A Bit Too Superior?

Well fed, and after a bottle of wine, we had a slightly leisurely start the next morning. Leaving Rossport we managed to avoid paddling back around the islands by taking a short cut through a culvert. The GoPro was removed this time in anticipation, but we had loads of room and both stayed in the boat to paddle through. A short haul over a beach saw us heading east once more in brilliant sunshine and light winds, hoping to reach Terrace Bay, some 40km away. 

But our heads were not in it that day. Apart from the effects of the wine, we’ve increasingly had to turn our thoughts to home, and what comes next after the trip. Whilst we’ve been out here we’ve both managed to secure jobs in Perth, Australia, for 2018, which we’re delighted about. Cas doing a fellowship in paediatric anaesthesia, and myself as an anaesthetic registrar. This means paperwork, lots of it, which is tricky and stressful from a canoe and a tent in a foreign country! We’ve resented re-engaging with the real world, but we couldn’t put it off any longer and spent much of the day discussing the visa process and medical admin. We also thought my job might start in early January, which would probably mean an imminent finish to this trip. We were deflated, and upset that we weren’t even taking in the incredible scenery around us. This stretch of Superior is rocky, with lush, rich trees overhanging basalt and granite cliffs above cobalt blue water, stretching out to emerald green shallows around jagged outcrops and islands. In the coves are beaches of white, black or pink sand awash with driftwood from Superior’s perennial swells. It was a travesty not to be soaking in every moment on this great inland sea.

But Superior doesn’t let you dwell for long, and the afternoon brought the predictable wind, and returned our attention to the paddling. After a couple of short but uncomfortable crossings we reached the beach at Terrace Bay around 4pm and, wine gums all but finished, decided to call it a day. We quickly bumped into a couple of friendly locals who told us the town itself was a 40 minute walk, so another bottle of wine was out of the question. We headed to one end of the bay and set about dinner. Whilst this was cooking one of the locals, Luigina, returned. She strolled up to us carrying Boursin, a bottle of wine and an entire coffee cake. Cas politely started to suggest we couldn’t eat an entire cake, but I soon put a stop to such nonsense and gratefully accepted the gifts. Such acts of generosity continue to define this country for us.

Terrace Bay beach – wine gum dismay rapidly replaced by coffee cake joy…

That night was cold, which has started to become the norm as the summer recedes into the memory banks: we now dive into the tent after sundown to escape the chill rather than the mossies. We were on the water early to beat the winds and crossed a series of 3-4km bays on our way to Neys Beach, a former POW camp set on a 2km stretch of sand. Cas started with gloves on for the first time in months, but this luxury was short lived as one decided to sneak over the side when no-one was looking. Her capacity to lose stuff continues to astound me. As the swells built again in the afternoon we picked our way through narrow channels, avoiding the worst of the wind. The open water is taking its toll, with my shoulder reminding me of its injured status, and Cas’s muscles tight and painful too. We paddled well all day, and were rewarded with a fun surf landing onto the beach at Neys. After finding a nice spot to camp we settled down to share a beer with the park ranger, Robert.

Glorious Neys Beach

 Sunset at Terrace Bay

Fog and a gentle swell greeted us on what was to be our final day paddling on Superior. We headed around Neys Peninsula as the sun rose over the lake, considering ourselves so lucky to be on this great adventure. The scenery east of here becomes more hilly, with steeper cliffs of grey and pink, set against an almost tropical looking forest. 

Canada: where the trains are so long they snake around 2 huge headlands and into the distance.

Past Marathon, our destination for the day, Pukaskwa National Park juts out in to the lake, giving over 200km of uninhabited, wild shoreline, with another 200km beyond to reach Sault Ste. Marie and St Mary’s River. It is with this in mind that we have been considering our options. Our delays, due to weather and injury, combined with a forecast of strong winds typical for September, mean that to continue on Lake Superior would be to accept not reaching Quebec. Indeed, we would possibly not get further than the end of this lake. We were both resigned to driving from Marathon to ‘The Soo’ to enable us to see more of this wonderful country, and the colours of Quebec in the fall. But Superior wasn’t going to let us go easily. Our final 5km crossing into the bay at Marathon was increasingly rough as the forecast souterlies picked up, giving a confused sea and tossing us around like a cork. Testamount to our improved paddling abilities we both enjoyed the challenge, as waves broke across the gunwales and our deck earned her place once again. 

