THE BOUNDARY WATERS— For 63 hours and 16 minutes, Bob Vollhaber and Kendra Leibel paddled and portaged here as if a world record was on the line. It was. And the bragging rights that come with that record now belong to them as the pair set a new mark for the Border Route Challenge, traveling 220 miles in a little over two and a half days, ending this past Saturday, Aug. 17.
That beats a mark set by a much younger pair of paddlers back in May.
When Vollhaber, known as “BeaV” among his tight-knit group of paddling friends, and Leibel started planning and training for their epic quest after canoeing the same route last fall, the record was what now seems a relatively leisurely 80 hours. That mark, set by canoeing legends Clint Waddell and Verlen Kruger back in 1968, had held up against numerous challenges for over half a century.
But in May, Peter Wagner, of St. Paul, and Matt Petersen, of Crosby, traveled the route from Sha Sha Resort on Rainy Lake to Grand Portage on Lake Superior in just 69 hours, substantially raising the bar for Vollhaber and Leibel.
Adding to the odds was the fact that Wagner and Peterson are both strapping young men in their 20s. Vollhaber, a civil engineer when he isn’t paddling, and Leibel, a dental hygienist, are both in their 50s. But like most engineers, Vollhaber broke the challenge down into pieces, methodically planning the multiple segments of the trip, and setting time targets for each to keep them on a record pace. They understood, fully, exactly what they needed to do at each point in the journey.
For nearly a year, the pair trained relentlessly, paddling and portaging, sometimes in the Boundary Waters, or more often on the Mississippi, since both Vollhaber and Leibel live in the Twin Cities area.
Physically, they were convinced, they were up to the job. They could prepare themselves mentally as well. There was just one thing they couldn’t train for— going two-and-a-half days with, essentially, no sleep.
It turns out that’s the key to completing the border route in under 70 hours— you don’t stop.
In some ways, that makes the logistics easier. You don’t need cooking gear, sleeping bags, or most of the other items that fill your typical Duluth pack for even an overnight Boundary Waters trip. Vollhaber and Leibel did bring a small tent and a single blanket in case of hypothermia, but never had to deploy it. Most of their food, which was all ready-to-eat bars, a little fruit, and a protein drink with electrolytes, they had stuffed into the pockets of their life vests. They filled canteens as they traveled, from out in the middle of lakes to reduce the risk of giardia.
But what is the limit of one’s endurance, especially when under constant and intense physical exertion? That was the biggest unknown of all. “I thought my limit was 34 or 35 hours,” said Vollhaber. Leibel said she’s been up for about 32 hours straight before, but never under the kind of circumstances she faced on their record-setting trek.
Leibel, it turns out, can sleep almost on command, and she used four or five 15-minute power naps along the way to recover when her strokes started to fade. “She would just spin around and lean back against the bow,” said Vollhaber. “Fifteen minutes later she could get up and she’d have her stroke back.”
Leibel, whose job was simply to paddle, said she had less to keep her mind from dwelling on her mounting exhaustion. Vollhaber, whose was tasked with paddling as well as navigating (much of the time in darkness), said the mental focus of having to find the next portage helped to keep him mentally alert. He did manage two quick naps lying on the bottom of the canoe, while Leibel kept paddling from the front. His longest was coming across South Lake, near the Gunflint Trail. “I’m not sure how long I was out, but I laid down and the next I knew we were at the portage on the other side.”
Leibel said she was tempted to let him sleep. “But I knew I couldn’t portage him, so I had to wake him up,” she said.
Most of the time, the pair simply talked each other through their desire to set the paddle down and sleep.
Their endurance and, let’s call it “sisu,” kept them going to the end, and brought them over their two biggest physical obstacles, the unmaintained Fowl portage, located just across the border in the Quetico, and the trip’s finale, the nine-mile-long Grand Portage, which took them to Lake Superior. “That was probably the hardest part for them,” said Lori Johnson, who has become the primary overseer of the border route challenge. Johnson, along with friends and family of Vollhaber and Leibel, who had been monitoring their progress online, was there to greet them as they arrived at the fort at Grand Portage village. “They looked a little droopy when they crossed the finish line,” said Johnson.
But Vollhaber and Leibel are not just recovered from their ordeal, they are planning to run the whole route again next month. This time, however, they won’t be going for the record, which means they might even stop somewhere for a few hours sleep.