Kayak lady closes in on paddling all 1,007 Itasca County lakes
NEAR BIGFORK, Minn. -- Here she comes now, leaning into her work, dragging her kayak through a remnant trail among the popple. Mary Shideler, better known as The Kayak Lady, is on a mission for Lake No. 909.
Already, Shideler has paddled her hand-built kayak on 908 of the 1,007 lakes in Itasca County. On this June afternoon, with friend Catherine McLynn, she plans to paddle remote Finley Lake. But there is some hauling to be done first. The lake is three-quarters of a mile from the nearest road.
"This first part is wet," says Shideler, 46, a massage therapist from Grand Rapids.
Well, yes. It's a swamp. If you poke a boot through its quaking surface, you can sink knee-deep. In Shideler's case, that would be something beyond knee-deep. This wiry dynamo stands just 4-feet-8¾ inches tall. She weighs 94 pounds.
"I was probably in three digits when I started," she says.
She doesn't mean when she started this portage. She means 1996. At that time, she and her former husband had each built a kayak. After hers was complete, Shideler tried it out on a few nearby Itasca County lakes. She loved the kayak and the independence it gave her. Then she started thinking bigger.
"I thought, 'We've done three or four lakes. I might as well try to do 50 a year,'" she says.
Then she decided to take on the whole county.
"I'm 50 percent Russian and 100 percent curious," she says by way of explanation.
Now, she's 12 years into her quest. She has become something of a public figure in the county, the subject of newspaper and community television and magazine features.
"Almost everyone in Itasca County has heard of The Kayak Lady," McLynn says.
Shideler sometimes refers to herself in third-person.
"On Saturday, The Kayak Lady will be in Marcell giving a talk," she said on the hour-long road trip to Finley Lake.
She has printed "Kayak Lady" business cards. Before she gives you one, she fills in the blank on the back where it says, "(blank) lakes paddled since July 1996."
McLynn, who has joined Shideler on many of these outings since 2006, is not far behind The Kayak Lady on this march to Finley Lake. After the swamp, they cross some higher ground, where they tow their kayaks on sets of wheels that strap to the crafts. The wheels come off again for the last quarter-mile through a cedar swamp.
McLynn, an Itasca County commissioner, has been helpful to Shideler in finding access to some of these remote lakes. In the beginning, getting to lakes was much easier, Shideler says.
"The first 400 or 500 had public access. You could drive to them," she says. "The next couple hundred were across someone's land or down a trail, either carrying the boat or dragging it or putting in on the cart. The next couple hundred, I've had to bushwhack or use GPS."
She and McLynn have often snowshoed or skied to these more remote lakes in the winter, prospecting a route they can return to in the summer.
She had to haul her kayak a mile and a half to a lake this spring, she says.
"It's really weeded out who goes with me," she says. "It's getting far more interesting."
The cedar swamp finally gives way to a tiny creek. Shideler and McLynn launch their kayaks. A photographer and I launch a canoe. We all pull over one beaver dam, then paddle the remaining half-mile to 34-acre Finley Lake.
The rules for paddling a lake are Shideler's alone. This is her project, not some Guinness Book of World Records endeavor. If the lake is less than 200 acres in size, she usually paddles its entire shoreline. On larger lakes, she paddles a portion of the water body.
She also takes a depth reading and a Secchi-disc reading to determine water clarity. Finley Lake is just deeper than Shideler is tall, at 5½ feet. Its Secchi-disc clarity is 4½ feet. She will provide those findings to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Itasca County officials.
As she circumnavigates Finley Lake, a storm is brewing on the western horizon, and Shideler keeps a close eye on the sky.
"Mary has a very healthy respect for nature and the woods and water and weather," McLynn says. "She does not take unnecessary risks with lightning, but rain does not deter her."
Shideler figures it will take her this summer and one more to complete her 1,007 lakes. She is working on a book about the venture. She hopes to have it published by the time she reaches her 1,000th lake. Then, she'll tack on the final seven.
Except for one man who told her she was "nuts," people have been supportive of Shideler's challenge, she says. Many have allowed her to cross their property to reach a lake. Many have suggested a favorite lake for her to visit.
"They ask, 'Have you ever been to this lake?'" she says. "Then we play the game. After 800 or 900, I've been there."
Now, she has been to Finley, too. As the storm approaches, we make the return trip. Up the creek. Over the beaver dam. Through the cedars. Back through the swamp and the clouds of mosquitoes.
"That's about all the fun I can stand in one day," McLynn says back at the car.
For The Kayak Lady, 909 is in the books. Soon, along with 1,006 others, it'll be in the book.