At some point on the 9 miles along the Grand Portage Trail, with a 69-pound canoe burrowing into my shoulders, I stopped noticing the bites of mosquitoes and black flies, the squish of muddy water in my boots, and the sting of sweat and sunscreen in my eyes. Instead I focused on putting one foot in front of the other and getting to the next pose — that's French voyageur lingo for a resting spot — so that I could get a brief break before starting on the next leg of the march.
The thought crept into my mind: Why am I doing this? And why am I subjecting my 15-year-old son to this agony? Because, I told myself, we had to finish what we started last summer.
As the parent of three, I've been known to drop the occasional aphorism on my offspring. "Don't take shortcuts" is a favorite. "Finish what you started" is another, often uttered when confronting a half-loaded dishwasher or a partly mowed lawn.
In that spirit, my son, Aidan, and I drove north last month. In the summer of 2019, we'd paddled and portaged a significant part of the Voyageur's Highway, the historic trade route of long ago, and chronicled our journey in the ''Boundary Waters Passage'' series in the Star Tribune Outdoors Weekend section. Yet after more than 40 miles of paddling and a dozen portages, we'd left the route just before the most grand portage of all.
I couldn't let go of the idea.
Now, laden with canoes and packs, we were back to tackle the Grand Portage corridor, the trek from the Pigeon River on the U.S.-Canada border to Lake Superior. I knew it would be arduous, but I did not grasp that it would be one of the most physically and mentally challenging feats of my life. Nor did I anticipate what it would reveal about my son.
Our co-voyageurs this time were Bob Timmons, editor of Outdoors Weekend, his son Nick, 24, and our beloved yellow Labrador retriever, Crosby.
Readers might recall that at trip's end in 2019, Aidan was standing by a clear pool of water on John Lake, begging me to let him cast for one last smallmouth bass.
This year we launched our canoes at the end of Arrowhead Trail, where we'd pulled out last year, and after a short paddle we entered the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and claimed a premier campsite overlooking that very pool. Well before noon, Aidan and Nick were knee-deep in the lake and had smallies on their lines.
Meanwhile, Bob and I got a fire going. We caught up on life and discussed the tumult in the Twin Cities and around the world, though that world already seemed a thousand miles away. I grilled venison backstrap for dinner with a stunning sunset as a backdrop. We fell asleep full and content to the tremolos of loons and hooting owls, realizing our great privilege — in the embrace of a million-acre wilderness when so much turmoil swirled elsewhere.
The following morning, we took a day trip to East Pike Lake via a 170-rod portage. Our attempts to catch lake trout were fruitless, but our boys caught more smallies and in a clear backwater we watched a juvenile loon swim under our canoes on its own fishing expedition.
As I fell asleep that night in my tent, Crosby curled up by my side, I knew something that the rest of the group did not: where we were going tomorrow was not on our map.
In 1935, in one of his first public speeches, Sigurd Olson's talked about hiking the Grand Portage. He confessed that if he hadn't known that the fur-trading voyageurs preceded him on the route, it would have been merely a "brushy trail." But knowing what he did, "the place was invested with the halo of romance."
I felt more trepidation than romance when we set out the next morning down the Royal River and into wind whipping South Fowl Lake. After climbing to the top of a majestic palisade for lunch, we endured a portage for nearly an hour so foul with overgrown brush and deadfall that we were spent when we emerged at the Pigeon River. And yet our day was only half over.
Now off the map, we had only a vague idea how far we had to travel (8 miles or so?) on the Pigeon. We filtered some drinking water from the river and climbed into our canoes. For the next five hours we alternated between blissfully paddling downstream and walking our canoes through knee-deep rapids, a grueling and exhausting experience. We followed a cluster of a dozen trumpeter swans down the waterway, and turned one corner to discover a cow moose and her calf staring at us. As we watched, they swam across the river and disappeared into Canada.
Bob and I had been warned to listen for the roar of Partridge Falls and to take out of the river before we hit them. As the miles flowed by, we confused the sound of the wind blowing through trees for the sound of the torrent. Finally, the thunder of white water was unmistakable. I hugged the U.S. shore looking for a spot to take out until I finally saw a landing, 20 yards before disaster.
Weary and happy to put the paddles down, we made camp at a perch just above the falls. With little energy for cooking or dish duty, we settled for packaged chicken rolled in tortillas and Clif bars for dessert. And still our hardest day lay before us.
The next morning, not long after sunrise, we portaged around the falls and canoed the last couple of miles to Fort Charlotte, a spot steeped in history. We were at the northern terminus of the Grand Portage and the beginning of our 2,880-rod path to Lake Superior, which the Ojibwe call Gichigami.
When the voyageurs plied these waters in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Grand Portage was an essential gateway — in the autumn, they'd hike for miles into the wilderness with their supplies for trapping season and winter survival, and in the spring they'd march out, loaded with pelts bound for Europe. They followed a trail that had been cut by the Ojibwe.
The voyageurs portaged 90 pounds per man. We divided everything we had into four loads: a 69-pound canoe, a 40-pound canoe, a 50-pound gear pack on back with a 20-pound kitchen pack on front, and a 50-pound gear pack with two paddles in each hand. We agreed to stop every half-mile to catch a breath and rotate cargo.
Before the trip, I'd disciplined myself not to think too much about the Grand Portage. I didn't pore over maps or calculate how long it would take. I didn't want to psych myself out. I knew it would be hard and that the challenge would be as much mental as physical.
I hoisted a canoe over my head and began, knowing that I had hours of effort ahead of me.
We traveled at first about 2 miles per hour, including rests, but after a couple of hours our pace had slowed and we decided to stop every 15 minutes. After another hour, and slowing further, we dug deep and shortened our bursts to 10 minutes.
As I trudged through ankle-deep mud with either yolk pads or pack straps torturing my shoulders, I cataloged my life: What, if anything, had I ever done that was more difficult than this? Maybe the day I summitted three 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. But I was 30 then, and I'm now 52. Mainly I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, and praying that my son would make it.
At each rest stop, I came in last, the tortoise of the group. I dropped my load, put my hands on my knees, and looked at Aidan. He sat for a moment or two without talking, then stood up, took on his freight, and set out for the next leg.
And on one of those legs it occurred to me: Last year, Aidan was a boy. Now Aidan is a man.
I don't just mean that he grew half-a-foot and his voice dropped. I mean that last year he could not have done the Grand Portage. Now he can. And he did, without complaint.
I wasn't there to see Aidan's face when he emerged from the Grand Portage near Lake Superior five hours after we'd begun, because I was well behind him. But I know the sense of accomplishment will reside within him the rest of his life, as it will within me.
If you can do that, I told him on the drive home, you can do anything.
And remember, I said: finish what you've started.
Tony Jones is the author of the Star Tribune's award-winning series Boundary Waters Passage and the host of the "Reverend Hunter Podcast." Reach him at ReverendHunter.com.