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Patrick Durkin: Six-week canoe adventure ‘perspective changer’

September 18, 2018
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From left, modern voyageurs Mark Borchardt, John Sperry, Mason Reid and Dan Burgette pause for a photo along Tha-Anne River below Thuchonili Lake near Hudson Bay.

If two groups took off paddling from northern Saskatchewan to navigate 600 wilderness miles of northern Canadian lakes, rivers and portages, would four 20-somethings or four 60-somethings arrive first at Hudson Bay six weeks later, everyone healthy and still liking each other?

Mark Borchardt of Marshfield would wager on the sexagenarians. Why? Because they’re more likely to fear fillet knives, scout each rapids before plunging downriver, and still have campfire stories in reserve 44 nights later.

Borchardt is no impartial observer. He’s 61, and he made that trip this summer with three friends, John Sperry, 60, of Salt Lake City; Mason Reid, 60, of Bozeman, Montana; and Dan Burgette, of Tetonia, Idaho.

Full disclosure: Burgette was the group’s ringer. He doesn’t qualify as a sexagenarian because he’s 71. But Borchardt said Burgette was the group’s toughest mule, and regularly portaged the heaviest loads when bushwhacking unscouted routes between waters.

They averaged about 14 miles daily in their two PakBoat canoes, with a low of 2 miles and a high of 25 miles. They also went 41 days without seeing another human besides each other. The men avoided chance-taking as much as possible, knowing no rescuers could reach them for hours, maybe days, should a tragedy or broken bone befall them.

“If we had done that trip in our 20s, we probably would have had accident,” Borchardt said. “But we took our time. We scouted each rapids, and I even brought a Kevlar glove for cleaning fish so I wouldn’t cut myself.”

Borchardt said he was the group’s least-experienced paddler. “All of us are outdoor buffs, but none of us are marathon people,” Borchardt said. “John’s done lots of canoe trips. He’s probably in the top 1 percent of wilderness canoers. Dan and Mason are mountain climbers, and Mason also races canoes. I play basketball, cross-country ski and lift weights; and I’ve done canoe trips to the Quetico and Algonquin (Ontario, Canada), but nothing like this before.”

When they weren’t paddling, they talked. “If you take four guys in their 60s and put them out there, you’ll never run out of stories to share,” Borchardt said. “Four guys in their 20s would run out of stories. We had enough life-experiences to share. Our breakfasts and dinners were animated. The only time we got loud, though, was the night we discussed whether God exists.”

Sperry and Borchardt first canoed together while earning advanced degrees at the University of Vermont in the 1970s. When reconnecting a few years ago, Sperry twice brought up his idea for canoeing this route. Borchardt accepted the second time.

The four men flew into Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in late June, and then rode a propeller-driven plane to a Dene (Indian) village on Wollaston Lake, their starting point. From there they paddled to the Cochrane River and followed it northeast until portaging to the Thlewiaza River through Smith House Lake.

The Thlewiaza took them down to Nueltin Lake, where they detoured by portaging to Windy Lake through Sandy Beach Lake. Next they descended Windy River back to the northern end of Nueltin Lake, which straddles the Manitoba-Nanavut border, and then entered Canada’s vast “barrens.”

From there they paddled to Seal Hole Lake and ascended the Theltinne River, which Borchardt said was unbelievably hard work paddling against the current. Next they portaged to the Kognac River and descended to the Tha-Anne River, which took them to Hudson Bay. Once there, they paddled out two miles in rough water to a boat piloted by two Inuit brothers, who took them 50 miles north to Arviat, Nunavut, for their departure home.

Sounds simple, right? Well, Borchardt used up two pens writing 150 pages of notes documenting their 602-mile trek, which included:

-- 127 Class II and Class III rapids;

-- 36 portages (18 cross-country, and 18 around falls and rapids);

-- 11 miles of portages, which meant three round trips each, totaling 55 miles of walking;

-- 25 maps, with Google Earth images glued on to identify falls and ledges).

They also endured plagues of mosquitoes and black flies. Though they wore mosquito netting and bug-proof shirts, they filled handkerchiefs with dead black flies when blowing their nose. Borchardt soon understood why people and caribou alike have reportedly gone insane when calm or mild winds drag on for days, letting biting bugs gather into blood-sucking clouds.

Still, Borchardt said he’s never enjoyed better fishing. If they took three casts without triggering a strike, they moved on. They also got picky about what to keep and eat. Pike became pesky, graylings were a dime a dozen, and lake trout made them giggle like schoolkids.

“Lake trout taste so good!” Borchardt said. “I had been warned the fish would be huge because no one is up there catching them. Our largest northern was 40 inches, and the largest lake trout was 15 to 16 pounds. When we wanted fish to eat, we downsized our lures to catch smaller fish. Our lure of choice was the 5-of-diamonds spoon (yellow background with five red diamonds).

Borchardt was especially impressed by the barrens’ endless tundra, a summer home to countless bird species. Borchardt, a serious birder, added 25 species to his “life list, and never tired of scouring the tundra for more.

“Every migrant bird you see at your feeders for a few days in spring are all up there,” he said. “Their songs are so enjoyable. And there’s so many ptarmigan and snow geese. The place is rich in birds, probably because there’s so many darned bugs. Birds feast on them.”

Borchardt called the six-week adventure an incredibly fascinating “perspective changer” that he would love to do again.

“I learned a lot about my gratitude for my family,” he said. “If you’re feeling ornery about your family, take a six-week canoe trip. You’ll get a much different perspective on what you have. You learn what’s essential and what’s not. Nothing makes you live in the present more than that. It was a transformative experience. I would rank it up there with a trip I took to India in 1976. Both trips changed my life.”

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