Published in MUSHING magazine, September/October 2010 issue.
The Arrowhead Journey – In the spring and summer of 2009 I paddled over 1,000 miles around the Minnesota Arrowhead Region in a birch bark canoe with my companion Kitigan, a two-year-old female Alaskan Husky sled dog.
I bought this dog as a yearling from musher John Stetson in Duluth, Minnesota in the spring of 2008. She turned into a solid puller in my team as well as the heroic canoe dog af my 2009 Arrowhead Journey.
I named her Kitigan (Anishinabe/First Nation for garden/open field) in honor of my Ojibwe-Anishinabe friend Margaret Plummer-Steen, the gardener at Grand Portage National Monument, who grew up in the bush, mushing with her father’s trapline team; after the beautiful area of Kitigan, Ontario, near Kapiskasing, a favorite haunt of famous Canadian wilderness man, Grey Owl; and after one of my first, nearly identical, sled dogs named Kitigan acquired from mushing mentor Dave Olesen, in Reliance, NWT, Canada. It’s an honorable name for such a remarkable dog.
Kitigan is a 45 pound female of Alaskan Husky and German Short Hair Pointer breeding. I live in the woods, and all summer let my twelve sled dogs run free daily, which gave Kitigan valuable interaction with older dogs. Her first winter in harness, she pulled in my dog team guiding BWCA (Boundary Waters Canoe Area) Wilderness day tours out of Bearskin Lodge, off the Gunflint Trail near Grand Marais, Minnesota. Her small size, light coat, willingness to please, and gentle personality made her the right choice for this expedition.
Travelled by indigenous peoples for thousands of years using birch bark canoes in summer, waterways of the Arrowhead Region of Northeastern Minnesota, United States, bordered by Lake Superior and Ontario, Canada, is a premier canoe wilderness, and my home of 45 years. A wilderness guide and bark canoe builder, I decided long ago to paddle around the perimeter of the Arrowhead.
We departed on Earth Day, April 22, 2009, from Grand Portage, Minnesota on Lake Superior, with Kitigan and an expedition outfit in my hand made 14-foot birch bark canoe. My daughter Anna was graduating from Grand Rapids High School, on the Mississippi River, near the mid-point of the route, so I paddled to her ceremony, via the St. Louis and Savanna Rivers. We arrived in Grand Rapids in time for Anna’s graduation then paddled home via the Big Fork and Rainy Rivers, and the international border route, arriving back home on Lake Superior on August 8th.
The first 150-miles on Lake Superior took 20 days, although windbound eight days, and was the most dangerous leg of the journey. Kitigan and I both felt vertigo from rough seas and savored windbound, rest days. She didn’t eat much the first week, but thereafter had a healthy appetite each day. She ate Redpaw 32/20 kibble as a main diet, and also ate peanuts, dried apples, granola bars, wild rice and fish. When it was below 40F, she routinely wore a wool blanket-coat and slept on my life vest for insulation. We encountered shelf ice and April blizzards. On Lake Superior beaches we slept under the open canoe, whereas the rest of the trip we both slept in a small tent due to insects. A traditional birch bark canoe is all natural and extremely buoyant, being made of cedar wood framing, white birch bark for the hull, and spruce root stitching. It handles, feels, and smells wonderful, however it leaks whenever rocks crack the pine pitch sealant on the seams. For Kitigan, this meant getting wet and Lake Superior water is frigid. I bailed water with a sponge, re-pitched seams daily or as needed, and elevated the dog off the canoe bottom with a boat cushion and laden poles to disperse cargo weight and allow dryer payload. We learned to stay dry and warm.
During the canoe trip, Kitigan’s duties included guarding the food pack and outfit; packing her dog food, bowl, blanket, and harness while pulling me across portages; and holding the canoe in water by leash while I loaded or unloaded packs. She also alerted and protected me by growling at black bears and on one tense occasion, a stalking mountain lion!
