Recap Interview: Eighteen-year-old Gearlab Athlete Alex Martin Completes First Solo Circumnavigation of Lake Winnipeg
By Gearlab Outdoors
Q: When and where did you finish?
A: I finished at 1 p.m. on August 3 at Grand Beach Provincial Park!
Q: What was your impression of your trip as you pulled into your last camp?
A: It felt surreal. I had set out on the trip with a goal of two months. Lake Winnipeg is known for being an infamous lake and paddlers usually face long periods of bad weather that can leave them stranded for days. In fact, during my trip I heard of a paddler who was going on a three-day paddle between two communities and became stranded due to bad weather for two and a half weeks. He had completely eaten into his spare food and hiked the remainder of the shoreline to get back in time. Finishing the trip in 27 days of paddling, I felt like I had only just begun. There were no post-trip blues, no joy at being done, just this feeling of "Wow, I'm done already?" It's an incredibly beautiful lake to paddle. It's been a dream of mine to do this trip, and taking those last few strokes to the beach felt amazing.
Q: What were the three most challenging experiences of the trip?
A: Because of the remote nature of Lake Winnipeg, animals were always a slight concern in the back of my mind. That said, the most danger comes from humanized animals, such as feral dogs, foxes, and bears around communities. One of the biggest challenges I had on my trip was determining wildlife risk. I had one tagged bear (formally captured after having entered a community, then released into the wilderness away from humans) follow me down the beach for seven kilometers. Because it had become used to the sound of human voices, it wouldn't scare off by the sound of my voice alone. I kept shouting at it, singing loudly, pounding on the deck of my kayak, and slapping my paddle on the water.
There was a thunderstorm rolling in and I had to get off the water. It became a question of risk: was I in more danger from the bear or from the thunderstorm? I chose thunderstorm and knew that I had to take further actions to deter the bear. I landed the kayak on a small rock about 100 meters from shore and loaded a bear banger into the launcher and fired it off. It produced a deafening noise that scared the bear off right away. I moved a few more kilometers down the shore and set up camp. It was the longest time I had been followed by a bear, and not something I wish to experience again.
Lake Winnipeg is well-known for its shallow bottom and storms that whip up quickly. A strong wind will push the water up and raise the water level significantly, and the waves have very little distance in between each swell. There was one storm in the north basin where the water level changed four feet within a few hours. I was paddling in eight-foot waves close to shore. I couldn't go closer to shore or I would risk smashing my fiberglass kayak into rocks or getting rolled by a cresting wave. I couldn't go out farther or I would be in bigger waves and with less protection from sandbars. I was at the northernmost point on the lake, hundreds of kilometers from any community, with a strong north wind that had triggered the squall warning for the lake. I couldn't land the kayak on the shore because the shoreline was completely washed away, with waves lapping against the bottom of multi-story mudslide cliffs. It was one of those days where you just wish you could stop but you have to power on and find a feasible campsite.
The southernmost point of the lake was also extremely difficult, but more mentally than physically. It's devoid of people, it's all mudflats, and it smells atrocious. There's garbage everywhere and the piers and boats are run-down. It's ankle deep for kilometers out, and there's absolutely no reliable way to navigate using paper maps. The shoreline has changed so much in recent years that the marshland is no longer accurately represented. It was mentally very challenging and was one of the only days where I felt truly lonely. A lot of people have heard me repeat the phrase, "There's a big difference between being alone and being lonely," and I rarely feel lonely in the wilderness, even on solo trips. But that dreary environment really took a massive toll on my mentality.
Q: What were the most rewarding experiences of the trip?
A: One of the most rewarding experiences was being able to teach kayaking to a group of kids in a northern community. During my trip, I had organized close to two weeks of time where I would be able to stay in northern communities to interview people for the upcoming school presentations. I met these kids who had never been kayaking before and were overjoyed to get to play around in the kayak. I taught them how to steer, how to edge, the difference between a euro-blade and a greenland paddle, and wet exits. I have never seen anyone have so much fun, especially in the pouring rain that they happily paddled in. I was overjoyed to be able to teach them; it was incredible.
Another favorite part of the trip was the isolation. I love being able to paddle into the middle of nowhere, and this trip really let me do that.
Q: Did you gather the environmental impact data you hoped to?
A: I sure did! I am super happy with everything I learned from my circumnavigation. I had the opportunity to talk to many people, record their stories, and take photos of environmental issues around the lake. I shared my experiences on social media and also plan to share them with students when I visit schools again this fall.
Q: What were some of your impressions based on your observations?
A: I knew going into this trip that the lake was diverse, but having been on the lake and seeing the damage and issues from a kayak really changes how you perceive things. I've paddled that lake my whole life, but the circumnavigation allowed me to see things that I had never seen on the lake before.
Q: Were there moments of humor?
A: Moving at 6-8 km/h really gives you a lot of time to focus on a point in the distance. I had one day where the visibility was probably around 30 km. I was paddling in what could aptly be described as "the middle of nowhere," when I saw a sailboat in the distance. It seemed to be really keeled over and making a fast run towards shore. Confused, I watched it for a little over an hour and a half as I paddled towards it. That's when the white speck started moving towards me, and, within a matter of minutes, had flown over my head. Turns out the sailboat was a pelican drifting in the water. I had focused for an hour and a half on a bird.
Q: How did your gear perform?
A: Lake Winnipeg is super sandy, so you can expect a lot of wear and tear on your gear, but I had no major problems with any piece of gear. One of my favorite things about the Gearlab paddles is the connection system. It doesn't clog with sand and won't break down, which I really appreciated. I depended a lot on my gear to keep me both safe and efficient, and the Kalleq stood up to the test.
For updates on the trip, visit the Lake Winnipeg Circumnavigation Campaign on Facebook.