Hiawatha Water Trail
Six and a half years ago, I took my first solo kayak camping trip. It wasn’t an expedition – I paddled a couple miles from the mouth of a river at the west end of a bay to a wilderness campsite in the middle of the bay, and then I didn’t get in my boat again until two days later when I paddled back.
It was awesome! I cooked my favorite camp dinner – potatoes, cheese, peppers and summer sausage wrapped up in foil and stuck in the coals of my fire on the beach. I dunked an ear of corn in the Lake and threw it in the coals too. I cored an apple, put some cinnamon or maple flavored instant oatmeal and a bit of win in the core, wrapped it in foil, and had baked apple for dessert. I made a kick-ass bear hang for my food – that a chipmunk happily nibbled on. I spent most of my time sitting on the beach reading by the fire.
My next solo kayak camping trip was the next fall. I spent a couple nights on Grand Island in Munising MI, saw bald eagles in a mating ritual and a water spout, and figured out what I was going to do when the marine forecast for the day I planned to paddle out called for big winds and waves 7-10 feet. When I woke up the next morning, there was nothing bigger than 2 feet in my bay, a few clean not quite four footers around Trout Point on my way out, and diminishing waves wrapping around the point to surf home.
Since then, I’ve tried (not always successfully) to get away in the fall. I direct a non profit working with Chicago youth, getting them outdoors to build leadership and life skills. We run programming almost every day of the summer, sometimes more than one program in a day. This summer, we worked with more than 250 youth and delivered over 5,000 participant hours of programming. But this job also means that when we’re not on the water or on the rock, we’re visiting youth in prison or the hospital. We’re attending court dates and funerals; graduations and award ceremonies. We’re trouble shooting with young people who’ve lost their housing or are trying to figure out transportation to a job interview. We’re listening to the tragedies in our young people’s lives, and celebrating the victories. Around the edges, we’re raising money, monitoring the cash flow, trying to return emails and phone calls. By the time the summer is over, I try to get away. Last October I got to take two short solo trips in Maine. Oh my God – they were beautiful trips!
On that trip to Grand Island on Lake Superior in 2012, I found the Hiawatha Water Trail map. Grand island is pretty much in the middle of the trail. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of paddling the full 120 mile trail. Earlier this month, after a weekend camping trip that closed the summer season, we closed the office for a week. I checked the weather, and realized that surprisingly to me, given that fall was on its way, I seemed to have a weather window that would allow me to paddle the Hiawatha Trail! It would be a fairly serious paddle – I would need to average about 25 miles a day. If I had a weather day when I was beached, I would need to paddle more on several days, or end at a different place and figure a way back to my car.
We got home Sunday afternoon and I collapsed and then had dinner with my husband. Monday morning I woke up, did laundry, went grocery shopping, re-packed, and headed to the Upper Peninsula.
A padding friend let me stay with him, and ran the shuttle with me the next morning – which meant he drove 240 miles! Above and beyond! On Tuesday, after the shuttle, I found myself in Grand Marais, launching my boat at 2:00 in the afternoon, hoping I would find campsites, that the weather would hold, that I wasn’t doing something supremely stupid…
For the next 5 days, I was in the moment, right where I was. My thoughts turned from fundraising and program logistics to erosion patterns of tall dunes, the color of tannins in the water, how to tell a mink from a weasel and coyote song from wolves.
This stretch of the southern shore of Lake Superior is remarkable. I paddled from towering dunes to multi colored cliffs to jumbled boulders to steep cobblestone beaches to wide sandy ones. I paddled along red sandstone, black and gray granite and yellow sand. I paddled through sandy water murky from eroded dunes, stunningly clear turquoise, green and dark blue water, steel and bronze colored water reflecting the hazy sky, tannin-stained water gold by shore and red where small rivers meet the Lake.
The wildlife I encountered was surprising. I didn’t see any deer, and no bear. I saw multiple bald eagles every day. Just before Chapel Beach, I discovered a baby snapping turtle in the water – it was less than 2 inches long and prehistoric-looking. I saw what I think was a mink, not a weasel, that night at my campsite on Muskrat Point (I saw no muskrat…). Its pointy triangular face made me immediately think “Fox!” even as it was small, and dark brown, and long and thin, and walking right at the water’s edge, and decidedly NOT a fox… My last night, camped (illegally) at Little Presque Isle, I heard coyotes. Except that I realized they didn’t have any of the yippy sound that coyotes usually do. And the pitch was lower. It didn’t have the haunting sound I associate with wolf song – but it certainly left me wondering.
