13 Oct 2022
In the aftermath of the Krueger-Waddell Challenge, I made a pretty easy recovery. My body and mind bounced back almost immediately except my hands. On the final day, easily the hardest day while slowly trudging down the Pigeon River, I told myself that the trip was stupid and not fun. Even later that day, I realized that the trip was pretty damn cool. That weekend, I acknowledged that had had fun out there in the Boundary Waters. And back to Duluth to my normal life, the trip was certainly amazing. In retrospect, the pain, the struggle, the fear was all worth it.
I got the question quite a bit: would you do it again? And I don’t know that I would. Doing the 250-mile route in a tandem canoe would be really fun, over two weeks or 100 hours. I think traveling through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on a stand up paddleboard is truly excellent. That will be repeated. Furthermore, my time of 5 days, 10 hours, 30 minutes can be reduced substantially. I can go faster on the “Border Route”. I could go through the night to shave off days. It is feasible, yet practically unfathomable.
For now, I am proud to have the fastest stand up paddleboard time on the historic Krueger Waddell Challenge route from Sha-Sha Point on Rainy Lake to Lake Superior. The spirit of adventurers, voyageurs, and especially the indigenous people who traveled that exact same route thousands of times over thousands of years before me was evident throughout the trip. The intense feeling of connection I experienced over six solo days in the Voyageurs National Park, the Boundary Waters, and Grand Portage will stick with me forever.
I woke up to rain on my last day. I closed my eyes for just a minute more. Couple minutes. 10 minutes and I jolted awake, not fully understanding how I could take my needed next steps while I could hear the rain. First step, unplug the air mattress, I told myself. Then, I did so, and slowly sunk to the ground and one tangible layer of comfort deflated beneath me. Next, pack up my sleeping bag and liner, exposing my bare thighs to the rainy morning’s cold air inside my tent. A few more layers of comfort stripped away. I quickly got dressed with everything else I’d need. Same old paddling shorts, same ratty-ass white paddling long sleeve shirt, no socks, rain jacket and hat plus headlamp. It was still dark out, with little sign of the sunrise in any direction. When I stood up out of my tent, I noticed a nice haven beneath the tree where it wasn’t raining hard, but everything was wet and would go in my bag wet. What made rolling up the tent a little easier was knowing that I wouldn’t be sleeping in it the next night but rather in a luxurious hotel room at Grand Portage casino. I wondered if my mom secured that or what. I wondered if they’d have a room for me to sleep in. I envisioned myself walking up to the front desk and asking if they have a room. And they do, and it’s ready for me and they take my credit card and hand me my key and I take a hot shower and my gear magically dries out instantly. I snapped back to reality and finished rolling the sopping wet ground cloth in with my tent and soaked rain fly. In you go! It didn’t take long to pack everything up, and I got my board launched and bags loaded up before it was light enough to take my headlamp off. I needed it to see in the cloudy, dark morning. When I set off right after 6am, the rain was very light, but present. I got my watch started and tracker tracking my final day to Lake Superior. It was just 3o miles to go.
Mountain Lake was a little tumultuous. It wasn’t that windy, but there was some chop. The skies looked a kind of scary in the early morning hours when light can play tricks on your eyes. It didn’t seem to get much lighter from when I was in the woods to out on the open lake, which surprised me. I confirmed that the campsite I was eyeing down the day before, across the shallow bay, was occupied. It was nearly a mile away, and I still had a couple more miles to get to the end of Mountain. I stayed kneeling for a while, but around a little bend and within sight of the portage to Moose Lake, I stood up and brought in a sub 15 minute mile to get three on the day before my first of a couple last walks aside a towering cliff on the aptly named Mountain Lake.
I was able to fit my food bag in my backpack, which made the portage transition even faster. Into the deep wet woods. It was still pretty dark out. Miserable conditions really, but the blast to my senses almost made it easier than prime weather, I thought. I luckily did not encounter any disadvantages with the wet conditions and was able to make it over slippery roots and rocks and mud pits pretty quickly. The rain was loud on my hooded polyethylene jacket. My gloves were wet and the cuffs of my jacket started to feel a little wet as well. I didn’t have my rain pants on and was pretty comfortable. The rain was coming down. On the way to Moose Lake, I wondered if I’d see one. It was a pretty tight portage. If I was going to see a big animal, here was the spot. It just seemed like it – I sensed a moose. Harsh conditions with the rain coming down in the dense forest of far northern MN, literally right on the border of Canada and where the scary big animals like to play. I did not see one, and motored through the portage. I felt strains in my wrist, the ever familiar slipping of nerves against tendons. Yet, I could grip well. I didn’t want to burn out my arms for the Grand Portage so I felt fine with taking breaks and switching hands. The breaks were never more than the time it took to switch hands, though. My water bladder hose dangled and I drank from it while walking. I went through a narrow lilly pad pond before the final landing from a long portage to start the day.
On the other side, on Moose Lake, I ate some caffeine gummis for breakfast. The rain tapered off. It was still pretty dark. I knew it had lightened up significantly since I started off in the morning. My headlamp was put away long ago, but I was definitely experiencing a traditional dark, gloomy, moody early September morning. I thought I heard thunder amidst my swooshing paddle strokes that never stopped except for the most brief moment to check my watch or take sips of water, or kneel down to inspect my map closer. I made good time across Moose Lake. The miles clicked off. I spent my time on Moose dwelling over the clouds. I was encouraged by the rain clearing out but swore I heard a couple very faint rumbles of thunder. I tried to determine what direction the clouds were moving and where the system was lighter or heavier and if the heavier-looking clouds were moving towards me. Looking up while paddling was dangerous, though, and I couldn’t dwell too long before refocusing back to the nose of my board cutting through the water, same as all the other 225 miles of the trip. An updated weather forecast from my tracker was encouraging. How accurate was that really, though, I wondered.
Another rain soaked portage and I was onto North Fowl Lake. I remembered the 2020 video from Scott Baste having major issues at the landing of North Fowl, and calling it a “foul” portage. I had no issues getting through. Yes, it was very muddy. In fact, it was the muddiest portage of the trip. But I was able to get back up and paddle into the rainy lake quickly and efficiently. I had to de-weed my board’s fin but was making up fast miles in no time. The rain came back on heavier, picking up to a solid soaking stream of water sticking my shorts to my skin. It still seemed dark out, probably due to the heavy rain. I could see the far shoreline that I had to aim for and made my way down North and South Fowl Lakes. It was cool seeing cabins to my right, on the US side. How the heck did people get those windows out there? Not to mention food…
I hit 10 miles on the day. I figured I should have been at Pigeon River by 10. My mileage as scribbled onto my map was off once again, but I kept going into the rain because that’s all I could do. That’s all I had to do. The lake was a little choppy but I had a kind of downwinder and could paddle hard standing up with ease. My map was hard to read due to the rainwater on my baggie enclosure, which had several holes and tears in it. I didn’t really need it anyways, I just had to get to the end of the lake. Pressing on, I came closer to a final island and lots of reed sticking out of the lake. The reeds seemed more and more like a continuum of the island the closer I got. I didn’t know if I’d be able to get through. At a certain point I realized that there was no way and I had to go around to the left, around the island, and then back on course. It was frustrating missing the direct route. But once around the island, I could clearly see the low point where the Pigeon River started nestled in between towering rock faces. Peaks into Canada were exemplary of classic sawtooth mountain description with a sheer dropoff on one side and long, low gradient on the other side that made the string of ridges into the distance look like the blade of a saw. Rain kept coming, and harder. Just a drenching soak. Looking up, I wondered if it would ever lightning… I hoped not.
My maps cut off completely at the Pigeon River. I could see the last little piece of South Fowl Lake, then that’s the end of the map. I hand drew a fake Pigeon River and noted “12 Miles down P. River”. Then, I knew 9 miles from there by foot. My body was feeling good. Just a normal ole day on the lake. In the drenching rain…
I got closer to the Pigeon. I double checked my watch to make sure it was the right river. I knew there were a couple other creeks and rivers in the area but I was correct and right on track. I noted a spur trail of the Border Route Trail on my watch but could not see in real life. My watch also read 25% battery. Dang it, Mike! Ya could have charged that up completely but ya didn’t. I was a little frustrated but wondered if I’d make good time down the Pigeon and it’d be a moot point. I was a little concerned and anxious, yet hopeful. From the mapping app on my phone, I remembered a narrower illustration of Pigeon River right away, then after two miles it opened up wider. I wondered if there were any rapids or anything. Please be a river cruise, PLEASE be a river cruise, I pleaded to the god of Pigeon River. I got closer and closer and then spotted a man-made structure. I paddled to the US side to find a spot to get out. I didn’t see any portage on any maps or in real life but didn’t wanna get too close to the dam itself. I knew water was flowing down at this point, and could hear it. I hadn’t been able to find the point where the flow of water switched directions.
On land, 20 feet away looked like a big stone u-shaped dam. With the low point in the middle for water to flow over, then walls on either side and lots of rocks forming a steep embankment. I got my bag onto my shoulders and carried my board up some jagged, moss-covered boulders to the dam’s rock wall. I climbed up, straddled it and looked over the side. It was definitely an impassable dam with a couple trees jammed up in there, making it an even taller dam that had a 45 degree smooth concrete chute on the other side directing water to rocky rapids as far down from there as I could see. Hmm… I sat and looked around for a bit. I couldn’t see any pathways, any portages, I couldn’t see a way to paddle on the river, but figured I’d just have to make my way one step at a time.
I started my much anticipated late-stage, 12-mile section of Pigeon River with not a step, but a leap down the stone walled dam to rocks below. The rocks were endless. Steeply strewn on the river’s embankments, generally about a foot long on average with all types of sharp corners and edges and protrusions. Moss and rainwater falling from the steady soak above made each footstep difficult. I couldn’t easily carry my board on my right side because the rocks were too high. The left was kind of sketchy because if I had one little slip I could drop my board down 10 feet onto more rocks or worse, directly into the river then right down to Lake Superior. Then, I’d be walking 20 miles to go find it, instead of cruising down the river for 12 of those. Then I wondered if I’d be cruising any miles at all. It took my 10 minutes to make it .1 miles, and to realize that the river was not paddleable. I decided to stop trying to traverse the rocky embankment, and headed directly to the river. My feet were wet, my shoes had been wet for 6 days straight, my legs were dripping, shorts soaked, and so it wouldn’t matter to trudge through a creek a little bit. I figured it least it was flat down there…
Once down to the Pigeon River itself, I was in the midst of rushing rapids. It was shallow, just 6″ deep on average, washing over lots of rocks and boulders. I trudged right through, following the river to my destination. I didn’t know when I’d be able to paddle again, but I was hoping at most 2 miles of this walking. Two miles would be brutal. My next mile split showed over 50 minutes. Oof. I wondered how long this would actually take me to get to Grand Portage. If I do all hour miles, that’d be 12 more hours, plus 3 for the Grand Portage. Hmmm. Bad. That would not be optimal. I was surprised I hadn’t seen Scott Baste today. In fact, I hadn’t seen anyone thus far, except people in rain gear at the last campsite on Mountain Lake hours earlier. A bend around the river, all I could see was rocky rapids. Walk, slip, bend my feet around, agonize about the pain of carrying my board, and dread the Grand Portage until I regained hope at the next bend. I’d cross the river to find a nice, flat and rocky river bank, stepping in deep spots along the way, or stubbing my toe on a large underwater boulder, only to see yet another stretch of rocky rapids. Fucking TERRIBLE! If I had to endure these conditions at the start of the trip: the shallow river, portaging my board through the creek in the drenching cold rain, I would have bailed immediately. Since it was the last day, I ignored the signs of pain in my wrists, I tried to ignore the shuddering cold as best as I could as I felt moisture seeping in towards my core. My rain jacket was only doing so much to keep the water from running down my arms. It was almost laughable… I thought how unbelievably ridiculous the situation was without any context. What if someone just saw a snapshot, like a movie reel, of this exact moment for me? Nobody would ever do something so stupid. It was really just blatantly stupid, this hiking down the river. I thought that there must be another way…
Before I logged 2 miles on the Pigeon River, I finally got to an area that seemed good enough to paddle. It was easy to get onto my board in a knee-deep section of water, and I thought that this was it, THIS was the start of the river cruise. Please, please be a river cruise from here… I strapped by bags down, checked for rocks and stood up to paddle away. It felt nice, and I paddled hard to try to keep my body temperature at a less concerning level. One measly bend in the river, though, and I ran into more rapids. It was defeating. But, I didn’t even think to take any action besides swing my gear onto my back once again, get off my board and stand up on to the rocky river bottom instead, hoist my board up from its strap and proceed forward as fast as possible right down the shallow, rocky, rushing river. It was really, truly terrible traveling that way.
At a certain point, I figured it’d be like this the whole way, and I just had to make the fastest route possible no matter what. I looked at my watch. The battery was draining slowly towards dead. At this rate, no way I’d make it to Fort Charlotte, the start of the Grand Portage, with my watch still tracking. The rain didn’t let up. Luckily, wayfinding was easy. Just follow the rocky rapids. I got pretty sick of walking down the river and noticed the Border Route Trail to my right from my watch’s map screen. It was kind of funny… my battery was down to 17%, I had probably 10 miles of this shitty-ass river travel left, averaging 1 mile per hour, and that watch was my only map. I doubted I had cell service at all. Luckily, I did have plenty of charge left in my two battery banks, but those were stowed deep into my backpack, probably in a bag within a bag within a bag. I couldn’t actually imagine stopping, opening my bag sequence, digging through to find a battery charger, then actually charging my watch while trying to move in this cold, driving rain. So, I just kept moving forward as-is. I could tell that the BRT followed the river for a while, and so decided then and there to veer off. I would be able to walk a ways on the trail and skip the stupid trudging down the river, then get back on the river, but at the risk of passing up some sections I could paddle. It was worth it the risk. So, I trudged into the dense forest. My board immediately got caught on some vegetation. I moved it aside and plowed forward. I just realized how absolutely ridiculous my life was at this point. Any of this is shitty… walking with sharp rocks in my shoes, carrying a paddleboard under my arm, walking with a heavy pack, straight-up bushwhacking through remote wilderness, wearing wet clothes, being on 6 days without taking a shower. Any one of those is shitty, and that shit is multiplied by cold rain. And I was experiencing all of it, all at once. I had a second of regret with my choice to pursue the Border Route Trail, stopped, looked back to the safe river, then back where my board’s nose was pointed into an extremely thick bramble of branches and leaves. I just pressed through, and luckily noticed an established trail just steps further. Onto the BRT it was a breeze, and I was thankful for the trail to walk along as opposed to shallowly submerged, slippery rocks with flowing water over top. I made decent time but didn’t want to be walking with my board any more than I had to. I’d be trying to blitz the Grand Portage in just a couple more hours. Hopefully just a couple…
I had to reference my watch several times to make sure I’d get back to the Pigeon River from the Border Route Trail. I got closer and closer, and could easily tell where I had to peel back off to the river and where the BRT turned to the south. A few changes of the hand, no issues despite the rugged and muddy trail, and I got to a steep clay riverbank that I had to go down. I slipped a bit but no landslides, and made it down to the Pigeon River once again. I couldn’t paddle, unfortunately. I had my backpack on, and went through a few sections that I thought I could paddle through. Sick of carrying, I spent a bit of my travel time pushing off with one leg, my board fully in the water, knee on my board, paddle in hand. It didn’t always work and I smashed my fin and board’s bottom on lots of rocks stubbornly trying to float instead of walk. A few forks in the river threw me off, but I could always confirm with my low battery GPS watch that I was continuing on the right course. I finally came to a section of the river that was deep enough to paddle with no rapids and no terrible shallow rocks. My next mile was less than 30 minutes. PHEW. I thought that the map screen on my watch took more battery life for some reason, so tried to keep it on the timer screen. I thought that switching screens took even more battery life, but I couldn’t help it. I had to try and figure out how many more miles of this terrible Pigeon River I’d have left. I was about at mile 13 when I climbed over the dam. My 16th mile took less than 15 minutes. Things are lookin up for old Mikey, I told myself. Yet, I figured I had 11 more miles on Pigeon. Oof. The rain seemed to be letting up a little. Well, no it wasn’t. I was standing up and paddling, thinking to myself that I had to make up time, and work hard to stay warm. That was my mantra: “work hard to stay warm”. I was increasingly nervous about how cold I felt. My core was being infiltrated with cold moisture slowly and surely. Another faster mile was extremely encouraging. I had at least 10 miles until Fort Charlotte.
After over two miles of solid paddling, I was devastated to see another rapids ahead. I got my bags back on my back, unstrapped and jumped off once again. I can do this… Luckily, it was just a short jaunt and I was back to paddling quick. Paddling again was very brief, though. So I carefully set down my bags all clipped together, didn’t even pick up my board but drug it across the shallows, scraping and smashing it terribly in the process. I’d hop onto my board, push off and kneel forward at any chance I could get, which commonly resulted in banging and scraping. Regardless of the scraping, which I barely cared about that that point, I wasn’t able to cross certain areas. Large rocks prohibited my forward progress. I frequently tried to float down the terribly shallow Pigeon River by shimmying up towards my board’s nose and trying to press it down, thereby raising the tail and my fin out of the water. That worked, but then I’d jam my front up. There was no easy way to make it through. Back on my board to paddle a bit, get jammed off, jump off, schlep my board, put it back in the water to paddle, can’t paddle, repeat the process. It was brutal, and seemingly endless. Miles of walking by heavy-ass board and rain soaked gear only by trudging down a river on slippery sharp rocks. Plus, the relentless soaking rain. I started really looking forward to the Grand Portage.
I struggled for another hour in rocky rapids. That was good enough for two more miles, and I knew I was getting close. I hadn’t really eaten anything since breakfast. It was noon by the time I hit 20 miles, and I just wasn’t willing to go into my pack for anything, or otherwise stop my forward progress to get that damn shit over with. I was so sick of struggling in the rain. I figured I had 5 miles to get to Fort Charlotte.
I was lucky to get to a nice paddling section where I felt comfortable standing up. Bags went back down and I stood up. If I paddle fast, I’ll keep my body temperature up, I told myself. Work hard to stay warm, work hard to stay warm. I knew I was getting close to Partridge Falls, and thanks to my little Grand Portage National Monument brochure, knew that there was a little portage around, and could match how the river on my watch looked compared to the small section showing on that brochure, to what was showing my low-battery watch. I remembered from studying the satellite view that there was one northbound section of river which I passed long ago, then the second time the river turned north was at Partridge Falls. I paddled hard and was able to nab a few fast miles all standing up. I had to battle the weeds. There were clumps of weeds floating around everywhere, so easy to get caught up in my bashed fin. I don’t know what was more frustrating, dealing with the endless weeds or dealing with shallows that could not be crossed. They both sucked ass, but I could at least make 14 minutes in a mile while paddling. I was lucky enough to get one more mile of paddling on the Pigeon River, then came up to Partridge Falls. I was so excited. I could easily see the portage to my right, and I hooked right in to the landing with another fast transition to walking. I figured an intersecting path to the left went to the scenic falls itself, which I wasn’t interested in stopping at. I kept right. I wanted to get my board in the river. I wanted to get to the Grand Portage. I desperately wanted to get to Lake Superior. It’ll be here soon, I told myself. I kept going at a fierce clip along a double wide ATV trail or very minimum maintenance road, down a large rocky hill. I could see yet another fork in the road and chose to go left towards the river. I hoped it was correct. And if it wasn’t, well, I could probably just walk down the river like I had been for the previous 4 hours. Luckily I was able to launch on the other side. I was real close.
I was so excited to see Fort Charlotte. The rain started tapering off. Amazing. I starting running numbers. It was about 2:30pm. If I could get repacked and walking by 3pm, then do 3 hours on the Grand Portage with an average of 20 minutes per mile, I’d be good. That was do-able. I figured I’d take a moment at Fort Charlotte to charge my watch, which was below 10% but would surely make it through the final paddle. I for sure would drink as much water as I could to leave just enough for the 9-mile walk. I’d also put everything from my board onto my back somehow. I envisioned strapping my sleeping pad onto my pack’s bungee cords, then untying my bungee cords that had successfully and faithfully held my gear down for 6 days, only losing 1 out of 12 tie-downs. I pictured sliding my paddles onto my back bungee cords, which was everything. Then my board would be as light as possible and I could go further without stopping to change hands. My shoulders could take it, my hands could not. I’d eat some food for the final surge of energy I needed to finish off this trip. I wondered if I could run it… I could definitely run it. I’d run it. Why not try??
Around another bend and everything calmed down. No wind, no rain, no noises. I noticed a small beaver poking its head out. It looked at me. It didn’t slap its tail and disappear under the water. Then, I saw three other little heads poking out. I got closer and noticed they were kind of hissing at me. Those might be otters, I thought. Not so cute when they’re angrily hissing at you… They had an angry glare from their beady, black little eyes. Yeesh. To my left was visible and audible rapids. Straight on, a portage. Here we go! I was so excited. When I got closer to shore, I could easily make out the wooden stairs. Was this really it?? I saw a sign on land. I was a bit skeptical that this was the main landing at Fort Charlotte but hit the river bank and got out. Wouldn’t there be some grandiose landmark? I thought of the terrible 12 miles down Pigeon River. How in the world did they get 6-man canoes with thousands of pounds of gear down that god damn terrible shallow riverway?? Unbelievable.
