If author Saim Cheeda was right about hardship being a blessing, “not because we suffer, but because we learn to endure,” then Robert Vollhaber, 51, of Stacy, Minn., is deeply blessed. In early September, Vollhaber solo paddled and portaged in 91 hours from International Falls to Grand Portage National Monument on Lake Superior, a route of 42 lakes, six rivers, and more than 20 miles of portaging in a Wenonah Advantage. He did so, in part, because he is a student of paddling. Vollhaber understands that he paddles in the wakes of giants, some gone, like the voyageurs and Verlen Kruger, and some still with us, like Clint Waddell. It was Kruger and Waddell who completed their Voyageurs Challenge back in 1969 in 80 hours and 40 minutes, the only difference between their two journeys being that that Kruger and Waddell took the Gold Portage shortcut and Vollhaber didn't, adding eight miles to his trek.
To honor these legends, Vollhaber wanted to paddle the same route and set a solo-paddle record. He renamed the route, calling it the Kruger Challenge. David May and Kevin McCann were also paddling the Kruger Challenge in solo boats, leaving at the same moment, but each paddled to the beat of their own distant drummers, however measured, and all unsupported. It was not the first time that Vollhaber had paddled and portaged this route. A member of the paddling group, WaterTribe, he had paddled it three times, once starting at International Falls and twice from Crane Lake. Here are excerpts from his account. (Note: his account of the first day is relatively brief, as he was rested, with "power in his arms" and legs, and locked onto the distant horizon.)
Pre-trip: My neighbors probably start calling me the "walking canoe" as I carry canoes on my gravel township road. I research new gear to keep portage weight to a minimum. With a month to go, I ramp up my paddling and portaging training, paddling three times a week, about 10 miles each time. I practice capsizing and attempt to find the best way to reenter my canoe in deep water: I simply can't. This is important to know and I must carefully consider how much risk to take if conditions are windy when I'm crossing big lakes. I weigh all my gear: There's too much for single portaging. I switch to a no-cook diet consisting mostly of powdered carbohydrates. I scratch my tent too. I'll hate not having a good shelter, but I'll be moving most of the time anyhow: Hope it doesn't rain when I stop! I'm concerned about hallucinating. Kruger said it happened to Waddell due to mental exhaustion.
Day One: Launch at September 2, 2017 at 9:05 a.m. WNW 12 mph tailwinds! Reach open water and the 1.5- to 2.5-foot-high waves are traveling faster than me. Each one lifts my stern and then rolls under me to the bow, before dropping me into the trailing trough. This might make some seasick, but it's the slowing turbulence that gets to me. Today's highlight is racing the occasional houseboat going my way. My mind wanders for something to think about. On these large lakes, the distant horizon never seems to change. Blisters form and are taped with moleskin and electrical tape.
With the approach of nightfall, winds turn into my face and a full moon promises a unique paddle. I enter the BWCA and after four hours of moonlight paddling, I've covered 64 miles. I'm wore out and go ashore at 1 a.m. I kick away the pine cones, lay out my sleeping bag, and crawl in fully clothed so I'll be ready to get up and go again in three hours. The alarm sounds at 4 a.m., but the bag feels too good. An hour and a half later, I'm scrambling to get going.
Day Two: Not feeling the power in my paddle today and I stop checking my watch because looking makes me feel lousy. Nine hours later, I pass a solo paddler I know and we paddle alongside each other to Bottle Portage, where the mud sucks at my feet, but seeing someone I know has recharged me. I have to make Basswood Lake before the next dawn, to cross the big lake before the wind and waves rise.
My headlamp helps me spot rocks and find portages, but raindrops on the compass glass obscure my bearing. Soon, my headlamp only reveals falling raindrops to 10' in all directions. The chill caused by falling nighttime temperatures and wet clothes, combined with occasional flashes of lightning confuse me. A close strike has me thinking I should get closer to shore, wherever that is. I almost run into shore that shouldn't be there. My confusion and concerns of hypothermia force me to shore early tonight, before 10 p.m., and short of my goal. I promise I'll make up for it by getting an earlier start. Sixteen hours in the boat and 58 miles covered.
