MIDLIFE: Taking on a challenge ... by canoe

  • Article by: TORI MCCORMICK , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 29, 2014 - 10:13 AM

A three-week canoe trip inspires the journey of a lifetime.

In 1990, Leo McAvoy embarked on a three-week canoe trip with friends into the Northwest Territories of Canada, paddling 200 miles along Great Slave Lake and paddling and portaging another 65 miles into the Barren Lands.

The experience, he said, inspired him — and planted a seed in his head. “The trip showed me how rewarding a major adventure journey could be,” said McAvoy, 69. “It prompted me to want to go on an adventure journey of my own. I wanted a long-term trip that had excitement, was physically demanding, traveled through beautiful scenery and had a sense of history.”

This summer, McAvoy will slip his canoe into the pristine waters of Basswood Lake, part of the historic fur trade route along the international border with Canada, and paddle west through Crooked Lake and onto Lac LaCroix toward Voyageurs National Park. It’s another leg of “The Journey” McAvoy began in 1993 to retrace “some of the old voyageur routes” in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Canada where “others have had adventure journeys in the past.”

“I’ve long been fascinated with the history of American Indians, voyageurs and explorers in the American and Canadian west and northwest,” he said. “I’ve read a great deal about the fur trade and voyageurs of that era, as well as the major water and trail routes of the fur trade. I’ve always been intrigued by that time frame, from about 1680 through about 1830.”

McAvoy’s ambitious journey isn’t out of character — he’s always had an intimate connection with the outdoors. He grew up on a farm in Michigan and took his first overnight canoe trip in high school. He started sea-kayaking in the mid-1980s, exploring the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior and the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia. He hunts elk nearly every fall in Montana’s wilderness backcountry, and camps at least one month per year. For 33 years before retiring in 2006, McAvoy was a University of Minnesota professor, teaching classes in park planning and management and outdoor education.

“Much of my life has revolved around being an active participant in nature,” he said. “I’m a seeker of awe-inspiring views.”

McAvoy’s journey began in his back yard, on Forest Lake. He paddled across the lake to a four-foot-wide stream outlet, portaged across a street and U.S. Highway 8 to a ditch, which becomes a branch of the Sunrise River. He then paddled 35 miles through Chisago County to the St. Croix River at Wild River State Park. In the years that followed, he’s paddled (either by canoe or kayak) across long stretches of the St. Croix, the North Shore of Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, including countless rivers and lakes in between. All told, he’s covered roughly 460 miles of the old fur trade routes, some in conditions more treacherous than others.

“I haven’t turned over my canoe or kayak yet, although I’ve had a couple of times where I’ve been in cold, cold water with high, high winds and big waves and I’ve been very happy to get to shore,” he said. “I don’t take any unnecessary risks, which is why I don’t carry a satellite phone or a personal locator beacon. I’m a very careful when I’m in the wild.”

Most trips, McAvoy says, run roughly four days and cover 10 to 20 miles per day, depending on weather and terrain. To keep his energy up each day, he estimates he consumes roughly 4,000 calories of protein and complex carbohydrates. How many he burns, he says, is anyone’s guess. He also writes an entry into a black hardcover journal, meticulously detailing the day’s happenings.

“There have been stretches over the last 20 years where I haven’t made any progress, because of family and work obligations,” he said. “Since I retired, and especially after 2009, I’ve been able to devote more time to this adventure each summer, taking a longer trip and covering more miles. My long-term goal is to get well into Canada — hopefully to the northern end of Lake Winnipeg and the historic Hudson Bay Company post at Norway House.”

McAvoy says his journey — 90 percent of it solo — has allowed him to see countless “beautiful places” he may not have “visited” had he not decided to follow the old fur trade routes. He says he’s grateful for the unique experience.

“I love the solitude and the quiet and, quite frankly, I love being alone in the outdoors,” he said. “I like going at my own pace and not worrying about or being responsible for anyone but myself. It heightens the experience and makes you more aware of your surroundings and the challenge that lies ahead.”

McAvoy turns 70 in August — which makes him wonder how long he’ll be able to continue; he knows tomorrow is promised to no one.

“When you get to my age you are more conscious of your mortality and how much time you have left,” he said. “Thankfully, I’m in good health and I want to maintain a high level of activity for as long as I can.”

Tori McCormick is a freelance writer in Prior Lake: torimccormick33@gmail.com

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