Wilderness Travel: Big Days

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Wilderness Travel: Big Days

            When you live in a small tourist town summertime is the time to hustle.  Jobs are plentiful, and the hours are available.  In the town of Ely, MN it’s impossible to not day dream about the possibilities of your own wilderness travel while you’re outfitting people to do theirs.  Two days off doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but you’d be amazed at what you can push your body through in the long summer days. 

Wilderness Travel Big Days Canoe Lift

            It didn’t take long to convince a good friend and coworker Meagan to paddle over sixty miles in two short days.  With little permit availability in mid-July we decided on Kawishiwi Lake as our entry point.  From there we could plan a challenging route that would take us back to Ely.  Between helping customers and cleaning gear our conversations at work typically consisted of what food we would bring, the necessary gear and what we would skip. When in a canoe weight is often an afterthought but when you’re portaging as much as we had planned to it was crucial to have one light pack and one boat.  After much discussion about where we would go a friend told us about the “hardest portage in the boundary waters”. Regardless of if it had been true, it caught my attention.  The portage was 540 rods going from Paulson Lake to Seagull Lake.  So, we had our route.

            Kawishiwi Lake to Seagull Lake in one day, Seagull Lake to Snowbank Lake the next.  I had never traveled more than twenty-seven miles in one day.  My goal was to beat that personal record and add on a few miles, two days in a row.  We parked one truck at the Snowbank Landing and planned to leave from Ely at 3:30 in the morning to be on the water at sun up.  I was a little nervous.  I had never planned to push so hard on one trip.  We had 1,997 rods of portaging which made up about six and a half miles of our travel that day.  I didn’t sleep a wink before my alarm at 3:00 A.M. After a few sips of coffee, I was energized as if I had a full eight hours of sleep. I became excited about the miles we’d cover in the days to come.  The drive was mostly in the dark, but signs of morning became to arrive around 4:45. We got to the water and began to paddle at 6:00. 

            I had never brought a carbon paddle on a multi-day trip in fear of breaking it.  I would have been kicking myself had I brought a wooden one.  Meagan, reluctant, finally agreed she was glad to have one.  The morning was easy, cool and no wind to bother us.  We stopped for short periods of time often for snacks.  We wanted to keep energy up but never planned to stop for breakfast or lunch.  Until dinner we ate exclusively in the canoe.  By 10:00 am we joked that we had likely already traveled farther than most do in their whole day.  We stopped for a brief lunch of apples and peanut butter on Malberg Lake.  The wind started to pick up, we took turns sculling while the other ate lunch.  Unfortunately, there was no time for fishing, but we would often comment to each other “I bet there are fish in this lake.”

            By 3:00 pm we had made our way to Little Saganaga.  I remember the words from a good friend “don’t get turned around on Little Sag” this had me nervous although I had navigated without fault all day.  I handed the map to Meagan and told her to give it a shot.  After about thirty minutes of not looking at a map I started to worry a little.  I tend to feel much better when I know exactly where I am at.  Meagan started to show signs of mild confusion which made me worry more.  After another twenty minutes of paddling she said, “I think I know where we are but I’m not 100% sure” or “I know where we are but man these islands just aren’t making sense.”  After she repeated this five or six times, I finally snatched the map back and nothing made sense.  I was tired, I was hungry, I was livid and it started to rain.  Looking up and down from the map was exhausting.  When I finally scraped together some sort of bearing, I said “Okay we just need to round this corner and then I’ll know where we are.  If not, we are screwed.” We paddled around and nothing looked right.  I figured out we had gone further than I thought.  I discovered we were headed for the wrong portage, but it would ultimately put us in the same place. 

portage on

            After the portage from Little Sag I needed a moment to collect myself and get back on track.  I was angry that we had spent so much time on that lake.  I never gave the map back to Meagan, she didn’t seem to mind.  We had gone a great distance at this point in the day.  It seemed like every other lake our attitudes changed.  I’d be quiet and irritable, Meagan would be chatty, the next lake we would switch.  The wind picked up as we made it to Peter lake, a long lake from portage from portage.  It felt like the biggest lake I had every paddled on.  The wind held us back to a pitiful pace.  I continued to be very ambitious about our ETA in camp.  Meagan had a much more realistic expectation of when we would be finished as we were moving very slowly.  We bounced through some smaller lakes and the wind started to howl. 

