Adventure – A remarkable occurrence in one’s personal history; a stirring experience; a bold undertaking.
Exploring the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) qualifies for these definitions and more. Few other vacations could be defined as an adventure.
HDTV is replaced by breath-taking spruce, birch, and fir forests filled with wildlife. Harsh office lighting gives way to crackling campfires, northern lights and shooting stars. SUVs are exchanged for study paddles, portage packs, and sleek canoes. Noise, traffic, and congestion fade away into the haunting call of the loon, the whisper of the evergreens, and the soft clatter of aspen trees.
The Boundary Waters is the largest Federal designated wilderness east of the Mississippi River. Thousands of square miles of forests, rivers, and lakes await those bold enough to leave their cell phone mentality behind. And wilderness it is. No motors. No towns. No highways. Black bear, moose, deer, wolves, and bald eagles delight the lucky viewer, or torment the untidy camper. Deep Canadian Shield lakes hold the big four of the North Country: walleye, lake trout, smallmouth bass, and northern pike, some of which grow to trophy sizes.
Wilderness camping isn’t for the timid or worrisome. There are no stores. No hot showers. No Starbucks. In many cases it takes miles of back-breaking paddling and portaging to reach a campsite. And expert medical care is those same miles of paddling and portaging back. Cell phone coverage is limited, if at all.
Lac La Croix, Ontario, Canada
Some may ask, why risk it? Similar scenery and fishing can be found on many lakes of the North Country, but with a warm cabin and cozy bed waiting at the end of the day.
The answer varies from person to person with one underlying theme. It is a wilderness and elemental self-reliance is the way of life, as is true in any real adventure.
To some, it is a test of their limits. Personal boundaries are pushed back as self-confidence and muscles are strengthened. Every paddle stroke is a step to becoming the person we all want to be.
Lynn Voss put it this way. “God created a song that only plays in the wilderness. The melody is the wind in the pines, the lap of the waves on a rocky beach, and the roar of the water after a set of rapids. The chorus is sung by the loon’s call, the eagle’s cry, and lonely howl of the wolf. You write your own words. And everyone’s song is different.
If you hear your song, you're compelled to return. Because it only plays in the wilderness.”
Exploration is a strong motivator for many. A desire to see what is just around the bend, to wonder over a breath-taking waterfall, to ponder the precious prehistoric rock drawings left by travelers in centuries past.
For others, it is a place to leave modern cares behind, to refresh the batteries of their soul while enjoying life’s simpler pleasures.
Nature's family room.
Canoeing in the BWCA takes planning. Entry and camping is restricted to provide a true wilderness experience. Entry is regulated by a permit system for the peak season. There are over fifty entry points into the BWCA and set permits for each entry point per day.
Permits must be used on the set day and the set entry point. Entering on another day or at a different entry point can result in fines. Permits for popular lakes and routes are taken fast. Experienced canoeists will order their permits as soon as they are available in January to assure that their favorite entry point will be available in the summer.
Groups are limited to nine people and four canoes. Camping is only allowed in designated campsites that have a provided iron fire grate and a pit toilet.
Why all the restrictions? It wouldn’t be a wilderness if every lake was wall-to-wall campers. The goal is a quality experience, not quantity.
While hiking is allowed in the BWCA, canoeing is the most popular method to enjoy it. The BWCA is made up of travel routes using lakes, rivers, and portages between them. These same routes had been used for centuries during the fur trade as Native American and Anglo traders transported their bales of furs and goods.
Lake Agnes, Minnesota
Some routes are easy. Entry is gained from a short portage, or even directly onto a lake. Other routes are challenging, even for veteran canoeist. Days of canoeing and long portages can strain even the most physically fit. Stiff backs, tired feet, and sore shoulders come with the territory. However, the deeper you go into the BWCA, the fewer people you will see, and the higher quality trip you can have. Some lakes rarely get visited and as such, the fish are not lure shy.
In most cases, any camper from seven to seventy can make the trek, if properly prepared. On our last trip we met two women in their seventies heading for Lac LaCroix, a lake on the Canadian border 12 miles, and seven long portages away!
