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42 days around the lake ... by kayak

Cloquet man takes on Lake Superior

It looked like Cale Prosen was going to end his 42-day kayaking trip around Lake Superior paddling in pouring rain through the Duluth Ship Canal. But the rain lifted and, just like that, part of a rainbow appeared on the horizon.

"There are some gnarly currents," the 20-year-old told his dad, who was standing above him on the Aerial Lift Bridge, as the waves roiled between the concrete walls of the canal.

Cale handled it easily. After all, he'd had six weeks of practicing navigating in his sea kayak, a 30-year-old NDK Explorer.

It hasn't been confirmed, but Prosen appears to be the youngest person to circumnavigate Lake Superior solo, and the fastest.

Those are "cool bragging rights" and something he is proud of, he wrote in his blog at Maine Island Kayak.

But that is not why he did it.

Mostly he wanted to draw attention to Lake Superior and the environmental threats the rapidly warming lake faces. He tried hard to leave no trace: sleeping in a hammock, lighting no fires and picking up garbage on his way around the largest of the Great Lakes.

Prosen also wanted to show people a trip like that could be done on a vegan diet.

"There's huge climate impacts of the animal product industry," he said. "For the most part, it feels so external, we don't address it and it's happening. They will just throw the waste right into the ecosystem ... If you're consuming it, you're supporting it."

Jana Peterson

Cale Prosen in his dry suit on June 22, minutes after completing his circumnavigation of Lake Superior.

The 2022 Cloquet grad also yearned for an adventure, after working most of the past several summers at Evergreen Knoll in Cloquet. He got that wish, in spades.

"To me, this will forever be the testament to my transition from adolescence to adulthood as I brought in the dreams of someone wanting to experience something raw and revolutionary while at the same time bringing in incredible preparation and foresight that maturing brings," he wrote. "I will most definitely casually bring this up in every conversation I have for the rest of my life."

Prosen estimated he covered over 1,000 miles in his sea kayak, paddling west to start, along the Wisconsin and then Michigan shorelines, before heading north and east in Canadian waters and southeast along the North Shore to get back home to Duluth.

FACT: Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, contains 10 percent of the world's freshwater, and covers an area of 31,700 square miles. All the water from the other Great Lakes, plus three more the size of Lake Erie, could be held by Lake Superior. Lake Superior is also the deepest and coldest of the Great Lakes.

Getting there

Prosen gave himself one day off after finishing his sophomore year at the College of St. Scholastica before setting off on his grand adventure, paddling counterclockwise around the giant lake.

An athlete in high school in college, Prosen was in good shape, although he'd only made one prior overnight trip in his new-to-him kayak. He had been preparing for almost a year, however, buying new and used equipment, getting a pair of $550 paddles for a third the price in exchange for posting his blog to the Maine Island Kayak Co. website, plus researching and reading blogs, talking to people with more experience.

One of those people was a random man he met in a parking lot last summer, who had just finished canoeing around Lake Superior, a voyage that took him three months.

"I talked to a guy that had done it - it just casually came out in a parking lot and I thought he was absolutely crazy," Prosen said.

Other inspirations, according to his blog, included a lucrative and challenging work experience last summer, when he worked 180 hours over 15 days, which basically paid for this summer's trip. That's when he began dreaming of a grand adventure.

Then he met the stranger with a canoe. A hike of the Superior Hiking Trail last July also inspired him.

"Circumnavigating Superior was the craziest, purest, and raw adventure that I could do in a summer," he wrote.

Cale Prosen

Day 36: Last View of Canada

Mom and Dad, Sara and Tim Prosen, did not exactly embrace the idea initially, but they were supportive of their eldest son. They still worried though.

"My faith and patience have been tested a lot. Frequently, because of cell service we don't hear from him for three days or so," said Sara a few days before his return, adding that she hadn't slept that well since Cale left.

