Since he was a child, Andy Elkins’ extended family has taken many excursions into the untrammeled wilderness between northern Minnesota and Ontario known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
It’s a tradition he carried on as a leader of his son Ethan’s Boy Scout troop and with his wife, Kathryn, and daughter Emily.
But everything changed for Elkins in 2003 when his car flipped and rolled near Monroe and he suffered a traumatic brain injury. Less than a year later, he hit his head installing a soda fountain while working for Coca-Cola Company. “I had serious balance and cognitive speed issues, nausea. And I ended up having visual triggers from that,” says Elkins, who grew up and and lives in New Glarus. These triggers — including fast motion, bright lights, loud sounds, snow and flashing lights — were everywhere. Elkins received a disability diagnosis and went through “all kinds of therapy,” but his recovery reached a plateau. Instead of being an intrepid adventurer, he had to stop working, and he couldn’t drive.
In 2015, Elkins finally found some relief in a study at the UW-Madison’s Tactile Communication Neurorehabilitation Laboratory (TCNL) where he was treated with a device that retrains brain waves called a Portable Neuromodulation Stimulator.
After completing the study, Elkins felt good enough to revive a lifetime dream — crossing the “border route” of the Boundary Waters. This journey involves 200 miles of wilderness travel, traversing five rivers, 43 lakes and more than 10 miles of portage. It’s a challenge few people undertake. And when they do, they usually travel in canoes.
But Elkins set a high bar for himself: He wanted to use a standup paddleboard, which he had found to be a helpful addition to his physical therapy regime.
He began soliciting donations of gear and money and also set up a small charity called Silver Paddles as a fundraiser for the UW lab that helped him. “I was inspired to give back, pay forward,” says Elkins. Then he began assembling a support team that included his son Ethan, now 22, who lives in Whitewater.
On July 30, after practice runs in Governor Dodge State Park, the six-person team departed for a 14-day journey from Crane Lake to Grand Portage, Minnesota.
The logistics were daunting. Andy and Ethan captained the paddleboards (sturdy inflatables from Red Canoe), while the other four shared two canoes. In addition to the watercraft, they needed to carry 14 days of food and supplies, including fuel for stoves and rain gear.
They had to “double portage” because of the weight of the packs and watercraft. “It was a pretty serious challenge,” says Elkins. “What we ended up doing was taking our gear 500 feet, stopping, resting, picking up and taking it another 500 feet and leapfrogging that way.”
And so they continued, across lakes, rivers and forests. Elkins’ symptoms, triggered by playing a card game, held up the expedition for a half-day. One of the most harrowing moments on the trip was being caught between two fast-moving thunderstorms. Elkins was surprised to find that the paddleboards were better off in high waves than the canoes.
Elkins says his brain injury has reduced his ability to multitask, and this journey tested his mental and physical skills in equal measure. In the Boundary Waters, there’s really no turning back. “You have to designate your entry point, but then they don’t track you after that. You’re on your own,” says Elkins. “There are no low-flying airplanes allowed and no means of emergency exits — that is what scares away most people.”
“I think we all had questions if we’d make it, including myself,” he says. Most stressful, he says, was that he would likely be “the person that would cause the failure of the crossing.”
The trip ended in mid-August, and one of the things that pleased Elkins the most is completing his “Mount Everest” with his son: “I couldn’t have been more proud of him or happier to take him. He was excellent company and also knew the most about my condition and the most about the Boundary Waters. He was a great asset. It was a big bonding time.”