18 Aug 2022
Date: Friday-Saturday July 22-23, 2022
Area: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Trip Plan: Launch at Fall Lake near Ely, head through a couple lakes to Basswood Lake and follow the US/Canada border west for 35-50 miles, turn around and go back the same way.
Day 1 – Get past Curtain Falls and camp where possible. Maybe make it to see Lac La Croix.
Day 2 – Assess the situation, but generally head back on the same route.
Day 3 – Make it back to Fall Lake by any means necessary.
Day 1: Friday July 22, 2022
I started my second, and last, three-day weekend Boundary Waters trip sleeping sketchily in my van in the entry point parking lot with a obnoxious bright streetlight flashing right into my car, with the car running, with people parked everywhere and actual campers walking right on by on an adjacent path. I had one trip under my belt launching from Moose Lake a month earlier, and felt pretty steady with my pack job. It was almost too easy… I must be forgetting something. The weather was looking to be iffy at best. I knew from June that the weather forecast for three days ahead is probably pretty accurate, especially with the wind direction. I knew that I couldn’t rely on cell service under any circumstances, that I’d probably forget the forecast that I was constantly refreshing on my lumpy minivan floor. I remembered how much the wind affected my speed, and how horrendous it was fighting the west headwind on Sunday last time trying desperately to get back to the lumpy van. It doesn’t seem so lumpy from the middle of a wavy lake. I screenshotted the forecast.
Tomorrow would be brutal in the wind. Saturday looked potentially stormy, but spotty. I was nervous about thunderstorms. What if that caused a paddling stoppage? What if I’m stranded way out come Sunday? That’s part of the deal, I guess. Either way, it put my plans to a very wide range of possibilities. I kept it open and was ready to just get out there and see what I could do in the wind.
Thursday night was a little choppy on Fall Lake as I took a tiny spin around the boat launch, and Friday morning was no different. I figured I should crank miles early to get as west as possible before the wind really kicks up. The hourly forecast was not encouraging but it was nice to launch and get going right away in the early morning. It was humid and I was sweating quickly. I got to the first portage and it was like a superhighway. This was wider than park trails in Chester Park Duluth! I felt mosquitoes right away and moved quick. It was nice with no rocks or roots. I cruised through the series of lakes to Basswood and was excited for a big stretch of pure paddling, yet nervous for the wind. I figured if I stayed on the shore running northeast I’d mostly avoid the west wind. It was mostly a tailwind, actually, and the small, splashy waves were definitely pushing me towards my prime destination. I saw a few people, spotted a few sites, and was enjoying looking at the much smaller National Geographic Boundary Waters West map instead of the 5 big BWCA maps I had stowed deep in my drybag. It was a beautiful morning and I was making great time.
It took me a while to realize that Pipestone Bay was part of Basswood Lake, and in fact Basswood Lake was absolutely massive with several huge bays. I got my first taste of paddling against the west wind about 10 miles and 2:30 into the trip, about 9am. By 10am I had 13 miles logged, and stopped for a dip in the lake before the short back bay to a seemingly very long portage from Basswood Lake turning straight west and then to the drastically narrower Basswood River. After over three hours of steady, constant paddling, jumping in the lake was an ordeal. Hopping back on my board, two paddle strokes towards a group of people off in the distance that ensured I was aiming towards the portage, and at that moment I hit the international border that I’d try to follow for the rest of the day for many miles.
Before long, and a couple hasty changes of hand, and I felt like I made it to the end of the Basswood portage really quickly. I hadn’t seen anyone for a while but there was a group at the other end. As they were awaiting at the shoreline and I swiftly put my board in the water and pushed off, one guy told me to send the rapids. I remembered my last trip and the one time, really the one time this year so far, that I’ve accidentally fallen off my board, which was was due to the rapids. Rapids? Yeah right, I thought. I didn’t put it like that to the guy and instead fake-laughed it off, and as I rounded one tiny bend to see the rapids, they actually looked doable and fun. But, not doable in this scenario. I wasn’t going to risk the whole trip to send some stupid rapids. I wasn’t going to bash my board up or worse! I saw a pretty short portage to the left and took it.
The narrow river waterway was cool. There were plenty of portages with adjacent moving water. It didn’t seem like the current in the flatwater sections was pushing too hard, but I was certainly going with it. The wind was no factor, but I could tell it was a bit breezy. I was heading west, right into the wind, but it was narrow enough that I could stand and paddle nicely. It was getting close to lunch time. I was getting nervous about the big bays ahead, and some potentially wicked crossings right into a heavy west wind. I got turned around at an interesting semi-circle of waterfalls and essentially bushwhacked to find the bottom of a falls and the flat river once again. It was generally easy wayfinding and excellent views through the narrow waterways of Basswood.
I found a campsite. It was almost 12:30pm, just over 20 miles in, 6 hours on the day and I was ready for a break. I had to refuel for a raunchy afternoon. I was making good time and had a good buffer, but I could feel the breeze transforming to a constant wind. I knew the rest of the day would probably be sitting down and probably really hard. Let’s go. This is what I signed up for.
Lunch was amazing. An Uncrustables hazelnut sandwich or two, potato chips, beef jerky, candy coated licorice. I opened my food bag and feasted. It took maybe a bit too long to rest, but I seemed to be busy the whole time. Munch, munch, munch. I reorganized my map just for the first time, which actually seemed to save a lot of time compared to the many refoldings and changes of maps required with the bigger, more detailed ones. I loved the different Nat Geo map. I filtered water to replenish my empty water bladder then got back moving. It was slow going and I could finally sense a bit of turbulence in the water with the winds picking up. I knew at Table Rock it’d start getting a little more challenging. That landmark was on my map, and super easy to see. Cool. I didn’t stop, though. Getting into Crooked Lake, through Wednesday Bay and into Thursday, the wind was progressively more difficult. I was excited. It was kind of this nervous dread, but also a bit of ego. Who can paddle straight into 20mph winds and crank miles? Yup, that would be me. On a paddleboard. That’s right, motherfuckers! Me!!
On the map, I suspected many narrow groupings of islands that I could sneak between to generally get me on the correct trajectory, but also figured that a tiny strip of land could really screw me up and be nearly imperceptive. My watch’s map was not real help, but I could tell when I was right on the border which was helpful. I knew I could stick to the border and go the right way with a pretty efficient route. I wondered why the border was made that way… there seemed to be an even more efficient route. Why wasn’t the shortest route from A to B the border? Did the USA really want this one island, literally one in a million? Or, maybe I just think sneaking between islands is the fastest and shortest route, and it’s really not. Either way, I went between islands and I was doing pretty good sticking on the leeward side to remain standing and moving somewhat quickly.
The winds were definitely blowing right in my face and it was a game to interpret the map, match my 2D guide to the 3D landscape, with endless bays, peninsulas, points, islands; there was water, trees and sky only. I was trying to win at finding the most efficient route from a mileage perspective coupled with the efficiency of staying on a leeward shoreline. Open water crossings were intense, and I got my first taste at Thursday bay sitting all the way down and experiencing waves washing over the nose of my board and flowing under my dry bag. This is it. Push hard, flip my hat back and grind to get to the leeward side, and it’d get a little rest. Drink a sip, maybe stand up if I could efficiently get tight to a shoreline, then I’d approach the easily visible point where the winds would be pushing up bigger and bigger waves from an open water bay of seemingly increasing difficulty. Another point with waves radiating out, attack. The next point, bigger waves. Attack! Friday Bay looked raunchy. Saturday Bay would be very challenging, and Sunday Bay would be one last strenuous bay but a relief to get through. That final leeward west shoreline would be an indication that I could start looking for campsites.
I repeated the same cycle several times – grit through a wavy, windy and slow big bay then get some sweet relief in a narrow pinch point between Thursday and Friday Bays, then to Saturday. I passed one group of two canoes. Otherwise, I guessed people were sticking tight at their sites. I didn’t see many occupied campsites even. Then again, there weren’t too many right on my route. Around a bend on an island, paddling close to shore to stay safe and keep in calm waters as best I could, and I saw a huge eagle on a downed tree right on shore. Its neck looked to be rotated grotesquely far around its body. Maybe I couldn’t see it… but as I crossed behind the eagle’s back, it snapped its head 270-degrees counter-clockwise to continue to stare me down from its left. I had a vision of this eagle feeling threatened and attacking my forehead with the intent to scalp me with its razor-sharp claws. I pulled my hat down a little bit. It didn’t happen, and I paddled past the majestic bird in seconds.
I stuck to what I could tell was the most efficient route all the way due west to Curtain Falls. After Saturday Bay came and went quickly, I was relieved and proud that I made it through. It wasn’t too hard. I could manage a straight headwind with 10-20mph winds on relatively big water. Crooked Lake wasn’t anything to compare to Rainy Lake… maybe not Lac La Croix, or the section of Basswood Lake east that I didn’t travel on, or Saganaga. But, it’s still a big lake and I was pretty happy to crush it. My arms were tired, thought. I was sick of sitting low on my butt, and sick of the waves. How lucky was I to have such a nice tailwind all morning? Man, that was easier. I was siphoning time and struggling to keep 20 minutes per mile between the strong winds and taking breaks on any blocked, calm water I could find along my route. It was easy to curse the wind, but also I thought about how this forecast would be absolutely astounding for five days in a row in early September. That changed my mindset… Thanks, wind!
I figured I’d have some nice tight islands to snake around getting to Sunday Bay, my last big bay with windy conditions and big waves whipping up. It was slow going, though. It was a bit past 4pm and I told myself I could stop soon for a little break before proceeding with my final miles on Crooked Lake and onto a pretty big portage around Curtain Falls. I remember my friend Kyle Severson talking about Curtain Falls and I was curious if it’d be a cool waterfall. I wondered if it looked like a curtain or what. The break was fantastic, on the very calm leeward side of a small island in between Saturday and Sunday Bays on Crooked Lake.
I snuck south of the border in between a big land mass and a long football-shaped island. I saw another canoe up ahead and wanted to catch it. It didn’t work well, but I didn’t care. I knew Sunday would be tough, but I planned my route. I could either stick south, to the left, and follow the south then east shores. The east shore would be prime paddling and I could take that all the way up to the portage. Or, I could take the direct route by hammering into the cross-wind to get behind an island then jetting straight northwest in a probably way worse cross-wind, probably at the peak wind speed of the day, to get to the south side of another island. From there, hammer straight west into the direct headwind to that one last eastern, leeward, lovely shoreline of Sunday Bay. I caught up to a couple paddling a canoe at the in the middle of Sunday Bay. Left or right… My ego took over and I beckoned at the paddlers that I was going for it. I sat down, took a big sip of water, and cranked away. The waves were intense, but I knew the drill at this point. Keep my paddle in the water the whole time, focus on forward progression and I’d get there for some sweet relief on a leeward shoreline. I looked back upon arrival, saw the canoe inching forward towards the wind break. They were in the worst spot. It was like the waves would concentrate to make setting off into the unblocked wind more intimidating. Upon arrival to an island’s south shore, I stood up. Yep, that was the worst part, I told myself. Another little hop and I was to the back of Sunday Back. Crooked Lake was sweet, and I was feeling tired but accomplished.
It was an easy paddle to Curtain Falls. There were some awesome looking campsites, cliffs, islands, and excellent views getting into the evening. I didn’t think I’d make it too far past Iron Lake, as cool as it would be to hit 40 miles or more on the day or check out Lac La Croix. I was ready to be done. It was 6:30pm, I had about 37 miles in for the day. That’s pretty good, I thought. I took my time getting ready for the Curtain Falls portage. It was really buggy. The bugs make portaging so hard. Mosquitoes were all over me, and so I started off walking. I stopped to take a picture of the falls but it was a terrible stop as the bugs swarmed. I walked faster. It didn’t seem to make a difference with the bugs, but it made a difference mentally to know I was doing everything I could to get through the dang portage. I pondered how much more enjoyable this portage would be, right next to the rushing Curtain Falls in a beautiful orange- and yellow-tinted evening, if it weren’t for the mosquitoes. It was a major struggle to try to ignore the swarm of mosquitoes on me. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be here. I was sick of it right away and that made the portage seem long. How long was this stupid thing? I guess I didn’t look too hard beforehand to prepare myself. Ugh. I bashed my board on the rocks at the landing and frustratingly fell in as I tried to get my heap of bags on my board along with my self, my paddle and my pesky leash all over the place. C’mon…
Once I stood up and got onto Iron Lake, I looked to the several campsites within view. I’m stopping at the first, I said. I quickly noticed there were people there. Here we go… There were two options and I chose to check out left, to go essentially downwind and figured I’d be able to see the site and if there was anybody there with plenty of time to bail if so. Can’t see it, can’t see it, can’t see it, maybe that’s it, that’s gotta be it, can’t see anyone, crap there is someone, no that’s a rock, oh yeah, that’s definitely an empty campsite with a sweet beach. Ohhh yeah, that’s my spot. Finding a campsite is sometimes an emotional rollercoaster.
I was ready to stop, and aimed for the tan, sandy beach. Cool. The wind pushed me right in. Now as I finally stopped churning my arms, I was very excited for the breeze blowing the bugs right off! It also blew my stuff all over. I wanted to dry off some of my gear and had to tie it down. I shuffled around the site – from the beach to the rocky outcrop and fire pit. I set some stuff down then went back to the beach where my stuff was. I moved my stuff around, trying to think of how to set up the site. Where should I sleep? Over by the fire pit, naturally. Well, why not sleep on the beach, I thought? Is that allowed? Maybe not, but if I leave no trace… I went back to the rocks. I noticed some text messages that came through, but couldn’t get a signal. It was either No Service, or one bar. One bar seemed to be at the rocky outcrop or near the fire pit. Ah, forget it, I couldn’t get a message out, and I wanted to hang on the beach. So, I moved everything back over, sat down for a minute. Nope, now is the time to set up my tent and then I can relax. My site was sweet.
I made dinner and ate it on the beach. It was great. The bugs were at bay (not literally, luckily!), the temperature and a lovely sea breeze made the evening seem just perfect. Maybe it was just that I wasn’t paddling anymore. I had my board propped up right next to me and used that as a shelf. When dinner was finally cooked and cooled, that moment seemed to coincide with the sun going behind the trees, the wind dying down to a lull, and the bugs coming out in full force. Mosquitoes seemed to just now get the sniff of sweet human skin and came to investigate. I didn’t hang around for that to happen. I kept my rain fly off, knowing there was a pretty good chance of rain overnight and the whole next day. I ate in my tent, then drifted to sleep. I knew I’d wake up for the rain fly later. It was spotty in-and-out sleep. At some point I got my rain fly on. The mosquitoes were horrendous and upon reentry I had to spend five minutes smacking at the bugs. But after that, I feel asleep pretty well. The sandy foundation of my tent was extremely comfortable.
Day 2: Saturday, July 23, 2022
I seemed to notice and rouse awake right when the dark of night changed to the dim light of dusk. The extreme number of mosquitoes trapped between my rain fly and tent mesh kept me awake and I figured I might as well get going. It’s always calmer wind in the morning, I told myself. I tried to pack as much as I could in my tiny one-person lightweight tent, then ripped the bandaid off and jumped outside into the bug-infested beach. I had my rain gear on, bug net, everything. It wasn’t so bad and I packed up quickly. The morning was indeed very calm, with some heavily layered clouds. I knew I had the fairly long Curtain Falls almost right off the bat so headed off out of my nice little bay still donning my rain gear still.