I landed at Fort Charlotte, acknowledging that I was done paddling for the rest of the trip while I grabbed my board and gear and quickly tried to find my way. I saw signs pointing to the the campsites and toilet and followed. At the first campsite, I saw an unused table. I also saw campers on the other side of a fire grate. Gah… whatever. I set down my gear and hollered out to ask if I could use the table. Sure. The guy started chatting with me… asking if I was part of the WaterTribe. No, I said, and asked if he was. He said yep. Scott Timm was the guy’s name, and he said he thought my fellow ultra-distance paddleboarder Scott Baste had finished up today. He asked if he could let him know that I was on my way down. Oh yeah! I pictured finally meeting this guy. What a better spot than the end of Grand Portage? We chatted a bit as I struggled. I couldn’t get everything back into my pack. I didn’t really need to fully roll it… I just snapped the top clip closed without rolling it down at all. My gear was sticking out of the top and I was nervous it’d fall out on the jostling trek. But I couldn’t get it pressed down any further and didn’t care enough to find a better solution. My paddles barely stayed secured. They slid right down to the wet ground. I couldn’t walk like that. I told Scott “see ya” and set off. The paddles would not work on my back, and I had to set my board down just a few steps down the trail, seconds into a fresh Trail Running activity on my watch, to remove my 2 paddles from my pack’s bungee cords and just hold them in my hand. No problem. Except my hand felt like it had nerve damage. A quick charge of my watch to a comfortable 15% and a meal bar to charge my depleted energy stores set me up for the run. It was more of a shuffle, but I was running the Grand Portage. Yep, I could do this, I thought. I was happy to carry my board without anything else strapped to it. It seemed lighter.
Barely a quarter mile down the trail, and I heard and then subsequently saw someone hiking towards me with a rain poncho on. It was my mom! MOM!! I was surprised and happy to see her. I ran past her, barely stopping to acknowledge her existence. My ego got a boost and I ran a little faster. She was right on my tail, so after a couple minutes I finally started chit chatting. She asked me how it was going. Good. I asked her lots of questions, did she get the room? She told me how there were none left but they had the group rate and she got the group rate. SO DID YOU GET IT OR NO?!?! I couldn’t really think clearly. Yes, she said. Ok. She said she had been hanging with the WaterTribe people the whole week and they were tracking and had all these people, and this lady was kind of the organizer. Uh huh. This was all interesting information, but I was too braindead to absorb any information besides the most critical details. She said Scott Baste was on the Grand Portage earlier when she was out hiking. He came in around noon. NOON!?!? FUCK!! Damn it. What a crock. Oh well, it was a fun trip anyways. Wait, if he started Saturday, and we finish on the same day… My mom confirmed that I had the record locked down. She said we started almost exactly one day apart. So, that’d be about an 18 hour buffer that I’d have, if he finished up at noon and I finish up at 6pm. Sweet. Phew. My mom said that she thought that the WaterTribe thought I could do 4 hours on the Grand Portage. She said the fastest time any one of their group had done the 8.5-mile stretch was 3 hours. I wanted to do 2. The trail sign said 8.5 miles, so that’d be about 13 or 14 minutes per mile. My first mile was about 14. Nice. It was arduous, though.
I kept running, but had to stop abruptly to switch hands every now and again. I didn’t foreward my mom, I just couldn’t muster the energy or desire to announce that. Just a dead stop when I absolutely had to, the fastest possible change of hands and then back off to running the trail. My mom said my brother Andrew was out there somewhere too. Another mile about 15 minutes, and I hit a beaver pond area with a big boardwalk. Keep running. Keep shuffling. Keep it up. Let’s go. Another big blue swishy rain poncho in the distance and I saw my brother. He saw me, his eyes bugged out and big smile came on his face. I passed him quickly and we set off running all together. Shortly after the beaver pond, nobody was talking. We were running through the damp forest, wet leaves touching me all over. It didn’t matter, I had been soaking wet for hours. The rain had stopped, luckily, but everything was wet. The trail was in decent shape, a standard singletrack hiking trail. This is my game. This is what it’s all about.
I overheated and took my rain jacket off for the first time on the day. That warmth was a relief, after feeling like I was 10 minutes from low grade hypothermia had I stopped moving through the Pigeon River section. I couldn’t take it anymore, though, so had to tie the jacket around my waist during a quick stop to set down my board, step over it, hand over my two paddles to the opposite hand, then grab my paddleboard carrying strap with the other one. My hands were doing fine, but felt weird. They felt injured, but they could grip. The act of carrying my board along the trail was just overall too exhausting to bear and when shuffling along, I was constantly thinking about when I could slow down, stop and/or change hands. I just had to get to a certain point. A big uphill and I power hiked up it and past it. A few fast miles, and I just had to stop. I made over 4 miles in an hour. Hell yeah. But once I started walking it was impossible to fathom running again. I tried to a little bit, but stopped. Hiked a bit, had to stop. Switch hands, briskly walk, but I just couldn’t take it and stopped again. Tried to run again, no go. I had a 20+ minute mile, and through 6 miles I was absolutely slowing down. 251 miles in, 2 miles to go and I was gonna walk it in? Hellllll no! I started grunting more and more, which was a little embarrassing with my mom and brother well within earshot. I was swearing and felt defeated. But, I was able to get back running strictly off brain power. Really, it was more accurately a lack of brain power that made me slow down.
From the middle of the woods we came to a fairly wide dirt road. We crossed Old Highway 61, the trail went down the road for a bit, and we ran down. Then back into the woods. There were plenty of muddy low spots that we just trudged through.
It seemed like the Pacific Northwest, like a rainforest. I had put socks on before starting off on the Grand Portage, despite my soaking wet shoes, and it was a great move to make. However, they were soaked through as well by mile 7. 15 more minutes, I told myself. 15 minutes of excruciating pain left. With me out front the whole time, we only stopped so I could change hands. I could hear my brother and mom breathing heavily behind me as I struggled to complete my challenge. I was locked in. My adrenaline started pumping more and more as I sensed Highway 61 ahead. I knew it was the road crossing near Mount Josephine, then a short downhill jam to the next road, and then the fort right there, and Lake Superior right at the fort. I heard cars. Let’s fucking go.
Across Highway 61 was fun. It was a true semblance of civilization after being in the wilderness for nearly a week. Paved road, a car driving off in the distance, and the easy-to-miss road sign for motorists traveling near the US/Canada border a mile north. I changed hands while I had a wide open area to do so. It was all downhill from here, so I really brought it in. The sweet relief of not having to carry my board anymore was so close, I could smell it.
2 hours in and I was about to smash those WaterTribe people’s record. My mom was saying that I could stop at the sign. I told them I was going to the lake and I didn’t care. I hoped I could go through the fort. I sensed it was right there. I approached a newer-looking bridge with narrow railings. My board didn’t fit. God DAMN IT! Why the FUCK is this so narrow! I couldn’t handle the tiny obstruction. I shifted my hips to get my board and hand through, a turn in the trail and another duplicate bridge. Stupid. I was so mad about the bridge rails. But right after the two, a little grove of trees and I could see cars, the road, the clearing, the sign. Yup. I popped out and saw my dad peering into the forest from the road’s ditch, and my sister sitting in her car, then another old guy in a chair across the road. I said “hi” but kept running. They probably thought I’d stop at the sign, but nope. I ran right to the entrance of the Grand Portage National Monument fort. It was closed, locked up. I set down my board. Man… what do I do? Stop? No, I’m right here, and could see a path around the fort, along the palisade. I got to get to Lake Superior. The footpath led right to the lake, and I was happy to see it. There was a decent chop on the lake, debris floating around everywhere, and grey as far as the eye could see. Grey sky, grey lake, grey rocks. I jumped down a rocky embankment and into the lake. My bags got tossed down on shore, my board in the lake, and stopped my watch. DONE.
My brother ran up behind me and was yelling and hooting and hollering. We kind of just looked at each other weirdly. He was probably wondering what I was going to say. I was too braindead to think of anything to say, and too tired to even mutter words. But, I smiled. I also thought of what I told myself I’d do for several days. I’d been fantasizing about this moment. I told myself I’d jump in the lake. I did not feel like that at all. I was already pretty soaking wet, why would I need to get more wet? I took my nasty white long sleeve paddling shirt off and jumped in anyways. I told myself I’d hop on my board and kiss it. So that’s what I did. I could hear my brother laughing. Then I snapped back to reality and waded back to shore, attempting to pick my board back up. Oh, anything but this! My brother offered to help but I was already there… I just brute force tossed it up on shore, just as my dad, mom and Scott Baste in the flesh rounded the corner. My mom looked pretty tired out from the run, soaking wet just like I was. I checked on, and then stopped my tracker. Oh, that felt good too. No more worrying about the tracker, or my battery life, or my safety. DONE.
Scott commented on my board. I said it was banged up bad. He said it was in great shape. Sure… one spot was definitely chipped up. He said it was just the paint. Meh. My brother was nice enough to take my board back to my van, and I had no problem carrying my bag back. The rain kicked back up. Stupid rain. We quickly got my board onto my van and drove to the casino. I was just hunched in the back of my van, and it sounded weird back there. I was talking crazy talk… “I think the wheel is loose guys”… it just sounded weird from the back of the van instead of the drivers seat, as my dad drove us all to the casino. I think my stress hormones and adrenaline and heard rate had been so jacked up for days, I couldn’t just turn it off. When we got back to the casino, I stood in the lobby, dripping water into a puddle on the ground as the nice attendant checked my room and then came back with my room key. I had to dig out my credit card from my one tightly packed backpack, which was not ideal. But, it was worth it. My mom dropped off my fresh clothes, I took a nice hot shower, then had beer, pizza, a burger and cheese curds at the restaurant. The meal was amazing, and shared with my two parents, brother and sister. What a great meal. What a great trip.
The icing on the cake was to talk to other paddlers with WaterTribe. One guy, Beav, did the route solo in 66 hours. Scott did 6 days, 6 hours. I did 5 days, 10 hours, 30 minutes all said and done. The tips and tricks, dreams and stories from these like-minded adventure paddlers were extremely fun to hear. I felt a little weird that I wasn’t really part of the group, but they brought me in. I had a lovely time in Grand Portage, and stayed in the hotel room for two nights for full relaxation. It was wonderful. My wrists and hands bore the brunt of the damage, and were pretty fuzzy, tingly and numb, on and off the whole rest of the weekend. On Sunday, I drove back to Duluth alone, with the lovely drive down Highway 61 to reminisce.
After a very bright moon glared directly into my tent all night, my phone alarm went off at 5:15 and I immediately checked the weather. On my phone app, meteorologist Hunter said a storm was rolling in and it’d be rain on Friday into Saturday. Then he wished the viewers a happy Friday. Happy Friday indeed, Hunter! Wait, was it Friday? I was very confused. In the same weather clip from my phone app, the meteorologist alluded that it was Friday. I checked everything… phone, watch, tracking device, counting… it’s for sure Thursday. I watched the video again, he must have been mistaken. It shook me a bit by saying it was Friday twice. But the forecast itself also shook me. 10-20mph winds were in the forecast for the day, certain late morning and afternoon hours showing 15 and 17mph from the south. Intimidating. I unplugged the air stop on my sleeping pad and deflated to the ground. My hands were really sore and creaky. They felt as if someone smashed them with a soft mallet for a long long time. Swollen… just inflammation in every bone, joint, tendon and nerve in my hands. I’d need my left hand big once again today heading due east in a strong south wind. Then again, I figured that I’d be able to catch a decent leeward south shore for a lot of the day. I was hopeful, but I also learned that being too hopeful is dangerous. But I also learned that staying positive is key to cranking big miles.
I packed up quickly and efficiently. I used the very last of my toilet paper in a very economical fashion. I had been down to three or four squares at the sad bottom of a baggie. In the lightest morning light and not-so-light early wind at my back, I set off at perhaps the coolest campsite I’d camped at yet, to what should be my last campsite of this trip. Should be. Will be. Maybe I go straight through. Not on a day like today, I said. With all the inflamed tendricles from my hands concentrating at my wrist. I could feel things rubbing together. It was a slipping feeling if I gripped my paddle slightly off, or slightly changed my hand’s position. A little slip feeling, a little tinge of a nerve that radiates to my sore elbow. Why was the tip of my elbow getting more and more sore?? I figured it was my triceps getting worked hard and pulling at the connection point. I took a moment to try to reach down my back with my elbow pointing straight up from my head. My fingers made it just past my shoulders – muscles real tight – and a tendon from my armpit got way overyanked, having been in the same repetitive positions for days on end. Whoops, I wondered if I’d pulled something but it was indeed fleeting and I immediately paddled away past the campsite I saw with a bonfire the night before. I looked for the other two campsites around the Granite River area. A big north swoop was nice with a tailwind, but it turned right back south. Right away Granite River was super cool with tight narrows opening up a little bigger as I made my first few miles of the day. It was a direct headwind on the open part, but not bad paddling right into it. Yet… I knew I’d have some south stretches on scary open water. Namely, Gunflint Lake, North Lake and South Lake. From there it looked pretty narrow with plenty of leeward options. And if the wind was a touch west, I knew I’d get a little wave bending action since all of the lakes were pretty long and narrow with east-west orientations. I saw some paddlers up ahead, then immediately realized it was the group I saw at Saganaga Falls the day before, the ones with the WaterTribe group. I saw another boat or two launch from one of the final campsites in the cluster of 10 or so. I paddled past the guys. I was surprised they made it past me the night before, and asked what time they got in. They said right at dark. One guy again recommended that I go to the reception at the casino.
I planned my direction down a bay up ahead, then saw the portage itself on a dead flat, leeward swampy corner. I robotically recalled my portage process and quickly got out of the water. The three boats behind me were kind of waiting to land even with my seemingly fast transition. The portage was fun. My food bag was smaller and lighter than ever and although my hands and wrists weren’t happy to be gripping the entire board’s weight on this overstretched dumb strap. Onto the other side and I paddled quickly away, wanting to make time on the guys behind me. That was for no reason… just to prove to myself that I’m a fast paddler and fast portager by going so much faster than these other WaterTribe guys. I was gonna smash that record. I wondered when I’d see Scott. I could go through the night. I counted six portages before even sniffing Gunflint Lake, with its scary south crossing to the leeward shore. I also knew from studying the map and thinking about mileages for days, that I started the day at 180 miles. That means I had an estimated 70 miles to go. How could I do a 70-mile day? If I averaged 3mph, that’s 21 hours or so, which would be a Grand Portage arrival time of somewhere in the early morning hours. That’s less than 5 days. Or I could do a 40 and a 30 to finish it out. That’d be 40 today in tough wind. I already did that once, but these winds were supposed to be heavier. Then, 10 to get to Pigeon River, about 20 miles from there. That’d be 5 days 6 hours if I could do the last 30 miles in that 6 or 7 hours. The existing record is 7 days 10 hours. And still “5 days something”. But, in the 6th day. Really, that’s 6 days. Friday was as well looking to be pretty crappy to paddle through with rain, but at least without challening winds. For now, I just had to move.
I snaked through Granite River. It was slow but steady pushing against the wind but with plenty of narrow turns, then a portage, tiny riverway with lots of scary rocks, another portage, and so on. All 6 portages went one by one by one and I didn’t see anyone. Some of the portages were pretty rugged, some in the US and some in Canada. Towards the end I landed at a portage that was probably the most clearly marked with a large sign on land, but not on the map at all. 7 portages… The sign was for Quetico, very similar to what I saw at the Prairie Portage after Basswood Lake the day before. Dang, what I would do for perfect glass water like that day, I thought. That day was yesterday… it seemed like so long ago already.
I yanked my board out of the water, extremely fast with the paddle-to-hiking transitions, and looked up a sheer rock face. It was very steep but I made it up one step at a time. I banged up my board a little bit in the process, and could feel my heart beating more rapidly and stronger in my chest with the exertion. Paddling was pretty low intensity work, really. Hiking over rocky cliffs with a 25-pound paddleboard, and four different bags all attached together onto my backpack definitely got the ole heart pumping.
Around a falls, water still flowing against me to my right, and there was a very steep, oddly uniform rock face reminiscent of a concrete ramp you’d see at a skatepark. Down the ramp, board in the water and I paddled away quickly. I was trying to drink enough water and would pre-set how many gulps I had to take. 10 big gulps of water right now. 1….. 2….. all the way to 10. I saw a group of young girls packing up camp at a site to my right. Huh, not seeing a site listed. One of the people ran out towards the shoreline and yelled to me, asking if she could ask me a question. Yeah, I shouted back. She asked if I knew where the last portage was, right around the corner from where I came. Yup, I told her about the big rock face to the right of the rapids. As I padded away, I figured they more or less had to stay there. How stressful would that be? Stealth camping by necessity? With a bunch of young kids you’re responsible for? They did not have a pleasant paddle ahead. At least a tailwind… and after I took the last portage and got to Magnetic Lake, I got a real taste of what my battle with the wind would soon entail.
I rounded a point to Magnetic Lake, and the waves had gotten steadily larger as the narrow riverway increasingly opened up. I paddled more and more directly into the south wind. 8 and a half miles in in 3 hours meant I was making less than 3 miles per hour. Not terrible for the amount of portaging, and I didn’t have too many more of those for a while, but I was feeling decently behind getting into the mid-morning hours. I would have to average over 3mph to make 40 on the day. Onto the open waters of Magnetic, next to a sweet house on an island, I had to kneel down and then sit down to navigate the waves. They were getting to be about 2 feet high, nearly every one washing over my board’s nose. I hit them straight on, which was nice for evening out which side I could paddle on. I could easily spot the continuous leeward shore to my right, with houses perched high above on a cliffside. I wondered if I was out of the Boundary Waters by now. To the left of that, due south, was the entrance to big Gunflint Lake. I knew it was big, but couldn’t see it on my map. I had to refold soon. I looked on my watch. Big. I zoomed way out to see how far Lake Superior was. Too far to show the lakes I would be paddling on. I couldn’t be stopping, though, or else the waves would push me all over the place. They were fighting to push me the opposite way I was trying to go. As I got closer to the leeward bay on the southwest side of Magnetic Lake, I could see the bigger stretch of water and the bigger waves of Gunflint Lake through a narrow opening. God dang. Indiscernible variations in the shoreline became docks, canoes, boats, propane tanks and other personal property that I paddled past. It was a relief to get to the leeward side. Yeesh. As I took time to eat some food and drink lots of water, shake out my hands and take out my map to turn and refold it, I knew that Gunflint Lake would be a pretty raunchy ride. It looked to be about a mile of really tough paddling. I could try two miles exposed to wind, to try a straight line pinning more to the east, but that would be longer without being on a leeward south shore. I set off with my options in mind, nervous and dreading the difficult paddle ahead.
Around the edge, towards the point, the waves looked bigger and bigger as I got closer. More and more whitecaps. Ah. Was anyone out here watching me struggle? I was sitting down, completely anticipating the waves smashing me and my board. Gunflint Lake was roiling. The shoreline I was aiming for looked so far away, and that was the shortest, most direct way across. I had to go right down the pike. Right down the pike!! I thought of my inspiration, Scott. When would I see him? We started one day off, likely. The solo canoe from the day before said he saw him one or two days prior from when I saw him on the Ottertrack Lake. He could be a whole day ahead of me… Or I’ve caught almost all the way up. He’s dealing with this same wind I am either way, but I got the shitty crossing right now. The waves were cresting whitecaps, 2 feet high and smashing into my board. They turned me one way or another each time, and I was getting sloshed around on all sides and couldn’t afford to miss a paddle stroke. If I kept my board perfectly in the line of the waves, or at perhaps a slight angle, I could slice right through without too much issue. But at an angle, one wave can push me very far to the side. Two in a row, without powerful paddle strokes to keep pointed forward, and I’d be pushed completely backwards. Or potentially parallel with the waves, and potentially flipped over. I wondered if a wave could be big enough and curl enough to topple me and my bags in that situation. I remembered from my June trip on Ensign Lake how I got caught up when the waves and wind were too heavy. Back then, I was able to do a 180 degree turn pretty easily. I could always bank on that. And luckily I was making my way forward so far. The wind was whipping, though. Whipping bad. The waves were one thing, but the wind was just pushing me so hard. I could see the gusts come from a ways away. It was getting worse. It was getting harder. I had to put my arms to the true test The darkened ripples kept shooting across the water right towards me. Closer, closer, to the nose of my board and then I’d get blasted in the face with a gust of wind. C’mon baby! This is the power moment. Day 5, nearing mile 200 of 250 miles, the biggest lake left and all I had to do was paddle for 20 minutes straight, as hard as I could without stopping. Then, sweet relief.
I could see a large outfitter or resort or something on the opposite shore. That looked nice. They would probably have no idea the struggles I’m enduring, I thought to myself as I envisioned leisure vacationers on the beautiful leeward south shore of Gunflint Lake, still a ways away, relaxing in beach chairs and drinking coffee. Gusts of wind kept coming and as I got into the scarier middle of the lake, barely seeming to make ground, with the consequences of not being able to fight the waves and wind becoming greater, I wondered what would happen if I had to bail… I would get pushed way far onto the opposite shore of Gunflint Lake. There would be no coming back from that. So, I pushed hard. I had to get across. I had the power but could feel the effort of the previous day especially, not to mention an average of 44 miles per day or so before that. I’d never asked anything like this of my body before. But, this was no time to give up or go easy. I was able to paddle, and knew that once I was on the other side I’d have easy paddling. I knew I would, I had to. I had faith it’d be glassy on the leeward shore. Then that would be 5 miles on a pretty efficient route. I noticed Gunflint Lodge on the map, that’s gotta be the complex straight on. Then I picked out a point on a more southeast bearing. If I had just a tiny bit of west wind… I pleaded with the wind to give me a south southwest wind. Just a tiny bit? Please?
