It's been ten years since I've last visited the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, a 1,090,000 acre wilderness which borders Canada and Quetico Provincial Park.
When I lived in Duluth I visited at least once per summer, but ever since leaving the area, I've had a hard time getting back up there.
Something about farm animals needing constant care and the never ending "to-do" list, not to mention the distance - 417 miles from my current location.
This summer I decided a visit was too long overdue.
Once I started talking about it to my family, I was utterly delighted when my daughter offered to go with me.
So dates were set, work schedules were arranged, my husband graciously watching the farm for me so I could get away, an entry point was selected (57 Magnetic Lake) and off we set towards Grand Marais, MN, and the entrance to the Gunflint Trail.
The way the BWCAW works is that, for most of the year, you need a permit to access and camp overnight in the wilderness. Entry points have a limited number of permits issued each day, so to get your first choice of entry point and date, the earlier you reserve, the better. Lotteries begin in January for the most coveted entry points.
The drive from southern WI to northern MN was indeed long but sped by as we caught up on the events of our work and personal lives. By late afternoon we had arrived at Trails End Campground at the end of the Gunflint Trail, where we planned to stay just one night before launching into the wilderness.
The first order of business was setting up our Hennessey Hammock tents and showing C-baby the special "lashing" required to tether the hammock to the supporting trees. The wide webbing straps help protect the tree from rope burns, and the lashing, an over/around/up/down repeated pattern, means no pesky knots to untie after the rope has been under pressure (you in the hammock!).
She mastered it in a quick minute, of course.
She takes after her mama in this way.
(Actually I had to watch the video at least a dozen times when I was learning it...)
We currently own three different models of Hennessey Hammocks varying in weights and load capacities. I first purchased my 2# Ultralite to round out my set of ultra-light backpacking gear. I've used it for over ten years and it's only recently that it has started to become uncomfortable to sleep in.
It's not that it hurts my back as one might expect from a hammock - in a Hennessey you sleep on the diagonal in an "almost" flat position. Rather, the edges of my tent, which, granted, is one of the narrowest models - press in against my shoulders, hips and knees and there is a limited number of positions you can move to shift the pressure points. Keep in mind I am well into my 40's. My daughter, two decades younger, slept like a baby every night in hers.
Hammocks have several advantages over tents. You never have to sleep on tree roots or rocky ground. You won't get wet in a downpour as water fills the low areas under a tent. You only need a minimal sleeping pad - its only function being to block the cooler air wicking through the fabric of your hammock.
We used our yoga mats for this purpose and they worked quite nicely. Hennessey also makes a special "underpad" that attaches to the outside of your hammock for sleeping in colder weather. We have one but I did not take it along on this trip. I find the yoga mat to be quite acceptable plus it makes a nice place to stretch and relax in camp while not in the tent.
After setting up our "tents" we were hot enough to want to go down to the landing and take a quick swim in the Seagull River, which connects Seagull Lake to Saganaga Lake.
I had forgotten how wonderful it is to swim in wilderness water. Not a chlorinated pool, not an over-populated suburban pond but rather, a real, pristine, wilderness lake.
I had forgotten how important water was to the delight of my soul.
I vowed right then and there to make swimming in wild water a much more regular activity in my life.
After our refreshing swim we were hungry, so we unpacked our food bag and I showed C-baby how to set up my Trangia alcohol burner stove, my other favorite piece of ultra-lite camping gear. Nothing to pump or prime, nothing really to go wrong (no tubing to clog, no valves to clean). Lights with one strike of a match.
In less than 2 minutes we had a tiny pot of water heating over the stove and were eagerly anticipating our dinner of black bean burritos (find bulk dehydrated black beans at your local whole foods type grocery store).
While we waited, we poured some Bota Moscato over ice (purchased at Trails End Cafe) and toasted with our camp mugs to a great beginning of our new adventure.
(By the way, glass and cans are not allowed in the BWCAW... but cardboard Bota Boxes are!)
