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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

So many miles, so little time

International Falls to Grand Portage, or bust

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 10/9/18

THE BOUNDARY WATERS— Kendra Leibel remembers watching the reflection of the Big Dipper in the water ahead of her as she and canoeing partner Bob Vollhaber paddled hard across one of dozens of border …

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So many miles, so little time

International Falls to Grand Portage, or bust


THE BOUNDARY WATERS— Kendra Leibel remembers watching the reflection of the Big Dipper in the water ahead of her as she and canoeing partner Bob Vollhaber paddled hard across one of dozens of border lakes last month. Other nights, it was the play of moonlight and shadow that captivated her. On a third night, it was a dramatic lightning show that lit up their way.

“I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was,” said Leibel, a 50-year-old Twin Cities mother of three, reflecting on her experience as one of the participants in the 4th Annual Minnesota Border Route Challenge.

On most trips in the Boundary Waters, night is a time to sit around a campfire or crawl into a sleeping bag. But for the 20 competitive individuals from across the country who took on this grueling personal challenge, the paddling goes nearly around the clock as the participants compete to set the fastest time across a 260-mile long journey from International Falls to Lake Superior at the end of the Grand Portage. They also vie to reach the shuttle, which departs Grand Portage eight days after they launch. Miss it, and you’re in charge of figuring out how to get home.

Not surprisingly, the race has a bit of history. It was 1968 when Clint Waddell and Verlen Kruger became canoeing legends by completing the border route in just 80 hours and 40 minutes. The pair had already made a name for themselves by winning other canoe marathon competitions when they set out to beat a record established back in the era of the Voyageurs. The documented trip was led by Hudson Bay Company Governor Sir George Simpson, who had traveled with a companion 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, 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 50 years ago this month in their newletter, The Hut. The article was titled “Just for Fun” and was part trip report and part dare for other paddlers to take up the challenge. Waddell recommended leaving sleeping bag and tent at home and forgoing sleep. How many groups have accepted this challenge since then is unclear. What is known is this is a classic canoe paddle route starting on Rainy Lake and following the U.S.-Canada border through the Voyageurs National Park, the vast Boundary Waters wilderness, and Grand Portage National Monument.

Not that the participants have much chance to enjoy it. Bob Vollhaber, who goes by BeaV to his canoeing friends, acknowledges that the trek doesn’t really constitute “fun.”

“It’s more of an accomplishment than fun,” he said. It’s fun to talk about after it’s over.”

Vollhaber organized the challenge after he retraced the route back in 2011 and decided it had the makings of an epic adventure. It became an annual event in 2015 and Vollhaber has competed every year, last year setting a solo canoe record, completing the route in 91 hours.

This time, he was intent on bringing a team along for the trek. He asked Leibel, who had helped with race logistics in previous years, if she’d like to join the team, which she eagerly accepted. He rounded up four other male friends to fill out his three-canoe flotilla.

While the team traveled day and night, they did take daily stops in the wee hours to set up camp, sometimes eat a hot meal, and catch two or three hours of sleep before breaking camp and hitting the water once again.

Leibel, the lone woman on the team, said she was determined to carry her own weight and quickly became one of “the guys.”

“I did not expect anybody to carry a heavier load because of me,” she said.

Despite a grueling regimen, Leibel said she would take the challenge again, in a second. “It was a blast,” she said, noting that nighttime paddling was her favorite experience from the trip. “We paddled 50 percent of the time in the dark,” she said.

Of course, navigating in the border country can be difficult even in daylight. So how did the participants do it in the dark? Vollhaber acknowledges it’s a challenge, particularly under the conditions the team experienced this year, when persistent cloud cover obscured the moon and stars most nights. “There was a lot of complete blackness while paddling,” he said. While Vollhaber does carry a GPS he tries to avoid using the device in order to stay true to the historic nature of the challenge. “Verlen and Clint didn’t have one,” he notes.

Instead, Vollhaber uses two compasses, one attached to the canoe and another to his jacket. Using a red flashlight to preserve his night vision, he continuously monitors his bearing as they paddle through the darkness. It’s not an exact science to be sure, and wind can easily push the canoes off track. “That’s part of the challenge,” said Vollhaber.

In the end, the six-person team finished the challenge in 122 hours, two hours ahead of the goal they had set for themselves. That’s despite tough conditions, including frequent rain and unseasonably cold temperatures.

No one broke Waddell’s and Kruger’s astonishing record— in fact, no one has really come close since 1968. This year’s top finishers, Matt Peterson and Peter Wagner, made it in 98 hours in a tandem canoe. Over the next four days, fourteen more finishers would make it to the end, as well, completing a journey that includes at least 20 miles of portaging, nearly half of that on the final Grand Portage.

And on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 record, Clint Waddell and his wife Bev, who live in Isle, showed up to greet the finishers and spent time swapping stories from their experiences on the water. His canoe partner and canoeing legend, Verlen Kruger, died in 2004 after canoeing more than 100,000 miles, the most ever recorded by an individual.

For Leibel, it was the perfect ending to a remarkable journey. “That was really an experience that kind of brought everything full circle,” she said.


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