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Cross-Canada Dispatch #4: Every Day Counts

Two months behind schedule, cross-Canada canoeist Mike Ranta sets off on the wild fall waters of Lake Superior

PRESENTED BY COBRA ELECTRONICS


Two weeks ago, on Sept. 8, Mike Ranta hauled his canoe on a battered portage cart 23 long miles to Thunder Bay. This city in northwestern Ontario, located at the head of the St. Lawrence Seaway, was once a hub of the fur trade. Two centuries ago, weary voyageurs would summon energy for the great rendezvous—the biggest party of the season. Hardened "hivernant" paddlers who overwintered in the Canadian north met with "pork eater" crews arriving from Montreal. The trouble for Ranta, the charismatic modern day voyageur attempting his third cross-Canada canoe voyage, is that he's arriving nearly two months late.

Battling jagged and rolling hills with weekend traffic rushing to the lake, Mike Ranta limped into the Stanley Hotel on a battered ankle and creaking cart last evening. In an all day effort, Ranta walked 37km’s to reach the Kaminsitquia River just as darkness fell. Taking time with friends and family, Ranta will spend the remainder of this weekend in Thunder Bay before pushing onto the North Shore of Lake Superior for his fourth time. In 2011, the big lake demanded respect across 42 stormy days. In 2014, Ranta made it to Sault St.Marie in 29 days, and last year, 2016, Ranta took just 23 days under perfect weather. This year, he will be arriving nearly two months delayed, beginning what will be his latest crossing to date with only 53 days remaining in the trip. For now, life will be a brief dispensing of labour and hardships over cold beer and countless laughs. #discoveron #canada150 #greatcanadianbirthdaypaddle #thunderbay

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Ranta, who hails from nearby town of Atikokan, spent the prior weekend resting and visiting with friends and family before setting off on Lake Superior—the vast inland lake he says is his favorite place to paddle in Canada. Odds are, the notoriously fickle weather of the big lake will determine his final destination. Ranta will end his trip on day 214 (the end date of his last two epics), whether he's achieved his goal of reaching saltwater or not. The duo is accordingly now eyeing a scaled-back goal of reaching tidewater on the St. Lawrence River this time around, instead of the original goal: Canada’s Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia.

It’s been five months since Mike Ranta and Spitzii left the wet and frigid coast line of British Columbia on their third cross-Canada canoe expedition. As the leaves begin to redden and the late summer nights edge ever closer to frost, the great pull of Superior draws Ranta nearer as he meanders through the rugged portages and pristine waters of Quetico Provincial Park. Having spent his childhood alone in the wilds of the boundary waters, it seems no place could be more at home for the voyageur born just north of the park limits. Along with Branny Hughes, another local of Atikokan and a former park ranger who spent nine years running into the “crazy solo canoeist and his dog”, the two are musing in a place where both feel most alive. Between starry nights and foggy mornings, it’s no wonder the two keep coming back each summer. “I spent the better part of forty years disappearing into the park, this is my home.” Recalls Ranta as a meteor dipped slowly behind an endless horizon. #canada150 #boundarywaters #greatcanadianbirthdaypaddle #quetico

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So far, the weather hasn't been in Ranta's favor. He and his traveling partner, photojournalist and C&K Contributing Photographer David Jackson, spent nearly two months stormbound on the sprawling lakes of the Canadian prairies. "It's so late to be just reaching Gichigami [Lake Superior]," Ranta admitted.

On his 2014 expedition, Ranta spent 29 days transiting Lake Superior's north shore; the 550-mile leg took him 23 days in 2016. But both times were much earlier in the season. Lake Superior is generally calmest in June and July. As the water warms in late August, it breeds stronger and longer-lasting winds, which produce ocean-like waves. With less than two months to go to his 214-day deadline, Superior holds all the cards.


Not that Ranta isn't up for a challenge. On his Instagram feed, Jackson documented the pair's "manic" passage through the Boundary Waters, legendary canoe country along the Canada-U.S. border. Once he finally escaped stormy Lake Winnipeg, Ranta powered 180 upstream miles on the Winnipeg River three times faster than his 2014 pace. "If one element shines through on this great journey," wrote Jackson, "it is that Mike Ranta has boundless resilience and everlasting perseverance."

"We will give it an honest 214 days," Ranta said. "That's all a fella can do."

Now as they paddle through the remote, island-choked waters of the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, Jackson and Ranta are playing a game of cat and mouse, scampering between safe harbors and waiting things out when the weather turns nasty. In many ways, the "Inland Sea" can live up to her reputation of being terrifyingly temperamental, with the potential to breed powerful storms and produce oceanic waves. But, paradoxically, small, light crafts like canoes and sea kayaks are in some ways the safest—and certainly the most intimate—way to explore Lake Superior.

Follow Ranta and Jackson in real time at mikeranta.ca

After just over a week on Superior, Ranta's GPS track illustrates a journey of stops and starts. "Spitzii was right and wow we're getting some krazy winds! All good and no trees coming down yet," Ranta commented by satellite messenger to his Facebook page on September 20. Later that evening, he issued an update: "Woo hoo the winds have totally calmed off so hoping to get out first lite! Need some good energy sent our way…" Ranta and Jackson were back on the water September 21, tackling a heavy swell and thick fog (another Lake Superior calling card).

Yet Ranta insists Lake Superior has always been the greatest highlight of the cross-Canada paddles, "hands down." He adds, "That lake has such great energy from Thunder Bay to Sault Ste. Marie." His heroes, the legendary French Canadian voyageurs, who served as the human engines of the Canadian fur trade 200 years ago, immortalized many of Lake Superior’s most recognizable landforms: Outside of Thunder Bay, the sandstone cliffs of the Sleeping Giant overlook the lake's western edge; conspicuous twin rounded hills—located near Ranta and Jackson’s current position—were coined "Les Mamelles", no doubt by a lonely voyageur crew; the remote, wild nature of Pukaskwa National Park is captured by Pointe La Canadienne, a bold, wave-washed headland; and the massive promontory of Gros Cap, juts into the broad reaches of open water that comprise Lake Superior’s eastern end. When the lake was too rough to allow safe passage for their 36-foot birchbark canoes, the restless voyageurs complained about "La Veille"—the old woman wind.

Superior's fall storms are the thing of legend (think Gordon Lightfoot's classic ballad, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"). Destination aside, this year Ranta may have more time than usual to sit back, relax and soak up the energy of autumn in his favorite place.


— Stay tuned to CanoeKayak.com for more updates and Dispatches presented by Cobra Electronics as the expedition progresses. For more Mike Ranta: