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Duluth Fire Department Capt. Charles Smith of Engine Company Three retrieves Erik Simula's dog, Kitigan, from the water-laden canoe in the Duluth ship canal. The firefighters happened to be nearby on their way to training when the call for a canoeist in trouble came in. They assisted Simula despite their lack of life jackets. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Canoe journey hits rough water in Duluth ship canal

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A canoeist making a 1,000-mile journey was rescued by the Duluth Fire Department on Tuesday morning when his heavily laden canoe took on water in the Duluth ship canal.

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Erik Simula of Hovland was trying to enter the Duluth harbor when his birch-bark canoe began to swamp, despite the spray skirt he had rigged.

"The swells out there [on the lake] are pretty big, but you ride up and over them," he said later. "But in there [the canal] there's chop ... I just kind of filled up."

Simula, 44, is making a 1,000-mile trip from Grand Portage to the Mississippi River, north to the Canadian border and back east to Grand Portage. He started April 22 and reached Duluth early Tuesday.

People who saw Simula approaching the ship canal called authorities to report a canoeist in trouble.

"He was struggling. It looked like the waves were going into his boat," said Patty Goltzman of Apple Valley, Minn., who is visiting Duluth with her husband, Mark.

"I thought he was going to flip over," Mark Goltzman said.

Firefighters arrived on the scene as Simula entered the ship canal.

"When we heard he was in the canal, we were concerned," Assistant Chief Richard Mattson said. "There can be a pretty good current going in and out of there."

The Goltzmans and other tourists watched as firefighters descended a ladder on the north pier to help Simula. One firefighter held the boat while Simula bailed water. Simula didn't want to leave his canoe, Patty Goltzman said.

"He wanted to stay in and have them [the firefighters] pull him wherever they were taking his boat," she said.

Rescuers, however, wouldn't allow that. First, they lifted Simula's dog Kitigan to safety. After two firefighters arrived in a boat, Simula climbed the ladder to the pier. Firefighters took his canoe under tow and delivered it to the Coast Guard station.

The Coast Guard ticketed Simula for having a life jacket that didn't zip up.

"Kind of sobering. Close call," Simula said, reflecting on the experience.

Simula, who is originally from Duluth, built the 13-foot birch-bark canoe he's using on this trip. He works as a park ranger at Grand Portage National Monument in the summers and operates dogsledding trips for Bearskin Lodge on the Gunflint Trail during winters. He has taught bark-canoe-building courses at North House Folk School in Grand Marais.

Simula has dreamed of doing this trip for the past 10 years, said Dawn Simula, his former wife and once-again partner.

He and his dog, Kitigan, will travel up the St. Louis River to Floodwood, then make the Savanna Portage to Big Sandy Lake and the Mississippi River. He'll stop in Grand Rapids for his daughter Anna's high school graduation, then continue to the Bigfork and Rainy rivers. From International Falls, he'll paddle through Voyageurs National Park, down the international border and make the nine-mile Grand Portage back to the town of Grand Portage by about Aug. 7.

Simula is a seasoned canoeist who paddled to Hudson Bay in 1984. Dawn Simula posts updates on his trip Web site, www.arrowheadjourney.wordpress.com.

The trip is sponsored in part by Bearskin Lodge.

"In a way, it's a just a canoe trip with me and my dog," Simula had said in an interview on Monday. "The other intriguing part is doing it in a birch-bark canoe. Part of it is a personal challenge to see if I can get me and this canoe around that kind of a route."

He hopes the challenges don't come any greater than what he encountered in the Duluth ship canal Tuesday morning.

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