Tired, sore and with mixed emotions we arrived at the boat launch, just as a truck and boat arrived to go fishing. Gary and Evelyn were soon joined by Phil and Lucy, friends of theirs who had been out fishing and watched us paddle past. After some discussion about the conditions on the lake, no more boats were launched. But our Bertha found herself on Phil’s boat trailer as they gave us a lift through town to the campsite. Grateful for not having to haul the boat 3km through town, we arrived at Penn Lake campground to finalise our onward plans. Evelyn arrived later with firewood, and we’ve spent a lovely couple of days getting our thoughts and paperwork together and spending some time in the town. We’ve even enjoyed an afternoon with Betty, a 95 year old Swedish friend of Evelyn’s who paints lovely landscape images on large fungi gathered from the woods. But now, as we write this, we are watching the trees turn to red and gold and making our way 400km southeast, to Sault Ste. Marie, where we will put Bertha back in the water.

The mornings may be cold but they are also incredibly beautiful – we’re into the time of year when the fog is on the water and the sun is lower and the light is stunning

What we’ve learnt: 

Superior is the world’s biggest freshwater lake, holding 10% of the world’s fresh water.

Spread out, it contains enough to cover the entire continent – both north and South America – with a foot of water.

Our paddling has improved immeasurably since those early days back in Alberta!

There are actual people who work in actual gold mines in Canada!

Coffee cake is cake that goes with coffee, not coffee flavoured cake…

Thanks go to:

  • All our friends and family who are keeping our admin in check back home.
  • Luigina, for the gifts and good wishes.
  • Robert for the beers and lift to the store.
  • The Marathon posse, especially Evelyn for the food and keeping our woods supplies topped up.
  • Mike, Spitzii and David for all their words of wisdom and support.

Mother Superior 

The area between the Sleeping Giant and Rossport is still well paddled so there are a fair few ‘rustic’ campsites. We lucked out and found one of these tucked onto the north shore of a well sheltered island just short of our next crossing. And then sat there for 2 days. It was so well protected from wind and swell that we struggled to believe the weather was really that bad, but a severe weather warning for strong winds and big swell covered the entire of west Lake Superior, and on looking through binoculars at the treetops behind us and on the other side of the bay we could convince ourselves to sit tight… we whiled away the time with our books and Lord of the Rings, made some necessary repairs, battled with the tarp and failed to catch some more fish. It was a particularly pretty camp though and we told ourselves there were worse places we could be stuck… 

By Sunday morning the weather was due to have settled so we were up early to make the most of it. As usual, Mike was out of the tent first but returned pretty smartish. 

‘It’s bloody freezing! And I can’t see a thing!’. 

‘That’s because you’ve got us up before dawn…’ I may have replied. 

‘Nope, dense fog. Can’t even see the water.’ 

We had breakfast in the tent and found our extra layers before packing up and setting off. Mike was right, it was freezing and we couldn’t see a thing, and the first glimmers of dawn had the same effect as full beams in fog: quite magical but entirely unhelpful. Still, armed with GPS and compass we were able to progress with me trying to describe to Mike whereabouts we were. At one point, questioning a direction change, he said ‘nope, I just can’t visualise it’ to which I said ‘I’m writing ‘Happy Birthday Phil’ with our track!’. He stopped asking questions after that… 

Two days of strong south westerlies had created a pretty significant swell which we enjoyed rolling over on the crossings. There were vacuoles in the fog which gave us glimpses of the coast but most of the time we could just hear the waves crashing on the shore somewhere off our beam. And then suddenly they were crashing in front of us and beside us and behind us and we found ourselves amongst some rocky islets not marked on the map. We dove in to the shore and had ’emergency coffee’ (read: chocolate) until we could see a bit more.