I got a little frustrated wayfinding, and thought I took a wrong turn but it was just a small group of islands blocking my view and path. I got to the portage and remembered falling in just 10 hours before – I wouldn’t make that mistake today and calmly made the transition from paddle to portage and set off on foot. Curtain Falls was an easy portage this time, although buggy, but I got to Crooked Lake no problem and was feeling pretty good right away in the morning. I took a while just sitting on my board to get off on Crooked Lake since I knew that it was going to be several hours of constant paddling to get back to Basswood Lake. This route was interesting – a few smaller lakes and portages right near the entry point at Fall Lake, the pretty big Curtain Falls portage, a monster portage of a mile at Basswood, and a couple other hikes around rapids near that. Otherwise, hours of open water paddling. I was excited to go across the calm Crooked Lake and all of the bays I struggled on in the wind yesterday. I even enjoyed a nice little tailwind. Remnants from yesterday? I finally got my shit in order, ate a bit more breakfast including some caffeine gummis, and set off paddling.
I made good time following the border this time. I didn’t need to strategically hit islands to block the wind and zoomed across Sunday Bay. Saturday Bay was extremely fun this day. The sun peeked out and my fears of a stormy day washed away. It was very early, though, and I had no idea what the updated forecast was saying. I only had the look of the sky to guess. To my back was darker clouds. Straight on and to my left, that would be east to the northeast, was beautiful sunshine. The wind must have shifted, and the lake was absolute glass. Despite following the US/Canada border this time through Crooked Lake, I got into some islands, points and bays and it was just an amazing morning for paddling and observing the pristine nature of the Boundary Waters. It seemed like no time to get to Thursday Bay and a much narrower section of waterway. The sky darkened a bit and I wondered if it would rain. I saw a couple groups of people and two times in a row I received some commentary regarding my mode of transportation: “I’ve never seen that before!”. The wind kicked up as I turned due south past Table Rock campsite, right to my back. Nice. Maybe it’d be a south wind all day. That’d suit me, especially back on Basswood Lake. Wait, what was I going to do today? I didn’t even have a plan, I had simply been taking the same route back up to this point in the morning. I knew it was set to be wet the rest of the weekend with scattered storms Saturday, potential rain overnight and kind of a breezy and potentially stormy Sunday. Maybe I’d just get back past Basswood and I could tool around there, close to Newton Lake and Fall Lake to avoid a catastrophic inability to get back to my car on Sunday. I passed the high cliffs with ancient pictograms and reflected for a moment. 18 miles in, 5 hours of paddling and by 11am the morning had just flown by.
My energy levels stalled in the river section. I slowly made my way to the first falls of Basswood. I went a bad way the day before, circling around. There were essentially three different waterfalls and I chose the middle this day. It didn’t look to really be an established portage but I could see open water over the hump of land and went for it. It was an easy portage and I got back to it but just didn’t have the energy or desire to hammer. So I floated upstream with low cadence paddle strokes and didn’t care. I got to the next short portage along a rushing torrent of water, then the final short portage I’d have to make before a big one, remembering that I was very close to the taxing mile walk to Basswood Lake. That’s where I stopped for lunch. There were swarms of my friends above – dragonflies. Stick around, friends! It was a wonderful lunch and very relaxing. The weather had held out nicely I strongly enjoyed a calm and cloudy day.
After lunch I packed up and steamed to the big Basswood portage. The bugs didn’t seem too bad and I didn’t make preparations for them. Maybe that was a mistake, but once I got walking I was pleased that the mosquitoes weren’t killing me. I again thought about my portages in September and how bugs won’t be a factor. The big mile portage was lonely – I didn’t see another group – and so seemed longer. But, I was pleased with my pace and made it to the other side with no incident. It was still early afternoon, I was 24 miles in – just 14 miles or so from my car. Hmmm. I figured I’d still press forward towards Fall Lake. I checked but couldn’t pull the forecast, so pressed on down Basswood Lake. Conditions were perfect and the big water gave me the energy to get into a nice strong rhythm. My mile splits were great, which made me want to paddle harder.
I passed lots of occupied campsites on Basswood Lake and my mind was also occupied. Time flew by until I got down to Pipestone Bay right at 30 miles for the day. Rain started but just very lightly. The wind started kicking up a bit and it was wet. I had to put my rain jacket on and decided to take a little afternoon break on a rocky shoreline. I’d go down Pipestone Bay to the portage to Newton Lake and take it from there. I made the plan and set off to it. I saw another group right by the portage, and one guy looked super familiar. But I was a little dazed from the hours and hours of paddling and essentially no social interaction and so I awkwardly stared at the person trying to decide. Then he asked “Mike?” I asked “Alec?” Yup, in a million acres of wilderness I happen to see my friend Alec Kadlec from Duluth. In my defense, I hadn’t seem him for a while and he had long hair and kind of dark glasses on. It was a brief interaction. I didn’t hesitate to continue on my way and enjoyed a really buffed out portage to Newton Lake. I pulled out my phone again. Yep, it was likely going to be a fairly wet night. Meh, I don’t wanna do that, I told myself. Maybe I’d sleep in my car tonight and tool around the National Forest on Sunday. Or maybe just go home. Or, if there’s a site on Newton that looks cool I could take it. There were plenty of camping options on Fall Lake, too. I was absolutely NOT going to sleep in my car in the damn Fall Lake parking lot, however. As I paddled on into the increasingly cloudy afternoon, I pondered my options knowing it’d be a fairly foul night.
I kind of brushed over the sites on Newton and just sent the final portage to Fall Lake, the superhighway. I felt like running out of principle because it was so buffed out. Yeah, I’d just head back to my car. I can always go from there. It was set to be kind of windy Sunday – maybe I could find a cool downwind project. I don’t want to camp in the rain, I told myself. I got to Fall Lake, the home lake, and was happy to make really good time and feel good. I could definitely go another 12 miles, and had the daylight to do it. Granted, it was still late July and I’d be trying to do that mileage with probably a lot less daylight in September. I remembered the route back from the Fall Lake portage – when I get out head a bit to the right, around a point and the dock is right there. Well, there ya go! I paddled on towards my vehicle.
Before I got to the final point, in the middle of the back bay of Fall Lake, the rain kicked up a bit again. This time, it was heavy with large droplets. It got dark quickly. Yep, here it comes. Right on the last lake, typical! I put on my rain jacket because the rain started soaking me, and kept paddling. Then, I saw in my peripheral vision a lightning strike. Whoa, OK, I better get back. I could see the bolt line every time I blinked, engrained in my visual cortex. It was a bright one. It seemed like a substantial delay of 5 seconds or so, but the explosive crack and rumble of thunder thereafter was so intense it knocked me down. I luckily didn’t fall completely off my board, but to my hands and knees. It might have been the shock of the extremely loud thunder boom, or the instinct to get down low, but I fell down. My next instinct was to immediately get up and I had the sense of urgency to get back unlike I’ve experienced ever before. There’s lightning in the area! The rain came down even heavier and I paddled faster than I ever have. Don’t die, don’t die, I was chanting to myself like a mantra. Lightning doesn’t care about my mantra! GET BACK MIKE!! I furiously paddled around the point and saw the dock. This is how I die, I thought. I paddle 37.5 miles towards the dock, then see it and get fried by a lightning strike because I’m an idiot on a stand up paddleboard.
I didn’t see any more lightning, but heard a few more small rumbles in the distance and got to the dock with a soaking rain coming down. I offloaded all my stuff and figured I’d just get to my van and reassess my life. I schlepped by board across the parking lot, set it aside my car, opened my rear hatch and shoved my stuff on it. Then I climbed in the back and struggled to shut the hatch behind me. WOW. Alive. The chances of me actually getting struck by lightning in a scenario like that are still probably low, but to hear that intense of a thunder clap – loud and scary enough to knock me down – is something I’d not like to replicate in the future ever again. I hung out until the rain stopped and planned my next moves. I figured I could camp near a little hiking trail and drove to the Kawishiwi Hiking Trail parking lot to scope it out. Nobody there, nice. Upon arrival, the sun peeked out. Double nice. Then, people started showing up. I was cooking dinner on my stove outside my van, and several groups came and went. Meh, this is kind of sketchy, I thought to myself. I didn’t want to just hang here the whole rest of the day and night like this so decided to go home.
All in all, it was maybe not the trip I had envisioned way back in January. But, still great practice. I realized just how quickly a storm can roll over me. I also realized that I can make good mileage with a terrible wind forecast. Still, Saturday’s make a huge difference on my pace. If I have even one day of a strong east wind in September, it could put the record – and getting back to work on time – in jeopardy. The silver lining is that I have absolutely no control over the wind.
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.
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.
12 Apr 2020
Trip Plan: Bike the Grandma’s Marathon course in reverse, from the finish line to the start line. Drop the bike, change to running gear and run the Grandma’s Marathon course back.
Start Time: Saturday, April 11, 2020 – 6:09am
- Bike: 1:12:55
- Transition: 0:03:00
- Run: 3:29:46
- Total Time: 4:45:41
In the months leading up to this day, I had been training hard for the Zumbro Midnight 50. I was in really good shape to try and beat my other two times running Zumbro, in 2016 and 2017. With the novel coronavirus sweeping the world, Zumbro was canceled along with thousands, if not millions, of other events worldwide. I knew I wanted to do something on this day, not to mention continue training for the thing. As expected, trail conditions in Duluth had been deteriorating and the annual blanket trail closure in city limits was imposed in early April, leaving any training grounds and adventure route options to road or pavement only.
As my passion project website www.duluthadventures.com was taking off very slowly, I was eager to think of another multisport adventure loop to do, if nothing else to pad the website. Then, as I brainstormed a loop that could be done in early April (when trails are closed; my favorite inline skating route, Munger Trail, was mostly covered in snow; water not open, too cold, and/and too dangerous to paddle), a Grandma’s Marathon course blitz was the idea that stuck in my head more and more often. It seemed like such a raw challenge… 26.2 miles on the time trial bike, the speed machine, max aero. Then, run the marathon course that so many people have run in 3 hours or 2:48 (my PR from 2015) or 2:09 on. I became excited about the route, and even posted my thoughts on social media, pondering if 4 hours for the bike-run combination was outrageous. Yep! Outrageous, and the response was more of: “you can do it Mike!”. Yeah right! I felt in great shape for Zumbro, yes, but the speed and fitness that it takes to run a fast marathon is not an easy thing to develop. That takes serious time and dedication. Was I there? Maybe… but what about the bike portion? How much fitness does that take? I thought that 4:30 would not be out of the question, under 4 hours would be extraordinary. Either way, I thought that this loop could be widely attempted, especially once news broke of Grandma’s Marathon 2020 being canceled due to the pandemic. Who would try this feat?
I set the date. Zumbro day, of course. What other day would it be? Then I happened to talk to a news reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He, I think, wanted a story about Duluth Timing and Events and how the business was affected by races being canceled, and what the deal is with all of these races being canceled. Well, I kind of steered the topic to Duluth Adventures. Hey, any way to get the word out and more submissions to the site is my main angle! But he seemed to be interested, especially when I mentioned this Saturday being my day to do the next Duluth Adventure. He seemed to be so interested, in fact, that he requested what time I was planning to start the whole deal so he could send a photographer down! Cool! However, it presented a unique twist in the whole setup of this trip, because just like a race, there now had to be a specific time to start. I had a scheduled meeting for Saturday at noon. So, as that Saturday drew near, I looked at the weather forecast for guidance. Sunday looked bad all around. Saturday morning looked to have a better wind direction for going fast on the bike. The wind was predicted to shift by the afternoon. So either start at 2pm and finish around 6 or 7pm, or starting brutally early (relative to my month-long routine of sleeping until 8 or 9am) and finishing with enough time to get home, eat and recover for the virtual meeting at noon. I chose 6am.
I wouldn’t say I trained specifically for the fast bike-run, but I would say I was in great shape leading into April. I toyed with another aggressive run mileage build-up, which worked in my favor 6 months prior. I dreamt about a 60-70-80-90 four week peak. On the third week, I stalled at 75 miles, then decided to take a down week instead of 90 or 100 miles. Then I totally scrapped the plan and started from scratch. Either way, it was an aggressive build and I made it out unscathed. After that run-up in mid- to late-March, I decided to focus on running faster and cross-training with a myriad of sports. I figured this would help me with any multisport adventure I wanted to try. And I felt confident for a 4:30 outing on the revered Grandma’s course.
The night before, I barely squeezed my shoes into my small hydration vest. My running shorts and second water bottle made the pack bulge. The first bottle would go with me on the bike. I was very paranoid to lock my triathlon bike to a tree near Two Harbors when I wouldn’t be back to retrieve it for several hours, and not willing to leave my expensive aerodynamic race wheels out of sight for any reason! I got stuck on the unsupported style of this excursion, and recruiting my roommate Jack to pick up my bike kind of blurred the lines. I decided the line was that I had to bring everything I needed, so no pick-up from Jack, but I could essentially drop anything I wanted at the Grandma’s start line, my turn-around point, for Jack to take back home. Meh, I figured it was unsupported enough to be called unsupported. At least self-supported.
When I woke up, I almost called it off. Ugh, too early. It was 4:57am, and dark. The photographer had mentioned the sunrise in the email, and I didn’t even consider that I’d be starting in the dark at 6am! But the familiar race day excitement roused me and the doubts and regret washed away quickly to be replaced by excitement and nervous dread. The good nervous dread, though.
I was down to Canal Park pretty much right at 6am, and started to get ready. I saw the News vehicle far away from the start line and didn’t take action. The photographer Tyler texted me, then I saw her run up and introduce herself. She snapped a few pics of me getting ready and pumping my tires up. I was kind of muttering to her… “I guess I’m almost ready here, what else do I need? That’s it I think”, but it was really just muttering to myself, really. It was kind of awkward… do I acknowledge her at all or just act like I am alone like normal? Whatever, time to rip. I put on my aero helmet, locked my car and put the key in the pack, put the pack on, bike shoes on, and rode up to the start line. Watch at zero, I almost went. Wait! I took a look at the time before setting off: 6:09 and maybe 30 seconds. I hit the start button and started cranking in the dawn light of Canal Park towards the photographer kneeling in the empty street. Nobody else in sight.
It was cold. My fingers became uncomfortably cold within minutes. It was fun to zing around Duluth, but I knew I was losing time by dodging gaping potholes, sand and gravel on the roadway, and navigating the several turns until getting out of town. The sunrise at Brighton Beach was incredible, but I whipped my head around the other way when something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Oh! The photographer girl. Gah, don’t look right at the camera Mike!! So I put my head back down and cranked towards the Scenic Highway 61.
Once onto the highway, I finally felt like I was going fast and could get comfortable in the aero bars. My stupid aero helmet with the long tail in the back was not conducive with my bulging pack. The helmet was hitting the pack, and to see just a few feet in front of me required my eyes to be looking up as far as I could. That wasn’t a great view, and I was most comfortable by looking down at my front wheel, which was darting back and forth on the white lane line. I had to look up, for the sake of safety, and that pack was definitely a source of frustration the entire ride. However, the miles clicked off fast.