Night came too early, and after cleaning up we crawled into our respective cocoons and drifted off under a nearly full moon.
Morning also comes early when you are in the wild. Birdsong begins long before the sky lightens, and of course there is always the "call of nature" as well.
We discovered our campsite was surrounded by blueberry bushes that were currently ripe and prolific, so a cupful of fresh blueberries was added to our breakfast.
If you've never eaten fresh, wild, blueberries, you are missing one of the greatest treats of the wild!
It didn't take us long to pack up, hit the river again for a quick "polar bear swim" and head back down the Gunflint Trail towards Gunflint Lake, where our wilderness adventure would actually begin.
We had opted to rent a canoe from Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters, a decision I would highly recommend to anyone else contemplating a trip into the wild from this area of the Gunflint Trail.
The moment we walked into their store we were greeted by name by the staff and quickly assisted through our BWCAW orientation (i.e., a 7-minute required video) and given instructions where to unload our gear and where to park (in their own lot, rather than the public lot for the entry point).
We also had the option of locking up our keys and cell phones in their safe while we were out on the water, an option we took advantage of.
They also carried our canoe from the outfitter building down to the launch for us.
Did I mention how great these people are?
After loading our canoe, securing our gear and checking the map, we headed out into Gunflint Lake, paddling into a light wind under sunny skies.
Entry point 57 is actually across Gunflint Lake, as you enter Magnetic Lake. It didn't take us very long to cross Gunflint Lake and officially enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Cabins disappeared behind us and the only things surrounding us now were water and untouched shoreline.
Evidence of forest fires appeared here and there, scarred trees still standing barren against the blue sky, scrubby brush and young forest vegetation taking over where pine trees once blocked out the sun.
A passing motorboat told us they had spotted a young bear just around the corner, so we paddled ahead quietly, hoping to spot it. We never did, but were excited about the prospect just the same.
It wasn't long before we approached our first portage of the day around Little Rock Falls. As this article points out, portages are one of the primary factors that will affect the speed of your travel.
To quote the article, "The most important thing to realize about portages is that they are not created equal. Length, trail conditions, changes in elevation, and landing characteristics all make a big difference in portage difficulty. Some long portages are easy, some short portages are nearly impassible."
I agree with this assessment. Our portages for the day's route were not terribly long, but they do happen to be some of the most difficult portages I have, in my limited experience, encountered.
Boulders blocked our access to the trail on both the take-out and put-in areas and made footing treacherous. This was C-baby's first portage, ever, and boy was it a doosy.
I have found that, unless you are seriously racing through the portages as fast as possible and wish to double-pack AND carry a 65+ pound canoe on your shoulders, it makes much more sense to carry all of the gear over the trail first, then return for the canoe.
This gives you a chance to scope out the terrain and any difficult spots BEFORE carrying the lug of a canoe over. It also means the canoe - and you - will be as light as possible without any extra gear hanging about or tripping you up.
Rather than solo-portaging our 65+ pound canoe, we opted to carry it together, over head. This worked well until C-baby lost her footing and twisted her ankle. Thankfully it wasn't severe and we finished the portage; however, it caused enough worry about not having any hands free to catch her fall if it should happen again that for all the remaining portages we carried the canoe below our waist, leaving one hand free to help maintain our balance.
It is possible to canoe through this portage, although I would not want to try it. We saw several people successfully pass through it, although none of them were loaded with gear (therefore if they had dumped, it was only their person that would have gotten soaked).
This portage is actually two short portages versus one portage, as it appears on the maps. But it seemed like no time at all and we had passed both pieces of the portage and were on our way towards the next one.
Our second, Wood Horse Portage, was also very rocky and is also a very popular blueberry picking spot - so popular in fact that a number of other canoes were parked at this portage, their occupants busily filling buckets with blue.
We hike-grazed our way across this 30-rod (a rod being 16' or roughly the length of a canoe) portage and were once again on the water.