The rain continues, so I set up a tarp. I squirm into the sleeping bag in mostly wet clothes, set the alarm for 3:30 a.m., and fall into broken sleep, as an occasional mosquito buzzes my head or a bug traverses my face. Next thing I know, there's a slight lightening of the sky.
"Oh, shoot!" I yell, looking at the alarm clock and seeing it isn't working. The light suggests it's about 5:30 a.m., which means I'm another two more hours behind.
I tell myself, "Sleep is my enemy and oversleeping is killing my goal."
I need to push harder.
Day Three: I eat my last Pop Tart and slam down some liquid calories, beginning near Lower Basswood Falls. I abandon my planned itinerary. Now, I'll just cross off each lake as I go. If I'm exhausted, I'll try for one more lake. Then another.
Basswood is first. Northwest winds are already building as I round U.S. Point. Damn alarm clock! Still, I cross Basswood without incident. A lake is crossed off.
I pass jovial recreational paddlers and they ask, "Do you have a motor on that thing?"
I just smile and say, "I'm just in a hurry."
Rain clouds close on me on Knife Lake. Winds around 15 mph, but gusting. Just one of many storms this day. I don't mind the rainy paddling, but portages are slippery.
I think of the two paddlers behind me and hope they're okay as they cross Lac La Croix, Crooked, and Basswood. Glad those lakes are behind me.
A few more lakes and I'll reach the last of the big lakes, Saganaga.
I am tentative when I reach it: It deserves respect. The wind is still strong, NW at 10 mph, but gusting to 30. Still, the lake lets me progress.
I make American Point and decide to take the direct route to the mid-lake islands, crossing a vast open water area. Two thirds of the way across, my fear matches the size of the waves hitting me hard broadside. I feel small and helpless. I put more power into my paddle blade and reach the lee of the islands.
I paddle on, into black and light rain. There's no distinction between water, the tree line, and sky. Beavers splash their tails at me. I scare something big out of the water, probably a moose. By the time I get my headlamp on, it's up in the new growth of the Ham Lake Fire.
Wolves howl from a distant ridge top, loons cry on the lake, more beavers splash their displeasure, and raindrops patter the lake's surface. My hearing becomes more important now creating a different feel to the travel, one that most people find disconcerting and some just plain fear.
Not too far into the Granite River, I can't find a portage. Rather than waste time and energy looking, I try to run my canoe up the next two rapids, but my boat just isn't suited for such duty. I improvise a portage at the first rapids, carrying my gear and boulder hopping along the river. Rain, slimy boulders, and a gust of wind cause me to slip. I choose to protect the canoe and sacrifice me. My shin smashes into a rock. I'm hurting something terrible, but there's no time to worry about it now.
The next rapid is no better, but I don't fall.
"This is taking way too much time and energy," I think.
Then I immediately have this counter-thought: "That's right, this is supposed to challenge me. Cross those rapids off the list and just move forward."
Hours later, I cross Magnetic Lake and reach Gunflint. I'm exhausted, but I want. one. more. lake. Gunflint is long and the wind and waves quartering from behind don't help. Where is the other end?
My muscles are spent and my mind isn't far behind. I struggle to balance my skinny boat as unseen waves overtake me. From the corner of my eye, I see a silver flash behind the wake of my paddle. It's just a shimmering sheen of moonlight in the swirl. This happens many times and I can't help but look back each single time to see what's there, which is nothing. Boundaries blur and I finally reach the far shore. Nothing left. No. more. lakes.
I find an opening with flat ground and start shaking from the cold. I just stand there knowing I need to do something, but lacking the energy to try. I eventually attach a tarp to the canoe, tie off the other side to some brush, and crawl beneath this makeshift shelter. I add a fleece sweatshirt under my rain gear and use my sleeping bag like a blanket, just too wet, too cold, and too tired to crawl inside it.
It is 3:45 a.m when I went ashore, 76 miles and 23 portages traveled in 22.5 hours. Grueling, but I think I have made up for oversleeping. The cost: utter exhaustion.
It's hard to sleep: My body's engine has been working hard for 22.5 hours. Heart beating fast, blood pumping to muscles, and calories burning away in my blast furnace all day with no switch to just turn all that off.
