Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Insula Base Camp (My Wife's First Trip)
by HikingStick

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/14/2010
Entry & Exit Point: Lake One (EP 30)
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
I've done a lot of canoeing in my day, but my wife has been only an occasional, recreational paddler. As parents of 10 kids, we've not had any extended time alone together (trips where we are not visiting relatives or friends) in at least 10 years. My wife has heard me rave about the BWCA for years, and said she'd be willing to join me for a trip. I planned this one to use a base camp on Insula so we would be able to see the pictographs on Fishdance for one of our day trips. All in all, 45 miles of paddling and 1010 rods of portages (allowing for the ones we double-portaged). I'm rating this one "Intermediate" because 14 miles can be a rough first day for a newbie, and because a couple of the portages (Insula at 1/3 mile, and steep Fishdance) can be tough.
Part 1 of 2
My Wife's First Trip

Photos available in her public albums on Facebook:

Day Zero (prep/travel day)


I arranged to work four 10-hour days at the office so I could take Friday off. We packed everything but the perishable food items during the week, so we could leave at midnight on Thursday. Thursday evening was a press to make sure all of our paperwork was in order so that my brother and sister-in-law could watch over the kids (i.e., notifications to the schools, medical power of attorney form), and then loading the car. I was then able to get a couple of hours of sleep before getting up at 11 PM, double-checking everything, and starting our drive to Ely. We were on the road just before midnight, but had to turn around for a couple of items--a bungee cord and a map--when we were just a few miles out of town. While returning home, we went over our checklist again. We didn't want to forget anything. Of course, the map wasn't where I left it, so we left without it. I figured signage along the route would be good (and it was).

While trying to pack light, I also wanted to err on the side of having enough so as to make sure my wife had a pleasant stay. We took in three packs: one large yellow vinyl dry pack (c. 35 lbs.) with the tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, and our clothes (rolled tightly and compressed in smaller nylon bags); a regular internal frame backpack (c. 45 lbs.) with our easily accessible gear (e.g., water filter, first aid kit, headnets) and some other items (e.g., cribbage board, hammock, rope, sandals, fishing tackle); and a bear barrel (starting c. 45 lbs.) for our food, cook kit, and other miscellaneous items. We packed two fishing rods into a light rod tube, and threw the reels into the bear barrel.

Our canoe was a borrowed 17' Alumnacraft. It was supposedly one of the lighter models (sub-70 lbs.), but I don't have an exact weight. For cooking, we packed in a homemade penny alcohol stove, four bottles of Heet, and about 8 oz. of extra alcohol fuel in another bottle. We brought a second alcohol stove along (a tuna can hobo stove) in case we wanted to be able to heat water for dishes while cooking, but we did fine with the penny alone. Our tent was an Alps Mountaineering Extreme 3 Outfitter model (with 10 kids at home, we opted for the outfitter option since it would see plenty of use) and a matching floor saver tarp/footprint.

Food was planned around simplicity. The first day had some summer sausage and cheese for lunch , and fajitas planned for dinner. Breakfasts on the other days were instant oatmeal and pre-cooked bacon. Lunches were typically Hudson Bay Bread and jerky. Dinners on days two and three were Tuna Helper, though we did plan for fried fish one night, if we were so lucky. We also packed in some assorted dry fruit for snacks, and I thought I'd score points by packing in a couple of fine dark chocolate bars.

My wife and I started running last fall, so we each had some tech clothes (e.g., synthetics) that we packed. We focused on layering, with fleece items for warmth and our rain jackets as the final layer. Beyond what we wore in, we packed only one change of clothes (the dry set in case of a dunking), an undergarment layer for sleeping, and those layers we did not immediately weary.

We live an hour west of Minneapolis, so our midnight departure time was designed to allow us a stop along the way, and time enough to pull over for a rest if I got too tired behind the wheel. Even with one stop of nearly an hour, we pulled into the Kawishiwi ranger station at about 6:40 AM on Friday, Day One.

