Gary Fiedler had dreamed about a canoe trip like this for a long time.
He had a taste of it in 2009, when he made a six-week trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park.
But that wasn’t enough.
So, this spring, he quit his job as an aircraft mechanic at Cirrus Aircraft and made a seven-month trip to the canoe country from March 20 to this past Sunday. Two-hundred-twenty days. Eight-hundred miles of paddling. Forty-thousand photos.
“There are some things that are more important than a job,” said Fiedler, 48. “It’s a life experience.”
But he was working in the woods, too. He and his wife, Dawn LaPointe, own Radiant Spirit Gallery, a photography business in Hermantown. They hope the photos and videos he made during his 220 days on the water will find markets, and they hope to put together a coffee-table book about Gary’s experience.
Coincidentally, the trip began shortly after one of LaPointe’s photos was selected for a collection of 50 photographs in the Smithsonian Institution’s “Wilderness Forever” exhibition celebrating 50 years of American wilderness.
Fiedler has been traveling in the canoe country for 25 years. He called his adventure “Inspired by Wilderness: A Four-Season Solo Canoe Journey.” Starting March 20, Fiedler hauled his canoe atop a home-made toboggan onto the ice of Fall Lake near Ely. Three feet of snow remained in the woods. One March night, the temperature reached 20 below zero. He burned half a cord of wood - including his toboggan - before open water came and he began paddling.
Portages between the wilderness lakes posed a challenge. Fiedler was packing 350 to 400 pounds of gear, including plenty of photo equipment. At each carry, he’d have to make seven trips hauling gear across and six return trips for more gear.
“That Basswood River portage (more than a mile long) killed me,” he said.
The portage took him seven hours to complete. Fiedler paddled 811 miles and walked 178 miles making portages in the 2 million acres of Minnesota and Ontario wilderness.
He had lost 25 pounds by mid-summer, gaining some of it back during the remainder of the trip.
This past summer marked the 10th anniversary of the year he suffered a brain aneurysm. The lure of the wilderness inspired him as he recovered from that setback, and he keeps going back. He could have made a long expedition but preferred to concentrate his efforts in the border country.
“It was a trip of experience, not a trip of conquest,” he said. “One of my philosophies is that to be a really good advocate for an area you have to know it well.”
Dawn handled the home front, running Radiant Spirit Gallery. She also visited Gary six times, resupplying him with food.
“I wouldn’t miss much until I went out to resupply him,” LaPointe said. “When I’d go out, we’d laugh so much. It was quiet at home.”
She wasn’t necessarily jealous of her husband’s trip.
“Only that I didn’t get enough wilderness,” she said. “I missed our two-week fall trip.”
Fiedler gives LaPointe a lot of credit for her roles on the trail and at home during his trip.
“She was instrumental in making this all go through,” he said.
The couple hopes the trip will bring attention to conservation and the value of wild places. Fiedler said the quiet times on this adventure allowed him to write, something he hadn’t focused on before.
“I did some good writing,” he said. “I found I could mix critical thinking with emotion.”
He spent a bit of emotion railing at the mosquitoes and blackflies, which were relentless in a wet June and July.
“I’d try to take photos a few times and would end up running back to the tent screaming,” he said.
Now easing back into civilization, Fiedler has plenty to do. Namely, editing those 40,000 digital images.
HIGHLIGHTS OF GARY FIEDLER’S WILDERNESS TRIP
- Number of nights on the trail: 220
- Number of resupplies: 5
- Total miles paddled: 811
- Total miles of portages: 13.7
- Total trips over those portages: 13 (7 with gear, 6 without)
- Total miles portaged: 178 miles
- Number of photos taken: 40,000
- Number of moose seen: 1
- Number of bears seen: 6
- Pounds of gear carried: 350 to 400
- Number of days he saw no other people: 78
- Wild blueberries consumed: about 4 gallons
- Weight lost: 25 pounds