Whilst on the shore we spotted a double sea kayak paddling past and out straight through all the breakers. ‘People!!!’ I squeaked. But they were already swallowed by the fog. Amazingly we caught up with them a few kilometres along the coast. We’d been behind them for a while when they abruptly turned to head out to sea – nearly t-boning them we saw the name of their boat: Titanic! We stopped for a chat and they asked if we’d found any of the ‘Secret Saunas’. ‘Then the stories are true???’ We asked. They very kindly pointed the next one out on the map and we promptly paddled our socks off to get to it. 

Tucked deep into a bay where we undoubtedly would have missed it is the CPR slip (I may be giving away Superior secrets here but I’m trusting to our readership not to tell…). A cabin, several pontoons, a big fire pit and a HUGE sauna! We had the fire lit before we’d even unpacked the boat or explored further – we’d noticed the weather was distinctly cooler since we’d stopped in Thunder Bay but now it was most certainly Autumn and any opportunity to warm up was very welcome! 

We had considered carrying on that evening but once clean and warm, we really treated ourselves and spent the night in the cabin which meant food at a table and a bunk to sleep in. Ultimate luxury. 

Knowing the weather was against us we set off the next day to paddle in the relative shelter of St Ignace island which was stunning, and then got absolutely brutalised by conflicting wind and 2m swell on the exposed sections south of Simpson island. Physically and mentally exhausted we pulled into a beach which had looked promising on the map. Not a spot to pitch a tent (but lots of wild peas, surprisingly, which we happily harvested for dinner). We had lunch and discussed and eventually carried on just around the headland to find ‘MacKay cove’ – another backcountry campsite, maintained by volunteers and beautifully sheltered. Think of it as a bothy but without the building… we spent 2 nights waiting out some fierce northerlies, reading and eating warm bannock for lunch and drying our kit. It was all very relaxing apart from being woken by something tripping over one of our guys ropes at night and then thundering off into the bush… 

With the freezing northerlies reportedly subsiding we set out towards Rossport… and pulled in again after 5km to let them actually subside. Waiting it out on a tiny pebble beach, which we convinced ourselves we could probably camp on if we really had to, we kept a pretty close eye on the channel we needed to get across. 

Eventually the white caps disappeared and we made fairly short work of the 2.5km crossing. Gaining a bit more shelter in between the islands of Rossport we planned to head to a provincial park along the coast. Then we got some mobile signal and found out about the restaurant in Rossport… and the cabins. We didn’t make the campsite! 

What we learnt: 

Superior is beautiful but frustrating in equal measure.

The saunas aren’t a myth.

Cas’s navigating isn’t half as shonky as it used to be!

Thanks go to:

Carole and Yvan for the tip off!

The lovely couple who let a pair of stinky paddlers join their table in the packed restaurant.

Physician chill thyself…

After just over a week in Thunder Bay we finally got back on the water and paddled away from Joan’s cabin. We cannot thank her enough for her kindness in allowing us to stay, giving us the chance to rest and the hope that we might be able to carry on. The combination of rest, anti-inflammatories and a steroid injection by the fantastic Dr Wark at her sports medicine clinic settled the shoulder pain down for now. The diagnosis: supraspinatus and biceps tendonitis due to the many and prolonged portages. Another injury for my quite extensive collection. 

Beautiful Lake Superior

Our first day back in the boat could not have been better – sunshine, very light winds and flat calm. I was nervous, hyper-aware and not exactly brimming with confidence, but we had to try. Thirty kilometres later, sat on the opposite side of Thunder Bay looking back and having noticed only a few small twinges, all seemed well. But we both had an unsettled night, in part due to the shoulder, but largely due to the novelty of being back out again, listening all night for noises around the tent. I sat on the beach the next morning tired, dejected and about ready to give up. I proclaimed, with tears welling up in my eyes, that I thought I might be done. I pretty much was and thought this might be the trip’s end. But we knew this would be hard. We had spoken about the loss of momentum and how difficult it would be to get that back. How we needed to give it time to make paddling a boat all day, every day, normal again. Yes there’s the delight of waking up to birdsong and splashing clear lake water on our faces; the simplicity of 2 mugs, 2 plates, 2 bowls; the joy of watching otters playing whilst the sound of the Loons echoes across the lake. But then there’s the discomfort of being in the boat for hours; the monotony of the endless paddle strokes; the constant eye on the weather and the uncertainty of finding somewhere to camp. Good or bad, over the last 3 1/2 months these things have become our world. Our enforced break had taken us away from these and plunged us back into the real world. But we weren’t ready for that again yet. After much discussion, more tears, and another cup of tea, we decided I wasn’t done. My wife’s words: “I’ll tell you when you’re done”. Welcome to married life.

