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Redux Routes

Paddle in the wake of explorers, fur traders and wilderness visionaries on waterways that have only improved with time By Conor Mihell

The Singing Wilderness Few had a greater impact on the protection of wild places in the 20th century than Ely, Minn.-based writer and naturalist Sigurd Olson (1899-1982). His 1956 collection of sage and lyrical stories, The Singing Wilderness, immortalized the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) and Canada’s Quetico regions. Olson fell in love with Minnesota lake country as a canoe guide and avid angler in the 1930s and ‘40s, seeking out hidden waters to explore and call his own. Later, when recreational canoe tripping was in its infancy in the 1950s and ‘60s, Olson pioneered bold routes in northern Canada. But all along, this Border Country remained closest to his heart, a sentiment shared by thousands of canoeists today. Redux route: With more than 2,000 lakes and 1,200 miles of canoe routes, it’s easy to see how paddlers like Olson have filled lifetimes exploring the BWCA and Quetico. Olson’s favorite lake was Saganaga, a sprawling, island-pocked body of water along the historic voyageur route tracing the current Canada-U.S. border. It’s accessed via the Gunflint highway in northern Minnesota. From Saganaga the options are endless: Head west, following Ottertrack and Knife lakes to the big waters of Basswood Lake and Lac La Croix, or clear customs and venture north into the quieter lakes of Quetico. (Info, guided trips:


Photo: Layne Kennedy


Photo: Mike Leeds

The River of No Return Whitewater paddlers ought to thank the late U.S. Senator Frank Church, the father of the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, for legislation to preserve free-flowing rivers. Closest to Church’s heart was Idaho’s Salmon River, a whitewater river bisecting a 7,000-foot canyon and critical habitat for bighorn sheep, mountain lions and gray wolves. Lewis and Clark were turned back by the Salmon’s Class II-IV whitewater in 1805, but prospectors braved the river during a gold rush in the 1860s. A few daring entrepreneurs learned to run boats loaded with provisions and mining supplies through the whitewater. Those boats could not return upstream, and the Salmon became known as the river of no return. In 1980, Congress designated a 2.3-millionacre wilderness, and later gave it a name honoring the Salmon’s gold rush legacy and their colleague: The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Redux Route: The Lower Gorge of the Salmon’s Main Branch starts at Pine Bar and runs 52 miles to the confluence of the Snake River, in the dark depths of Hell’s Canyon. The takeout is downstream on the Snake at Heller’s Bar. Besides spectacular scenery in some of the deepest canyons in North America, this four- to five-day trip boasts campsites on sand beaches and abundant Class III whitewater. (Info: 86


Photo: Rob Zaleski

Powell Country A hard-ass, one-armed Civil War veteran named Major John Wesley Powell led the first team to descend the turbulent waterways that have since become America’s best-known rafting rivers. The 1869 Powell Expedition traced the Green River from Wyoming to the Colorado River, and continued downstream through Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon to the mouth of the Virgin River. The stout whitewater of the Colorado challenged Powell’s team to the brink of death. Beginning in Cataract Canyon, the crew was forced to portage their wooden dories around every rapid—backbreaking labor that continued until journey’s end. Of course, the stagnant head-pond that flooded Glen Canyon’s billowing whitewater now bears Powell’s name, but 46-mile Cataract Canyon within Canyonlands National Park still flows unregulated, unlike the Grand. Redux Route: Largely on account of the significant stretches of flatwater (read: 60-plus miles) that bookend the big stuff, it’s way easier to score permits to paddle Cataract Canyon than to play the competitive Grand Canyon lottery. Yet the scenery and whitewater, when you reach it, is on par with the Big Ditch, including 23 Class III-IV sets within a 14-mile section. The National Parks Service issues 4,000 permits a year, with no application deadline. (Info: 88


Photo: Peter Bower

The Voyageur’s Highway Two hundred years ago, the polished granite shores of Ontario’s French River echoed with the chansons of the voyageurs, those jaunty and tireless canoemen who were the engines of the Canadian fur trade. The French was the first downstream leg of the historic trade route from Montreal to Grand Portage, at the western edge of Lake Superior. Each spring, crews of voyageurs would ply its waters in 36-foot birch-bark canoes, en route to Lake Huron. Places along the French speak to its history: Big and Little Parisien rapids and Chaudiere (kettle) Falls were named by the voyageurs. Except for a few bridges and cottages, the 65-mile designated Canadian Heritage River remains wild today. Redux Route: The four- to five-day Eighteen Mile Island loop heads upstream on the backwaters of the French’s North Channel and then downstream on the more boisterous Main, to and from a starting point just north of the TransCanada Highway, three hours north of Toronto. The French is a prime destination for aspiring whitewater canoe trippers, but the option to portage exists around all moving water makes this route equally appealing to novices and families. (Info: 90

Photo: Donnie Sexton

On the Trail of Lewis and Clark Central Montana’s Upper Missouri River proved to be one of the most challenging and inspiring parts of the Corps of Discovery’s 1804-1806 expedition across America. Lewis and Clark’s 33-person team had it tough on the Upper Missouri, hauling six dugout canoes and two behemoth 35-foot pirogues upstream to Fort Benton. Despite the adversity, the explorers were awed by “scenes of visionary enchantment”— stark badlands, 1,000-foot-deep canyons and striking yellow sandstone features like Hole in the Wall, Citadel Rock and the Eye of the Needle. Redux Route: You’ll experience the same riverside campsites of Lewis and Clark, but skip the hardships by floating the full 149 miles of Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri downstream from Fort Benson to James Kipp Recreation Area. The current pulls steadily through a wilderness mosaic of golden eagles, bighorn sheep, ponderosa pine and big prairie skies. Be sure to stop at Lewis and Clark’s “Decision Point” campsite at the junction of the Marias River. It was here the expedition laid over 10 days debating which waterway was the true Missouri. (Info and guided trips: 91

Photo: Martin Brown

Thoreau’s North Woods New England scribe and avantgarde environmentalist Henry David Thoreau paddled Maine’s Allagash River in 1853 and 1857 with Penobscot Indian guides Joe Aitteon and Joe Polis. Back then, the free-flowing river was the haunt of moose, black bears and virgin 15-story pine, but also faced the looming threat of logging and development. Thoreau’s clarion call for the river’s protection came in The North Woods, a book of essays published posthumously in 1864. Thoreau’s poetic description of the river and passionate stance on wilderness preservation was a big reason the Allagash became America’s first Wild and Scenic river more than a century later in 1970. Redux Route: From Chamberlain Lake to the confluence with the St. John River, the Allagash flows nearly 100 miles through lakes, ponds, runnable Class I to III whitewater, falls and short portages, making this the quintessential seven- to 10-day Maine canoe trip. Starting near the river’s headwaters on Allagash Lake—Maine’s only waterway that is free of motorized boats and vehicles—only increases the wilderness experience. (Info and guided trips: 92

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