            We mostly had smaller portages for the remainder of our day aside from the “Hardest portage in the Boundary Waters.”  One short twenty rod portage ended up being somewhere around 120 when we found ourselves on the Kekekabic hiking trail.  The portages in this area were so gnarly, arguably not used more than ten times in the season.  It was a miracle that we made it out with only one rolled ankle and one skinned knee (both Meagan).  Finally, after what I thought to be the longest hardest day of my life we were on Paulson Lake.  It seemed like there was no energy left to do our final and longest portage of the day.  We had a brief conversation about it.  How we had already accomplished a great deal that day and how nobody would blame us for calling it quits.  Ultimately our stubborn attitudes wouldn’t stop until we were camping where we said we would, on Seagull Lake. 

            The wind on Paulson Lake was absurd.  Wind generally isn’t something that the average person finds themselves thinking or worrying about.  But when you are on the water it is everything.  It dictates how fast you will go, or if you will go at all.  With the decision to push on Meagan and I worried about the availability of campsites.  In the Boundary Waters campsites are first come first serve and in mid-July if you aren’t in your campsite at 4:00 P.M. you may be in trouble.  It was 6:30 at night when we arrived at the landing leading to Seagull Lake.  The landing looked as every other portage landing does, but there was no trail to be found.  I looked straight up at the large rock face in front of us and found a small goat trail leading to the top.  It seemed to me to be nearly a 70-degree angle. 

            Meagan said she would take the canoe and I could take the pack.  I told her to just holler when she wanted to switch.  We climbed to the top of the rock face which we could almost have used a belayer to safely make it to the top.  The wind at the top of the hill was ruthless.  Carrying an 18 and ½ foot canoe in the wind is next to impossible.  After watching her yell and struggle we carried the canoe together until we were under the shelter of trees.  Meagan threw the canoe up and we were off.  The portage dipped down into cold vast spaces in the woods and then back up to what seemed to be the top of the world.  Somebody once said to me that you can continue to portage as long as your legs aren’t tired.  You can be in as much pain as ever but if you’re able to stand up right you’ll be okay.  Well my legs were tired.  I was experiencing a shortness of breath that I had never experienced before.  I had to focus hard on my breathing.  After what seemed to be a few hundred rods I was standing at the top of a peak, Meagan not far behind.  I saw a large lake in the distance and thought no way is that Seagull Lake.  It seemed like it was five miles away still. 

            We dropped down into a swampy area which fooled me into thinking we had made it to the lake.  Only to realize it was a pond, this happened multiple times.  We were starting to lose daylight and it became difficult to see in the heavily wooded areas.  I heard a loud bang as if Meagan dropped the canoe.  I paused for a second and yelled “You good?”  Silence.  After a few moments I saw the bow peak around the corner and Meagan with it. 

one knee down

            Finally, we had made it to the other side and to our surprise the landing was as lovely as any could be.  Flat, sandy and wide.  Meagan trudged into the water and rocketed the canoe off her shoulders into the water with a giant sigh or groan rather.  Her knees were bleeding from where she had fallen with the canoe (the loud bang).  She never once asked me to carry the canoe.  In that moment I was so grateful I had asked Meagan to join me on this trip.  I was paddling with an absolute monster.  I have met my fair share of powerful women in my life, Meagan is on a different level of self-determination.  Hands down one of the hardest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of traveling with. 

            We were so tired we could have camped right there at that sandy beach.  Being employees of an outfitter, we deemed it inappropriate.  The campsite we were gunning for was on an island straight across from the landing.  We prayed to whatever may be looking down upon us that it was open.  To our luck at 7:45 P.M. it was.  There was nothing spectacular about this campsite.  It was in a motorized area.  Tons of camp robbing squirrels.  Nothing particularly nice about it but to us it was the nicest campsite we could imagine resting our heads at.  We were in camp and setting up at 8:00 P.M.  Fourteen hours of travel. 

sun at camp

            We had brought only one freeze dried meal with to motivate us to only spend one night on our wilderness travel adventure.  We had made it to our halfway point and devoured our Pad Thai in a matter of minutes as we watched a storm cloud move closer.  Meagan worked on her knee with the first aid kit as I inflated our sleeping pads.  By the time camp had been set up, we were done eating and cleaning the mosquitos were hungry.  We dove into our tent before the sun went down and passed out immediately.  We awoke some time later in the evening to a wicked thunderstorm.  The flashes and cracks kept us awake for far too long.  There was one point where I considered sitting on my PFD in hopes to not be struck by lightning.  That feeling passed as I drifted back to sleep. 