My fingers actually warmed up enough once I got going, but my feet had become very cold. It wasn’t really that uncomfortable, but I could feel the numbness creep in. Otherwise, I was actually a pretty nice temperature. When I took a swig of water, it felt like ice water in my mouth. I though there was actually ice forming at one point. I didn’t want to spend the time to eat or drink, though, and became focused on staying aero and cranking away. I tried to maintain a steady effort, but nothing too crazy. In hindsight, I didn’t push hard enough, and I didn’t have the bike mileage in my legs (or really, in my head), to accurately gauge how much effort I was putting forth. Also, it was too cold to check my 5 mile splits, which I’d hoped were in the 12 minute range. It was too cold and I was too focused on maintaining a good speed, to do anything besides sit in the aero bars and crank away.
My photographer Tyler was taking a ton of pictures. She seemed to meet me at the next sweet view every five miles or so. Oh man, I thought, these photos will be gold on my blog site. What a treat. I didn’t see her after Knife River, and I certainly starting noticing the Grandma’s Marathon mile markers with more anticipation, counting down from five to four to three. Couple more minutes here… I spent excess energy looking up in hopes to see the big clearing of Sonju in the distance, or two cars parked on the side of the road. In what seemed like a very short ride, there it was! I saw the two cars, and it was a relief. I had been a little anxious about what to do if Jack wasn’t there, for whatever reason. I wasn’t spending the time to drink water, let alone try to call or text him on the ride. A few peeks of my watch and I was super jacked about my time. I thought I’d averaged 24 mph or faster on the ride, based on my quick math after a quick glance. WOW.
When I got to Jack and Tyler, I first noticed how numb my feet were. I mean, numb. Can’t feel them. Yikes. I forewarned them both that I was going to get naked now. I tried to strip off my tights and bike shorts, which was reminiscent of a triathlon’s T1, struggling with a wetsuit. My shorts went on quick, then my shoes. It was definitely uncomfortable to deal with my frozen feet! Jack luckily just grabbed my bike and tossed it in his vehicle, so I could readjust my pack setup and prepare to run. I was working with a sense of urgency, and after tossing my additional drop-off items in Jack’s car, lined up at the Grandma’s Marathon start line like an elite runner ready to compete. No starting gun, though, just my own preference on the exact moment when to start. My watch is the starting gun, so when I hit the start button, I jumped off the line.
Oof, my first few strides were the classic jelly legs of transitioning from bike to run. The frozen feet added another element. Gah, that was a weird feeling. Jack sped by and honked his horn. Tyler drove by next, soon out of sight. The frozen feet had transitioned to pins and needles, ouch. However, the sun was rising higher in the sky and I could feel its rays. The rest of my body was the perfect temperature. And it was very quick for the jelly legs feeling to vanish and the feeling of strength to replace. Oooo yeah. Let’s get it.
After only a mile my feet warmed up and I was really the perfect temperature. It was probably 34 degrees… a tough temperature to plan for. I saw Tyler down the road a bit and focused on running as if she wasn’t there as I heard her camera click away. Another mile and I felt a slight jostling in my stomach. Darn. I saw a portable toilet at the Mocha Moose and figured it’d be a good insurance policy to stop. I did, and felt better despite a mid-9 minute mile split. Time to settle in at 7:30, I told myself. And that’s what I did. The miles started to click off. I saw my personal photographer about every mile, it seemed. It was kind of fun to see where my watch was at when I crossed each mile marker. I wasn’t running the tangent of the road, that’s for sure. Tyler jumped out of her car and ran to my side of the road for when I crossed the Mile 4 marker. When I hit mile 6 I thought about how this is kind of like halfway to halfway. 13.1. Wait, that’s like 6.5 miles. When I got to the Mile 7 marker, which was 7.08 on my watch, I said I was halfway to halfway. Nice. My splits were good and I was feeling great. I figured this pace would give me a 1:40 half split, which is a 3:20 marathon. I thought my bike was around 1:10… how long was that transition? I was kind of fumbling around… maybe 5 minutes? I remembered 6:09am. I tried to do math. I figured a 3:20 marathon would be damn close to 4 and a half hours for the whole trip. I can do it.
The miles kept clicking off, and I got tired. Oof, this is going to a long, long day, I told myself. With a handful of miles until halfway still, I remembered the first miles. Those were the golden miles, I told myself. I felt good back then… But I kept trucking along in a great rhythm and fairly consistent mile splits in the 7:30 range. I hadn’t seen Tyler in a long time. That was probably the end of her assignment. Darn. Just me and the road out here. I tried to run the tangents when it looked like a big curve in the road, which was not the least dangerous thing I could have done. The curves always end up being pretty tame, anyways. I was just looking longingly ahead, always. It kind of felt like running the actual marathon, except the water stops are definitely a highlight of each mile. There is energy at each water stop. No extra energy on this day, except the other solo exercises, the animals and nature, and the traffic. Traffic may be an energy suck, actually.
I hit halfway right a tad slower than 1 hour and 40 minutes in. I’d have to dig deep to finish this thing out in a negative split. But I was feeling good. It was kind of the feeling in a 50 miler, like I’d been training for. My body seemed to be self limiting to a pace that was sustainable. I felt tired, yes. My legs were starting to get a little sore, perhaps. But I knew at halfway that I was on track to finish strong. However, my time was not exactly a motivating factor. I seemed to be slipping from 7:30 pace, and to be a little slower than 1:40 for the half was slightly discouraging. Then, upon a second calculation, I would need a 3:10 marathon or so to hit 4:30! I must have been wrong about my bike split and transition… it was hard to find a definite calculation to know how long my bike and transition were, but I could tell that it’d take a big negative split to hit my goal. Oh well… finish ‘er out Mike!
My next target was Brighton Beach. Getting off this stinkin’ highway would be a nice change of scenery. Any change of scenery… and the Lakeside section of the Grandma’s course just makes you feel like you’re into town finally. Thinking back to the ride, the portion getting out of Duluth and onto the Scenic went by in a blip! Plus, mile 20 is always a good milestone to hit in the marathon. So I looked forward to Brighton Beach in an attempt to help time fly by a little bit faster. The miles continued to click off, and I felt another swash of the stomach. Darn. It wasn’t an emergency situation, but the swash was enough of a discomfort to notice my mile splits. I pondered the likelihood of a portable restroom at Brighton Beach, or at one of the rest stops between here and there. Eh, probably not. And then the slightly uneasy swash because an emergency real quick. I felt “the clench”. So I ran off into the woods. Actually, the break was nice on the ole churning leggies. There are only probably 2,500 more portable toilets on this route during a certain weekend in June. Today, one. And no matter how unpleasant the e-dump in the woods was, I ran off feeling much springier and more fresh. In no time, I ran across Lester River and into the Lakeside neighborhood. I was feeling pretty good. Strong, speedy again (well, speedy enough), and in control. Usually during Grandma’s Marathon, or even the Garry Bjorklund Half, Lakeside is a death march. Usually I am hanging on by a thread, having gone out way too hard for the first bunch of miles. That being said, each step through Lakeside today was still tedious.
The next milestone was Glensheen Mansion. Glensheen has always been the toughest part of the course. Maybe it’s simply a landmark to remember the suffering. This time, I was moving well. My mile splits continued to be consistent. Consistent enough, at least, to not feel like I was falling apart. I was excited to run past Glensheen and try Lemon Drop Hill. The hill did reduce me to a shuffle, but I was up and over and on to London Road. I was getting real close, and getting excited. I knew that 4:30 was out of reach, so just focused on finishing strong. Each mental Grandma’s Marathon milestone clicked by: the turn up 12th Ave; crossing DRC, where I remembered all those years passing with many high-fives and a jolt of adrenaline; Fitger’s with the massive crowds at the Mile 24 water station. Today, just another day and I was running on the sidewalk. I probably looked like a maniac, some haggard dude running hard with a backpack and making audible grunts of pain. Oh well. I ran around a car pulling out and down to Michigan. Mile 25 came and went, and it was on to the final push. I was looking at my marathon time now. It’d be close, but a sure lock for 3:30. Around the DECC, past the Blue Bridge and the Irvin, and I could sniff the finish. Yes. However, all the sudden 3:30 was coming up real quick and I knew that I absolutely could not let up. Around by the hotels, across the marker for Mile 26, and my hair stood up on the back of my neck. There it was! That little hit of excitement, that little rush that you get near the finish line of a race… I got it.
Amidst the pain of the finishing stretch, I found it kind of funny that I was running down the middle of Canal Park Drive just like any other marathon day. Nobody was out, no cars, no businesses open… nothing. 11am on a Saturday and just me pushing as hard as I can. This coronavirus is bizarre shit!
I crossed the finish line with 3:29:XX on my watch, and yelled out right away. ARGHH! It was the same yell as one makes directly after finishing a speedy interval on the track, for instance. A smile came onto my face, and I laid down right next to the Grandma’s Marathon Finish Line plaque impressed into the nearby sidewalk.
It was without a doubt a fun trip. I found it incredibly interesting how little I could dip into the pain cave without a bib on. The next day, my legs felt pretty good, similar to any other long training day. The day after a Grandma’s Marathon, I am dead!! That takes many days to walk kind of normal again. It felt like I was pushing to my abilities during this solo effort, but I don’t think it was comparable to a race effort, in hindsight. Perhaps one is simply more risk averse in a non-race, unsupported situation.
My hope is that somebody else tries this route. I would love to hear the story about how they suffered greatly, as I did. Yet, it was all worth it.
12 Jan 2020
Trip Plan: Ski pulk to Buzz Ryan Campsites in the Boulder Lake Management Area. Winter camp two nights in the hot tent and explore the area on fat skis.
Date: December 20-22, 2019
Day 1 – Friday, December 20, 2019
My dream had come true. How many hours had I yapped to Kris about winter camping dreams and actual trips I’d planned and executed, gear and wish list items? Kris always talked about getting me this hot tent rig to try. 6 months prior, she told me she got it from her ex-husband. She got it for me! WHAT!? So when winter finally came around in Duluth, with a force, I was very eager to try this setup out. Kris told me she’d come along and help me set it up and enjoy a winter’s night out in the woods. We figured out a date that worked. Luckily we have pretty similar weekend schedules as partners of a weekend-based race timing business!
I was so eager that I asked Kris if I could go out on Friday. She couldn’t go but said she’d find me the next day out at Boulder Lake. After working a half-day on Friday, I packed up as quick as possible, and Diamond and I drove to Kris’s to get the rig and ship up to Boulder Lake 20 minutes outside of town.
Kris gave me the rundown. The entire hot tent rig first consists of a large pulk sled. Very heavy but it obviously slides. The tent itself is canvas plus a wooden center pole. Then the wood stove has four pipe attachments, the stand and a little shelf extension all packed within the stove itself. The door was rusted shut. Skeeter rushed to grab some brand new metal lubricating anti-rust spray he’d just purchased for his bike. Kris quipped about how she’s glad she checked the door! Yep, that would be a challenge if I set up the entire tent, got wood, got my lighter out, and the door is closed tight. Even if it opens, a rusty door would make feeding the stove obviously difficult. So we lubed it up, I got some last minute setup tips, and we roughly coordinated on the meet-up tomorrow. By this point, it was 3pm, and we still had to drive out! The sense of urgency hit me. It would be dark soon.
Off to Boulder, and I wondered what the repercussions may be about parking my van on the side of County Road 4. I’d been thinking of this… to the point of trying to look up Minnesota and Saint Louis County laws and regulations! I couldn’t find anything. Must be legit then. We arrived in a snap, the feeling of darkness looming heavy. I struggled with attaching some last second gear and settled for a somewhat looseleaf configuration within the sled. I neglected to pull up the flap cover, which was a mistake. With the entirety of my gear strapped to the sled (Diamond carried some of her own load), it was extremely cumbersome at best to get the sled out of my van. Yeah, this wouldn’t be possible without a minivan with the seats out! I dragged it down with a thud, focusing on keeping Diamond out of the 60mph roadway, but only had 12 inches to work with on the narrow shoulder. I had driven into the snowbank slightly to create about one inch of clearance from the white line in the road. While tinkering around with the waistbelt I heard a rumble from far away. Moments later, I stood helpless as a massive lumber transporting truck zoomed past. I felt the displacement of air, seemingly wavering in place as the truck roared on. I second guessed my parking spot, but resolved to just folding my mirror in.
I finally got all strapped in: Diamond, pulk sled and all. I was wearing my Altai Hok fat skis and using much-too-short trekking poles. I felt unsteady. Then I realized that the bottom of the pulk sled had something on it. Like a sticky substance of some sort. Sheesh, how would I get this mystery material off? I can’t slide this sled like this? Maybe ice chunks on the bottom. No, none of that make sense!! The sled was just heavy. Unbelievably heavy. I was in denial that I couldn’t muster the strength to make the sled budge. I leaned obnoxiously forward and tried lurching in jerky spurts to get some semblance of momentum. First, barely a nudge, then some sliding, then I was able to keep my momentum up and actually got going!
As dusk settled in, Diamond and I made our way to the Buzz Ryan campsites. I knew it was just less than 2 miles in. The dog and the sled were frustrating. Too much shit attached to myself. I’d get the sled into a rut, Diamond into a tangle. If I lost my momentum it was like an critical failure. Keep the sled sliding under any circumstances! We trucked along and made it to the very first campsite available, the same one that we had been to about 4 weeks earlier. Every new moment seemed to be noticeably darker. It was that point where your eyes kind of change over from light to dark. I could still see, but not many minutes could pass before I’d need to find my lamp. Ok… let’s see how this thing sets up. I figured the wooden pole was for the direct center. I neglected to bring a shovel, which proved to be a huge mistake for the setup phase of the hot tent lifestyle. I tried to pack down snow with my skis, to make a platform. Diamond trounced all over it and ruffled up the snow. Ugh! I swore at her, my booming voice echoing off the shoreline opposite. Hehe, that’s kind of fun. I shook the tent free from its bag. I found the center pole hole and also the door. I felt it a useless endeavor to try and lay out the tent. I’d move one corner and the other side would furl onto itself. I’d stomp over to the other side to unfurl, the back would pull up from its spot. Terrible. I decided to go for the center pole first. Then I found corners. Luckily, they had cord tied to the grommets. There were many, many more untied grommets. But having the four corners tied gave me an idea of the tent’s dimensions. When I got the center piece in I started tying down the corners. It was similar to stringing up my upside-down trekking pole rain tarp. Frustrating but once you get two sides it comes up. It was a challenge to tie down onto far-away trees and shrubberies. I tied one side to a log and buried it in the snow. Then the tent popped right up! I went around and tightened up each corner, readjusted the center and all the sudden I had myself a sturdy shelter. At this point, I had to get my headlamp. I put my brand new tarp down as a floor, brought the wood stove in, and shoved everything else from the shed right in. Immediately, I knew there was too much snow in there. Crap. I started using my arm to move snow from inside to out. The floor soon became bare to the forest floor. That is good, less to melt and turn into water, I thought. With all the snow on my arms I started getting cold. It was not too long before I had my area pretty well set up, though. It seemed like a rushed setup. I can optimize later. Firewood is the next big concern.
In just as much of a rush as the rest of the evening thus far, I got burnable lumber as quick and easily as possible. It was a few armfuls of twigs and sticks, plus a bundle of birch bark. I got a fire going real quick. I had to stoke the fire with new twigs, to the brim, every 20 minutes. My initial wood pile was enough to warm up dinner and keep me warm while I ate. Then I needed to get more wood. I got a similar pile of sticks and twigs, enough to last me until bedtime. Then I’d let the fire go out. I was prepared for the forecasted mid-20’s overnight. It was an ecstatic evening. So this is it! The hot tent setup was so cool. I couldn’t believe I was out here. So awesome. I had ample entertainment just stoking the fire, taking in this new shelter space, and day dreaming up where I could take it. Diamond seemed happy and snug in her new DIY lightweight winter doggy bed.