The Sleeping Giant
The paddling that day was brief. We managed 10km before a storm forced us into the shore. We eventually found a campsite after first nearly losing a paddle and potentially the boat by not pulling her high enough up the bank in a swell. We were definitely out of practice. The sort of storm after which the bay must be named crackled around us all night with the ground shaking from the proximity the strikes, and the next morning dawned, just, giving us our first taste of Superior fog. Rounding the cape we pulled in to the bird observatory at the end of the Sleeping Giant peninsula and were warmly welcome by Rinchen, the resident ornithologist. Amongst many other things we finally learned who has been singing the first few notes of the Snowman to us since Alberta – a white throated sparrow. We also learned that Rinchen used to live in Cannonmills, Edinburgh. Small world indeed. Continuing on we passed the small village of Silver Islet, once home to the largest silver mine in the world, and camped in a calm bay waiting for the wind to fall.

The Giant’s lover…?
Early the next morning we set out to leave the Giant behind us. This was a significant moment, as for the next 150km there would be no opportunity to quit. There are few habitations and no roads until Rossport. This was us saying the shoulder was good for now, we were going to carry on. We celebrated with over 40km of stunning paddling. Lake Superior celebrated with a full day of wind, but we managed to pick our way through the islands and battled across the gaps to find a suitable spot for the next 3 nights – two days of 20+ knot southerlies were forecast and we were going into hiding.

Magic Mike

It’s his birthday, so I thought we’d celebrate with a few magic Mike moments…

Mike the fur trade company director …

Mike the pudding fiend…

Mike the voyageur…

Mike recovering…


Thanks to some folk who shouted Dip, dip and swing  to us just out of Kenora, we have had this song in our heads for over a month. Once you’ve listened a couple of times and it’s stuck, you can learn the Wild version:

  • Michael is mostly white, covered in freckles 
  • His beard is quite a sight, like a Viking
  • His beard is quite a sight, growing all over
  • Paddled a continent: dip, dip and swing
  • Bear hangs in silver birch, tail slaps from beavers
  • We have been paddling three months and more
  • Although his shoulder’s sore, we can return once more
  • Finish our journey, finish our journey, finish our journey…

Fingers crossed for a quick recovery so we can keep going on this amazing adventure. 
Thanks go to: Mike! Happy Birthday!!! 

Rest and be Thankful

Anyone following the tracker over the last few days will see that we’ve made it to Thunder Bay, but not by boat. After the exertions of the Grand Portage my shoulder injury got significantly worse, leaving me unable to paddle. Pain throughout the night means neither of us are sleeping either, though we have at least managed to find and patch the holes in our mattress. So, with a heavy heart, we made plans to miss paddling the first part of the lake and get ourselves and our kit to Thunder Bay whilst we rest and see what we can do. Of course, being in the US, in a tiny town with no car hire or taxi, and a border between us and our destination, made things a little tricky.

