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A legendary record falls

Minnesota pair completes 260-mile “Falls to the Fort” route in just 69 hours

Jodi Summit
Posted 6/5/19

THE BOUNDARY WATERS—Two Minnesota men here have topped a record that many thought could never be broken.

Peter Wagner, of St. Paul, and Matt Petersen, of Crosby, stumbled, near exhaustion, into …

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A legendary record falls

Minnesota pair completes 260-mile “Falls to the Fort” route in just 69 hours


THE BOUNDARY WATERS—Two Minnesota men here have topped a record that many thought could never be broken.

Peter Wagner, of St. Paul, and Matt Petersen, of Crosby, stumbled, near exhaustion, into Grand Portage in the early morning hours of May 28, just 69 hours after leaving Sha-Sha Resort on Rainy Lake, located over 260 miles to the west.

Their journey traced the route traveled by canoeing legends Clint Waddell and Verlen Kruger over a half-century ago, who had completed the route in 80 hours and 20 minutes. Many had since tried to beat Waddell and Kruger’s mark, but none had come close until Wagner and Petersen combined strategy and astonishing stamina to topple the long-standing record last week.

Wagner and Petersen took part last year in the annual competition, known as the Border Route Challenge, which includes teams of canoeists competing to complete the route in as little time as possible.

Not surprisingly, the competition has a bit of history. Waddell and Kruger had already made a name for themselves by winning other canoe marathon competitions when they set out to beat the border route record originally set back in the era of the Voyageurs. Hudson Bay Company Governor Sir George Simpson documented that early competition, in which Simpson and a companion traveled in a birch bark “North” canoe from “The Falls” to the fort at Grand Portage in six-and-a-half days.

As far as anyone has recorded, that record stood until Waddell and Kruger smashed it in 1968, completing the journey in less than three-and-a-half days. Waddell wrote a brief article of their trip, which the Minnesota Canoe Association published 51 years ago in their newletter, The Hut, forever enshrining the competition in Minnesota canoeing lore.

Wagner and Petersen proved the fastest of the ten teams that competed in the Border Route Challenge last year, finishing in 98 hours. But the two figured they could do better, given slightly different conditions.

Event organizers held the race in October last year, which has some disadvantages. So, Wagner and Petersen decided to give it a second try, this time in May, setting off at 6 a.m. on Saturday, May 25. Their strategy proved effective, as well as brutal.

“It was pretty cold, and we were miserable,” said Wagner. “It was a blessing in disguise because we were motivated to keep moving to stay warm.”

The two knew that keeping warm, and getting enough calories, were the keys to successfully completing the journey. And the combination of other factors helped them complete the trip in record time.

“The water is pretty high this time of year,” Wagner said. “This is why we chose this weekend.” The Pigeon River, still swelled from snow melt, was at near-record high water levels. “We ran it at a record pace,” Wagner said. “It was probably dangerous.”

The two also timed the start of their journey to take the greatest advantage of expected tailwinds on Saturday, which helped the two travel 100 miles in their first 24 hours on the trail. “That big first day put us ahead of schedule,” Wagner said.

The late May trip date also meant more daylight, and less time navigating in the dark.

That can be an issue since, in keeping with the technology of an earlier era, competitors avoid using navigational assistance, like GPS, relying instead on map and compass to find their way through the labyrinth of forest and water that comprises the border country. The pair did carry a GPS, which sent out a steady stream of updates on their locations for family members and canoeing enthusiasts to keep track of their progress.

The two practiced their navigation skills prior to the trip and spent many hours studying the maps. Wagner, who paddled in the stern, acted as the trip navigator. The prospect of getting lost was a major concern, especially while navigating in the dark through large lakes populated with many islands. But the two did manage to stay on course the entire trip.

The final leg of the journey, portaging their Minnesota II Kevlar canoe on the Grand Portage Trail, proved to be the most extreme challenge.

“We portaged that trail at night,” Wagner said. “It was awful. The trail hadn’t been cleared, and we had to go over at least 100 downed trees.”

The final leg, which had taken about three hours when they did the trip in 2018, took about five, but still got them to Grand Portage in plenty of time to break the record.

“We were delirious at that point,” he said. “But we knew we could break the record and nothing could stop us.”

The pair didn’t sleep the entire journey, and barely stopped to eat, relying on endurance drinks, and ready-to-heat meals they heated using hand warmers, along with a lot of Cliff bars, pre-cooked rice in pouches, and straight olive oil (to drink).

The two are not sure they will attempt the route again. “We are both pretty much toast right now,” he said.

But Wagner said someone is planning to try to break their record in August, and if they succeed, the two may have to consider tackling the route again.

Wagner, who is 25, is a research engineer at a medical device firm in St. Paul, but is leaving Minnesota to attend divinity school in Fort Wayne, Ind. Peterson, who is 28, is a mechanical engineer who lives on a farm in Crosby.


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