A BWCA Primer - August 2005
It’s been many years since, and Becca and I—then Bob and I—have had several other shorter camping trips closer to home. This year’s trip to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota recaptured that magic for me. Originally Bob and I had planned the trip for August 2004, but last summer was devoted to Becca’s fight against lymphoma. In a sense, for me this trip was dedicated to her. You don’t understand how special life is until you’ve had to face the possibility of losing someone you love.
So though Becca didn’t come physically on this trip, memories of her did: the little girl eating a late dinner on a moonless night so dark she couldn’t see the plate on her lap; shivering and laughing as she emerged from an icy swim; walking along a shore looking intently for bits of Indian pottery among the pebbles; startling a turtle on a rock as we paddled by; watching a satellite make its slow way across a star-filled sky.
As for Bob, he wanted to catch a big fish.
This is the story of our Boundary Waters vacation, August 2005.
Outfitting On Saturday, August 6 we left our dog and two cats in the capable hands of two college student house sitters and began a two-day drive to Ely, Minnesota. At the edge of the BWCA (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness), Ely’s economy was once based on iron ore. Now it’s tourism. A dozen or so outfitters provide tourists with the needed canoes and equipment, and send them off into the wilderness.
We used North Country Canoe Outfitters, located at Silver Rapids Bridge a few miles outside town, for the canoe, maps, packs and food supplies. They already knew about our skill levels and expectations from a detailed reservation form when I first made arrangements for partial outfitting. North Country also arranged for the park permit issued by the U.S. Forest Service (entry point 31 on Farm Lake). If the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ computers weren’t down, they also would have handled Bob’s fishing license. (Bob was able to get one in town the evening before we set off in the canoe.)
After our arrival on Sunday afternoon, we met with one of the owners to go over a route, discussing portages, campsites and fishing areas. We also watched a required film emphasizing safety and the “Leave No Trace” philosophy of camping.
Basically our route will be a loop of about 24 miles. With side trips and portages we’ll cover more miles than that over the five days. We plan on camping at two, possibly three, different spots. The outfitter will take us to the entry point two miles off, but we plan on paddling all the way back rather than waiting for a pick-up. We shouldn’t expect our cell phones to work in that area in any case. When we shove off on Monday, we’ll be totally on our own.
Though North Country offers bunk room accommodations before and after trips, we chose to stay in town instead. We returned to our motel in Ely with three large green portage packs so that we could plan how best to distribute our gear among the three. Each pack would weigh around 40-45 pounds when full. We wandered around the town a bit and had a good meal at the Chocolate Moose, enjoying our last iced beverages for five days.
On Monday morning a red food pack was ready for us since some items couldn’t be packed the day before. Our 17-foot Kevlar canoe was loaded onto a motor boat along with the four packs, a small backpack of items needed to be handy in the boat, and Bob’s fishing gear, and we motored off to the entry point two miles away at the other side of Farm Lake. Once past Farm Lake, no motorized boats or sailboats are allowed.
Gear We pared down our gear from what we usually take car-camping. Instead of the two-burner stove, I used single-burner stove, though not the very lightweight backpacker version. We each had a small stuff sack for clothing and personal items. Then there were the tent, sleeping bags, mattress, kitchen and camp supplies. We packed most items in heavy plastic bags before putting them in their regular bags. Except for emergency supplies such as the first aid kit, duct tape, fire starter and rain ponchos, almost everything was used by the end of the trip. Bob did agree that the next time he would leave behind the manly ax.
Items to be added to our gear the next trip: a whisk for meal preparation, more clips for the clothesline, portable radio, extra camera batteries.
The most appreciated item of clothing was our quick-dry pants. Early on, we recognized we couldn’t avoid getting wet and muddy. The terrain and water bottom were too rocky for sandals. So we accepted wet boots and socks as the norm. We were also scrupulous about wearing our PFDs (personal floatation devices) at all times on the water. Like seat belts, they’re a good habit to get into.
Food North Country provided food in a separate pack, all condiments and incidentals such as matches and clean-up supplies included. To our annoyance, they also gave us a cook kit with heavy aluminum pots and pans that we did not need and didn’t discover until we were away from the base. The pieces came to about ten additional pounds of weight, and we had our own lightweight cookware and other duplicate items. Bob did make good use of the largest pot: he tied it to the end of a rope as a weight, then threw it over a tree limb before attaching the food pack and hauling it out of the reach of bears (thus creating a bear piñata in the opinion of one outdoor expert who doesn’t recommend the technique).
As the days went on, dinner entrees progressed (regressed) from thick steaks, to precooked ham slices, dehydrated beef stew and dehydrated turkey with mashed potatoes. Side dishes and desserts were dehydrated vegetables and varieties of pudding mixes. Breakfasts had a similar range, from fresh eggs, precooked bacon and pancake mix, to powdered eggs. Lunches were of the cheese-and-crackers, summer sausage, pbj and trail mix variety.
