Kayak journey takes man from Northwest Angle to Key West and back
In the end, it was a race against the ice.
For nearly 7,500 miles, Daniel Alvarez had paddled his kayak, and now he couldn’t feel his hands and his feet. He labored up the western shore of Lake of the Woods, willing himself to go on, stopping to run on empty beaches to drive feeling back into his extremities.
So close. Four days away, then three, then two.
He was bound for the Northwest Angle, a disembodied lobe of Minnesota stuck on the flank of Manitoba. This is where he had begun 17 months ago, in June 2012.
Already, before his kayaking began, the 32-year-old Yale Law School grad had hiked the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail. He had through-hiked the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail.
The guy knows how to get from Point A to Point B.
This little kayak trip was supposed to have been another hike, top to bottom across the United States. But when Alvarez saw all the water along the way, he decided paddling was the way to go.
So he paddled about 4,000 miles from the Northwest Angle to Key West, Fla., by way of the Mississippi River.
But when he reached Key West on March 9 this year, he decided he wasn’t through. He spent two days in Key West, turned around and headed back to the Northwest Angle.
He would have enjoyed staying in Florida a few more days. He grew up in Tallahassee. His parents live there.
“But I didn’t have time,” he said. “I knew there was a small window.”
He had to beat the ice to Lake of the Woods, some 3,500 miles away. His kayak was battered. His clothing was trail-worn and ragged. But he knocked off the East Coast, once paddling all night near Miami because he could find no place to make camp. He survived the New York harbor and an hour-long interrogation by law enforcement officials. He sneaked along the Canadian north shore of Lake Superior.
Now he was so close, but the water inches below his cockpit seat hovered just above freezing. Frigid waves splashed over his spray skirt.
But on Oct. 26, he nudged his donated kayak onto the shore of the Northwest Angle.
Just in time.
“On Oct. 27, all the creeks and the edge of the bay froze,” he said.
For a week after finishing the trip, he rested at the home of Ken and Lorry Larson in Two Harbors. He had met Ken Larson; his brother, Keith, and Gunnar Johnson at Isle Royale on the downbound leg of his trip in the summer of 2012. All were windbound there for three days. Fast friendships formed.
It was Ken Larson who drove up to Baudette to retrieve Alvarez and his gear after he reached the Northwest Angle.
“People who go out on these treks alone are like professional athletes,” Larson said. “They’re fit. They’re strong. He’s intelligent. He’s just a joy to be around.”
And, yes, Larson said, part of his appreciation for what Alvarez has done is because “we wish we could have done that.”
“We’re kind of living through him,” he said.
This past weekend, Alvarez was at a deer camp in the north woods with friends from Minneapolis. Ultimately, he’ll rent a car in the Twin Cities, throw the yellow kayak on top, and drive back to Tallahassee.
Over a beef pasty at the Vanilla Bean Café in Two Harbors last week, Alvarez talked about his trip — and the rest of his life.
“Lake Superior is a magical place,” he said behind a bushy beard he started in New York. “From Isle Royale to the Apostles to the Canadian north shore. … Pukaskwa (National Park) is probably my favorite place on the trip. It’s so wild, so remote.”
Pukaskwa National Park lies near Wawa, Ontario, on the northeastern shore of Lake Superior.
“There is no bad spot on Lake Superior,” he said.
For the entire trip, he averaged 15 miles a day. Do the math — 503 days on the water, roughly 7,500 miles. One day, on the Mississippi, he paddled 24 hours straight and made 100 miles. But sawing his way through an overgrown portage on the Kaministiquia River in Ontario, he made just a half-mile all day.
He had never kayaked before this trip. He learned on the job. He never capsized.
Alvarez had proved he could hike. He had logged 9,000 miles on hiking trails, up and down mountain peaks. But paddling was different. The boat was yellow, easy to spot. People wanted to know where he was coming from, where he was headed. They took him in, offered him warm homes, good meals.
But the boat was a liability, too.
“It’s a real burden when you’re in civilization,” Alvarez said. “You can’t leave your boat in Atlantic City and walk to the supermarket.”
He dodged barges on the Mississippi and fought waves on the Gulf Coast. A rogue wave lifted him on Lake Superior and plopped him atop a rock near shore. Somehow, he avoided flipping.
But his greatest risk on this trip was not in the wilderness, he said. It was crossing the New York harbor, trying to avoid ferry traffic.
“That was probably the closest I came to dying,” he said.
He had dodged his last ferry when a smaller boat came racing straight at him. He knew he couldn’t avoid it. At the last minute, the boat swung to his side, flashing its emergency lights.
Cops. He was saved. They escorted him safely to shore. Then they took him in and questioned him for an hour to make sure he wasn’t a terrorist.
Alvarez figures the trip cost him $10,000. He had won a $10,000 grant from Outside magazine for the first leg of the trip. Necky Kayaks gave him a kayak to use.
Alvarez donated $2,500 to environmental groups along his route, including the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota.
Though he worked for a legal firm for a time after graduating from law school, he’s not headed back just yet. He wants to finish writing a book about his father, who emigrated from Cuba. And he has some travel ideas. Sailing around the world, maybe. Hiking the length of New Zealand. Hiking the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain.
“Every trip I go on, I come up with 10 more trips to do,” he said.
But he has other dreams, too.
“I do dream about being married and having a family,” he said. “I don’t know how that reconciles with these kinds of trips. The most important thing is to look at whatever you do as an adventure.”
He will not soon forget the kindnesses bestowed upon him by folks such as Ken and Lorry Larson. He has found it everywhere he went, by backpack or by kayak.
“The accents change. The food changes,” he said. “But people being helpful doesn’t change.”
Alvarez’s kayaking route
Daniel Alvarez left the Northwest Angle on Lake of the Woods on June 11, 2012, and paddled about 4,000 miles to Key West, Fla., by way of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Lake Superior, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. On his return trip, about 3,500 miles, he paddled up the East Coast to New York, up the Hudson River to Lake Champlain and into Canada, past Montreal and Ottawa and across Ontario to Lake Huron, Lake Superior and along the international border back to the Northwest Angle.
Sam Cook | Forum News Service