“Again! Again! Let’s do that again!” I can see my inner child hopping, clapping, squealing with glee.
That inner child keeps popping into my thoughts while reflecting on our honeymoon eight years ago. It wasn’t a “normal” honeymoon. It was 25 percent beautiful, peaceful, and secluded. It was 75 percent grueling, cold, sweaty, smelly, scary, exhausting, and absolutely unsexy. But we’re not “normal” and I’m guessing you aren’t either. So you’ll probably agree that it was the perfect recipe for a 110 percent awesome AF adventure.
On a summer night in 2011, we were drinking on our front step in Minneapolis, dreaming up new adventures when Will proposed a honeymoon. After three years of adventuring together the wedding seemed incidental. A honeymoon was the perfect excuse for the longest trip we’d ever done.
On October 13, 2012, we were hobbling painfully along Minnesota State Highway 61 in blackness. We had chosen not to finish the last half mile of the Grand Portage trail with our 220-pound load.
A glowing billboard promised Grand Portage Lodge and Casino was just two miles away. We hid Will’s grandfather’s aluminum Grumman Canoe and most of our gear. I have never been so content to painfully shuffle to a garish and mediocre hotel, but it had hot showers, beer, fries, and toilet paper!
We had just paddled and portaged 246.5 miles over 19 days through Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness, following the Canadian border to finish with the legendary Grand Portage trail, terminating at the great Gichigami (aka Lake Superior).
Voyageurs National Park rests on the occupied land of the Cree, Monsoni, and Ojibwe. The park is 340 square miles; more than a third of that is four lakes with 1,245 miles of jigsaw shoreline. We began on the western side of the park, on Lake Kabetogama in Black Bay Narrows, with five days of easy paddling in perfect autumn weather in front of us.
This should have been glorious newlywed bliss. Instead Will’s face was filled with snot and his body fatigued from a common cold. We considered abandoning our plan but Will wanted to push through.
By day six we had made it to the BWCA and Will felt better. We were delighted to leave the motorboats and people behind to paddle the quiet land of loons. It is quintessential evergreen and granite northern forest nestled in and threaded through with luminous waters. It feels anciently epic in a subtle benign way.
On day nine that changed. A winter storm kept us pinned down for two days. Our tent began to leak. The travel became endlessly challenging, with scary wind, and innumerable infuriating portages.
Portages are how you move from one lake to another or get around an obstacle like a beaver dam or a waterfall. The distance is measured in rods, which is the length of one average canoe, or 16.5 feet. Sometimes they are forgivingly short, just four rods. The mother of them all is the 2,720 rod Grand Portage. Whatever the distance, a portage requires not falling in the lake or breaking an ankle while unloading, hiking with, and reloading the canoe. In the best circumstances, it’s a feat of well choreographed strength and balance. In the worst, it’s a tangle of gear and flailing bodies.
In the next 10 long, hard days, I learned about Type 2 Fun. Type 1 Fun is classic fun: cocktails, movies, and lounging on sunny beaches fun. Type 2 Fun is when it’s miserable at the time, but fun to tell the story later. Type 3 Fun is when it never was fun and never will be fun.
There were times when it was snowing, or we were stuck, or I was tired and scared, and I would say, “This must be Type 3 Fun!”
And Will would say, “No, Type 3 is when a bear steals all our food and we starve for days. Type 3 is where we capsize and lose everything. Type 3 involves helicopters and body bags.”
“Fine.” I felt very near my fun threshold. “This is type 2.7!”
Which, as it turns out, makes the perfect story.
Our penultimate day began with the stunning beauty of padding through tinkling ice under the bluest sky, with four trumpeter swans circling overhead. Their calls reverberated through the crisp air and deep quiet of the coming winter.
Then, the next 48 hours turned out to be so massively hard they dwarfed the previous 17 days.
Pigeon River appeared on our map as a perfectly uninterrupted blue squiggle with no campsites along its nine miles, so surely it would be swift and simple. We should have paid more heed to the little box that said, “POSSIBLE PORTAGES ARE NOT MARKED ALONG PIGEON RIVER. USE CAUTION NEAR RAPIDS AND FALLS.” Let’s say no more here other than we escaped a Type 3 Fun tragedy.
On our last day, we arrived at Gichi-onigaming the “Great Carrying Place” also known as Grand Portage. Two thousand years ago, Indigenous Nations developed this eight-mile essential link on the route from the deep arctic, to interior winter hunting land, to homes on the great lake, and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and beyond. In the 1700’s French Canadians dominated the fur trade. These Voyageurs were the men who would travel for 14 hours a day, each portaging 180 to 630 pounds.
Surely, we could cover the eight miles in four hours, we thought. But after 20 grueling minutes we stumbled to a halt. Each of us was loaded with more than half our body weight. It would take seven crushing hours of willing every muscle to Herculean effort to cover 7.5 miles. Which is how we came to end the adventure, hobbling along a dark highway toward the siren call of burgers and beer.
It was the least romantic, most hilariously absurd honeymoon we could have had. It was perfect for us. For what else is a honeymoon other than time to celebrate a commitment by being intensely together? For some, that intensely together time involves room service, but for us it means taking turns providing “emergency snuggles” to soothe frazzled nerves after epic challenges.
While it may have been 75 percent miserable with tears and illness and filth and struggle, the memories are nothing but wonderful. This is the life we wanted to build together; a life filled with stories we are excited to tell over and over again.
I know it worked when, after eight years of marriage, my inner voice is delightedly clamoring, “More! More!”
We did do more and we have so much more adventure ahead.
Kym Zest is the owner of Zest Ed. She coaches enthusiastic recreational endurance athletes to achieve their goals while teaching them about the process of training. Her husband Will coaches outdoorsy people to be more prepared for their wilderness adventures. When not racing or adventuring, they live in an old apartment in Minneapolis with their kitty Pigeon, where they enjoy books, beer, and bike and run commuting year-round. Read the whole honeymoon story at midwestwithzest.com and learn more about their business at zested.net.
As someone who loves canoeing and who has also been stuck in a snowstorm, I enjoyed reading your article.
Hello from Winnipeg!