my eye, I was dragging an armful of vegetation that was trapped on my fin. Ugh, that’s worse than a parachute. No wonder I was slowing down so much. It was actually relieving, that I had a reason why I felt like I was going so slow. I leaned over the back of my board and tried to reach under my board to shake off the weeds. It worked and I kept going. Then, I was really sensitive to what I was paddling over, and spent too much energy trying to avoid weeds. They were unavoidable in Jack Lake. The narrow lake narrowed further, which meant that the next 65 yard portage was next. It was nice to have a little break from portaging, despite generally hating Jack Lake, and I was ready attack the big, long Kelly Lake head on to the waning wind. There were rocks everywhere, I scraped the bottom of my board on a few. I slowed way down trying to navigate the boulder field, and again hit shallow water and had to get off my board to shimmy over. Then Jack Lake opened up a bit more before the actual portage. I stopped there and ate a bit of food because my stomach was rumbling. Then on to the portage to Kelly Lake.
The portage went well enough, but they were becoming by far the hardest part of my life. I was losing time by having to stop, and my arms and forearms just killed. I still had the second longest portage of my trip upcoming, plus a 90 rod and 100 rod portage to finish it off. Not easy. But before that is Kelly Lake, a long, narrow seemingly endless paddle. I was hoping that the roughly southwest travel would help with the wind. I got to the other side of the portage and just started hammering on Kelly. There was still a lot of vegetation, and it was getting caught on my board. That was frustrating. The sun was starting to get lower and lower, and there seemed to be a haze in the sky, perhaps from widespread fires in the western US states. I was getting cold out there. My long sleeve was wet, being at the bottom of my tote bag all day. I tied it around my waist in hopes it’d dry a bit.
It was slow going, but I was on a mission. Eventually the Kelly Lake opened up and I was happy to turn ever further westward and go with the wind a little bit. I stuck to the right-hand shore, aiming for a point up ahead. I thought maybe the portage was before the point, but it was not. I rounded a corner and saw a canoe and a couple of guys looking at a map. I got closer and closer and then hollered, wondering if I’d spook them. I didn’t. They told me to sneak on in. I chatted with them a little bit. They said I had a long way to go, as they came from Sawbill earlier in the day. I kind of knew well enough where I was… and had been through so much. So I took their comment of being really far away with a little grain of salt. I told them that if I got to Smoke Lake in an hour, then I could make it back to the dock in another hour. It was 5:30pm at the time. I was just talking to myself at that point. So, I blitzed onto the portage, the second longest of the day at 230 rods. It was fairly buffed out, and I made good time. I had to stop several times, and switched arms halfway through. It was grueling, but I made it, feeling super excited to just have two lakes to paddle until Sawbill, and I’d be paddling northwest, seemingly perfectly aligned with with wind.
I had a straight shot across Burnt Lake. The water was a weird green color. I wondered if that was from the burning of Burnt Lake. Probably not… I was going right with the wind and it felt so good. I crossed really close to a campsite, then into a back bay. I was in autodrive mode, and just hopped off the board, Diamond and I trucked through to the next lake, and right back onto the water.
Smoke Lake was another easy paddle, with simple navigation. I just had to follow the left hand shoreline. I saw several loons ducking in and out of the water. The very end of the back bay, near the portage somewhere, was marshy. Right in the middle of the bay I nearly stopped dead after smashing into a rock under the surface. I fell onto Diamond, thankful that neither of us went in. Yikes. I spotted a channel in the tall weeds and cattails, turned into it and saw a dock-like structure, which was interesting and unique. It made for a really nice landing. I was nervous Diamond would go off of the wooden dock because there were a few shoes on one of the planks, presumably sucked off my the extreme mud just off the dock. One more portage then I was home free! I made it through, but with many stops to relieve my arms and hands.
The other side of Sawbill Lake was very rocky, and I was on my last straw with Diamond because she wouldn’t climb over the rocks to get on my board. Since when were rocks an issue for you!?!? I screamed at her, and she finally lumbered on board.