            The next day came fast.  We planned to be up at 4:30 A.M. before the sun. We packed away our sleeping system in the tent while mosquitos whined to get in.  We prepared ourselves to pack up camp quickly and efficiently.  Nothing could prepare us for the bug panic we were about to experience.  For the following twenty minutes every inch of bare skin was covered in mosquitos.  Nothing could be done but move as quickly as possible.  It was difficult to be quiet and respectful of other visitors when we were quite literally being eaten alive.  It was still important to me to pack the pack efficiently.  Carrying a pack that isn’t packed well is a terrible business especially with the distances we were going.  Eventually Meagan said “Enough! Get in the boat now”

pack before paddling

            I was a little nervous because the sun still hadn’t come up and I didn’t want to navigate the big lake in the dark.  By the time we had covered a little water the sun gave me enough light to see.  I had been on Seagull once before roughly seven years ago.  It was exactly as I had remembered.  Large, daunting, magnificent.  This had been my first time on the Gunflint Side in nearly a decade.  It seemed silly but exciting to be back in Ely in the same day.

            The sunrise on Seagull was glorious.  It was cool and damp from the storm.  We were very lucky to have the weather that we did.  For a majority of our wilderness travel it was 70 degrees with an over cast.  Getting back into the groove of travel that morning was very difficult for me.  I was sore and not well rested.  We stopped for a short breakfast of peanut butter and apples near the portage. As we paddled through these lakes on the East side I noticed the remarkable difference between the east and west side of the wilderness area.  Each unique in their own way, both worth visiting and exploring. 

blue sky blue lake

            Now this day from start to finish was hard.  It was really hard.  I wanted it to be over, as much as I tried to keep a positive attitude.  Meagan picked up on it too. No amounts of stretching, food or rest could get the pain in my shoulders to go away.  Just keep paddling, just keep portaging.  When we had made it to Kekakabic Lake it felt like a milestone.  Roughly half way through our day.  I had never been to Kek before and I had heard for so long about it.  I was astounded by the cliffs and the length.  The water was so clear and blue.  It was disappointing we only had time to look as we paddled.  At one point I noticed Meagan a little wobbly.  She missed a few strokes and I feared she may fall out of the boat.  She sat up straight again and said “ohp I fell asleep”

Wilderness Travel Checking the Map

            We were covering ground slowly but surely, we stopped for a brief break and a snack on Dix Lake, here I laid down which may have been a mistake.  I was ready for a nap.  As the end got closer the portages and lakes seemed to get longer.  We had made it to Ensign Lake, just a few lakes away from Snowbank.  This gave me a burst of energy.  The water on Ensign was like paddling on glass.  There was absolutely no wind which made me feel great about our paddle on Snowbank because it is notoriously windy.  We had a 200-rod portage into Boot Lake and it was my turn to carry the canoe.  This portage had lots of ups and downs and on what seemed to be the biggest hill I struggled to breath.  I was so short of breath at the top of the hill I had to give in and let the mosquitos latch onto me while I catch my breath.  I was panicking for a moment, I had never in my life struggled to breath like that.  I was tired, hungry and ready for bed.  I was out in the woods and I had no choice to continue on.  When we made it to Boot lake it was as if it was a different day than an hour before on Ensign.  The wind picked up as we were only one short portage away from Snowbank.  We had made it though, Snowbank was our destination we just had to make it across. 

            The waves on Snowbank were not as bad as I’ve seen them get but they were also not small.  We paddled on the lake for what seemed like an eternity until we reached a large island which allowed shelter from the wind.  We rounded the corner of the island and darted towards the canoe landing where we would find Meagan’s purple truck waiting for us.  I was so pleased, not only for our trip to be done but also because we had accomplished so much.  As if we had given ourselves any other option.  When it was all said and done we had done 3,303 rods in wilderness travel and roughly sixty four miles. 

            It was hands down the hardest thing I had ever asked of myself.  It took a few days to really have a respect for what we had done.  My body never really did recover from the trip.  It was hard on me and I had no explanation as to why I struggled to recover.  When Meagan felt fine the very next day.  The following week my breathing became so labored that I needed to see a doctor.  After a few pokes, tests and scans it turns out my left lung was completely filled with fluid.  They told me that I had a tumor in my chest, a pretty sizable one at that.  Some awfully jarring news for a person to receive when just a week before I felt healthy enough for such and ambitious trip.  After another few weeks, pokes and more tests I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  Not exactly the news I had hoped for but I’m optimistic of the future.  There is still quite a road ahead of me but I’m sure by next summer I’ll be planning my next excursion such as this.


Thank you for sharing the emotional details of your trip. You are truly an inspiration. I too prefer to look at my BWCA trips as personal mini-quests. Trying to push my body to its limit all while recharging my soul. Thank you for the vivid imagery. Your blog may just help hold me over until the warmer weather of spring is back and we are back on the water. Best wishes for you as you work to rise above the challenges of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

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