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Bryan Hansel follows in Winchell’s path

By Brian Larsen
A local man decided to follow the route of famous American geologist Newton Horace Winchell as he surveyed Cook County in 1879. Along the way, he discovered some of Winchell’s portages and geology work.

Bryan Hansel, a noted outdoor photographer and inventor of filters for cameras, spent 11 days on a rugged solo trip that pushed him physically and mentally but turned out to be just what he was looking for.

“I followed the route that State Geologist Newton Horace Winchell took on his 1879 visit to the area. It went from Grand Marais to Lutsen via the Iron Trail to Trail Center, then the Border Route to Sea Gull, and from there to the Ojibwe canoe route to Lutsen on the Poplar River,” said Hansel.

“I climbed Mallmann Peak on the route. Winchell’s team named the peak on their trip. Mallmann was a member of the trip,” recounted Hansel.

All in all, Bryan traveled about 160 miles with 20-30 miles of portages.

“I need to actually map out the total distance. I found a site where Winchell took rock samples and a rock cairn that Mallmann might have built,” Hansel said.
Below is a map of the route that Newton Horace Winchell took to survey the county. This is the route that Hansel followed.

Below is a map of the route that Newton Horace Winchell took to survey the county. This is the route that Hansel followed.

Winchell, who wrote a six-volume work of the Geology of Minnesota, surveyed Cook County with his assistants. Before he would retire, Winchell would be one of the founders of the Geological Society of America, teach college, and be one of the chief organizers of the Minnesota Academy of Sciences, among many other academic pursuits and endeavors.

Hansel agreed to answer some questions about his journey.

Q- What motivated you to take this trip?

A- I had originally planned to ride my bike across the country this year, but last year with the pandemic, I canceled the bike ride and started looking for a difficult, shorter trip closer to home. I was originally considering following one of Grant’s routes, but then this Winchell trip fell into my lap, and it seemed unusual and difficult enough to satisfy my need to push myself.
Hansel discovered a rock caron believed to have been built by Mallmann, one of Winchell’s crew members.

Hansel discovered a rock caron believed to have been built by Mallmann, one of Winchell’s crew members.

Q- What were the portages like? Were there even trails, or did you have to bushwhack occasionally?

A- I ended up using existing infrastructure where some of the old portages no longer exist. For example, the 1879 Iron Trail portage from Grand Marais ran from the harbor up the Sawtooth Bluffs and crossed the glen on the way to Devil Track. I looked for any sign of that portage before the trip and couldn’t find it. Instead, I walked 8th Avenue West to the hospital and then got on the Gunflint to the powerline cut behind the water tower, and then I followed the Superior Hiking Trail to Meridian road to Devil Track. The goal was to stay as close to the original route as I could.

I did have to bushwhack on several occasions. The forest in those cases was most dense and choked full of trees. Often, I pushed or pulled the canoe behind me because it was impossible to portage a canoe through those conditions. It was slow going at about a half a mile per hour.

Most of the portages still exist inside the BWCAW. I found the start of a missing portage. It was clear as day and exactly where it should have been, based on the original plat surveys of 1874. That portage went from Marshall Lake to Little Trout, and if the Forest Service reopened the portage, it would make for more route possibilities from the entry points on Lima Grade. It was so dense with chokedout trees and blowdowns that I paddled around it via Brule and Winchell.

Q- Did you see much wildlife along the way?

A- I saw lots of birds, including two to three bald eagles each day. My best encounter was with two bald eagles. They were in a tree at a portage rubbing heads. As I approached, one flew to a tree about 20 feet overhead, and the other stayed at eye level and just feet away even as I landed my canoe and started to portage. I’ve never had that close of an encounter with a bald eagle before. It was amazing!

Q- Did you canoe or kayak? What type of canoe or kayak did you use?

A- I used a Northstar Magic solo canoe. It’s fast, stable, handles big waves and easily carries a load. It was also light! Even with the wood gunwale, which adds weight over aluminum, my Magic weighs only 28 pounds.

Q- How long were your days before setting up camp? Did you take a lot of pictures?

A- For a typical day, I’d wake at 4:30 a.m. and try to get on the water before 6 a.m. Then I’d paddle until 3 p.m. and start looking for a good campsite. If I didn’t find one, I’d take the first one available after 5 p.m. I was paddling and portaging so much that I only took 1,000 pictures. I even forgot to take a picture of the best view I’ve ever had in the BWCA. The view was from a three-mile round trip bushwhack trying to find a survey pin on a remote peak.

Q- Do you know much about Mallmann? I read a bit about Newton Horace Winchell and found that he lived quite an academic and adventurous life.

A- I don’t know much about Mallmann. He joined Winchell on this trip. During the journey, he surveyed the mountains around Kek by himself or with a small team and then returned with the survey results for Winchell. The descriptions of the area from Winchell’s report were much different from what I encountered. Winchell found the rocks and mountains completely nude of trees and vegetation from fires. In the same area, I bushwhacked through dense forests and under 100-year-old pines.

Q- Last, have you taken other trips where you followed a famous route before?

A- This was the first trip that was specifically following a historic route. I’ve paddled the border route several times before, and that follows the historic fur trade route. Reading Winchell’s annual report about the trip as I was paddling it added a level of enjoyment to the trip and opened up my eyes about the rocks I was seeing and passing on the journey. I hope to follow another historic trip in the future as long as there’s a journal or report that I can read from the original traveler.

Published in Grand Marais

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