Border Lines: A Boundary Waters – Part 3

By Ryan Salm

Continued from Border Lines – Part 2, the first installment from our Boundary Waters SUP expedition.

In the fall of 2015, photographer Ryan Salm, his wife Lauren Bobowski and their friend Dane Shannon set off on an expedition across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on standups. The BWCA is a famously remote fishing, paddling and boating destination carved by glaciers and covered in thick forest in the northern reaches of Minnesota, along the Canadian border. This is their story, straight from Salm’s travel journal and originally published in our 2016 Gear Guide.

9.5.15 | Day 8

It poured last night. We knew it was coming, battened down the hatches and straps and went to bed. In the middle of the night the heavens unleashed thunder, lightning and sheets of rain. The sounds were deafening and constant all night. Sleeping patterns were shaky, lots of tossing and turning while my dreams were a mixture of trees falling over and paddleboards being swept away by floods.

Our paddle patterns have been constant. We wake up early, eat, poop and proceed to paddle. Our goal is to take in the day from the boards. Although it might be nice to have rest days, that’s not the idea here. We’re on a mission to pull off a successful crossing of the Boundary Waters and want to make sure we do so with ample food and time.

The lakes we’ve been paddling since day five and six have been huge east–west bodies of water. Many seem to be six- to eight-miles long and have high potential for major wind events. As the weather has been mostly beautiful, we’ve been riding it out thinking that at any point weather could slow us down. The result is we’re waking up today in a good situation. We’re just two large lakes away from the Grand Portage.

Yesterday we covered some serious ground, traversing Rose Lake and walking the Baby Grand Portage at over 600 rods (One rod is 16.5 feet). We then crossed a huge, winding river-like lake before getting on Mountaintop Lake.

At the start of Mountaintop, the wind was blowing hard so we took a nap to wait for it to calm. It didn’t. Though brutal, we traversed the lake.
A quick note on portaging: As much as this is a paddle trip, it’s a portaging trip. There’s tons of water out here in all directions but it’s all separated by different landmasses, short rock and dirt mounds, huge hills covered in various vegetation—aspen, birch and pine. Some of the portages are used often, while some seldom see foot traffic and are severely overgrown. We’ve encountered huge bogs with knee-deep mud in places. The bugs haven’t been that bad altogether, but on the portages, walking through the forest, lugging a hundred pounds of gear and sweating profusely, mosquitoes flock. Worse than the mosquitoes are the black flies. We chose September, a good month as the bugs are trending down and the cold weather is moving in and we are glad we did. We’re blown away by how many portages we’ve done on this trip.

Life is a series of lakes, portages, eagle sightings, forests, burns, cloud patterns, wind ripples, stops, starts, packing, repacking, sneakers, Chacos, wet, dry, breakfast, lunch, dinner, set up, take down, move onward. It’s amazing.

There hasn’t been a moment where I’ve missed anything from home. I can’t wait to do it again.

There’s been such a huge mixture of camping locations. Some are perfect, some don’t make much sense based on location, some are primitive while most have amazing sit-down toilets. And to top great camps, the sky ignites at night with the northern lights.

We’ve recently come in contact with motorized engines, though infrequently. At first they’re a shock. Paddling for days without engines, alone on vast lakes is an amazing feeling. It shows the power of human power travel, which is a way of life in the Boundary Waters.

9.6.15 | Day 9

It’s pitch black. The silence is interrupted by a large slap on the water. We’re startled. It’s a warning sign from the tail of a beaver. Over the next 30 minutes the sounds becomes constant. We are clearly in their house and they’re not happy.

A lightning bolt pulsates across the sky. I can tell from Lauren’s tone that she’s nervous. Thunder cracks in the distance.

We’d already paddled across three huge lakes: North Fowl, South Fowl and Moose. Portaged 130 rods followed by another at 330 rods. It was a big day by normal standards. Dane had schemed to make it to the beginning of the Grand Portage in order to start the walk in the morning. The planning was a bit off.

We hit the Pigeon River at mid-afternoon after the messiest portage yet, overgrown and muddy. It took me by surprise, as I feel pretty warmed up at this point. My soaked and dilapidated shoes submerged ankle deep into the mud and slipped across mossy rocks. I lost my grip on my board and fell around 20 times.

The sight of the meandering Pigeon was amazing. I jumped in. Lauren pulled a leech off her pinky toe. We had a riverside run-in with an adolescent moose.

We set off down the river. A handful of marshmallow clouds and forest reflected on the river’s mirror. At dusk, Dane mentioned that we weren’t even halfway.

We found our first fast-moving water, removed our fins and surfed a small section of river—shallow, rocky and fun as hell—and bypassed the portage. But the fun quickly deteriorated into a moment of question as darkness set in.

That’s when the beavers started.

I suggested that we bushwhack on a moose trail and set up a primitive camp but we all knew how tough that would be; the forest here in the boreal is dense and intimidating. So we pressed onward. It was tough to see anything, including the rocks in the river. I almost flipped off my board after a collision with one in the darkness.

Various insects, birds and animals chimed in from time to time. The mosquitoes were ruthless, so bad that I wore socks and sandals.

It was dreamlike paddling in the darkness on an unknown river. We were on an Indian reservation and our exact whereabouts were confusing.

Every 10 minutes, Dane would be on his knees and a red light from his headlamp would flash on his map collection. Lauren would routinely call out, “How many more miles, Dane?” We were lost in the darkness on the river, a rainstorm impending.

Then we heard a scary and undeniable sound: a waterfall. We quickly peeled to the bank of the river, lucky to not get sucked over the fall’s edge. We searched around and found a small trail and somehow stumbled upon an amazing primitive camp spot right next to the large waterfall. We didn’t know where we were or whose land it was. We were too tired to care.

9.7.15 | Day 10

When we finally reached the end of the Pigeon River, it came as a surprise. Our trip was just about over. There was some joy but also a touch of sadness. We grabbed our boards, took one last look at the Boundary Waters and began to repack all of our belongings for the enormous undertaking known as the Grand Portage. It was something we were excited to say we’d done but the idea of it was insanely daunting.

The Grand Portage was a nine-mile hike to reach our car on the shores of Lake Superior. It doesn’t sound like a crazy walk but with leftover food, paddles, boards, camera equipment, multiple pairs of shoes and all of our gear, we were looking at a 100-pound load per person. We struggled with quarter-mile portages earlier in the trip and often did them in shifts. This was not an option for the Grand. It was true survival mode. Making it even a half-mile before taking a break was challenging. Shooting pains rang through my hips. Somehow, even though we were decreasing in elevation we seemed to always be going uphill. As Dane put it, “The Boundary Waters on a paddleboard is a must. The Grand Portage, not so much.”

Time spent in the wilderness in a new location, pushing yourself with friends and family, those are the times I cherish most. The Boundary Waters gave us that and more. It looks like we have a new annual pilgrimage.

General Stats
10      days
51      bodies of water traversed
(lakes, rivers, bogs)
22      miles portaged
(7,021 rods)
140+ miles paddled
2        countries visited
12      leeches removed
25      mosquito bites received
2        moose spotted
23      bald eagles seen
31      beavers encountered
106    loons sighted
2        Northern Lights witnessed

Border Lines: Part 1

Border Lines: Part 2

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