Camping was challenging. Or rather, finding campsites. I didn’t try to predict where I would be each night – which meant that even where there were official campgrounds, I didn’t have the permit. The first night, at Seven Mile Creek, I discovered a wide beautiful beach with a steep hike up a dune and a 3 foot ledge at the top in order to get to the campground. I camped on the beach. At Muskrat Point on the south end of Grand Island, I camped in an actual spot with a picnic table, a fire ring, a tent pad and even a door-less outhouse. Day 3, there was no public land. I had local knowledge that told me where there might be a beach with no houses. Thank God for local knowledge – it was a great beach! My last night was at Little Presque Isle. It’s public land – very busy public land on a Friday night, one might add! Camping isn’t technically allowed though… I found a spot in the woods just off the beach. It was my favorite campsite of the whole trip. I ended the trip at Big Bay, where there was a free shower and a campground a few miles away. Some fisherman who were taking their boat out when I was taking mine out offered an invitation for dinner at their campsite. I accepted, and spent the night with three retired couples eating pan-fried walleye, garden grown tomatoes and cucumber, fish (whitefish?) and pork cooked over the fire, and rum and coke to wash it all down. It was so much better than the leftover pesto pasta that I was actually kind of excited about…
The trip was well within my abilities, but challenging nevertheless. With that 2:00 pm start the first day and about 15 miles to my first campsite, I had to average a bit over 25 miles a day after that. I’ve paddled that daily mileage and more, but not on consecutive days. It took its toll – I was really tired at the end of every single day, and moving slow every morning. I had a good weather report – south winds would provide protection for the whole trip. Coupled with clear skies, my forecast would mean safety. But on Day 4 and 5, a “chance of showers and slight chance of thunder showers” crept into the forecast. I started listening to the forecast – marine and regular – every hour to see if it was changing. Both days, the wind unexpectedly turned to the north for a while. If it stayed north and built, my protected paddle would become exposed quickly, with limited landing or camping spots. Day 4 had enough places I could land and camp, and even end the trip if I needed to; Day 5 had precious few places to land, fewer that looked like I could camp, and almost no places I could end the trip instead of hunkering down and waiting. While these were gorgeous paddling days, the stress level was higher as I constantly re-formulated plans, re-checked the weather and watched the water and sky.
By Day 5, I was excited to have “only” 20 miles to paddle on my last day – and went slower than any other day. I paddled around 20 miles in a little under 8 hours. (That’s traveling at LESS than 3 knots…) I eventually stopped caring – I had plenty of time to get to my take-out, and would be car camping that night.
It’s hard to say what my favorite part of the trip was. The beauty? The solitude? The accomplishment and sense of strength? The time away to re-set?
That time away to re-set is huge. By the last day, I found myself moving out of the here and now and thinking about the future again. The future of my non profit – my vision, fundraising plans, leadership development. After 10 years of programming I was thinking through – excitedly instead of beleagueredly — how to move in some of the directions we haven’t been able to yet. It’s always great to feel that motivation again, after getting pretty burnt out by the end of the summer.
I also found myself thinking about a paddling expedition next summer that is quite a bit longer than this one. After 10 years of programming, and a good 15 years of accumulating burn out, it’s time for the organization to be without me for a season. Next summer, Chicago Adventure Therapy will be run without me while I go on a much longer expedition. I plan to paddle the American West Coast, from Canada to Mexico. I found my thoughts turning to this trip at the end of the Hiawatha Trail. I was tired – traveling at less than 3 knots. But I realized, after several consecutive days of 25+ miles, that I will acclimate to 20 miles a day. And that if I plan 100 miles a week, I’ll have time for weather days and laundry days and rest days. Camping will be challenging to find some days, but I feel confident. The gear that I thought I needed to change out is in fact going to be the gear that I need to change out. I need to get my hands in shape before that long expedition – I was surprised and disappointed to find myself with blisters on both hands and very sore fingers.
This 120 mile, 5 day expedition along Lake Superior was a little bit of a test run for a 3 – 4 month, 1400 mile expedition along the Pacific Ocean. – And I feel good about it.
When I return from sabbatical, I’ll come back to an organization that can run without me – which means I can put time and energy into the new things we need to do. Things that will help youth continue to build outdoor skills and leadership, things that will help the organization become sustainable, things that put me in an entirely different role.
I’ll be raising money – starting right now – for Chicago Adventure Therapy on this expedition. I’ll be raising money for a year. Expenses for this expedition are not covered through CAT – so funds raised go solely to the organization to support programming. And to support the organizational infrastructure to allow us to become the next thing in our journey; allow us to become the next thing that our young people need us to be.
Thanks for coming along!