Boundary Waters Crossing
Before moving to Duluth, I spent minimal time in a canoe, preferring to be hiking in the mountains. My wife and I quickly embraced trips on the water and were hooked after our first canoe trip to Voyagers NP. As Duluth Pack’s Marketing Director, every trip with friends ended up including a photo shoot for the Duluth Pack catalog. We had plenty of weekend trips in the Boundary Waters, but whenever the opportunity for a longer trip came up, we headed out west. When I felt my time in Duluth nearing an end, I started dreaming up a Boundary Waters crossing.
I enjoy leisurely trips in the outdoors: taking naps or reading in the canoe, cooking great food and playing games with friends by the campfire, but I always plan one trip a year where I push myself to my limits. I’m curious what I can do, how fast and far I can go. I had never gone further than 9 or 10 miles in a day on a canoe trip, but knew if I went by myself and went light, I could go much further. I had 9 days of vacation, so I knew to cover the almost 200 miles I would have to paddle over 20 miles per day. View the route here.
I dropped Molly Solberg (Duluth Pack customer service and social networking guru) and her husband off on the Vermilion River. They were going to paddle out to the boat launch where I was starting at Crane Lake. I told my wife that I didn’t know how, but somehow I would find a way to contact her to let her know when and where to pick me up. By some miracle, she was game.
My 10’ish essentials.
Here are some highlights of what I brought: (or you can read the whole list here)
Clothing – Crocs (these were perfect for the longest portages, odd I know), Buzz Off shirt and hat (very glad for these and yes they work), Icebreaker top for warmth, Filson hat for the rain (every canoeist needs one of these)
Food - I’m a whole foods kind of guy and needed all the energy I could get, so I took a lot of bulk grains and made sauces to go with them. My favorite was protein laden Gado Gado quinoa. Quinoa, peanut butter, soy sauce, oil and dehydrated veggies. You can read my menu here.
Below are notes from my daily journal. You can view all my photos from the trip here.
Day 1 – Crane Lake to Loon River
I didn’t get on the water till 7 PM. I rushed off without checking the map and got confused as to where I was. This was not a good start, and I set my mind not to let this happen again.
I took a break on a small island on Little Vermilion Lake to watch the sun go down and watch a loon swim around.
After the sun set, I paddled into the night down the Loon River. Both sides of the river were lined with fireflies. The sounds of loons, frogs and beaver tails slapping the water filled the air. It is quite an experience to have a beaver slap its tail on the water right next to your canoe in complete darkness. I would have thought after the first ten slaps I would have gotten used to it, but each time I filled with adrenaline. I ran into a beaver dam which clued me in that I was off course. I was going with the “current,” but the river on the other side of the dam was higher than me. I pulled over and set camp, surprisingly bug free. I went to sleep thinking “maybe the bugs aren’t so bad in June.”
Day 2 – Loon River to Crooked Lake
After an early wake up at 6 AM, I quickly got on the water figuring out where I got off course. If you don’t get up early to enjoy paddling through a glassy lake early in the morning, you are missing the best part of paddling. Trust me, it will make a nap in the afternoon all the better.
Weaving through the hundreds of islands on Lac La Croix demonstrated how important it was to always know where I was at all times. It would be very easy to get lost out there among the myriad of islands without topography. I passed by pictographs of hands and moose on Warrior Hill and portaged around Curtain Falls.
After I paddled as far as I could (this was the longest distance day, 40+ miles), I headed towards a campsite. I heard the sound of motors in the distance, but knew no motors were allowed in the area. I turned on my headlamp and saw a cloud of bugs, the thickest and loudest cloud of bugs I had ever seen. I went to shore and quickly started a fire with some cedar. The bugs dissipated and I quickly went to sleep after a sip or two of whiskey. Whiskey is key for solo trips. You don’t need much to take off the edge that makes you think every mouse running around is a bear coming to maul you.
I mostly paddled with a kayak paddle for mindless speed, but whenever the water was calm I switched to the canoe paddle. There is nothing like silently and effortlessly gliding over mirrored water.
I watched an otter scurry along the edge of a cliff, saw turtles basking in the sun, heard more beaver tails slapping the water, watched an owl take off, eagles soar, fish swim under the canoe, and a deer coming to the water for a drink. They supplied me with grateful breaks to just sit and watch.