Land got closer and closer and bigger and bigger. I tried to pin more and more to the left, but the waves wanted to push me back to the north shore as I was at a 45-degree angle to the ever-smaller waves. So I had to switch to my overworked, painful left side to keep straight. I wanted to go more eastward but one or two strokes on my right side to turn that way and I would turn sharply with the wind. I zig-zagged a couple times, endured a couple more wind gusts streaming from the enlarging shoreline straight ahead, and it seemed so quick to calm down. The waves subsided. I continued to paddle hard, although my shoulders and forearms, wrists and triceps were gassed. I just felt like I didn’t have the same zing as I did the day before. I might have used up a little too much energy storage racking 50 miles, I thought to myself. I got to a very safe distance to shore, to where the water calmed way down and and I was able to stand up. I made it. PHEW. But no time to dwell on my accomplishment because I had some major ground to make up. My watch beeped 11 miles in nearly 20 minutes. I kept the same frenetic pace. After crashing into the waves, yelling and swearing, I felt like I was flying in the calm waters. I noticed a bit of a tailwind around the point. The west wind!! The waves curled due to the large landmass blocking the heavy south winds. Nice. I had a fast mile. I can go faster. I was cranking along the shore. My sweet spot. Is there better paddling than glass right along a nice shoreline? I was careful to get too close to any rocks, but made great time past docks, houses, other boaters, people sitting on benches. That was all mentally stimulating to see. It was great. I even commented to someone how beautiful the south shore was for blocking the wind for me. They awkwardly chuckled and probably had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. 13:16 mile, hell yeah. I went about 15 minutes per mile across the whole Gunflint Lake. What a blessing. I picked a point to turn in towards the north to get to the next lake. Off the shoreline, I rode a little raunchy downwinder. The waves got suddenly much bigger 100 feet from shore, and I was hoping I could get some benefit riding them cross-wise to get to my destination. That made it harder than going straight with the tailwind. I could have stuck it out longer to make an L-shape instead of diagonal, but in no time I found a beach that seemed to be where the next lake began. Was there a portage? I couldn’t tell. It was right on the US/Canada border, the thick lines blocking minute land features on my map. But, the closer I got I realized the beach was really just a little series of sand spits that I was able to zig-zag around. It was so nice to be out of the wind, and I paddled through a narrow sandy passageway, weeds, and a small beaver dam to get to Little Gunflint Lake without too much trouble. I wondered how the 6-person canoes with thousands of pounds of cargo made it through these narrow passages from lake to lake. They all had ’em! This route had plenty of big water crossings where 6-person or bigger canoes would just absolutely fly, but also there were probably hundreds of areas where I couldn’t even fathom how they made it through without hours-long portages that were taking me 10 minutes.
At the end of the shallow and narrow Little Gunflint Lake, I encountered an unexpected portage, but I was extremely efficient at that process and it took no time. It was so excellent to feel like the wind and waves were pushing me. Finally… After three solid days of fighting the wind, and digging deep in the tank to cross Gunflint, it was such an amazing relief to know that getting to the windiest part of the day, I had favorable wind and waves if I could stick to a south shore. And I had plenty of opportunities to do so for the rest of the day, through Mountain Lake really, which I figured would be the lake on which I’d hit 40 miles for the day. I scootched through narrows towards the very intimidating North Lake and hit 20 miles at nearly 6 hours, giving me 3 miles per hour on average. That was good given my slow first handful of hours. I really made up good time on Gunflint. High noon and I figured I could paddle at least another 6 hours with no problem to hit 40, which left me 30 on the last day. In fact, I figured that if I stopped now for whatever reason, due to the wind or waves or exhaustion or emotional breakdown, I’d have a 50 mile day to finish it off. I already did one of those, I figured, and could still finish this thing off and make restaurant dinner at the Grand Portage casino. I started thinking in that way… how many miles left in total, or if I was to stop now how many miles would remain for Friday.
North Lake required a large water crossing, straight south or even a bit southwest to the portage to South Lake. That was another lake crossing to the leeward south shore, but North Lake was one or two miles from a windy point to the portage by my guess. Another one or two miles straight into a headwind was daunting. I felt like I almost had a catastrophic issue on Gunflint. The wind had likely only gotten stronger and gustier. I rounded the point and started to see waves bending around the land mass. Yeesh, here we go! I told myself I could get lunch soon.. maybe at the next portage. I wasn’t even that hungry. I drank lots of water, though, to prime myself up for the challenge ahead and knowing that I probably wouldn’t get to stop until I got to the other end. A couple mental primers and I set off, sitting all the way down and after making sure all of my gear was strapped down and couldn’t get swamped or blow away. The waves would be running over everything. I knew they would. As my field of view opened up, the waves grew and the wind started smacking my face head-on, I could easily see the portage location. There were massive cliffs to the left. Nice, I thought, they’d block the wind better. I paddled straight on to the portage, wondering what strategy would be best. I figured I could pin east, to my left, to get to the leeward south shore then head west in. Or, I wondered if it’d be better to pin east and try to stick by land the whole time. I didn’t think due south would be feasible. Hanging to my right, I could peel into a little bay, then stick to another narrow point of land. Neither was optimally efficient… I pinned to my right right away, hugging the peninsula tight. It was definitely wavy and windy. I yelled. The gusts were immense. I could see them coming from 50 feet away, those ominous dark ripples. Then they’d just smack you in the face. I hid behind the next point. Just gotta do that distance twice in a row across the big bay, I said. But, I also knew that the closer I got to the south shore, the easier the winds would be. So I set off and paddled hard as shit. Last hard one of the day, let’s go!! I yelled out. GAHHH!! I was putting it all on the line by trying to generate powerful and deep strokes every time. I could tell that the south shoreline to the east of the portage kind of bowed out. I’d aim for that then, I said. I peeled to the left, trying to get near land as soon as humanly possible. The gusts were hard to deal with. At least I could predict them, though. Waves were probably on average of 2′ high from the trough to the peak. Every single wave washed over my board, rushing under all of my bags then spilling over the tapered sides of my board. Before long, I could tell I made it. It wasn’t nearly as bad or scary as Gunflint. Thank god… The winds started to bend more from the west than the south the closer I got to the south shore, which didn’t give me the break I’d hoped for. I could only recover by getting onto my knees, instead of sitting all the way down, and paddling towards the increasingly identifiable portage at a nice, sandy beach. I decided I’d eat lunch there. Before 12:30, I had my feet in the water, nose barely touching the sand and gravel beach between North and South Lakes, aptly named North South Portage on the map, and all my packs opened up.
I wasn’t willing to eat the spreadable cheese I had, so that remained in a squished-together baggie in my lunch bag. My food stores were getting so beautifully low. I had two dinners left, two lunches, one breakfast and probably a whole day’s worth of calories comprised of random non-meal-worthy snack items. After lunch of turkey meat sticks and potato chips, plus some candy and a mandatory 10 gulps of water from my near-empty water bladder, I was able to enclose my entire food stores for after today’s paddle in my food bag with the straps fully tightened. It was round, like a mini-basketball. I also requested a new weather forecast. It was looking good for the rest of the day. Diminishing winds, slight chance of rain late, 8pm or so, definite rain the next day while I’d be packing up the morning and setting off, then rain. It didn’t really matter at that point unless there was lightning. Bring on the waterworks, I’ll be paddling down the scenic Pigeon River at that point, not a care in the world! I noticed on the current forecast some additional data, namely a wind gust reading. The max wind gust listed was 30mph. Whoa. It was a strenuous, arduous crossing of North Lake, but I didn’t really think to put a number on the wind gusts themselves. 17mph with 30mph gusts. Fuck yeah. Let’s go. I did it. That prompted me to set off and keep making miles. After filtering a new batch of water for my hydration vest’s bladder, I got hiking. I seemed to be reacting slower. My brain said “go” but I just couldn’t efficiently and hastily unclip the clips I needed to, unbungee my bags, heave them onto my shoulders to set off walking. But, I made it in no time. I felt braindead, relying on sheer repetition and/or just thinking about it a lot. Either way, I had really optimized my paddle-to-portage-to paddle transitions. I made it to South Lake in no time, and set my board right in. I pushed off for yet another southerly lake crossing.
Onto South Lake, I realized quickly that I had it easy. The waves were small and the wind was negligible. It was a major relief, and waves seemed to be pushing more from the west than from the south right away. I took advantage, but veered south to try to be within a strike’s distance of the safe, leeward south shore. South Lake was still pretty bit, but my caution seemed to be unnecessary. Perhaps it was the large hills jutting up from the far shoreline. The absolutely beautiful and stunning land features were also helping me. What a treat. It had become cloudy for the past few hours, which was fine by me. It was a comfortable temperature and there was no rain to speak of. I made good time across South Lake with some solid sub-15 minute miles. Back to back miles over 4mph and I was across South Lake. PHEW. That was the true last hard crossing. Although Rose Lake looked pretty big as well, I could more closely follow a shoreline to get to the south shore. It looked better. And if South Lake was any indication of how the wind and waves can kind of bend around features, the general east-west lake orientation and my due east bearing sould make for no big battles with the wind, and perhaps decently fast downwind paddling. I was hopeful. I GOT HOPE! I yelled that out for all to hear. I noticed the Border Route Trail shown on my map, with hikers probably able to view me from afar but not me them due to the thick brush. I looked around, became wobbly, and realigned my gaze to my paddleboard, where I’d been staring for the majority of 4.5 days straight.
As I looked extra close, I figured there were two portages in a row, with Rat Lake inbetween. I thought that rats were only in the city where my house in Duluth is, not up here. Maybe it’s shaped like a Rat, I pondered. The portages went really fast. Rat Lake was full of lilly pads. My board’s fin seemed to be staying very weed-free during the trip so far, for which I was very thankful. I headed on a north bearing around a point to get to another small portage. I could see the other side, with a campsite just to the right, and a creek that sure looked to flow in the same direction I was traveling! Excellent! Instead of wandering around the campsite to try to find a portage trail, I figured I’d keep my bags on board and walk down the crick. I had issues doing this twice already, 0 for 2 times trying to make my way without removing my bags from my board and both times I regretted it. But, I could practically see the next lake so unstrapped my ankle leash and started walking my board. Tromping through creek rocks, I made it pretty well for a bit, but then rocks got closer to the surface and many stuck out, and my fin was not a fun item to drag through. I had to either lift up my board or press on the nose to raise the fin out of the water, and finally came to a natural or semi-beaver-made dam at the end. I once again try to bear hug my board to lift it, bags and all, above the obstructions to the open Rose Lake. It barely worked and I wondered if I’d ever learn that that method was slower and less efficient than just portaging like normal with bags on my back and board gripped from the handle aside my hip. I was excited for the prospect of the water flowing with me. Although, it didn’t feel like it either way. I tried to check my fin for weeds but couldn’t really tell. I spent unnecessary time and energy trying to check. My dang backup paddle had somehow come loose and wasn’t sticking up out of the water the way I wanted. It kept falling to the side and acting like a rudder. I didn’t notice evidence of it, but required the peace of mind that the stupid paddle wasn’t negatively affecting me in some way. I had to fix that for my last day, I told myself. I wondered if I felt slower because my board was slowly filling up with water due to a crack somewhere or something. It seemed to be sitting low… it seemed to be sitting lower than normal all week thus far. Then again, no it didn’t. And was that even possible to happen?? Maybe I felt slower because my muscles and tendons were tired and my hands hurt and I had 27 miles on the day. A 14-minute mile confirmed that I was moving along just fine.
The cliffs along the arrows leading into Rose Lake were amazing. When Rose Lake opened up, I heard a waterfall. The low, whispy grey clouds swirled around a trailing peak along the south shore of Rose Lake. I aimed towards the furthest looking south shore, which was likely two miles away. 13-something mile, another one a little faster, and I told myself I could go under 12 minutes if I really tried. I couldn’t though. My mind was always too preoccupied… wayfinding, trying to run math on my location or how long I had to go, studying the map and plotting simulations on the next mile or hour or afternoon. Or, checking the forecast, trying to drink water, fiddling with my tattered, smelly paddling gloves, or dealing with not-perfectly-even bungee straps. I had to check to see my ankle strap hanging into the water (or not), my hat being perfectly aligned on my head or splashed water obscuring my map view through the damaged gallon baggie I was using to hold it. By the time I got across Rose Lake, I was feeling pretty confident. Miles flying by, making good time with 30 miles on the day and less than 9 hours in. I was nearing 3pm and only 40 miles to go for tomorrow if I was to lay up to camp right here, right now on Rose Lake. Although, all the sites were clearly taken.
I approached a max-size group of four canoes and probably 9 young girls finishing up their portage with some seated and patiently awaiting to depart. That helped me locate the portage, and to look extra cool I put some thought and effort to making a fast departure. I had scoped the upcoming portages and was confused. It looked like there were several trails in the area including the Border Route Trail and portages on the US and Canada side. I saw were a handful of separate three-digit portage rod lengths listed and wondered if I’d get to paddle between them or if they all lined up to one big hike. If the past was any reference, the short paddles in between would be either weedy, shallow, rocky, potentially decent paddling, or a most likely combination of all of the above. As strenuous as long portages were, by far the slowest part of traveling was the transition between paddling and portaging and then to paddling again. It was sheer dead time, unless the wind was luckily pushing you in the correct direction. The process must remain as: remove bags while the board is flat, then portage with the board sideways and I’m gripping the strap, then the board has to go flat again, and then the bags go back on. I could barely move the board while flat despite trying really really hard and struggling three times over the days. And the bags can’t be on the board when it’s sideways, so the bag prep has to be on the water. I can’t paddle and do that at the same time, so therefore it’s completely dead time. The only way to be fast overall was to paddle constantly without stopping, remove and replace my bags from my board to my back as fast as possible, hoist my board and trudge ashore as fast as possible by running if necessary, then portaging at a maximized and focused pace. On the other side, I had to find a suitable spot to drop my board, get on top and strap in my ankle strap, remove and replace my bags from my shoulders to my board under bungee cords, then paddle away as fast as possible. I had it down, and when I asked the group at the end of Rose Lake if this portage was long like it looked to be on the map, I as OK with one girl blurting out that it was 1.5 miles and it was “the worst”.
Onto a potentially miles-long portage, I noticed my hands feeling pretty weird right away. My grip strength was great. It felt locked in. I was getting decent mileage before I absolutely had to switch hands, but the relief was increasingly brief and at a certain point my grip and forearms were screaming in discomfort all the time, and I just tried to ignore it. That was fairly normal, though, whereas the slipping feeling that I reasonably guessed to be inflamed tendons and ligaments and nerves all getting smooshed together was kind of a unique sensation. It didn’t feel good but didn’t necessarily hurt. I could just feel my hand nerves being encroached on and sending off some damage control request signals to my brain. Then the frontal lobe of my brain overrode those signals to tell my hands to grip and proceed forward to the next fallen tree in the distance. Then I’d get rewarded with sweet relief and a transfer of pain to my other damaged carrying hand. It was very mental.
The portage didn’t stop. I didn’t have an opportunity to paddle. I didn’t even see water. I was fortunate enough to be on the Border Route Trail proper and see the line on my watch’s map screen. I figured it was going to be two miles of a continuous portage all in all. So I counted on that. That’s a long-ass portage. Damn… On and on, I just tried to think about how hard I could stretch, how far I could go without changing hands. Then, when I absolutely had to change hands, I picked the most effective spot to quickly swap hands and proceed on. It was painful, but I could make good time with very little time completely stopped. The bugs were thankfully pretty pleasant. I saw a few mosquitoes, and would get pretty paranoid that I’d stepped into a bug hotspot if I saw more than one at a time, but it was a complete non-factor. Thank god. There were wide open swampy sections, sections with brush and tight turns that would scrape and catch my board, foam sleeping mat and bungee cords. The portage had areas easy to flip my 14′ stand up paddleboard around my waist to change sides, and steep and rocky, tightly wooded areas where even setting my board down was unsuitable. I approached a fork in the trail, one going south and other continuing to Mountain Lake eventually. I noticed the creeks to my left flowing against me. What the heck? I obsessively checked my watch’s map to attempt to put my mind at ease and confirm I’m on the right path. I saw the sign indicating the options for the three-way intersection and I continued on the Border Route Trail to the left instead of Daniels Lake Trail to my right. I went up and down a lot of hills, and added just a couple small scuffs to my board as my completely extended carrying arm failed to absorb shocks and undulations from the technical trail. The first split after a full mile on the portage flashed well over 20 minutes. Meh. 20 more minutes of agony. I thought of how many people were watching along on my tracking website. Maybe none. 3pm on a Thursday? Who knows. Then again, now is where it gets interesting. It was so easy for my mind to get completely focused on the exact task at hand in every passing moment, but it was fun to zoom out and think that I’d gone over 210 miles in the past 5 days, folding and refolding and turning over and refolding each of the three maps and I was nearing my last fold or two to show Mountain Lake and my campsite for the night.
I was nasty. Portaging generated a lot more body heat that paddling on the windy open water. I hadn’t jumped in the lake all day and many factors multiplied onto one another to make me feel pretty gross. I then saw a couple of hikers in sandals and casual wear. They stopped me to ask about Rose Lake, I told them a mile or mile and a half that way, and pointed behind me. I was maybe mumbling a little bit more than my normal self after a great night sleep and some coffee, for instance. Then in passing I awkwardly apologized for the smell. I shouldn’t have said anything, and it came off as neither a funny self-depreciating joke or a realistic warning. It was just in the in-between, a bad joke lost in comedy hell. Fuck. This portage is long. They told me they were out camping as well, and their boat was tied up at the portage. I asked how far it was, they said not too long as I’d started back walking and turned a corner, making further conversation impossible. I zoomed off with my board tucked under my arm and tight to my hip, speeding down a technical descent to look super cool and fast and to feed my ego in front of the well-meaning adventurers.
Keep moving, keep moving. Not too long, they say?! What the heck is that supposed to mean? I nearly gave them an itinerary trip plan to Rose Lake. “1 to 1.5 miles which would take 17.5 to 22.5 minutes depending on your walking speed and with no stops”. They give me “not too long” to the much anticipated portage?? That little girl at Rose Lake was right – this was the worst! At least the weather and conditions were prime. It was just so tedious and painful to carry my paddleboard. Yet, I could crank fucking ass. I got to the sweet end of this massive portage between Rose Lake and Rove Lake or Arrow River or Watap Lake or wherever the hell I was. I didn’t care, I had a nice long and narrow waterway to paddle down, then the listed Watap Portage of 89 rods and then Mountain Lake to my final destination for the day. Although, I knew that lake was perhaps over 5 miles long in its entirety. Campsites were spread out along the narrow lake’s south shore. Hopefully I’ll have a selection, I thought to myself. Please god, give me options!
I took extra time after pushing off onto the open water to eat a snack or two, drink lots of water and strap down all my stuff. I also jumped in the lake, which I told myself I had to do. I didn’t want to get my face under the water so kind of hopped in and immediately grabbed at my board, hung on for a second and reboarded.
Looking at the map, I saw little northbound travel which would be nice with the southerly wind, but the vast majority of the next handful of miles eastbound with a shoreline right to my right side blocking wind, so knew I’d have good paddling for a nice stretch of lake. And I certainly did. The sun peeked out a bit, the peaks off in the distance of all directions were fantastic, and I was only 35 miles from Lake Superior. 27 miles from Fort Charlotte at the start of Grand Portage. Only 15 miles from the Pigeon River. I could do that in the rest of this day, I thought, then leave the 20 remaining miles for Friday. Given it was about 4:20pm, that’d be to South Fowl Lake, the last one before Pigeon, at about 8:30pm. Nah…. but encouraging to put it all in perspective given the immense distance I’d covered. I told myself I could just keep plugging along without stopping for my customary afternoon break. Then I’d get to camp early and could set up before any rain came in. It looked unlikely that it’d rain much if at all before pitch darkness at 9 or 10pm. Still, any additional light, warmth or dryness that I could utilize before bedtime would be worth stopping early for. So I continued on to the Watap Portage without any stops.