Day 2 – Saturday, December 21, 2019 (Winter Solstice)
How goofy is it to spend the entire day outside on the winter solstice? The shortest day of the year? In northern Minnesota that day’s not very long! When I finally got up at 7:30 or so it was dawn, kind of similar to when I arrived here last night… no sun, not dark, but light enough to see pretty well. I spotted a crescent moon framed nicely in between some very tall pines. Beautiful! I took a deep breath through my nostrils, my brain flooded with serotonin and knew today would be a great day. Breakfast, then ski all day. The snow conditions were deep, fluffy, beautiful. Even the snowmobile-tracked Buzz Ryan Road back to the van would be nice to scoot along on the fat skis. But before breakfast, me and Dimey took to the lake to get a lay of the land. The first slush reports came back positive. It seemed like rock hard ice underneath a fluffy snowpack. The lake seemed a bit windblown, but still decent snow on top. We made a loop, then back for breakfast. Oatmeal and coffee was delicious. I was excited to go off even further. So I ate quickly, geared up for a longer tour, we zipped up the tent door and started off! Diamond was completely in her element running free in the woods in the snow. I felt a little stiff from the sleep on the ground but loosened up quickly as sunshine and blue sky spread across the landscape. Looking high to the treetops was picturesque. The day was shaping up to be truly incredible with great temperatures and snow conditions. I couldn’t help but smile, even laugh out loud, even hooting and hollering! Where else would we rather be, I shouted to Diamond. She didn’t take the time to respond. Too many sniffs.
Diamond and I headed toward the van parked on the road to try and find some logging road or snowmobile trail or cut in the woods… whatever it is, I’d scoped out many trails totally untracked in this Buzz Ryan area of the Boulder Lake Management Area. And exploring those through feet of snow is a perfect job for the fat skis! We found one after another, all leading in a dead end, but all enjoyable to just take the trail wherever it may lead, enjoy the nearby trees, the sunshine, blue sky and clouds, the soft snow blanketing everything in sight. Wonderful. I checked on the van, not smashed, good. Then we headed back to the tent. I wanted to call Kris to ask when she’d be there, where to meet her, etc… My phone was at 1% battery. CRAP! So I called Kris quick and blurted out my question. She said she’d park around 1pm. OK BYE!! Then I wrapped my phone in my jacket to try and keep it warm and from dying. And we went back out. A few hours of exploring every nook and cranny of Buzz Ryan and we headed back towards the County Road to meet Kris. When we arrived at around 12:45pm, no Kris. No sense waiting around, I thought, she’ll find us eventually. I had to start getting firewood. So we trekked back.
Tonight’s fire pile would be different. I wasn’t messing around this time. No more twigs and sticks. I harnessed into the empty pulk sled and Diamond and I skied out to an area that I’d spotted a lot of leaning dead trees. When we got there, I saw so many valid pieces of quality lumber I couldn’t wait to get to work. Diamond sauntered off into the deep woods and I started pushing, pulling, shaking and tossing tree limbs from the dense woods onto the trail by the sled. Ooo, this was going to be a haul! I paused the collections process to start breaking them into manageable pieces, then into the sled. Eventually I noticed a blonde dog trouncing down the trail. Lacie! Then Skeeter then Kris. They came right to me! Look at that! It was good timing as I had nearly filled up the sled. So I packaged it up and we all headed to the tent. I was embarrassed about my half-assed string-up job in dusk the night before, but it wasn’t so bad after all. Kris was ready to sleep in the woods, but didn’t make a rock solid commitment. And then I showed my friends the area.
We went out onto the lake, then to the furthest west campsite of 5 Buzz Ryan campsites. We tracked the campsite’s trails in entirety, then back to my lumber yard for another haul. It was nice to have helpers, and I filled that sled up to the brim with choice burnables in no time. Back to the tent, I started stacking and Kris seemed more than eager to whip out the saw and start cutting the bigger logs. When Skeeter decided he should probably head out, and Kris had to make a decision, she decided to stay. Easier decision when the wood pile is heaping! Lacie, that barker, left as well. In no time, it was dark again.
The rest of the night was relaxing, enjoyable, and warm. That lumber made the difference, and that tent got HOT! It was so hot, and the hot air kind of clumped towards the top of the tent, that you tried to get as low as possible to avoid the dizzying heat. It had to have been 80 degrees in there! I eventually dozed off, and Kris stoked the fire every hour until morning. I woke up a few times during the refueling process and drearily asked “fire still going?” or something meaningless like that. It was warm overnight.
Day 3 – Sunday, December 22, 2019
Kris and Diamond and I started to stir and pretty much got right to making oatmeal and coffee. I think we both were pretty keen on getting out of the woods without too much dilly-dallying. Diamond seemed to be feeling the whopping 15 mile ski the day before. I was too. I could go another day, but ooof, I was also ready to go home and unpack and take a shower. Drying, cleaning and storing this gear would certainly be a long and difficult process in and of itself. Much more so after another long ski, not to mention the 2 mile pulk out.
We did take another little spin across the lake. The clouds were very low lying… a fog, really. Regardless, it seemed kind of hazy out, kind of humid, mostly cloudy… kind of an interesting morning. Diamond didn’t have her usual peppy puppy energy levels, and I felt a little sluggish for sure. Skiing was more of a chore today than it was a blissful glide yesterday. So before long Kris and I reconvened, packed up our heaping mounds of gear, and tracked back to the cars. The sled pull was much better this time around with the experience and knowledge to utilize the sled cover and pack nicely. We were back to the cars in no time.
What a trip. Close to home, yes. Nothing extreme, no. But the nature was stunning and incredible. The hot tent setup was so cool. Such a game-changer. The skis and snow conditions, being outside all day, moving through nature, fellowship of my faithful dog Diamond and friends Kris and Skeeter gave me the feeling of having my best day ever. I think that Saturday was the best day of my life so far! Ya can’t get better than that.
28 Sep 2019
Trip Plan: Drive to Superior Hiking Trail Rossini Road Trailhead, run ~38 miles back to my house (.3 miles off the SHT), grab my bike and take a road/gravel route ~36 miles back to my car.
Start Time: Thursday, September 26, 2019 – 7:55am
- Run 7:52:08
- Transition: 0:13:00
- Bike: 2:12:08
This was the second adventure day that I dreamed up early on in the summer. I got the St. Louis River paddling trip in the books months ago, and this intense duathlon idea was looming. I knew I would have to wait until after the NorthShore Inline Marathon (of which I am race director… therefore low sleep, high work hours, no time for cool adventures), and when that wrapped up I was eager to pick a day and go. However, daylight was a serious concern and every day I waited meant a higher chance of being caught in the dark at some point.
With Wild Duluth 100k on the horizon, and training going really well, I questioned something like this. On one hand, what better simulation than 40 miles on the SHT? On the other hand, training is like digging a hole and filling it back up. A tough training effort is a bigger hole and takes more time, sleep, recovery, to fill it back in and get back to “normal”. The Rossini Duathlon would require digging a real deep hole. But I knew I wanted to do it so what the heck??
I saw my opening on Thursday. Not really thinking of my Wild Duluth training plan at large, I had Thursday on my mind and worked my week around accordingly. I wanted to make sure I had all my personal life stuff in order (work, chores, dogs). With that in place I was ready to go! The night before was the infamous NMTC Fall Wednesday Night Trail Series race at Brown’s Point in Superior. 8k of steep ups and downs on mostly ski trail. I had an exceptional race after two kind of crappy weeks of getting passed mercilessly, and chalked it up to really focusing on sleep. I’d slept 11 hours a piece Monday and Tuesday. I felt normal soreness Wednesday night and when I woke up Thursday.
I questioned even going… I lamented to Emily and she didn’t really have a good answer. Oh well, stick to the plan, I thought. My hamstrings were the most sore, right up by my butt from holding sub-7 pace on trails for over 4.5 miles. That Wednesday trail race was a tax on the body for sure. I felt late all morning but got out to the coffee shop for various bagels and coffee, and was up to Rossini Road before 8am.
First steps out of the car… sore hamstrings. Crap. I’ll really have to focus on recovering these hamstrings this week, I told myself. I had to be reassuring: after today I have most of my miles in for the week and so plenty of time to do stretches and strength work and foam rolling. But the fear was real. What if I really mess my body up? All this training and planning for Wild Duluth down the drain. What if I can’t finish this run? Jeez, 40 miles is a really long way. What am I thinking? Who can I call to pick me up when I bail? It was a cool 37 degrees according my van’s thermometer, but I felt pretty comfortable in just a short sleeve tech shirt. I neglected to bring poles, and thought about 12 minute pace as a rough target. Despite the negative thoughts right off the bat, I mostly walked up to 12 Mile View in no time, feeling great.
The morning was simply pristine. Perfectly beautiful. A textbook fall day. How fortunate am I to be able to spend this whole lovely day out here? I now remember interviewing Adam Schwartz-Lowe for The Duluth Rundown podcast as he described gratefulness as a mental strategy to keep going during a 100 mile race. That really works. It was pretty hard not to be grateful… I can’t stress enough how overwhelmed I was by the beauty of the fall day!
I was surprised how fast I got to the Big Bend campsite. I remembered hiking home from this campsite in 2016 as I trained for that year’s thru-hike. I also remember during the thru-hike itself getting rained out in the night. I looked at that tent pad that flooded me out years ago. Nobody was camping, I wondered how many people I’d see today. For now, just me and the tweety birds. I wasn’t quite at 5 miles when the first hour struck. Therefore, a bit down on my goal pace. But I was feeling really smooth. The trail was perfect for running. Dry, kind of tacky, not so overgrown as I thought it might be. I was rolling. I hit Fox Farm Road trailhead and was kind of sad to leave the section between there and Rossini. I could run that piece endlessly. It’s just perfect trail running terrain.
On the ridges out of Fox Farm Road, I saw a backpacker. He stopped me, grasping for my name. “You’re… you’re… what’s your name?” I said Mike. He said he was Carl, he helped me out at NorthShore just a couple days back. Then it struck me and it came flooding back. He is Anne Hyopponen’s brother and we chatted a bit. He said that Anne and her husband Dave (who I have raced with many times) told him I’d be out here. Here I am! It was a funny coincidence, and cool to see a fellow lightweight backpacker. He was going from Martin Road all the way north to Canada, testing some gear for the PCT along the way. We crossed paths and were on our way. I looked down at my watch. Cripes, getting further and further down on pace. That is the trouble with an unsupported run… the clock don’t stop, and I need to filter water! I wondered if I’d see another thru-hiker, a gal going for a supported Fastest Known Time. Lacie is the name, she’s going northbound on the trail, and I figured I’d see her. I wonder where?
The miles kept clicking off and I felt good through 10 miles around the Fox Farm Pond campsite. I was working hard to scrape my way back to 12 minutes per mile average, but also keeping it smooth. It was the perfect temperature by this point, and I was focusing on eating food as not to fall behind on that. With a big mouth full of food, I realized my water stores were running low. I knew there was a creek before the Sucker River and aimed for that. I completely ran out of water before getting to the creek crossing and filtering water back into my two flasks. Boy, that makes the pack feel much heavier all the sudden! But on we go…
I ran it out to the North Shore State Trail, where there is a shelter near the Sucker River Bridge. I put my hands up in the air and yelled “Hello Sucker River!!!” as the breeze wafted through my armpits. Mmmm perfect. I was running good, making my way quickly through the terrain. I wondered if I’d see Lacie at the exact same spot I saw the last FKT completer – Austin – just south of the Sucker River campsite. I did see someone, just north of the Sucker River campsite. A gal was walking with perhaps just one trekking pole, nothing on her back, looking fresh like she was on a morning stroll. I wonder if that’s a camper at Sucker just going for the morning wakeup stroll? I barely said hello as I zoomed past through an entanglement of cedar roots adjacent to the Sucker River. It didn’t even strike me until hours later that this was the thru-hiker Lacie! That notion was confirmed much later on when I checked her tracking link. Crap! I wanted to spitball a bit with her, see who she was and her plan and how she was feeling. Oh well.
Hiking away from Sucker, it was time to lock and load. I was feeling a bit fatigued. Not bad, but definitely a feeling of needing to get into a rhythm, zone out and click off these miles. About a marathon left seemed daunting. I wasn’t afraid to walk up hills, and was running very quickly and efficiently on the many flat and slightly downhill sections. Running right on the fringe of 12 minutes per mile on average, I was definitely mindful of my pace and had a sense of urgency. Still, not afraid to walk up the hills. It’s a long day. My hamstrings were still sore with a tight feeling up by my butt. Ugh. They were no worse, though, and my feet, ankles, quads, back, everything else felt golden.
By the time I got to Heron Pond campsite with just a mile to get to Normanna Road, I was moving really good. This section is just so easy to run. I leaned forward, kept those legs churning and let my momentum and gravity do the work. I hit some fast miles coming into my estimated half way point at Normanna Road. Excellent. I didn’t know how to think about the remaining sections with many miles on snowmobile trail. Carl said he was happy that his shoes finally dried out. Would it really be that muddy and wet? When I took a right hand turn and passed over the French River bridge, I got a little taste of what was to come. Well I can certainly churn out fast miles on this stuff, I told myself. There just isn’t the steep inclines on the snowmobile trail like there is on the singletrack sections. And even those steep inclines are nothing compared to the other 250 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail. The anomaly of the SHT is between Duluth and Two Harbors where the trail cuts inland. I, however, love these sections and don’t think they get the love and respect they deserve.
Anyways, I saw plenty of 11’s flash on my watch as I cranked up and down the snowmobile sections, southbound to the Lester River. I told myself that if I could run in to the Lester bridge, up the ups and all, I’d be able to sit at the banks of the Lester and eat all the food I could and drink all the water I could and sit all I like. It was hard, though. I started getting the insurmountable fatigue… where you know there is nothing you can do to mitigate the pain and agony. Well, except stop running. There were plenty of instances where I made audible groans and grunts. Sometimes I’d step on a root or rock wrong and twist my ankle. OUCH! I’d yell. Or just simply a wave of pain… a dunk in the hurt tank. But it gets absorbed somehow. Yep, the final 15 miles would be a struggle. I wondered if this was too much? But I was feeling pretty good overall. The fatigue was starting to show itself in certain spots like my ankles, the bottoms of my feet, still in my hamstrings, quads were starting to feel it, the back liked to stretch out on the uphills… yep, I was feeling it. But I was motivated to finish strong and look back at my overall pace with contentment. So I kept running. There was very little walking, only when absolutely necessary, leading up to the Lester River. I was so sick of itchy plants on my legs. Even though I could move good on the snomo trails, this section sucks. I tried to tell myself it was a unique section, cool trails that are underutilized. But the bottom line is that the snowmobile trail sections go on forever!
