Mother Nature calls the shots: "It was real and we were totally exposed"
Words by Conor Mihell // Photography by David Jackson
After a brutal 500-mile portage across the Canadian Rockies and extreme exposure on the wind-tunnel reservoirs at the headwaters of the Columbia River, trans-continental canoeist Mike Ranta could've been fooled into thinking his journey across the Prairies would be a breeze. On his previous expeditions, Ranta practically glided across central Canada, making up miles after many tedious days of manhauling his canoe across the mountains. But that wasn't the case in 2017.
Mike Ranta loads delicately into a fading swell on Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba. Photo/David Jackson
Wind was a near constant companion for Ranta and his partner, C&K contributing photographer David Jackson, as the pair traversed Saskatchewan. The situation turned even worse on sprawling Cedar Lake, where Ranta and Jackson ran low on food and spent Canada Day (July 1) sipping their last lukewarm beer, marooned in a bug-infested swamp. "We were windbound for more days than most people's longest canoe trip," says Jackson. "In that time there was so much testing our wits. Endless swamps, pitiless bugs, wildfire smoke, fish-fly water, algae blooms, and ear-ringing storms were the norm. It wasn't glamping or some wanderlust adventure, it was real and we were totally exposed for a long time."
A shower would have been a welcomed surprise in the endless sea of swamps and windy days. Meanwhile, Spitzii stood tall on dawn patrol before an idyllic boundary waters morning. Photo/David Jackson
What took Ranta barely a month in previous journeys extended to 45 days. Ranta became increasingly impatient to get on the move. Restless, he picked up pieces of driftwood and whittled to pass the time, carving up to 20 miniature canoes in a productive day. "Carving was a great way to pass the time," notes Ranta. "I realize, 'holy shit, I really like this.'" Just as Ranta acknowledged that his goal of reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia was all but impossible, whittling became his ultimate release. "He might have escaped Santa's workshop like an elf," laughs Jackson. "His crafty skills and efficient technique were mesmerizing.
"Each one was made with a person in mind, or a stranger he was yet to meet," Jackson explains. "He was making them for Canadians."
Ranta, whittling in an abandoned Cree hunt shack. Photo/David Jackson
Ranta came into his own at the south end of Lake Winnipeg, where he escaped the endless purgatory of whitecapped waves and touched civilization, albeit briefly. "So long isolated, Ranta was giving away his tiny canoes, collecting signatures, and was really brimming with the pride of a nation," recalls Jackson.
While quite lovely to assess, heavy fog and unfamiliar country can be a burden. Mike Ranta searches for the portage. Photo/David Jackson
Canoe country beckoned—the timeless watery highway from Lake of the Woods to the Boundary Waters, Quetico and Lake Superior—Ranta's amphibious home turf. For Jackson, a first-time visitor, "there was a deep sense of mystery and wonder. Every paddle stroke, island, and scuffed rock on a portage felt ancient. [Ranta] was flying, the weather was idyllic, and fish bit every lure. Those are days I'll never forget."
Big or small, the fish were always biting. Photo/David Jackson
As it happens, this was the final push of Ranta's fourth attempt to paddle across the continent. He hurt his ankle on one of the roughly three-dozen hard portages in Quetico, a lingering injury that continues to give him grief, months later. Still, Ranta pressed on, living up to his title of the "last voyageur"—reaching Lake Superior's western shore with an epic 25-mile hike.
Every portage felt ancient through the boundary waters as Mike Ranta stepped over the scuffs of voyageurs long gone. Photo/David Jackson
"When Ranta arrived in Thunder Bay, two fire trucks came down to sign the canoe," says Jackson. "Family, old friends, strangers—everyone was around to see this wild man and his dog who keep showing up with a smile by canoe. His reputation preceded him, an ode to the voyageurs of long ago."
Barely two weeks later, on the wave-whipped shores of Lake Superior, the expedition came to an unremarkable end. Jackson and Ranta chose safety over glory. Still, neither paddler regrets the experience. "It was a good trip," says Ranta. "It's easy to get down on [not making the final goal], but then you realize we were pretty damn lucky we got to do this. Thinking back, I don't have anything more to prove."
Experiencing Ranta's positive outlook was Jackson's greatest highlight. "Just when everything was gone with the wind, a moment would happen," says Jackson, who has documented some of the world's finest whitewater boaters and worked on prestigious photography assignments around the world. "A light would flicker and back to the well of all things unknown we would go — a renewed zest for more.
“That's what keeps Ranta going: He's searching the darkness for a flicker, and forever he's employed in the search,” Jackson added. “We can all learn from the optimism he finds in seeds of doubt."
The end and new beginnings along the voyageur highway. Photo/David Jackson
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— Read all of CanoeKayak.com’s exclusive dispatches from Ranta’s 2017 expedition, presented by COBRA ELECTRONICS: Across British Columbia; the Canadian Prairies; windy Lake Winnipeg; onto Lake Superior; calling it quits; and Memories from the Trail, Part One