We had only water to drink—straight, with lemonade mix, or as coffee or tea. We drank plenty of water, averaging about three quarts each a day with what was used for cooking. Though it would probably have been safe to drink straight from the lake or river, I used a small pump filter because there is always the possibility of picking up an intestinal parasite, especially around beaver dens.
Rather than taking our heavy two-burner propane camp stove, we used a simple butane stove, mostly for boiling water. Each campsite had a large rectangular iron fire grate. Except for the evenings we grilled meat for dinner, we used the fire grate as a table, pulling up to it with our folding three-legged camp stools. I sorely missed a picnic table. The hardest part of meals was having to bend over for food preparation and clean up.
Scenery We covered only a small area of the Boundary Waters in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. It stretches almost 200 miles along the Canadian border of northeastern Minnesota with more than 1,000 lakes and 1,500 miles of canoe routes. North of the BWCA is Quetico Provincial Park, which also prohibits motorboats. We saw spectacular scenery every day—water, trees, rocks and sky. Sunrises and sunsets were more subtle: the sun would simply slowly slip behind or rise above the trees with no drama. The air didn’t contain the dust and pollutants that make for colorful sunsets and sunrises in the Southwest or our own Chicago.
What we didn’t see was many people. On average we’d see perhaps six canoes a day, mostly near portages. Only once did we have to wait to leave a portage because of a landing party of several canoes. We could recognize day-trippers by the small amount of gear they carried. And since campsites were far apart we never had to worry about privacy.
The land is heavily forested with pine, fir, aspen and other trees and shrubs. Some foliage was already yellowing, perhaps due to a dry summer. The day we entered the BWCA, a fire started in the east near Grand Marais, in a blow-down area heavily covered with dry and downed trees from a 1999 storm. Because the area is so vast, no canoeists had to be evacuated. Firefighters were still trying to control it when we arrived home.
River currents are slow except where the river narrows to a rapids. We portaged around all but the tamest. The water is clear and deep. Generally there are no beaches. You pull your canoe up to the shoreline and lift it over the rocks onto land.
The only mechanical noise we heard was the occasional plane flying over. A lot of outfitters offer fly-in service to areas deeper in the Boundary Waters. Now and then we could hear other canoes, especially near portages. But otherwise the only sounds we heard were of the loons and the wind in the trees.
Weather Overall, we were fortunate with the weather. Though the first day’s temperature reached the low 90’s with high humidity, the following days were cooler and comfortable with highs in the 70’s, about normal for this time of the year. Our first night we could see a spectacular lightning show over the tree line to the south. Individual lightning strikes weren’t visible, and the storm was so far away we heard no thunder. But the low-lying clouds flickered in vibrant pinks across the horizon in a fantastic moving display of color. Later we learned that the storm was south of Duluth with extremely high winds.
We woke to a light rain Tuesday morning, clearing by ten o’clock. Skies had scattered clouds, but few enough on two nights that the sky was full of stars. Wednesday’s viewing included a satellite and a meteor, part of the annual Perseid meteor shower.
Thursday the wind began to pick up with intermittent gusts, making paddling a bit more difficult. By Friday, our last traveling day, the wind was steady with gusts up to 32 miles an hour. In the more open areas of water, where the waves had more fetch, the water was quite choppy. We were also going against the river’s current, making for slow going.
Portages Portages come in all lengths and difficulties, we discovered. Measured in rods (rod = 16.5 feet, about the length of a canoe), portages lead to different bodies of water or simply provide a land detour around a rocky, shallow and rapid neck of a river. Except for the removal of fallen trees, the park service does no “improvements.” The trails have evolved through years of canoeists walking back and forth. You don’t have to worry about hitting your head on a branch but you do have to watch your step for tree roots, rocks, holes and mud.
Any portage meant multiple trips to take over the canoe, four packs, paddles, fishing gear and other loose items. Most were not on level ground, but involved climbing rocky terrain on a narrow path. The easiest portage was a mere level ten rods where Bob and I just lifted the canoe and carried it to the other side. The longest portage was our final day. Though the map read 210 rods, or about 2/3 of a mile, when we scouted out the trail the day before, we took 21 minutes to walk it. That portage took us about two and a half hours to complete.
The most memorable portage, however, was our first, from the Kawishiwi River into Clear Lake. It had everything—160 rods, a half mile, hills, rocks, mud, high humidity and 90+ degree temperature. Bob carried the canoe on his shoulders alone. By the time we staggered out off the path, we were silently questioning the wisdom of our vacation. The next one was almost as bad, just shorter.
Wildlife We did not see any bears, though one apparently scratched his back on a tree near a campsite and left some brown fur, enough to convince Bob of the merits of hoisting the food pack (including garbage) ten feet up on an overhanging tree limb. The one time we left the garbage bag some small animal, probably a raccoon, had savaged it. Campsites had chipmunks that knew people meant food. We saw only a few red squirrels. Also unseen, though we know they were around—moose, timber wolves, otters, white-tailed deer and beavers, whose many dens we saw along the shoreline. We spotted deer along the highway en route to Ely, but not while we were camping.