Day One


[Lake One] Our first good news came as we picked up our permit: the fire ban was being lifted as of Noon. I planned for the ban and had plenty of fuel, but was glad to hear that we could have a warming fire in the evening and morning. The only hiccough for us was that I planned that the ban would still be in effect, so I did not pack in a saw or a hatchet. While neither was necessary, they would have proved helpful.

Tom at the ranger station provided my wife with the most lively and entertaining review of the rules of any visit I've made into the BWCA. He really helped set her mood for the start of our adventure. Thanks, Tom!

We were out of there around 7:30 am, after our last pit stop, and on our way to EP30 (Lake One). The Fernberg road was smoother than I remember. Did they pave it since 2006? We were at the lake sometime after 8:15 AM. Another vehicle pulled up behind us and began started unloading their gear. We took our time, and figured we'd let them hit the water first. We imposed on one of them to snap a pre-entry photo for us. I loaded the gear into the canoe, and then gave my wife a primer on getting in and launching (especially once the gear was in place). We managed to be out on the water before 9 AM.

I chose the water route to the northeast rather than taking the three portages to the southwest. I figured that fewer portages would help my wife have a more enjoyable first day. It was pretty cool when we started--likely in the 40s (F), and the high never got above the 50s. We had a light wind from the start, so our rain jackets and life vests were on--every bit of insulation helped. I missed the narrows on that northern passage and ended up in the dead-end bay directly to the north of the passage. Water levels were clearly low, so we pondered a few moments as to whether we should carry our canoes over. The border marker for the BWCA obscured this section of the map pretty well. We doubled back and to the left (east) and found our narrows. We proceeded into Lake One, heading southwest and navigating around a long point and then turning south, and then southeast. The wind was picking up a bit, and a light rain began falling. I turned us west too early and ended up in another dead-end bay. I need to get used to the scale on the map in relation to the distance we've traveled. We paddled back west out of the bay, and then followed the southern shoreline until I reestablished our position. We paddled through a very rocky narrows into the bay we needed, and soon found our first portage trail. A single canoe had just cleared the portage, and a small group was just landing and starting a double-portage. We waited for a bit and then came ashore.

Being the first portage of the day, I had something to prove to myself, and a hope of keeping things easier on my wife. I threw the bear barrel on my back, our dry bag on my front. That's when we saw the occupants of that single canoe coming back across the portage trail. They were Forest Service employees. They wanted to check permits, and were informing everyone that the burn ban was being lifted at noon. I had just gotten both packs on, so I removed them and produced our permit. That slow-down left me standing, wet, in the wind and light rain, and I rapidly began to feel cold. They soon left us on our way, but I was thoroughly chilled. Part of the other group returned to get the last of their gear, so I re-donned the packs and then enlisted Marie's help to get the canoe positioned on my shoulders. The portage was only 30 rods, but that was long enough to make me realize that we, too, should double portage for the rest of the day.

The water was so low on the south end that the preceding group was still hung up on the rocks. As I approached the water, I scanned the shoreline. The area directly ahead of the portage was nothing but a rock garden. To the right (southwest), however, it was a bit deeper. I made my way over that way and floated our canoe. Marie was just behind me with the final pack, paddles, life jackets, and other miscellaneous items. We soon were in the water and on our way across to our next portage (40 rods). We did double portage here. I told Marie how far we had already come, and that we now had a significant paddle ahead of us (around 5 miles) before our next portage. I took the time to open one of our packs so as to find a couple of hand-warmer packets. I held them a few moments and then passed them on to Marie. She wasn't going to complain, but I could tell that she was feeling the cold, too.