I was so happy to get to Lismore Road. I felt like I was really dragging ass at this point. I had no lift. I don’t think I could have run under a 9 minute pace if my life depended on it. But I could run 10:30 pace on the flat road endlessly. I saw a few backpackers through the previous section. The sun was high in the sky and I was sweating. I again ran out of water having not collected any since before the Sucker River. I wasn’t really hungry and probably wasn’t eating enough food, but would catch back up at Lester by eating all my pizza. I felt so stupid even bringing it. These two massive slices had been up against my back for hours and hours. I could have subsisted on exercise food until the transition zone at home, and then ate pizza. Instead I carried along these heavy pizza slices for hours and hours and miles without taking a nibble.
I was so happy to see the shelter at Lester River. I crossed the bridge, scoping out a good spot to collect water. I went under the bridge, filled my bottles, chugged a lot of water, took everything out of my pack to kind of reorganize, and ate one of two slices of pizza. I couldn’t eat the other one. I also looked at my handy distance calculator to see where I was at. Home looked to be about 12 miles away. That seemed like nothing. And that excited me. I rested at Lester just like I told myself I could.
The legs were slow going getting up from the riverside rock I was sitting on. I told myself I could walk it out for a while, to digest and get the wheels back turning, but looking at my watch I understood that I had fallen way behind on my pace. 5 miles per hour/12 minutes per mile was utterly out the window. Oh well. It didn’t seem like I was sitting for that long but 10 minutes goes by in a snap when you are dead tired. It was business as usual from here, run whenever possible and walk when I have to. I was definitely able to keep pace with some 10 minute miles, many 11 minute miles, and some 12’s. Every now and again I’d need to walk up a hill. There weren’t many, but some miles in the 13 and 14 range. I didn’t even bat an eye at those…. but the 10’s jacked me up. Let’s go!
Before long I was back onto the snowmobile trail, across Prindle Road, Billy’s Bar came and went, UMD Farm a blink of the eye and I knew I was moving real good. I got to Martin Road in no time at all. Yes. The worst is over, all downhill to get home… I made a mistake right across Martin Road and thought the trail went into the ditch. I was in a swamp and said “forget this!” and backtracked to the road. I then realized the road was the correct route indeed. Stupid. On the road and gravel parking lot, I probably looked like a senior citizen. I was hunched over, probably had the lean going on, creaky old legs somehow churning forward. It was survival mode for sure. The relatively fast snowmobile trail miles seemed to have taken their toll, but probably not any more or less than the 20 miles on singletrack to start the day off. I knew I’d finish this baby up well under 8 hours. It was my goal now to get home, do what I need to do to set off on the bike, and actually start biking by 4pm, about 8 hours from when I started off this morning. I planned out what I’d do: let the dogs out, drink a lot of water mixed with powdered exercise drink mix, maybe use the restroom, feed the dogs a scoop, repack my pack. Should I wear the pack on the bike? Hmm. I still had about two hours to figure that one out.
I hit a wall in the Amity sections. It’s just so rugged… I had to sit down. Not good. I realized at this point that I didn’t have anything left for the bike at all. I still had 5 miles to go, one hour left, a couple tough hills in Hartley, and a huge 36 mile ride on my modified singlespeed gravel bike. How would I do that? It seemed impossibly daunting. Maybe I’d just skip it… No, how could I do that? I’ve come this far. This whole deal is about the adventure duathlon. No way I wouldn’t set off on the bike. But seriously, how would I be able to do the bike? I was dead tired. I dragged my throbbing legs to Vermilion Road and forced them to rotate in a rhythmic motion once again. Just like a steam train getting it’s rotors going, start slow and eventually they’ll be moving ’round and ’round. On the gravel road, I got up to speed and was pleasantly surprised by my ability to roll. The technical trail and uphills were killing me but I could hang on the flat road. Just like a steam engine… legs go ’round and ’round and ’round.
I got into Hartley and struggled on the singletrack once again. Ugh, so hard. I decided to eat my second piece of pizza while hiking up the steeps in Hartley Park. It was not an appetizing slice and my stomach wasn’t feeling great. I tried to eat it all but just couldn’t chew the crust. I slammed most of the huge slice but out of frustration chucked the other bits into the woods. Not the best example of Leave No Trace but I was not going to uncrumple my plastic wrap and rewrap a half slice of old crusty pizza just to throw it in the trash at my house. Enjoy the ‘za, animals of Hartley.
I was elated to get to Hartley Road. The hardest was behind me, I told myself. I cruised on the wide and buffed out trail leading to Arrowhead Road. Up into Bagley and the running felt good. Bagley is a gem of Duluth… the wide and soft trail is such a treat to run. And I was running good for being well over 35 miles for the day. I was still about a mile, 12 minutes or so, off of 5mph average. When I got to the big hill in Bagley, it almost stopped me in my tracks. I arched my back, and tried to maintain a speedy cadence of power hiking. I didn’t have it. My stumps, formerly legs, could barely churn forward. I had to audibly voice my disdain with the trail conditions. “BRUTAL,” I muttered, exasperated. “This hill is brutal.” Once to the top, no time to dilly dally, get those legs moving again. I ran down the backside, ran through the parking lot, and ran through UMD towards Chester Park, my home trail. I was nearing one mile to go and my watch was over 37 miles.
Perhaps it was adrenaline, but I ran quickly through Chester. I hit a sub-10 minute mile. This had to have been my fastest one. Crazy. I ran past a couple off-leash dogs and it made me fume a bit. I wasn’t in a great mood at this point. Tired. The next dog ran beside me and I yelled at the dog and it’s owner. The guy asked me if I wanted to go. Umm what?? We had a yelling match, he told me to chill, told me who cares, I said it’s illegal, I said he’s being disrespectful to me. No way to come to a mutual understanding. I ran away. Hips forward, legs churning, I made it to the bottom of Chester, up the steps to 6th Street and over to my house in no time.
I almost collapsed out of exhaustion. My feet were so tender as I putzed around, putting my plan in action. Dogs out, drink the drink, put the stuff away, get the thingy. My brain was foggy. I sat down to put on my bike shoes and yelped in pain as hip tweaked in a direction I wasn’t used to. My legs had been doing the exact same motion for nearly 8 hours and that’s all they knew by now. It was rough. I again questioned how I would complete this adventure, but went through the motions to complete the task. I hobbled up the back steps with my bike, ready to take off. I barely was able to mount my bike but realized when my butt hit the seat that I still had my running shorts on. No way I’m doing 35+ miles in these short shorts. I set out my bike shorts many hours ago but forgot to put them on. ARGH! It was almost too much to handle, but I set my bike down, went back inside and changed my shorts. The dogs were mad at me for leaving, just like that, and I apologized profusely. I think that was it… what else would I need? Last chance… I ended up taking my vest, now refilled with water. Snacks accessible, some in my bike bag, phone in my bike bag for pictures, I was ready to roll for sure this time.
I started up 11th Avenue, a very steep grade. Just perfect. My legs were fatigued for sure, and it hurt to put pressure on my feet as well as pressure on my butt. Once I got off of the avenue to the flat street, it was a sweet relief. Coasting felt great. The wind in my face, the zero impact. Ohhh, beautiful. This was going to happen. I tried to break up the remainder of the ride, the remainder of the epic adventure duathlon, into manageable chunks. Once I get out of town, up this huge damn hill, onto Jean Duluth Road I’d be smooth sailing. Then it’s an intimidating stretch from the end of Jean Duluth Road up to Fox Farm Road. Once I hit Fox Farm, it’s some fun gravel about 10 miles to Two Harbors Road. When I get to Two Harbors Road I am home free. I can gut it out from there, I don’t care what condition I’m in. I had it all planned out. The biggest threat was probably not my body or nutrition or fatigue, but a mechanical issue with my bike. I was concerned about the front skewer holding my wheel in. It sounded loose. I’d tightened it up before heading out, but it seemed loose again. I could just hear it… like the front wheel was moving around ever so slightly in its fork. Plus, I was riding the makeshift singlespeed setup. I had purchased a new chain and rear derailleur but forgot about the cable. Out of frustration, I just said I’d rock the singlespeed. Maybe permanently. Riding on 8th Street, I was holding good speed and the gear I did have seemed to be the perfect one. If I could make it up 11th Avenue out from my house, and get up to 22 miles per hour on 8th Street, I’d be good to go.
As I made my way to Jean Duluth Road, the starting and stopping and thinking involved with riding with traffic was frustrating. It was great to get to the open road of Jean Duluth. Just stay off to the side, don’t get hit, crank away and this thing will all be over soon, I told myself. I felt really pretty good once I hit Glenwood, Martin Road, Stokke’s and the soccer fields, Billy’s Bar, Breeze Inn, then up some hills getting way out of town. The hills were tough with the single speed. The downhills were glorious and I didn’t feel pressured to try and get speed, I would just coast. And I could get going at a nice clip on the flats.
The ride was going smooth as I hit 5 miles in about 20 minutes, and 15 miles in an hour with ease. I took it slow and easy on Normanna Road past the SHT parking lot, on the way up to Fox Farm Road. I didn’t want a motorist to put an end to my trip, and felt uneasy on the very small shoulder with vehicles zinging by me. I tried to sit up a bit and pay attention. As I shifted my position, I realized that no position was comfortable at all. I’d stand up to stretch, my feet would scream. The clip and pedal dug into the ball of my right foot exactly where I smashed it 200,000 times today on the trail. My butt was sore on the exact spot I needed to sit on. My back needed to stretch out. I was probably three inches shorter after impacts of the long day on foot. Then my triceps, shoulders and arms gave out. I couldn’t hold myself up on the bike. What I would do for some aero bars so I could just rest on my elbows… They weren’t in pain. But I had no aerobars so my triceps will have to do!
I was certain Fox Farm Road was right around the corner on several occasions. Around the next corner, and I could finally see it. Is that it? I saw a vehicle with a huge cloud of dust behind it and knew that was the gravel. I didn’t recognize the foreshadowing of the huge dust cloud. I was grateful for the change of scenery and surface as I got onto the gravel of Fox Farm Road. This road is just fun to travel on. Lots of logging activity, you feel like you’re really out there. I suppose that’s because you are really out there! The gravel road was one step away from pavement and very hard. Not very rocky or loose at all. I could crank just as fast as on the pavement, so that’s what I did.
I heard a vehicle come from behind me, and was disappointed in the dust cloud trailing it. Dust got in my eyes and my mouth, and I could barely see where I was going. Don’t fall, don’t fall, I told myself. I probably should keep eating, I said, so grabbed the blueberry waffle and scarfed it down. That tasted good. As I was chewing, another sound from behind me. This one was a massive dump truck. Oh, great. The cloud was especially large, but I used my eyelashes as a filter and kept my mouth closed. Not so bad. Keep cranking. I was moving good along Fox Farm Road and eager to get to the end. As fun as this road is to travel along, it goes on forever. I started getting anxious, bored, ready to be done. I could summon the leg strength to push hard, but it definitely hurt to do so. I few times I lost my momentum by just coasting. Too tired. What a waste. A few more cars passed. The sun disappeared and clouds moved in. It was still a perfect temperature out, and I did make sure to regale in the stunning scenery of Fox Farm Road. A few more turns in the road, a few more straightaways, a fun little downhill and I passed the Fox Farm Road trailhead on the Superior Hiking Trail. I told myself that I was close to the end now. By the time it took me to think that thought, there it was. My brain wasn’t working at 100% capacity. I remembered distinctly the route, as it’s easy to get lost in these backroads. Left on Two Harbors Road, left on Laine Road, left on Rossini Road. I took the Two Harbors Road. Just that turn gave me a little jolt of energy, as this was the point that I’d thought about all day being the home stretch. Nothing could stop me now.
I didn’t fully realize the grind ahead, though. I made good time on Two Harbors Road as it seemed to be mostly downhill. The bike was holding up… my trusty machine. Beautiful. I still had water and felt full. Well, full enough. Laine Road came quickly and I had a few miles of pavement before getting onto the gravel again. I didn’t realize while driving this morning, but Laine Road was all uphill. A vehicle passed me, and I watched it disappear in the distance, motoring up a huge hill on the horizon. I have to go up THAT?? So I pushed and pushed on the pedals, trying to get some momentum a mile out from this looming hill. I had to stand on my tender feet to crest the bump. I knew I was close and the pain had all but subsided… just survival now. I hit two hours on the bike, over 30 miles in. I was very pleased with my speed thus far. I’d thought many hours earlier of my lack of bike miles in the previous month. It turns out that was not an issue. And I cranked away.
Atop the massive hill on Laine Road, I finally was able to peer down the other side and felt relieved to see a downhill slope. I rode it out, happy with coasting on the firm gravel.
I kept on pedaling, ’round and ’round, and was feeling pretty positive at this point. Wow, I’m definitely going to do it. I didn’t think it’d happen. Well, I kind of knew it’d happen but there was definitely the element of fear and uncertainty as I drove this same road over 10 hours ago. I saw the signs up ahead denoting Rossini Road. I took a left. Another little uphill and 90 degree right hand bend in the road and I knew I was very close. With excitement, I rode it in with the remaining energy I had left. It was almost like my brain knew we were close and stopped sending the signals of STOP, DON’T PROCEED, SEEK HELP that had been firing for hours. That is the pain cave for ya. I caught a glimpse of the SHT trailhead sign first and a smile lit up my face. I made a smooth turn into the lot and rode right up to my van, placing my hand on the back and stopping my watch. Another vehicle had joined me in the parking lot, which kind of surprised me. I sat down on the ground for the photo opp, and to rest. Done!
Driving home, I told myself to yell. I gave a big yell: “YESS! WOOO HOOO!” That felt good.
05 Aug 2019
Trip Plan: Drive to Chamber’s Grove Park, paddle on St. Louis River out the Aerial Lift Bridge to Leif Erickson Park via Lake Superior. Portage my paddleboard up 7 blocks to the shed at my house. Bike from my house back to my minivan via Skyline Parkway and Mission Creek Boulevard.
Start Time: Friday, August 2, 2019 – 7:44am
- Paddle: 4:33:26
- Transition 1: 0:03:00
- Portage: 0:14:12
- Transition 2: 0:13:00
- Bike: 1:29:22
- Total time: 6:33:00
I had been dreaming up this plan for several months, all summer really. And once August hit I realized that the time to execute was dwindling. I checked the weather, checked my calendar, and saw an opening the very next day! Go time.
This idea of a sweet triathlon of paddle-portage-bike festered so much in my mind that I bought a paddleboard on kind of a split-second decision. What started it? I don’t know. But I think I was just staring at the Duluth Outdoor Recreation Map and the loop stuck out to me. I had done some recon on the St. Louis River, which served me very well.
On Friday morning of August 2, I wanted to head out at 7am. I made some oatmeal, made a wrap for lunch, packed some various exercise food like gels and chews and bars, a bladder full of water, and threw it all in a pack and then that into the van. I loaded my life jacket, paddle and paddleboard. The trusy 11’6” Surftech Generator will get me there, I thought to myself. My bike was, in theory, ready to go in the shed, along with my bike shoes and helmet. I had my house key, phone and car key. I was wearing my sandals, all set to go. This was an equipment, intensive trip plan, and the weak link in the chain, no pun intended, was my bike. More on that later…
After the calm morning drive, I put the paddleboard in the water at Chambers Grove Park on the very West end of Duluth at 7:44am. It was later than I’d hoped, and I thought I could maybe finish at Leif Erickson by 1:30 or 2pm. I started paddling smooth and purposefully. I seemed to be moving pretty good, and noticed a few 16 minute miles right away. The water was glassy. It was humid and even a little warm with the sun up, but felt pretty comfortable right away. The miles flew by and I passed landmarks like Boy Scout Landing, and saw the Oliver Bridge up ahead.