Kitigan helped line up rapids by pulling the canoe from shore in harness connected by a 30-foot rope. I often ran on shore and deflected the loaded canoe from rocks. Along clear riverbanks, I sat in the canoe and steered while Kitigan pulled us up current. This gave her exercise and saved me considerable effort. Critical moments in class I-II rapids wading upstream around sweepers required strenuous pulling in waist deep whitewater, partially swamping the canoe. Difficulties were countered and we endured. The ancient Savanna Portage across the continental divide, connecting Lake Superior to the Mississippi River, was the most strenuous section of the trip. An excerpt from the trip journal:
ERIK’S JOURNAL: EAST SAVANNA RIVER
5/23/09 Day #32 45-65 o F Calm Clear/Sunny
Most remote section of East Savanna River. Crossed (portaged around) hundreds of deadfall trees and beaver dams. Lots of wildlife: geese, ducks, hawks, eagles, beavers, otters, mink, deer. Lost four hours in afternoon by taking a wrong (confusing) creek and backtracking. Saw two beautiful trumpeter swans, huge and white. Made camp just before dark on the only high ground in sight. After my tent was set up, a huge cougar (mountain lion) slowly approached, stalking me. It came within 15 feet and crouched low, ready to spring attack. Kitigan growled low and we had a stand-off for over a minute. I remained calm, non-threatening, and held my ground, pistol in hand. Finally, the cougar slowly turned away and left us. Uneasy about sleeping there, I quickly, but quietly, took down the tent and packed up, listening very carefully at five second intervals. As I secured my last Duluth Pack, I heard a large animal approaching. What I at first thought was the cougar returning turned out to be an enormous black bear (I estimate over 600 pounds). The Big Bruin came in loud and fast, scenting my food pack. I retreated to the only nearby tree where I staged by packs and held Kitigan close on leash. When the bear came within 20 feet I hollered “WHOA!” The bear kept coming. I fired a warning shot into the air with my .357 magnum and he stopped just 15 feet away from us. He glared, swaying his huge head and neck back and forth. I remained calm and again held my ground. Kitigan growled, her hackles straight up! After another lengthy stand-off, the big bear half-circled us, then reluctantly meandered off.
I quickly slogged my packs 100 feet through the swamp to the canoe stashed at the river’s edge. Now dark, we were exhausted and very hungry and the canoe had been leaking and needed pitching. I lit a candle to melt spruce pitch and seal the open seams on the canoe hull, all the while watching my back and Kit’s protective behavior (she was “all nose and ears”). By 11 p.m., we were back on the East Savanna River, a series of connected beaver ponds among a vast savanna of marsh. The temperature was dropping and heavy fog set in. My headlamp was near useless in the dense fog and I slowly paddled up current, recognizable by watching the direction of the underwater reeds alongside the canoe. It was a disorienting navigational maze of marsh. Wet, cold and hungry, I night paddled until 3:30 a.m., partly to stay warm and awake. Kitigan kept nodding off in the canoe, and we crossed 30-plus more beaver dams, unloading packs and dog, delicately sliding or lifting (on jagged dams) the empty canoe then reloading to continue. The sky cleared and I could see the North Star to navigate. The river narrowed to 2-3 feet wide and 2 feet deep, still with significant spring high water current. With wet gear and clothing becoming frozen and with no high ground available, I tried to sleep on a tall hummock of swamp grass, under my canoe, in my hip boots, wet socks, damp clothes, and now frozen rain coat- which I’ve termed “shiver camp”…
ERIK’S JOURNAL: SAVANNA PORTAGE
5/24/09 Day #33 28-65 o F – Wind Calm, Sunny – Savanna Portage
Awoke at 5:00 AM in a hypothermic-hallucination state, hearing an undefined yet wonderful symphony-like chorus in surround sound. Focusing to shake my confusion, I realized that the beautiful sounds were trumpeter swans singing at dawn. Determining my location, I navigated by compass, bushwhacking west-southwest through thick brush. This was the end of the six-mile long portage trail, although today unidentifiable and completely overgrown. So thick was the brush that I would drop my canoe and packs in three, 20-foot intervals, leapfrogging the outfit to maintain direction. I always left Kitigan to guard the food pack, given the abundance of bear sign, fresh tracks, and scat.
