The Annual Border Challenges – A BeaV Perspective

We are a week away from the annual Minnesota Border Route Canoe Challenges hosted by The Water Tribe. Each year, a small-yet-dedicated crew set off from Sha Sha Resort near International Falls, from Crane Lake or Little Indian Sioux on the western edge of the BWCA, or from Moose Lake off the Fernberg with the goal of paddling to Lake Superior. The majority now put in at Sha Sha following in the footsteps of native peoples, the voyageurs, and of Verlen Kruger and Clint Wadell with the goal of roughly following the border along the length of Voyageurs National Park, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and the Pigeon River, crossing the Grand Portage for a triumphant finish at Lake Superior. Some people seek the record, a chance to claim the fastest time for the route. Some seek personal challenge and a chance to push themselves beyond what they ever thought possible. Some seek the chance to see the border route and the grand scope of Minnesota’s northern canoe country. Whatever their reasons, the border route challenges are an event unlike any other. You can read more about the specific route in our article from last summer.

With the official starting date just over a week away, we interviewed a legend in canoeing and a perennial contributor to the challenges known across the paddling world as BeaV. Not only has BeaV chased and held record times for the border challenges, and is currently embarking on his 10th outing, but nearly a decade ago he cemented himself amongst the all-time-greatest to hold a canoe paddle with his “Paddle to, Through, and Around Alaska” expedition. To many, this expedition was one of the foremost accomplishments of solo canoeing ever attempted. If you believe portaging to be difficult, a quick read into his springtime crampon-clad portage over a mountain pass will realign your perspective. In any case, it’s not hyperbole to state that BeaV is one of the world’s experts in distance canoeing and portaging, and he knows the Minnesota Border Challenges as well as anyone.

BeaV is incredibly down-to-earth in my interactions with him and was kind enough to answer some questions about the annual border route challenges over an email exchange. His insight is invaluable to understanding the route and the people who attempt it. Whether you have ever thought of trying a longer challenge canoe route or if your annual trip into the BWCA is challenging enough, this perspective of the border challenges will have you craving the open water, the spirit of adventure, and the perseverance required to endure a 200-mile paddle across Minnesota’s northern border and to come out the better for it.

Question 1: These border route challenges happen every year and you have participated in a number of them. How many times will you have attempted the challenges as of this year?

This will be my 10th attempt and hopefully my 10th completion.  I will be doing it from International Falls again this year aka the Kruger Waddell Challenge as we call it to commemorate Verlin Kruger and Clint Waddell’s 1968 record-breaking/setting trip.

Question 2. What got you into doing challenge routes like the Voyageur, the Kruger, the Mississippi races, and so on?

The idea of traveling long distances by canoe just sounded like fun.  My first 300-mile border route trip was in July 2011.  I finished the Grand Portage completely wore out after a long hot muggy July day with swarming mosquitos.  I told my buddy who picked me up at Lake Superior “that I never want to carry a canoe 9 miles again ever in my life”.  Two weeks later, I forgot about the tough parts of the previous trip and could only think about doing something even longer.  This inspiration led to the planning and completing of a 5,000-mile solo canoe trip that I called “To, Through, and Around Alaska Adventure”.  There were portages on that trip that made the Grand Portage feel like the Splash Lake Portage (New Found to Splash Lake heading to Ensign).  Problem with a trip like that is the time commitment- 2 years in this case.

A year after completing that long arduous adventure, a friend recommended I look at participating in an expedition-style paddle adventure race in Florida called the Everglades Challenge.  I signed up, battled all kinds of hardships along the route, completed it within the allowed 8-day timeframe, and loved it.  This was a good solution to my adventure craving self without having to take a year off from work

That same year (2015), the same group that organizes the Everglades Challenge decided to do a challenge across the BWCA.  Of course, I signed up for that one and since I’d done the route before and it was in my backyard, I helped organize the event. I love paddling the BWCA, like pushing myself, and enjoy seeing others do the same.  So I assist with organizing and keeping these challenges going.  They’re not really organized events, just like-minded paddlers doing their own trips and telling stories afterwards and sharing shuttle rides.  BTW- I still don’t love the Grand Portage but the effort put forth makes getting to the finish sweeter.

