Q&A: THE NORTH WOODS FROM AWAY – AN ULTRALIGHT CANOE TRIP IN NORTHERN MINNESOTA
Words from Hansi Johnson, Tyson and Kendra Perkins, Neil and Ian Provo, and Brendan Lauer.
Photos by Hansi Johnson and Ian Provo
Spring 2021, Hyperlite Mountain Gear HQ:
"Remember that survey we sent out a while back? We got the answers sorted. Turns out that one of the most common responses to 'second favorite activities' is canoeing."
"No foolin'? Guess it's not too surprising–it's a sweet way to travel through the backcountry and get a different perspective on the contours of the land. I know a few canoe legends myself."
"Doing it in an ultralight way could really enable you to almost plan a route simply by direction – hike north, hit water, paddle, hit land and hike, hit water–you could see some rad stuff!"
And that's how this all began. We let the daydreaming turn into "what ifs" and move on to brainstorming. Coincidentally, we were also talking around the same time about doing a film of some kind at some point. Eventually, one of us uttered those fateful words that always seem to initiate the best kinds of trips, "You know what would be cool?"
The "what would be cool" idea this go-'round would be to send friends from varied backgrounds to a place they hadn't been to do things they hadn't done with other friends they didn't know.
It's a timeless hook for a story– "What happens when you take a group of strangers…send them to a foreign place…do hard shit…gotta work together…make popcorn and buckle up…"
We're not total hellions, though. For the sanity and safety of the team we'd assemble, we needed a guide. The Outdoor Industry has its darlings for locations, but we wanted to do this in a place that would be new not just to the team but also to many of our backpacking audience. Northern Minnesota isn't the first place to come to mind for hiking, but it's one of the premier spots on the planet for canoeing. And if that's where we were going to go, there was only one person to reach out to: Hansi Johnson. A genuine Prince of the Northwoods, he was practically born with a paddle in his hands, and few people can match his prowess in "Canoe Country." We hit him up, and he happily agreed to take on this challenge.
The rest of the group had to have strong outdoor skills that would allow them to hang, but maybe just tickle the edges of their comfort zones. Big energy, patience, and positivity, solid problem-solving skills, endurance in all sorts of weather. If you were thinking thru hikers and professional snowsports athletes, so were we oddly enough, so we hit up Neil and Ian Provo and long-time Hyperlite family members Tyson and Kendra Perkins. With Neil and Ian's backcountry histories in temps and climates around the globe and Tyson and Kendra's experience from hiking the Appalachian Trail, we figured they fit the bill and had the chops to overcome potential obstacles. All four said, "Yeah, man! Why not?" That's just what we wanted to hear.
Finally, we needed a filmmaker that could capture this adventure. Largely by himself. From a canoe. Participating in all the backpacking, portaging, and camp chores just like everyone else. A sunup to sundown diesel engine that would get his shots no matter what. In a kind of stupefying way, Brendan Lauer has proven to be that guy countless times for brands in the outdoors, from cycling to golf. He had an opening in his schedule. "I'll be there." We were set.
Watching this crew work together over phone calls and emails from Maine, Utah, and Minnesota, to wrangle the details of this adventure was a real treat, and THE NORTH WOODS FROM AWAY shows the fruits of their labor.
After almost half a year that's passed since they headed to The North Woods, we got them all together to reflect on and share their thoughts about the trip.
When the idea for this trip was first presented to you, what were your initial thoughts?
Hansi Johnson - "F**k yeah!" "Let's do this!" Then it was just being stoked to show folks who were not from the Midwest one of its prime locations, the lake districts of Northern Minnesota.
Tyson Perkins - It's not super difficult to get me stoked, so I was like, "Hell yeah! Let's do this! What is Canoe Country? Where??" Kind of a shoot first and ask questions later approach. It really became something to think about once I started researching the incredible place we were about to get dropped into.
Kendra Perkins - I loved the idea immediately. Banding together five near-strangers with disparate backgrounds to spend a week canoeing in Minnesota? Sign me up. It had all the right elements of a solid trip; good people, good times, and (most importantly) good food.