It struck me at the Oliver Bridge that I should sit down, maybe eat a bit of food. I took my time at the Oliver Bridge and it was my first real break in paddling for just over an hour. I was quick to get back going, excited to make it to Clough Island. Into the Mud Lake area, I was wading through the weeds, which was really frustrating. I was bogged down by the weeds dragging from my board leash. I tried to get them out, nearly losing my balance by turning around backwards and trying to fish those pesky weeds out with the paddle. It was a useless task and just a waste of time, since the board came to a stop in lilly pads.
I seemed to be going so slow and the frustration was setting in for sure. Through that weedy patch, I made it to more open water and noticed my fin seemed to be awry. I didn’t have any tracking at all, so one paddle on one side would twist the whole board around, another paddle on the other side would twist it the other way. Ugh. I wondered if I nicked it on a rock or log or something and the whole fin busted off. Probably should check, I thought. I got down on my knees and reached under my board, causing the back to sink into the water. Carefully, very carefully as not to flip the entire paddleboard long-wise…. I felt a huge glob of weeds on the fin. Cripes. I got all the weeds off everything, EVERYTHING! and set my sights on Spirit Island and Clough Island.
The open water was a little daunting, just mentally strenuous to travel through. I felt a bit exhausted despite the wind and waves being with me. They didn’t seem to add anything, but paddling against them would be devastating.I made my way to the slot in Clough Island, but had to sit down beforehand. I was spending a lot more time drinking from my pack, kneeling, eating food, and resting, than I had the first hour. I had to check my phone for the correct path to take, as the correct narrow channel between Clough Island was hard to see and there were multiple options. Once I passed through, it was like night and day from Spirit Lake. The water was still, the breeze was at my back and cooling me down a bit, and it was great to have land on both sides of me. It’d been really sweaty, sticky, hot the whole day. The sun was baking hot, but luckily hidden behind clouds frequently. I was on the other side of Clough Island in no time, excited and nervous to explore sections I’d never seen before. I was making really good time, and thought that I was about halfway through the paddle portion at about 9 miles and 2 and a half hours.
Next stop was the Bong Bridge. It looked close but the cars were tiny. Instantly the landscape changed from remote nature to industry. It was kind of cool: all sorts of piles, machines, metal and wood. The open water was again tough. I thought I changed direction slightly, or the wind had, because I felt like the waves were crossing sideways past me. I didn’t know exactly where I was to go under the Bong Bridge but just kept paddling to where the most straight line seemed to be and it kept being the right way. Before the Bong Bridge, I could see the Blatnik and Aerial Lift Bridges as well, all three in my line of sight. I saw the line I needed to take…
The Bong Bridge was a mammoth structure, and cool to go under. More industry… a lot of hustle and bustle as I paddled into the late morning on a work day. The cranes and trains were going, and time seemed to go right on by. I kind of got past the frustration and into robot mode. Paddle paddle paddle. I seemed to be moving really good, and I saw a few sub-15 minute miles flash on my watch. It took forever to get close to the Blatnik Bridge, and I was looking back to the Bong Bridge to compare the sizes of the cars and determine how much longer it’d be until going under the next one, then on to a straight shot to the Lift Bridge. When I could clearly see the line to get under the Blatnik, I also spotted a huge freight ship coming straight towards me. It was really cool to see. I knew it was so far off, but I still wondered if I was in its way, in a critically dangerous situation head to head with a 700-foot ship. As it got closer to me, and I got closer to the bridge, it turned and I turned and had a sizable gap between the massive ship.
I noticed the Vista Fleet carting people around in the bay, the big ship honked loudly to its final destination, and I was crossing under the Blatnik Bridge in no time. It seemed like a long ways to get there and make the corner, but it was also very cool because another docked freight ship was right at the corner. I got very near it, paddling right alongside a shipping yard, and my attention was on the industrial area and not on the monotonous nature of paddling and paddling and paddling. And paddling and paddling. GAH. I saw a hefty 14 mile marker beep on my watch.
The bay was getting super choppy, with sea birds seemingly swarming me. I got a bit anxious in this section. The first two bridges were straightforward but the Lift Bridge is something else. What if another freighter comes through?? I got near it. No big ships. The blue bridge had gone up and a charter fishing boat arrived behind me, awaiting the bridge to lift. I just went!
Under the Aerial Lift Bridge and there were tourists everywhere. It doesn’t take a ship coming through the bridge to bring people out to the pier! I paddled out towards the end of the shipping channel, taking in the experience I had thought about many times. I didn’t know what to do… wave to all the people? I could tell they were looking at me. A guy yelled to ask if I was going to Michigan. Maybe, I told him. A lady at the very end of the pier, as I made the turn, congratulated me and said I was brave. Y’all don’t even know what I done done! I didn’t say that… Her friend asked if I fell in yet. I said no, not on purpose, but might jump in because it’s HOT. I laughed, I think they chuckled… I didn’t break my stride. Then I jumped in the cool Lake Superior water. It felt great. I climbed right back on and looked towards the North Shore of Lake Superior to Leif Erickson Park. I thought I spotted it, and set off.
On the big lake, the water was perfect. There were really light roller waves, a very light chop pushing me right towards Leif Erickson. The wind was at my back and it felt good to be soaked in cool Superior water. I noticed my hands were pained. I took a moment to look. No blisters, really. But they felt blistered. My back and shoulders and lower side abs were getting sore. Oof. I couldn’t believe I made the trip. It was a pretty wild endeavor to go that far after not having paddling even close to that distance on a paddleboard. I felt elated coming in to Leif Erickson. There were people on the beach at Leif, and I probably looked strange just coming right ashore and walking off into the park. I didn’t know what to do there either… wave to them? I stopped my watch, clocking about 4 and a half hours and over 17 miles.
I put my hat down and tried to hike the board home as quick as possible. I knew I looked strange. I saw my friend Tina on the opposite corner of Superior Street and she said I looked weird. I said she looked weird. I didn’t mean it… A couple blocks up, I heard someone yell at me and then stop at the stoplight right next to me. “How far do ya got?” “How far do ya got to go still?” I noticed the person… who was it… OH! It was Jared Munch, a local paddler who had recently completed an insane paddleboard trip to the Arctic Ocean from Duluth. I followed along online after seeing him on the news. I said four blocks. He said I could strap it on, motioning towards my board and towards his roof rack. I said no. I also said he was a legend. Then I told him I was paddling then schlepping my board up to my house four blocks away, then biking back to my car. He said it was a triathlon (“paddle, uhhh… portage, and bike!”), and cool, then the light changed and he sped away. I yelled “YOU’RE A LEGEND!” It was cool, and very random, to see an adventure paddleboarder by happenstance as I complete my own adventure paddling excursion.
I stormed home, switching the board between my arms to alleviate my sore hands. My grip was very shaky. I got home and couldn’t be more happy to set the board alongside my shed. I rushed inside, let the dogs out, grabbed my lunch wrap and cold fizzy water, and almost didn’t know what to do. I changed my wet running shorts to bike shorts. Then I started to eat. I ate the wrap in record time as the dogs looked on in confusion. Before long, I started mobilizing for my bike leg. Bike out of the shed, shoes out, board in, paddle in, keys and water and snacks in my bike bag, phone in the bag, shoes on and out the door. I locked up and walked my bike up to the alley.
My rear derailleur had broken weeks prior, and I was too lazy to get it fixed until the day before. That point in time happened to be mere hours after I decided I’d go on the trip the next day! So I went to my local bike shop Ski Hut. They didn’t have the part. Dang. They suggested Continental, another local bike shop. I said I’d just order it from them to be picked up anytime after noon the next day. On my way home, I just needed to call Conti because I couldn’t shake the idea of not going on Skyline the whole way. I was so obsessed because I’d read an article on Duluth’s history of Skyline Parkway on Zenith City Online. They outlined the now defunct Mission Creek Boulevard as one of the early sections of Skyline and home to the original Seven Bridges Road. That met up really close to Chambers Grove Park and also was some cool off-road biking as it was now essentially double-track trail through the woods. I just had to ride the gravel bike! My call to Conti was a success, and they had the part. I rushed down. They had the long cage version, but my 1x front setup wouldn’t be ideal with the long cage. Hmmm. I left empty handed, stopped back into Ski Hut after calling to cancel my order, to re-place my order. Ross was laughing and said it’s OK. Gah, what a debacle. Tri bike was the only option. Unless….. I set up a singlespeed. So, late into the night, I tinkered around in my basement trying to get it to work. I ultimately did, but the chain was absurdly tight and the cranks didn’t turn very well. I felt nervous with the first few pedals on my sketchy setup. But so far so good onto the bike leg. Up to 7th Street, across Mesaba, up a big hill and onto Skyline headed East towards Enger Tower.
The view to my left of what I’d just paddled was great. I felt so accomplished and happy that I was going to get this done, barring a mechanical issue or major accident. It was no time before I was passing Enger Tower, and the singlespeed was working perfectly. I didn’t notice the tight chain when I was pedaling, and the gear ratio was actually really good for the rolling ups and downs mixed with flat. I was having a blast, despite being really hot right away.
I didn’t enjoy starting and stopping, partly because of the tight chain, and was happy to cross Piedmont headed West towards the open road. I cranked past the neighborhoods and got into the more remote countryside section of Skyline. It was a flash before I was climbing up towards the cemetery and Highway 2 intersection. The climb up Thompson Hill was brutal, but I was making really good time. I crossed I-35 without a hitch and got a little jostled past Spirit Mountain on the rough road. Down the other side of Spirit was extreme, and I was scared for my bike and scared for my life screaming down the steep and rough road. The heat of the day was getting to me into the Magney area as the pavement turned to gravel. I drank water, and realized that my one bottle was going to have to be rationed. I climbed up, knowing there was a big downhill ahead. The big hill down to Beck’s Road was paved and much calmer than by Spirit. I knew the intersection of Mission Creek Boulevard was near and I saw the Skyline sign with END ahead. I thought I was on the Voyageur 50 Mile course and took a gander that the road we ran on for that was also the one I was looking for. I had to unclip to go up a little incline, then down and around and across Becks Road like I recall from the map and from Voyageur. On the other side there was a parking lot and gate. The gate had a tiny sign alerting construction along the area and mentioned Mission Creek so I figured I was on the right trail. It was definitely part of the Voyageur course, and I predicted it would make for a very fun biking section if my memory would serve me correctly.
It was rugged and pretty slow going on the Mission Creek Boulevard, but cool to see the bridges that I’d read about and to think about the history of this path I was on. It was fun for sure. My fatigue was nonexistent on the bike but I was definitely hot. All I could think about was root beer and white Gatorade. I’d get that at the gas station, for sure. The Duluth Traverse mountain bike trail criss-crossed with the double-track trail I was on and so I thought about the same trip but on the DT instead of Skyline. Nah, this is better. I got to a crossing of Mission Creek itself and in my haste, went right through the water, totally submerging my left shoe. I kept plugging along, noticeably traveling downhill the whole way, which was nice but a lot of braking. I crossed a few familiar sections of the Superior Hiking Trail and eventually popped out at Highway 210. It was a great ride back down because it was smooth downhill and I didn’t pedal. The wind was through my hair and I knew I was done in once piece and in great time. I rode straight to the landing at Chambers Grove Park that I’d put my paddleboard in hours before, stopped my watch, loaded my bike back into my car and drove home.
18 Feb 2019
Hike Date: February 16-17, 2019
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail, Duluth Traverse Mountain Bike Trail
Trip Plan: Simulate a supported thru-hike effort but solo, by operating out of my house. Hike and run 65 miles over two days at 4 miles per hour.
Day 1: Run 40 miles with several stops at home by utilizing local trail loops.
Day 2: Run around 12 miles out and 12 miles back on the SHT westward from home.
Running miles: 65 miles
I started this trip in my running gear plus my jacket, headphones in, plus a mug of coffee. I just started walking down the street. I knew I just had to start walking.
Rewind the last three months and my training plan for thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail has going half perfect and half totally falling apart. As it was written, every four weeks was supposed to be a “long trip” that is a thru-hike simulation, five in total. The first one was dead on. The second one was dead on. The third long trip was a bust. It was very icy. Very, very icy. I tried to take the SHT north from Jay Cooke State Park, way south on the trail, and it was impossibly icy and I pulled the plug when I was supposed to be loading up on pizza at my van. I just ate the pizza and drove off after racking 14 miles in 4 hours. The fourth long trip was just a complete bust. I just didn’t do it! Zero miles. Too hard, too cold, too snowy, I don’t know. It just didn’t materialize in the slightest bit and it kind of crushed me. I questioned the whole training program. Before this last long trip, I was two for four on arguably the most crucial component of this thru-hike training program.
Then again, the rest of my training plan was well above 50% execution rate. Other components were spot on with remarkable consistency. Daily runs were very consistent and so was strength work. Going into week 20 of 22 I felt so good that I questioned if I should have put on more miles. I mean, I was doing 55 miles per week or so, with plans to peak mileage volume at week 22. 55 miles is nothing extraordinary. Then again, sniffing 20 hours a week with strength, walking and running. My body and mind were stretched pretty far. I ultimately argue that the most crucial component of this whole plan is long runs, and I was 100% on those with a really nice progression. The only other shortcoming was with speed work, where I’d skipped most. Speed workouts seemed to set off my hamstrings and every week I was too nervous to proceed, opting for another easy jog. All in all, training to go fast on the Superior Hiking Trail and excel at ultramarathons was going very excellent. However, rounding off training season with a perfectly executed “long trip” and final two week peak would be a major boost of confidence and strength and power going into race season.
So that is what I was thinking about while walking around my neighborhood with a coffee in my hand, watch counting tenths of a mile until it gets to 40.0. Rewinding again from that moment, just 10 minutes, I was stirring oatmeal. I had food sprawled everywhere, gear crowding my back door, and the clock glared 7:31 in my eye. I was so anxious to go, knowing that I was going to relentlessly pursue running 40 miles in 10 hours. The anxiety was stemmed in the feeling that I was dawdling. So I left right then and there! I had a glimpse of a plan.
So as I walked, I hashed it out: I would finish this cup of coffee, circle back to the house, grab my oatmeal and pull the ole eat-and-walk, then just crank ass from there. BOOM. It took no time at all to empty my coffee cup and get back home to eat my oatmeal. I’d gotten cold so grabbed wind pants. I was listening to podcasts: Joe Rogan Podcast with 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang. I ate my oatmeal on the go but couldn’t fit my coffee in my other hand, so made another really quick loop to grab a coffee refill to wash it down. The dogs in their kennels looked at me like I was trying torture them. I apologized for not taking them along but said I would in, like, 6 hours. I made a long loop around UMD, my alma mater, while listening to a riveting conversation, drinking a coffee, bundled up and very comfortable. This is very relaxing, I thought! I was broken from my euphoric state as I noticed a text message from my friend and business partner Kris. She was asking about my run today. I responded in my head, “funny you should ask, I’m running literally all day today!” But actually called her right away in excitement, to get some conversation and a running buddy into my life.
Kris answered and I pleaded my case, how that I was out for a long training day and aiming for 15 minutes per mile pace but already down on my pace so wanted to run any distance and when to swing by her house. So I planned to bring my coffee mug back home and load up for a longer loop, and altered my trajectory accordingly.