Our first bald eagle sighting was on the way to our entry point on Farm Lake on our tow ride. Sharing the boat was the outfitter’s golden retriever Guinness, who let us know he was ready to take on that bird if it got close enough. But it didn’t. We watched many loons floating on the water, then dive to reappear several minutes later and yards away. Their calls were a frequent background to our evenings. Other birds: various ducks, gulls, crows and ravens.
As for fish, suffice it to say, Bob was happy. Even though in August the water was too warm for the best fishing, he caught the largest small-mouth bass of his career as well as several other bass and pike.
Insects were not much of a problem. The worst of the black fly season had passed. We both collected only a few mosquito bites.
Campsites Campsites are scattered throughout the BWCA. Some stretches of the river or lakes have none at all, and none are within sight of each other from land. The U.S. Forest Service controls the number of overnight permits per entry site. For Farm Lake, it’s three a day. Parties are limited to a maximum of four canoes and nine people. We had to pass by only a few sites because they were already occupied. After a while, it became easier to spot them from the water. We’d look for a high ground with a break in the greenery with bare earth and logs arranged for seating. Leaving the canoe in the water was not an option because of the rocks and waves. At the end of the day we’d pull the canoe onto land, overturn it and stash gear underneath.
Campsites are spacious, and are provided with a heavy rectangular iron grate for a fire. The only other amenity is an open box latrine some distance back in the woods. To claim a campsite, we would pull our canoe onto land, climb up a rocky slope and haul up our gear. Bob would then look for a suitable tree for our food pack. The tent would go on a level area, clothesline nearby to hang up wet shoes and socks, kitchen items and camp stools by the fire grate.
Route Monday - From our entry point we paddled three-quarters of a mile to a small island to assess the canoe’s trim and to make a bungee cord repair on Bob’s seat. One of the bolts holding it to the frame had sheared off, but the cord sufficed to keep the seat intact. From there we paddled about three miles on the North Kawishiwi River. It took us a while to locate the first portage because there are no signs. We had to rely solely on our maps. As an introduction to portaging, at 160 rods, a half mile, it was daunting because of the heat and humidity. We lunched on shore when we finished, then headed off into Clear Lake.
With so few campsites, the standard advice is to pick a campsite by early afternoon. The water was too choppy to land safely at the first of Clear Lake’s five campsites, so we continued on to a second, about a half mile further east. Total distance traveled, excluding our tow, about 4 miles.
Tuesday - We got a late start the next morning after a light rain and had an easy paddle to the next challenging portage into the South Kawishiwi River. While shorter, only 70 rods, this was particularly muddy and wet. A beaver dam had backed up a stream, and the last 100 feet were flooded knee-high. We would return this way back to our campsite, and then portage it again the next day, fully loaded, to continue our trip up the river.
After lunch at the first campsite beyond the portage, we paddled around to the southernmost end of that section of the river and then north to the next day’s portage, a short 30 rocky rods. While there, Bob caught his most memorable fish. We were back at camp by five. The day’s distance, about six miles.
Wednesday - We packed up camp and retraced yesterday’s route through the long, wet portage and the shorter one. Another mile beyond we met our first easy portage--a mere 15 rods. We paddled upriver to a campsite, but found it occupied and had to double back to the first on that stretch of the river. We decided to stay there just one night and camp further down the river to break the return paddle into shorter, less arduous segments. The day’s distance, about five miles.
Thursday – Again we packed up camp for a short day on the river. We wanted to stay this side of the 210-rod portage since there is only one campsite on the other side. It would be a gamble to push that far, arriving late in the afternoon and find the single campsite already taken. We set up camp and had lunch before heading over to the next day’s portage. Walking from one end to the other, unencumbered by packs, took us about 21 minutes at a steady pace. We agreed that we wouldn’t try to carry the canoe and packs the entire length in single trips, but to leave them at a mid-point, return to the starting point for more, and then make trips to the end from the midpoint. That way we could catch our breath more readily. The wind grew gusty and we anticipated some rough water, but we made it home uneventfully. The day’s distance, about four miles.
Friday – Our last day in the Boundary Waters, we broke camp and were on the water by eight. The wind now blew steadily toward us and the water had a bit of chop, but it wasn’t long before we reached the Big Portage. After two and a half hours, we finished. We lunched on handfuls of trail mix and headed for the last two portages, both ten rods. A third area marked as a portage we managed to paddle over without difficulty. At this point we were back on the North Kawishiwi and we looked for a landmark rock shaped like a haystack.
We were still four and a half miles from North Country, and we fought a headwind with gusts of over 30 miles an hour and the current was against us. From this point on it was paddle, paddle, paddle with intermittent rests in the windshadow of an island. Unfortunately, where the Kawishiwi leads to lakes on both the north and the south, we picked the wrong landmark and headed into Farm Lake instead of staying on the river. Our outfitter had warned us of the possibility as many others had made the same mistake. Because of the wind and the wide expanse of water we had to deal with heavy waves.
Finally, at five o’clock we pulled up to North County’s dock to a welcome cold soda and hot shower. Total water miles, about nine.
We’ll do it again.