Longer portages slowed me down and I saw many people around Basswood Falls. A loud and strong thunderstorm whipped up and supplied a nice change. I enjoy canoeing in the rain. As a photographer, I love the saturated color and diffused light.
I lazily paddled across Basswood Lake with a rare tail wind. I rounded American Point and found an almost tropical looking sandy campsite. I had to call it quits early thanks to a migraine. Took a long nap and cooked up some Gado Gado.Â I love the way you view food on a trip – fuel. When you need a refill, you eat. There is no eating according to the clock.
Day 4 – Basswood Lake to Saganaga Lake
The lakes I paddled through on day 4 are my favorite of the lakes I have seen in the Boundary Waters – loved the little duck through at the end of Ottertrack. I started really zoning out, humming a cadence to the kayak paddle strokes.
I navigated through the maze and finally made it into Saganaga Lake. Dove into my tent exhausted after another long day.
Day 5 – Saganaga Lake to Gunflint Lake
Saganaga ended up being my least favorite lake. I’m generally not a fan of the big lakes and prefer the coziness of the smaller lakes. Thanks to the blow down, Saganaga looks like a bomb hit it. Toothpick remnants of trees silhouette the horizon.
I walked the canoe up several rapids. It would have been great fun going the other way. All the portages were designed for those headed west.
I gorged myself on wild berries, but every time I stopped to glean, mosquitoes feasted on me.
I figured out how to paddle up smaller rapids. I would have never guessed it was possible.
I didn’t get one section of the map, relying on a map from a guide book. Bad idea, it is amazing how many options nature provides when you aren’t confident in exactly where you need to head.
I found my way out and paddled out to the Gunflint Lodge. A Guinness and a burger did wonders. I’m always surprised at the change in my social temperament after coming out of a long trip. I’m always much slower, much quieter and say much less. Too bad this fades so quickly after re-entry.
I was able to figure out my exit point and day, so I contacted my wife. I paddled down the monotonous length of Gunflint Lake and felt my batteries fading, so I pulled over to camp.
Day 6 – Gunflint Lake to Mountain Lake
By day six, I felt like I was wearing down. I’m glad I’ve navigated out of the east end of Gunflint Lake before. The map shows a very large opening coming out of the lake, but in reality there is only a very small opening.
I am a backpacker, and a 2 mile hike sounds like nothing, but when carrying a canoe and pack, two miles feels like 20. I jogged down the trail, zoning out, when I almost ran someone over. I hadn’t seen many people on the trip and did not expect to run into anyone on the ‘Long Portage. The guy mentioned it was going to be rough up ahead due to beaver activity. The trail was flooded in several sections which made for welcome breaks of paddling and pulling the canoe along the trail and over dams.
Lady slipper orchid
At the end of the portage I spotted a wilted lady slipper orchid that looked like I felt. Exhausted, I didn’t make it much farther before making camp.
Day 7- Mountain Lake to Pine Lake
I reached the eastern edge of the Boundary Waters at North Fowl Lake and looped back to make it a shorter driver for my wife to pick me up. I was cheered on by a family as I paddled up some rapids under a bridge at the end of the Arrowhead Trail. An elderly man motored beside me for a ways on McFarland Lake, measuring my speed – 3.4 mph. I headed back into the wilderness and down most of Pine Lake.
I really enjoyed the variety of scenery in the Boundary Waters. In the western end, there is little to no topography, lots of swamps, islands everywhere and amazingly huge white pines. In the eastern end are towering bluffs and long narrow lakes bordered by large hills.
I spent a lot of time out in the canoe that evening, escaping the bugs that engulfed the shore.
Day 8 – Pine Lake to East Bearskin Lake
I awoke earlier than normal to wind, lightning and heavy rain. I headed into a strong headwind for most of the day.
Found the unmarked trail up to Johnson Falls. I’m surprised you don’t see that on the map.
Went past an amazing campsite on Little Caribou that I’d come back to for a catalog shoot.
Caribou and Little Caribou lakes reminded me of New Zealand, thick carpets of green everywhere.
Amazingly, I arrived at the boat landing at East Bearskin Lake at the exact same time my wife was pulling up. I told her noon. I finished four minutes late at 12:04.
Nick Kelly is the Communications Director for Christ Community Church in Omaha, NE where he, his wife and 2 boys drive endless miles to enjoy the outdoors.