Sara kept a Montana agate in her pocket throughout the trip, a gift from a stranger the day he left, something with "guardian angel" vibes that helped keep her sane.

FACT: Threats to the Great Lakes' ecosystems, include invasive species, climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction. Climate change affects water temperatures, weather patterns, and lake levels. Pollutants from residential, agricultural, and industrial areas reduce water quality. Land development decreases the amount of wildlife habitat. Fish populations have been declining in recent years as a result of these threats and increased fishing pressure. ~ noaa.gov

On the lake

Life on the lake was both high-tech - Prosen had a cell phone, Garmin watch, marine radio, compass and a tracking device that mysteriously called for rescue three times before dying - and also very simple.

The college student went vegan last winter and stuck with a vegan diet throughout his trip. He started each day with an "overnight oats" mixture that included regular oats soaked in cold water with some brown sugar, coconut powder and protein powder. "It was actually pretty good," he said.

The rest of the day he mostly ate granola, or gorp (his own recipe made mostly from cashews, other nuts and dehydrated bananas and raisins) and - it turns out - a lot of chili-cheese Fritos. He mostly ate all day while he was paddling, versus stopping for meals once he got started.

"I think there's a lot of misconceptions about vegan diet and people thinking you can't get enough energy that way," Prosen said. "I feel like kayaking 10 hours a day for 42 days kind of proves that wrong."

When nature called, he dug a hole and used a piece of driftwood instead of bringing along "modern conveniences" like wet wipes.

Hygiene was important, so he used biodegradable soap and water to wash off, and often took a dip in the lake. He did score one shower, thanks to his grandparents Larry and Betty Nelson, who met him three times to bring supplies, and ended up talking to a person who lived near the lake who offered his shower.

On Day 25, he shared how cold it could get. "Nights are brutally cold with the wind and humidity to the point that I often am up shivering. I have two 45 degree quilts but they are not enough. I dress in everything I have, which is 4 shirts, a sweater, raincoat, 3 bottom layers, socks, and I'm still quite cold many nights."

Cale Prosen

Day 34: The stars were incredible

Were there scary moments?

Definitely, he said.

There was the time a storm rolled in when he was near the end of a 20-mile crossing on Day 26. He was around two miles from shore when a thunderstorm began moving his way. Ultimately, he had to ride out the storm in his kayak on the lake.

"That was bad," he said. "I couldn't get to shore - the closer you get to shore, the more aggressive the waves get. It was a balance of closer to shore there's less odds of lightning but more dangerous with waves."

On Day 33, he had to chase down his kayak, which started floating away when he took a bathroom break on shore.

"In the few minutes I was gone, my boat had managed to leave shore, leave the bay, and was making its way to the big water," he wrote. "I realized this, dropped my stuff, frantically put on my drysuit, and then sent it off the large rocks in pursuit of my boat. Winds were relatively calm and it was maybe a 15-yard swim, but could have been quite bad. I would have had my phone, but would have been stuck on an island in the Canadian wilderness with little means of getting out which would be incredibly unfortunate."

Then there was the time more recently when, sleeping in his enclosed hammock rig in the rain, he realized his butt was wet because the water had risen dramatically. That led to a mad scramble to retrieve all his stuff and move the enclosed hammock to higher ground, with a platoon of mosquitos taking advantage of the situation.

"That was one of the most severe storms I was hit with," he said. "The water truly rose like seven feet in two hours. I just woke up in a pond."

One of the worst moments came after the third time his tracker issued an emergency alert and the rescuers threatened to end his trip.

"I was scared for the next few days," he said. "To put in that much time and just have a boat pull up beside me and say you're done. It just kind of freaked me out. It was never a matter of my safety, it was just a matter of this tracker being defective or something. If I had ever really had to be rescued, I would have immediately ended my trip."

But there were also many beautiful moments, and a few boring, cold moments, where he just lay inside the hammock and shivered.

Prosen didn't bring a book along. He didn't want to be distracted.