High Falls, Pigeon River

We have to thank many people for their efforts in getting us here (see below), but not least John Walker, of the National Parks Service who volunteers at the Grand Portage Museum dressed as a Voyageur. On hearing of our trip, and our plight, he offered to drive us the 50 miles to Thunder Bay, and hung around until we had been to the clinic and sorted a hire car to go back and get our boat. He even bought us lunch. Our land border crossing back into Canada took a little explaining, having never really officially left, but went pretty smoothly. And the subsequent trip back to Grand Portage to get the boat and our gear also went fine and gave us a chance to go and look at the stunning High Falls on the Pigeon River, Cas finally admitting that it was a good idea not to try and paddle it. Once back in Thunder Bay we headed to the home of Joan Halonen, the mother of a friend of Jess’s, who saw our plight via Facebook. Having been delighted to avoid social media for so long on this trip, we are now grateful for it. Joan fed us and provided us with a bed for the night, before taking us down to her cabin on the shores of Lake Superior where we are now staying. It’s a pretty good place to rest up and fill myself with anti-inflammatories, whilst Cas is taking pleasure in strapping the shoulder, excited about the prospect of removing the tape along with any unfortunate hairs…

The closest we’re going to get to Lake Superior for a few days

Thanks goes to:

  • US and Canadian Border Services
  • John Walker 
  • Jess & Jake
  • Mikey Parsons and Westly 
  • The wonderful Joan!
  • Adam (sometimes not so) Useless

We walked the line…

We pulled in and unceremoniously dumped everything in the nearest tent pitch before walking down to the marina desk and checking in. We were just thinking about going for a beer when I stupidly said something like ‘oh yes, we’re in the USA now’ and the clerk asked ‘have you cleared customs?’ Erm, well, no. We hadn’t. And we’d always been a little nervous about this part of the trip. 

If you are a Canadian or US resident you can apply for permits (RABC and i68) which allow you to cross the border remotely without question, simply phoning and notifying customs of your crossing when you are able. If you are from elsewhere, you cannot get these permits, and we had received conflicting advice on what we should do, being told by one Canadian border official that we’d get a $1000 fine each for not crossing at a land border. Not helpful when we were taking a route that crosses continuously for around 300km, and leaves us in the US. The border services at Fort Frances were most helpful, phoning both the US customs in International Falls (just across the bridge) and the Canadian guys at Pigeon River. Their advice was basically go and do it, and go to the US post at Pigeon River when you arrive or, though they didn’t say it directly, keep your heads down and paddle straight back into Canada when you get to Grand Portage. Until I opened my mouth, this is what we thought we might do…

Anyway, this was no longer an option, so we phoned the US border from the marina, who sent someone down to check our paperwork. Or lack of it. Now, this is a sentence you will not hear very often: thank you to the friendly and fantastically helpful guys at the US border for helping us out and making our arrival in the US legal. And so, 30 minutes after our arrival at the marina, a well marked border services car arrived and whisked us off, much to the amusement of the other campers. We sorted our paperwork at the land border, laughing that my fingers were too grubby for the fingerprint machine to recognise them. Lucky for us, but perhaps not those around us, we have completely lost insight into how wild we look or how bad we smell. They then gave us a lift back to our tent before we completely contaminated the place.

So, for any non-North Americans planning on doing a similar trip in the future, here’s what you should do:

  • Make sure you have an ESTA (or visa if required for your country). We had one, but might have been screwed without it.
  • Walk over the border at International Falls, with or without your gear. You will be issued with an i94, which allows you to cross as many times as you like for 90 days. Not strictly a remote areas pass, but it looks better than having nothing at all and will probably satisfy any US Border Patrol en route. You can then go back to Fort Francis and commence your trip from there or paddle from the US if you prefer.
  • When you reach Grand Portage, phone from the marina. US customs will come down and meet you, and the existence of your i94 should be enough to ensure it is a straightforward process.
  • Paddle up to Thunder Bay and phone the CBSA from the Marina there. We didn’t test this bit, but it’s what the Fort Francis guys told us to do. Or cross back at the land border and continue your trip from Thunder Bay.

Essentially, it’s all a bit of a grey area and the border guys know it. So smile, keep your fingers crossed, don’t make too many jokes, and maybe have a few thousand dollars in your bank account in case it all goes to shit.