No matter the route you explore, limit your gear to lightweight necessities. While standard tripping canoes normally carry 800 pounds of gear, that same gear must be moved in a back-breaking exercise at every portage.
Gear for a family of four.
The lakes and rivers of the BWCA are connected portages or trails. These paths also bypass water hazards like rapids and waterfalls. Measured in rods, some portages are short. Other portages can be miles long and the distance is doubled with every gear shuttle. Blocking a portage while you prepare lunch is not permitted!
A long portage of ninety rods.
Inexperienced visitors generally bring too much or oversized gear. Generally speaking, if you use it car camping, it’s too big or not needed. Backpacking gear is the rule of the day. Small stoves, small tents, lightweight sleeping bags, and minimum cookware are the key to fewer portage trips.
Limit clothing to just a few outfits. Lightweight nylon pants and polyester shirts are lighter than denim and dry faster if they get wet. Lawn furniture, coolers, and huge wall tents will only make the trip more burdensome. If you think you might need something, don’t bring it. Limit yourselves while packing, then go through and weed out even more.
To point out why gear should be minimal, a popular route to Lake Agnes has five portages, the very first of which is a half mile long. The average group makes a triple portage, meaning each member carries canoes, paddles, fishing poles, life vests, and huge portage packs down the trail three times. That’s two and a half miles of hard walking before even getting in the canoe! Veteran canoeists limit their gear to perform a single carry portage, meaning they can carry all their gear and canoe in one trip. It’s simple. Less gear equals less trips and more time and energy for fishing once you get to the campsite.
Since there’s no way to keep food refrigerated meals are usually freeze-dried or other weight-light non-perishable fare. Since black bears are ever present, food must be carefully hung in trees or anchored in waterproof barrels off shore.
Each season has its advantages and is disadvantages. In late May and into June, offers the best fishing, but high water, clouds of biting bugs and cold weather can make camping miserable. In July the weather is warmer but fishing not as good. In August there are fewer biting bugs, low water levels, but the fishing is relatively poor. This may be the best time for children and new campers as the water is now warm enough for swimming and it’s wild blueberry season! In September the BWCA is at its best. There are spectacular fall colors, great fishing, cool weather, few visitors, and no bugs.
If you are an experienced canoe camper, there are books and websites to help plan your visit. For the rest, there are outfitters. An outfitter makes a living by outfitting you with the permits, gear, food, and canoes that you will need. They can also take you out to an entry point and pick you up days later.
Some outfitters are better than others are. I, and many of the folks I know, rely on Voyageur North Outfitters (VNO) in Ely, Minnesota. John and Lynn O’Kane, owners of VNO, are avid canoeists and know the Boundary Waters from more than 25 years of exploring it themselves. If they recommend a route, campsite, or fishing hotspot, it’s because they’ve been there. The gear they use is top-notch and exactly what you need. Whether you are a novice, or an avid voyager, you can’t go wrong with Lynn and John when exploring the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
No matter what you do don't let this be the last you read when planning your adventure in the BWCAW. There is a wealth of information on the Internet and in books. I recommend reading as much as you can before going.
BWCA Entry Reservations
Boundary Water/Quetico Bulletin Board -- http://www.canoecountry.com/bulletinboard/
Voyageur North Outfitters -- Ely, Minnesota -- http://www.vnorth.com/
Red Rock Store Outfitters – Ely Minnesota – www.redrockstore.com
Boundary Waters Journal -- http://www.boundarywatersjournal.com/
Route planner -- http://owl.boreal.org/canoeit.com/route-search/
BoundaryWaters Canoe Area /Western Region by Robert Beymer -- Routes and basics on canoeing in the BW. ISBN 0899972373
BoundaryWaters Canoe Area /Eastern Regionby Robert Beymer -- Routes and basics on canoeing in the BW. ISBN 0899972381
The Back Country Kitchenby Teresa Marrone - Camp Cooking for Canoeists, Hikers, and Anglers ISBN 09651535309
A Boundary Waters Fishing Guide by Robert Furtman ISBN 0916691004
Pictures and text by Alan J. Garbers