Everywhere one walks and paddles in the BWCA there is a unique connection with the past. Every lake, every portage is filled with stories of legendary figures and lives lived. And through those stories come the marvelous tales of adventure and achievement born of adversity and hardship amidst the beauty. This coming week, a special annual tradition is being carried out which honors some of those adventurers who have gone before. It’s also, consequently, the greatest level of jealousy I feel about someone else’s trip plans anytime during the year! Starting today and running through the next week, the annual Border Challenges are kicking off through the Minnesota extension of the water tribe organization. These challenges follow three legendary routes. All follow the border, the iconic route deemed the easiest passage of travel by the tribes and the voyageurs who followed. All routes finish with a triumphant crossing of the Grand Portage to complete the journey at Lake Superior. The shortest route option is the Superiority Complex otherwise known as the Moose Lake start. This route follows the border from Moose Lake to Lake Superior with a trip of about 125 miles. The next step up is the Voyageur Challenge which starts at Crane Lake (the western tip of the BWCA) and runs 210 miles (with an alternative start option of Little Indian Sioux north if permits get tight.) But the greatest route of all is the Border Challenge, often referred to as the Kruger Challenge. This legendary route runs 270 miles along the border from International Falls, through Voyageur National Park, through the entirety of the BWCA, to finish at Lake Superior. The route was pioneered by two of the most legendary figures in all of expedition canoeing: Verlen Kruger and Clint Wadell. Before they set off on their mythical cross-country canoe safari across Canada (and all of the other achievements which followed), they claimed the first record time through the route which now bears their name. In 1979, they completed the 270 mile route in 80 hours and 40 minutes. The previous best time had been held by Sir George Simpson during the fur trade era with a time of 6.5 days. The record time has whittled down a few times since and now sits at 63 hours 16 minutes by BeaV and Kendra in 2019. And still every year folks gather, some to push this record and others to chase the solo record which sits just past the 80 hour mark. For others though, it’s simply a chance to challenge themselves, discover what they are capable of, pay tribute to those who have gone before, and immerse in such a special place and see it in a way few people ever do.
Success or failure of the route is dependent on loads of factors and being prepared is not always enough. The border follows plenty of big water and changes in weather and conditions can have huge impacts on the paddlers (especially those who are solo.) Injuries and mishaps are always possible too when pushing the body to its limit. For the Kruger Challenge, folks start off at Sha Sha resort on Rainy Lake. From there, the fastest paddlers are pushing really hard to clear Rainy Lake and Voyageur National Park and enter the BWCA that day. Many folks will enter the next morning. For reference, it is a distance of 50 miles along the border from Sha Sha to the BWCA. This distance is only the start of the route. There is a subset of people with the correct permits who will utilize the famous Dawson Portage on the Canadian side to cut off distance to Lac La Croix. Obviously, the pandemic removed this as a possibility for awhile, but it’s becoming more possible. The rest of the paddlers will follow the Loon River to Loon Lake before crossing into Lac La Croix. LLC is a long, big lake with motors on the Canadian side. It can be treacherous if the weather turns and can be a very long distance to cover between portages. Depending on whether or not the unofficial corner portage is used within LLC, it’s an un-interupted paddle of 23 miles between leaving the Loon Portage and reaching the Iron Portage/Bottle Portage. The folks with the best times stay pretty focused along the way which is easier said than done on a massive lake with famous pictographs and waterfalls. Also, navigational challenges come into play. People making the best times are often paddling overnight and large lakes like LLC offer a plethora of opportunities to get turned around. Iron Lake is comparatively small before crossing the portage around Curtain Falls. Crooked is another good paddle between portages with plenty of famous scenery too including Table Rock and Arrow Rock (more commonly known as the Crooked Lake Pictographs.) At the end of Crooked comes the first real portaging most people will see on their trip with portages around Lower Basswood Falls, Wheelbarrow Falls, and the one mile portage around Upper Basswood Falls to Basswood Lake. Basswood is another massive body of water and requires a 15 mile paddle between the mile portage and Prarie Portage. There’s a fair bit of in-and-out of the canoe after Prarie along the storied portages to Knife. Upon reaching the beautiful Knife Lake, it’s another 10.5 miles past Isle of the Pines and Thunder Point before portaging into Ottertrack. Paddle past Bennie’s place on Ottertrack, cross the famous Monument Portage, and then it’s another big 10.5 mile paddle across Saganaga to Sag Falls at the mouth of the Granite River. Saganaga can be a tough lake to navigate for folks that are new to it and it can be a dangerous body of water depending on the day. It’s especially important to stay focused on the big water east of American Point where the deep water and wide open spaces of the Canadian side can really whip up some chop. The Granite River comes next which can be a real pain in low water years. This year should be better than last. There’s plenty of portaging to go around through this stretch before exiting into Magnetic. It’s another good long paddle down Gunflint Lake before crossing the watershed at the Height of Land to pass into South. Paddlers have now entered the Great Lake Watershed. It’s downhill from here, literally! Arguably some of the greatest scenery of the entire route lies ahead. Keep following the border down South Lake, Rat Lake, and into Rose before taking the longest portage thus far. The portage is aptly named “the Long Portage” and travels nearly two miles to Rove. Despite the length, it’s not overly difficult. Paddlers must enjoy but not get distracted by the beautiful palisades as they paddle Rove and Watap to Mountain Lake. Mountain is another good push before the small chain of lakes heading into Moose. Through Moose and then its the Fowls before starting the Pigeon River. The Pigeon can also be a challenge in low water levels, but paddlers must make good time to their final obstacle. The Grand Portage was the age old solution to the impassable waterfalls and cascades in the lower part of the Pigeon River. Some version of it has existed for over 2000 years and was known by many names though the tribes knew it as “the great carrying place.” It stretches about 8.5 miles from the Pigeon River to Lake Superior and proves a final monumental hurdle before the finish line. It’s over this trail that paddlers, exhausted from over 250 miles of travel from International Falls with minimal sleep, must trudge for that final push to the big lake. Once their feet hit pavement, it means the end is nearly in site.
Check out the water tribe’s website for more information. They usually have a live map showing locator beacon check-ins from many of the groups. For those of us who wish we were with them, it’s a chance to live vicariously! Best of luck to this year’s paddlers! May the journey be a rewarding one and the wind ever at your back. Come back with some incredible stories.