[Lakes Two, Three, and Four] Passing through Lake Two was largely uneventful, other than the cold and the rain. By the time we were on Lake Three, the sun was peeking through the clouds from time to time. When we came to the narrows between Lake Three and Lake Four, our most direct route would have taken us between a large island and a point on the northern shore. Unfortunately, water levels were so low that the in-between space was now just an isthmus. We paddled back out and around, and I should have made a note for our return trip. A little more sun, then clouds, then rain, then sun... Marie had put on her sunglasses at one point, put took them off again when it clouded. Unfortunately, she had not put them on the neck strap we had for her. She slipped them into her pocket instead. At some point, they went over the side. That came back to bite us on the way out, when the glare prevented her from seeing shallow rocks until were were sometimes literally on top of them.

We finally reached the east end where three portages would take us into Hudson. Now, it seemed, no matter what the weather was while on the water, it always started raining when we hit the portages. As we approached the first one (25 rods), I noted that the rapids to the south were very small and slow, with calm water visible behind them. We decided to step out and pull the canoe over. Aside from wet feet on my end, that part of the plan worked well. Only afterwards did we realize, however, that a larger set of rapids was just upstream from that point. The water was so low that there was not much of a roar to warn us of the upstream barrier. Seeing that we could not pull through that one, we turned around and returned to the portage trail.

Surprisingly, our moods were good. Despite the rain, we were feeling warmer (likely from the preceding five miles of paddling since our first portages), and my wife enjoyed our little misadventure. I told her how, the last time I was here (in 2006) that the current at the top was so strong that it was very difficult to launch without getting pulled back toward the rapids. We made the launch just fine and portaged the next set (25 rods) without as much as thinking about going upstream. When we got to the third set of rapids (10 rods), at the west end of Hudson (or, should I say, the Kawishiwi leading into Hudson), we portaged again. When going back for our second trip, however, I noticed a single canoe headed toward a chute on the other side of a long, granite divide in the rapids. I chuckled to myself about my earlier mistake, and figured they'd be getting back to the portage head about the time we set into the water. As it turns out, while we were preparing to push off, they came into sight on the far side. They made it up the little chute. I congratulated them on their gumption, and made a note about the spot for our return trip.

We ate lunch along one of these portages. It was already after 1 PM.

[Hudson] The passage along Hudson was significant to me because it marked how far another group I was with got in on our first day back in 2006. We had much more rain and a driving wind that day, and some of our group were not well prepared for the weather. I remember being relieved to pull into camp, where we quickly pitched tents and got one of the teens into his sleeping bag for warmth. It was about this time I started to wonder if it was wise for us to push in further. After all, we'd need to paddle out on Monday, and it wouldn't work out well if it was going to take us ten or twelve hours to get back out.

At the same time, the portage to Insula was at the east end of Hudson, and that portage holds special significance for me. There, in 2006, when I began the decline within sight of the water on the east end, while carrying two packs, I slipped and broke my leg (the fibula, just above the ankle). One of my personal goals was to re-visit this portage and to make it across without injury.

I asked my wife a bit about her expectations for the rest of the trip. In particular, I asked her how important it would be to see the pictographs on Fishdance. I was hoping for an answer reflecting indifference, so I'd have a good reason to stop and camp on Hudson. As it was, however, she really was hoping to take that day trip, so I knew we needed to camp on Insula. Onward we went.

The portage itself (105 rods) went very well. Our two trips left us a bit tired, but it felt good to make it across. We stopped at the spot in the trail where I believe the break occurred and took some pictures. Since Marie had to set down her pack to take the photos, I picked it up when we were done, hoisted it onto my front, and made my way down to the water. I had beaten the beast.

[Insula] The portage to Insula took us quite a bit of time, and our hope for the sun winning out the afternoon were waning. We were now both quite tired, and the wind from the north-northwest was quite strong. Our immediate goal--finding a campsite--seemed simple. On a lake with dozens of sites, it should have been easy. We started out on an east-northeast bearing, but it soon was clear that most of the sites we encountered were facing the full force of the wind. Every time we had hope of finding a good site, we'd come across one either in the full face of the wind, or on an open and rocky point. We were moving slowly. The rain paused, but the winds were still strong and the cloud cover was thick, making it seem as if darkness would soon be upon us. I was worried about making camp while it was still light out, and in the back of my mind I was worried that we came in too far, and that we would never make it home on Monday if we didn't first relocate to another lake on Sunday morning.

