They spent 13 days together, paddling the canoe country along the Minnesota/Ontario border, from Crane Lake on the west to South Fowl Lake on the east, just dad and daughter and water.
They got up before sunrise, drank cowboy coffee, paddled hard every day and even tried to put out a forest fire.
And across those 220 miles or so of wilderness lakes and hardscrabble portages along the route of the Voyageurs, Mercedes and Shaun Floerke of Duluth discovered they make a pretty good team.
Shaun, 56, is now the president and CEO of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation after leaving a longtime post as a state district court judge in Duluth in December. Mercedes, or Mercy as dad calls her, 17, is heading into her high school senior year, starting to decide what college to attend.
They had a few days of wind, but had more days of hot, calm, flat water, even on some of the sprawling border lakes like Basswood and Lac La Croix. They averaged about 3 mph while paddling and covered more than 20 miles on most days.
They left the rest of the family at home, hammock-camped with no tent to keep their packs lighter and ate mostly snacks during the day and quick but hearty meals of pasta, rice and couscous in the evening.
“Pretty simple, store-bought foods. We dehydrated some of our own vegetables and chicken,” Shaun noted.
“It was definitely an adventure,” Mercedes said. "It wasn’t something to write a book about. It wasn’t scary. … It was more of a mid-level adventure.”
“I think of it as a big exploration; places we hadn't paddled before,” Shaun added.
It was, they agreed, a great vacation.
They were struck by how empty of people Canada’s half of the wilderness was, with the border still closed and access by Americans prohibited during their trip that ran from June 26 to July 11.
“It seemed whenever we would look to our left (into Canada) we never saw another person the whole way. It was kind of surreal,” Shaun noted.
The brought along a Garmin inReach satellite communication device and even used it to report a lightning-sparked forest fire on the Ontario side of Crooked Lake near Curtain Falls. (They tried but couldn’t put the fire out and it was still burning at last report.) While some folks have criticized the devices as too much technology for a true wilderness experience, the Floerkes now politely disagree.
“I’ve made more than 30 trips or more into the wilderness and I’d never do it again without one,” Shaun said.
When (and not if) they make another big trip, their plan is to go later in the year, Mercedes noted, to avoid bugs and have cooler paddling temperatures.
“I’d do it in the fall,” she said. “And I’d bring more Pop-Tarts.”
“Breakfast of champions,” Shaun added.
They said they had surprisingly few disagreements along the way but that, late in a day of paddling, mental fatigue sometimes set in.
“She gets grumpy,” Shaun noted.
“I just stop talking,” Mercedes said. “But we got along pretty well I think.”
Their trip actually ended a bit short of their original goal. Shaun had developed a bad sinus problem and was losing strength, so they ended the trip at South Fowl Lake. This fall they plan to go back and canoe the Pigeon River and make the Grand Portage to Lake Superior to finish the Voyageurs’ route.
Any regrets? Just maybe that they hadn’t done more big trips like this in the past. But it sounds like more are definitely in their future.
“Best for me was that my 17-year-old would even think about spending 13 days in the wilderness with her dad,” Shaun noted. “She’s mini-me, so often that means we don’t get along. It was cool to team together and experience this beautiful historical route together. … I wish I’d have done something like this with each of my kids. Stupid dad, working too much.”
The News Tribune sat down with the Floerkes after the trip and asked them to talk about their adventure:
News Tribune: What made you decide to take this trip together, just the two of you?
Mercedes: We originally wanted to take this trip from the top of the Quetico down to Lake Superior but with COVID and the border closing we had to change our route. We have been talking about a trip like this ever since I was little and now, with me graduating high school next year, this felt like a good final hurrah trip.