It's always good to set up camp early in the afternoon when in the BWCAW. Campsites are "first-come-first-served" and tend to fill up early. So although it was not terribly late in the day when we were approaching our next - and last - portage of the day, we knew we'd have to find a campsite soon.
Therefore we were terribly dismayed when an approaching canoe coming out of the next portage paddled over and told us he had chosen not to pass through the portage due to a huge wasp nest hanging in a pine tree right on the portage trail.
We really had no option - to go back the way we came there were no other campsites available. So we opted to push forward. After landing our canoe we donned all of our rain gear, sweltering as we loaded on our packs. Then we walked quietly down the portage trail, a nice, level, easy hike, spotting not a single wasp the entire way.
On our way back over we finally did spot the nest, but no bees came out to greet us. We carried the canoe without incident and launched our boat onto Clove Lake and headed for the nearest campsite on the opposite shore.
Sometimes campsites - and portages - can be hard to spot against the wild, lush shoreline. One trick I've found very helpful is to look where there is a lack of vegetation. People passing over a landing or walking around a campsite tends to kill the vegetation. I also look for sandy areas and rocky areas, both of which make popular portage and campsite landings.
Our campsite was easy to find and nice enough - we gave it a "3-star" rating (out of a possible 5). Although we were tired from the paddling, it didn't take us long to unload the canoe and set up our hammock tents and the rest of our gear.
And then the most enjoyable parts of camping could begin - relaxing, swimming, journaling, napping, and eating!
One of the most important skills a person must learn before heading into the wilderness is how to tie a proper bear rope. All of the bears in the BWCAW know where all of the campsites are. It is only a matter of time before one wanders into your site while you are occupying it.
This is usually nothing to be afraid of. Clapping your hands, pots or pans together or even singing will usually send them running. But your food must be secured and suspended up in the air if you hope to have the bears leave you - and your food - alone.
C-baby had never hung her own bear rope before, so I showed her how to select a small but weighty stone to tie the rope around. Secure the other end to your belt loop or the tree trunk or have your buddy hold it. The last thing you want is your rope/rock to get tangled high up in a tree while you have let go of the other end, watching it dangling high out of your reach.
We scoured our campsite for the "perfect branch," one that was thick enough to hold the weight of the food back while also being high enough off the ground and long enough to suspend the food bag 12' off the ground and 10' away from the trunk of the tree.
Um, OK, I can tell you right now in all the times I've canoed and backpacked in the BWCAW, I have never found a tree meeting these specifications. I'm not sure one exists in all of the BWCAW, since the only images I have seen of this are drawings.
It is much easier to find two trees spaced far enough apart that you can attach TWO ropes to the food bag and throw one over a limb of one tree and the other over the other, then pull them both up, suspending it between the two.
Getting the rock up and over the desired branch is of course the trickiest part. The first night out, on her very first throw, C-baby landed her throw perfectly. Beginner's luck! The next two campsites proved a bit more challenging. If an overhand toss isn't working, I recommend swinging the rope/rock like a pendulum and then flinging it up towards the tree.
We got the bear bag up between the two trees and enjoyed listening to loons calling as we waited for the sun to set and the full moon to rise.
Unfortunately there were clouds along the horizon. When it became evident that there would be no moon rise, and with insects biting us, we headed to bed.
There are other good reasons to go to bed early in the wild. It saves on headlight batteries but more importantly, it is a good trick for anyone nervous about sleeping outside in the wild at night.
I used to be terribly afraid of the dark - especially outside dark and most especially wilderness dark. I found a trick to avoid getting scared out of my mind after night fell in the wilderness - go to bed while it's still light out. Stuff some good earplugs in your ears. If there is something rattling around the campsite in the middle of the night, it's better not to know about it then to lay wide awake all night long afraid of mice or raccoons.
Although I have since gotten over my fear of the dark and in fact no longer even need earplugs, it is still a good habit to go to bed early.
The next morning we arose a bit stiff and sore but eager to get back on the water. A simple breakfast of corn tortillas (did I mention I'm gluten-free?), re-hydrated black beans and topped with a hard-boiled egg made a smashing breakfast. Until my spork broke. Thankfully even a broken spork still works.
