THE BOUNDARY WATERS— Kendra Leibel had something to prove, and she received some backhanded help from Mother Nature, who threw vicious storms and record cold her way as she recently sought to …
THE BOUNDARY WATERS— Kendra Leibel had something to prove, and she received some backhanded help from Mother Nature, who threw vicious storms and record cold her way as she recently sought to paddle 480 miles solo back and forth along the U.S.-Canadian border here. Leibel’s petite frame belies a skilled and determined paddler who is relentless in the face of adversity and this epic challenge tested her mettle like never before.
Leibel, along with her sometime canoe partner Bob Vollhaber, had set a new record last September in the Kruger-Waddell Challenge when the pair traveled the 240 miles from Rainy Lake to Lake Superior in just over 63 hours.
This time, Leibel aimed to make the trip solo, and finish in time to catch a shuttle back to Rainy Lake to complete the route a second time with her team as they competed in this year’s challenge.
Even as she unloaded her gear from her car to her canoe, at Dove Point on Rainy Lake, Leibel faced an unexpected challenge. It was just after midnight in early September when she planned to launch, but a powerful thunderstorm kept her on shore, consuming critical hours. She finally launched about 1:30 a.m. during a break in the storm, knowing that more strong storms were coming her way.
Leibel made it just two miles out into the inky blackness of Rainy Lake before the next storm hit, which forced her to seek refuge on an island in Black Bay. She remained windbound there for about 15 hours, until the winds relented enough to allow her to continue on her quest. She launched once again in the late afternoon into uncertain intimidating waves and wind. She made it to Lake Kabetogama and paddled eastward until the unrelenting westerly tailwinds caused waves large enough to overtop her canoe’s gunwales. Again, Leibel sought refuge on an island after only paddling six miles.
The next morning, Leibel started out again, continuing to battle the fierce unrelenting winds while traveling, making 105 miles to Basswood Lake in just three days. She pushed on into the large open waters as the sun was setting, unaware that a strong weather front, with predicted 40 mph winds, was rapidly approaching her. A mile out into open water, it hit! Kendra had no choice but to keep her bow pointed straight downwind or capsize. The winds pushed her across until an island got in the way. She smashed into a rocky shoreline. There her canoe quickly started to take on water while being pounded by waves into the rocks. She jumped out into the water and began throwing her packs up onto the rocks. Kendra knew every second counted. She quickly emptied water from the boat, pulled herself and the canoe up onto the shore. Her knee was banged up and hurting from falling on rocks, her clothes were soaked, and her GPS was lost in the mayhem.
For the third time, she was windbound for more than a day. This latest unscheduled slowdown made it virtually impossible that she could be back on Rainy Lake in time to meet her team for a second running of the route. Without a GPS, Leibel didn’t dare to risk getting lost by paddling after dark or in the dense early morning fog. She was packed as lightly as possible to make it possible to cover the approximately 20 miles of portages on her route in one pass. With her injured knee and now wet heavy gear, that option was no longer a possibility, which converted 20 miles of portaging into 60 miles.
Despite the setbacks, Leibel’s determination only grew. She said she had come too far and endured too much to give up. Winds eventually subsided over the next five days, but she now faced unseasonably cold temperatures. Every night the temperatures plummeted to below freezing, getting as cold as the mid 20s on a couple of nights, too chilly for Leibel’s lightweight sleeping bag and clothing.
Finally, ten days from her start in the midst of a thunderstorm, Leibel arrived at Fort Charlotte campground at the Grand Portage trailhead. She only had the final nine-mile portage to go. In the morning, she put on her only pair of dry socks, ate her final bites of food and was ready for the long walk to Lake Superior. Almost eight hours later, using strength she didn’t know she had, she completed her trek over the portage. She alternated carrying her pack and then the canoe, setting one down to go back for the other. At times, she just carried the pack and dragged the canoe behind with a rope. Exhausted, she made it, yet her journey wasn’t over.
Her husband and daughter met her at the finish with hugs, and congratulations. It was then Leibel who proposed her plan to drive three hours back to Ely, so she could again head into the wilderness and meet up with her team. With their help, assistance from friends in Ely, and Bob at LaTourell Outfitters, Leibel was able to make plans to meet her team near Prairie Portage. The LaTourell shuttle dropped her off on an island near Prairie Portage and in less than 20 minutes, her team came to pick her up.
Leibel had successfully completed her solo journey. She and her team then paddled and portaged together the balance of the border route, again heading to Grand Portage as part of a group of 18 paddlers in the 2020 Kruger-Waddell Challenge event. Kendra had just completed the 240 miles in her solo trip and in her back-to-back route added another four days and 130 miles.
Some of us talk about doing big things. Some of us watch others and critique from the sidelines. Leibel’s story is not about speed or a race. It is about a woman’s determination! She set her goal and she did it, despite all that Mother Nature threw her way.