I enjoyed calm paddling up to Watap Portage and then blitzed the walk with no issue. My last portage of the day was fast and efficient and I was on Mountain Lake in no time. It seemed a little bit choppy right away, but I got to the nice south shore and passed an occupied campsite in no time. I enjoyed a sweet downwinder, the best of the day by far. The waves and wind were pushing me. I felt gusts through my back and watched the dark ripples flutter out in front of me. That is so much better than seeing them coming to smack you right in the face, like what I experienced when battling a headwind on Gunflint Lake. I thought it was funny get both spectrums on the same day. Thank god I had smooth sailing on my final stretch. My 37th mile was in 12:37 thanks to the breeze assist. Hell yeah. Thank god. I don’t believe in god… thanks be to allah, thank whoever! Thank you ancient wind gods! Another 12 something as I stared down the very long Mountain Lake. Gah, the miles-back shorelines were sometimes so defeating. A close US shoreline to my right helped keep the route interesting. I tried to pick out each campsite, figuring they were about a mile apart. I couldn’t even get close to being able to pick out indicative changes to the shoreline from one site to the next. The campsite icon seemed to frequently block an important feature of the land, like a hooking peninsula or rocky bump-out that each perfect campsite would be situated on. I wondered if voyageurs and native woodspeople used these naturally suitable sites for camping as well. I mean, ya gotta cook and sleep and poop somewhere! 12:22 was my last mile of the day, with 40 total. That was likely to be the fastest mile I’d done on the entire trip thus far. Mile 220. How lucky could I be to do that? I’d had 5 days of extremely favorable conditions. I figured I could push the limit and take a site on the exact edge of my map fold. As I neared another site, I tried to scope across a shallow sweeping bay to find the site and determine if someone was there. I couldn’t see that far, plain and simple. There was maybe a spot on shore where there was maybe the signature tan kevlar of most BWCA canoes pulled onto the shore of the site, or tan covered rocks or a downed tree or a large moose standing perfectly still or just another in a billion 20′ stretches of shoreline that are all tremendously unique and different while all stringing together to create a largely homogenous BWCA. Lake after lake after lake, deep blue waters, grey rocky shoreline, dark brown and green trees and blue and white skies encompassing every horizon and overhead. It’s disorienting, but when you really analyze the landscape, one’s spot on a map tends to be obvious. It wasn’t obvious to see if the next site was taken, and to proceed from there would require refolding my map. I saw a campsite to my right tucked into the woods. There was no prime rocky outcrop to collect water and view the lake and enjoy a sunset. I could easily tell it was vacant as I sailed by on a nice wave. It wasn’t even 6pm yet, so to stop now would be my shortest day. But, what if I could stop now, set up well for a solid next day to finish it out, and make absolute sure that I could set up my tent and everything for the certain rain overnight? Yup, the decision was easy and I took a hard right towards shore, pulling into a back entrance to the site with a pretty easy, calm landing. I schlepped my light- and manageable-feeling bag systems ashore, then pulled my board way up onto the trail to set it upright on a tree. I was nervous to be in the trees and have another dewey morning, but then remembered that it was set to rain overnight. I’d be getting all my shit wet regardless. In fact, the trees could provide excellent shelter! Plus I wouldn’t need any of my camping gear any more once I set off the next morning. I came up to a super cool, nestled and woodsy campsite for my final night in the Boundary Waters.
I carefully scoped out my tent site to ensure maximum drainage. I raked some duff out of the way with my precious camp sandals to ensure that water could flow to the lake from around my tent site. I spread all my gear out around a super cool fire grate area and started with the tent. I finally would put my rain fly on after 4 nights in a row open to the night sky. I was excited to be enclosed. I figured it might be an uncomfortable next morning but all I’d have to do is shove my shit in, close ‘er down watertight and hit it. My next time unpacking could potentially in my basement in Duluth, I remembered.
I stopped my tracker when I made sure it beamed my site for the night. I remembered to double check to turn off the device, and was completely possessed to do that check frequently at camp. I decided I’d start a fire and take a swim in the lake. I wasn’t overheated and didn’t really care about the stench of my shirt, but was hoping to somehow get a handle on the inflammation starting from my hands and going through my wrists, down my forearms to elbows, then back to my back, core, shoulders. Some arm circles in the cold water, then a fire and smoke treatment should do the trick, I told myself.
I got a fire going after struggling to ignite a twig pile without birch bark. My tent was set up very tightly, my sleeping system ready to roll, food laid out pretty well and lots of stuff drying out by the fire. I got dinner going, a teriyaki rice side with tuna packets, then went swimming. It felt nice but also a little scary. What if I can’t dry out or warm up? What if I slip and fall on the rocks? Or get my ween bit off by a river otter? I did a few arm circles, flexed my hands and wrists outward and circled them around in the water, clenched my fists then released and stood up and walked out of the lake. It felt great, and I dried off in front of the fire, which was ripping at that point. I got dinner mostly made and started sorting my food stores for the remaining trip. Plenty of food for tonight, breakfast for tomorrow, and lunch and snacks for the final push from Fort Charlotte 9 miles to Lake Superior on the Grand Portage. I felt a light rain start and looked up. Ominous clouds. Crap. I got the drying items shoved into my backpack or into my tent and then enclosed everything in my tent’s rainfly vestibule. I continued to cook in the rain and the extremely minor drizzle stopped. Sweet. I got my map out and peeped the next day. Short. I did my final fold and stuck it back in the damaged gallon baggie. I organized my snacks for the night and started eating dinner by the fire. I threw some logs on to get it roasty toasty once again. I housed my meal pretty quickly, then slinked off to my tent as the rain picked back up and it got dark.
My last night’s sleep was kind of comfy and kind of unpleasant. I liked having the rain fly on for once, and I felt nice and safe and enclosed. I could also sense my entire stinking paddling uniform and gear and rain jacket and rain pants all shoved into my bag, and was not pleased with crap strewn all about my small tent. I eventually shut off my headlamp at a good hour and had my alarm set for nice and early to get going on my last day with no time to waste. I didn’t have cell service. I figured it’d be raining by the time I get up and start paddling. I got very sleepy by looking at my final final map, a brochure for Grand Portage National monument, which shows the last half mile of the 12-mile paddle down the Pigeon River, and the Grand Portage. I thought about the voyageurs, and about indigenous people perhaps sleeping under this same tree, just trying to make it back to safety and comfort at Grand Portage. During the night, I woke up several times to my hands completely numb, as if I had slept on them and cut off the blood flow. But no, they were just laying right on my chest. Inflammation was causing a tingling numbness enough to wake me up. Luckily I didn’t need them for a full day. 20 miles of paddling left. I was close. I’ve made it this far. It happened several times where I woke up to numb hands. Each time I shook my hands and drifted back off.
My watch’s alarm went off early – 5am. The moon was bright all night. My sleeping bag was pretty moist. I could tell it was a little wet towards my feet. Ahhhh crap. Not good. I laid back down and shut my eyes just for a moment. I checked my phone – yep, I made a backup alarm. Eyes closed, I could just feel the dew all over everything. I could feel it throughout the night, but was able to curl into a ball and comfortably sleep well in my dry cocoon. But, what was I ever going to do about my wet bag now?! What a dilemma. I couldn’t even get back to sleep despite being extremely sleepy. My hands were definitely sore. Just creaky, having stiffened through the night. I pulled the plug on my air mat. Time to roll, I can’t make the same mistake waking up late, I told myself scoldingly. I shook my finger at myself, then packed my wet shit into each respective bag. It’s like ripping off a band-aid – get it done without hesitation or thinking and deal with the consequences later. Cold legs don’t matter.
It was pretty dark out, although I had a great vantage from my site to the opposite shore of Basswood Lake as the sun was rounding the horizon out of sight from the east. Headed straight east, let’s go! I could tell it was going to be a clear day. I got an updated forecast before I set off. I didn’t know how many forecasts I got. I always selected the “Basic” forecast instead of the “Premium” option. I had started to memorize the screens and commands to pull a new weather forecast and did it quickly. Yup, still looking prime. Pretty much 2 or 4mph from the west or southwest, or north northwest? Hey, if it’s 2mph I don’t care where it’s coming from. I was excited to crank.
I fiddled with my board a bit – I was questioning the light setup. I strapped on my bike light to my dry bag backpack and carefully nestled it so it’d be pointing downwards. I got my backup handle out. Now you’re thinking, Mike! I strapped the light around the shaft and wedged the handle end into the bundle of bungee cords protecting my entire livelihood from the bottom of Basswood. Meh, good enough for me, and I pushed off before 6am for once, into the pretty dark, but pretty light morning of Day 4.
I had my headlamp on and was kneeling. The last thing that’s going to happen is I smash a rock and fall off into Basswood Lake again. Although, I’d warm up before too long. It was forecasted to be hot with no wind. I thought about thru-hiking back in 2016, where I once took a lunch break on a bridge to air out and dry my dewey, soggy camp gear. What is more effective, I wondered? To stop and air out in the heat of the day, or just crank ass to get to the campsite and potentially deal with wet gear? Hmm.
It was a beautiful morning. After very little time I had my headlamp off, and only turned it on to peek at the map, which was still hard to read in the dim dawn of day 4. That means… Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, WEDNESDAY! My brother and sister were set to arrive at Grand Portage tomorrow, my dad today. I didn’t know for sure what my mom was doing, or Em. I thought of who might be tracking me… my homies? My work people like Jake who was cheering me on? Dang, what about that project I was about to schedule… I should have sent an email that I was out. Crap. Work stuff is the last thing I should think of right now. The stress of even thinking of what is going on in my absence is detrimental. So is this paddling to my hands… I had my tattered glove tips shoved back in and my watch cuff tucked in as well. Who would think that I had my shit on such lock?!? Well, nobody is out there, and nobody is probably tracking me at this hour. It didn’t take too long to get too warm and take off my rain jacket, pull my headlamp down around my neck, turn off my front light that really didn’t do anything, and stand up. Two miles under 14 minutes was a good sign headed around Ottawa Island onto a nice extended south shore with a few nice bays and peninsulas to spice it up. It was daunting to see so far down the lake and know I was headed to the smallest, furthest away possible shoreline. But I wanted to hit 12s. My body was feeling good. I’m getting trail strong, I told myself. It was true… I felt different from other days. My hands even felt great as I tagged an hour in on the day. My deep, previously sharply painful yet not-fully-formed blisters went away somehow, instead of getting worse like I feared. Due east, baby!
I made good time headed right into the sun. It felt like the first day on that sweet south shore of Rainy Lake with the morning sun deep orange and right in my eyes. Pull the hat down and crank fucking ass! I figured I could really bust ass and make 4mph in the good conditions. My arms would be able to take it. I can physically make miles today. I knew it. In fact, I thought about how I could still do 5 days. Why not? It was looking a little dicey towards the end of the weather update from the morning on my inReach. It only went out 30 hours or so, and although this day looked prime, the next day, Thursday, looked a little rough with 10mph winds in the morning. Then, a mystery. I’d have to get another updated forecast to see. I told myself I could wait until lunch, or my afternoon stop, to check again. Because, between now and then, what difference does it make? None. I remembered the original forecast called for rain or thunderstorm potential on Friday into the weekend, but my memory wasn’t very good, and 6 days is still decently far out to forecast. But, I’d found through other BWCA trips that weather forecasts were pretty accurate when it came down to it. Since I started at 5:45am or so, I could paddle 7:45pm or so. That’s the 14 hours I thought I could do all along, and hadn’t really even sniffed it… I was two hours off that the day before! So that’s… 10 by 4 is 40 plus 4 by 4 is 16… 56 miles? Sheesh. I ran the math on how many I had done thus far… I knew I did 90 the first two days. That was easy to remember. Then just under 40 the day before makes 130. So, that’s 5 miles over halfway. Halfway… sweet. That was a fun reminder, but also a little daunting. Only halfway? But the last bit would be at least different than this endless lake paddling. I was excited for the portage. Having walked by board down to Lake Superior so many times during training, I felt like I was about in as good as shape for the portage as any other part of the trip. Even on the high end, 60 miles would put me at 190 today, leaving a final 60 mile day to make under five days. I figured I was just about at 3 days and 1 hour or so. One 60 miler, wake up and do whatever it’d take to get to Grand Portage. I’d finish this day around 9pm if I can really crank, and then hike the final miles of Grand Portage essentially in the dark. Then what, hope the casino restaurant was open? Hope my dad has tasty food in his trailer? That one is a definite possibility, though. Drive to Grand Marais for the McDonalds? Do they even have a late-night food option? Gah. Or… go through the night. What if, I thought, I could just go full send? One push from here? I could avoid the wind that was looking to be against me once again on Thursday, and really put up a good time. I could do 3mph through the night. Even 2mph. What about 3mph average to finish it off? 3 for 100 miles is 33 hours or so, add a few more in… like 40 hours? From 8am Wednesday, that’d be like 10pm the next day? Jesus that’d be rough. But so badass.
As I paddled to the anticipated Prairie Portage to get to Birch Lake and Knife Lake, and the straight northeast waterway to Saganaga that I figured would be very fun in the calm conditions, I tried to envision actually going through the night. I assumed that past Gunflint Lake would be lots of portaging. Could I do that at night? I thought a lot about making a big push. I tried to psyche myself up about it, as if I pondered it enough that it might actually happen. But, all I can do now, I told myself, is make miles while the gettin’ is good. As the sun rose higher out of my direct line of sight, became more yellow than orange and my miles stacked up, the boat traffic increased. I got some interesting looks. Out to the next point, across the next bay and by no time I was making a turn to the end of Prairie Portage. There was a bit of boat traffic and I could see some big signs and a clear landing straight on, and then another dock to my right, on the US side. There were a bunch of young bros, and they were all staring at me dead on. It was funny. I saw a canoe team depart the landing straight on, and could see the sign indicating it was Quetico and therefore on the Canadian side. I wondered what direction was best. I paddled straight on, which was where the other paddlers were coming from. Nice, I crossed them close enough to ask if I should portage at that same spot. They said I should, so I pushed on and landed ashore. I noticed my food bag was smaller than ever. I jumped in the shallow water on the gravely and sandy beach landing and started gathering my items. A suited person came up to me and asked a general question like “so you’re paddling?” “Yup”. He certainly looked like he was a Quetico ranger. I quickly wanted to ask if I could portage there. Yep! He told me there was an old treaty somewhere that said US and Canadian travelers could portage on either side as long as that’s all they do. So, I shouldn’t stop and start a fire. I wanted to make a joke so goofily said something stupid, like “or set up camp huh?? HUH?!? Ha ha ha, he he”. Oh noooope! He agreed. He also commented that his colleague hadn’t seen a stand up paddleboard for years and years and now he’s seen two in two days. A guy the day earlier, and now me. Oh, hmmm!? I wondered if that was Scott. It sure looked like the previous record holder Scott Baste was going to start the Kruger Waddell Challenge from Sha-Sha on Saturday and I wondered if I’d see him. I asked if it was maybe a little older guy, looking like he was making good ground. The ranger commented that he didn’t know… he had more stuff than me, though. I mumbled a few niceties, wished him well and confidently set off across the portage. The last thing I wanted was to have another confrontation like two days before at the motor portage to Loon Lake. That seemed like a lifetime ago.
I hiked up and over Prairie Portage with ease. Water was still flowing against me, I could see. I remembered that that was the case through Saganaga as well, and wondered when I’d be going with the water. I didn’t dwell too long at the dam or rapids or falls or whatever was at Prairie Portage. There were big buoys indicating that you would probably ruin your boat by getting too close. I got a little confused in Sucker Lake before it turned into Birch Lake. The dang border line was too thick to see minor islands on the map. I fiddled with my watch, trying to zoom in. I went to the right of an island due to three back-to-back-to-back speedboats to my left of the tiny island. I had to swerve around the island to get back on track, plus navigate the waves crashing onto my board and swamping my gear. Hey, as long as it all stays strapped down, I reassured myself. It did. Getting into a nice narrow, I could begin to see the long Birch Lake. The water was dead flat. Not a ripple, besides my board slicing through with each powerful stroke. Ahh, finally. I saw a loon. I was in a good mood but held myself back from talking to the animal, referencing a scary experience back in June on a lake I’d be crossing in just a few hours. I couldn’t see it on the map yet – it cut off at Knife. The flat water was exciting. Time to crank. 13:12. Faster. I can go faster. The next mile was 13:05. I was zooming across Birch Lake. I could see underwater rocks very far away, with the sun illuminating many feet below the clear water and the perfect glassy surface making each looming fin-smasher easily avoidable well in advance. 12:29. Hell yeah. Fuck yeah. More. I stopped for water. I made myself drink five big gulps. Then back off. I wanted to make sub 12. I paddled hard to do it. 13:18. Dang water stop.
I could see a few portages coming up on the map that I vaguely remembered from June when doing this same stretch to Saganaga. One bigger portage to start. Before I got there I planned out the portage in my mind. Kneel down, unclip hydration vest from pack, move the bags up, move bungees off the food bag, shove it back towards the nose, move bungees off the backpack, hoist backpack onto my shoulders. Unclip safety bag from my board, toss hydration vest with clipped safety bag on my shoulders over the backpack, unstrap ankle strap and strap to handle, jump off, grab paddle, lift board out of the water and run down the portage. Then, I executed. Well, I didn’t run the portage, but I hiked fast and made excellent time. I didn’t plan out the other side as well, but it went fast. Hydration pack off my shoulders over the top of my head in between my kneeling legs, swing the pack around to the front of my board and bungee it down. Clip hydration vest to both my backpack and my paddleboard handle strap. Proceed with paddling as fast as possible. I wanted to test my speed on the next little portages that were on the map. Small lake, extremely fast portage, little narrow stretch, portage. I could see an upcoming hike looking to be in Canada and one in the US at the very end of the map. It looked from my watch that that was the entrance to Knife Lake. I didn’t remember it from June, though. Was it really that long? Over 100 rods? I sent it. Not too bad. I could tell with just a couple portages under my belt that my grip strength suffered. I had to change sides more often. I remembered one other harder portage of the day, with lots of border pylons marking that it was between the USA and Canada. I had plenty of paddling before that. And, plenty of paddling after that with the big Saganaga Lake to look forward to on a calm day. PHEW. I knew I had to cross that today. I figured it’d be doable, but it’s a long way northwest. I figured 10 to 20 miles.
At the very western edge of Knife Lake, I took the time to nicely fold the Boundary Waters West map and take out the last of three maps, Boundary Waters East. I couldn’t believe I was on my last map already. This one would take me in. It was kind of a cool milestone. I spent some time to eat food and drink water. I had my feet, shoes on, in the water while straddling my board. It was getting pretty hot by the mid-morning, nearing 18 miles on the day and a bit past 10am. Eventually I got back up, knowing that I’d have no excuse to stop a constant paddle stroke for a couple hours. Let’s go.
Knife Lake was amazing. The water was pure glass for miles. I passed a couple other canoe parties close enough to feel obligated to happily comment on how nice the conditions were. I raced other canoe teams, unbeknownst to them, as they headed to the South Arm Knife Lake and I continued towards the north. I could feel my leg getting scalded by the sun. The back of my right knee was in direct sunlight. It’d gotten some solid sun for now over three days straight and I could tell it was burned. I had to stop. I made myself stop. Hastily, yet carefully I kneeled down and opened my emergency pack and tried to fiddle out the sunscreen. Everything was packed to dang tight in little bag to get it to close and be water tight. I applied sunscreen to my right leg mainly. As I head east, and the sun shines most on the south side, my right leg gets all the sun’s abuse. So, I lathered it on even knowing that it’d probably wash right off at the next portage. I took the opportunity to take pictures to capture the pristine conditions.
As I set back off, I agreed with myself that total calm and a nice sunny and warm day made for the optimal paddling conditions. I continued on with the game of “get under 12”. It was fun to tick each mile off. Navigation was simple and took very little effort or risk. Knife Lake is so long and skinny I could just zone out and crank miles. It was just a perfect day. I saw another paddling group towards a back bay of Knife Lake. I remembered from June the rocky passing that was probably a tiny portage in low-water conditions. Nope, paddled right through. There were campers at the nearby site. It was kind of nice to see people. It was lonely otherwise. Even just to see people moving around was somehow comforting. There was a bit of ego, too. I wanted people to see this crazy stand up paddleboarder. Haven’t seen that very often, huh? If only they knew I was racking 50+ miles today. If only they knew where I came from. They’d probably be super impressed. Yeah, cool, Mike. I traveled past what looked like a previously burned section, or just light twiggy forest along a rocky and high-rising shoreline on the Canadian side. The US side was lush with endless dense forest. You could get so, so lost back here, I thought. I checked my watch… right on track. What about those voyageurs? They had no way to check for sure where they were. What about the native people?? They probably didn’t even have maps! That was all memory and intuition, stories and repetition. Insane.
I thought I passed the area that seagulls dive bombed me back in June. Getting close to 1pm at this point, and encouragingly close to 30 miles, I felt it time to stop. Perhaps it’d be the exact same spot as back in June? Months prior, I stopped at the very end of Knife Lake. Maybe, I figured, I could stop after the next portage and eat lunch right after, before my bags are strapped down. Perhaps I could get into the shade. I saw more campers, a bunch of dudes probably maxing out a site with 4 craft and 9 people. Man, that looks nice, I jealously pondered. How about having jack shit to do except hang at the site? How about having jack shit to do except paddle? Yeah, that’s where I’m at! Paddle, drink water, eat food, sleep. That’s about it. It felt freeing.
I made the portage leaving Knife Lake quick and was eager to stop moving on the other side to eat lunch. Right after launching, I straddled my board once again, with my feet hanging off each edge. I didn’t care that my shoes were on still. They hadn’t gotten even a little dried out at any point. Shoes can only get so wet. I mowed on some food. My last uncrustable sandwich was no more crusty than the previous two. I wasn’t willing to eat any additional cheese. But, I slammed some really smashed up honey mustard pringles, meat sticks, and candy-encapsulated licorice bites. Those made for the perfect lunch dessert. Delicious. I took plenty of time and made myself drink lots of water. I tried to filter a whole bladder full, then packed away the chips, trail mix and some other small snacks into my hydration vest for an afternoon snack. Nearly 30 miles in by lunch was great. Then again, another 7 hours would be past 8pm. 60 miles by 8? Then another 60? Or, what, 40 and 20 to finish on Friday? Doesn’t matter, just paddle to Saganaga. So that’s what I did.