A word about hard-boiled eggs - in the photo above of the Bota Box you can see behind it a Styrofoam egg carton. Now we don't buy eggs since we have a plethora of free-ranging chickens, and we certainly don't buy eggs that come in Styrofoam, but because we often have extra eggs to sell or give away, folks kindly give us their empty egg cartons, including some Styrofoam cartons.
I have found it convenient to boil up a dozen eggs before leaving for the wilderness, taking them along in a Styrofoam container. The Styrofoam gives the carton some water resistance (more than a cardboard carton anyway) and a bit of structural support. Those little plastic egg holders they sell at camping stores are too small for the gigantic eggs my hens lay.
The eggs will stay good for many days as long as they do not get too hot. We placed our carton in the top of our food pack after packing up everything else and constantly reminded each other to "watch the eggs!" whenever moving the pack or stepping over the gear while climbing into the canoe.
It didn't take long to break camp and head out. The day was pleasantly warm but not too hot, and we had several miles and four slightly longer portages ahead of us.
By now however we had our portage system down. Land the canoe, unload it, pick up all the gear, walk over the portage noting any areas of special concern, set down the gear, go back for the canoe.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
A word about gear - it is not necessary to go out and purchase a bunch of specialty Duluth packs or canoe packs before heading into the BWCAW. If you already have camping gear, make do with what you have or borrow from friends or rent gear from a university or from an outfitter like Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters where we rented our canoe.
If you have backpacking gear, it is totally fine to use your backpacks as canoe packs. Make them water resistant by lining them with contractor trash bags. Take special care with your sleeping bag. If you do not have a waterproof dry bag, place your sleeping bag inside it's stuff sack (or better yet, compression sack) and then into a plastic trash bag. Now place the whole thing inside your contractor trash bag in your pack. Your bag is now protected by two layers of plastic in the event of a downpour or swamping your canoe.
We used a combination of gear - we carried our sleeping bag dry bags by hand and each carried a backpack with clothes and other gear. All of the food and kitchen gear went into a borrowed Duluth Pack kitchen pack.
Our day's portages included a 48 rod unnamed which had a rocky landing and was mucky 1/3 of the way, then turned into a gorgeous walk complete with a pretty set of rapids at the northern end.
A short paddle further led us to our second and longest portage of the day, 72 rod Swamp portage. It was not as mucky as we feared from the name and was actually fairly level and easy to navigate.
The third portage of the day was our favorite of the entire trip - Granite River Portage - with a sandy landing and exit and a nice spot to stop and eat lunch. It was also chock full of raspberries!
Our last portage of the day, Gneiss Lake Portage, was also short and easy. From here we had just a few miles of paddling to go to reach our destination campsites on the western side of Maraboeuf Lake.
A slight glitch with the navigation system (me) led us to paddling around a bit before finding the right area for the campsites, but eventually we arrived. Clouds had moved in and thunder was rumbling, so we set up our tents quickly, just in time for the rain to start.
It was late afternoon and we were quite happy to nap while the rain fell. A couple of hours later I sensed it was beginning to get darker out. I woke up a still-sleeping C-baby and reminded her we had not yet put the bear bag up and it was going to be dark soon.
The rain had stopped.
She eased out of her hammock and we set about to raise the food bag. It was then that I heard the bear
I ignored it and urged her to continue the process of hoisting the bag and winding the end of the rope around the tree trunk.
The second time it grunted there was no mistaking the sound and she looked at me with saucer-wide eyes.
"Tie off the rope," I instructed, which she did. Then I asked her calmly, "Would you like to go for a short paddle?"
She quickly agreed and moments later we were shoving the canoe off from the shoreline. From the safety of our boat we paddled around the bay watching loons duck and dive and singing silly songs at the tops of our lungs.
Once more we heard the bear grunt, but it was obvious from the sound that it was moving off away from our campsite.
