Although this blog will mostly be about hiking, I start my first blog about canoeing. Last July, I had the opportunity to check off one item from my “bucket list”–I got to travel with my dad to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota for a good week’s worth of canoeing, camping, portaging, and enjoying northern Minnesota.
The planning for this trip began in January, six months earlier, when we contacted Cliff Wold’s Outfitter in Ely, MN to help us to secure an entry permit and rent us a canoe. We wanted to enter the BWCAW at entry point 23, Mudro Lake, on July 2, 2014 and exit six days later at the same location. We would have a fairly leisurely loop with a fair amount of portaging. The route we selected is below.
The yellow markers are the start and finishing points of portages measured in “rods”. A rod is approximately 17 feet, the length of a canoe. Our portaging distances varied anywhere from just under 100 feet to just over a mile.
The red markers are established campsites. You are asked to only camp at established campsites in the BWCAW. The red arrows mark the actual locations where we ended up spending the night.
July 2, 2014–Day 1
We got off to what I thought was a bit of a late start. Dad and I had argued about the time the guys from Cliff Wold’s should pick us up to then take us to our entry point. He had originally wanted 10am. I talked him into 9am, but would have preferred an even earlier start.
Our driver Ryan was friendly twenty-something who had grown up in the area, had gone away to college in Florida, but was back working in Ely for an indefinite amount of time. He dropped us off, even portaging our canoe to the entry point for us.
We got our packs in the canoe, loaded Buddy the Wonder Dog in, and were off!
The day started off overcast, but the clouds would soon part and we’d enjoy a sunshine-filled day. We were feeling good with great nervous energy about what was to come.
The only one of us with too much nervous energy was Buddy the Wonder Dog. He hadn’t been in a canoe before and decided that he just wasn’t having any of it. Within the first five minutes he jumped out of the canoe into the lake and began paddling towards what he thought was firm ground–only it wasn’t. It was a bog of reeds and he panicked. Luckily, we were able to quickly paddle the canoe over to him and pick him up by the large handle on his life-vest and put him back in the boat. Although my dog is a good swimmer, I was very happy to have put him in a life-vest for this trip. The best part of the vest was the handle which I used to help him into and out of the canoe throughout the trip. It’s from Ruff Wear and was well worth its cost.
Day 1 turned out to be our longest day paddling of the trip. Why? All the campsites at our originally planned stopping point at Lower Basswood Falls were occupied by the time we got there in the late afternoon forcing us to paddle on further and finding camp as the sun was just about to set. The campsite we found was nice and the picture above was taken at that camp as the just before sun was setting creating great light on the lake. The picture below shows Big Agnes Mad House 4, bought on deep discount on REI-outlet at our first campsite.
While backpacking I’d never take anything so luxurious (and back-breaking!) as a four person, ten pound tent, but this is canoeing and most of the moving you do is not with a pack on your back but in the canoe. A few luxury items were quite welcomed on this type of trip. The Big Agnes Mad House is now discontinued (and thus the deep discounted price). Some have commented on the difficulty of set up. We had no difficulty with it and it keep us dry with ample room for two people and a dog throughout the whole trip.The two deep vestibules came in handy for keeping gear out of the rain which we had a lot of during our six days out on the BWCAW.
July 3, 2014–Day 2
On Day 2, we were greeted by a bright, beautiful day full of lots of sunshine. Prior to the trip, Ryan Olson over at Cliff Wold’s had shared with us some of his favorite campsites in this route. Night 2 would be spent at one of Ryan’s favorite spots and it would not disappoint. It was a relatively short day of canoeing, but then was filled with an afternoon of fishing and napping in the sun.
As you can see in the photo above, we had a bright, sunny day and a beautiful campsite that jutted out on a peninsula. You can also see two other luxury items that we brought with us–REI Flex Lite Chair. Again, this is not a luxury I’d take on a backpacking trip, but they were quite welcomed on the relaxed paced and with the large carrying capacity of the canoe on a canoe trip. These chairs are pretty light for their comfort and easy enough to store away in our packs when we portaged.
As you can see, Buddy the dog made himself right at home on a rock in the sun. By this time, he was feeling much more comfortable in the canoe and seem to be enjoying the trip. My dog can go from 110% to zero so quickly; I’m always a bit jealous of how he can so quickly turned it all off and relax almost anywhere.
In the late afternoon, we took the canoe down into the cove for some fishing. Dad was excited to catch his first fish of the trip.
Dad caught four fish total during the trip. Did we eat any of them? No. I asked dad if he knew how to fillet and cook the fish and he had no idea. Neither did I. If I was hungry enough, I’m sure I could have figured it out, but we had plenty of food–actually, too much food–with us. Dad had voiced concern that we would not have enough to eat when I was planning the meals, and so I added more food than we needed. We ended the trip with extra. Dad’s appetite is nothing anywhere near what it was when he was in his 40’s. Now in his 60’s, he thinks he has the appetite of a younger man, but in reality doesn’t eat that much.
