My family took a 600-mile canoe trip from the Canadian border to our own backyard. Blame the pandemic.
The COVID-shrouded summer of 2020 demanded a trip near home. My wife, Claire, and I decided to canoe from International Falls back to our home in Chisago City. The trip would span 600 miles and three of North America’s major watersheds. Our son, Dashwa, joined us. At 22 months, he had already spent 40 days in a canoe, a budding voyageur. The previous summer we’d paddled 400 miles on Manitoba’s Hayes River, finishing at York Factory, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s mecca in the fur-trade era. On this trip we would visit significant sites of the North West Company, the HBC’s competitor.
Both Claire and I started wilderness camping as young children thanks to our parents. We independently fell in love with long trips in wild places. Since we started dating we’ve spent our summer vacations together on lengthy canoe expeditions. When Dashwa arrived we wanted him to grow up feeling at home in the wilderness, just as we do.
Days 1-11: Voyageurs and the BWCA. On July 2, a sweltering day, we set off on Rainy Lake. Our family paddled a tandem canoe and our close friend, “Grandpa” Dan, joined us in a solo. Over the next days, our paddles gently rippled the calm waters of Voyageurs National Park. The omnipresent sun baked us, and thrice daily we plunged into the lakes to cool ourselves.
We traveled quickly through the western Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, pausing at the pictographs on Lac La Croix and the Basswood River. Painted by Ojibwe people, pictographs adorn rock faces throughout canoe country. We gazed at handprints and depictions of moose and canoes.
Grandpa Dan proved indispensable for entertaining Dashwa over the first 10 days, granting Claire and me moments of peace. A favored activity was throwing rocks into the water and exclaiming, “Big splash!” At Gunflint Lodge we bid goodbye to Dan, who needed to return to work.
The next day we portaged from the Hudson Bay drainage into the Great Lakes watershed. Here the fur traders working for the North West Company, the Nor’Westers, traveling in the opposite direction, often paused for a short ceremony to baptize first-time voyageurs into the north. They sprinkled water over the newcomer’s head with a cedar bough. The new man had to promise, among other things, to never kiss another voyageur’s wife. Dashwa walked the portage unaided, and near the middle with a piece of cedar I christened him and entreated him to kiss only family members for the foreseeable future.
Days 11-31: A Grand Portage, the Big Lake. Days later we exited the BWCA and began down the Pigeon River. As sundown approached, Dashwa’s mood slipped toward a tantrum. We’d seen nothing but swampy lowlands and wondered if there was a campsite before Fort Charlotte, the inland terminus of the Grand Portage. We’d settled on creating a poor site amid the shoreline grasses when a waterfall’s rumble excited our attention. We camped above Partridge Falls, a 50-foot cascade that is twice as wide as tall. The breadth creates a braided wall of translucent watery veils and opaque white curtains covering the rough bedrock beneath. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been aware of this dazzling wall of water in my home state.
The next day we began backpacking. I’d chosen to do the trip without resupply, so we carried five heavy loads over the 8½-mile Grand Portage. Resupplying after we reached Lake Superior would have made the portages much easier, but I wanted the trip to be an expedition where we were self-contained and dependent on no one. We spent three painful days on the trail, endlessly leapfrogging the packs and canoe. The slow pace caused us to fall behind schedule. On the first day I slipped on a wet boardwalk and stubbed my big toe, hard. I gobbled ibuprofen for the remainder of our march. The toe turned bright red and both the toe and foot swelled.
One of the portage bright spots occurred daily when I met Claire while she carried Dashwa. Dashwa, arrayed in his bright orange bug shirt, rode atop Claire’s pack like a king, while his faithful servant sang his current favorite song over and over. After we’d together walked a total of 68 miles, the fort at Grand Portage was an oasis. We wandered through the Great Hall, imagining the legendary Nor’Westers who’d dined at the long table.
The next morning we headed out on Lake Superior into light but increasing winds, sealing out the wind and waves with a spray skirt. Six miles later, after a wilder ride than we wanted, we got off the water. I knocked on the door of the house where we landed and asked if we could stay in the yard until the wind and waves moderated. We ended up camping there. The next morning we paddled 30 miles to Grand Marais. I hobbled to the hospital for an X-ray and was relieved when it revealed only a severe contusion.
Lake Superior marked the end of hard portaging, a relief. But the big lake caused its own stresses. The spray skirt reduced the size of the bow compartment, and Dashwa chafed at the confinement. He also struggled with long days of paddling. We’d slipped behind my itinerary, and the rugged shoreline’s lack of public landings meant we landed only once daily on a cobblestone beach for lunch. After we’d set off paddling again, Dashwa adored dropping the cobble we’d gathered into the lake. The rocks tumbled downward, free-falling into the depths. I watched each descend, fascinated by how long I could see them in the clear water before they disappeared into darkness.
