Sunday, November 22, 2009

Water Voyageurs

There are two kinds of adventurers -- those who go hoping to find adventure and those who go secretly hoping they won’t

On July 17, 1930, two high school buddies from Minneapolis, Eric Sevareid and Walter Port, boarded their canoe on the Mississippi River, near Minneapolis, and headed south. Soon, they turned right on the Minnesota River and traveled north-northwest, all the way to Big Stone Lake in South Dakota, the source of the river.

They navigated onto Lake Traverse and followed the Red River north, eventually reaching Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. Then they went northeast through uncharted territory of rivers, lakes and hostile (sparsely inhabited) terrain, and ended up on the shore of Hudson Bay.

The entire journey took 14 weeks and covered 2,200 miles.

The following year, Eric Sevareid enrolled at the University of Minnesota and received his B.A. degree in 1935. He wrote a book titled CANOEING WITH THE CREE, recounting the trip, and later became a TV broadcaster, alongside Walter Cronkite, on the CBS Evening News, where he earned two Emmy Awards. He died in 1992.

Sevareid's account of the journey is filled with peril and misery, including constant rain, dangerous rapids and lengthy portages where they had to haul their canoe and provisions over soggy tundra to the next body of water.

"Day and night, the drizzle did not cease for so much as an hour. The woods oozed with water, every leaf held a pond, every dead twig and log was rotten with wetness. We had paddled a canoe twenty-two hundred miles, had survived, and had proved nothing except we could paddle a canoe twenty-two hundred miles."

Maybe they didn't prove anything to the rest of the world, but they probably proved something to themselves.

In 1970, I was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota and had five weeks to kill between summer school and fall quarter. So a friend of mine, named Kent, and I decided to take a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota and Ontario, Canada.

We were just a couple of restless pool hall fixtures in search of an adventure. I was bored and Kent’s train of thought was missing a caboose. I figured we’d make a good team.

We started out on Gunflint Lake, on the border of Minnesota and Ontario. After two full days of paddling upstream on a river system connecting a string of small lakes, we made it to a tiny island in the middle of Big Saganaga Lake where we were stuck for three more days because of heavy winds and turbulent waters.

When we finally got off the huge windy lake, we headed west along the Rainy River to Knife Lake where we made a wide loop up into Canada for nine days, then came back down across the U.S. border into a laborious grind from lake to lake and over difficult portages, some of which were several miles across rugged ground.

During our entire trip, which started after Labor Day when summer vacationers were scarce, we only ran into another party of voyageurs on one occasion. We met them in the middle of a lake as they were traveling in the opposite direction. Basically, the two of us were alone in the wilderness, far from the troubles of the world.

All in all, we covered a few hundred miles and it took 26 days to return to civilization.

It was a grand experience, but not one Kent or I wanted to repeat soon. Besides the physical challenge of hauling a large, heavy canoe and well over two hundred pounds of provisions (tent, sleeping bags, spare clothes, food, etc.) over rough footing between lakes, there was also the challenge of getting along and pulling together.

Sevareid reported that he and Port had gotten into a campfire wrestling tussle over their differences, no doubt prompted by the stress of the journey and the lack of a way out of the situation without completing the trip.

Kent and I had plenty of disputes, but were too exhausted to get into a physical altercation. Instead, we alternated between teamwork and bickering. We were stuck with each other and needed to finish what we started before we ran out of food, so we kept plugging away across water and land until we eventually made it back to square one.

In the end, we proved nothing, except we could paddle a canoe a few hundred miles. We also learned that mosquitoes never sleep, Kent couldn't read a map, and neither one of us was very easy to live with.

A life without adventure is like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, without the peanut butter and jelly. If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.

Quote for the Day -- “Tenacity is a pretty fair substitute for bravery.” Eric Sevareid

Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and is easy to get along with once people learn to worship him. His blogs appear on several websites, including

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