Voyageurs of the Wilderness Highway

by Jonathan Chapman

By the last weekend of August the finish line of the summer stood within the sights of most students. But one last fling awaited eight adventurers before the season’s end.
In a matter of hours, the group embarked on a four-day trip via sea kayak in northern Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park.
The Center for Outdoor Adventure is a student-run organization in the St. Paul Student Center that sells and rents outdoor wilderness equipment and offers low-cost wilderness outings. I joined an outing of the center’s called “Sea Kayaking in Voyageurs National Park.”
This was my end-of-the-summer fling, and like the others on the trip, I was eager to escape.
The voyagers and I departed on the promising sunny Friday morning of Aug. 28. We crept away from congested state fair traffic, bound for the quiet northern waters that reside between Canada and the United States.
Within a few hours of close-conversing van travel, I realized I was in the company of some highly educated and diverse vacationers.
With two biology students, a wood and paper science graduate student, an epidemiology master’s student and an Israeli tourist visiting her brother at the University, I was excited about the upcoming fireside chats and the profound conversations campfires seem to encourage.
We began our kayak adventure late Friday afternoon after participating in a short crash course in paddling strokes and water rescues earlier that week.
Destined for Namakan Lake, about 25 miles east of International Falls, Minn., we set out on an old water highway. We followed the same path once heavily traveled by French Canadian voyagers paddling 25-foot birch bark canoes.
We spent the next three days on the lake, and with more than 17 miles of U.S. and Canadian shoreline, we had plenty of room to do our own style of exploring.
We were voyagers of the ’90s, paddling plastic kayaks packed full of modern outdoor supplies.
The boats became extensions of our bodies as we slipped inside them. In a surprisingly short time, we all felt equally acquainted with our new body parts.
These vehicles transported us through the wild and offered us sights, sounds and laughs that were as unfamiliar to us as we were to one another.
Activities on and off the water exhibited everyone’s willingness to work together. Whether setting up camp, cooking meals, or pumping multiple liters of water through the purifier, our group shared responsibilities.
In the kayaks — where the majority of the day was spent — each person mingled, paddling with their new companions.
However, some stayed dryer than others in their boats.
“I will not forget the water fights between Lorelei (Ernst) and Nick (Lauter),” said Greta Petersen, a senior in cell biology.
The kayaks came equipped with bilge pumps, which drain excess water out of the boats. These pumps made great water sprayers and quickly became water weapons once they were rolling over a kayak.
The midday lunch provided a much needed break. Everyone took the chance to get out of the boats and stretch and talk about the morning paddle, strong winds and the afternoon’s forecast.
Epidemiology master’s student Sharon Sinonton summed up the group with three words: camaraderie, humor and back rubs.
“The cohesiveness in the group was great. Everyone really came together,” she said.
Looking back, the four days abruptly came and went as most vacations do. What made this particular adventure unique was the wilderness we encountered.
Some saw loons and northern lights for the first time, two aspects which add to the allure of northern Minnesota.
We paddled close to 20 miles, enjoying warm and sunny weather.
Talking with my traveling companions after our return, I discovered an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm about many parts of our voyage.
Kris Halbacker, a New York native, and Yael Ron, an Israeli, said they’ll never forget sea kayaking, the wilderness expanse of the park and its wildlife, the exceptional weather and most of all, the people.

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