Over the past summer Erik Simula and his dog Kitigan paddled a 1,000-mile route from Grand Portage to Duluth, to the Mississippi River and the US-Canadian Border, then back to Lake Superior in a handmade birch bark canoe.
By Erik Simula
Native Americans and Canadian Voyageurs mastered birch bark canoe building and wilderness travel throughout northern North America. Although largely forgotten, a few of us keep the ancient traditions alive.
From April 22 – August 7, 2009, my dog, Kitigan, and I paddled a 1,000-mile route from Grand Portage to Duluth, the Mississippi River, the US-Canadian Border, and back to Lake Superior, encircling the Arrowhead Region of Northeast Minnesota. The 45-pound, 14-foot birch bark canoe I used, I hand-built in the high-end Ojibwe-Anishinaabe old tribal form using local white cedar wood for framing, split black spruce roots for lashings, white birch bark for the hull, and pine resin mixed with charcoal and bear grease for sealant. The canoe performed well, with occasional pitching needed on the seams to keep seepage to a minimum.
My outfit consisted of a food pack of dried trail food for 30 days, with three pre-cached food resupply points; a camp pack with tent, bedding and clothing; a kettle pack with cookware and repair supplies; a day pack which doubled as a seat; a fishing pole; and two paddles, which when tied into the canoe made a portage yoke. My main diet consisted of oatmeal, coffee, dried fruit, nuts, wild rice, fish and tea. Kitigan carried her own dog food, water bowl, blanket and harness in a dog pack.
Kitigan is a 40-pound, two-year-old female sled dog of Alaskan Husky and German Pointer breeding. She is a great companion, a guard dog, and good in the canoe. One of her main jobs was holding the canoe in the water by leash while I loaded or unloaded packs. She carried 20 pounds each portage and helped me “line” rapids by pulling the canoe upriver from shore in harness.
Departing on Earth Day, April 22nd, with a heavily laden canoe from Grand Portage National Monument, the warm send-off from family and friends soon turned into an incredible adventure. Lake Superior challenged me with snowstorms, shelf ice, swells, waves, winds, fog and currents, but revealed a multitude of wildlife and landscapes. I travelled in rhythm with nature, making distance when calm and resting safely on shore when seas were rough. Loons and eagles came close to observe, often leading the canoe for long distances. I camped each night under the canoe or in my tent, with Kitigan by my side. The 150-miles from Grand Portage to Duluth took 20 days, although windbound eight days, and was the most dangerous leg of the Arrowhead Journey.
The Savanna Portage route from Lake Superior to the Mississippi River, known as the Northwest Trail, was the most difficult section of the trip. Although rugged, it was once a common route prior to 1870, when railroads replaced it. A tremendous wetland full of wildlife and waterfowl, it is now protected in Savanna Portage State Park. I crossed hundreds of beaver dams and deadfall trees, navigated overgrown portages by compass, narrowly escaped an encounter with a mountain lion and an enormous black bear by night-paddling in starlight, and crossed the continental divide with an 18-mile, double-pack, double-carry, encountering thousands of wood and deer ticks, black flies and mosquitoes.
The highlight of the trip was on the Mississippi River, where I stopped in Grand Rapids to see my daughter, Anna, graduate from high school. My lowest point was on the upper Bigfork River, where I became lonely and scared of the dangerous rapids and powerful downriver currents.
My favorite scenery was the canoe country from Rainy Lake to Grand Portage, known as the Voyageurs Highway. I hiked to rocky ridgetop vistas, overlooking beautiful boreal forests and waterways as far as the eye could see. On Basswood Lake, a huge fish knocked loudly on the bottom of the canoe! Fishing was very good, the weather stimulating and Natureʼs essence in the northern wilderness nourished my soul.
The Arrowhead Journey was more than a canoe trip of a lifetime. The ancient traditions of building the birch bark canoe and wilderness living are a passage through history and a reminder that nature and wildlife are fragile yet important aspects of human culture.
Published in NORTHERN WILDS October – November 2009 issue.