Four of us were one hundred sixty one miles into the two-hundred mile canoe trip. We were traveling the historic Voyageur’s Highway, a paddle route that follows the border between the USA and Canada.  We were along a stretch of the Granite River in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area when we faced a sudden change of plans. 

Sometimes the best laid plans go awry. A favorite joke punchline that had been guffawed at an earlier campsite was the conclusion, “It’s a whole new ballgame.” And now, in an instant, that line was no longer part of a joke. 

In his book Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales makes the point that there are no real accidents. Instead, he argues, there are a series of decisions that lead to the mishap. The decision to paddle this route set this unplanned moment into motion. 

Our average age was 68.  I had dubbed the four of us friends as “Boyageurs” when we pushed off on Crane Lake and paddled east with the hopes of reaching Lake Superior in sixteen days. I would be remiss to not acknowledge the tinge of trepidation about the fifteen miles of portaging required to reach the giant freshwater sea. Our planned sixteenth day would be an all-day walk as the last carry would require us to carry packs and canoes the final nine miles to Grand Portage. 

During the days leading up to the Granite River, we had experienced some unseasonably hot weather. The heat combined with more canoeists vying for campsites had us quickly changing our strategy. We began paddling early in the day, usually by 6 AM, and then stopping after a couple of hours and preparing coffee and breakfast. 

Traveling west to east, similar to voyageurs carrying canoes ladened with ninety-pound bales of furs headed to the fort at Grand Portage, we expected westerly prevailing breezes to help push us along. Instead for the first two days we had very calm and hot weather. Then the winds came but from the south and east. One day we were windbound for 3 hours before we could push on into a lessened wind.   

It was Day 11 and we pushed off before 6 AM into unusual early morning headwind under welcomed overcast skies. Our goal on this day was to paddle up the rest of the Granite River, making six portages before reaching Gunflint Lake where we had promised ourselves a break with a cold beer and burger at Gunflint Lodge before moving east on the lake. 

We had just completed the third portage of the morning, were loading packs into the canoes. Kurt stepped away to relieve himself. Hearing a loud grunt and a crash in the brush I called out, “Kurt! You okay?”

There was a long moment of silence followed by a forced “No.”

We ran into the woods and found him on the ground. 

“My hip is out.”

One of his two artificial hips had dislocated itself when he negotiated the underbrush by bending, squatting and twisting his upper body. During the entire trip, he had carried packs, set up the tent, tended camp chores with absolutely no problem but this simple move had put into motion, “a whole new ballgame.”

We were relieved when Kurt assured us that he was in no pain at all. 

We managed to help him to his good leg and we hobbled him out of the woods and ultimately into the stern of the canoe. It was a half mile paddle to the next portage and it was there that we realized we would not be able to get him up the steep, rocky trail. So we got Kurt comfortable and made a plan. 

 Duane and I would travel fast in an empty canoe, taking only a small pack with some snacks and rain gear. Nels would stay with Kurt with our packs. They had the tent, food, stove and other gear for spending the night if necessary. 

We hurried over the steep and rocky portage, paddled a short lake, made a second and a third portage around Blueberry Falls. Two lakes away from Gunflint Lodge, we pulled the canoe up the knee-deep fast water to avoid a last portage. Approaching thunder had us securely fastening our life jackets.  As we paddled out onto Magnetic Lake, the skies opened up and torrents of rain pounded us. 

I wondered if we were “bending the map” in jeopardizing our own safety. But I was not seeing lightening flashing anywhere so we kept our fast paddling cadence up. We were about to push through the narrows leading into Gunflint Lake when the rain stopped.  The east wind however, seemed to find strength. 

Gunflint Lake runs east-west and we had to cross a two-mile stretch on the west end of the lake. That meant that the waves had plenty of fetch to build to big swells punctuated with trains of whitecaps. We paddled hard, unable to switch paddling sides because we had to maintain an angle to reach the distant lodge. 

At times Duane rose above the swell in his bow seat and then loudly slammed into the wave again. We both had to employ stable brace strokes to keep the canoe from rolling too much. Without the solid ballast of stowed packs, I worried about all the water that our canoe carried as it sloshed back and forth. From a distance we could make out a person standing attentively on the Lodge dock. 

Finally the bow of the canoe eased up onto the Lodge beach. The person we had been watching, the dock manager hurried over to us. Watching through binoculars he figured we were not out for a recreational paddle in such seas. All the Lodge fishing boats were tied up and were rising up and down alongside the dock. It was as if the lake was breathing hard from the exertion. 

We explained our emergency. The dock manager immediately summoned Jacob, the Lodge Site Manager.  Soaking wet we went into the Lodge and ordered a hot cup of coffee and a thick burger. As a member of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Search and Rescue/Fire Department, Jacob laid out a map on the table. We pinpointed Kurt’s location and provided details of Kurt’s physical appearance, his height and weight and so on. 

We assumed a float plane would fly in and pick Kurt up, but Jacob said that the lake was not large enough for the local Forest Service Cessna planes. They would have to take a team of volunteers, traveling by canoe to get Kurt out.  

But within half an hour, a Forest Service Beaver aircraft was floating at the end of the Lodge dock. It had flown in from Ely, a twenty-five minute flight. Known as “the workhorse of the north,” the Beaver requires very little area for taxiing, landing and take off. Little did they realize that Kurt absolutely loves the signature throaty growl from its radial engine. 

Kurt later recalled his spirits lifting mightily when he picked up the song of the approaching plane.  He knew he would get a ride unlike any other Beaver flight he had taken prior to this trip.

At the same time five members of the rescue effort paddled in in two canoes to fetch Nels and to pick up our other canoe and packs. The three canoes paddled out through the serpentine low country of Larch Creek back to the Gunflint Trail.   

Within an hour of taking off, the plane was back and the crew was unloading Kurt and putting him on a gurney to the awaiting ambulance. He was hustled off to Grand Marais Hospital. But they were unable to set his hip so he spent two more hours in the ambulance aiming for Duluth. That evening at 11 PM his artificial hip and socket were married again. 

A bunkhouse room was found for the three of us remaining at Gunflint Lodge. We finished eating a delicious evening meal and the Lodge chef came out of the kitchen and asked, “Have you heard how your friend is doing?” No news yet. We told him we would be back for breakfast the following morning.  The chef highly recommended the “Trail Hash.”

And suddenly it was morning. The hash was fantastic and so was the chef’s  generosity when he brought a boxed piece Gunflint Lodge blueberry pie to deliver to “our friend.” 

It was just after noon when we pulled up to the front of the hospital.  Kurt walked out with an aw shucks grin and joined us for our ride back home. 

And now there is talk of completing a job undone. The “Boyageurs” will return to Gunflint Lake to pick up the old Voyageur trail and finish the trip later this summer.