The Portage Pilgrim’s Progress

We left Gunflint filled up and stretched out but, like the first day of the holidays, with the added realisation of just how tired we were. Good job there was a nice easy stretch ahead… 

Gunflint dock, site of breakfast yoga shocker

After an early morning yoga session on the dock (during ‘happy baby pose’ I imagined the view for the breakfasting onlookers and got uncontrollable giggles) we set off down the lake with a gentle tail wind. We stopped in at the next campground store to pick up as many Ibuprofen as they would let us buy (this being the US, ‘many’ was the answer): Mike’s shoulder – which was injured a few years ago when he was knocked off his bike on his way to work, subsequently arriving at his place of work in an ambulance – has been causing him some grief, most notably since we started this section of heavy portaging. Skype advice from a top physio, and also from Mike’s best man, was rest (they know Mike well enough to know this won’t happen), excercises, and a course of anti inflammatories. Paddling doesn’t seem to aggravate it so we continued on through Little Gunflint lake and Little North lake onto North lake. From here we took the excitingly but slightly misleadingly named ‘Height of land’ portage, figuring everything beyond should be downstream…right?

Portaging injuries…

We paddled very definitely into the current on South lake to find the Rat Lake portage: by now we are accustomed to looking intently for dark holes in the forest which might indicate a trail, and as we get closer the shiny exposed roots and smoothed rocks that tell of several hundred years’ worth of use (and on arrival see the confirmatory grazes of aluminium from other canoes to which we add a dash of bright pink gel coat. Good old Bertha). 

We started unpacking when another canoe arrived: people! We yelled them to pull up as there was plenty of room at the get out, and started our first run up the trail. We were halfway back when we passed one of the paddlers: ‘where are you camping?’ Said he, apropos of nothing. ‘We’re going to try and get to Rose lake and…’ he didn’t stay for the rest but broke into a run. Ah, our first taste of competitive canoeing: the campsites in Boundary being limited we had been told that there could sometimes be a race for the best spots. Well, it’s a very serious business, holidaying…! 

View from the portage trail

We made it onto Rose lake in time to see a storm gathering behind us and the other canoe pull into the first campsite on the lake. Knowing we had the (entirely appropriately named) Long Portage at the end of the lake sometime the next day we paddled as far as the storm allowed before diving for cover and setting up the tarp. Also in deference to the Long Portage we ate a huge dinner which consisted of ‘whatever’s heaviest’ (rice and daal, one of our favourites).

At 4km the Long Portage was to be our biggest ‘trail’ (as opposed to highway) portage to date – good preparation for the Grand Portage then!? Although these trails are quite obvious they’re by no means easy, with stretches of rooty hill and rocky steps and soggy marsh and fallen trees and occasionally narrow, sometimes rotten, gangways across bog. Breaking it down into 1km sections where we’d depot the first bags and return for the rest seemed to go ok, if not quickly. Many Clif bars were consumed. But the wine gums were being rationed for what lay ahead… 

With the Long Portage completed in time for coffee the remaining 4 short portages for the day looked a breeze. Little did we know the muddy, wet ‘portages’ would be barely distinguishable from the muddy shallow ‘lily lakes’. Some pole-ing was required… finally we arrived onto lovely Mountain lake where we sat and watched a timber wolf whilst it stood intently watching us from the far shore. We camped on Moose lake, which didn’t live up to its name in spite of much evidence on the trails. 

Moose Lake

Our last day in Boundary involved a portage onto the Fowl lakes and then a foul portage onto the Pigeon river – another landmark moment on the trip and name from the list! Foul in part due to us taking a wrong turn and heading up a steep path onto a high escarpment – returning to the junction we saw that the fallen wood that appeared to lay across the other path was, in fact, quite clearly an arrow. Doh! But also this was another 2km portage through dense woodland with many fallen trees to climb over and a twisting meandering hilly track, clearly now rarely used. We did it in 3 stages with coffee at the start (whilst Mike picked a record 5 leeches off his feet) and lunch at the finish on the Pigeon river. In the middle I snagged my prized bug shirt on a branch and tore a hole in the mesh – our second portage disaster!

We both had ideas what this legendary waterway would be like and I think  it’s fair to say it was neither. Bigger than Mike thought, reedier than I had expected and with less flow and more headwind than either of us had hoped for we still enjoyed our paddle down to the English rapids which were bumpy and fun, and then the dramatic and stunning Partridge falls before we arrived to camp at the old site of Fort Charlotte. The Grand Portage is, in fact, a national monument, with permit controlled camping, a fire pit, a long drop and some signposts about the history of the trail. We thought this boded well for a clear route. 

