Crippling Grand Portage

18 days and 238.5 miles we were finally done paddling. We had paddled and portaged in heat, illness, stillness, wind, snow, rocks and ice. There was just a measly 8 miles to walk to hot showers, cold beer, and toilet paper. We had made it to Grand Portage.

The 90 pound bales of fur

Grand Portage is a national monument.
Wikipedia says that “As early as 2,000 years ago, Indian Nations probably used Gichi-onigaming, or “the Great Carrying Place”, to travel from summer homes on Lake Superior to winter hunting grounds in the interior of Minnesota and Ontario.” From the late 1600’s to the 1800’s French Canadians dominated the fur trade.  Grand Portage was an essential link on the route between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.  The voyagers were the men who actually hauled the furs.  They would travel for 14 hours a day.  Portaging 180 pounds was minimal, 360 was not terribly unusual.  Legend has it that a 6’5 freed slave La Bonga carried 7 bales (630 pounds) for a half mile.  

Reenactment from Fort William Historical Park found on

We began by re-situating our gear. Paddles and PFDs (life jackets) were lashed to the insides of the canoe. Weight was reconfigured between our packs. We also attempted to get ourselves properly clothed for a hike.

My pants and boots were completely soaked from the day before. I removed my feet from their tall boot pools and tipped the water out. I stripped off my useless rain paints then the fleece layer, then the wool layer. In a misty cold rain I stood above the wet muddy leaves on a picnic table. Standing there nearly naked I rung out what I could. After putting it all back on again I returned to my boots. The pools had partially returned. I tipped them over but nothing came out. Looking back in I watched as water slowly reappeared in the foot bed. Again I tipped them over and this time shook them violently. Nada. Pools still reformed. The fleece lining inside the neoprene kept catching the water as it tried to drain out. When upright it would collect again in pools at my feet. The perfect waterproof paddling boots that had kept me so warm and dry were now hopelessly waterlogged. They would be unfortunately heavy for the 8 mile hike. It turned out to be so painful, I quickly stopped noticing my feet.

We heaved our loads onto our bodies and set out to conquer. It was before noon, surely we could cover the 8 miles in 4 hours. Not 20min in we stumbled to a halt. The pain was intense. In addition to the 80 pound canoe Will carried the largest Duluth Pack. He probably was carrying at least 130 pounds on his shoulders. I had the smaller denser pack on my back, with a reloaded food barrel on my front. My total around 90 pounds, we were each carrying over half our body weight. After another 20min we still had a sense of humor. It was comically slow going. We had energy for a picture. It turned out to be the last picture we took.
IMG_0854 The weight of my packs was distributed not only to my hips, but also to a tumpline over my head. My arms would then hold up whatever they could.

The 15-20min segments of pain quickly chipped away at our souls. Not even 2 hours in to what became 7 crushing hours we threw down our loads and “made a loud, roaring noise of Sadness and Despair…” – Winnie The Pooh (A.A Milne)

I am not talking about the nagging discomfort of a blister. Or the heavy burn of hard exercise. This was searing pain of a body at it’s breaking point. It wasn’t just the weight cutting into flesh. It wasn’t just nerves pinched or lungs compressed. Pain done to me by the boots, or the packs was terrible but easier to accept and push through. What felt so crushing was willing every muscle to continuous Herculean effort. Once loaded, if any muscle stopped responding it could be tragically injuring.

We sat right in the middle of the trail for lunch. Twenty minutes later I found my muscles so seized with fatigue and strain Will had to help me back to standing and loaded. He wasn’t doing much better.

Four hours later we heard the sound of traffic. Around 6:30pm the trail dumped us next to the shoulder of highway 61. Complete relief was quickly dissipated by new problems. We weren’t actually at the end of the trail. The end with the building and parking lot was another 1/2 mile further. We really didn’t want to do another 1/2 mile. We really didn’t want to camp there. I sat down on the food barrel as we assessed our options. There was a billboard advertising Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, “2 miles.”  We had been imagining something less exciting.  Like a bed and breakfast, or even just a small crappy motel.

not the billboard, but you get the idea.

It was dusk by the time we had figured that the casino was our only hope of the hot showers, cold beer, and toilet paper that had been our siren call since it first snowed 10 days ago.

It was dark by the time we hid the canoe and some gear in the woods. With headlamps on and cars whizzing by, we began the 2 mile trek hand in hand.
Will asked “What’s wrong with you?” as I hobbled along side him.
“I don’t know. I just don’t work anymore.” I said with a smile.
I couldn’t stand up straight and my legs couldn’t seem to coordinate properly. But the walking was easy and the garish glowing billboard felt so promising. We laughed at how absurd we must have looked. It must have looked like Will was leading a crippled child alongside a highway. We laughed at how hard the last few days had been. We laughed at how much we hurt, and how offensively dirty and smelly we would be to the check in person at the hotel.

Next installment: No Pictures of Purgatory 

Previous installment to the honeymoon adventure: Evil Pigeon River

To read from the beginning you could start with my first installment A Beginning where stewing in my tent on day 17 I share how it was all dreamed up in the first place.  Or And We’re Off where the trip actually begins.


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10 Responses to Crippling Grand Portage

  1. Pingback: Evil Pigeon River | Midwest With Zest

  2. Richard says:

    Congratulations on completing the Grand. Your honeymoon and the Grand will be an accomplishment that you will cherish forever. The two of you are part of the 1% to not only accept the challenge but to hammer down and complete the epic journey.

    • Kym Zest says:

      Thanks! It seemed really sad to us that so few people seem to even walk the trail. As a day hike from historic buildings and visitor center on Lake Superior it would be quite manageable. Actually, as a trail run it would be awesome.

  3. Kate says:

    Self-refilling boots…that sounds like a curse from a Harry Potter book! I’m amazed that you still managed to make the story inspiring despite the tremendous suffering involved. Type 2 or Type 3 fun? 🙂

    • Kym Zest says:

      They do sound like cursed Harry Potter boots!
      It was totally Type 2 fun. The more time that passes the more clear what kind of fun it was. Getting injured or needing rescue would have made it type 3, and it was really close. But it’s the best story, and I’m so proud of it, so type 2 it is. Thanks for reading. It’s fun to be able to share it.

  4. Pingback: No Pictures of Purgatory | Midwest With Zest

  5. I was thinking of your honeymoon last week as I sat on ice in my canoe, I and the lake half frozen. I paddled and drifted while taking pics and video of the beaver who seemed as fascinated with me and my canoe as I was with him. I was cold, but knew my hot bath was only a few steps away. As I read your story and its end, I wonder — would you do it again?

    • Kym Zest says:

      Like many hard miserable things, it just takes enough time for some amnesia to kick in. At the time I was like “Never, ever again!” About a year later Will hatched an even more ambitious trip. It’s on the bucket list 😉

  6. Pingback: Steeling Myself: Top 5 List of Pain and Fear | Midwest With Zest

  7. Pingback: Camping Thwarted | Midwest With Zest

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