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Brad Dokken: They made it! Couple completes bicycle and canoe trip around perimeter of Minnesota

Tony and Kathy Mommsen pedaled and paddled through Grand Forks in early September 2021 on the first leg of their adventure.

Tony and Kathy at.jpeg
Tony and Kathy Mommsen of Minneapolis stand by the marker on the Minnesota-Ontario border at Monument Portage on the west end of Lake Saganaga in August 2022 during the second leg of their bicycle and canoe trip around Minnesota. They started the trip in August 2021 on the St. Croix River and wrapped up the adventure Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, at Grand Portage National Monument in northeast Minnesota.
Contributed/Tony Mommsen
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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

GRAND FORKS – Last September, a Minneapolis couple pedaled and paddled through Grand Forks on the first leg of a bicycle-and-canoe trek around Minnesota that started Aug. 2, 2021, on the St. Croix River and would take them as far as Rainy Lake before they called it a season in mid-September.

When Tony and Kathy Mommsen traveled by bicycle, Tony would tow their canoe on a makeshift trailer. When paddling, the couple would carry their Trek 520 touring bicycles onboard their 18½-foot Wenonah Odyssey canoe.

The trip took them on an east-to-west route across southern Minnesota and eventually down the Red River to Kittson County in northwest Minnesota and east through such communities as Hallock, Badger, Roseau and Warroad.

They arrived at Rainy Lake on Sept. 14, 2021.

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The incident occurred the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 23, when Kittson County deputies Alex Rudnik and Dave Thompson spotted what at first glance looked like two bucks standing side by side eating in a field near Hallock, Minn.

This summer, the Mommsens finished the trek – more or less – but instead of traveling with both canoes and bicycles, they divided the trip into two parts, pedaling from Grand Portage, Minn., to St. Croix Falls, Wis., from July 15 until July 21.

Then, on July 29, friends gave them a ride to Crane Lake, where they launched their canoes and paddled along the Minnesota-Ontario border, arriving back at Grand Portage on Aug. 10.

“It was great just paddling – without bikes,” Tony Mommsen said. Including last year’s adventure, they spent 35 days canoeing – about 620 miles – and 30 days biking – about 1,100 miles – he says.

Tony and Kathy Mommsen launched their 18½-foot Wenonah Odyssey canoe loaded with two Trek 520 touring bicycles, a small makeshift canoe trailer and various camping gear into the St. Croix River at St. Croix Falls, Wis., on Aug. 2. Since then, they’ve pedaled or paddled across southern Minnesota on an east-west route that eventually took them to the Red River and north to Kittson County near the Manitoba border in far northwest Minnesota.

A semi-retired graphic artist and web designer, Tony said the inspiration for their around-the-state trek came from a podcast he’d heard about a bike rider who had pedaled around Texas.

Traveling the perimeter of Minnesota seemed like a perfect fit for the couple, who both are avid bicycle and canoe campers. Kathy is a ceramic artist.

Originally, Tony says, they had planned to start this year’s trip in June, picking up where they left off on Rainy Lake. Near-record flooding on Rainy Lake and family issues forced them to delay the trip until July.

“We were pinched for time, so we skipped Rainy Lake and Voyageurs National Park,” Tony said. “We may do that next summer.”

They opted to start in Grand Portage and bike down the North Shore, Tony says, in hopes that the flooding along the Minnesota-Ontario border would subside by the time they launched their canoe.

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Plus, they were able to leave a vehicle near Grand Portage, which would then be waiting for them when they completed the canoe portion of their trip.

That simplified the logistics.

Tony Mommsen on Bong Bridge.jpeg
Tony Mommsen of Minneapolis pedals the bike path over the Bong Bridge in July 2022 while biking from Grand Portage, Minnesota, back to the Twin Cities.
Contributed/Kathy Mommsen

“We couldn’t even imagine bringing those bikes down Highway 61 pulling the canoe,” Kathy said of biking down the North Shore. “We had involved so many people with our original shuttles, and we kept changing because the weather kept changing. And it just was like, ‘OK, we have to get this simpler’ – it just got too complicated.”

The second leg of the trip – from Crane Lake and through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to Grand Portage – was a longtime “bucket list” trip of theirs, Tony says, even though it meant crossing 40 portages before reaching their destination.

From Crane Lake, the trip along the border took them through such bodies of water as Loon Lake, Lac La Croix, Basswood Lake, Knife Lake, Saganaga Lake, Gunflint Lake and the Pigeon River before arriving at Grand Portage.

The voyageurs traveled that route because there was minimal portaging until they got closer to Grand Portage, Tony says.

Tony and pictograph.jpg
Tony Mommsen admires a pictograph painting of a moose on Lac La Croix on the Minnesota-Ontario border during the second leg of the canoe and bicycle trip he and his wife, Kathy, made around the perimeter of Minnesota.
Contributed/Kathy Mommsen

“There’s some big portages farther east but for the most part, it’s just a lot of great paddling and easy portaging, so it’s beautiful,” he said.

The paddling portion of the trip wasn’t without its challenges, though. Because of all the flooding- and weather-related schedule changes, they had to redo their BWCA permits a half-dozen times.

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Bow seat log.jpeg
A broken bracket holding the bow seat of their Wenonah canoe in place broke during their trip along the border, forcing Tony and Kathy Mommsen of Minneapolis to improvise by wedging a log under the seat to hold it in place.
Contribute/Tony Mommsen

In addition, an aluminum bracket holding the bow seat in place broke near Basswood Lake, and they had to prop the seat up with a log they carried with them for the remainder of the trip, adding to the weight of the gear they carried across portages.

They carried their food, mainly dried goods such as soup mixes, chili and oatmeal, in bear-proof canisters, which now are required for travelers in the BWCA.

They were hoping to repair the seat at Gunflint Lodge, but while that didn’t work out, they were able to drop off a backpack they didn’t need, removing about 30 pounds of unneeded weight for the last five days of the trip. They picked up the pack before heading back to the Twin Cities.

Trip highlights – and there were many – included ancient pictographs on Lac La Croix and an abundance of blueberries, which likely benefited from the wet conditions.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” Tony said. “You’d sit down and just pick. You didn’t even have to move. The bears must have loved it.”

Parking their vehicle at Grand Portage National Monument, where it stayed for nearly a month, allowed them to avoid portaging the full 8½ miles of the Grand Portage; 5 miles was far enough, Tony says.

“I didn’t really need the whole experience,” he said.

Kathy Mommsen at the Grand Portage.jpeg
Kathy Mommsen of Minneapolis stands by a sign marking the entrance to the Grand Portage in August 2022 on the home stretch of a canoe-and-bicycle trip that took Kathy and her husband, Tony, around the perimeter of Minnesota. The Mommsens passed through Grand Forks in early September 2021 on the first leg of their trip, which last year took them as far as Rainy Lake. They finished up the trip in July and August this year.
Contributed/Tony Mommsen

They did, however, bike the portion they didn’t portage to start the trip, Kathy says.

With their trip around Minnesota complete, the Mommsens say they’d someday like to spend more time in the BWCA and adjacent Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario exploring all of the pictographs, an adventure that could take at least a month.

“They are always on the prettiest parts of the prettiest lakes, so it would be amazing,” Tony said. “And there’s a lot of pictographs we haven’t seen.”

With kids and grandkids both in Atlanta and New Mexico, adventures farther south also are a possibility.

For now, though, that’s in the future.

“We’re just kind of enjoying the trip we just did,” Kathy said.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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