It was tough to start back up. I wondered if I went too hard during the morning. Luckily my shoulders, back and core all felt pretty good. I could tell my left tricep was completely overworked. It was still firing on all cylinders, though. It was such a relief to paddle equally on both sides in the calm conditions. I didn’t know if I could ask that much out of my left arm for another whole day. Ottertrack Lake wasn’t as pure glassy as Knife and Birch Lakes. The wind didn’t seem to have picked up at all, but perhaps enough to show tiny ripples. Still prime conditions. I eventually got back in a groove and clicked off some good miles. The seemingly narrow Ottertrack Lake kind of dragged by. Sheesh, I lamented, it’s already afternoon. I got a long way to go through Saganaga. I pushed to Mud Bay. Nice name. No issues with my fin, though, and then recognized the steep pylon-strewn portage ahead and set off in the sunshine. It was an efficient transition, but I had a take a few brief stops during the hike to change arms. I felt a little gassed. It was steep hiking, though, and I was charging. I saw another group towards the end of the portage and split between their conversation to put my board in. One of the guys snuck in front of me to move his boat. I said I’d just sneak through. It was a little awkward but I think he could tell I was in a hurry. Or, that’s just how I justified cutting him off! He noted that he saw another stand up paddleboard just the day before or the day before that on Ottertrack Lake. Oh? I asked if he looked like he was moving fast. Eh, yeah maybe. I asked if was a little older guy – he couldn’t tell because he saw from afar. Aha. As we both set off from the portage, I explained my situation. I was going for a guy’s record and I thought he was out here, and trying to rack miles. I could have been talking to the wind. I heard him shout “Cool!!” as I finally got my crap strapped down and paddled away. There was another small portage less than a mile later. The portage was literally a stone’s toss. I wanted to just schlep my board across. I bear hugged it. It was a disaster and waste of time. I smashed it down on a rock but ignored any potential damage and paddled off. There were a couple campers at a site in Quetico. I hope they know they need a Quetico permit… maybe they don’t even realize they’re in Canada. Is that even an official site? Yeah, I spotted the fire grate. Then I realized I was straying south, the wrong way, and looking at a Boundary Waters campsite in the United States after all. What the heck? I’m getting brain fog, I told myself. Focus, Mike! I paddled around the point, headed north through an opening, then right back to some tight, twisting narrows. I was careful to avoid lake weeds and lilly pads. I had to navigate some downed logs and rocks. It was slow moving compared to paddling right down the pike through the dark void of Knife Lake. Right down the pike!! I quoted a phrase from Scott Baste’s 2020 record-setting stand up paddle that was memorialized on his YouTube video I’d watched many times through the previous 12 months.
I was ready to get to Saganaga and crank. Soon enough, it opened up and I recognized the little spit of land that blocks the wide open lake I was eager to paddle across. I inadvertently went through Canada, and realized from behind my shoulder that there was a wider entrance. Oh well. I was eager to hug the south shore of the west side of Saganaga that points almost directly northeast/southwest. I figured that was two miles. In fact, I wanted to run a test to see if my mileage estimates for this map were correct. Like a calibration run. I figured it’d take me a half hour to get to Rocky Point and be two miles. I cranked. I thought about jumping in the lake. A ways down, I saw campers swimming. Dang, that looks nice, I thought. Maybe I’d jump in now… I see you! By the time I could make a decision, I had paddled out of sight without stopping the continuous motion.
At Rocky Point, there are the unmistakable rocks everywhere. The big lake had formed some light splashing waves pushing me right to my destination. Excellent. My distance and time estimates were right on – two miles to the point. I had made great time, with a couple sub-14 minute miles. I was able to lock in the 13’s. That’s about 4.5 mph, I calculated. Nice. With a clear view of the spattering of islands that I was aiming for, I tried to pick a point that was due west. Checking my watch, checking the land, checking the map. It’s right there! I was set to head east for 2 miles to get between the tight islands, then another 2 mile crossing, then another two miles to Saganaga Falls. 6 miles. That’d take an hour and bit. I wondered if I could make to the next islands, if the light wind wanted to shift west and push me, maybe pick up a bit in the process, and I could get to my first milestone by 4:20pm and take a nice little afternoon stop. I set my mind to that, drank five big gulps of water and paddled hard, telling myself that I could keep continuous paddle strokes for just two miles. That’s less than 30 minutes, I promised. I couldn’t paddle continuously, though, because I just had to check my watch to make sure I was going in the right direction. I wasn’t. Dang it! Back in June I pinned right, to the south. Even remembering that issue this time around, I still aimed for the wrong island to the south of my straight shot. I wanted to go north of Munker Island, but for whatever reason the appealing route to the eye is to the south. So, I again altered my course in the middle of a huge bay on Lake Saganaga. My arms felt as deflated as my spirit, but I kept on, ignoring both. Bit by bit, little by little, one paddle stroke at a time I made it to the big Munker Island as I hit 40 miles on the day. That was excellent, having not hit 40 the day before. 40 on the day! I said that out loud. I stuck with my planned stop and justified pulling off when I got to the land’s shore despite a few-minute delay due to my slight navigational error.
As I sat down on my board and stopped the incessant paddling, I was determined to get into a shadow after the beating sun had been inescapable all entire day. I drifted around on northern side of Munker. I ate some food, drank as much water as I could, refolded my map and requested another weather forecast. I had a nice brain break and set off after 15 minutes or so.
Inspecting my map, I had just a few little skips across Saganaga, then what looked to be two portages and a due south shot through a channel leading to an area with lots of campsites available. I knew I’d camp at one of these in the clump. I figured I could track along each one and select the perfect one. That’d get me right about to 50 miles, I figured. Despite thinking about paddling through the night, I knew at that point that I was absolutely not going to do that. My math indicated that I would be at… 90 plus 40 plus 50. 180. 180 miles on the trip if I could make it all the way down this straight south stretch after Saganaga to any one of these sites. That leaves 70 miles. A 40 and a 30. A 50 and a 20. If I go by averages, I ought to do a 45 miles and leave 25 to go for the last day. I almost couldn’t think out that far… there was no point really. So, I ran different math, focusing on wayfinding across the other big bay on Saganaga. It was a smooth crossing.
I tried to pick the tightest line but was weaving in and out of lots of different islands. I was conscious of rocks bucking me off my board as I slid by island after island. There were plenty of navigational options and I figured I was taking a good path as long as I’m headed east. Continuously checking my maps, my watch, trying to make sense of the land in front of me, then zooming in and out on my watch to corroborate what I was seeing was not efficient at all. If I just cranked miles then I could afford a navigational error or two and make better time. I had continued navigational challenges as I turned back south to take on Saganaga Falls, an area I had never seen before. I picked the wrong islands to go between and swung wide to the Saganaga Falls as listed on my map. I couldn’t really find it as was not confident. I could hear water moving and kind of see an opening. I just kept moving towards using my intuition as my main guide, but checking my watch plenty. I got there and was pretty efficient at preparing for the portages at that point. Not like previous days where I needed a dock. I had it down to a tight, efficient system and made great time down the portage. The water was still flowing against me. When does it change? Maybe it shows on the map, I hoped. I saw a party of paddlers at the end of the portage. They were as well talking about another stand up paddler. Yep, that’s me! I said I was doing the border route. They asked if I was in the WaterTribe group, because they didn’t recognize me from the start or something. I didn’t exactly understand what they said. Ah, I said no, I’m not really with them. They told me to come to the dinner at the end, on Saturday. Mmk, and I left them as they piled everything into their canoes. I previewed another portage relatively shortly ahead, so kept my pack on and paddled sitting down. The guys in canoes but using kayak paddles quickly caught up. I took that as a motivation to do the next portage fast. As I got there, I smashed it. Right off, onto the trail and I was hoofing it. It was short, luckily, and I put in on the other side with a sense of urgency, tossing down my board and quickly strapping my gear down then standing up. I thrashed at the water to paddle away quickly. Let’s get a 12 minute mile, I told myself. 19 minutes. Well, that included the portage. The wind was not perfect, but easy enough to paddle through. 13:10. Not bad. I was working hard to move forward with speed. 15:02. I was tiring out. I looked back periodically and didn’t see the other paddlers at all. As I neared an open bay and a view to the first set of campsites, I lost sight of the portage miles back. Maybe there was a red shirt or hat, but I couldn’t see them. I made big time on those guys. Not quite 7pm, the sun getting low but still visible and I wanted to push. A few more sites, I said.
A left turn back eastward and I started thinking of what the perfect campsite would be for me. Ooo, a nice view west of the sunset. A nice landing, lots of flat rocks. A nice flat and open spot where I could dry out my god damn terribly wet gear. I pictured my damp sleeping bag, just sealed in its bag all day. I paddled faster. I had to get there to ensure I was going to have a nice night sleep. I wanted to get to the one last site before the narrows. Then, I saw a big smoke plume. That was probably due to an occupant at that site. I looked to the next site south. It was pretty close to my direct route, but with a nice west view. Good enough for me. I paddled that way, scanning with the knowledge that I could probably see four different sites at that exact moment. I didn’t see many obvious occupied sites, and couldn’t see any of them with complete confidence. Around an island, and I thought I spotted it. 5 minutes of paddling, and I saw the beautiful open spot. Bring it in. Yep, that’s the site. 49 miles. Oh well, I don’t care about 50. I care about a nice site with some extra daylight, I told myself. I saw my perfect site right there, and paddled to the fire grate. There was about a 3′ cliff to the right of a nice flat slab point. I kneeled to remove my bags, then heaved them onto the grass and paddled around to the tip of the site where the slab rock was closer to the water’s level. I pulled my board ashore, took off my shoes, my waist lifejacket, and began to set up. Smooth. Yes. I’m here.
The site was sweet. Perfect. The sun was below the trees already, a bit past 7pm. As the orange hues were becoming increasingly mixed with purples I wanted to get my tent and bag out immediately. I spread all my crap out over the whole campsite, on every clean-looking rock surface. What a day. I was super pleased with the effort but didn’t have time to reflect on that. I had to get my shit in order and dinner going. I planned to eat another bag meal. It dawned on me I’d just have one more camping night. Although, the next day was looking raunchy. According to my tracker, 15mph winds by noon, again from the the south. That’d make a few crossings hard. Without looking too far ahead, I knew there were some bigger lakes. Gunflint being the first one that comes to mind. Garrett warned me if the wind was bad that Gunflint would be shitty.
My arms were dead but I spent the energy waving my tent, ground tarp and sleeping bag all around in the dusk air, desperately hoping to disperse some moisture back into the air and out from my precious sleeping gear. I poured out the damp contents of my safety pack. I took my phone out, snapped a few pics and checked to see if I could get service. Nice, two bars! Texts started coming in hot. I looked at some but didn’t text much back. Garrett had texted me “take the shortcut now!!” I had no idea when that was sent. I called Em. She didn’t answer but called me back. It was nice to hear her voice, but also kind of stressful. I didn’t know what to say and she seemed in the middle of something. I was in the middle of three things, trying to air out my stuff, prepare dinner, organize my sprawling gear pile and still had to filter water. I hung up with Em, played some music and tossed my phone aside with the intention to head back near my board and fill up my water bladder. Bugs weren’t bad, but there weren’t zero mosquitoes. I had the genius thought to check the weather forecast on my phone, which is much more comprehensive than my tracker’s feed. The forecast read 10-20mph wind from the south all day Thursday. Then, rain overnight and rain Friday, and I was instantly glued to my phone. It didn’t look like storms, luckily, but definitely rain at some point. The forecast made it seem like the rain may be kind of spotty… on and off. But, certain. Yikes. After four days of essentially prime weather, it was shaping up to be a tough two days to close it out. The biggest wind of the trip was to be Thursday, day 5, then rain overnight after four nights without a rain fly and rain the whole last day as I’d be trying to blitz the Grand Portage. I snapped to. Cripes, Mike! You can stare at your phone in bed! I gotta get dinner going! I filtered about as close to two liters of water as possible, which was a tedious process every time. I left a bit of water in my filter bag for dinner and the night. I filled up my kettle and got it boiling. I was happy that most of my stuff seemed much drier than when I took it out. My tent was set up in a great spot and super solid. One more night after this, I told myself, and apparently in the rain. Live it up now. I had a perfect site to live it up.
I ate my tasty meal in my tent on my stomach. It was nice. I selected several food items and told myself I had to eat them all. It took forever. Simple tasks take forever out here. Why is that? I wasn’t necessarily full, but eating was a chore and I seemingly had to focus on it. Eventually I ate everything I set out to eat, drank lots of water, then shoved all of my remaining belongings that I didn’t want to sleep with into my main bag, along with my sealed food back, and rolled it all up. There wasn’t a good tree to hang my food bag, so I figured several layers of waterproof bags were enough to discourage opportunistic forest creatures. I laid in my bed, hands behind my head as the moon rose to my right. I was laying with my head to the west, feet to my east, and a big moon, bright as hell in the south sky. I’d have a nice big night light tonight, I guess. I could feel that my hands and wrists took a beating on the long day. I did what I had to do, though. I drifted off to a really nice sleep.
13 Oct 2022
I woke up to the sound of wind on the lake and my watch’s alarm beeping. I could tell it was pitch dark out so slept in a little more. I was mad when I roused a bit later – I gotta get my ass in gear here!! I figured that I could pull the air plug on my secondary air mattress to provide a catalyst to get moving. With a loud “Poooshhhhhhhh” noise, I flattened to the ground, feeling my foam mat underneath. I sat there for a minute before springing to action and shoving my damp sleeping gear to each bag. One of my tent ties must have come off its stake, because the left side by my foot was very floppy. It was a dewey morning and I could feel the humidity on everything. Yuck… oh well. Into the bag you go!
I struggled to get all my stuff set up onto my board and finally got out past 6:30am. That’s at least a half hour late, I told myself, knowing that I could start paddling in the dusk hours. In my tent, I think it’s pitch dark, but it’s really not. I could be paddling at 5:30. I should have been. I was frustrated right away, by starting late and by the wind.
Around a big point, due south to my destination of Iron Lake and I was immediately fighting the wind. Right in my face. Another day of this… I don’t know how I’d do it. I could feel the two big days of paddling in every muscle. My abs, if stretched, were very sore. My back was achey. Hands killed. I forgot to fold my gloves in… they were getting pulled down so I stopped to fold the cut-off sections back in towards my palm. I folded in the cuff on my left watch-side hand so I could see my watch face and perhaps get some solar charging action. I took a moment to plan out my next few miles. I saw a landmark notation for Bottle Rapids and a curving riverway-looking stretch into Iron Lake. Hmm… there weren’t any portages listed except well into Canada. There was another option on the south side, into a far-away bay then two portages maybe over a mile in total. That would be about the same mileage to take the direct riverway/Bottle Rapids, I figured, and probably a lot safer of a bet. I didn’t want to try any type of rapids and I didn’t want to try to find a mystery portage when I got to to the end of a rocky rapids. So, I put my stock into the long portage option to the south. Maybe that’d help me shave some miles down. The mile markers I’d plotted on each map at 5-mile intervals were definitely off by at least one mile. It was easy to run math having paddled exactly 90 miles in the first two days combined. However, that meant I was 10 miles down on the trip so far. I’d simply planned for even 50 mile days, and if I could do two more 50 mile days I’d be left with a 60 mile day to finish off. That means I’d probably finish the trip after hiking Grand Portage by 9 or 10pm. As I logged several 16+ minute miles I wondered what time I’d get in to Basswood or Birch Lake to get 50 miles. 10pm? Plus, my arms and hands were killing. I could feel the strain on my forearms, struggling to maintain a solid grip on the paddle for my poor fingers.
I could see the far shoreline straight on, due south, which I figured was 3 miles straight into the wind. Nah, I figured, I can go around an island. I hooked a sharp right. Bad move, I’m adding mileage. I thought of my people back in civilization tracking me. Were my parents, friends, coworkers, Em, watching me and wondering what the heck I was doing? Going way off course looking on map, but in reality I avoided a choppy god damn headwind for the glassy leeward north edge of an island. So, I took that opportunity to crank miles. Just head south. I finally saw campers and paddlers after seeing almost nobody the day before. Tents at one site, a big morning fire at another one, two canoes on the water behind me, and a sweet towering cliff to my left as I skirted around yet another rocky island on Lac La Croix.
I made it to the final bay on Lac La Croix about 90 minutes in for the day. It looked a little dicey… where was this portage? I checked my watch and map again. Yep, straight back to the bay. A large cabin out of nowhere appeared. What the heck… this is directly in the middle of the Boundary Waters. How did this get built? How does this get maintained? Why back here? Some swampy back bay? I paddled past it, trying to examine the foundation type of the boathouse. I paddled past seaweed and lilly pads on black glass water to a shallow portage. I knew I had lots of portages today, and two in a row right now. My food pack was noticeably smaller, but still swinging from the bottom of my backpack, clipped and hanging off my shoulder straps where they were sewed to the bottom of the pack. To compromise those critical straps could be bad… But I planned it out – clip my blue safety bag to my hydration vest. Remove the bungees from the food bag, push my gear bag towards the nose of my board, remove the bungees from that bag, slide it back towards me and heave the dual bags onto my shoulders. Then, pile my hydration vest on top of that and I’m set. Board under my arm, paddle in hand and I set off on a 63-rod portage.
I blitzed the muddy, overgrown and dense portage in the morning hours nearing 9am. I saw clear moose tracks. Massive divots in the mud where my feet wouldn’t even make prints. Yeesh. I looked around. What would I do if I saw one on the portage? I yelled out? “Moose??” No response. The other side came quick, but I was a little disheartened to see a beaver pond to cross, with no open water and strictly lilly pads. Hmm. I wondered if I’d see beavers as I pushed off from the muddy, swampy shore. I didn’t even know where to go! Across somehow, towards a large beaver den seemed to be the way. I relied on my watch, which showed lines to denote a portage if I zoomed in enough. Plus, I knew direct east would work. It looked like several portages from my watch but the map had just one. East it is. A very nearby beaver to my left slapped its tail, startling me. I had my bags still on my shoulders and was kneeling on my board pushing into the much with my paddle to move forward through the dense vegetation. I felt I didn’t have lot of protection against a beaver attack. Do beavers attack? I precariously and quickly paddled past a large beaver den with endless layers of sticks piled up to my kneeling eye level. I could see a rough pathway through green, presumably from other paddlers and followed it. I found the portage, but there were many downed logs and thick weeds in my way. I got jammed up but really did not want to get off my board. I figured I’d sink enough to submerge my food bag if I tried to stand up, so just slowly poked and prodded and eventually scooted around a log to landed ashore with a great struggle on the final 10 feet of the dang beaver pond.
The landing was muddy but I didn’t care. I trudged on and attacked the portage. Time to crank, no time to stop. I had been siphoning time thus far this morning, between a detour to attempt to stay out of the wind, and the slow travel through two portages and an unpleasant beaver pond to get to Iron Lake. Gah. The portage was long, at 226 rods on the map, but went quick and I landed in no time to Iron Lake and set right off. After into Iron Lake, I strapped my bags back down and fiddled around for a bit. Drink a bit of water and secure the hose, secure the map, eat my remaining breakfast. I could see the low spot back to my left where Bottle Rapids likely started and paddled away from it towards my next portage at Curtain Falls. I took 5 minutes, then stood up and cranked right away. My estimation was that right after the upcoming Curtain portage I’d be at 100 miles on the trip. My map said 99 at Curtain Falls and my next lake, Crooked.
I made it across Iron Lake easily. The wind wasn’t too bad. I saw a cool site I’d stayed at in July, and people occupying a site near the portage. I remembered falling in at the Curtain Falls portage landing, yet couldn’t find the exact spot as I neared a back bay to the south of the actual waterway and rapids. I landed at a nice rocky ledge and was again pretty slow to get my gear onto my back. Somehow this portage was harder. Maybe the mile portage took a bit out of me. That wasn’t an excellent sign knowing that after 10 miles of brutal direct headwind paddling ahead of me, right after about 10 miles of Crooked Lake with a series of open bays to battle side winds, I’d have four back-to-back-to-back-to-back portages with the one-mile Basswood Falls portage to finish it off. It was going to be a slow day from here on out, and already had been slow. So, I walked a bit faster.
At the other side of Curtain Falls, onto Crooked Lake with the winds suspected to be about 10mph from the south, I thought the portage was actually pretty easy. I cruised it – stopping for one change of the hands. My hands are strong, I told myself, then launched right in off the flat slab ledge rock that served as a great dock. I ate food and drifted to a bay across from the falls. It wasn’t windy in the cove. I refolded my map. Lotta south. The bays on Crooked backwards from Sunday were intimidating. I thought of the voyageurs before me, trying to hit an efficient shot with plenty of leeward land wind-blocking options. The border had to be this way for a reason. I pondered to what extent the US/Canada border was laid on on the unquestionably most direct travel route to Grand Portage as I paddled away, thrashing at the water and trying to get into a good rhythm.
I attacked Sunday Bay, no time to look around at what I remembered as some sweet campsite options and rocky landscapes. I could only focus on paddling strongly through the cross wind. It was manageable standing up, but was also very tedious. I experienced a dull overarching ache from every muscle I could possibly use to paddle. My hands, forearms, triceps burning. Lats, shoulders were yoked, my neck, abs, groin, god damn second toe going numb! I had to focus to wiggle that toe and lift it up in my shoe to try to regain feeling. And flex up from my ankle. But that required giving up a too much balance in choppy seas. Who cares about the dang toe.