When I stopped at home, I ditched the jacket and wind pants, switched from road to trail shoes, ate some quick snacks and grabbed a block of gummis. I said “hi” to the dogs but was ashamed to look them in the eyes. I slugged some water, grabbed my trekking poles and headed out back to Chester Park. I told her I’d be on the east side of the creek, and she was texting me questions as I headed out the door, so wasn’t too sure that I’d find her with ease. I found Kris and Skeeter both right below Skyline in Chester, with ease. I was about 9 miles in and 2.5 hours had gone by. That means I was about 1 mile down on my goal pace.
It was a major relief to get to share some miles with my great friends Skeeter and Kris. Right away, Skeeter kind of fell back and Kris shrugged it off, saying he’ll just catch right back up and that’s just the way he is. I made Kris lead because I wanted her to select the pace, and she begrudgingly did so. We made our way on a beautiful tour of Duluth, out of Chester Park back onto the UMD campus to Bagley Nature Area, right through to Hartley Park and we stopped at the Hartley Nature Center. I was able to swig a bit of water from the drinking fountain there. We got back going and got stuck in some deep untracked snow. Skeeter went above onto the road. Kris lost her traction device in the snowbank and it took a second to get back reformulated. Through the cemetery towards Vermillion Road we ran. This was a similar route to countless long runs I’d done over the years and Duluth is truly blessed to have a network of interconnecting trail systems throughout the entire city.
We made the outer end of the loop near Hawk Ridge and Skyline Boulevard, but turned onto the snowmobile trail to head back. I could tell Skeeter was getting gassed and both he and Kris were sweating profusely. I was lucky to be the perfect temperature. I had eaten all of my gummis, was not too thirsty, and I felt really pretty good. We were chugging along at a good clip, though, and I could tell it was a different effort than the leisurely coffee walk that morning. But UMD’s manicured concrete sidewalks and a mug in hand are not good representations of thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail. Snowmobile trails and mountain bike trails were. Once we crossed back Jean Duluth Road, Skeeter had seen enough snowmobile trail and said he was peeling off. Kris said she wanted to continue onto the trail and I did too, so on we went, aimed towards where we initially met up hours prior.
I my mind, I was formulating the second half of my trip. I announced the point in time that I hit 20 miles on the day. A minute later, I hit 5 hours on the day, which meant I was exactly half way through and right on pace. I dropped Kris off near her house and continued to Chester by making a bee line to the trail. That gave me enough time to plan out exactly what I’d do at home to be as time efficient as possible. A couple minutes later, I carried out those plans.
When I opened my back door, I first let the poor dogs out to roam. They thought they were going to do something cool, but only one was. I ate my prepared lunch of a plant-based wrap and lemon fizzy water, and it went down very easily. I also shoveled down a lot of dried fruit and a couple pieces of chocolate candy. I changed my socks as the dogs clamored back in from the yard. I’d already decided to take Chally first. By using food as bait, I coaxed the other two dogs into their cages. I switched out of my soaking shoes into my old backup trail shoes. I switched my gloves, ditched the balaclava and dashed out the door. Chally and I walked out of the alley and cruised a loop of Chester, which is about five miles. I figured that would take 1:15 if I did it perfectly. I did it perfectly, or a bit fast. Chally was a nice partner and spiced things up a bit. Meanwhile, it was becoming a beautiful, sunny and crisp winter afternoon.
In no time, I was back at home and made the dog switch. Tilly was next and I saved Diamond for last. For reference, Chally is Emily’s dog and we were babysitting Tilly for the week. Chal and Diamond get a lot of running training and that was not the case for Til Bil. She wanted to sniff all 200 dog pee marks in Chester. So we were out for a half loop and I was happy to pick up Diamond, a purebred runner. I planned to take Diamond on a full loop of Hartley, likely to round out the day. After Tilly’s loop, I loaded up my food for a longer effort, changed my socks once more, and put my other, slightly dryer trail shoes back on. The newer shoes felt like pillows and I was excited to finish this baby off with Diamond in tow. The timer read around 7:45 and I was just over 30 miles on the day. Therefore, I was more than a mile ahead of my goal pace, and I could take the last 10 mile loop pretty easy.
Once we got into Hartley Park, the sun seemed to be lower and my energy level dipped to match. My socks were soaking wet once again and I was really tired of that trench foot feeling. Diamond tugged me along and it was again nice to have a companion of any type to add a different element than just me versus the trail.
My form was becoming sloppy and I was kind of just slogging along in a very gritty fashion. Overall, though, the day was pretty simple. I was impressed with the controlled effort and eventless execution. From the bizarre coffee-toting start, to rolling miles with Kris and Skeeter and the dogs, time seemed to just flow by, the miles clicked off, and my body was taking the punishment like an inert object designed to take punishment. Of course I’d be draggin’ ass a little bit by 50+ kilometers, but feeling strong was a testament to my training. I was going to pull this out and continue on to set an FKT on the Superior Hiking Trail that would be untouchable. I was hyping myself up a bit, but just as quick as those thoughts popped in my mind, I’d be overwhelmed by fatigue and tell Diamond that I couldn’t. Couldn’t what? Couldn’t run, I guess. Gah. I felt the feeling of exasperation. I felt the feeling where hiking was so uncomfortable and labored but I could really hike forever, and the feeling where running is like floating but it kills ya.
Time seemed to slow a bit on the back end of Hartley and I started to wonder where I’d be on the day. I figured if I took the same lollipop loop home, through Bagley and Chester, I’d actually be way over 40 miles. As it turns out, I’d misjudged my mileage in Hartley. Darn. Oh well, at least 41 miles today would mean just 24 and an even six hours tomorrow. I decided to pop out at Kenwood Avenue and Diamond and I took some frustrating roads back to College Street. We popped into Chester from there and took the most direct route home. The downhill bomb was great because I knew the end was near. Therefore, my muscles numbed. By the time we hit the alley, I was over 41 miles. Inside, Emily was home and my stinky crap was sprawled out everywhere. I collapsed onto the floor with a huge grin on my face.
I left the door on Sunday a bit after 9am with full supplies for 6 hours in the woods. I also knew I needed to get about 23.5 miles in on the day to make it a planned 65 miles for my long trip goal to be completed. By sticking to exactly 15 minutes per mile, that distance would take a tad under 6 hours to do, and 9am was not quite the time I was hoping to leave by, but I was dawdling, dragging my feet, putzing, and more. I finally got out the door with headphones on.
I started off back into Chester, and it was another perfect day based on temperature and snow conditions. Chester and Hartley Parks, for the most part, were about as good winter trail running as you can get. Because I was working with a buffer seemingly most of the day yesterday, and started that day off coffee-walking in the alley, I figured I could ease into things and walk up and out of Chester. From there, the plan was to travel the Duluth Traverse to Enger Tower, link with the Superior Hiking Trail, and west to the West Duluth McDonalds and eat lunch. Then head back.
Just outside of Chester Park on the Duluth Traverse, it was deep, drifted snow at many various depths. I immediately backed out and went up the road to where the DT continued. The trail was decent right away and in some spots, but there were also plenty of drifted-over areas that were really deep in snow. Drifts became more frequent deeper into the woods between Rice Lake Road, and by the time I got through there to Central High School I was just over an hour, and just over 3.5 miles in, already a bit down on time.
I ran on Central Entrance to nearby apartments and kind of forgot where the Duluth Traverse met back up again. I thought it was on roads for a bit into the antennae farm but couldn’t remember. Roads weren’t bad and I was jogging a bit while I could. It was a nice jog on the gravel roads in the middle of Duluth, but I still wasn’t really in the best of moods. I became frustrated thinking about the long day and the long one just before. How was I going to do this today, plus the miles from yesterday, plus five more, all in one day, then have 6 hours in between runs instead of 15, THEN run 70 more miles the next day? The mechanics of my thru-hiking ideas were boggling. This long trip was supposed to replicate a supported thru-hike as much as possible. But how? Doing a 70 miler and another run back to back in training is either too hard to make time for, or counterproductive, or both. Or maybe neither but it’s too risky to find out.
I found the actual DT trail after several miles of being on the road and it was bad. There was barely any track at all, and I don’t think I was on any trail regardless. It was one person’s footprints through deep drifted snow. I waded and waded and climbed to see Enger Tower and looped around on some high exposed areas, still in deep snow. Finally, I saw a packed down trail right before Enger. The doubts continued. Negative thoughts entered my mind and I told myself that it was stupid, and too hard, and too long, and I’d done enough. Across Twin Ponds to Enger, I got caught in another stupid snowdrift and got no relief on the climb to the actual park area. There were criss-crossed footprints in deep snow everywhere. I followed one set to the great peace bell and gave it a big ring. There was absolutely no track going back down Enger but I was just trucking through and not even noticing or giving mind to the deep snow. Chester was groomed to such a greater degree it is crazy! There are that many more walkers on the lower Chester trails and essentially zero at Enger Tower on the Superior Hiking Trail? Really? I met up with the SHT on the back side of Enger, just as I’d planned. I took a leak and ate some food into the woods a bit. My mind seemed slow to respond and non-receptive to emotions besides gloom. My body seemed surprisingly fresh, but the difficult conditions were taking their toll.
Continuing west, it was just completely drifted, deep, frustrating snow as far as the eye could see. No relief, why? When? Never? I slogged up a big berm, not even sure if it was any trail at all or if the owners of the three-feet deep footprints had been just bushwhacking. My mind wasn’t even processing the fact that it was such bad running conditions, such a bad representation of what the SHT could be like in late May. Atop the ridge, I saw another trail below. Perhaps it was the Duluth Traverse. It didn’t look any better. I had to stop. I ate a gel. I didn’t want to stop now, so early, but I did. I sat down in the snow and meditated for several minutes.
I was about two hours and 10 minutes in, not even to 7 miles, and should be closer to 9 miles to be on schedule for 4 miles per hour. I was essentially 1.25 miles down which is essentially a few minutes shy of 20 minutes behind where I should be. GAH! Stupid. I’d done enough, I decided I’d turn around and run the road back home. It’s like two miles, I can do that in 20 minutes. 2.5 hours on the day, oh well. Good enough. I did well over 40 miles the day before so that’s just fine. I punched through over-my-knees snow to Skyline Boulevard, and ran that baby back to Twin Ponds. On my way over, I was a bit scared for my life because of the low shoulder and blind corner. Ugh, running on the roads was really terrible. There wasn’t too much slop because the temperature high was forecasted to be 12 degrees or so, but winter road traffic is always a hazard.
Once I got back running, I surged, looked at my watch and was a little bummed to see over 8 minutes per mile pace. The legs were a little heavy I guess. I suddenly had a change of heart and a new idea came into mind. I would run through the woods between Central Entrance/Rice Lake Road and Kenwood, but peel up towards St. Scholastica’s campus and make my way to the local Arby’s for lunch. That is within striking distance of Hartley Park, which I knew from the previous day was in pretty good condition. Once I got to Hartley, I could make up all the time I need.
So I peeled off back into the antennae farm area, and got back onto the DT. Compared to the SHT west of Enger, where I turned around, the trail was loads better. At least runnable. It seemed like no time before I got to the apartment complex again and I seemed invigorated by the new plan. At least I wouldn’t be post-holing into the unknown.
Into a headwind and slight uphill, I utilized my trekking poles while on the sidewalk of Central Entrance. With cars whizzing past me, I felt a little exposed, perhaps a little embarrassed. I probably looked like a maniac out here with a pack on, water bottles, trekking poles flailing, speed walking mixed with jogging on the sidewalk. Oh well, gotta get my miles in. Across the busy road and onto the side street Pecan Avenue, it was not any better. In fact, way worse. There was literally no shoulder, and the snowbank took up over half of the actual driving lane at some spots. This road was sketchy. The cars saw me, luckily, but it was a hairy uphill grind where it seemed like a car could crest the hill and BOOM there I am running in literally the middle of the road. Hey, I was still as close to the snowbank as can be. I didn’t get smashed by a car, and was happy to get back into the woods. I remember this section not being too terrible, and it was actually pretty smooth running. I already had the mentality to make up time, and the running on roads and back through the DT saved me five minutes. That means 15 minutes down. At an intersection, I followed my internal compass and took a left, what seemed to be a different way than I had came. I saw a lady before the turn, then her four small dogs from behind a snowbank. They barked and jumped around me protectively, then one bit me! I was surprised, and definitely felt it on my calf! I yelled out “YOUR DOG BIT ME!!” But she seemed so nonchalant I wondered if I happened to be on her private property. A lot of neighborhood trails were in this area. After some huffing and puffing up a hill, I was happy to see that I definitely was not on a neighborhood trail and actually onto the St. Scholastica campus. I jetted through and starting looking forward to a lunch. I didn’t feel ravenously hungry, with a bunch of food on me and continuous eating. But I was looking forward to getting some hot delicious food at Arby’s. I’d passed it the day before at mile 35 or so, so remembered the captivating, dreamy images of current menu items pasted onto the windows. It was a mile or so of more uncomfortable road running and I was there.
When I got to Arby’s, I had a self-directed sense of urgency. Straight to the counter. I thought fast while the person behind me was ordering. Mmm yep turkey sandwich. Done. I got to the counter and spoke fast. The clerk seemed kind of odd, but no offense, most Arby’s clerks are kind of odd. After the transaction, I kind of had a reality check. I’m in this running gear, trekking poles in hand, backpack with water bottles, literally ran to the door. Just like on the busy road… I figured I looked like a complete maniac in that setting. Oh well. I got my sandwich, squirted some sauce on it, threw away the bag and headed right out the door. I immediately started eating on the go. Yep, look like a maniac for sure.
The sandwich went down like nothing and it sure felt good. My body started using that energy right away. I tossed the trash and was right into Hartley. Time to crank. I knew I probably went down some time waiting for the sandwich. A peek at my watch confirmed that I was down by about 20 minutes once again. I had logged not quite 13 miles in 3:30 as I entered into Hartley. That means about 10 miles to go. That means I’d have to go two minutes or three minutes fast for like… 6 miles? 6 hours? I couldn’t do the math, but knew I had to crank some fast miles. My body felt OK. I was running. I also felt pretty ragged. I certainly couldn’t push it. The miles clicked right off in Hartley and I was on drag mode. Just keep pushing. It was a mentality of run whenever I can. The previous day, working with a buffer of time, it was more a mentality of walk whenever I want.
I decided to just not look at my watch, do the whole outer guardrail loop, do the SHT loop, every inch of Hartley I could within a great loop, and see where I’m at. That may put me close to where I need to be. I ran some quick projections, home is maybe three miles away from Bagley, one mile from the Skyline bridge. It would be pretty close. That energized me. To run a great loop in Hartley was mentally feasible. I could see that happening. It was almost unbearably bleak hours ago below Enger Tower. I could finally really see the light on this long and arduous weekend. So I kept cruising. The conditions were fair. I observed some funny pole marks that I’d made the day before. Not really funny. Ok moving on…
It was mindless walk-running for a couple hours. That is perhaps the runners high. Thinking back, it seems like a trance state. Oh well, what else is there to do? Just zone out, get in the rhythm and crank out miles. The walk/run combination seemed so natural. Maybe by focusing instead of relying on “natural” instincts I could be more efficient. Fuck efficiency, just get the damn miles DONE. Run when I can, walk when I have to. Click, click, tick, tock, the miles went by and the watch progressed and I was finally on the back side of Hartley. In a flash, I was out. Through Bagley and back into Chester. It was a quick bomb out to touch all three parks. A classic long run combination. It was strange to convert what has typically been a trip up the shore to an effort right at home. It was going to work, though.
