By Anne Stanton 9/28/09
Dreams can take awhile to make their way to reality, but Stephen Brede, at age 58, decided it was time.
The Petoskey writer had always wanted to make a big canoe trip. So last winter, he planned a summer trip to circumnavigate Lake Huron, and on June 21, he pushed off.
Ruth, his wife, noted that his launch date coincided with their first wedding anniversary. Thats not to say, she wasnt fully behind the effort and would have joined him, except that she didnt feel she was a strong enough paddler.
In fact, she had her own worries about Brede, who had spent so much time planning the route, supplies, and equipment that he had little time to paddle or work out. She cautioned him to take it easy the first few weeks, particularly after hearing about a kayaker starting out this spring on a 3,800-mile Great Lakes expedition. The kayaker gave up after three weeks, plagued by tendon problems in his arms.
Stephen Brede said he had been long inspired by the late Verlen Kruger, a downstate Michigan plumber and father of nine who fell in love with long-distance paddling at the age of 41. He held the world record for miles paddledmore than 100,000 miles, or the equivalent of four times around the planet. Pause and imagine that for a minute.
Kruger died five years ago at the age of 82, not from a paddling accident, but from cancer.
When Kruger wasnt paddling, he built and sold his own line of expedition canoes, and Brede felt lucky to find a used one for only $3,500 on Craigslist.
On Saturday, after 78 days on the water, Brede came back to his starting point in Mackinac City, where seven friends joined him for the five-mile paddle across the Straits from St. Ignace. Even more friends cheered him at the finish.
Heres an interview with Stephen on his cell phone while he was still two days from his destination:
NE: So whats your typical day?
SB: I wake up, sit and read for an hour, make breakfastfruit, granola and tea. Then I wipe the dishes and pack up camp. I get on the water between 10 and noon. Sometimes I have to fix something on the boat, fix a knot. I can be obsessive about things being shipshape. Some mornings I took pictures. Then I paddle about six hours, stop for lunch usually.
NE: Do you have to eat a lot?
SB: The first week I was getting headaches. When I saw my wife, after the first 10 days, she took one look at me and said I wasnt eating or drinking enough.
Hold on a minute, I have to fix the sail. This is a really nice daythe wind is pushing me along and Im making great time. I only get to use the sail when Im going downwind.
[Lots of noise]
NE: Do your arms feel weary from paddling, paddling, paddling?
SB: No. With a canoe, you can significantly change up your paddling motion, much more so than a kayak. So, when one side gets tired, you simply switch to the other. And, with one blade, theres less wind resistance when you pull the paddle out of the water. So I havent had any problems. The only thing I hurt was my back from lifting and pulling the boat out of the water. There were a couple of days I could barely walk. My right leg was getting numbedit had never gotten that bad. Just about that time, I took off 2 weeks for a family reunion in Seattle, and I had a chance to heal.
NE: How far is this trip?
SB: It will come to over 800 miles. Ive been doing some pretty big crossings from island to island, so Im getting more confident. Right now, Im two to three miles from the mainland. Thats pretty cool. I get up and go into outer space all day; no one knows where I am. Im totally insignificant, and then I come back to earth. My daughter keeps asking, Do you get bored? I never have.
NE: Have you missed the news?
SB: Literally I have. Its been a good break for me. I used to read a couple of papers a day. I was very caught up. I really think its important. One issue I wanted to address on this trip was health care. I wanted to know what Canadians think. I talked to probably 15 people, asking them if they were unhappy with their health care system. They said no, it had problems, but they were grateful to have it. When I asked them if theyd trade their health system for ours, they gave a resounding No! There was no question in their mind.
NE: So back to the trip, does it feel funny to be on the water day in and day out?
SB: At first it did. When I was a kid, I had a bad experience on the lake where I got caught on with my sister and cousin in a rowboat and suddenly the weather turned. The motor conked out and I was scared and the waves were big. I ended up lassoing the dock with a rope, which I thought was pretty cool. Can you hold on a minute? Its the sail again.
[Lots of noise]
Okay Im back. Water always scared me, big water like that. But now its weird. Im up on a 17-foot by 30-foot vessel, miles from land, and it would be a stretch for anyone to find me. And Ive taken some pretty big waves. Today there were five-foot swells. You just kind of go through them. You have to approach them at an angle. The boat goes up and over. There have been days where you cant go fast and its been no fun. Sometimes it feels like Im driving in metro Detroit trafficyou really have to watch every one because theyre all coming at you and theyre all drunk.
I never felt scared, but sometimes I felt sort of concerned. Like today, the waves were fairly big and I was going a mile or more across the bay. They were big, the worst was when I was going into the wind and wasnt moving anywhere and paddling for all I was worth. When nature turns on the power, theres not much you can do about it. I guess you can always turn around and let the wind push you in a different direction.