Neil Provo - When I first learned about the canoe trip, I began to visualize what it would be like to cast and catch fish from the bow of such an unfamiliar vessel. Having spent a lot of time combining fly fishing with packrafts and paddleboards, I knew this was going to be a good time. The whole process of traveling and living out of the canoes seemed like such a cool way to live. It was an exciting thought to be stepping back into a mode of transportation that has been used for thousands of years. Little did I know how efficient the canoe would prove to be out there in the backwoods! With enough whiskey and fishing supplies, we could have stayed out there all summer!
Ian Provo - I love being on the water. Of all the different ways to enjoy this natural resource, canoeing was the least familiar to me heading into this trip. I was thrilled with the idea of learning a new skill and exploring a new landscape. As a fly-fisherman, I'd already had this place on my radar.
The Team (From L to R): Tyson, Kendra, Hansi, Ian, Neil, and Brendan
For those of you who were traveling From Away, what did you already know about Northern Minnesota? And Hansi, how quickly were you thinking about routes, and what criteria made you consider the ones you did?
Hansi - For me, the ideas of where to go and where to shoot were all based on the best possible fishing, interconnected systems, and the least amount of people.
Tyson - I had never been to Northern Minnesota before; actually, I had never been to Minnesota at all! This was going to be the furthest west I've ever traveled, and I got to work checking out the landscape, what fish were in there and what gear we would need to make this happen. Almost immediately, we got together as a group and started talking about routes and what we thought we could accomplish given everyone's skill level.
Kendra - I can honestly say my knowledge of Northern Minnesota was pretty minimal. I mostly assumed it was a little like Maine, and it definitely had its similarities, but there were definitely some distinct differences too.
Neil - Before hearing about the trip, I didn't know a ton about the area. I had heard stories and seen photos of incredible fish, though I knew little about the actual landscape and what we'd be getting into. The vast network of lakes and rivers blew my mind when we began to look over maps and plan some routes. It seemed like you could draw a line connecting lakes in one big loop and just go for it. And that is just what we did!
Ian - The Land of 10,000 lakes. So, I assumed there would be some water. And based on the amount of MN transplants I encounter in the West, I knew there was a vibrant ski culture. Surprising to me considering the lack of mountains. I also knew that Northern Minnesota is a fine place to cast a fly. With that many lakes surely, there would be some good fishing. What I didn’t know was just how beautiful a landscape it was and how inspired I would be after experiencing it.
Throughout the planning process–with these folks you'd never met–what eased or raised the most concerns? What did you feel the most in control of, and what did you just accept as out of your hands?
Hansi - For me, it was general ability to paddle and control a canoe in big water. I have seen so many athletic and coordinated people who have climbed into a canoe and have just been unable to create efficient forward movement. It's a thing; some folks are just destined to suck at paddling. You are only as fast as your slowest watercraft in the backcountry, and my fear was the slower the folks, the less fun shit we would get to do. Yet I realized that until we hit the water, all we could do was talk about gear and packing and find out where people were at on day one in the Superior National Forest. Which, of course, all turned out well.
Tyson - Having someone like Hansi who knew the area well and had the knowledge none of us had was invaluable, and this helped ease a lot of concerns, at least on my end. If we had a way to get there and get out, I knew that the rest of us would be able to handle the trip with our past experiences.
Kendra - Not knowing each other's style/pace/preferences made it hard to picture how everything was going to come together, but everyone dove in headfirst like we had been planning trips together for years. I think I was most reassured by the team's extensive experience in the backcountry. In fact, I was actually a bit nervous that my experience wasn't up to par since I hadn't been on a trip this big since thru hiking the Appalachian Trail back in 2016. I can't say I had any concerns, but the group food planning made me a little nervous at first. Food is so personal, and it's imperative to have food you dig in the backcountry, so it was hard to know how to approach that with a group of people you've never shared a meal with before. Thankfully Hansi is a walking five-star kitchen, and we ate like kings with his cooking! Everyone packed plenty of snacks, and the folks at Good-To-Go stepped in and provided a heap of comfort food for the group. Of course, there's inherent distress in having to accommodate a group setting, but you can make it work with the right personalities. And Hansi's cooking.