The most memorable stretch of Gitchi Gami began one evening when we found another waterfall unknown to me. A small sea arch marked the secluded bay where the Manitou River plummets into the lake. Ringed by cliffs, the alcove is accessible only from the water. From a cleft high above, the river plunges downward unimpeded. The thunder of the water reverberated on the walls and rattled our bones.
The next morning, pressed by a gentle tailwind, we rounded Shovel Point. Palisade Head towered ahead. We rigged our sail and the wind pulled us forward. As we passed Split Rock Lighthouse, we cruised over three-foot waves at five miles per hour. The vertical grandeur of the state park’s headlands captivated me. I’d recalled the lighthouse, not the promontories along the park’s coast. Seeing the North Shore from the lake gave me a new perspective on an area I thought I knew well.
Three days later, in early August, we reached the mouth of Wisconsin’s Bois Brule River and found it flowing at spring levels. We spent three grueling days walking up the lower Brule’s endless rapids at a pace of less than one mile per hour, fighting against the unseasonably high water. We waded in the river, sometimes well past our waists, to keep our hands on the canoe and its captain, who threw overboard everything that was not tied down. The cool water of the Brule soothed my injured toe, but I often stumbled over underwater rocks, causing electric pain.
On the fourth day we reached a lengthy section of steady current with no rapids, which finally allowed us to paddle. We enjoyed a late lunch at a wayside rest stop near the town of Brule. I carried Dashwa to a convenience store for ice cream and beer. After we cracked the beers I toasted our wedding anniversary. Right then a family walked by and told us Dan was at a nearby campground. We hadn’t been sure Dan would rejoin us, but they described Dan perfectly: “the nice guy who looks like Santa Claus with a canoe.”
Dashwa had frequently mentioned Grandpa Dan after he’d departed, so the reunion merited many excited toddler sentence fragments. The next day we encountered shallower rapids and more flatwater. Later that afternoon the river became increasingly choked with alder, and the following morning we spent crouched in the canoes pulling through alder tangles. Around noon we waded the last mile in a few inches of water, an incredible change from the powerful river we’d struggled up days earlier. With great relief we arrived at the portage over our second height of land.
Days 31-37: St. Croix to the Sunrise. There’s an area near Hibbing where water drains in three directions, a height of land for the trio of watersheds. From nowhere else on the continent can a paddler travel long distances downstream in three cardinal directions. We paddled a semicircle around that area and were now entering the Mississippi River basin.
We were relieved to reach the St. Croix, ecstatic to travel downstream. We moved south effortlessly, covering over 25 miles daily. Dashwa had become increasingly adventurous throughout the trip. In Voyageurs he had cautiously waded into the water. Now he climbed over the gunwale to dip his feet. Next he wriggled his body into the river so he was clasping the gunwale with his hands while being pulled through the water. Claire kept a light hand on his PFD.
At Sunrise Landing we began ascending the Sunrise River and Dan caught a ride home. We moved easily upstream—the Sunrise has a much lower gradient than the Brule. On the third day we reached a bridge and began a mile-long portage along a county highway. We turned into a driveway, and Claire knocked on the landowner’s door to ask permission to use their dock. Her request precipitated a discussion among the elderly owners. The matriarch fretted, “It’s not safe for them to be on the lake with a little boy. The wind is strong and look at those whitecaps!” The patriarch jocularly replied, “Honey, they paddled from Grand Marais to Duluth; they’ll be fine on Sunrise Lake.”
Another road portage brought us to our last campsite on North Center Lake. That evening my multihued toenail fell off. Later, X-rays would reveal I had in fact broken the toe.
Day 38: Final Stretch, Familiar Sights. Minnesota is a canoeist’s paradise. The lakes and rivers are the original highways of the state, and they still bind its landscapes together. We spent only five hours driving on the roads from Chisago City to Rainy Lake to begin the trip. It took over five weeks to follow the natural waterways back to our house.
We paddled past many of the state’s most iconic locations, places we’d visited by car, and marveled at the detail and richness we saw at our slower pace. We followed the paths used by natives and travelers for centuries, and journeyed without resupply as the fur traders did. We experienced Minnesota’s landscapes and history together as a family without distractions.
In the morning on North Center Lake, we packed for the last time. We paddled through North and South Lindstrom lakes and passed into Chisago Lake. Paddling in such familiar surroundings at the end of a long wilderness expedition bordered on surreal. On all our previous expeditions we’d traveled through remote and faraway places, and certainly none of the trips had ended in our backyard.
We saw someone portaging a canoe down the stairs to our beach. Dashwa exclaimed, “Grandpa Dan!” Dan had come to welcome us home.