Feeling desperate as we came through a channel between two large islands, I noticed that there should be two sites on the southern shore of the southern island. We turned south. and then southwest. It felt good once the shore broke the force of the wind. I scanned the map for nearby alternatives. If the first one didn't work, there were two others within a half mile: one further west, and another on an island to the southwest. When we got to the first site, Marie went ashore to confirm that it was a site. She saw the grate, so I immediately beached the canoe and began to unload. While she went to visit the latrine, I started gathering wood for a fire. I was cold and wet, and was not able to think clearly. I knew the dangers of hypothermia, but I never considered how horribly hypothermia can piggyback with exhaustion. I started a small fire and it puttered out--everything was too wet. I opened the bear barrel and took out my spare fuel. A little splash, and my next attempt stayed lit a while longer. Finally, desperate for the immediate warmth of a fire, I dumped the remainder of the spare fuel (6 oz.?) onto the bed of wet twigs, sticks, and wood. This time, it produced enough heat to get things going, but I immediately second-guessed my decision to waste the fuel. The cold was affecting my reasoning, but there was much yet to do. We got the tent up. Sleeping gear was unfurled. Wet boots and socks came off, but I had no energy to go into the gear bags to find my dry socks. Marie was warmer than me (those hand warmers were still going strong), but she was exhausted, too. We gathered some additional wood, and then just sat together near the fire. It was around 4:30 PM when we landed. Our thoughts turned to dinner. We pre-cut and then froze a bag of peppers and onions for fajitas, and although a warm meal sounded great, neither of us had the energy to cook and clean. We decided to postpone our big dinner until the next day, and simply ate cheese, Hudson Bay Bread, and summer sausage. We didn't even make coffee. Honestly, much of the rest of that evening is a bit fuzzy in my mind. Boots, shoes, and socks were left drying by the fire. The canoe was pulled further ashore and turned over against a downed log. We tucked the bear barrel under the high end of the canoe (figuring any attempt to get to the barrel would bang around the canoe and wake us up), and turned in. It felt good to slip into dry night clothes. Heading up, I heard that frost was possible, so I made sure we both were well covered. I donned a fleece balaclava to keep my head warm (otherwise, I tend to wake up with a headache) and faded off to sleep. I checked on the Mrs. frequently during the night to make sure she was still warm. At one point, I discovered that her bag was unzipped part way. I zipped it up, strapped the zipper in place, and tightened down the hood on her mummy bag. She slept well during the rest of the night. Our first day was done.

Day Two


By mutual decision, this was designated our lazy day. We decided to stay in camp and do nothing in particular (a real treat for parents with 10 kids at home). I was up with the birds, but Marie had no interest in being up that early. I was tempted to resent her for it, but then remembered that this was a trip she hoped to enjoy, too. Everything was covered in frost, and the waters were adorned in their foggy shrouds. I pulled our gear from the vestibule, got the fire started, shot a few photos, and checked on my boots (still wet, of course). Once the fire was going, I propped a long driftwood branch over the grate to dry the socks, and I moved my boots into the light of the rising sun. I cut rope to hang my hammock, and strung a clothes line. I searched for more firewood and lamented that I had no axe or saw. There were many downed trees, but I had no way to cut good fuel logs for a long burn. After some time, thinking a couple of hours passed since dawn, I boiled water for coffee and woke Marie as I started the water for our oatmeal. It started cold, but warmed into the 70s (F) by midday. The hammock was up and well-used during the day. Marie hiked into the woods on her own with the camera, and I just hung around camp. I eventually strung my rod and spent some time fishing. The fishing was good, but catching could have used some action.