"I wanted to enjoy the lake. I tried not to be on my phone, I just wanted to take it all in. On my off days I would just go explore the woods unless it was crazy cold."

He also didn't mind all the alone time, he said.

"By the end of the trip, I was so in tune with just truly living the moment. Just trying to take it all in."

FACT: Lake Superior is surprisingly vulnerable. The year-round cold temperatures of Lake Superior and small amount of nutrients entering the lake result in a simple and fragile food chain. Because Lake Superior is nourished by forests and watered by streams, changes on the land become changes in the lake. ~ Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Homecoming

As he paddled under the Aerial Lift Bridge, a thrilled Prosen yelled up to those above: "It's good to be back. I'm gonna have a shower - I haven't had one in over a month."

"Yeah," he then hollered with a fist pump, either over the thought of a shower or just the joy of finishing a nearly 15-hour final day.

Around the corner from the ship canal, on a beach near the Lift Bridge Lodgel, Prosen's parents, maternal grandparents and family friends, Molly and Bill Stone, waited on shore.

Cale's parents answered in unison when asked what they were feeling.

"Relieved," they said.

Jana Peterson

Cale Prosen's parents are eager to greet him as he completes his trip.

Within a few minutes, Prosen's classmates, Sam Buytaert and Jake Mertz showed up. The two of them had run Grandma's Marathon earlier in the day, but they were excited to see their friend, still dressed in his dry suit, answering the rapidfire questions from everyone and explaining all the different compartments in his kayak.

Cale's grandfather marveled.

"This is like the most remarkable personal achievement and a technical achievement too, not that many people have done the lake," Nelson said. "Even as a little boy, if he was going to do something, he would do it. ... He is just extraordinarily determined. That's why whatever he decides is going to be his life, he'll be good at that. He's not gonna wuss out."

After he got home on Day 42, Prosen wrote the following:

"The reality of finishing became real when I saw all the antennas of Duluth blinking as I rounded a bend. It was a bittersweet finale to my trip. When times got rough on the trip I thought of how great the end would feel. Of course it was super neat and finalized the accomplishment, but was a bit sad to walk away from this trip as it now rests as the past."

Three days after his return, Prosen hadn't yet had a great night's sleep. The family drove to Milwaukee for his Prosen grandparents anniversary celebration at 8 a.m. the next morning and he'd slept in a bed with his younger brother there. They came back Monday but he had to be at work by 7 a.m. Tuesday.

But there were no mosquitoes where he slept ... and he'd gotten a shower.

FACT: Lake Superior is not just warming - it's warming faster than its surroundings. Researchers at the Large Lakes Observatory at University of Minnesota Duluth say Lake Superior has warmed one degree per decade since the 1980s, making it one of the fastest-warming lakes in the world.

Environmental threats

Prosen is studying biology, chemistry and science education at St. Scholastica. He pays attention to the environment and is worried about the future of the planet and the area he grew up in.

He's witnessed changes within his own lifetime, citing bike rides to go fish for trout and bass in the Midway River. Now the sections he used to fish hold nothing but invasive minnow species.

"That culture is now just lost, he said, for me and anyone in the future."

Prosen took water temperatures on his way around Lake Superior. It was warmer than he expected.

"If there's a takeaway to this trip, I want it to be about the environment and to experience raw nature. If nature doesn't have an advocate, it gets trampled."

Jana Peterson

Prosen paddles toward shore in the St. Louis River Bay in the last moments of his epic trip around Lake Superior.

He talked about seeing deserted mining towns in Michigan. And rivers locally that contain forever chemicals, a legacy of past industry.

He'd like to make a difference.

"I think the land is our shared legacy," he said. "It's pretty much all we'll leave behind."

FACT: The retention time for Lake Superior is 191 years; what goes into the water affects the lake for several generations. ~ epa.gov

Editor's note: This is a slightly longer version of the story than what appeared in print.

 
 
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