REGIONAL- While many spent their Labor Day weekend celebrating the end of summer, Robert “BeaV” Vollhaber, David May, and Kevin McCann set off, each in a solo canoe, from International Falls and paddled 260 miles to their destination– Grand Portage National Monument on Lake Superior.
“Each of these like-minded travelers journeyed on their own personal schedule and totally alone and unsupported,” said Lori Johnson, who has a cabin near Ely. Johnson helped with trip logistics at the starting and ending point of the journey, and tracked the paddlers progress via GPS. The only rule to the challenge was that the canoeists needed to arrive at Lake Superior within eight days to catch a ride back to their cars in Ely.
Johnson, who has spent her entire career working with children, canoeing, and as camp director for the Campfire Boys and Girls, said she is now unable to get out into the wilderness due to age-related health issues.
“I can’t go,” she said. “But I can watch and help monitor.”
Johnson got to know Vollhaber through the online message boards for paddlers on the bwca.com website. And as plans for the trip evolved, she stepped up to be in charge of the logistics.
The idea, she said, was to recreate the route taken by Verlen Kruger and Clint Waddell, two canoeists with world-wide reputations for their distance paddling feats. They are credited with paddling the route in 1969 in 80 hours, 40 minutes, though Johnson said there was not the ability to track the time via satellite, as it is now done. Several others pairs have recreated the route, though none have started as far west as I-Falls, and none have gone solo. By going solo, the three hoped to set a solo course record.
So the “Kruger Challenge” was born. The route covers 42 lakes, six rivers, and over 20 miles of portaging. It is a route familiar to this crew,;Vollhaber has paddled the route multiple times, the first time in 2011, when he did it in 15-1/2 days, which at the time he thought was a fast time. He had done 45 Boundary Waters trips so far, but the border route is what he calls his “big trip.” He also does competitive paddling in the Everglades, through a group called Water Tribe.
“Each paddled on their own schedule,” Johnson said, “and all three were ready to meet the shuttle on time.” The journey was tracked and monitored by GPS satellite equipment. Johnson had help with the GPS tracking, with other volunteers stepping in for nighttime duty so she could get some sleep.
Vollhaber, now in his late 40s, is no stranger to endurance paddling. In 2013, he spent six months paddling his solo canoe approximately 5,000 miles from the Pacific Northwest coast through the inland passage to Alaska. His next challenge, he had decided, was to paddle the Minnesota border route. Vollhaber, from Stacy, Minn., met the challenge, paddling the route in a record-setting 91 hours. A civil engineer and avid distance canoeist, he is well-known in the canoeing world.
“BeaV is a quiet, humble, kind individual who is focused, determined, and absolutely driven to achieve his goals,” said Johnson.
The trip proved a challenge. Vollhaber was paddling a 35-pound We-no-nah canoe, with about 50 pounds of gear and food. There were strong head winds, tail winds, and cross gusts on Rainy Lake, Lac La Croix, Saganaga, and Gunflint Lake, said Johnson. David Kay got stuck on Basswood Lake, windbound in a hailstorm, but the two others, a little farther along, missed the worst of that storm.
“The first two days of the journey he fell behind his timetable,” said Johnson, “but then mustered the strength and determination to increase his pace for the big push to the finish.”
The final portion, which can easily be described as grueling, started on Crooked Lake and finished at the Fort at Grand Portage. Vollhaber covered 134 miles, including 36 portages, on only two hours of sleep.
“The push culminated with walking the nine-mile Grand Portage after enduring two days of fierce canoe travel and portaging rain-soaked packs and his solo canoe,” Johnson said.
“He paddled 12 miles on the Pigeon River in the dark,” Johnson said. “Then did the portage in the dark.” For the length of his trip, only 15 hours were spent in camp. Over half the route was traveled in the dark, where there were encounters with moose and beaver. The weather was not cooperative, with lots of pouring rain, muddy portage trails, and slippery boardwalks on the final Grand Portage.
“The knee-high mud and slippery boardwalks of the Grand Portage tested his sleep-deprived body while playing tricks on his mind,” said Johnson. “The dramatically exciting, yet almost deadly, challenge route and his pace of travel was historic and remarkable.”
Vollhaber said he had not planned on paddling the Pigeon River rapids in the dark, but ended up in darkness about half way through the mile-long stretch.
“I did get trapped on shallows a few times,” he said, “and had to get out of my canoe a few times, but made it through safely.”
Johnson said she got a call from another volunteer at 2 a.m., letting her know that Vollhaber was getting close to Grand Portage.
She had been staying in Grand Marais, and quickly got up and drove up to the fort, not knowing quite where she would find him.
“But there he came,” she said, “trucking across the road to the fort.”
He was intending to just fall asleep right there on the ground, but Johnson got him into her car and drove him to the nearby Grand Portage Hotel. A day later, Kevin McCann, the youngest of the bunch at 35, made it in, and then finally, but still on schedule, 69-year- old David May.
The other two solo paddlers, David May from Connecticut, and Dr. Kevin McCann from St. Cloud, also safely finished the route. An additional couple, both in their 70s, joined the challenge mid-way on the route, and also safely ended at Grand Portage in time to get the shuttle back to Ely.
Back in Ely, celebrating with the traditional Dairy Queen visit, some other BWCA visitors asked her group if they had just come out of the BWCA, or were headed out. Johnson said that Vollhaber, never the one to brag, didn’t say a thing, but another at the table did let it slip that this crew had just paddled 260 miles.