We talked about pulling out earlier on Monday morning, or perhaps jumping back to Hudson on Sunday afternoon. We decided to wait on making a decision. The canoe stayed beached all day. Marie read her book, and I enjoyed my hammock and listening to the birds. Winds came out of the southwest, rocking my hammock ever so gently. Whether there by nature or due to another camper's efforts, there was a large rock positioned perfectly next to my hammock, and my mug found its home there during the day.

What else can I say? For a married couple with a large family, we couldn't have asked for a better way to spend a day. Since we skipped the fajitas the night before, we made them for lunch. The afternoon passed much the same way as the morning. I saw one canoe during the day, and heard one or two other groups somewhere on the lake, when the wind carried their conversations to me. Aside from that, it was a quiet and cozy little place. Afternoon sun made sure my boots were dry, and our primary concern was to make sure we left nothing out and about that could be blown away.

Afternoon gave way to evening, and we made Tuna Helper for dinner. We built up the fire and then became reacquainted with cribbage (it had been years since we last played). We stayed out until it was getting too dark to see the cards, and then turned in for the night. It was cool, but not as cold as the night before.

Day Three


We woke up to tolerable temperatures in the 40s. We both were relieved that there was no frost. Once again, oatmeal and bacon were for breakfast. It's a meal combination our friend Tom (not to be confused with Ranger Tom) uses regularly on the trips he leads, and I must admit it is one of my favorites. The press pot I picked up for coffee was much nicer (in my opinion) than using a percolator, and we enjoyed our cups-o-Joe. We decided to take a trip to Fishdance, one of the options we had discussed much before coming, so we packed lunch, our water filter, and our first aid kit into a day pack and set out as soon as dishes were done.

The real blessing of the morning was that it remained calm. Once the sun came up, I expected morning winds to increase, but as we pushed off from shore, the only ripples were those caused by our canoe and the paddles. To a great degree, that's how the waters remained as we traversed Insula. In addition to the Fishdance pictographs, we had also talked about visiting "The Rock". It was one of the stops I made with our group in 2006, and it seemed like an enormous cliff face towering hundreds of feet above the lake. Of course, at that time, I was paddling with my broken leg splinted with two pieces of beaver wood, and we were against strong winds and huge waves on Insula. When we finally reached "The Rock" in 2006, my partner and I battled the wind to get around to the northwest corner where we found a slope I could ascend. The entire experience made a monument out of the place in my memory. Needless to say, Marie and I both were underwhelmed when we passed it on our little trip.

I decided to approach it from the west, so we went northwest into Insula until we came to a narrows due west of "The Rock". As we turned east and headed into the narrows, it became clear that the low water levels were once again at play. We made an unexpected portage where land had replaced water, and continued on. Since we wanted to be sure we would make it to the picture rocks (almost nine miles from camp), we decided to pass on "The Rock" and we continued on to the north and northeast. We crossed big water that was mostly calm--only disturbed by an occasional breeze. We encountered two other paddlers (before we turned north to the stretch with Williamson I) who just broke camp and were heading in through Alice. We were both surprised that they didn't pull ahead of us too quickly. They only got away when we stopped to photograph some eagles and turkey vultures.

We entered the Kawishiwi after lingering with our photographic subjects, and enjoyed the calm. We could hear a bit of wind picking up through the trees, but it was not reaching us on the river's placid surface. The water level here was still markedly low, but the lake above the southern hillside had to be overfull, as rivulets and streams were rushing down into the river anywhere the terrain created a gully or crevasse. Here we began to see some congestion--lone canoes stretched along the river, each carrying eager fishers on Minnesota's fishing opener weekend.

We entered Alice and headed east, following the Kawishiwi toward our next set of portages. Each of the campsites along this stretch were occupied, and we saw more people fishing the river. As we approached the first pool below rapids, two canoes and a kayak held position as their occupants fished. Above the portage (20 rods), more canoes floated while their occupants fished. We quickly paddled through and embarked on the toughest porta

Lakes Traveled:   Insula, Lake, Hudson Lake, Three, Lake, Four, Lake, Fishdance Lake, Organ Lake,