A 20-minute mile across Sunday Bay wasn’t encouraging. That was 12 miles on the day, a bit less that 4 hours in. It was 10am. Time moved strangely. How in the world is it already 10am? Time just flew by. On the other hand, I went through so much shit already this morning, and if I wanna paddle to 7pm, that’s 9 hours. 9 more hours. Unbearable. Unbelievable, unachievable. I was feeling it in every stroke. But stopping was worse – switching sides became a chore because my hands would get used to the position, no matter how grueling, and the reminder of the other side’s pain was worse to bear. That led me to favor paddling on my left side. The wind was pushing me left, so just like previous days fighting the wind to the side or at my face, little choppy waves always splashing on my board, I could paddle exclusively on the left and go straight as an arrow. I’ve been fighting the wind this whole time, I complained to myself.
I made it across Sunday Bay with no issue. It was great to get to the leeward side of a big island before having sweet relief on a south shore with only one more southerly opening. My mind was on big openings and leeward shores, miles and the shortest line I could possibly formulate by staring at my map and thinking really hard, all while churning up the water with machine-like paddle repetitions and heaving myself forward for maximum paddleboard propulsion. No stops were afforded.
Going across Saturday Bay was a treat, and I made up time. The mile splits jacked me up: 14:31, 14:32, then 14:11. It was just a game of playing the wind, following the map, and paddling efficiently and accurately. It was a fun, fun game. I cruised across each day of the week. Friday Bay – couple choppy crossings with cool views across the long southerly body of water. I wouldn’t want to paddle down that, I told myself, and continued to hug a convenient shoreline. I was careful about Canada. I wanted to do it right – stay on the BWCA side even if I thought it’d be a shortcut. Thursday Bay was intimidating but smooth and pretty fast. Nice. I was switching between standing, kneeling and sitting depending on the wind, and that worked well to even out the stress on my body. I made my way to a nice downwinder to a narrow stretch to the final part of Crooked Lake, Wednesday Bay. I was getting hungry and picked a campsite to stop at, near a dreaded point of the day requiring straight south travel for a mile or two. The wind was pushing up some decently inconvenient waves through a narrow channel in from the border as I veered south. Just beyond an opening straight on, I landed on a long bald rock face that blocked the wind. 23 miles, about 1pm. At this rate, I was way, way off 50 miles by sundown.
I sketchily drug my board in a little divot between rock slabs, into some weeds. I just stood right up in the shallow water, my shoes having been wet since the last portage hours and hours earlier at Curtain Falls. I schlepped my various bags all on shore and up the sloping rock face for a place out of the sun to sit. It had been pretty bright all day, paddling right into the sunlight headed east. I hunkered down on a nice rock in the shade and kicked off my soaking wet shoes. Lunch was good. I wanted to slam cheese knowing that it would be less appetizing as time went on. It was actually looking no more raunchy than the day before. It was good. The spreadable cheese that was not refrigerated at the grocery store was very smooshed down in a big ball. Meat sticks and a string cheese eaten as fast as possible were tasty. Same with cheetos. I filtered water. I was encouraged by my good drinking on the day. My lips had been chapped since day 1, though. Luckily, not too bad and no worse than the first day. I was encouraged every time I peed because it was a bit of reassurance that I was drinking enough. I checked out my maps and requested a weather forecast from my inReach.
The campsite I ate lunch at was a very discouraging yet beautiful location. I could see right down the pike – a long, long, fairly narrow due south stretch right into the wind. The wind was blowing right at me. I got nervous halfway through my break as I realized that if a tiny wind gust nudged my board out of its little parking notch, a breezy point pushing waves into my nice wind-blocking landing could catch my board and take it. I rushed down there, nervous about how if the wind could carry my board way far away, the exact way I’d just came. A terrible vision overcame me, of swimming through the wavy channel I had just paddled hard through to make lunch. My board was only slightly askew, and I wedged my leash strap around a rock. Back to my lunch spot, I began to pack up my stuff and took a few photos and a video of the wind blowing in my face.
I felt the need to use the latrine before setting off. That’s a good sign, I told myself. I got a little nervous after that task, however, because as I unrolled my clump of toilet paper, I realized how little I actually brought. I just used half of my entire stash of toilet paper. Darn. Maybe my old pal Nick was right, I’d be doing some aqua dumps later on.
I got my stuff back on the board, begrudgingly taking the hasty steps I needed to take to continue paddling. Bags down, bungees on, clip backpack to hydration vest, clip vest to board, reattach leash from rock to my ankle, secure map. I set back off around the bend, standing up but having issues. I kneeled. It felt good. Just paddle away, paddle paddle paddle. Paddling is my life, paddling is my aim. La la la la laaaa. All I got to do is paddle and sing little tunes.
I saw a couple canoes riding an awesome downwinder. They said I was going the wrong way. Yeah yeah. I can beat this shit, though. I told myself I can beat this damn wind. And just pressed on. Running some numbers, I figured I’d be around the Basswood River portage in the mid-afternoon, then a big-ass water crossing on Basswood. That’d be interesting. My route would be crossing a section of Basswood Lake with a lot of real estate to gather waves from the south and push me way north into Canada. The updated forecast was encouraging, though. It looked like it was going to remain windy – about 10mph from the south and mayyyybe the southwest towards the end of the day. And the next day was looking prime. That would be… I had to run math on that, too. This was day 3, it had to be. Day 3, started Sunday… Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Gotta be Tuesday. Thinking of all types of stuff kept me busy. The day, my average speed, the average speed I could potentially paddle for the rest of the day, what time the sun would set, what time I could see outside until, if I paddle super hard, how many miles could I get before it’s pitch black? What about if I paddle at a moderate effort, like I have the past few days, to get to camp with an hour or so left before sunset so I can have a nice night at camp, like I have the past few days?? How many miles then? I figured… not many. Maybe I could get to 40. As I got a nice bit of leeward relief near Table Rock, cruised past the cool cliffs where you can see pictograms, and cool water lines from either decades or centuries ago. By the time I got to the first Basswood River portage and started thinking how I can start being efficient with four portages in a row, I was 9 hours in, almost 29 miles on the day, so a bit more that 3 miles per hour. Given it was about 3:30pm, I could probably do the next 5 miles in less than 2 hours, then paddle another 4 miles past the long portage across Basswood Lake in 1 hour with a nice southwest wind pushing me where I need to go, then I figured I could hit a campsite right about 40 miles at right about 7pm. That was a plan contingent on going the right way and having absolutely no issues.
I started seeing campsites with people. Around a little node protruding to the left down the waterway, I saw three people standing around. Fishing, rather. I paddled to where I remembered the most efficient portage to be from when I crossed this portage out and back in July. In prepared for the portage kneeling as I floated in. I unclipped my hydration bag from my backpack. I pulled the backpack and the attached food pack at the front of my board up towards myself then slipped the bungees back around my food bag. I shifted the bundle back towards the nose of my board, slid the bungees closer to me, around my backpack, to snap down onto my board’s hull. Pack on my back, hydration pack and emergency bag tossed on over top, unleash ankle strap, jump off the board, find suitable footing, grab my paddle, grab my board, heave it onto my hip, trudge through the water to land, trudge over land, toss board to the other side, hop on and don’t bash the fin on rocks, and I’m back paddling. It was efficient. This is what I have to do. For now, I figured I’d just sit and paddle sitting down with my pack resting on my foam pad strapped to the back of my board. That was comfortable and fast enough for a bit, but became a little unpleasant, and I was fearful I’d burn out my pack-carrying shoulders before the mile portage coming up in no time. I made my way to the Wheelbarrow Portage. More anglers at the mouth of one river. I quickly portaged and hiked along the other river. I made good time, but it was a little long for no hand switches. Lucky righty. My right hand got pretty pumped out as I pushed its portaging limits. Wheelbarrow is a rocky and tight portage, and not a lot of options to switch hands. I made it, though, but smashed my board down on the other side, scraping the fin on a rock. The fin dragged along the rock. Still intact? Don’t care otherwise! I continued on, pack on my back. I came to the last little portage, up some small rapids. Runnable? I remembered back in July another BWCA user suggesting I run it, as a joke. Right down the pike! Nah, not today. I made the portage quickly. I was onto Basswood Falls portage in no time, and set right off with no delay except to take 5 big gulps of water. I counted.
I took plenty of options to change hands along the lengthy mile at Basswood Falls. I enjoyed that portage. I was thankful for the lack of mosquitoes compared to back in July. I didn’t see anyone at all. It was a nice hike, although pretty strenuous. It’s a lot of work to carry all that shit, plus the big board. That board was heavy. I wondered if water soaked into it. It seemed to have lots of water on the deck all day… but it was also pretty heavy and I was loading the weight somewhat strangely… I felt an itch. MOSQUITO?? Nah. I kept looking back to try and spot a bug on my shoulder or arm. Damn bugs. I lucked out so much, though. It was really another beautiful day. I was tired and wanted to just get this done and to the other side. By the time I get out onto Basswood Lake… I couldn’t fathom a hard and windy crossing of the big bay ahead. It’s gonna push me to Canada, I figured.
On the portage, I had promised myself I could jump in, eat food, drink water, change my maps, whatever I wanted once I got to the end. When I heard the sound of the falls, and saw a clearing off in the distance, then the rock descent to the landing and a clear view to where I could drop my board, I got increasingly excited. Done and done. I was excited to get through that lynchpin section. That’s the crux right there, I figured. At this point, I was getting real close to 125 miles on the trip. That’s about as close to halfway as it gets. Also, I was getting close to the end of the day. I figured I’d be down 20 miles from goal by the end of the day. I had to allot for a sixth day. There wouldn’t be another option. Luckily I was set up for that.
When I pushed off onto the lake I knew now was the time to paddle out to spot to jump in. I had figured during the portage that by the time I got to the lake I probably wouldn’t feel like jumping in, but also that deep down I really needed to clean my shirt. It had three days of grime, sweat, bug splat, wilderness residue, whatever else on it. So, I bit the bullet and jumped in and it was nice, but a little stressful. I had to take off my gloves, hat, life jacket and tracker. I didn’t dwell in the water long and stood up to paddle out. Clouds were rolling in. They looked a little ominous. I checked the weather forecast… 0% chance all the way out. The next day was looking prime, with very light southwest winds. Nice nice nice. Let’s go!
As I paddled on out to Basswood Lake, I started plotting and scheming. I was dead. It was a lot of portaging. The next day was looking prime, and I had some really solid long paddling opportunities with relatively sporadic portaging. I could make miles tomorrow. I planned, what if I lay up early tonight, get some super good rest, make a fire, eat tons of food, sleep, and set out early the next day and crank. That could be nice. Furthermore, that could be strategically advantageous. Furthermore furthermore, that could be critically important to crank miles in order to finish the trip.
I saw lots of campsite options on the map, but as I got further into Basswood, my attention diverted to staying standing up. The winds were whipping from my right shoulder. I could clearly see the point I had to round. It wasn’t quite a downwinder. I had to go crosswind again. Push me west, PLEASE!! I pleaded to the wind. No dice. I got a few little bumps, but it pushed me further away from the point I was aiming at, requiring even more effort from my abused left arm. I still made good time. I missed a shortcut around an island. Oh well, keep moving. I got into a nice leeward stretch around United States Point as listed on the map. I saw one campsite from the middle of the lake. Nah, I can go further. Another site, nah, another one, nah. I passed three campsites right up and was nearing a point to round. I figured it’d be windy on the other side. Maybe I blew my chance to stop for the night! 6pm, 37 miles in. I could make another hour for 40+. I kept moving. I wasn’t going backwards under any circumstances.
I rounded the United States Point and was happy to see pretty minimal waves. I still tried to hug the shore to stay out of guaranteed rough waters towards my left out in the middle of the eastern slab of Basswood Lake. I’d take any campsite by now, I figured. Especially one facing south, right into the wind, I can blow dry all my gear out and make sure it’s nice and dry for the night… I was fantasizing about my glorious night at camp to come. The waves were sloshing, pushing up to the shore and bouncing back at me. I was standing up but didn’t feel too concerned about the waves bucking me off. Across the whole trip, I’d hit a few rocks with my fin, bashed my board up a little bit here and there. But now, under clouds and sloshing water, a rock hit my fin and stopped me dead. I jolted forward after the crunch of my fin impacting the rock. I hit the deck and rolled off to the side on accident, right into the lake. My board flipped over, my gear precariously hanging by the bungee cords as I shuffled my arms under the board and tried to quickly react to what was happening. I flexed my legs down and hit rocks. I was waist deep and stood up. I flipped my board back over, soaking wet and with my gear having taken a total dunk. Damn. I hopped back on immediately and paddled out a bit further from shore. Stupid, STUPID!! Damn fuckin rock! My shirt just dried out!! I paddled even harder. I’d make 40 now, I gotta dry out my stupid shirt again. Idiot….
The sun peeked through the clouds a little bit. My worries of rain had all but subsided, but I was bummed it had been sunny all day except in the past hour. Clouds come out, I fall in the lake. Heading southwest with the sun falling below the towering treeline, I realized I’d be blocking the sunset with any of the upcoming campsites. I kept looking alongside the back of United States Point for my spot for the night. I picked one off the map, a few sites down, and told myself I would definitely stop there if it were available. The next site was occupied. Nothing to see here… I could see the people from a long ways away looking out toward me as I paddled by. Nah, I didn’t fall in, I was hoping to have a shirt wet. I had a fake conversation with the person, tiny in the distance.
The next campsite was taken as well. Sheesh. Here we go again. I still had plenty of light, though, and coming from a major deficit of miles, would be OK paddling into dark a little bit if push came to shove. Yet, I was eager to get to shore to set up tonight, which would set me up well for the next day. If I want this trip to go well from here on out, I’d have to really rack miles tomorrow, I told myself. So, with the next available campsite in range, I became more committed to stopping as I got closer. It looked different from my previous sites, this one kind of nestled into a rocky hillside as opposed to being out and exposed on a ledge. This, however, would do just fine.
I got to land and tried to throw my shoes ashore. I got all my gear tossed on to the nearest rocks and schlepped my board way up onto land, with the fin sticking out over a small bedrock step-down, so I could inspect it after smashing it hard. No damage done. I opened up my bag to start setting up my tent.. the normal drill. I was welcomed first by my camp slippers. What a great choice to bring for creature comforts, I commended myself. I hadn’t even stopped for an afternoon break like I had the first two days. Nearly 40 miles on the day, I didn’t care about 39.something. A minute under 12 hours on the day and just past 6:30pm made me feel pretty good. I’d have plenty of time to set myself up.
First things first, I set out my wet stuff. I emptied the food wrappers and uneaten calories from my soaking wet hydration vest and set them out. I ate a bunch of super tasty trail mix in a few mouthfuls and chugged water. With my water bladder pretty much empty, I took the 3-liter water bag and filter out and figured I’d get that going soon. I emptied all of my sleeping gear out and tried to string it up to dry. My tent was especially moist, with the crumpled ground tarp nearly able to wring out. I spent a bit flapping it around in the wind, as well as the tent itself and sleeping bag. I saw a little chipmunk exploring my wrappers and scared it off. This site was a little weird. It was kind of a dank little corner, not a lot of airflow or natural light. It was tucked away on this cove. I set up my tent on a tiny patch right next to my paddleboard. I got a fire going pretty quickly and took a dip in the lake to soothe my weary muscles. My hands were probably the most sore. Wrists, hands, fingers and forearms. But, all my back muscles, arm muscles, shoulders and core were also all sore in their own way.
I had a nice meal of dehydrated Pad Thai, gourmet from Trail Fitters. I was wasting time all evening with my shit spread out everywhere. I seemed to just be organizing and reorganizing for 2 hours in between eating and filtering water until I ended up in my tent for the night. I left the fly off again, and set my alarm for 5am this time. I focused on repair, restoration, recovery, and dozed off with my hands behind my head.
I had set my alarm for an early time for day 2 at 5:15am or so. When my watch started beeping, I realized immediately that I made a big mistake waking up that early because it was completely dark out. Without a rain fly on my tent, I could tell I was in the middle of the night still. So, I justified sleeping a little longer. I was very comfortable and had slept great overnight. By the time I roused awake closer to 6, I could see the dim light of dawn behind me. I got up and started rushing around. My body felt pretty decent but I could tell I was really sore from the big day before. My shoulders and back were tight. The bear box was very nice to have and I knew I wouldn’t have such convenient campsite amenities the rest of the trip. The National Park site including a picnic table, prime tent pad, bear box, even a dock! That is a fairly stark comparison to what I knew about BWCA sites that feature some type of landing that can sometimes be jagged rocks, some type of fire grate, toilet way out in the woods, and hopefully a decent tent pad and hopefully a tree branch that makes hanging a bear bag possible.
Well past 6am, I was pretty frustrated to have woken up so late and should have known it would take a while to gather my things together. I was devastated to go start my InReach tracking for the day. The battery had been at 92% after the day yesterday, and now at 57%. I forgot to turn it off. Mike, you are a grade-A idiot!! You can’t be making those mistakes, I told myself. I got the tracking going, carefully strapped all my stuff to the board and set off towards the sunrise.
I remembered where to go from the night before, right on towards the first point, hook south through some narrows and on to Sand Point Lake, a long south stretch into the BWCA through Little Vermilion River. I was happy to know I’d make it into the Boundary Waters on the same day as my permit. Although I somewhat sketchily camped at a site that I didn’t technically reserve, I didn’t feel too bad about that since I at least reserved a site. I wanted to do it right, I didn’t want to break the rules. I paddled on towards the site I actually did reserve. Checking my watch’s GPS map to be sure, I realized I was off track right away. Shoot, hard right and into the narrows.
The forecast was for a little heavier winds, just a little more, maybe 6 to 8mph and more from the south instead of south east like the day before. The winds were essentially a non-factor the day before, luckily, but today I’d be going quite a bit south right away and I knew I’d have a big crossing of Lac La Croix likely at the windiest point of the day into the later afternoon hours. I was immediately frustrated with a slight wind right at my face. I could stand up, it didn’t have a huge effect on my speed, but I just didn’t want to fight the wind. Not again. I felt I had been fighting the wind all day yesterday. But, I reminded myself, it could be way, way worse. With the sun barely peeking up over the horizon to my left, it was shaping up to be another beautiful day, all things considered.
The narrows were cool. Easy paddling, tight corridors. There were a few small cabins nestled into the Canadian shoreline, and I imagined indigenous people from thousands of years ago camping on some of the sandy landings present leading into Sand Point Lake. I didn’t eat a full breakfast on land, so after getting near Sand Point Lake where I could see the lake really open up, I snuck into a leeward bay and directed a smashed up pop tart and compressed nutrigrain bar into my mouth and washed it down with water to get the food in fast as possible. I felt dehydrated from the day before. My lips were chapped, I knew I got some good sun and could just feel I didn’t drink enough water. I am surrounded by it for cripe’s sakes, I have to prioritize hydration to keep this thing going. If I fall behind on hydration there is no wiggle room, I told myself. So drank a big series of gulps of water and set off. It was always encouraging to feel like I had to pee, and when that happened, I frequently thought of my friend Pete and his sailboat and his method of peeing, as a man. I’ll never forget him off the front of his sailboat: “just hang dong, man!”. So I had a chuckle as I hung dong off the edge of my paddleboard, dribbling all over the deck and my shoes. Oh well, I used my paddle to splash the mix of pee and lakewater off the deck, as if that was adequate to sanitize what is essentially my living space, my world for the next 12 hours. I had a constant puddle under my feet. I wondered why that was. It seemed like my board was sitting lower than normal, even when I’ve had my dog Diamond or gear on board. I wondered if it was filling with water slowly. Oh well, I’m still moving, and set off across Sand Point Lake.
I saw a Canadian point very far off and wanted to hug the far shoreline to stay out of the wind. It was a long stretch, but the wind wasn’t terrible despite blowing almost directly over me. I enjoyed watching the beautiful sunrise – it was an amazing morning to be out. The boats started kicking up. Anglers zooming across the lake, a few houseboats off in the distance. I checked my map and saw two directions to go – Crane Lake to my right and Little Vermilion to my left. When I got to a last little bay I stopped again to change maps. I folded my Voyageurs National Park map up nicely, then crushed the edges of my Boundary Waters West map to optimize the viewable map area and fit it into my gallon ziploc bag. I drifted to some Canadian person’s homestead. Nothing to see here, just folding a map and drinking water! Then around the point off to Little Vermilion. I made my way. It seemed like it took a long time. I saw an icon my map indicating Ingersoll Estate. I wondered what that was as I passed a cabin nestled into the forest, and a boathouse. I wondered if they had a dumper on shore. Luckily, no need for now…
Across a bay and the shorelines narrowed together. I saw lots of cabins on both the US and Canadian side. I wanted to spot the sign to the BWCA, but missed it. I’m pretty sure I saw the back of it, though. A couple boats sped by. I guessed by my map that the red/dark orange outline of a waterway indicated that motor travel was permitted. The lake turned to a narrow, then to a clear riverway. The banks were full of vegetation. I was worried about weeds in my fin as I went over lilly pads and river grass, all of which pointed right towards me with the river’s flow and wind, indicating that I was paddling against both. Still, I was making good time.
