My husband Dave and I are 26 days and about 600 miles into a 100-day, 2,000-mile expedition. Our chosen modes of travel are canoe and sailboat. The route: Ely, Minn. to Washington, D.C. The purpose: Save the pristine water of the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) from the threat of sulfide ore mining.
We departed from the Voyageur Outward Bound School on the Kawishiwi River on August 24. A flotilla of 20 canoes joined us on the water for the first mile. We paddled right past the proposed mine site of Twin Metals and followed the flow of the water into the Boundary Waters.
Fall came early to northern Minnesota as a brisk 20-knot tailwind pushed us down the length of Fall Lake and then Basswood. We would follow the U.S.-Canada border for 160 miles, all the way to the top of the Grand Portage. A soaking rain began at 5 a.m., ensuring plenty of mud on the 8.5-mile portage. After slogging down the trail, sinking up to our knees at times, it was a relief to reach the wide-open expanse of Lake Superior. Along the way, we picked up a few valuable lessons. — Amy Freeman
Lessons learned on the Grand Portage
If you have long portages on your canoe routes, following these pointers can make portaging more tolerable—maybe even enjoyable.
Pare Down. Decrease your gear load as much as possible. Going light means you can make one trip down the portage. If you have to make a couple trips, remember you end up walking three times as far.
Substantial footwear. You might be able to get by in Chacos or water shoes for short portages, but if you’re hiking for miles with a pack and a canoe on your shoulders, take care of your feet and ankles by wearing hiking boots or at least trail running shoes.
Break the portage into stages. The voyageurs took breaks called poses where they would set down their loads and smoke their pipes. On the Grand Portage, we took short breaks every 15 minutes but didn’t partake in the pipe smoking. I’ve found this really helps me mentally during a long portage. I might be daunted by the prospect of portaging for five hours, but I can handle focusing on portaging for 15 minutes.
Minimize the loose stuff. There is nothing more annoying than having to carry a bunch of loose gear. You’ll be safer if your hands are free—allowing you to regain balance or even catch yourself if you fall. Get creative about how you stow things like water bottles, life jackets and fishing rods. For instance, life jackets can be strapped to the top of your Duluth pack. Fishing rods can be secured under the seats or thwarts of a canoe with bungees.
During our time in the BWCAW our canoe acquired the name Sig, in honor of Sigurd Olson—long time defender of wilderness, writer and a man who played a huge role in the creation of the Boundary Waters 50 years ago. Sig also seemed to tie into the fact that we were gathering signatures on it. While we have an actual petition that folks can sign online to show their support for the Boundary Waters, Sig the canoe is our symbolic petition. We already have hundreds of signatures on Sig’s hull and we are acquiring more as we travel.
National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, Dave and Amy Freeman, are in the midst of Paddle to DC, a 100-day, 2,000-mile journey by water from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., in order to protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide ore mining. Check out PaddletoDC.org to learn more about the project and to sign the petition. Click HERE to read more about Dave Freeman’s 400-mile canoe descent of the Brazilian Amazon’s storied Rio Roosevelt, and HERE to read about the Freeman’s 11,700-mile North American Odyssey.
The Freemans will be sending in a series of dispatches highlighting skills, destinations and lessons learned from their journey paddling, portaging, and sailing SIG across the country.
Next Up: Crossing Lake Superior and showcasing some its best paddling destinations.