The sun had definitely set, which was a bummer. I was looking forward to a great sunset. Clouds had rolled in, or maybe I missed the sunset. Or maybe I saw it. I was glad I had my long sleeve shirt on, it was getting chilly. I still had a pretty long paddle on Sawbill, but was really excited to be done with portages and to be back on Sawbill. What a day! I had the chance to reminisce a little bit, and told Diamond to take it all in. I thought to myself how it wasn’t fun at all. All the lakes looked the same. I could have had a more enjoyable experience with six hours, or four, instead of 12 hours out here. I could have woken up later, and already been back home in my comfortable home. Oh well, it’s done now. Well, not done actually. I looked at my map. I had a long way to go. I just kept smashing my paddle into the water. I started seeing more people, and signs of the campground. One lady hollered at me, asked if I had been paddling all day. I said yep. She said she saw me in the morning. Cool!
I thought I was at the last dock, but it looked different and I didn’t see the road. It was the wrong dock! How did I not find this one in the morning? One more corner and I saw THE dock. I paddled straight to it. My watch was really close to 30 miles and really close to 12 hours. I thought about paddling in a circle to get to both checkpoints. Nah, I just paddled straight in. I nodded to an angler on the end of the dock. I stopped my watch, plopped Diamond onto the dock, lifted my stuff out, and lifted the board out. Then I walked back up to my car, drove down and retrieved my board. While lifting my board into my car, I had to shift it around to align it onto my car seat, and my poor, weak hands slipped and the board slammed on the ground. Oh well, one last bash of the board. You want to smash up your paddleboard real good, take a trip to the Boundary Waters!
The next day, I wrote up a trip report in the BWCA Forum, somehow got to researching on new, faster paddleboards and different touring models and stuff, and dreaming up a new trip, maybe an overnighter. Maybe the trip wasn’t so miserable after all… maybe that was sweet. I think an overnight trip is definitely next. Maybe not so many miles, but c’mon it is so fun to push the limits! I’ll be back.
25 Jun 2020
Somehow, there has always been empty spots in the garden. I’m hoping that this latest round of seeds and transplants changes that.
Indoor setup is going really well. I finally have that figured out to the point where my baby seedlings aren’t dying. Bottom-watering is the key, for sure. I don’t think I have it completely optimized, and I have much to learn, but no death is a good start.
I moved a tray of seedlings upstairs to go outside: all lettuce. I moved another tray of seedlings that was outside, to inside, as it appeared that the indoor controlled environment was more favorable for the baby plants. Looking at plants that I seeded indoors and outdoors at the same time, though, shows that direct seeding produces MUCH bigger plants than transplants. My bean transplants (lentil, black and pinto) are duds compared to the direct-seeded ones!
I transplanted some spinach sprouts from the front porch to the plot. I transplanted the lettuce into the plot as well.. just a little bit here and there and everywhere.
Then I put a bunch of new seeds in the ground, in the botched herb area. I wish I got the herbs going, I wonder if the soil was too cool back in May.
In the third row, from back to front, I planted:
- Kohlrabi Purple Vienna
- (Space where basil sprouted)
- Beets Detroit Dark Red Medium Top
- Carrot Nantes Half Long
- Pea Snowbird
House-side row in container, from back to front:
- Leek American Flag
- Bunching Onion Parade
- Carrot Touchon
- Chives Garlic
I started a new egg carton in the indoor grow room for starters:
What else… Indoors, I set up the hydroponics system and am so excited to finally be at this point. The arugula is growing… slowly but surely. I am excited to see if there is higher growth now that nutrients are included. One out of four sunflower plants sprouted. I tried to rustle up the soil a little, in hopes that the other three would sprout. I have low hopes on that.
I harvested the microgreens. The radish did well, the pea shoots not as much. They were all definitely moldy. Moldy maybe isn’t the right word… but some type of fungus activity on the roots. I have a lot to learn with microgreens, but feel like I need to go all-in if I really want to grow them. Hydroponics is more of an interest for me, anyways. Maybe I’ll make the jump.