I was excited to do some river travel, especially a mile or few down further where what’s listed as the Loon River turns left to a northeasterly direction. I might even have a downwind for a while, I told myself with excitement. I took a chance going straight instead of doing an S-curve into a more clear opening, and it luckily paid off. The weeds opened up and I could paddle right through. Another boat came around a bend. Who would be boating back here?? It seemed kind of ridiculous to me – a fragile-looking river in the Boundary Waters proper and boats can kick up wakes and speed on by. Huh. The waves were no issue and I was used to them at this point. Then again, I was pretty excited to get out of motor country.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, and it got hotter, I thought about jumping in. Maybe I would at Loon Lake, or Lac La Croix as a celebration. Not in this dark silty river, though. I was happy to not have to navigate rocks or shallow mud and the river travel was smooth. I tracked myself diligently using my map and watch, excitedly awaiting a big left bend in the river. Before long, I took it and was happy to feel the wind push me for once. Ahhh, it was a very nice feeling indeed. Another bend and I was back headed south, another bend and I was back headed east. It was narrow enough that the wind was not strong, but any little push was a relief. Not to mention, the wind at my back delivered a luxurious breeze. My shirt was getting ratty already – sweat soaked and dirty. I kept paddling. My hands were hurting again – right at the base of my middle finger, especially on my left hand. My gloves were already in tatters, and I took a moment to tuck the edges of my cut-off fingers into the glove itself. I liked that method… they didn’t get pulled down and also provided a bit more padding with the folded down fabric protecting the pinch point at the base of my fingers. I experimented with different grip configurations, like holding down my thumb with my index and/or middle finger, or holding down my index and/or middle finger with my thumb, or just a super solid grip a little lower down the paddle, or what felt most natural by hanging on just a bit by my fingertips. I liked that the best, but I could tell that natural grip was used exclusively the day before. It was clearly a strain on my wrist and I could feel a tendon running down my forearm becoming sore. My back and shoulders were sore, and in a certain style of paddle stroke I could feel the strain even more specifically. I didn’t want my body to fall apart. I wondered if I’d get “trail strong” where I’d just gets used to the daily physical abuse and repetition. I sure hoped so…
Three boats in a row came through a very narrow area. How? They looked curiously at me as we passed each other slowly, then they zoomed off. I could see rocks ahead – how did they get through that?? It was a cool area. I wondered about portages. I still didn’t feel super set up for portaging and was excited that I really didn’t have many on the day. But, when I looked closer I saw two that were simply named “Motor Portage”. Huh, I wondered if that’d be passable by a paddlecraft and there was just some type of infrastructure for boats only. It was wishful thinking. I came into a small bay and saw the big dock and a massive rail structure that appeared to somehow lift boats up and onto a u-shaped track, straight up a fairly steep hill and presumably back down to Loon Lake. I paddled closer and it looked like a ski lift, with a shack structure and sign. The sign had pricing for different size boats, and a line for non-motorized dock use for $15. I hesitated – that would be me, I figured. I also saw a sign for canoe portage at a landing to my right. Oh well, nobody is here, I figured, and my portage setup was still not perfect. It’d take me a while to get this all set up, and the dock would help tremendously. I transferred to the dock and sat on it with my feet on my board as I got my food bag unstrapped, backpack unstrapped and the whole rig onto my back. I piled my water vest and safety bag onto my back as well, struggled to lift my heavy board out of the lake. It must be filling with water, I thought. When I got it tucked under my armpit, I grabbed my paddle and headed up the portage.
The motor portage hike to Loon Lake was pretty steep. I tried to follow the signs and they led me a ways into the woods, back to the track, then a flattening and I could see the lake. Nice, pretty short. I passed a house with a propane grill and a deck, and it looked like anyone’s nice lake cabin. That must be where the operator lives? What a weird life, way out in the damn middle of the Boundary Waters. I didn’t see anyone though. It felt awkward like I was trespassing through someone’s yard. I saw another sign for a canoe portage, and could clearly see it led to a swampy landing. I could also see the nice long dock to my left, with the other side of the metal track system right beside it, and the rapids of Loon River further on. With nobody there, I went for it. Whatever. I went to the end, set my board in, put my feet on it, and set my various gear and food bags from my back to the dock. As I refolded my map to show the rest of Loon Lake and a sweet downwind that would push me right into Lac La Croix, I heard an aggressive yell: “HEY!!!” “HEY YOU! WE HAVE A CHARGE FOR THE DOCK!!”
Aw shoot. I’m caught. I remembered the listed charge of $15 immediately. What a jip. Before I could even respond: “I think the signs are pretty fucking clear!!”, and all I could yell back was “Sorry!!”. He repeated himself: “we have a dock charge and my signs are clear”. I was defeated… just so tired that I had to use the dock, and I got caught. It was the middle of the day and I was just trying to crank miles here. Why pick on me… “Sorry! I’m so sorry”, was all I could reply. He replied: “So ‘sorry’ means I’m not getting paid I take it”. I yelled back that I had $20 on me, thinking that he’d empathize that my emergency fund of $20 is all I got and should’t be used for this petty dock fee. Uh, nope. I completely misunderstood how he’d react to that comment and yelled one last time that’d he’d bring me change before turning on his heel to go back to his shack or house or whatever structure that stored his change. Yeesh. Just before I could finish my re-sorting and packing of my paddling rig, he appeared down at the end of his dock with 5 dollar bills folded in half and presented them to my face. This guy was pretty abrasive. C’mon man, nobody was here. What, were you pooping? He was probably in the can when I awkwardly walked by. I hoped he didn’t see me on his other dock, because I didn’t have $30 on me. I traded my $20 and he once again said that his signs are pretty clear. Yeah, I said they are very clear, and I’m sorry that I didn’t follow them. That’s why I was sorry. He didn’t say anything from there, and I was luckily able to launch shortly thereafter and get the hell out of that stupid portage. What a crock of shit. Terrible customer service. I was pretty frustrated and paddled hard into the increasingly large main bay of Loon Lake.
Looking ahead at my map, I had to get around a point then head due north for a nice stretch. With the winds picking up ever heavier from the south, I was super excited to have a downwind for once. It seemed to me I had been fighting the wind at my face the whole trip so far, really. No downwinders so far. This will be nice. But, getting across Loon was presenting a challenge. The waves were whipping up and as I tried to head due east to round my point, the cross waves were pushing me all around. I could feel the strain on my left side as I paddled exclusively on that side. I’d been paddling so many more strokes on my left. As I had been heading mainly east with the entire trip really due east, and winds mainly from the south to that point, I’d get pushed to the left. Therefore, I had to counteract that with mainly left-side paddling. What was nice is that I could paddle of my left almost for hours on end and go straight. That’s efficient, but hard on my arms and hands. The division of left and right side paddling is a necessity, really. When I’d switch to my right, when I absolutely had to give my arms a change-up, I’d immediately turn hard left to the north to go with the waves. Then I’d have to fight even harder on my left side to get back to a due east bearing. Loon Lake opened up to a big bay and I could see my point off in the distance. It was a hard crossing. I didn’t want a hard crossing. A quick check of my watch to confirm my bearing, and I was pleasantly surprised I was eyeballing the wrong point! Nice. A few more hard strokes on my brutalized left hand and I was right there.
It was interesting using my watch’s map data screen to confirm my location and use as a secondary navigational aid to my maps. I found that the .5 mile zoom level was the easiest to see in coordination to what I was seeing on my map and seeing in front of me in real life. It was sometimes convenient to zoom way way out to see where I was, but not good for ongoing check-ins. Zooming way in was impossible to see anything… just me out in the middle of the ocean unless I was tight to a shore. I would zoom in and out all the time, which was generally a waste of time and just to satisfy my curiosity on if I was where I thought I was on the map. The .5 mile level zoom seemed to match up best to the map’s scale and so I promised myself I’d keep it there and zoom in and out only if needed.
I was conscious of rocks at the turn of the point, more difficult to see in choppy waters, then turned to my left into a sweet downwinder. It was great. I stayed close to Canada while navigating the smaller channel to Lac La Croix. I remembered the other Motor Portage on the map and kneeled down to take a peek. MOTOR PORTAGE, again. I’m definitely not using the god damn dock, I told myself.
My mile splits were excellent and I knew I’d just have to follow the waves and wind straight to the portage to La Croix. It was mindless paddling without a strategy to beat the wind or wayfind, and I got more excited with each mile: 14 something, high 13, low 13, under 13 minutes. Hell yeah. Let’s go. On a wider section paddling head-on to an island, the waves were almost a little dicey while standing up. I was going straight downwind, but if I’d catch a crest or a trough they would jostle me, push me forward quickly then stop the momentum as the crest pressed the entire back of my paddleboard under water. I thought about sitting down but never got to it. I just plugged along forwards with my head down until I came to the end. I saw another group setting off from the portage my way in a tandem canoe so knew where to go. Nice. It was a little swampy but I just paddled right into shore, jumped off into ankle deep water and started schlepping my gear off. Efficiency. I planned to either eat lunch on the portage itself, which had several nice grassy knolls. I was excited to get out of the sun for a minute. Then again, after my last encounter, and with a similar setup at this portage with a very private-looking house, railroad track for motorboats, and a god damn dock fee of $10, I wasn’t too keen on sticking around. So, I carried my stuff hastily to the other side. It was a brief portage and I made it to the Lac La Croix with no incident or without seeing anyone. I put in quickly on the rocky beach and paddled out sitting down with my pack still on my shoulders. I scanned the shorelines to find a spot to sit. To my right looked OK, with a nice rocky outcrop shaded from the sun. I stopped there and it felt very nice to sit down and relax. I was feeling the work on that had been done on the day, for sure.
I unpacked my lunch bin, and the cheese was completely unappetizing. My uncrustable sandwiches were turning to all crust. They looked nasty but I ate one, a beef jerky strip, and lots of cheese. I figured the cheese wasn’t going to be any more delicious or less risky to eat over time so now was the time to administer those calories as soon as possible. Cheese weighs a lot. I had a nice lunch and filtered water. I had been drinking way more water on day 2, which was good. I had to drink more, I told myself. It was a positive sign to be completely dry and need to water refill by lunch.
As I set off from my rock onto the big Lac La Croix, I was excited for the afternoon. I always wondered what La Croix would be like. It looks so big on a map, but after crossing big Rainy Lake yesterday, it was comparatively small and looked pretty tight along shorelines the whole time. On my map I identified one big bay to cross where the windy south breeze could cause me issues. My options were either to add a mile or two to try to stay leeward, or try to make a crossing into what I figured was a 10mph cross wind. That was hours off, though. I was about 27 miles in for the day, not quite 8 hours in and as I paddled onto a beautiful tailwind it was getting pretty close to the 2pm hour. I was trying so hard to run math. 8 hours by 4 miles per hour would be 32 miles. Not quite. 8 hours by 3mph would be 24 miles. I’ve surpassed that. 8 by 3.5 is… I had to do lots of calculations but figured I was right at 3.5 mph. But, that included my long two portages, one where I had to pay a fricken dude $15 and another one where I stopped for lunch. My watch beeped for the 27th mile in over 42 minutes. Meh, not bad for about a mile of paddling plus a portage plus lunch. Before I turned westward to the big middle part of Lac La Croix, I logged a 13:14 mile. Excellent.
Looking at the map and studying the points and the islands, and I realized there were lots of configurations to make it to my destination. I knew I’d deviate from the border eventually by taking a southbound channel and an island-strewn bay to pop out at what is labeled Fish Stake Narrows on the map. That looked like it’d shave off a mile and certainly appeared to be passable. Also, that’d put me at 45 miles or so for the day and there were ample sites available in that area. That’d be my goal. For now, I stuck close to the US/Canada border. It was a beautiful afternoon and I made good time. I tried to stay to the leeward side of each little island and it worked well until I tried to sneak through one island. Instead of an open corridor was a 10-foot landmass that was impassable. Shoot, that’d take so far to paddle back around! I figured I could portage it quick, and jumped off to struggle greatly trying to pick up my whole board with everything on it. My packs would slide around with a slight tilt and I could not pick up my board sideways like normal without removing all the bags. I eventually bear hugged my board and lifted it then shuffled across this stupid little bog. I bashed my board on the other side but was satisfied that I didn’t lose any bags sliding through my bungees. I could have seen that… I gotta make better decisions, I told myself with a bit of frustration. But, I paddled on.
My shoulders were starting to get sore, and I could feel my lower back strain with certain paddle strokes. My hands were taking the brunt of the abuse. I figured I’d have a big blister and felt best about a strong full grip focusing the paddle shaft all the way back to my palm and thumb area. That’d require a lower grip on the paddle shaft itself, which required more leaning and activation of my lower back muscles. It worked OK but I questioned how my body would hold up. I’ve never done back to back 40+ mile days. What about these 2 then 4 more? Oh well, I kept paddling.
By the time the mid-afternoon rolled around I justified a stop for myself. I had 2 larger bay crossings and knew the south wind would play a factor compared to the past several hours I’d just enjoyed with leeward paddling through islands or the nice downwind miles to start Lac La Croix. I wanted to eat some snacks that I’d repacked into my hydration vest from lunch, check the weather forecast and refold my map, so I picked an island and tied up to a log protruding from the leeward north side in a shallow, swampy area. I was definitely feeling the day and the sunshine. I knew I needed more sunscreen, and scolded myself for not putting any on today. Tomorrow I will, I told myself. 10 hours in, and over 35 miles means I was still tracking nicely for just over 3.5 miles per hour. That meant I could probably make it over 10 miles before sunset around 7:30. As I refolded my map, I figured 10 miles would be just about perfect for Fish Stake Narrows and the suite of campsites in that area. That’d set me up decently well for the next day. But also, the forecast was scared me as I got the notification that my tracker had pulled a fresh forecast. That was such a nice feature, and it beeped loudly when it was done updating. I did not have good news. It’d be a windy start to the day tomorrow. I had many, many miles south, and a south wind of over 10 miles per hour was forecasted. Today was supposed to cap out at a maximum 10 miles per hour, and the later hours of the day the next day, Day 3, which was… it took me a while… Tuesday! Tuesday’s max wind was supposed to be 15 mph. Oof. Even right away in the morning looked windy at about 10 mph. I had a jaunt due south to Iron Lake tomorrow, the traverse of Crooked Lake with many large, exposed north/south bays but also plenty of leeward sections, then 10 more miles due south to Basswood River. THEN, lots of tough portages. To cap it off, I had big Basswood Lake which had stretches of open water to dwarf Crooked Lake. Tomorrow would be a challenge. So as I set off across a bigger bay on Lac La Croix, I wanted to focus the rest of my afternoon on setting myself up well for the next day. I didn’t think I’d be smart to try lots of miles past Fish Stake. I might as well just try to get up early – earlier than today for sure – to get a jump on the wind.
Mile after mile, I kept on moving. I approached the big bay on Lac La Croix. It didn’t look too bad. I’d been standing all day, so I told myself I could kneel to take the pressure off my feet a bit. A few of my toes were getting numb and it’d take me hours to really realize it then try to wiggle them and get blood flowing again. So, kneeling was a nice break. I promised myself I’d crank across this big bay in one shot, which I thought was at least a mile or two. That’s like, 30 minutes of constant paddling, I figured. I took a nice long drink of water and set off, using my hips to propel my board through the cross-chop. The waves weren’t too bad and I could see my destination easily. Due west! Er, east! I kept mistaking the direction I was heading with the direction I wanted the wind to go. I’m headed east, and want a west wind. Due east! Turn west, wind! Even a little! The wind was straight from the south, if not a little from the east.
In no time, by putting my head down and just cranking away, I made it to the leeward shore near a narrow southbound shot to a lower bay near my final destination for the day on Lac La Croix. I realized fairly quickly that cross winds were much better than a straight headwind. Yes, my left arm was killing from lots of wind and waves coming from my right side, but as I slowly made my away around a big bend, I got to switch sides and enjoy some calm waters tucked away near land. Ok… where are my narrows? I couldn’t see the map with enough detail to tell if I’d be able to skirt between several islands. I zoomed in on my watch and tried to scope the land. I hoped I could make the gap – I have myself the OK to just go for it. A nice channel between land and a tiny outcrop of dense forest panned out in my favor, and the high-rise land features creating a north-south channel started to formalize as I got closer to my shortcut against the true US/Canada border. I figured if I could skirt to the eastern far side of this channel, I’d be out of the wind slightly more, and cut a bit of mileage off my route. Maybe .1 miles. But the waves pushed me around and I stuck to the west side. Around 6pm I hit 40 miles on the day. I figured I had 5 miles more to go to Fish Stake Narrows. I made the crossing to the east side of the channel with no incident. It wasn’t any better with the wind and waves hugging the west or the east shore. They were at my face either way and all I could do was try to powerfully charge forward. It worked and before too long I made another left turn.
I was on the home stretch and could see the Fish Stake Narrows. They’re a long ways off, I lamented to myself. It was panning out to be a beautiful evening. The sun was directly to my back. I repeated the Red Hot Chili Peppers lyrics “the sun may rise in the east but at least it settles in the final location”. Sets in the west, I’m headed east. I could feel the evening low sun beams on the backs of my legs. My long sleeve shirt was working great. It wasn’t too hot despite hot days, and was certainly blocking the sun. My legs were completely exposed and I could feel the sun damaging my skin. It was hot. Ouch. But in the grand scheme of things, not too terribly burned or painful.
I was ready to be done for the day. I started looking closer at my map to plan my site options. I figured the second one in towards the south was the most direct for my route. On a little island, it looked to face due west. I expected that would afford a nice sunset, and maybe some extra light to ensure my tent and food gets set up correctly without too much fiddling by headlamp. That’s my one.
With a couple navigational errors on Lac La Croix, mainly just one mistake trying to paddle through a tiny land mass, I was a little paranoid I’d be able to make it to Fish Stake through many islands. My route was not direct. I could either go south and might benefit with less wind the further south into the bay I go. Or I could go north, have a beautiful big island block most of the wind, then make a shot across the bay to Fish Stake Narrows proper. When I had to make the decision, north simply just looked better. I stuck to my left, hugging a Canadian point to my left and watching carefully for rocks as I got close to that land mass. Every time I’d get close to land, especially around a point that I’d frequently try to skirt as close as possible for the sake of mileage efficiency, I’d slowly see the lighter color of rocks beneath the otherwise dark void of the lakes potentially hundreds of feet deep. Sometimes the rocks would come quick. Sometimes, I’d be studying the map so hard, trying to count out miles or plan out an efficient route, look up to see that I was paddling straight towards a rocky ledge. Pay attention, Mike!! The northern route around a fairly large island was the right choice. I met up with the land mass, skirted around it by keeping the island tight to my right, and plotted a direct route across the bay to Fish Stake. I used my watch to get a bearing. Curve around this island a bit more, then it’s due east. I liked having the compass on my watch. I looked down at my wrist and lined it up. If I checked halfway across the bay and was still heading due east, I’d get right to my island. I could theoretically see the finish line for the day. My splits were indicative of the wind direction. Heading into a cross wind slowed me down but I was satisfied with rounding out my day about 4 miles per hour. A couple sub-16 minute miles and I made it to a first grouping of islands. I could see one campsite empty to my left, and figured I could see my goal site right on ahead. So, I paddled right to it. As I got closer, my confidence grew that it was indeed the site I was looking for, and it was indeed empty. Yep, stopping here. As I got close to inspect the site itself, my excitement increased as it looked amazing. Nice rocky outcrop, sweet fire pit, plenty of spots for a tent, all compact, and so I landed ashore, happy to be done for the day. Nearly 45 miles. Excellent.
I tried to quickly formulate a plan. Set up tent first things first. Get that good. I picked a sweet pad in a beautifully flat grassy spot. I filled up my 3-liter water filter bag and kettle for making dinner. I noticed some prime firewood at the pit. It wasn’t quite 7:30 yet and the sun was just lowering below the far treeline. I figured if I could get my shit together by 8pm I’d be doing good. Tent set up, and I changed my plans. I wanted to take a dip. My shoulders, arms and hands were killing. I knew it’d be a power day the next day, with lots of direct headwind. I needed to promote recovery. I got a fire going first, and it started up great and was roaring in no time. Some saint had cut a ton of wood and it was dense and brittle dry. Perfect. I jumped in the lake. Ooo, very uncomfortable right away, but then quickly it felt amazing. I swished my arms around, trying to get some blood flow. I hopped out and warmed back up in front of the fire. The smoke was cleansing. It bolstered my skin’s toughness. The whisping flames danced towards my outstretched arms as I looked out towards the deep orange and purple hues that smoothly melded together in the panoramic dusk sky. What a fucking amazing view. I imagined the centuries of people who probably camped here. This is the fucking spot, for sure. Yeah, I was pretty amped up about a highly successful second day, and was very eager to eat a nice hot meal and relax in front of the fire for an hour then sleep. And that’s exactly what I did. The weather predicted 0% chance of precipitation so I left my rain fly off, instead using it as a pillow with the rest of my empty tent and sleeping bag bags shoved all into my tent’s bag.
13 Oct 2022
We woke up early at the Rainy Lake RV Park outside of Ranier/International Falls, MN in dewey conditions. Me, Em and the dogs roused awake to the 5am alarm and started slowly packing up our sleeping bags, tent, random junk and hit the road. Every surface was covered in a light dew. It was pitch dark and we could see the northern lights flickering dimly in the pre-dawn sky. It was cold.