When I got into Chester, I knew I could just take it straight downhill home. Well, it would be close. Without incident, I flew down the best trail surface in the whole city, and was elated, yet exhausted, to be so close to home and close to done. I’d scraped myself back to goal pace and was pretty much right on time. With the downhill running, I even put a little time back into the positive category. My average pace would be faster than 15 minutes per mile. When I got to the last bridge before 4th Street, my turnoff, I knew I needed just a bit more mileage. I did a tiny loop down to 4th Street, and straight back home to definitively make 65 miles on the weekend. I walked the last half of the alley, the same speed as I started this long trip weekend, and was happy to be done. Relieved to be done. Infused with confidence now that I was done. And hungry.
17 Dec 2018
Hike Date: November 24-25, 2018
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail
Trip Plan: Travel 50 miles at goal pace of 4 miles per hour. Go out and back two days in a row on the trail section from Duluth to Two Harbors.
Day 1 – Park at Fox Farm Road campsite, go out northbound for 3 hours and back. 23.8 miles total.
Day 2 – Park at Normanna Road campsite, go out northbound for 13.1 miles and back. 26.2 miles total.
Day 1 – Saturday, November 24, 2018
It was about 32 degrees and a mixture of snow, sleet, and rain falling as I drove towards the eastern end of Duluth to get out of town and onto a unique section of SHT trail that connects Duluth and the Southern Terminus to the iconic North Shore ridgeline on which the Superior Hiking Trail travels to Canada. I was worried about the conditions of the trail and figured my feet would be getting wet. I dawdled getting out to the trail and was hoping to get to the trailhead by 11am.
I chose to drive to the Fox Farm Road trailhead, which is conveniently about a 20 minute drive from my house. This is such a wonderful section of trail and I was excited to see a big chunk of it over the weekend. My plan today was to head north. I parked and got my things together, including my trekking poles and pack. As I reached for the pack, I looked in horror at the two 600mL bottles that I forgot to fill. They were empty. I figured I’d need extra water today, going so far, and packed an extra 500mL water bottle. So that was all I had now. That could be an issue. As I set off, I crossed a wetland and little creek immediately and pondered the risks of filling my empty bottles at a creek without filtering. That would really suck to get sick. I’d poured 250mL into each of my pack’s bottles, and decided snow was a safer alternative. I scooped a bit of snow into each bottle early on in the run and hoped it would dissolve to water.
Within .1 miles, there were two downed trees. The running surface was a bit tacky and definitely not icy, but a bit slushy in some areas and there were certainly “wet spots” that weren’t completely frozen over and covered with snow and slush. I stepped in a couple of those early on, while I followed a branch of the Knife River into the woods. After a couple of miles, I seemed to lock into my goal pace of 15 minutes per mile. Trail conditions turned out to be great. There was some slippage going on but generally solid footing and that made me happy. The temperature must had lowered slightly, perhaps in the higher elevations away from the lake, because there were definite snowflakes falling onto my face. I was very happy to only see the two downed trees right away and not many other obstructions. Time seemed to go by pretty quick and I tended to eat snow instead of trying for my slush mixture in the bottles I was carrying.
I noticed I was following footsteps. They seemed fresh but it was hard to know. I wondered if I’d see anyone else on the trail on this wet and overcast Saturday. I smelled the undeniable scent of barbecue sauce and wondered if the turkey and cheese wrap I’d packed along was getting too jostled to stay contained in its foil wrapper. At that moment, I saw the guys up ahead I’d been following for some time now. I hollered once I got close enough and they both jumped off of the trail. I commented that I seemed to have scared them and they agreed because they didn’t hear me coming. I told them I’d been following for quite some time…
After passing those two guys, I figured that 1pm was a good time to eat, so I grabbed the tattered foil wrapping with my lunch underneath. I picked off aluminum foil and wolfed it down. It was pretty dang tasty. I washed it down with slush. The snow I’d gathered hadn’t melted in the little bit of water that was in each bottle. Oh well, snow works fine. Two hours in and I was right on track, things were going good and the woods were truly beautiful while dusted with snow. The next hour wouldn’t go so good, however.
Once I got past Rossini Road, I wondered how far I’d get into the Lake County Demonstration Forest. After doing some calculations, I figured I could at least get to the intersection of the long Demo Forest trailhead spur and SHT main trail. I was going slow as I passed Fergeson Campsite and losing time on my goal of covering four miles every hour. Minutes slowed down as I approached my turnaround spot. I know for sure that I’d want to make the U-turn at no particular mileage, but at 3 hours regardless of what happens. I had a small fear that I’d not be able to even-split the run and would be in the dark for quite some time. This time of year, it is quite dark by 5pm. From memory and recognition, I knew I was kind of close to the official start of the Lake County Demo Forest section after crossing a road and some climbing. That afforded some great views of of the landscape, although it was cloudy, foggy, and very grey.
I didn’t get that much further until I saw the 50’s in the minute column and 2 changed to 3. At 3 hours in, on the dot, I turned right around in my tracks and started to head all the way back to the car. I was nearly at 12 miles when I made the turn, still not feeling super great. I think the pain or toughness was not rooted in physical wear, but more a boredom of frustration of being out here alone and having to go all the way back. My legs were feeling good, actually. I was able to run pretty well but just felt a little flat. My feet and socks had definitely been wet from within the first hour out there, so that was causing a little discomfort. Nothing serious, luckily, but just that having wet feet isn’t the most pleasant feeling in the world. My clothing choices were on point, though, and I was perhaps just slightly warm while running. I wouldn’t want to be with less clothes, and there were long stretches where rolling up my sleeves was a perfect way to vent and cool a bit.
It seems to be a mental change to make that turn on be “on the way back” and I felt that for sure. Time started moving faster and I did too. I caught back up to my goal pace and was in auto-pilot. I knew that the temperature was dropping with the sun because I sensed a more pronounced crunch under my feet as the slushy wet snow solidified. I know pondered what tomorrow would be like, since I was headed right back out in the morning. Would it be super crusty? Icy? The same or better conditions? Yep, all in all, it had been really good the whole way northbound. With a frozen ground and less than two inches of snow, you can’t get much better early winter conditions.
I luckily didn’t feel thirsty and I shoveled almonds into my mouth, and decided I could take the rest of my water at any time and just rely on snow. So I drank all my water with an hour or so left, and enjoyed scooping snow and letting it melt in my mouth. When I passed Big Bend campsite, I remembered that it took me almost exactly one hour to get there from the car, so that was my gauge. Criss-crossing the West Branch Knife River is a little technical and I realized that the first and last mile of the trek was probably the worst conditions with water and puddles under a small frozen layer of ice and snow. Despite having wet feet already, it was really not nice to get a full dunk of my foot into a puddle. I tried to push off finding my headlamp, and just as darkness set in, I hopped over a couple mangled trees and knew I was right at my car. I looked at my watch and had to do laps around the parking lot. I was so close to 23.8 and had to get there. Why? Well, to get my 50 miles on the weekend, if I stopped at 23.8 today, I’d simply need an even marathon of 26.2 for the next day.
I peeled my nasty wet socks off and drove home barefoot. The max heat setting in my car was very useful. My body seemed to be holding up fine with no major issues. A perfect setup for the next day.
Day 1 – Sunday, November 25, 2018
I woke up on Sunday morning with the intention to hit it early. I was very creaky getting out of bed. Ooof. The last thing on my mind was going back to the trail, putting the vest back on and going out and back 3+ hours one way, again. I knew I needed to go, though, so I just drug my feet around the house, sluggishly collecting my items. Water filled… CHECK! Food, trekking poles, put on my gear, nice fresh socks that will be soaked in a few hours, coffee. I ate breakfast and looked at my trusty SHT guidebook. The day before, I covered from Fox Farm Road to the intersection of the Lake County Demonstration Forest trailhead spur trail and the main trail. I looked at the Normanna trailhead page and was suprised to see that I could get really close to my goal mileage by heading north from there to Fox Farm Road. I’d likely need to make up some mileage somewhere… I thought maybe that’d be on the Sucker River trailhead spur. A little out and back from there would be perfect. Food in the system, and I got out early enough despite feeling apprehension and fatigue.
It was a cooler morning and I wondered if the previous day’s slush would be frozen, hard and slippery. I got out to the trail and started almost by 10am. The sun was shining and the cool air felt really great. Within a few steps, my sluggish nature seemed to disappear and I was once again very happy to be out in the woods racking up some miles.
The first few miles out of Normanna were a little icy. Not too bad but certainly hard-packed. It didn’t seem like the slush from the day before had seriously hardened, though. In my mind, I rehearsed my game plan: go out a half marathon, then turn around. Pretty simple! I wanted to stick to my 4 mph goal as well, but there is kind of a different mindset when going for time versus distance. Also, an out-and-back has a different mindset. I kind of like the out-and-back trips for some reason. It’s a little funny to just flip a 180 degree turn in the middle of nowhere just because my watch flashes 3 hours or 13.1 miles. I think each direction has its own character, too, and I like knowing the trail like the back of my hand.
The early miles clicked back with ease. I passed Heron Pond campsite right away, crossed the little creek near the dogsledding road intersection, and I was bombing the big hill down to the Sucker River valley in no time. The day was perfect. The conditions were ideal, temperature right in the sweet spot of 25 degrees, and sun shining. Mmm, a little vitamin D energized me after full clouds 24 hours ago.
When I got to Sucker River, about 1:20 and a bit over 5.5 miles for the day, I smelled a familiar smell. That smell is my wrap cover becoming uncovered in my pack and barbecue sauce seeping out. It was barely 10:30am but I ate the whole thing anyways. Gah, I had probably 5 more hours out here and I was chowing down the majority of my calories. I’d just eaten a big meal perhaps two hours before that wasn’t hungry really at all. Oh well, I ate it all, and only for the sake of not making a mess in my little pack. At least I had about 1.6 liters of water to wash it down. I hiked along the Sucker River, eating simultaneously, and feeling good that I was right on track.
Things were pretty uneventful from there to the turnaround. Spectacular conditions, very few people on the trail, and I was right on track. After passing Fox Farm Pond campsite, I decided that I’d stop there on the way back for a nice afternoon break. I made a guesstimate that it’d be around .1 miles down the spur trail to the campsite, so I’d want to turn around at about 13.0 miles. When I popped out to the empty parking lot that held my car the day before, my watch said not even 12.5 miles. Back to the Fox Farm section… I fondly remembered the huge trees down right away. Climbed over those. I also fondly remembered the postholes I’d made yesterday nearby the West Branch Knife River in a likely swampy area in the other three seasons. I was able to dodge around those and get to my special 13.0 mark. I promptly turned around and headed all the way back, feeling pretty great and under pace with 3:08 on the clock. My 4 mph time for 13.0 miles should have been 3:15, so almost a half mile ahead.
I was surprised in the course of 1 mile how someone would arrive at the trailhead and set off, but sure enough, I popped back out to Fox Farm Road trailhead and an old Subaru had clearly just arrived. I inspected the tracks… a person and a dog. Maybe a wolf chasing a person. Probably not. I chased the tracks, noting my own facing the opposite direction.
While in my own mind, I had to laugh to myself how crappy I felt in the morning and how great I was feeling now. I remembered the day before getting to the turnaround and dragging. It was hard to keep pace for a few hours there, but today I was really cruising with ease. Perhaps the conditions were better… my shoes weren’t deluged. Perhaps my mental condition was better… three more hours and I was to be done for the day! Then, in the morning, how I felt like anything would be better than heading to the trail, but I made it out and made it this far and was going to make it home. YES!
I finally caught up to the car owner and her dog and passed them up. I was still sticking to my 15 minute pace, which is a healthy combination of hiking and running, really. So it was kind of a weird pass because her dog wanted to hang and I felt their presence for a long time right behind me. I didn’t want to stop and pee because I knew they’d be right there behind me. Oh well, before long I’d left ’em for good.
I saw a few more hikers near my break spot of Fox Farm Pond campsite. I had fond recollections of staying there four years ago almost to the day. The break was fine but I got cold and it kind of interrupted my flow. But once I got back moving again I realized that it was nice to have the break. I continued on with a renewed mindset. It was kind of hard to get my hands warm, though, and I seemed to have so many little things to do with my fingers like rearrange my pack or fiddle with my water bottles. I dumped a half liter bottle of water into my main containers and spilled a bit of water on my hands. Dang, they were freezing! Well, I kept moving, because that was the best way to warm them up.
The portion of trail between the Sucker River trailhead spur and Sucker River campsite took forever. It was a little mentally strenuous and I was ready to be done. What was good, though, was my body holding up really well. I thought of other times in my life where I set out on long trips like this, and became very proud of my commitment to the training program I was using and how it was really paying off. That positivity carried me to the Sucker River campsite, where I zinged right through, still ahead of pace. At this reference point, I looked at my watch and saw 5 hours. My mileage was at 20.5 or so, still about a half mile ahead of where I need for even 15 minute per mile splits.
As the sun sank lower in the sky, I spotted Heron Pond campsite on its little hill, trucked right past it and onto the hard-packed last mile. I really noticed the traffic of this area compared to the softer, grittier, almost tackier miles that made up 24 miles of my day. I didn’t bring a headlamp, and wouldn’t need one, but the sun was setting fast. When I got within eyesight of the van, I did a double check. There was no way I’d stop my watch without 26.2 miles or more. I was unfortunately short, but not by much. I headed south on the trail, instead of onto the spur trail. I almost made it to the bridge over the French River, just a stone’s toss away, but turned around with palpable excitement, almost jittery, to get back to my van and drive home and be done.
My watch clicked to 26.2 miles and I stopped my run, poles in hand. After banking some time early, I’d kept my quick pace up all day, for better or worse. My body felt better after 50 miles than after 23.8, somehow. But how encouraging is that! A bit discouraging was that there were no days off… the next day, my “daily” jog increases by five minutes to 40 minutes and another four week training block was in front of me. But I was already kind of looking forward to that next long trip.
04 Dec 2018
I think it’s safe to say that winter is here in Duluth, MN and there is no turning back until the very beginning of spring. So, mid- to late-April. There are a few overnight backpacking trips that stick out to me as some of the most enjoyable times spent in the woods, period. It’s so hard, uncomfortable, cold (duh), but also relaxing, rewarding, and fun!
My first time winter camping was pretty tame. That’s how it should be, though. Almost four years ago to the day, I hiked out to the Fox Farm Campsite with Diamond. Click here for the whole story.
The next time I went out, it was with Diamond and Nick. This was a really short trip and more about cooking brats over an open fire and enjoying a couple beers. Click here for the Quickie Overnighter story.
In 2016, I started hitting it hard with aspirations of thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail. I also got serious about documenting gear and conditions. This trip was pretty difficult with deep snow and somewhat challenging conditions. In between Duluth and Two Harbors on the SHT can seem pretty remote and rugged. Click here for the next adventure and be sure to check my winter gear list!
It took my a while to make it up to a two-night excursion. There is a little more to lose in that scenario. This was a real backpack trip with hefty mileage and yes, two nights! Check out my Cross River adventure here.
Well, that’s a lot of reading but it’s a long and cold winter by the fireplace. Maybe you’ll become inspired to ditch the fireplace and hit the Superior Hiking Trail.