Outside, the herbs on the front porch aren’t dying. Some are barely hanging on, some are doing pretty well, actually. I forgot what is what… lost that long ago. I will have to wait to see. They require frequent light watering.
Transplanted raspberry shoots are dying. The preexisting raspberry plants are doing better than ever, which is great. I’d like to propagate those even more, and that may require cutting down decorative flowers and plants along my house. Hmm…
The berry bush is looking good. I’ll have blueberries. The strawberries have definitely taken, but they’re pretty small. I think it’ll take a year before they start spreading. But, there are several berries ripening right now! I just want to see a big bushy patch!
Potatoes are flourishing. Flowers are starting to appear. No pest issues anymore, seemingly. The leaves and twigs as mulch/mounds seemed to be a good idea. Great growth.
The other potatoes, carrots, beets and brussel sprouts in pots are doing OK. Nothing gangbusters. The fourth container with mustard greens has been excellent, however. I cut them all down in one *shink* of the blade and they’re growing right back! Super fun.
In the main plot, I’ve harvested all of the arugula and all of the spinach, and left two plants each to flower. Kale is coming in nicely, but a lot of pest issues with holes in the leaves and slugs crawling around. The flowering kale has developed seed pods. The flowers have all dropped so I will keep a close eye on when I should cut them down and harvest the seeds. I think I will be able to reap a LOT of seeds.
Pak choi was doing OK, but bolted so fast! Bummer. I cut a few leaves and ate ’em, but didn’t get to the tasty-looking stems. I just let them both flower and do what they do, and will focus on collecting those seeds as well. I am excited about collecting seeds.
The lettuce is finally looking big enough to harvest. I will wait a few more days, so I can eat the rest of my spinach (lots of salads lately), then cut it down and focus on replanting the first greens row.
My second row of greens sprouted nicely! Happy about that! I wonder if it was the brown paper keeping the soil evenly moist. I don’t think I’ll put that down for the new seeds, though. Kind of a pain in the butt to lay out and stuff. Plus the water doesn’t really soak through the paper.
Tomatoes are flourishing. Really fun to watch. I need to explore some pruning methods, some trellis options, and just do more research in general. Peppers are growing nicely. Nothing crazy.
Beans are looking great: lentils kind of ho-hum, pinto and black beans slow and steady growth. Quinoa is looking ever-better. I did an experiment a few weeks ago by thinning half of the quinoa row. The non-thinned plants are doing so much better. Crazy! I think it’s because they kind of stand up on each other. I am anxious to continue thinning but the good growth makes me think twice. I will keep a close eye and take it day by day.
Rainbow chard is getting bigger by the day, and I think I’ll keep a close eye for bolting before harvesting it all. I’ve taken several leaves off that have blight, cut around it and eaten.
Peas are doing really well and have started flowering. I think a harvest is around the corner. I never thinned those out, and it’s a big bush. I don’t think I’ll thin them by now… Carrots are growing bigger every day, too, and I haven’t thinned those out. I don’t think I will!
Broccoli is growing, but starting to flower, no real broccoli. That is a bummer. Maybe the smaller one will do OK.
My last round of seeds in containers is looking good. Everything has sprouted, which is excellent. A lot of greens, but the broccoli and cucumbers have sprouted and are growing too! The broccoli is really crowded so I think I may want to thin that out. Hmmm… so many experiments to do.
Garlic looks crappy, onions from seed look crappy. Onions from transplant look good. Chives look the exact same as always, and I haven’t harvested any.
What else… I think my last harvest was probably around 4 or 5 clamshells worth of greens. I think I’m up to about $50 worth of produce that I’ve grown. That is one smaller harvest (mostly arugula), one bigger harvest (mostly spinach), and several tiny harvests for one smoothie-worth. Plus my microgreens! That is a pretty generous estimate, and definitely just an estimate.
I think that’s about as good an update as I can make right now! So fun!! Here are some random photos from the past couple days or week or so.
