In late March 2015, I will begin a 200-mile canoe-sled solo over the northern rivers and lakes along the Minnesota/Canadian border. This expedition during the spring break-up is a personal journey to experience the beauty of the season and to expand my knowledge and skills. Through daily satellite dispatches, I will be sharing my adventure along the way. As I travel, I will attempt to answer just what goes on inside an explorer’s head, the ‘why’ behind my fifty-years of expedition experience.
The route that I have chosen is most challenging. I will travel through a string of rivers and lakes. It’s a varied country of waterfalls, rapids, and steep narrows, ranging from small gem-like lakes to large complex bodies of frozen water. There will be danger and hardships, but beneath this veneer is the beauty of the moment. In fact, survival depends on being ever-present and spontaneous rather than moving passively along a pre-determined course.
The ice, too, will vary as the spring break-up moves along. As I start off on the last edge of winter, most of the rivers will be frozen, except for dark ribbons of fast moving current that wind through the thin ice. As the spring sun intensifies, the current will begin to erode the river ice, making it unpredictable. There will be a thaw/freeze cycle where the temperature cycle takes wild swings with highs above freezing and lows that plunge to the sub-zero. On these nights a crust forms allowing me to travel using the stars as my guide. Sometimes there are deep snowfalls; even blizzards or I might hit temperatures without substantial night freezes. These warmer conditions with the deep slushy snow at first bring on tough hauling, forcing me to relay to make forward progress. Once the snow melts down on the lake ice, these friction free surfaces allow me to travel 20-30 mile days.
Next, the rivers will open, as long shore leads form on the lakes. The hauling season will soon come to an end as I will switch to paddling my canoe through the open water. This complex break up process can take anywhere from three to seven weeks. I will travel with four weeks of food and fuel that I can ration down to last five weeks or more, if necessary.
It is going to be a great adventure and I hope you can follow along with me to explore the spring break-up in the north country.
My route will take me through Ontario’s, Quetico Provincial Park and the border lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota. The expedition will begin on Lake Saganaga at the terminus of the Gunflint trail. I will follow the Falls chain north to Sturgeon Lake. At Sturgeon, I travel southwest down the Maligne River, across Lac La Croix and then west down the Namakan River. If I reach Lake Namakan successfully, I will either take the large border lakes west to International Fall, or travel east, following the border lakes and rivers back home to my cabin north of Ely, Minnesota.
What is a Canoe Sled?
A canoe sled is an amphibious craft that enables me to haul through snow or over ice, or paddle in open water or down rivers. Canoe sleds have enabled me to travel when the spring ice is breaking up in the polar and arctic regions as well as in northern snow country. The canoe sleds that my expeditions have used on the rough pack ice on the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay had runners. In the deep snow country runners are unnecessary. For my expedition this spring, I will be using a canoe with a reinforced bottom but without runners.
Ted Bell and I have designed canoe sleds for almost two decades. His present company is Northstar Canoe. I consider Ted to be the best designer/builder of both solo and tandem canoes. He has been in the industry for thirty years.
In the mid 1990s, we designed a series of prototypes that led to the canoe sled that I used on my 1997 Solo from Pole Expedition. This year, Ted customized a special canoe sled based on his Phoenix Solo Canoe. The 14-foot Phoenix is designed with rivers in mind, yet it handles comfortably on lakes. My specialized Phoenix weighs in at 40 pounds, and features a reinforced haul with a ‘snubbed’ bow and stern that enables the canoe to toboggan through deep snow.
The amazing thing about my fifty-year career of polar and northern expeditions is that I have always stayed safe. There are some basic reasons why. First, I know when to back down. I have turned back on four major expeditions in my career; each took years to plan, to train and to fundraise for. It was hard to turn back, but evaluating the risk and acting responsible is why I am still around. Three of the four times, I was able to reorganize and go back to successfully complete the original expedition.
On this Solo, if conditions are too dangerous, I will either retreat or wait until the conditions become more favorable.
Second, I travel with humility and respect, which I consider the core values of the northern cultures and the basis for their survival. In the wilderness, the risk takers and the over confident are playing the odds. The odds are that nature always wins and you will either get yourself injured or, worse yet, killed. On a solo there is little if any margin for error.
Traveling in the wilderness is a continual learning experience for me, even after fifty years. Constantly adding to my knowledge base, in turn, helps build my intuition. Most of my decision-making is intuitive or spontaneous. Because I often need to act immediately, I seldom use a conscious thinking process, which is too slow and clumsy and can be dangerous. I have traveled on thin ice for most of my life.
However, there is always more to learn and rivers at spring break up are good teachers.
This year, I am taking a big step by opening up my personal day-to-day adventures to those who are interested in following me online. Before the expedition, I will post entries to explain the preparation process, the area I will be traveling through, the weather conditions that I expect, the canoe sled, my strategy, safety, and I will share details about two areas critical to success: t my equipment and diet.