In Their Own Words: Birch-Bark Odyssey

4,000 miles from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean in a homemade birch-bark canoe


This article was originally published in the July, 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak.

By Dan Blessing

Marc and I were leading 22-day Outward Bound trips when we started talking about an outlandishly longer expedition from Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean. Two years later, Marc built a birch-bark canoe to carry us 4,000 miles across North America.

Marc forged hand tools and harvested bark, roots, and timber for this masterpiece of traditional boat building. He stretched birch bark over cedar gunwales and lashed it with spruce roots. Meanwhile, I gardened, hunted, dehydrated vegetables and venison, and gathered dried goods and recycled gear. By spring, we were equipped with a half-ton load that would allow us to travel 2,100 miles, more than halfway to the ocean, without resupply.

We launched in May from Grand Portage on Lake Superior with seven packs, each over 100 pounds. Every mile we portaged required nine miles of strenuous shuttling. We were inching toward the Pacific, learning quickly how to care for our vessel. Each morning we reheated a sealant compound of bear fat, tree sap, and ash to manipulate into fresh cracks in the hull.

The author, making his way up the Athabasca River. Photo: Marc VanGrinsven

In early June, we reached Lake Winnipeg, where our craft handled the notoriously big and violent waters well, covering 30-plus miles in a day without unloading the canoe. However, finishing the downright luxurious, portage-free lake crossing meant the start of a grueling 1,400-mile, three-month upstream trudge toward the Continental Divide.
We spent much of July wading as we ascended the Saskatchewan, Sturgeon-Weir, Churchill, and La Loche rivers, crossed the 13-mile Methy Portage, and reached the crux of our route: 677 miles up the Athabasca River from Fort McMurray to Jasper. We waded, swam, portaged, and lined. August became September, only paddling 10 of 55 days, and not once for the first 100 miles.

Patching the boat with a sealant compound of bear fat, tree sap, and ash.


We thought we were following the footsteps of fur-trading legend David Thompson. It turns out that no traders (or anyone else that we can determine) had canoed upstream between Fort McMurray and Athabasca Landing, opting for a southern route that bypasses the first 100-mile stretch of rapids. We hadn’t done our research. We missed our turn by hundreds of miles. And unknowingly we embarked on the most rigorous, yet rewarding detour of our lives.

One of us towed the boat from a 100-foot bowline, struggling to make progress against 12 mph current while the other played ropes like a puppeteer, manipulating the bow and stern around obstacles. Together we inched the boat up the Athabasca at 1 mph.

The grueling 1,400-mile, three-month upstream trudge toward the Continental Divide.

In October, we left the river’s glacially fed waters, and climbed toward Athabasca Pass on feet riddled with cold injuries. I was elated. The pass signified success. Freeze-up was no longer a threat. For the first time since conceiving this trip, we knew we could make it.

We bushwhacked down the western side of the Rockies and met the Columbia River. Only 1,000 miles and 13 dams to the sea. Crossing the final dam, a sea lion surfaced. We paddled in the shadows of sterns reading Panama and Hong Kong. We rode and fought the tides. And on November 26, seven months after leaving Minnesota, we reached the sea at Cape Disappointment, touching birch bark to saltwater.

In 2010, Dan Blessing and Marc VanGrinsven, both 31, paddled from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean in a birch-bark canoe. Visit PaddleForSustainability.org for more about these intrepid paddlers, including more videos from the trip like the one below, which shows a one day time lapse VanGrinsven building the team’s birch-bark canoe.

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  • http://canoekayak.com scott waeschle

    I paddled much of that route in 1988 with another OB instructor Mike Dietzman in a wood canvas canoe he built. The original plan was to build a birch bark canoe for the trip but Dietz had trouble locating a tree large enough with good bark to peel. So he switched to building a wood canvas craft with Jeanie Bourquin in Ely, MN. I remember well the 700 miles of upstream lining, poling, wading particularly on the Sturgeon Wier. However, at Ft. McMurry we turned north and went downstream to Great Slave Lake. I am inspired to look up Thompsons southern Rt to by pass the rapids on the Athabasca R. I just pulled out my books on the HBC to reread in the next few weeks. We called our trip the Simple Minded Strong Back Expedition. It is good to hear you two have an even greater capacity for pain and endurance. Thanks for sharing your tale. I would love to hear about it in person sometime. Cheers, Scott Waeschle

  • Dan Blessing

    Scott,
    That’s wild. I met Dietzman fishing on Lake Superior a few years ago.

    The southern route went up the Beaver River starting at Ile-a-la-Crosse on the Churchill River and then down the La Biche River, rejoining the Athabasca River just downstream of Athabasca Landing. That would have been good information to have before reaching Ft McMurray. Ooops.

    Did you work at VOBS with Mike also? Are you still around the Ely area? Let me know.

    blessingdanj@yahoo.com

    Dan

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