by Dave Simpkins
Birch bark canoes, sled dogs and living near Grand Portage has brought Erik Simula as close as a person can get to the lives of the early voyageurs and Ojibwe people.
Last summer, he learned firsthand what it is like to paddle 1000 miles over 108 days, as he fulfilled a lifelong dream of paddling the Arrowhead in his handmade birch bark canoe with his 40-pound sled dog Kitigan.
His 14-foot canoe was made in the Ojibwe-Anishinaabe old tribal form, weighing 45 pounds dry and 65 pounds wet. It was made of local white cedar framing, split black spruce roots and white birch bark for the hull and pine resin mixed with charcoal and bear grease for sealant. He harvested much of his bark and made repairs along the way.
His gear included dried trail food for 30 days, which was replenished from three pre-cached food re-supply points. His camp pack had a tent, bedding and clothing. His kettle pack carried cookware and repair supplies. He ate oatmeal, coffee, dried fruit, nuts, wild rice, fish and tea. Kitigan carried her own dog food, water bowl, blanket and harness in a dog pack. His daypack doubled as a seat, a fishing pole and two paddles that created a portage yoke.
He carried 2100 feet of rope and double plastic in his Duluth packs.
Canoeing the North Shore
Sinula set out from Grand Portage National Monument on Earth Day 2009 to paddle the 150-mile Lake Superior coast line to Duluth where he encountered snow storms, shelf ice, swells, waves, wind and fog. Of the 20-day trip, he spent eight on shore.
“I went by my gut. Whenever I felt something might be coming up I pulled off the lake and sure enough something came up,” remembered Sinula.
When the winds were right, he built a makeshift sail from driftwood.
Paddling into the Duluth Ship Channel, a collection of crosswaves caused his canoe to swamp and he had to be rescued. He was given a ticket for an improper life jacket.
Encountering the wild
Paddling into the St. Louis River and along the Savanna Portage route to the Mississippi River, on what was once called the Northwest Trail, was a relief compared to Lake Superior. The fishing along Jay Cooke State Park when the sun was shining all seemed too good to be true.
The easy life quickly ended. He crossed hundreds of beaver dams, took an 18-mile double portage and navigated overgrown portages by compass. He fought ticks, flies and mosquitoes. Then there was a mountain lion and a bear.
Setting up camp at dusk, he noticed a huge pair of eyes staring at him. He stared back while Kitigan, on a leash, got her hackles up, returning a low growl.
“In a deliberate, non-threatening voice I said to the dog, ‘now that’s a cougar.’ I meant for the cougar to hear it. It eased away slowly,” said Sinula.
He quickly broke camp when a bear came running within 20 feet. When Sinula fired a warning shot from his pistol, the bear stopped. He then set his beaver stick into the ground, pointed toward the bear. Sharpened at both ends, he used it to work his way over beaver dams and to ward off dangerous animals.
“ I wasn’t about to depend on a pistol. The bear did a half circle and walked off. It was scary,” said Simula.
He paddled into the night, crossing 30 beaver dams, and found a place to bed down in thick grass at about 3 am. He woke at sunup in a dream state, not knowing what he was hearing. A look around revealed he was in a flock of trumpeter swans.
The Savanna Portage
He had a meal of a Finnish fish soup named Gatinoya and went onto the six-mile Savanna Portage, which is now protected by the Savanna State Park.
This is where having a sled dog along come in very handy.
He used the dog to line the canoe wherever the shoreline would permit. He hooked a harness to her and himself for her to pull him along the portages.
“It worked fine. All I had to do was lift my foot and she pulled me forward,” said Simula.
On some portages he would leave her behind to guard the food pack and many times she held the canoe while he went ashore.
He took a break at Grand Rapids to attend his daughter’s graduation.
The Voyageur Highway
His roughest paddling came in the rapids of the upper Bigfork River, where there were powerful downriver currents. He also became the loneliest in this isolated area.
The most beautiful portion of the trip was in the canoe country from Rainy Lake to Grand Portage, known as the Voyageurs Highway, through the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area.
“I hiked to rocky vistas, overlooking the beautiful boreal forests and waterways as far as the eye could see. On Basswood Lake, a huge fish knocked on the bottom of the canoe. The fishing was very good, the weather stimulating and Nature’s essence nourished my soul,” said Simula.