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Garrett Russell poses behind all the gear that he used on the trip. Photo: Bryan Hansel

First Standup Paddleboard Attempt to Circumnavigate Isle Royale

During the first week of May, Minnesotan adventurer Garrett Russell attempted the first standup paddleboard crossing to and circumnavigation of Isle Royale, the largest island on Lake Superior. On May 2 Russell left Grand Portage, Minnesota at 5 a.m. and made the 22-mile crossing to Isle Royale arriving near the Windigo Ranger Station. He completed the first day having paddled 46 miles. Over the next two days, he paddled clockwise around the island encountering sheet and slush ice that he had to portage across, and he encountered rough conditions paddling in four-foot waves at times.

His adventure had just started when he arrived at the Rock Island Lodge and encountered a small crew of park service employees opening the park for the season. They advised him of a coming storm that would likely strand him on the island for over a week. He didn’t have enough food to survive that long and with the Rock Island Lodge closed no food was available on island.

He decided to bail off the island on the next early season ferry. Unfortunately, the ferry schedule was incorrect, and the ferry wasn’t running any early season trips. Russell paddled to the Mott Island Ranger Station, hitched a ride to the Windigo Ranger Station on the Park Service’s restored military landing craft. After exiting the craft, he immediately started the 22-mile crossing back to the mainland on dead calm waters. Russell made mainland and landed at around 8 p.m. on May 5th.

“We did this trip to draw awareness to this amazingly unique ecosystem in hopes of continuing to protect and preserve the Lake Superior watershed from current threats,” said Russell. He elaborated about two threats. The first is a plan to ship oil from Duluth, across the Great Lakes and through the Saint Lawrence Seaway. An oil spill in the confined areas of one of the Great Lakes would decimate it. The other threat he identified was potential sulfide mines in northeastern Minnesota, a type of mining never before attempted in Minnesota. The poor industry track record of pollution, he said, could have long-term impacts on the watershed.

While this circumnavigation is usually done in a sea kayak, Russell said that he prefers the versatility of a SUP.  “You can stand, kneel, or sit depending on conditions and self-rescuing is a lot easier since you don't have to bail a boat or roll over, you just climb back on.” Instead of carrying his gear in hatches, like a sea kayak, he carried all his gear in two dry bags held on the top of the board with tie downs.

His advice for other paddle boarders who desire to take up long distance paddling was to “make sure you select the appropriate gear and practice with it before going on a long trip so you are familiar with your system.  It is always best to paddle with someone and to always have emergency contacts and back up plans.  Things never go as planned on a long trip so be flexible and enjoy the adventure. Always remember it is better to sit out a rough spot than push past your limits.”

Russell started paddle boarding six years ago and owns North Shore SUP, a paddleboard touring company based out of Duluth, Minn. Previously, he completed a crossing of approximately the same length from Wisconsin to Minnesota on Lake Superior. He was sponsored by Glide, ENO, Nemo and Bending Branches. Next March he plans to participate in the Water Tribe Everglades Challenge. 

Screen_Shot_2015-10-15_at_1.24.32_PM.png This article first appeared in the August 2015 issue of PADDLING Magazine. For more great content, click here and get the this issue on your desktop or device.

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