Mary and Joy like things that have a beginning and an end and are challenging. This was for Mary Tuchscherer and Joy Zasadny to paddle 360 miles BWCAW last August.
Inspired by an account of Justin Kerfoot, the owner and guide for the Gunflint Lodge, of a similar trip, the adventurous twosome embarked on their journey with an “if she could do it, so could we” attitude.
Averaging 18 miles of paddling each day, they hauled their Royalex™ Old Town Penobscot canoe over myriad portages, including the 8.5-mile Grand Portage. They spent 20 days on the water. Their trip, however, is not defined by numbers, but rather by a collection of those daily experiences that when strung together like beads on a necklace, form a complete circle of adventure.
Having a limited selection of guide books to help suggest routes, they relied upon a set of McKenzie maps to plot their serpentine course – deciding to follow the silver boundary marker signs that define the border between Minnesota and the Canadian province of Ontario.
Their gear list included a Big Agnes tent, a bear barrel, large Duluth pack, small stove, titanium cookware kit, water purification pump and presumably dog food for Skyedog, their Westie traveling companion. Their inventory of gear did not include a spare paddle.
In addition to the food they took with them at the start of the trip (they carried a fulfilling supply of pemmican food bars), three food drops were schedule along the route. An unsuspected temptation along the way was a Jimmy Buffet “Cheeseburger In Paradise” moment they encountered on South Fowl Lake (details to follow).
Their journey began with a downstream paddle on the Rainy River. The Rainy runs counter to their eastward journey, flowing east to west from International Falls to Wheeler Point on Lake of the Woods. It offers bucolic scenes on the Canadian side…and bad camping. Fishing is good as long as one doesn’t suffer a thumping from monstrous, airborne sturgeons that could easily tip over small watercraft.
A sailing rig helped them scoot across seven miles of Voyageur National Park in a half hour. “We were literally passing people in their pontoon boats,” remembers Joy.
From Voyageurs, their route carried them along the Little Vermillion River to the western edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. From there, they topped off the entire BWCAW through to the Gunflint Trail area where they did the impressive 8.5-mile overland haul down the Grand Portage trail.
Encounters were sporadic along the route. Popular landmarks such as Basswood Falls and the Knife Lake area attracted the most people, while few visitors were seen east of Rose Lake. While crossing South Fowl Lake on the eastern edge of the BWCAW, they discovered Ray’s Resort, where a group of good ole boys offered them bacon cheeseburgers and beer (burger, no; beer, yes!).
Timing entries into sections of the Boundary Waters area was critical when dealing with the bureaucratic nuisance of permits. “The days that you need them have to be exact!” warns Mary.
The support of friends was invaluable. Help shuttling the group and gear, and even joining in while paddling longer stretches, enabled them to share in the adventure.
What’s canoeing without a few portages? How about 53? Sections of the Pigeon River portage were poorly maintained. “There were lots of big trees down to have to crawl over,” says Mary, “and confusing forks – which way to go?” Beaver dams and unmarked hazards such as Partridge Falls all added to the challenge.
A surprisingly nice campsite at the hard-to-find Fort Charlotte enabled them to perform a classic canoe trip ritual – munching down as much of your excess food as you can to reduce the weight along upcoming portages. That’s how they faced the challenge of the Grand Portage – 8.5 miles with no place to get water. The portage is long, but luckily not hilly nor hard to hike. As canoeists, completing this portage was an added thrill to their paddling adventure.
Besides enjoying the scenery, the lessons learned contribute to quality memories of a trip. They reaffirmed what it was like to be with the same person day in and day out, “We’ve camped and guided trips together and separately. It’s great being with someone who knows what jobs have to be done…and (when to) take extra time to enjoy something.”
Most long distance paddlers will tell you that even the longest journey is just a series of day trips strung together like beads on a necklace. As Mary and Joy found out, paddling along Minnesota’s northern water border offers endless beads from a boundless treasure chest of jewels.
Books on the subject:
Portage into the Past : Canoe along the Minnesota-Ontario Boundary Waters, by J. Arnold Bolz.