Shaun: We were going into Quetico through Beaverhouse years ago on a family trip. We stopped at the ranger station to get permits. It was late in the season and I got talking to one of the rangers. He commented that he was getting ready to “paddle home.” That phrase captured me. … I began thinking about a paddle across the Quetico from Atikokan to Ely or Grand Portage. … That became our discussion, to do something that. I knew with Mercy finishing her junior year the time was short to be able to do it. With Quetico closed this spring and no sign of that changing … we switched to the border route.
News Tribune: It was a pretty extensive trip. How long had you been planning the details?
Mercedes: We had been planning small details for a couple of years leading up to it but we started officially planning (about) one year earlier.
Shaun: I’ve done enough wilderness tripping that it’s kind of second nature for me: Pick a path, buy food, throw everything on the tarp, pack and go. We pulled the permits this spring and got maps about the same time. The maps we used were good and bad. We bought the National Geographic set which has the advantage of getting you the whole BWCA in two maps but the disadvantage for us was that they put a thick blue line along the border and a red line along the Canadian border and the Canada side is greyed out mostly so a lot of what we were paddling was partially obscured by the line.
News Tribune: Were you both experienced paddlers before this? Did you have much wilderness experience?
Mercedes: My dad has more experience than me in the wilderness but ever since I was very little my family has taken trips out to the BWCAW or Quetico almost yearly as well as other camping trips here and there.
Shaun: Yes. We’ve done many trips in Quetico and the BWCA, summer and winter camping. We raised our family in the wilderness.
News Tribune: Did you have assigned duties in camp or on portages or cooking meals?
Mercedes: At camp, we started having a routine down a couple of days in, no assigned tasks just simply knew the order we needed things done. A little later in the trip, we started having a strong morning ritual partly because we wanted to start getting out of camp early to beat the heat and partly because we were being covered by mosquitoes.
Shaun: I had to carry the canoe every damn time! By the last third of the trip we were one-tripping portages — the food bag was lightening all the time — so I carried the canoe and kitchen pack and Mercy double-packed the gear front and back. We kind of shared duties. I’ve learned to keep it simple when you’re moving. One-pot meals, snack food while paddling for breakfast and lunch, jet boil coffee, etc. It makes the experience of nature deeper I think, the simplicity.
News Tribune: The BWCAW has been extremely busy the past two seasons. Did you run into many people? Did it seem crowded to you?
Mercedes: For the first half of the trip we only ran into around 3 groups a day but then once we hit Basswood we started running into more groups until we got into Knife River and Knife Lake. On that day we saw around 60 canoes. After Knife Lake, we saw one group a day for the rest of the trip.
Shaun: That was what was so weird to me. I was expecting tons of people, wondering about getting sights. The only part that was busy was coming through the Basswood River, Moose, Birch and Knife. The busy (areas) seemed primarily like people from camps, lots and lots of groups there. Other than that it was oddly quiet in the nonmotorized lakes. We didn’t see a single person a few days of the trip, generally averaging a group or two a day. Lac Croix, Crooked, Gunflint, North, South, Mountain, Moose, almost no one. I wondered if that’s because we were on big water, really north, or is it quieter this year? It was eerie that the entire north side of our view, Canada, was completely empty the entire way, not a soul.
News Tribune: How were the bugs?
Mercedes: The bugs were bad until the last couple of days. We had to go to bed early and wake up early to try and avoid them.
Shaun: They weren’t great but not terrible. Mosquitos would descend in late evening in force. Daytime was fine. Biting flies some depending on where we were, wind, sun. We got into a rhythm of going to bed (hammocks) right when they hit, around 9, and getting up at 4:45, paddling by 5:15-5:30. It gave us the sunrise, beautiful glass paddling time, got us going before big wind (though there was no real big wind the whole trip) and got us into camp by 1 or 2 with 18-21 miles covered. Then we had afternoon/evening to set up, swim, read, nap, cook, and enjoy. It worked well. Some of our family members won’t appreciate this type of schedule going forward.
News Tribune: What was the most difficult part of the trip?
