Man paddles 2,200 miles to follow Minnesota's old fur trading routes
By mid-afternoon, he knew he was in trouble. Surrounded by the Minnesota River valley, whose expansive flood plain had pushed towns along its path far from its banks in an effort to avoid its wrath, his cellphone out of range with no one to call,...
By mid-afternoon, he knew he was in trouble.
Surrounded by the Minnesota River valley, whose expansive flood plain had pushed towns along its path far from its banks in an effort to avoid its wrath, his cellphone out of range with no one to call, his entire body in pain, Mark Swanson crawled into his tent and waited for it all to end.
It wasn’t until the next afternoon, he recalled, he realized he wasn’t going to die.
“It can be terrifying, there’s no question,” Swanson said, seated comfortably in the commons of the Red Wing campus of Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical, the sounds of pool balls crashing in the background. His trip was complete.
The trip, conceived from Swanson’s desire for adventure and love of history, consisted of a loop of rivers commonly used by native tribes and voyageurs during the fur trading days. He traveled up the Mississippi River, across the state on the Minnesota River, up the Red River into Canada near Winnipeg and across through the Boundary Waters to Lake Superior and back down through the cities.
“There’s no way to experience what they’ve experienced, but you can try,” Swanson said of the early travelers along these waterways. “It’s better than sitting in the office.”
Swanson, currently in his 30th year as a computer careers instructor at Southeast Technical, completed his 96-day, 2,200-mile trek over the course of eight summers, averaging about two weeks of paddling per year.
With the inability to schedule large chunks of time to devote to his adventure, Swanson said he needed to find another way to complete his trek, which he did.
“You can find your own adventure, you don’t have to keep doing what we’ve been doing forever,” he said. “You can find something that’s a big adventure without taking a year off from your life. You just have to figure out some way to fit it in.”
Another caveat to his trip – which wasn’t entirely avoidable – was he wanted something stimulating, but not a threat to his general wellbeing.
“I wanted an adventure where I didn’t have to risk my life,” he said.
Swanson said he didn’t want to overplay the danger, but anytime someone spends a significant stretch of time outdoors, certain situations are unavoidable.
Swanson, who was joined during a couple different stretches by his son – which he said were the highlights of the trip – described the change in geography along the route, from the sheer rock faces along the bluffs bordering the relatively crowded Mississippi to the vast flood plains of the near-vacant Minnesota and Red rivers, all the way through the Boundary Waters to the Grand Portage and the sea-like shores of Lake Superior.
The Brule River proved especially difficult to navigate, leaving Swanson appreciative of the work of those who did it first.
One foot forward, trying to find another rock for a foothold, the rocks covered in a moss, finally finding solid footing to push forward, pulling the boat up river.
“It’s like walking on greased bowling balls for 40 miles,” Swanson recalled.
And the wind, whipping along the open plains of western Minnesota, bringing with it storms and lightning, making the dangerous parts of the trip the moments waiting on shore for the wind to die down and the lightning to pass.
Through it all, however, Swanson pushed on, driven by history and desire to complete his goal.
“The history really is complicated and fascinating and the Minnesota area is kind of interesting because we got all these continental divides running through here,” he said. “I just gained so much respect for what people used to accomplish in the old days.”
Swanson said he has yet to find any information that would lead him to believe this specific route has been completed, though he is quick to point out that extensive records on the subject aren’t easy to come by.
As far as he can tell, he is the first to navigate this route.
Swanson isn’t a stranger to adventure, with a couple years in the Peace Corps many years ago, to taking the family on a trip down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, taking trips on his bike and other, less extensive paddling trips.
The days of these kinds of trips, however, have come to an end.
“Whatever kind of adventure I get involved with, it won’t be anything like this,” he said. “This is pretty much it.”