Question 3. For most casual BWCA paddlers, the idea of paddling over 200 miles in a single trip is ludicrous. And even for those of us craving such an endeavor, most of us can only hope to give it one shot. What motivates you to come back each year?

Sometimes it’s to set a faster time than before. Sometimes it’s to put together a team and have the satisfaction of working together to overcome obstacles. It’s always a great time to cheer paddlers on at the finish and then listen to all the stories that each person or team has and see how meaningful a trip like this can be. The camaraderie is what motivates me the most. 

Question 4: Some things change from year to year like your route (did I see on the tracking that you have changed things up some from year to year such as using Dawson?) The weather, of course, comes into play. You’ve done some solo and some tandem. What makes this even worth doing year after year?

The Kruger Waddell route has changed some over the years as I’ve learned from Clint Waddell the exact route they used back in 1968.  So now we know where they started (Sha Sha Resort), that they used the Gold Portage, and that they used the Dawson Portage.  I adjusted the route not because I wanted to make it easier but to follow the route Clint and Verlin established. Every year there comes new challenges to face- winds, fog, exhaustion, team member struggles, low water, beaver dams.  But every year it’s a new sense of accomplishment with new friends made.

Question 5: Looking back at the border route challenges you’ve participated in, which year was the hardest? What made it so? What did it teach you that makes you better/more confident/better prepared going forward?

“2017. I was paddling to establish a solo record time.  Pushing for long hard days with little sleep is much more difficult. This just reaffirmed what I already knew- the body wants to quit but it takes a strong mind to keep pushing.”

Question 6: What’s your proudest moment in the border route challenges? Which accomplishment is the one that really stands above the rest?

“Completing the 2019 Challenge with a large team of 8 people, 2 of which were new to long-distance adventure paddling. The bigger the group, the harder it is to move fast. We wondered how fast we could go? We started out getting behind our pre-challenge schedule but rallied together as a team and pushed hard to overcome that. Maybe pushing too hard to the point of putting ourselves in danger.  That same team of 8 in 2019 when things were falling apart at the end. We managed to help each other overcome some very real tough situations and made it to the fort at Grand Portage together. It was scary for a while, exhausting, painful, but when we finished it was with a huge sense of accomplishment. Our time goal was 102 hours, but we did it in 94.5. The team earned those 7.5 hours saved.”

Question 7: You have been part of chasing and breaking records both in the tandem and the solo classes. Is this a motivating factor for you or just a cool piece of accomplishing these challenges at a high level? Do you see yourself continuing to push these standards and records in the future?

“It is both. To push your physical and mental limits, although tiring and painful, brings unexpected surprises and confidence. I seem to have that condition. I also am the keeper of the records, attempts, and rules. Speaking of rules- one important one for those who want to challenge the record, navigation is a key component of “the record”. Navigation must be by map & compass without any technological or outside assistance. No GPS, no phone calls to home for help. The attempt must be unsupported and in the spirit of what Kruger and Waddell did in 1968.”

Question 8: To the average person whose idea of a canoe trip is a couple of days sitting on the numbers chain, what is something that only a person who has done these challenges can understand? How do you have to prepare, think, and travel differently to be successful?

The sense of freedom and exploration that a long-distance paddle trip can produce. The volume of experiences stack up as do the miles, lake count, and number of portages. This is an adventure trip not a fishing trip or basecamp trip.  An average canoe trip is about relaxing, fishing, camping, and spending an extended length of time in the same area. A long-distance adventure canoe trip is about exploring new areas, pushing oneself to levels not previously thought possible, overcoming hardship, and accomplishing goals. An average canoe trip is fun. The long-distance adventure canoe trip is fulfilling. Pretrip physical training is needed both to prepare the body but also to learn how fast you can travel so that you can estimate with some accuracy how far you can travel in a given period of time. You have to plan and strategize when and where you want to be to deal with big lake crossings, nighttime travel, and rest periods. To travel fast means to travel efficiently. Efficient means light and single portaging is a must. To be successful means learning your limitations and planning around them. With greater experience comes fewer limitations.

Thank you so much to BeaV for the time to answer questions. We wish the best of luck to everyone pushing for one of the border challenges this year. May the wind be at your back and the skies clear.

The photo below is BeaV’s from his Alaskan expedition. He retains all rights to the photo. If you would like to learn more about his expedition, check out his blog. It’s a great read.

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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