Neil - For me, the weather always raises the most concerns on trips into the wild. You can do everything you can to plan and prepare, but Mother Nature always dictates the outcome. Big lakes equal big winds, so that was always in the back of my mind going into it. One thing that was reassuring was knowing I'd always have a cozy UltaMid with a dry sleeping bag to climb into at the end of the day. I can always trust my HMG gear to keep my essentials dry, no matter what weather. For food, we pretty much split into teams of two, which made shopping super easy. We all brought about a week's worth of Good to Go meals, with the idea of adding fish in as we wished. We ate like kings, I'd say, especially some of the meals that Hansi had whipped up! Wow. Hansi and Brendan dialed in all the planning and logistics for the trip, so it was a real treat to just show up and essentially push off in the canoes! Figuring out the shuttles and canoe transportation seems to be the biggest hurdle in this kind of trip. For out of towners like Ian and myself, there were plenty of outfitter operations in the area to get you set up with a boat and a ride to the waterways. Really cool little towns focused on the canoe experience!
Ian - Going into the trip I wasn’t concerned about much. I knew from our first video conference that this group would be solid. The pursuit of these types of experiences generally attracts like-minded individuals, and as it turned out we were all on the same page. Planning was pretty stress free on my end, with Hansi taking on most of the logistics. All I had to do was show up with my camping and fishing gear. He had a sleek Wenonah vessel waiting for us, a place to stay, and a wealth of local knowledge. Not to mention a big heart and adventurous spirit. We were all lucky to have him as our guide.
What was going through your mind on the day you all met up?
Hansi - Mainly, I was looking at group dynamics. I was also interested in if I could keep up gear-wise. I knew my approach would be different, and I was questioning whether I go for a stripped-down version of my old standby (which I did) or if I just go like everybody else and do the super minimal approach. I wanted to make sure I could keep up and not slow the group down but also have the ability to truly live like I love to live on a backcountry canoe trip. In the end, it all worked out, but I had to endure some initial funny looks and questions, that's for sure! Ha!
Tyson - Oh man. There was just so much to think about that day. From making sure we had all of our gear to all of our food and everything else, I think we all got a bit catatonic for the first hour or two as we went through it all.
Kendra - The day we all met up, I was just stoked to get everyone together face to face finally. We had a few video chats and a long list of email threads prior to meeting up, and the excitement was definitely palpable when we all finally met in person. And I couldn't wait to start packing with everyone. Everyone's gear was spewed out all over Hansi's garage while we took inventory and hashed out who would be carrying what, which was exactly how I pictured it would be leading up to the trip.
Neil - You never know with a bunch of strangers going into a trip like this, but I feel like we were already so connected before we all had even met. Sharing so many of the same passions and lifestyles, we all clicked upon arrival. It was so fun to listen to everyone's experience with HMG, which all led us up to this point. Group dynamics play a huge role in the outcome on a trip like this, so it was awesome knowing we were all on the same page going into it. Many years ago, I had met Hansi and had the chance to show him around on mountain bikes in my hometown of Park City, Utah. It was so cool to be reconnecting, to go explore his backyard. Hansi is the man, so I knew from the get-go that it was going to be a blast!
Ian - We walked back into the woods behind Hansi’s house to a nice little stretch of water. The sunset was vibrant and reflecting nicely off the glassy surface. A fish was rising a few yards from the shore and naturally, we’d brought a rod down just in case. I fed out some line, made one cast, and hooked and landed the first fish of the trip, and my first smallmouth bass on the fly, ever. Off to a good start, I thought.
When did you start to feel like the group began to gel? What were the circumstances?
Hansi - I think it took a day or two of understanding the place and the portages and the paddling on bigger water. I think by then, the understanding of the challenges and the payoffs became clear, and folks could wrap their heads around what it was they were doing, etc. Then it became fun. I also think it became obvious that there were no total rookies on the trip. Everybody could deal with their own shit and also contribute to the whole.
Tyson - I definitely think the end of our very first portage was the moment we all came together. It was the first common evil we had to face, y'know? We set our boats down after 150 rods or so, and it really came together that we need to be a machine to make this happen effectively.
Kendra - I actually got the feeling that we were all starting to gel the first night at Hansi's place. We baked a few frozen pizzas and reviewed the route in the kitchen, all while telling stories and laughing through the evening. If you can chill like that, you're pretty awesome in my book.
Neil - I'd say it was the first day on the water, after figuring out the first portage situation and what that entailed. That's when we began to move like a team. Figuring out the proper paddling techniques and how to pack the bags most efficiently for portaging. For Ian and I, being brothers, we were curious how being in the same canoe for a week straight would go, but thankfully, we were distracted by so much beauty that no major brotherly arguments came about!