Day 4: I'm back on the water at 6:30 a.m., not really sure when Day 3 ended and Day 4 started. This is it. I have today and tonight to find my way to Superior. Plenty far to go with three of the toughest portages: the 725-rod Long Portage, the 390-rod Fowl (aka Foul) Portage, and, of course, the 2,880-rod Grand Portage. Their names are apt: Long, Foul, and Grand.
I keep crossing the lakes off to see what happens. Half a dozen lakes and portages later, I reach Long Portage. Days of sleeping wet, taking down camp wet, and just plain soaking rains have made my gear heavy, but I want to do this two-mile plus portage without stopping.
What I want and what I have left to give are two different things: I struggle to make it across with only one rest.
More lakes come and go until I complete the last lake of any size, the 7-mile long Mountain. Almost across and the sun is still fairly high in the sky. This excites me because maybe, just maybe, I can reach the English Portage Rapids on the Pigeon River before dark. I don't want to run a mile of rapids in the dark. I push harder with that incentive.
Reaching Fowl Portage, I commit to reaching Lake Superior nonstop and toss all but a handful of my remaining food to minimize weight.
The one-mile long Fowl Portage drains me further. I launch into the Pigeon River and race to beat the darkness. I zip through the first series of rapids, getting stuck on only one rock. My boots are already soaked, so I jump out, not wanting the current to wrap my boat around the rock. Twilight is fading fast and it's getting hard to see when I finally reach the last, biggest series of rapids. Halfway through, I must use my headlamp to see what's coming up. It's no way to run whitewater, but it's better than pitch black.
I know I will accomplish my goal now: Heck, I have all night to finish! To the Grand Portage trailhead! Reaching the shore, I remove my boots and wring my socks. I know the abuse my feet are about to endure because of wet boots. I pump a pint of filtered water into my drinking bottle and repack my canoe pack, incorporating my daypack and its contents all into one. With no food remaining and only a pint of water, my pre-trip calculations tell me the pack should weigh 32 pounds now. I lift the pack slightly off the ground and swear it weighs 60-65 pounds. I accept it is for what it is and shoulder it.
I figured I could walk the nine-mile Grand Portage in three hours if my load were light and my body rested. Neither is the case, but I want to finish strong. I hope to go a mile between breaks, but can't manage a full mile. Just too tired. Move again, stop again, move again, stop again. Where's that beaver pond? I know it's only two miles down the trail. Finally, I get there and I'm exhausted.
The trail is wet and clay and mud suck at my boots. I slip and trip like a drunk. At every rest, I want to fall asleep, but fight it. I slap my face to stay awake. I yell at myself to "toughen up." The farther I go, the worse I get.
The 12-inch-wide slippery boardwalks are now obstacles and require extreme concentration.
"But I have great balance," I say.
But I can't balance, I can't think, I can't walk straight. I just want to close my eyes for an instant.
"But that's a trick," I think. "Don't fall for the trick!"
My headlamp casts light only a few feet in front of my path. It feels like I'm walking in a tunnel. My mind drifts and over and over, I am confused as to where I am and what I'm doing.
"I'm walking a trail to Lake Superior," I keep re-realizing.
Soon, rest only brings stiffness, so there is no happy place. I dangle this carrot in front of me: I imagine approaching the closed Fort, dropping all the weight, and collapsing. I just want to close my eyes.
Suddenly, I hear car and truck motors going down Highway 61 up ahead. I see a parked car with running lights on. I'm thinking it must be tribal security at this time of night. I hit the "I'm OK" message on my Spot, marking my official finish time. I lean on my canoe pack so I don't fall over. I see the security guard coming my way and try to find the words to convince him to just let me sleep on the grass for a little while.
"I'll be gone before the tourists come," I'll say.
But it's Lori Johnson, a support volunteer. She says I arrived at 4 a.m. and convinces me sleep at the casino hotel. A few photos are taken and on the way to the hotel, we do the math: from September 2nd at 9:05 a.m. to September 6th at 4 a.m. is 91 hours. the new second-fastest recorded time from International Falls to Grand Portage Fort and the fastest solo run. Can I close my eyes now and sleep, sleep, sleep?
Note: David May did not quite finish, pulling out just before the Pigeon River at South Fowl Lake, having completed 250 miles of the route, as he was running low on time and energy. Kevin McCann finished in 127.5 hours. Both paddled and portaged the same route as Kruger and Waddell.
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