This is a story about ten voyageurs including Pastor Dan Dornfeld and his father Dean Dornfeld, Chris Dickinson and his son Christopher, Todd Lemke and his son George, Carl Segaar, brothers Adam and Ben Youngs, and Allan Solum. We all left Paynesville Lutheran Church immediately after the second service sermon and piled into the fifteen passenger van along with our backpacks plus one canoe strapped to the top of the van, and we headed for Lake Saganaga at the end of the Gunflint Trail out of Grand Marais, Minnesota. Whatever guilt that Pastor Dan felt upon walking out of church in mid service was totally gone within the first ten miles of leaving Paynesville. Our destination was to reach Voyageur Canoe Outfitter by 6:00 p.m. which we did with minutes to spare. The outfitting staff was very helpful as they handed out permits and essential supplies. The three word principle “Leave No Trace” was pounded into our heads repeatedly during our orientation. We actually spent the first night sleeping in a bunk house in which the bunks were stacked three high. The only mishap was that Christopher’s sleeping bag fell off the top bunk onto the floor; luckily Christopher wasn’t in it at the time.
After an early rise, we were served a wonderful breakfast of pancakes, juice and coffee. This was to be our very last taste of civilization for the next four days. Then the paddling began; we followed the Sea Gull River up to Lake Saganaga which is a huge body of water populated by numerous islands and one customs station on the Canadian side of the lake. After entering the inlet of Saganaga, we headed westward and eventually set up camp on Loon Island for Dan, Dean, Adam, and Ben (party of four) and the rest of us (party of six) established our camp on Munker Island. We were forced to divide up because our permits allowed no more than nine people on a site. Each site consisted of a fire grate and an open latrine. Both of our campsites were somewhat elevated and thus benefitted from a constant southerly breeze which helped to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Shortly after we set up camp, a canoe party of two stopped at our site and asked for directions to Crane Lake. They had actually begun their trip on Lake Superior at Grand Portage so had already been on the water quite a few days with many more days and portages to go. I should mention that Chris caught his first fish-a nice size small mouth bass-which he skillfully dissected (filleted) and so within one hour of setting up camp we ate our first shore lunch of fresh fish; it was also our last. Fishing was moderately successful at best; one never wants to admit that fishing was poor.
Thursday, August 9
This is the day that could have become known as the “Saganaga Death Paddle.” Saganaga is an Ojibway word that means “Big Chief.” Because of its large size there are many inherent hazards to canoeists the least of which are sudden changes in the weather. Because the party of four and the party of six were camped on two separate islands, we were also on two different schedules. The party of six had gotten up earlier this morning and had paddled over to Saganaga Falls while the weather was still fairly decent. We were on our way back to our camp when we met the party of four on their way to the falls. We were already fighting strong headwinds and huge waves further complicated by intermittent rain showers. Lesser men would have turned back and taken shelter, but not this group of voyageurs. When the party of six finally made it back to their campsite, everyone was physically exhausted and so naturally laid down for a well earned nap. AND THEN THE EXCITEMENT BEGAN. The first indication of trouble was the distant sound of a yell from Ben. “Help! We need help. Hurry!” Todd, Chris, and I ran to our canoe and paddled as hard and fast as we could to Ben and Adam who had canoed to a nearby island before starting to yell for help. They told us that Dan and Dean had swamped their canoe somewhere “out there” as they gestured eastward. The adrenalin was pumping pretty hard by this time and we expected the worst. Luckily after a period of time (who knows how long) Chris spotted two heads bobbing in the water. It was Dan and Dean. Wisely they had their life jackets on but no longer had the strength to hang onto their canoe which by now had drifted away and out of sight. Adam and Ben joined in the rescue, and we were able to drag them behind our canoes to the nearest island where we were able to get them out of their wet clothes and into our dry clothes. They were both hypothermic and exhausted. We got a fire going, and they were able to warm up. The conversation afterwards told that they both thought they were going to die, and they were able to say things to each other that one only says when they think they are going to die. Thanks to the cool heads of Adam and Ben, it turned out to be only a rescue operation rather than a search and rescue operation. Thank God it had a happy ending.
Wednesday, August 10
We decided to relocate to a different campsite so that we would be closer to the exit point at the end of the journey (literally). We vacated our original sites on Loon Island and Munker Island early in the morning so that we could paddle when the water was still calm; we did not want a repeat performance of the previous day. After setting up camp on new sites, we decided to paddle a short distance into Romance Lake. Do you think we’ve been gone from our wives and families too long? Unfortunately the connecting channel was not navigable-so no Romance today.
Thursday, August 11
We broke up camp for the last time and paddled back down the narrows to the entrance/exit point at Voyageur Canoe Outfitters. The day was beautiful; the weather was perfect. The paddling was easy, and I heard many comments rephrased “I can’t wait until next time.”
So why would ten men forgo the comforts of home and family just to spend five back- breaking days in the wilderness? Was it just for the fun, or for the fellowship, or the food, or the frivolity, or the fascination with the Boundary Waters, or was it just because we could do it? Maybe it was all of the above.
Yes, it was fun but we didn’t realize it when we were paddling against gale-force winds.
Yes, the fellowship was priceless. I shall forever feel a strong bond with this group of ten men.
Yes, the freeze dried food was delicious, or was it that we were always hungry? If you like Italian spaghetti, green beans, and mocha mousse pie, or turkey stroganoff and apple D’lite, or Mexican rice with beef, you would definitely enjoy this trip. The chocolate peanut butter pie was everyone’s favorite-unfortunately no a la mode.
Yes, frivolity kept us sane-or perhaps a bit insane. I saw that we were beginning to lose our sanity when Christopher and George began giving proper names to all the critters that came into our campsite-names like Chip, and Dale, and Bugsy etc. All that the critters were doing was trying to share our food; after all that’s why we hoisted the bear pack up on a high branch every night. I knew we had really lost it one night when I was washing dishes at waters’ edge and started skipping the aluminum plates out to George who was further out in the lake for a swim bath. The plates cleaned up better than ever, and we all had a good laugh.
Yes, fascination with the BWCA plays a big part. The BWCA is absolutely pristine and unspoiled by man. There is no other place like it. Anyone who is from Minnesota should definitely experience the Boundary Waters.
Yes, “because we can do it” is the reason we do a lot of things in life. My paddling partner, Carl, and I were the senior members of this group and we proved to ourselves that we could hold our own with the youngest and strongest-at least when it came to paddling.
So what lessons did we learn on this trip?
You can’t paddle another man’s canoe for him.
God is present-everywhere.
Prayers do get answered.
Not everything that counts can be counted.
We have one life; we should live each day to the fullest and love life for what it is, and not lament when it will end.