Ian - There were so many stages involved with this trip; from the zoom meetings and traveling, to the gear shakedown in Hansi’s garage, to the shopping and repacking, but as soon as our canoes hit the water there was only one thing left to do. And that was to paddle. That is when we all were fully in it together for the same experience. Everyone had the same job to do. Learning how to gracefully move the canoe with my brother turned out to be more of a challenge than I anticipated, but I think after a few days we got the hang of it. And best of all, no paddles were swung with malicious intent, no punches thrown. Just a few strong words every now and again.
Looking back on this trip that happened almost six months ago now, what's the first thing that'll make you laugh, the thing you're most proud of, and the facet of the trip you want to experience again?
Hansi - The thing to be most proud of is just doing a trip that you planned and having it turn out to be a magical experience. The lakes of Northern Minnesota and the region are just so unique. Minnesota is so often given short shrift as flyover country. So, it's great to bring folks who have been all over the world and in special places here and have them respond to it with awe.
Tyson - Definitely the moments around the fire with hand-crafted Gin and Tang drinks in our camp mugs. No matter how hard the day was, the real treat was being out there with these genuine people making it happen and sharing our stories. You'll never find that perfect Walleye fishing in the same pond every day - you gotta get out and go to some water you never thought you would touch!
Kendra - Laugh: Hansi bringing eggs! We had no idea, and it was the most delightful surprise after days in the backcountry. How he managed not to break them after all those portages is truly impressive.
Most Proud: I hiked every portage with our canoe after never properly carrying a canoe before. It felt amazing to realize I had that kind of strength.
Part I Want to Experience Again: I'd love to do another trip with this group. It was so enriching learning from one another and being with a group of people that are up for anything–always with a smile.
Neil - The first thing that makes me laugh is the thought of campfire stories with the crew, hearing that infamous chuckle from Hansi–a sound that echoes through the forest and across the lakes! I'm proud that we had such a successful trip, having no hiccups, eating good fish every day. It couldn't have gone much better. One thing that will always bring a fisherman back is the "one that got away," and we sure did have a couple of hogs on the line! I hope to return to the region and time the water temps just right for optimal pike fishing. Something worth chasing, that's for sure.
Ian - Well you can’t really beat the campfire stories and fishing tales and of course, Hansi’s infectious laugh. The sound of the whopper plopper (one of Hansi’s fishing lures) bubbling in a commotion across the water. The sound of the Loon. When I first heard it I thought, “WOW, I have arrived in the Northwoods.” I still think about that sound all the time and it brings me right back. Once, I was fishing this beautiful drop off on a small rocky island, not catching shit, when a Bald Eagle swooped down right in front of me and plucked off a hog. I hope I can experience it all again someday.
For anyone who's considering an adventure with unfamiliar people, what's your best piece of advice for making the group dynamic work?
Hansi - I think the best thing would be to have a few group meetings over Zoom or something to at least feel people out and get a sense of who they are and how they do the business of backcountry travel before you head out on the trip. Get to know them as much as you can beforehand and be open to different approaches. Keep an open mind but also set goals and expectations so that regardless of how people do things, they all end up at the same place at the intended timeframe or whatever the plan is. I am mission-driven in the fact that I like to have some loose goals that allow people to work towards them. It gives them a sense of direction when they get up in the morning, and it gives them motivation when the going gets tough. I have always loved to go into the backcountry for the freedom to be who I want to be and do as I want to do. The last thing I want is somebody telling me how I need to pack or how fast or slow I need to go. If those expectations are out in front at the start of the trip, you can both act as a group, but you can also enjoy the individual passions you have for the outdoors. One person may be stoked to fish, and another may have their heart set on swimming. They should both be able to do that and not interfere or be judged by the other.
Tyson - Always be yourself. Everyone has something to lend when you show what your real strengths are. When things get tough, remember that everyone has the same goal, and this can be something to find comfort and togetherness in.
Kendra - My best advice for making a group dynamic work is; be positive. We were lucky enough to have great personalities, great gear, and great conditions, which made that easy, but under any circumstances, just remember that you're out there to have fun no matter what.
Neil - Go into a trip like this with an open heart and open mind. You can learn so much from new people and new experiences like these. Leave your problems, political views, and whatever else at home! We're all humans with the common goal of going out there, having a blast, and coming home safely. Stressing about pointless imaginary factors does no good. Focus on the now, live in the moment!