We drove 15 minutes to Sha-Sha Resort. The winding road led us to a boat launch that was listed for private use only, but I figured I’d be launching quickly and nobody else was around at this hour and didn’t want to backtrack. By 6am, the time I was hoping to set off, I was putzing around with final items, shoving extra ropes in my bag, making sure everything was tied down. I got my ankle strap on, my backup paddle tied down, then my massive food bag and dry bag backpack clipped together. I questioned how I’d get it all on my board. I also questioned doing this stupid trip altogether. It was so fun camping with Em and the dogs the previous night. We had pizza and beer and a nice bonfire. We slept in the huge spacious tent. We could do that for a week instead… but we actually couldn’t. I have to embark on this trip and this is the painful start. I got everything strapped down on an adjacent dock that was lower with the wind not doing me any favors.
The forecast was for a light south wind, which I figured would not have too much of an impact on the first day’s route except crossing the massive south bay of Rainy Lake. However, the waves were pushing my board around even at the normally-calm 6am hour! What the heck? I was so nervous to set off. Finally, at 6:23am, I pushed off, started my watch and paddled away towards the sun, standing up with my rain jacket on.
I fought the waves a little bit, but quickly rounded the resort, found the next point and was in to Voyageurs National Park immediately. I knew I’d be on a leeward shore for the next few hours paddling due east. The fiery orange sun was blinding and I had to follow it all morning. My eyes are gonna burn out! It became blocked my an island, and I reveled in the stunning beauty of the morning – fog dancing on the glassy lake’s surface, the forest waking up to my left and to my right, and the excitement of starting an epic journey put a smile on my face.
I had lots to look at right away. I’d never been to Voyageurs National Park or Rainy Lake and it was interesting seeing out the different campsites and rest stops. I could see both types of landmarks noted on my map, and the actual campsites were pretty easy to spot when there were massive houseboats docked there. Maybe it was the nerves, or maybe the hefty portion of pizza from the night before, but I felt the need to make an emergency stop just less than an hour in. Planning a stop, there were plenty of options by way of campsites or a rest areas. I wondered exactly what that picnic bench icon entailed. I suspected a rest stop or picnic area would be promising, as I would hate to intrude on a National Park campsite that has been reserved to take a morning bathroom stop. I last-minute reserved one of my own just a few days prior, but it was over 45 miles away. Without time to spare, I stopped at a super sweet rest stop that had a very nice dock and the outhouse right off the dock, including toilet paper. Nice. That was about as pleasant as an emergency stop could possibly be in that situation. I thought of my friend Nick Nygaard who gave me some pre-trip advice to take an aqua-dump. Environmental concerns aside, one goal for the trip was to not take an aqua-dump. That puts a new meaning to “dragging ass”! Dragging ass was a legitimate concern of mine very early on in the day, with winds likely to only get stronger, and I quickly boarded my paddlecraft to set off. I had a huge day of paddling to make it to my reserved site 50 miles in. I had 3 or 4 on the day, and with a later-than-hoped-for start I’d either be racking 5 miles per hour with no stops, or paddling in the dark. I could already run that math to see I was not set up well to get there.
As the sun rose higher, I had fun on Rainy Lake. The sun was increasingly less blinding and I was a little surprised at the landscape of Rainy. On the map, it’s huge. In my mind, it was a massive basin, but in reality it looked like any other lake. I figured I’d been training on Lake Superior, which makes all other lakes seem small. Boat traffic increased throughout the morning, with fishing boats zooming to their spot, or anchored at an underwater feature, and houseboats and pontoons setting out for a day of fun. The waves from wind were a non-factor, even in bigger bays to my right, the south, where the wind supposed to be coming from. Waves from boats started becoming almost constant, though. On the big open water, I would see a set of waves with no corresponding boat every now and again. Those must be from a long ways away, I thought to myself.
I became increasingly nervous about the big bottom bay of Rainy. That was almost a 10-mile crossing straight southeast from the narrows in the northwest corner of the lake, to the narrows and portage to Namakan Lake to the southeast. The open water was maybe 5 miles wide, which was a ton of real estate for a south wind to whip up. Plus, it was getting later in the morning and the waves usually only get bigger and wind stronger into the afternoon. I admired the large wayfinding structures, green and red, showing boaters of all types where to go, and snuck close around a point to get to my destination in the shortest possible way. A south-facing bay straight ahead and the waves were decent. Manageable, but a wind at my face for sure. Closer and closer, and I knew I was slowly approaching a fight. Through an island I ran into a bit of weeds. It’s never a short-cut, I thought to myself. The end of my map was at this ominous point that I was to round. I wondered if I’d have to try to jet due south for two miles and paddle the leeward shore the whole time instead of taking a direct line. When I hit the north side of Soldier Point, I figured it’d be a good time to stop with the skinny landmass blocking the wind. I refolded my map. Yep, that’s a huge wide open swath of water. Yikes. I drank some water and realized I probably was dehydrating myself and needed to focus on taking in water. I was 3:18 into my trip, about 13 miles. Right on pace for 4 mph. Going for a mid-morning snack, I realized the splashing water had disintegrated my caramel M&M wrapper and they were free floating in a pocket of my hydration vest, the colored candy coating making a tie-dye scene on the fabric. Crap! I took the whole bag in one mouthful, accidentally dropped one straggler in the lake for a muskie to eat, took another swallow of water, stood up on my board and hit it.
I could kind of see the big lake through the trees of this narrow point. It didn’t look too bad. I passed a huge red pylon and was onto the lake. Let’s go!! I was ready to hit it hard, and told myself I would push it until I got to the leeward shore. Out a few hundred feet and it was fine. Oh my god, what a relief. Yeah, the wind was towards my face, yeah the waves were coming at me, but they were completely navigable while standing up. So, I stood up and cranked anyways. This one is for Jake, I yelled! My colleague Jake, an avid angler, had jacked me up about paddling Rainy Lake many times, and offered a few pieces of advice. He said he’d be tracking me. I peeked down at my Garmin InReach Mini 2 to make sure it was still connected to my inflatable flotation device. It was, was still tracking me. Last point sent. I thought about all the people tracking me. I wondered if anyone was. I’m sure my family and Em were tracking me. Jake said he was. This one’s for you, my man, let’s crush it! I set off directly towards my destination hoping to get the shortest route possible from A to B.
Hours went by and the shoreline barely changed. I desperately wanted to get closer to land but it just didn’t make sense to from a mileage efficiency standpoint. I tried to aim for a far-off point but it was so incredibly far off I more relied on my bearing of due east with a little bit of south to guide me. I could see where I had to go. Boats went by and the waves from them were more disruptive than the wind. Boat waves were a nice break in the monotony, though. I hummed and sang dumb little “la la la la la” tunes to myself and laughed. I tried to remember to drink water but mainly just paddled for many hours to cross Rainy Lake and get to my campsite at a reasonable time. I ran numbers in my head constantly. My mile splits were good but the pace to get to my campsite even at 8pm was not realistic.
I had a point to aim for and it took a long time to get from end to end. The point eventually started changing shape and getting slightly larger and easier to make out the landscape. The red pylon denoting the narrows from which I came eventually shrunk into the horizon. It took about 3 and a half hours to make it 13 miles across one large basin of water on the lower bay of Rainy Lake. The whole time I was constantly analyzing my form, securing the best grip and the most powerful stroke. I was constantly making calculations of where I was on the map compared to what I was seeing on land and how many miles my watch said versus how fast I was going based on how fast I’d gone and what I thought I could do for the next miles to stay on pace. I tried to predict different pace scenarios for a given time or distance. I wasted time trying to look closer at the map or changing the data screen on my watch or checking my tracker or drinking water. But, constant paddling was tedious and the practically unnecessary and minor stoppages were maybe necessary for my sanity. I ran math again, and figured the far point would be a good lunch spot. It’d be a late lunch but also the landmark would make for a good goal. I passed a couple of islands, ensured I was on a direct track, and was feeling really beat by the time I cruised in to land. I tried to find a good landing. There wasn’t one. I just paddled around to the left, the leeward north side, of a small island. What a relief to stop and get to land. I had conquered Rainy Lake. YEAH!
It took a while to unload my gear. I had to unload it all, there was no other way. My food bag was obnoxiously huge. I grabbed cheese, a meat stick, and an uncrustable hazelnut sandwich. I saw a woodpecker in a nearby tree. Cool! It was so nice to be close to nature instead of the open water, literally miles from the faraway treelines as I had been for hours. I had neared the end of my map and took it out of the ziploc bag to refold again. I took some photos. I was surprised that the red pylon and far shoreline has completely fallen out of sight on the horizon. The curvature of the earth was enough to block the far shoreline that I had just paddled from. Cool.
It was hard to get going again but I got up and started shuffling stuff arounk, took some extra food for my pack and was ready to get going in no time. It was a hurried break… shove as much food as I can in my mouth and chew as fast as I can so I have time to prepare for the rest of the afternoon of paddling. I left a bit past 1:30pm, excited for some curves and narrows. I was curious what the Kettle Falls was going to be like – it seemed like there would be a portage. I tried to sneak around some islands to stay nice and tight to the north shore and with plenty of land to block any wind. The wind remained light around 5mph or so from the south. I was constantly trying to determine from exactly what direction the wind was coming from. My backup paddle seemed to be holding firm, but I was skeptical of the curved side of the paddle staying out of the water off the back of my paddleboard. I was constantly checking behind me, which is a good way to lose ones balance… There was always something to be checking on or calculating.
It seemed to take forever to get to the opening of Kettle Falls. I saw a couple of kayakers paddle ahead of me then land their watercraft onto shore. The wind was right at my face as I turned due south, and that wasn’t really pleasant. I was fighting. I got to a narrow section and three fishing boats with huge outboard motors zoomed past me as I tried to hug the inside of a curve. I almost got hung up on a rock, then the boat waves met each other from the corner, and all three conglomerated to a series of mega-waves, and I had a minor freak-out moment as the rolling turbulence raced towards me. I got onto my knees, paddled in reverse, went around the other side of the rocks and narrowly missed the waves. Phew. Those boaters were really zoomin’! Why….
I checked the map screen on my GPS watch. No help. I zoomed way out, became disoriented, zoomed way way back in. Check the map. Gah. Just keep paddling, I had to tell myself. On the map, the portage appeared to start from a side bay to the right, then the river continued upstream to Kettle Falls and Namakan Lake to the left. I went down that bay and it did not look promising. Very weedy. The map made it look like there were roads… there has to be some type of infrastructure somewhere in this bay, I muttered to myself. No. I got frustrated and turned around. Why wouldn’t I just paddle right up to the mouth of the waterfall or as much as I could and see what I see? I furiously paddled back around the point. 5 minutes more and I saw a dock. Then a landing, and lots of docks, and people, and boats tied up, and the falls off in the distance. I shouted to some people on the dock to ask if that’d be the best place to portage. They pointed me around the corner. One last corner and there was a big beach and a road. I paddled closer. A quarter mile on land there looked to be a big building, perhaps a hotel. I paddled ashore and someone asked me where I came from. Sha-Sha, I said, pronounced “Shay” like the RV park owner Kari had corrected me on the night before. They were in disbelief. A guy shouted to me: “Hey we gotta decon you”. I thought he meant he was offering to give me a ride in his ATV next to him. I shouted back that I’ll walk. He repeated himself that he had to decon my board. I kept collecting my items clumsily to prepare for the portage. The lady yelled at me “he has to decontaminate your board, honey!” Ahhh…. yeah yeah… I got my hulking pack on my shoulders, wet hydration vest draped around my front and and went up to the guy and his rig. It was a big machine the size of an electrical transformer box, and there was a tarped 20×20′ square in the sand. I brought my board up and he immediately started spraying this steaming liquid onto the deck of my paddleboard, on my folded and strapped down foam pad and all. I immediately got nervous that it would mess with my rig. He said it was 140-degree water to kill the zebra mussels. Huh, that probably isn’t too harmful, I thought. In a minute, he was done and sent me on my way, pointing me down the road to the other side of the falls. I followed.
The portage at Kettle Falls was a nice wide gravel road. It was definitely net uphill, but a hill really just in one section. I did the walk with only one change of the hand. My food bag was smashing back and forth against my lower butt as I shuffled my feet. The 1 liter quick-access bag was swinging around my neck annoyingly. There was a “trading post” and an attendant that probably had cool beverages and snacks. People were everywhere, families on their docked boats and kids wandering around on land. I went to the landing and put in as fast as possible. There were huge buoys and some type of barricade at the mouth of the falls so unassuming boaters wouldn’t get catastrophically swept down the rapids. I paddled out a bit, then carefully tried to slide my pack off my back, piece by piece. Hydration pack and quick-access bag clipped together; dense food bag and dry bag backpack clipped together. My ugly epoxy job on the tie-downs seemed to be holding up good. I struggled to get it all bungeed down with cords and straps and clips getting tangled all together, and drifted away a bit. I could hear a family on their boat close by. I probably looked like a maniac. I rushed to stand up and paddle out of there. My gear was strapped down well. Looking at my map, I knew I’d get a nice couple of leeward miles, then straight south for a while, then the map cut out but I knew it’d be a long stretch due east before turning south again for my campsite at mile 50. The paddle break was good and I was ready to crank.
Namakan Lake was sweet right away. The waves and wind were working with me. The dense forest was classic up north lake country. I passed an angler reeling in a fish, and craned my neck back to watch it jump out of the water. “Fish on!!”, I had to yelp out. I was feeling good, but boats were scooting by like a procession – boat after boat – and I started getting a little frustrated with battling each one’s wake. I made good time to what seemed to be the corner of a point where I’d turn from westbound to south. I’d be hugging Canada as much as possible. I wondered about being in Canadian waters. I mean, it’s right on the border… are there online scrutinizers really out there that would care? I couldn’t see the Canadian side on the dang map, though, as it was kind of greyed out for some reason. Why couldn’t they make it all the same color? And why is the border line so thick? Oh well, I knew where to go.
Across the first half of Namakan Lake I was just cruising away. My mile splits were decent and I was making my way along. I noticed my paddling gloves were starting to tear a bit. What crummy quality! I was thrashing them, though. I could feel my fingers hurting and a hot spot at the base of my middle fingers forming. I tried a few different grip formations. I stayed towards Canada. There were lots of boats and I kept navigating the incoming waves. It wasn’t so bad, though. Just like Lake Superior on a weeknight, my training grounds, I told myself while thinking back on the miles of training that I logged. Around another Canadian point and it seemed to get winder and more wide open. I could tell where I had to go, and the shoreline seemed really, really far off. I knew the tiniest trees that I could see off in the distance was where I had to go. I thought that I deserved an afternoon stop so picked an island. It was wavy but I was determined to stop for a rest, drink water and see where I was at. It was about 4:20pm, 10 hours and 36 miles in. I shoveled food into my mouth and realized I was completely out of water. I filtered as much as I could and realized I had a long way to go before my reserved campsite. The map looked daunting. I shoved off of my island and headed back into the wind.
With a nice 15-minute break behind me, I felt rejuvenated and paddled hard for a good long while. Into the evening hours it was just a little light wind, but enough to my face and a bit to the side to make paddling harder than I desired. I made a small navigational mistake going around an island to my right, thinking I was hugging tight to a Canadian island. I could tell from my watch’s map that I missed the straight shot. G dang it! I was frustrated and tried to calculate the added mileage. Probably… a quarter mile! That was a waste of energy to dwell on the minor mistake… No matter, and I started heading more eastward for a long stretch to the end of Namakan Lake where it narrows and turns south again to Sand Point Lake. The whole day was zig-zagging: east then a little south then east then a little south.
My reserved campsite was on a few miles down on Sand Point. Three miles in after the narrows, I figured. I tabulated that 50 miles was a spot-on estimate for the mileage, and I was doing pretty well to hit 15 minutes per mile, 4 miles per hour. With about 12 or so miles to get there, that’d put me at 8 or 8:30 to get to my site. I knew it’d be dark by 8:30 and landing right at 8 would give me practically no light to set up camp. It’s been a long first day, I reflected to myself, I did some crazy paddling today! I started seriously thinking of other options besides pushing hard to get to camp in the dark. It had been in the back of my mind all day that I wouldn’t make my campsite. I noticed lots of sites on my map, right by the narrows before Sand Point Lake opens up. But, from there it’d take no time at all to get to my site! Well, it looked short, but I figured it would take at least 45 minutes. All I can do it get to the narrows and see where I’m at, I thought.
Closing in on a spattering of islands in the final miles of Namakan Lake, I figured I might as well crank if I could. But I was tired. I decided I’d paddle across a big opening, against the wind coming across a bay from the south, on my knees to break it up a bit. I had been standing with decent conditions all day. It felt really nice to change positions and I cruised along. Another option, as I saw on the map, was to camp at a rest point. The closer I got to Sand Point Lake, the less I wanted to make a push. I was really feeling it. My body was hurting. I really wanted to be able to get to a site, lay out my stuff, eat a big meal and lots of snacks to work down my food bag’s weight, and get some sleep in preparation for another big day right away in the morning. I started late at almost 6:30 this morning! Being able to just pack up and go, I figured I’d be able to get on the water at first light. The picnic area would be convenient and quick to stop and sleep at, but I didn’t really feel too good about not only not stopping at my reserved site, but camping at a rest site not meant for an overnight stop. I didn’t need much, just an area to lay out my tiny tent.
I kept paddling. I saw my narrows, undulations on the land that had to be the corresponding islands shown on my map, and points with several campsites and a day use area that I had been eyeballing on the map for hours. I could pretty well visualize where to turn down to Sand Point. By 7pm, I was physically and mentally ready to stop, and thus not ready to do another 5 miles to be done past 8. I passed an empty campsite to my right. I paddled straight to the day use picnic area and could spot it right away because there was a houseboat there. Darn, I guess I’m not illegally camping there… probably for the better. Right nearby was another site, however, and I checked it out. Dock right there, empty. Peering through the trees and brush, it looked empty. I paddled up and clamored onto the dock, wrapped my ankle strap to a dock post, and saw a beautiful empty campsite on land at the end of the dock. Nice, I’ve gotta stay here right now, I told myself. It took no time to schlep my various bags up and lift my board up onto the dock itself. I stopped my watch, stopped my InReach and save the track. That was a relief.
As I started to set up camp, I got nervous. What if the houseboat at the rest area had reserved this site? But why would they be hanging at the rest area 500 feet away? Oh well, they can go to the other site very nearby. I could plead with them that my site is just 5 miles away and I’m too tired to paddle all that way. I was super excited to get settled in. I had it all planned out – I’d get water to filter and fill up my kettle, then get the kettle boiling, then take a dip in the lake. After I had my tent fairly organized, of course. I went to work. The bugs were a total non-factor. Excellent. The night was amazingly beautiful. I was so glad to be out there camping in the woods. The swim was shocking, and a little freaky. What if I beaver attacks me? I knew I wouldn’t have a fire, but cooked a nice meal of Knorr Pasta sides with some packaged tuna. I was comfortable. It took a bit by headlight to get my stuff re-organized and set into the bear-proof box. I checked the weather forecast on the InReach. Clear skies, nice. I played a bit of music from my phone, charged my watch and had the rain fly off as I laid down for my first night. My body was really sore, but I was excited to hit it the next day. Day 1 couldn’t have gone better, all said and done. Sure, I didn’t get to my actual reserved National Park campsite, but this was pretty dang good with almost 46 miles on the day. I drifted off to sleep at a decent hour, 9:30 or 10, and slept great under the stars.
13 Oct 2022
I don’t know why paddleboard travel stood out to me, but after years of a growing desire and formulation of the plan, I set it in action and secured a permit for Little Vermilion River- the western entry point of the BWCAW – for September 5th, 2022.
The Krueger-Waddell Challenge was allegedly spurred initially from the story of Sir George Simpson, who in the 1800’s with speed in mind led a team over an established fur trade route from International Falls to the Grand Portage and Lake Superior in 6.5 days. The route was more firmly established in the 1970’s with a paddling team of the names Verlen Krueger and Clint Waddell. Their revered and stout record of 80 hours stood for decades but has since been beaten by at least one tandem canoe team. Records on the same route technically from Sha-Sha Point at the edge of Voyageurs National Park to the west, and Lake Superior to the east, following the border of the USA and Canada through the Boundary Waters, have been set by solo canoes, maybe kayak, but also stand up paddleboard. The stand up paddleboard record was 7 days, 10 hours, 35 minutes, set in 2020 by Scott Baste and I thought I can do 5 days.
I learned about the Krueger-Waddell Challenge through WaterTribe about racing-style stand up paddleboards around the same time. It took years to put the seed of an idea into action, but I was pretty focused and committed after paying for Boundary Waters permits for three different trips leading up to the trip 9 months out. I had a lot of time to train and prepare, but didn’t do too much specific work until the end of June.
My goal to get in shape was paddle as much as I could on a day-to-day basis and a mileage basis, and some specific efforts like races and BWCA simulations:
- Moose Lake – June 25-27, 2022
- Vatten Paddlar 5 mile Race – July 7, 2022
- Big Ole Paddlefest 17 Mile Race – July 17, 2022
- Fall Lake – July 25-26, 2022
Training went good for the time spent. I could have paddled way more, and perhaps to more benefit I could have done supplementary strength training, which I didn’t. I got a good lead-up, though, and by late August felt really good. I had been racking miles on Lake Superior by portaging my board .75 miles straight to the lake, which conveniently is at Leif Erickson Park in Duluth. There is a nice landing and the portage back with tired arms was excellent training. I got it down to one change of the hands, typically between 2nd and 3rd Streets on 10th Ave East. I had my spot.
Logistics came together hastily, but Em and my parents and siblings helped me tremendously.
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.