There was one time, early on, I was battling against them, boom, boom, smacking the waves, and part of it was me going against them. So I decided to let the wave come up, and then I rolled over them. I realized I just needed to calm down a bit. One wave at a time.
NE: You must be a lot stronger.
SB: I am. A big part of this was to reclaim my body. As a writer (for Harbor House Publishers), Id been driving a lot for my job, hundreds of miles a week going to assignments and then sitting at a desk in front of the computer. I knew I could stand to lose 10 pounds. I dont know how much I have lost, but I feel much better.
I like knowing you can use your own power to push this boat along, and that Im using solar power and wind power. You might not be able to power the entire country this way, but if everyone did a little more with alternative power in their own daily life, it would go a long way to reducing our consumption of non-renewable resources. Walk to the store. Instead of driving the car to the gym, walk to the gym. It seems kind of ironic that youd drive to the gym.
NE: Whats it like to paddle in the rain?
SB: The boat has a cockpit seven feet long with a canvas cover, and I can wrap it around me. The first time it rained, it was unbelievably beautiful. The drops of rain would hit the water and bounce up. It sounded like a rain stick. If theres thunder or lightening I pull over.
NE: Whats next?
SB: Im not sure where the rest of my life is going to be. One of Verlens goals was to circumnavigate all the Great Lakes. I like the Great Lakes a lot. You can swim and wade in them without fear of being bitten or stung, and you can drink the water.
NE: Did you miss Ruth?
SB: Yes, I missed her a lot, but we talked every night, and we were meeting every 10 days on the Michigan sideless often on the Canadian side. Its been an adventure for both of us. She did the web page (www.greatlakescanoe.com). I thought Id be blogging, but camping has been the hard part and takes a lot of time. Ive got to find a place, unload the boat, cook and clean, put the tent up, take it down. I gave her a disk of photos every time we met and she said Id taken 4,000 photos.
NE: How many miles a day do you go?
SB: My longest day was 28 miles, but that was a crazy day. I started at 9 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m. I stayed with people and didnt have to deal with making breakfast and taking a camp down, and I was going to meet Ruth in the harbor in Tobermory.
Its been about 10 to 15 miles a day. I dont judge them in terms of miles, but more on the people I meet and the photos I take. Im not exactly going very fastabout three miles an hour. Today, with the sail, Im going four to five miles an hour. The sail is fun.
NE: How do you recharge your phone?
SB: I have a pretty cool solar panel. It rolls up, 12 x 40 inches, and its imprinted with photovoltaic cells. You can lay it on the deck with a bungee cord. I have a whole bunch of electronic stuff. The camera battery and a marine band radio.
NE: Highlight of the trip?
SB: I never knew how liberating it was to be alone and set my own schedule. At first, I was kind of concerned I wasnt going enough miles a day. Then it clicked on me, it was whatever pace I was going. It didnt matter.
The other highlight is meeting all the people on boats and onshore.
Theyre just unbelievably generous and interested. One guy north of Oscoda came down to my camp with this trout, wrapped in aluminum foil and grape leaves. It was just amazing.
The most interesting time I had was on Cockburn Island, across from Drummond Island in Ontario. There are no police, and one caretaker for this 100-year-old village that has no ferry service. The day I was there, I was the 13th person on the island. I walked around, and heard these four guys talking on their porch. I asked them if there was a store. And then they all said at the same time, No, theres no store. You want a beer? I got the feeling that this had happened a few times before.
They almost immediately invited me to dinner. One of the four guys was a caretaker. They told me, Darrin will give you a tour of the island and well give you dinner at six. So he gives me a tour-hour ride around the island, beating around the dirt roads, showing me the old school and cemetery.
NE: Speaking of hospitality, was it hard to find a place to camp?
SB: Not really. The beauty of this boat is that I can land anyplace. I dont have to go to a marina. There are some wild and remote areas on the lake, so its no problem there. But sometimes at the end of the day Im in an area thats bumper-to-bumper cottages. My strategy there is to pull over, and wait for someone to walk by on the beach, and I ask if theyd mind if I camped there, and inevitably it works out.
NE: Do you wear a life jacket?
SB: Yup, all the time. Its crazy not to.
NE: Now the money question. How much did this cost?
SB: I cant give you a good answer. Food wasnt too expensive. Fruits, nuts, power bars, some dehydrated food for vegetarians. Ninety percent of the time, I was sleeping for free. If you dont include the canoe, it didnt cost that much. Maybe the price of a home entertainment system.
NE: So whats next?
SB: Well I quit my joba great idea in this economy (laughs). But Ruth and I are working on a book documenting the trip, with lots of photos, and maybe a calendar too.