With the light fading fast we made a hasty fire (for cooking and as a mosquito deterrent), pitched the tent on one of the plinths (it didn’t fit), sewed up my bug shirt and set up the bear hang. Then we scrambled into the tent and tried to convince ourselves we were ready for the next day…

And so it was that the day after our 4 month anniversary, and one day short of being 3 months out, we woke at 530am to walk our canoe and all the rest of our kit 14km to Lake Superior. 

Only it’s not 14km when you have to cover the route 3 times to get everything from point one to point 2… and that was with us both very much maximising our carrying capabilities: on the first portage run we both carry huge packs and clip on additional bags or carry paddles, and on the second run Mike has to lift the bag onto my back before balancing various other bits of kit and the canoe trolley etc on me before he lifts the canoe. I felt a strong empathy for mules… 

Typical of the Grand Portage trail

The trail was quite obvious but not always in great shape and after over 6 hours and 21km walking we’d made 7km of progress. So about 1km an hour then. It was at this stage we arrived at a junction with the old highway 61 – a gravel road. We stopped for lunch to discuss… it was twice the distance by the ‘highway’, but if we could use the trolley then actually it was 2/3rds the distance we’d have to do on the trail… we could do 1km an hour on the trail, and about 5km/hr by road. and our wine gums were running low…

So we loaded up the boat with all our gear and let our shoulders breathe a sigh of relief as we hauled the remaining 18km to Grand Portage. Taking a last diversion off the actual proper highway to get into town we thought we might be able to get back onto the last section of the trail and feel like we finished properly. After a protracted battle with some muddy ditches we got back onto the road and, nearing the bottom of the wine gums and the end of our tethers, finally saw the unmistakable gleam of RVs through the woods – a campsite!!! 

Grand Portage Marina and campground – that’s Lake Superior right there!

What we’ve learnt: 

Canadian cheese is so synthetic it lasts, virtually unchanged, for weeks unrefridgerated! Win!

We have a slow leak in our mattress. 

Canoe Heaven?

Calm, crystal clear lakes; miles upon miles of unspoiled shoreline; no motorboats, and over two million acres of virtually canoe-only accessible wilderness. Sound like canoe paradise? It’s probably pretty close. This is the area covered by Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks to the north of the border and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the US. It’s pretty amazing, stretches for 240km, and it’s what we’ve been paddling through for the last 10 days.

Having managed to obtain our Quetico permit, and get a last minute BWCAW one to enable us to use the US campsites too (more on the legality of this from US customs viewpoint in another blog…), we headed out across the remainder of Lac la Croix to Bottle Lake, and the first of over 40 portages that navigating along the border through this region entails. Unlike the mechanised portages of the previous days or the wide open trolley friendly trips along the highway, these are all canoe-on-head, multiple trip affairs. Lightweight outfits on short trips portage through in one go, but with all the gear for 5 months on the water we were delighted to get this down to two trips each. That of course means walking three times the portage distance, which ranged from a short 5m hop between lakes, to up to 700m in this section. It also introduced us to a new unit of measurement, the Rod – 16.5 feet, or roughly the length of a canoe. All the portages are listed in this unit on maps, so we soon became accustomed to it. Fortunately the portage trails through this bit of the boundary waters are well trodden and in pretty good nick, meaning they mostly weren’t too challenging, yet.

Pictographs on the cliffs of Lac la Croix 

Our original plan was to stay on the Canadian side through as much of these lakes as possible, acknowledging that the portages run on both sides and therefore necessitate crossing into the US. However, with the reassuring words from the Canadian customs guys in Fort Frances, and our BWCAW permit, we spent the first, and every subsequent night, in US campsites. These are pre-cleared spots with a fire pit, toilet of sorts, and tent spaces. In contrast to the the difficult to find Canadian sites they are marked on certain boundary waters maps. Which we didn’t have. But soon overcame this by taking photos of those carried by willing folk we met along the way. The Canadian side also allows wild-camping, which the US does not, so we were never too worried about finding a place to stay. We became quite used to seeing otter pups playing in the early morning and late afternoon, and listening to the haunting and comical loons, which have replaced the pelicans as our favourite bird.