"Perhaps," C-baby conjectured, "it was the bear's way of singing to let us know it was there so we wouldn't accidentally stumble upon it."
Darkness fell as we sat in the now quiet boat. It was time to paddle to shore.
I was afraid after our fright that C-baby wouldn't want to go back into her hammock, or be able to fall asleep. But I needn't have worried. Although I wished I still had a pair of earplugs with me, we both fell asleep easily and slept until morning.
Our goal on this morning was to make it about 8 miles, all the way to the campsites on the islands along the motorized corridor not far from our exit point, 55 Saganaga Lake. If we accomplished this, we could spend the entire day tomorrow "base camping," which means we would not have to go anywhere - we could lounge around in camp all day, then an easy paddle out the following morning.
Only two short portages and eight miles between us and a relaxing day in camp. We were ready.
The first portage around Horsetail Rapids proved to be the shocker portage of the trip. Beginning nicely enough, it ended abruptly in the rapids! We ended up loading the canoe and I walked along beside the canoe in the shallow water until we had cleared the fallen tree trunk and shallow rapids.
If you should ever need to do this yourself, make sure any person in the canoe sits in the middle, not at one end or the other. Without two people in the canoe your boat will be quite unbalanced and with the addition of turbulent water, quite easy to swamp. Luckily we made it without tipping.
That left one remaining portage at Saganaga Falls, an ultra-short 5 rod hike on the American side of the river (although a W.A. Fisher map will show it as a 35 rod portage on the Canadian side).
This portage is so short you can actually see from one side to the other. In the pic above, I am standing at the landing and C-baby is at the exit.
Because of its incredibly short length, C-baby graciously offered to "double-pack," a task for which I had been designated for most of the portages prior.
Compared to portaging, paddling is the easy part of traveling in the BWCAW. A short five miles later we were scoping out campsites along Clark and Campers islands (labeled differently depending on whether or not you are looking at a Fisher or McKenzie map).
All the sites along this busy, popular corridor were full until we rounded the southern tip of Clark Island (Fisher map) and found this choice camping spot completely empty.
We were home! Or at least, to base camp!
Not only that but the rain clouds from the day prior and the overcast skies from earlier in the day had all cleared up just in time for our arrival. It was like it had been planned that way just for us.
This campsite encompasses the entire southern point of the island, with tent sites galore and trails going every-which-away.
It didn't take long to find a spot with several solid hammock trees just waiting for our Hennesseys. And then it was time to relax.
And relax we did, for the next 24 hours.
We did manage to scrounge up enough energy the next day to head over to a quiet area called James Bay and teach C-baby how to "stern" the canoe - that is, steer and paddle from the rear position in the canoe.
She mastered it in a quick minute, of course.
She takes after her mama in this way.
She did such a great job in fact that she "sterned" all the way back to our campsite that day, and also all the way out of the BWCAW the next morning.
Yay C-baby! Hooray for new wilderness skills!
After our short paddle it was time for some more napping and relaxation, while we watched streams of paddlers pass by (and occasionally land) at the island looking for a campsite. C-baby even met a patron of the restaurant where she works, Mill Valley Kitchen. Talk about a small world!
We had so many tent pad sites that we offered them a place to stay, but they were seeking some alone time and decided to press onward.
Our day in "base camp" was truly delightful in every way, and our evening was no disappointment, either, with a spectacular sunset that seemed to make up for the fact that the clouds had obscured our view of the full moon nearly every night of our trip.
Our final morning we were up early, packed up and on the water by 8:30am.
With C-baby in the stern of the canoe, we paddled down the channel towards our exit. As we crossed by the sign at the side of the channel indicating we were leaving the BWCAW, a bald eagle passed over our heads.
After landing, a quick, free telephone call to Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters to come and pick us and our gear up and bring us back to the lodge left us with a few moments to reminisce and snap a few last photos.
We still had some business to attend to at the outfitters, and a very long day of driving ahead of us, but one thing was for certain - neither of us would ever, ever, forget our trip together in the BWCAW.