At 69, she's still wild for the wilderness

Woman continues solo wilderness treks, well into retirement

Sam Cook / Duluth News Tribune /

Published Aug 16, 2013 at 05:00AM

DULUTH, Minn. — Sandra Potter realized, years ago, she wasn’t getting enough time in northern Minnesota’s canoe country. Each summer, she would take a weeklong trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with friends.

“My friends would say they couldn’t wait to get back and have a hamburger or a beer or take a shower,” Potter said. “But I was never ready to leave. So, I decided to do something about it.”

Potter, now 69, told the story as she sat at a picnic table on a remote, paddle-in campsite at Scenic State Park on a July evening.

“I went to the end of the Gunflint Trail (north of Grand Marais) and learned to paddle solo,” said Potter, of Bayport, Minn. “I got Cliff Jacobson’s book and strapped it to the thwart.”

Reading Jacobson’s guide to paddling, the schoolteacher taught herself to paddle a solo canoe. She went on to make a dozen solo trips in the canoe country. Now, due to a heart condition and arthritis, she’s unable to do the rigorous work of portaging in the Boundary Waters. But she can still paddle.

Every summer, she spends a week at a paddle-in campsite in Scenic State Park, away from the crowds, across a lake. By herself.

Not scared

“My women friends say, ‘Aren’t you scared?’” she says. “But I tell them I’m probably safer there than in the Twin Cities.”

She loads her food and gear into her canoe at the park’s boat landing. She paddles about three-quarters of a mile to the camp. She uses her two canes to steady herself as she carries her gear up from the sandy landing to the campsite. She pitches her little blue solo tent. She settles in for the week.

It would be easy for someone like Potter to give up this kind of travel. She could drive right to a state park campsite. She could do it the easy way. But that wouldn’t give her the kind of experience she wants.

“Every time I come here,” Potter said, “I feel like I’ve had a wilderness experience.”

One night, about four years ago, she heard a bear rustling around in her camp. She got out of her tent with a flashlight and chased down the bear. It had been dragging away her rubberized bag full of food. Potter scared off the bear, reclaimed her food and went back to bed.

Most of her wildlife experiences have been benign, she said. Interacting with wildlife is part of the reason she still seeks her near-wilderness experiences.

“One time, I was sitting on a log, taking off my hiking boots. A hummingbird came and landed right there,” Potter said, using one index finger to point at another.

Beneath the old pines at her campsite in Scenic State Park, Potter will sometimes sit on the point and just watch. She’ll visit with anglers who come by, pitching lures toward the point. She’ll take her canoe and go for a quiet paddle in the bay. She’ll sit in her chair beneath the trees and read.

“When I come here,” Potter said, “I feel like I’m back where I belong.”

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