Ian - I think it’s important to just try and be accommodating of everyone, knowing that everyone will have their own, different experience. Make an effort to have a positive impact. Share knowledge and be open to learning new things and the possibility of unlearning things you thought you knew. And on trips like this, it’s good to know you won’t be unfamiliar for long. They have a way of bringing people together and creating lasting bonds.
Despite how many elements there were to this trip – canoeing, hiking the portages, cooking, fishing – what aspects of the ultralight essentialist mindset applied across the board?
Hansi - To me, the ultralight aspect that I aspire to is to find that fine line of cutting weight and carrying less so that I can carry some things that might seem a bit luxurious. For example, if I can cut some serious weight on my tent and my packs, I can still toss in an extra lens for my camera or another box of flies or–a dozen eggs! While I can certainly cut weight to the extreme, which to me makes a lot of sense on a backpacking trip or a ski tour or bike tour, in canoe tripping or something like rafting, there is an in-between place where minimalism and luxury meet.
Tyson - Everything here has balance. To make the canoe work right, you need to level out the weight and make sure there isn't too much here or there. Same with a portage, with perfect balance, the canoe goes on your shoulder with ease - struggle, and it becomes your worst enemy. The perfect balance of river water with your flour to coat your freshly caught fish. It all comes down to a balance, and it's up to us to find what balances us in these wild places.
Kendra - I think we all scrutinized each of the different elements and asked ourselves, "How can we apply ultralight to this?" Wenonah provided some of the lightest vessels on the market for the canoes, which shaved double-digit pounds off our load. For the portaging, light and consolidated packs made one-trip portages manageable and efficient. Even the cooking and the fishing were calculated and dialed while leaving room for second helpings and a few extra casts. We had everything we needed and still had a little room for some Gin and Tang to ease off a hard day. I think a lot of folks associate ultralight with sacrifice, but that's really not the case. It's simply about balance and the pursuit of a more enjoyable way in the backcountry. And on this particular trip, I think we hit that balance perfectly.
Neil - As with almost all activities I enjoy, traveling only with what is needed has always been a top priority. It makes the experience so much more enjoyable and manageable. Also, lighter gear means I can bring more luxuries like good food and stay out longer. I definitely try to apply that essentialist mindset across all aspects of my life.
Ian – “How many rods?” That is the question we asked ourselves every day (referring to the distances which we had to cross over dry land with our canoes and gear) One rod is about the length of a canoe. How many rods you can portage, or how far and how long you can travel, is directly related to how much you can carry or how tough you are. The lighter your things, the more you can bring, the longer you can stay, and the further you can go. Half the weight of your tent and bring twice the amount of potatoes.
A Few Thoughts from the Filmmaker, Brendan Lauer
When I received a message in a bottle from Hyperlite over the winter, I almost couldn't believe it. The pitch was simple - link up with our old pal Hansi up north to take some folks from out of town into the Northwoods, go ultralight so we can get far out, and film what happens. The only catch? They've never been on a proper canoe trip. So I started thinking about what could be the center of this story. It was clear to me that it had to be inspired by the experiences of this troupe beaming in to do something completely new to them, with people they've never actually met before, in an environment in which previous collaboration is a must.
I'm not sure those folks "from away" really quite understood what a rite of passage those paths of dirt and bodies of water represent to the people around here. Often a big trip into the Northwoods is a landmark in childhood, that big first test of outdoor awareness. Those turn into one last high school trip before college, which morph into long-standing traditions for bands of friends and families. This place has a reputation for shaping not just the people who enter but the troop they enter with.
The people you surround yourself with on a trip into the Northwoods are so essential because it can be hard as hell. The wind off the flat lake, the long portage uphill - your home, your kitchen, your vehicle, all pressing down into the flat of your shoulders. And us corn-fed Midwesterners can't get enough of it! It's because the demanding circumstances always reward you with the charm of the landscape, the healing ritual of paddle strokes, and the promise that it will make you closer to whoever you pass the threshold with.
So, what you see when you watch the film, beyond the genuine experiences of these characters, is really my personal perspective of what it's like to follow these fools around the backcountry, to do something familiar but relentlessly challenging with brand new faces, and to have no idea what's going to happen, but going for it anyway.