We ended the day with another gorgeous sunset out on the lake trying to catch more fish. So far, we had had gorgeous weather and easy canoeing. That would change over the next two days.
July 4, 2014–Day 3
Day 3 brought overcast skies and strong winds making canoeing especially difficult as we rounded Friday Bay. We found a break in the clouds and drop in the winds around noon and took a lunch break at a camp on Friday Bay. We needed to fortify ourselves for our first portages since day 1.
During our break, I took time to visit the “facilities” on the BWCAW. There are pit toilets at every campsite in the BWCAW, usually about 200 ft from the water–very much away from the shoreline and meant to keep the human waste away from the lakes. Toilet #11 had been decorated with some animal print duct tape making the baring of my ass to the awaiting mosquitoes if not easier, at least a bit more stylish.
We finished the day at Chippewa Lake. We would have liked to go further but the darkening skies in the afternoon kept us at the camp on Chippewa. You do not want to be out on the lake during a thunderstorm. It is just not safe.
We were smart to bring a Kelty Noah’s 12 x 12 tarp with us. There are much lighter tarps out there, but again for the trip we were doing and the money, this was one of our smartest purchases. We set up the tarp between two trees and waited out the storm under the tarp throughout the late afternoon.
The tarp would come in very handy on day 4 as well.
July 5, 2014–Day 4
Day 4 brought even more portaging–three to be exact–and very cloudy skies. Again, dark skies in the afternoon made us stop a little sooner than we might have otherwise. We actually had some canoeing in the rain in order to make it to an available campsite. The rain wasn’t too hard, but steady. We set up camp in the afternoon on Gun Lake and again huddled under Noah the Tarp. This time, we arrived in wet clothing. Luckily, temperatures were warm so it wasn’t a big deal to strip down and let the clothing dry on a make-shift clothesline under the tarp.
We found we had cell service for the first time since day 1 and made a few calls to let family know we were safe and well.
The rain continued throughout that day and into the night, we would get a bit of rain on day 5, but for the most part the rest of the trip stayed dry, even if we didn’t stay “found”.
July 6, 2014–Day 5
Staying found should be one of your primary objectives on any backcountry trip. We, on the other hand, decided to flirt with danger, and decided to try out being temporarily lost.
We started day 5 going to the wrong portage and ending up on the wrong lake. There are no signs on the BWCAW, nothing to announce “YOU ARE HERE.” You must use geographical features and navigation skills to get your way around and for the most part we did this well. However, we got ourselves onto Gull Lake instead of targeted Fairy Lake. We spent hours on Gull Lake trying to find our portage then on to Boot Lake. We just couldn’t find it because it just wasn’t there. We were on Gull Lake thinking it was Fairy Lake.
Feeling dejected and exhausted from our efforts to find this non-existent portage, the darkening skies made us set up the tarp yet again on a peninsula on Gull Lake. We would eat lunch, and see if we could make a plan. We poured over the map and finally dad said verbalized the possibility that we were on the wrong lake. I immediately saw that he was right. We couldn’t find the portage because there was no portage.
We figured out the errors of our ways–a wrong portage on Gun Lake leading us to the wrong lake. The portage we should have taken was further south on Gun Lake. We decided then to retrace our route back to Gun Lake and find the right portage.
Getting lost and then found makes a person have two polar opposite feelings in a very short amount of time. When you are lost, you doubt yourself and your ability to problem solve. A hopelessness begins to sink in. But just as that a-ha moment comes and you realize you did solve your problem, it also gives you tremendous confidence in yourself.
We finally found the portage to Fairy Lake, then portaged on to Boot Lake. It was already late afternoon when the winds came up on Boot Lake. It was becoming increasingly hard to steer the canoe due to the strong winds. We decided to call it a day on Boot Lake and found a beautiful, protected campsite on a small cove on the lake. Tired from the mental effort spent in getting both lost and found, we relaxed in the sun. We knew we had our longest portage ahead of us on day 6 and needed to recharge before our final effort.
July 7, 2014–Day 6
Our final day! The one mile portage by this time wasn’t too difficult. Even if we double portaged and thus traveled each three miles with packs and canoes. Luckily, the sun was out again for our final day. Cell service meant I could email Ryan at Cliff Wold’s to request a slightly earlier pick up.
We arrived around 11:30am back at our entry point on Munro Lake. We were greeted at 1pm by another driver from Cliff Wold’s with a cold beer in the cooler to finish off a great trip back to Ely before starting the drive back to Northern Virginia.
The trip to the BWCAW was amazing! Definitely one I would do again. The area is wonderful and the people helping us make it a great trip from Cliff Wold’s were top notch. I hope to return there again soon.