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Kayakers circumnavigate Lake Superior, make history

Lexi Bruno (left) and Erin Denny stopped to pose for a picture next to a Lake Superior cliff on a calm water day. The duo took short breaks throughout their paddling days to check out geographical features like this colorful cliff. Photo by Lexi Bruno

Looking out over a calm Lake Superior, Lexi Bruno and Erin Denny concentrated on what seemed to be flashing red lights on a distant horizon. From their beach campsite in Port Wing, the two friends argued as to whether their glimpse of the flickering horizon was merely a mirage or if the perceived lights were those of Duluth's sky-scraping telecommunications towers atop the hill.

"It was hard to tell if our minds were playing tricks on us," Bruno said.

If their eyes were correct, the towers could have been Bruno and Denny's first glimpse of Duluth in almost three months. They left the city at the beginning of the summer, paddling from the mouth of the Duluth canal with the intention of kayaking around Lake Superior, starting with the North Shore.

Though Port Wing was a two-day paddle away from Duluth, seeing the lights gave them a boost of energy.

"Once we saw Duluth, we were antsy to get back," Bruno said, referring to the red lights.

The next morning, Aug. 19, they packed their kayaks for the last time and set off to paddle the 41 miles to Duluth. As they glided along Minnesota Point, the sky became darker and the city brighter. With the end in full view, they counted down their last quiet moments together.

"We talked a lot about our trip — everything that happened," Bruno said. "It was a strange feeling to be so near Duluth."

When it came time to turn into the canal, it was 11 p.m., the water glassy and the Aerial Lift Bridge fully lit. As they paddled between the two piers, groups of friends, family and strangers cheered from both sides. It was the most people they had seen since they first embarked on their journey.

"We wanted it to be a bit more intimate and to be able to calmly and cooly come back," Bruno said. "But our friends and family really wanted to be there."

Bruno's mom Jill Bruno packed her car and hurried the two hours north from Foley, Minn., as soon as Lexi texted to say they'd finish within a few hours. Minutes before Denny and Bruno entered into the canal, Jill and the rest of her family jumped out of their parked car nearby.

"We ran down to the water just as they were coming in," Jill said. "We were very excited to see them."

As Bruno and Denny paddled beneath the illuminated bridge, its deep, bellowing horn marked the end of their 1,300-mile journey. After landing their kayaks on the bayside beach, friends and family congratulated the two University of Minnesota Duluth grads on becoming the first documented all-female kayak team to circumnavigate Lake Superior.

"I don't think it's hit me yet," Denny said. "I don't feel like this is real life yet."

After 76 days on the lake, Denny and Bruno didn't quite know what to after greeting all their friends and family at the beach. Both were in shock.

"We were out of our routine," Bruno said. "We were fumbling with our gear and zoning out."

Jill noticed their mental absence.

"It took them a little while to unwind," Jill said. "I don't think either one of them knew what it meant to be done."

In the morning, Bruno and Denny cleaned up their camp on Park Point and split ways — Denny to her home in Chisago City, Minn., and Bruno to Foley. All that's left to finish from their trip is a summer's-worth of grungy laundry and the scheduling of trip presentations they plan to give to schools, women and youth groups around the state. While Denny said the purpose of the trip was for the adventurous experience, she also said it was to inspire women and young girls to break limiting stereotypes and pursue incredible feats — hence the title of their trip, "Make Waves."

Though they've yet to see the effects of Make Waves on their intended audience, Denny said she and Bruno watched their message spread around the lake.

"People would come up to us on the beach because they'd heard we were coming," Denny said. "They were really excited and curious to meet us."

Throughout their trip, Denny said they only met a handful of people, but each person was inspiring, helpful and generous. Strangers gave them advice on where to stay or cooked them fresh meals. One man from Thunder Bay delivered all three of their Canadian food caches at various points along the lake.

Denny, who said she set out on the trip frustrated with the unhappy people in her life, said these acts of kindness meant a great deal to her.

"It made me really cherish people more," she said.

The journey

Denny and Bruno averaged paddling about 25 miles per day. They snacked on granola bars on the water and camped in flat areas on shore when tired. Every two weeks, they'd resupply food. Jill mailed boxes of dehydrated and shelf-stable food to restaurants and cafes throughout the Michigan portion of their trip, and, during the Canadian stretch, to the man in Thunder Bay. They spent all but 10 days paddling, only stopping if family and friends were visiting or if the lake was thick with fog or frothing with white caps.

During bad-weather days, they'd wait on shore for safer weather and nap in their hammocks or dance to Denny's portable music player. Bad weather accounted for six full days and six half days. The worst of it came when they were in Pukaskwa National Park, almost halfway through the journey. For nearly a week, they'd pack up camp, get on the water and paddle for a couple hours before the waves would force them to shore.

"We'd sit in our wet clothes and watch the waves," Bruno said. "They were 5-6 feet rollers."

After a couple days of making little progress, Bruno said the weather started to take a toll on their mental health. "We were feeling pretty blue," she said. "It had been a month since we saw our families, it was windy and we had missed the Fourth of July."

While it was difficult to stay positive, Bruno said they found ways to make each other laugh.

Denny recalled one afternoon in particular:

"I was missing fireworks," she said. "So Lexi pretended to be one. She was bouncing off rocks and making noises. It was pretty funny."

Moments like this reminded Denny why they were out there.

"All you have to ask yourself is, 'What would you rather be doing?' Nothing. It's not that bad to be sitting on the beach with your best friend," she said.

Both agreed they couldn't have picked better paddling companions for the trip. They never got bored of each other.

"We did not shut up for the 76 days we were out there," Bruno said. "Every day there was something new we would talk about."

What now?

Since they've finished, both have been busy catching up with friends and arranging jobs for the next year.

Bruno's life, at least for the next year, is in line. Come fall, she'll move to Grand Marais to work as an outdoor educator.

As for Denny, plans are still in the making and adventure on the forefront of her mind.

"I want to do some shorter camping trips," Denny said. "Hopefully they are still as meaningful as they used to be for me and I don't have to go on a summerlong trip to get that same effect.

"All I know is I don't want to waste any more time doing what doesn't make me happy."

To learn more

To get information about Denny and Bruno's trip presentations as their scheduling develops, follow Make Waves' website or email