First US camp

We also started to hang our food more in this section, whereas we haven’t really bothered before. Any bear that has shown any interest in us has been rapidly scared away, and we haven’t been using regular camp spots. But with the volume of traffic in this region and the tendency for bears to return to anywhere they’ve found a quick snack, we wanted to avoid any temptation. And it’s a park rule, or recommendation. The variety of “hangs” we saw was amazing, but the amount of food hanging from each suggested either not everything makes it into the hang or that people here survive on very very little… Most of the hangs did not look like they would deter Paddington if he was hungry, but seemed pretty effective at keeping chipmunks at bay. Anyway, lobbing a throw bag up into a tree each night to try and get the best branch is pretty good fun.

During the first couple of days we saw few canoes, and were able to stop and chat occasionally. We found a great bunch of guys out fishing (Simon et al – there is so much potential for canoe fishing trips in Scotland I’m sure) who, seeing us paddling towards them and thinking we might be rangers (both wearing matching bug shirts), knocked a fish off the line, paddled back into US waters from Canada where they may not have had the appropriate permits for, and scoped us with binoculars until they were satisfied we weren’t going to arrest them. Sorry guys, we hope you caught plenty more fish! As we continued further into the park we saw more and more canoes, so a friendly wave is all you can manage or you’d be chatting all day! The peace from motor boats was bliss though, and we dreaded reaching the few mixed use lakes.

Four days out from the ranger station, with many more portages to go, we suffered our first major kit failure. Both straps on big yellow, one of our 100L Ortleib dry bags, failed on a single portage, leaving us carrying the heavy pack on our heads. We managed to rearrange things to still get through in two trips, but with a lot less comfort and for how long we didn’t know. We also now feared big red might go the same way, and with the grand portage to come we were pretty depressed. However, paddling through Knife Lake and on into Ottertack re-kindled our spirits. Despite the storms and now familiar biblical rain, Ottertrack was probably the prettiest lake we’ve paddled. Steep shores with trees tumbling into the glassy calm water made a truly memorable evening as we battled with the weather to make camp. Tarp happily fluttering over the fire (yes, we know…), we survived 2 inches of rain over not very many hours and found the tent pitch least likely to leave us floating. 

The broken pack, and sling repair

Ottertrack Lake, in the rain

Leaving Ottertrack the following morning we headed for monument portage, where we were caught by an amiable Russian out for a few days solo paddling. He was headed to the ranger station on Lake Saganaga, as were we, so we chased him through some brutal headwinds to meet the ranger of over 30 years, Janice Matichuk. Chatting over a cup of tea, Janice is a wealth of information about Quetico, living with the land, and all things canoeing having lived and breathed it her entire life. She also knows everyone in the local (!) area, so upon hearing of our broken pack set about finding us a replacement. Whilst we made coffee, and introduced her to the Aeropress, she sourced us a portage pack and had it delivered to an old island lodge by an outfitter on the south side of the lake. We paid her, she’ll pay them, we just had to paddle into the wind for two hours to get it. A true star and a real inspiration, showing how living a modern life is possible in such a remote outpost. We collected our pack from the Powells, were grateful for more tea and great company, and finally made our camp for the night amongst towering red pines. Truly a day to remember. 

The irrepressible Janice

Red pine camp

The next day we headed to Gunflint Lodge on the Minnesota side of Gunflint Lake, via a stunning 9 portages! Gunflint is a bit of an institution, having been there since 1927, and runs fishing and canoe outfitting through the summer and skiing and snow-mobiling in the winter. Whilst they have some nice plush lodges, we were grateful for space in the canoer cabins. Feeling pretty broken from all the portaging we decided to take a rest day and both had massages from Carly, whilst Brandon and his outfitting team sorted us out with some kit resupplies. Kit mended and dried, bodies partially revived, we felt ready for the push to Superior.