17 Jun 2020
June 16, 2020
Let’s see… I want to journal as much as I can but there is a lot going on! Let’s start with seeding then.
After over three weeks, my mesclun mix, taking over an entire half row, hasn’t sprouted. Not a one. Very frustrating. So I put down a varied mix. I think I didn’t keep the top layer of soil evenly moist enough… so I tried something highly experimental and laid down some brown paper from a shipment a couple months ago. I laid it down, wet the paper, poked holes for seeds and kind of just shoved seeds in the holes. Looking at the nearly mature greens, I tried to strategically sow the seeds in the most bio-intensive way I could. I really hope they come up in a big even layer of tasty greens. I don’t know if the paper mulch will work… We will see. I think if I more carefully put soil over the top, I may have more luck. But also, if I can keep this paper wet I know the seeds will be moist enough. Plus, hopefully this can cut down on weeds. From the back to half-way to the front, in the second row, I sowed seeds:
- 2 rows of Arugula
- 4 rows Spinach
- 8 rows lettuce: Black seeded simpson, Lolla rosa, Gormet mix, Mesclun spicy mix, and four rows of French mesclun mix
- 3 rows of Kale Premier
- 3 rows Kale Blue Vates
- 3 rows Kale Dwarf Blue Vates
- 1 row Seven Top Turnip
- 2 rows Radish Cherry Bell
- 1 row Beet Detroit Dark Red Medium Top
I don’t know if these will sprout, either. Again, highly experimental.
One more bit of seed I put down was carrots in a blank spot in the regular carrot row.
I put down mulch on the long side by row one. The grass and weeds are getting a little hard to manage and I wish I didn’t have grass in between the planting rows. I think just having that grass in the middle is hurting my anti-weeds campaign.
Otherwise, things are growing really, really well. Last week was quite cold, which helped my greens. I harvested a bunch of arugula, some spinach and some rainbow chard. I think the arugula and spinach will be good to harvest completely any time. Then what? Get more seeds in the ground I guess. I think I harvested around $10 worth of greens. I want to keep an ongoing tab of how much value I can pull from my plot, knowing that I spent around $1,200 this year to get it up and going. Er, up and growing!
Side note: quite a bit of the rainbow chard has blight on it, and definitely more than a couple spinach leaves have brown spots. Hmm. Don’t know how to cut down on that. Especially the chard. THey’re almost like soggy brown/grey spots. Ish.
Otherwise, everything is looking good. Herbs are not growing at all, which is frustrating. Well, basil is sprouting in the ground and in a container. I am super, super excited to see cilantro growing in a container as well. No mint, nothing else. Well, maybe something else, but it could be a weed too.
Beans are comin’ along. Quinoa is slow going but growing. I kind of thinned half the row, and might do the other row. Maybe in a few days… they are growing all over each other and I am led to believe that one plan will grow really tall.
Lentils look nice, just getting bushier and bushier. I think the beans and quinoa like the heat and I’m glad to see sustained 70+ degrees all week. Tomatoes are growing, same with peppers. Slowly and surely. Peas are really fun to watch, and they’re coming up really well. Not really climbing yet… I might want to reassess the trellis. Onions are OK, the ones from seed don’t appear to be growing much at all. Kale is doing well. Lots of flowers on the two-year kale plants but haven’t seen any seeds yet. Potatoes are really strong, looking great.
Berries look fine, blackberries have beautiful flowers. Blueberries are a nice little bush, haven’t looked at amending the soil to lower the pH… doesn’t look too bad or like they’re struggling. Strawberries haven’t died but they’re not flourishing! Raspberries are flourishing. I transplanted a bunch to the front yard and those aren’t looking super great.
Finally, my transplanted herbs, started inside, almost died but they’ve become resuscitated for the most part. PHEW. Those are on the front porch and I realllllly hope they start growing soon. A few are sprouting leaves. It’s a start.
Did I post on the indoor setup? I don’t remember. Oh well, that’s good for now. Here are some photos: