The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (or BWCAW) might not be somewhere anyone would instantly be able to pinpoint if they were given a map of the globe, but, after a Google search of “the best canoeing in the world”, it became the location of Ex PADDLING HAWK in August 2016.
Ex PADDLING HAWK was a KRH canoe expedition and to get to the BWCAW, Capt Churton (C Sqn), Lt Hatchley (A Sqn), Sgt Oakes (C Sqn), Cpl Feeney (A Sqn), LCpl Burns (B Sqn) and LCpl Leech (B Sqn), along with their instructor – Cpl Bell (C Sqn LAD) - crossed the Atlantic in the early hours of 21 August 2016. Arriving in Chicago in the late afternoon we picked up the hire car and began our epic road trip all the way to Minnesota. Our first stop was Duluth where we were promised a sighting of a giant rubber duck, but after arriving late we went straight to bed, postponing the hunt until the morning. When we got going again we drove down to the Harbour to be told that the duck had been deflated the day before. With our first disappointment behind us we drove along the shore road of Lake Superior up to a small town called Grand Marais for lunch before moving straight up to Hungry Jack Outfitters (HJO).
HJO was run by Dave and Nancy Seaton, a lovely couple who were somewhat surprised about how excited the boys were about a wifi code. HJO was set right on the southeastern bank of Hungry Jack Lake. We were based in two bunkhouses and after taking them over and having a swim we went out for supper nearby, excited to begin canoeing the day after.
The sun was shining as three canoes with two people in each launched off the jetty into the lake to learn the fundamentals of canoeing and, for LCpls Burns and Leech, the fundamentals of capsizing. Cpl Bell was in his own canoe, something he would later come to regret, and began his instruction. In the afternoon we went to the other side of the lake and everyone was looking like they had canoed lots before. Owing to the birthdays of three of us landing within two days of each other we took the opportunity of the evening to head down to Grand Marais and sample the local nightlife. After supper in the Gun Flint Tavern we asked the waitress where to go next. She suggested we go to either the Raven Tavern or the Raven’s Nest. As it turned out, both were within the same building – the Tavern being a bar just in another room and the Nest being upstairs. Despite this summing up the tiny town, everyone made the best of it and promoted the British in the best light, despite the ram skulls.
Another day of paddling came after our breakfast in the sun, this time through Hungry Jack Lake to the north. We went all the way up to the Canadian-USA border, to a route called steps. It gave us our first experience of carrying canoes in what would become a very regular occurrence – the portage. The method of placing the boats upside down onto your head is unique but in the end not quite as hard work as the trek that Nancy suggested to the top of the viewing point. It was worth the walk with its views into Canada, but much more worthwhile coming down for a swim in the waterfalls nearby.
The third day at HJO was the day we were to disappear into the BWCAW proper. We loaded the vehicle and headed down to the entry point at Cross Bay. Up until that point everyone had been asking every local they met whether they would see a bear or not. The definitive answer was certainly not, but lo and behold on the route down to the water, a black bear cub was spotted, exciting everyone. We unloaded all the equipment, including the 50kg+ bag of food for 5 days and launched off into a small lake that we had to meander around to the portage. This small lake – portage – small lake – portage routine was followed until we found our way into our large lake that was to be the location for camp one. We arrived on the lakeside, and after setting up our tents and hammocks we cooked a supper of chicken and mash on the open fire. A couple of boats went out at dusk to see whether there was ay wildlife and after seeing a few beavers and a moose they came back in and everyone went to bed quite happily tired.
Launching off our campsite the next morning one could be forgiven for thinking that Sgt Oakes and Cpl Feeney, boat 2, were off to Ibiza, but as it was due to be another scorcher it was appropriate enough. We pushed off and paddled some larger lakes throughout the day on our journey to the Frost River. Along the way we stopped at a lovely lunch location and Cpl Bell tried to catch some fish in what he had been told was “lake trout central”. Another blank, we headed off for the afternoon arriving in another series of smaller lakes punctuated by beaver damns which create two issues – the first is dragging boats over them or around them, and the second is stepping in leeches which clamp onto flip-flop clad feet immensely quickly in the stationary water. We arrived in the second camp to be greeted with a long drop of unique beauty and we soon had the fire going again for another great supper. While there wasn’t as much wildlife this time, owing probably to the wind carrying our noise and smell across the lake, a few of us still went for a paddle and Sgt Oakes almost capsized both him and Cpl Feeney as a beaver came a little too close.
Our next morning was covered by fog, which soon lifted, and we paddled down a couple of lakes that slowly got narrower until we found ourselves in the lily pad covered, meandering Frost River. The river wound its way through a large part of our route and we found it quite testing as the shallow water and weeds coupled with more beaver damns lead to slow progress. As one member of the Exped so eloquently put “it was like paddling through your Grandma’s living room!” We happily paddled with high banks around us and apart from a brief split callsign on a very long portage route we had a very successful day and found ourselves again in a huge lake. Just in time for our camp as we needed some lake water to purify for drinking. We landed this time in a glorious area with a huge flat rock that become our main campsite while we slept in the woods nearby. We got the fire going and as it was Saturday night we had our steak supper with glorious American hash browns, a real treat.
The final full day of paddling would land us very close to our take out destination and we began the day through some winding lakes with two huge portages. Thankfully the absence of the chicken, bratwurst and steak had lightened the food bag by a significant amount but it didn’t stop a couple of people “throwing” a flip-flop or two on the route. We paddled through a part of the BWCAW that had been stripped two years before by a wild fire and now looked incredibly green with stark bare trees above. The sun was beating down as we made our final passage towards our camp. Dave, our outfitter, had circled one on the map that turned out to have no trees useful to our hammocks and so after we paddled a little further on we found by far the best camp of out trip. Atop a huge rocky outcrop at about 8 meters high, we ate our final supper and watched the sun set surrounded by a huge storm in the distance. It was beautiful but unfortunately it only took about 4 hours for the storm to reach us. We laid in our hammocks swinging in the wind listening to the thunder while those in tents floated on their roll matts as the water piled down the rock. Nobody was too distraught as we packed and drank coffee in the damp the next morning. We were soon “on the road” for the last time and the weather thankfully cleared as we balanced on long planks which were the flooring for two of the final portages.
We met Dave and after being bussed back to HJO; de-kitting and showering we got underway for our journey south. Our final destination was to be Chicago but after a map recce we decided a stop in Madison and Wisconsin which was essential. We were proved correct as the previous birthday boys got themselves some bottomless pints, which could be easily distributed amongst the rest of the party. Despite our relatively questionable accommodation, everyone was in one place when we left in the morning and we took the drive to Chicago. Our arrival in the big city gave way to an evening of deep pan pizza, a few drinks, some Irish and Rocky and then our final day in country consisted of watching the Cubs play baseball.
We soon found ourselves scouring the nearby suburbs for gas before returning our hire car. It was after that we finally got onto our aircraft, but the delays began, leading to us spending 9 hours in Dusseldorf where we were meant to connect to another flight; finally we touched down in Blighty which was a relief to everyone 23 hours after starting their journey, but everyone agreed it had been well worth the effort of the travelling.
KRH Association and serving members of the regiment.