Mercedes: I think the hardest part of this trip was keeping a positive mindset. I learned that when your body is tired and hot and your mind has lost the urge to seek curiosity it is so easy to want to give up and simply stop working. I learned through this trip that giving up was not an option. There was only one way to get to the end and that was through and I had to figure out different ways of keeping my mindset positive and engaged.
Shaun: The portages right before Iron were bad. Swampy, heat of day, bugs, hard to find the second one. I got super sick out there with sinus/cold. Mercy thought I was going to die. That made it challenging. We were planning to do the Pigeon River and the Grand Portage to finish. Our miles were dropping some with me being sick and with more portages on the eastern half. We decided to finish at the (east end of the BWCAW) end and not go beyond. We’ll go back in the fall and do the river and portage. That was a hard decision but turned out right.
News Tribune: What was your favorite part of the trip?
Mercedes: My favorite part of the trip was spending quality time with my dad and learning how to feel confident in the wilderness. I loved walking away from this trip with the gained knowledge of how the wilderness works and how as humans we can work alongside that.
Shaun: Beautiful waters — Lac La Croix, Pictured Rocks on the Basswood River, Knife, North/South. … We stopped near Table Rock and swam in the hot sun around lunch. As we started paddling toward Pictured Rocks it started pouring rain. We knew it would pass and there’d be sun after so we just threw on jackets and kept paddling. The storm broke and the sun came out as we paddled up to Pictured Rocks. It was incredible, beautiful, sublime, really awe invoking. The flow of paddling is my vibe, my Zen. Seeing otters playing. Beavers, amazing animals. I love the chance encounters and conversations with people out there. I know some people avoid that, thinking that other people ruin the wilderness experience. Sometimes those serendipitous conversations are just the best. For me, they don’t detract from but enhance the experience. … The best part though for me was time with Mercy, working together, making decisions together, working the maps together. We kept flowing along, deciding in the moment what to do, sharing in what we were seeing. Priceless opportunity.
News Tribune: Would you do it again? Together?
Mercedes: I would do it again together, plus with other family members who would want to do it.
Shaun: Yep, we’re already talking about it! The boys in our family want in! Thirteen days was a good start for me, I want to do longer trips in the future. We’d do it in September I think in the future. Shorter light but fewer bugs and the colors of fall would be sublime to experience. I have generally preferred Quetico because of the solitude and avoided the BWCAW except in winter. We did Seagull, Sag, Red Rock, Alpine last July and could not believe how busy it was. The solitude (with some exceptions – primarily the motorized areas and connected lakes, beauty and history of this route was incredible. We’re talking about maybe figuring out how to open it up and invite/guide for other daughters/dads who wanted to do it.
News Tribune: Any advice for other father/daughter paddlers considering a similar trip?
Mercedes: My advice would be that it can seem very daunting to go on big trips with all the risks and planning that has to go into a big trip but it is so worth it. In the end it turns out not to be as daunting as it felt in the beginning. I would also say don’t rush yourself. It is important to go through nature at a pace that you can observe and feel what you want to feel.
Shaun: Maps for both/all is an absolute must. Decide what works for both of you. This was a big paddle/moving trip and that’s what we wanted. It wouldn’t work for everyone. Try to keep expectations in check, go with the flow, see what comes your way. Don’t be locked in, be open to what is, what the hour brings. Take good snacks!
Digging deeper into history
Shaun Floerke suggests some reading options for folks wanting to learn more about the border route history and the Voyageur’s trail across the BWCAW:
“The Voyageur's Highway: Minnesota's Border Lake Land,” by Grace Lee Nute
“The Voyageur,” by Grace Lee Nute
“Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community,” by Brenda J. Child
“Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative," by Ignatia Broker
“Talking Rocks: Geology and 10,000 Years of Native American Tradition in the Lake Superior Region,” by Ron Morton and Carl Gawboy
“Canoeing with the Cree,” by Eric Sevareid
“Distant Fires,’’ by Scott Anderson
Everything written by Sigurd Olson