ENTERING SAVANNA PORTAGE STATE PARK
At 9 a.m., after 4 hours of “crashing,” I came upon a ditch that I recognized as the eastern end of the maintained portion of the Savanna Portage. Here I breakfasted and dried gear before resuming the long carry. I double-packed, double-carried until dark, camping at the Continental Divide, 4 miles into the portage but 12 miles of actual distance covered due to the double-carry. Hundreds of wood ticks, dozens of deer ticks, mosquitoes thick.
5/25/09 Day #34 40-55 o F – Wind Calm, Overcast – Continental Divide
Finished remaining two (six) miles of Savanna Portage. Very sore and tired but in good shape overall.
5/26/09 Day #35 40-55 o F – Light Rain – Rest Day
Layover day at Savanna Portage State Park. Kitigan and I both slept well.
5/27/09 Day #36 45-60 o F – Cloudy, Wind NE 5-15 mph – Big Sandy Lake
Resumed travel down West Savanna Creek, Prairie Flowage, and across Big Sandy Lake. Each September I harvest wild rice here. Portaged around US Army Corps of Engineers dam and paddled down Sandy River one mile to confluence of Mississippi River, then up this mighty river. Made 15 miles. Saw many geese, ducks, turtles, herons, beavers and eagles. Mississippi River has high water and powerful fast current. Poled upriver along bank more than paddled. A terrific feeling to have crossed the Savanna Portage/Continental Divide and entered the Mississippi River!
*** Historical Note: According to local historian Larry Luukkonen, author of Between the Waters, the last officially recorded excursion to complete the Northwest Trail (Lake Superior to Mississippi River via Savanna Portage) in a birch bark canoe was made in 1878 by Minnesota State Geologist Newton H. Winchell, 131 years ago. Very few others have traveled this route since that time.
The abundant wildlife interaction was inspiring. We travelled quietly, respecting nature, in keeping with wildlife. Loons and Bald Eagles came very close to look us over, and often led the canoe for long distances. Near the mouth of the Vermilion River, dozens of northern pike escorted us along the shore of Crane Lake, surfacing in front of the canoe. A huge, ancient Basswood Lake Sturgeon came from the depths and beat the bottom of the bark hull like a drum! Perhaps remembering when birch bark canoes were the only watercraft on the lakes? Kitigan and I always remained calm, with mutual trust we would protect each other.
Kitigan learned the commands “in” and “out” extremely well. I used this for quickly getting in or out of the tent or canoe. Because of repetition, she learned to obey hand gestures alone. She also became very comfortable in the water, and often had to wade shallows. It was great to see her overcome initial hesitations. The sun’s heat caused fatigue, and precautions were necessary to protect Kitigan from overheating. I used a wet, white towel to cover her body and a bandana bonnet over the dark fur on her head. I wore light colored, long sleeved clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, and leather gloves to protect myself from sun and overexposure. Throughout the 108-day trip, we hiked to many ridge-top vistas, explored points of interest, and were occasionally taken in by locals for shelter from thunderstorms. Kitigan is friendly and behaved well in differing situations. We bonded tight and mastered canoe travel, portage, and camp routines. Her presence made me feel secure, thwarting loneliness. On the last day of the trip, after the nine-mile Grand Portage back to our starting point on Lake Superior, she put her front leg on my lap with a most rewarding facial expression indicating she knew we were back home.
The 2009 summer voyage remains fresh in my mind, as an incredible canoe trip made even more enjoyable because of my dog, Kitigan. We figured out ways for efficient travel and really depended upon each other. We pushed the limits of life and were enlightened on a daily basis. While it was hard to end such a great trip, I’ve applied many of its aspects to daily kennel life to keep training and mushing exciting and rewarding!