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After our two daughters were old enough (eight and five), I approached my wife about going to the Oshkosh Fly-in (now called AirVenture) in 1992. Living in the Kansas City area, we planned to stop at her parent’s house in northern Illinois for a night and drive to Wisconsin the next day. Since the minimum camping charge was for three nights, we planned to be at the airshow for two full days. I remembered being in the Boundary Waters near Ely, MN, in 1975 and 1976, so I asked if we should try wilderness canoeing.
“Sure,” she said, “I was there in 1969 and 1970, and I carried a canoe.” After being married for over 13 years, I was flabbergasted that I didn’t know this. We had camped a few times (before and after having kids) and decided on a three-day canoeing trip. After calling a few Ely outfitters, we chose the one I used in 1976. Our total bill was about $420, which included an 18-foot canoe, paddles, tent, food, sleeping bags, and three Duluth packs (kitchen/food, clothing, sleeping) to carry everything.
After driving from Oshkosh to Ely, we checked in with the outfitters, packed our supplies, and spent the night in a tent. The next morning, the outfitter dropped us, our canoe, and supplies at the entry point. We had three paddles (front, back, and spare) and the girls sat on the Duluth packs. To travel between the various lakes, you need to portage the canoe and the supplies. Our youngest girl was too small to carry much, the eight-year-old could carry a sleeping bag pack, and my wife the food pack. As the 18-foot canoe was heavier than the 16-foot I carried in 1976, I had to go back and get the clothing pack, traversing the portage path three times.
We returned to the Boundary Waters in 1994 and 1997, increasing our time to five days at $800. The youngest could carry the sleeping bag pack, the eldest the clothing pack, and my wife the food pack, so I didn’t need to go back to pick up something. By 2001, the girls were too big for the 18-foot canoe, so we use two 16-foot canoes. The eldest could carry the food pack, the youngest the clothing pack, and I took the sleeping bag pack and a canoe. My wife reprised her canoe portaging expertise from 1970.
To navigate, you have a fairly detailed map with landmarks, campsites (red dots), and portage trails (red dashed lines) measured in rods. One of the hardest portages was from Lake Insula to Kiana Lake (the red dash line east of Jut Lake) of 180 rods, which is about a half mile. You make a vertical climb of at least 50 feet at a 20+ percent grade. When you reach the top, you have a canoe rest, with your bow on a log about eight feet high between two posts. The main portage was somewhat flat with another canoe rest in the middle. Another canoe rest was near the end before you dropped 50 feet again. By 2001, the US Forest Service decided not to maintain the paths or the canoe rests, so they may no longer be there. Such is progress.
About mid-afternoon, you looked for an unoccupied campsite. After beaching the canoe, you set up the tent and unpack various items from the Duluth bags. Things could get wet on the lakes, so you put up a clothesline to dry dishtowels and wet clothes. You were allowed to burn any downed branches for cooking, but we opted for using our MSR Stove to avoid cleaning the pots and pans from the soot of the campfire. We still made a campfire for our refuse from the food packs, which used burnable plastic containers or cardboard.
Before dinner was a time for exploring, limited swimming (the lakes were cold in August!), and short canoe trips without the burden of the Duluth packs. Dinner was the biggest meal of the day, followed by cleanup and repacking the kitchen bag. Even on the islands, we tied the food bag under an upside-down canoe to discourage any bears. In the morning, we cooked typical breakfasts, such as eggs and oatmeal, and the cleanup went fast by using the stove. Sandwiches were packed for lunch, the canoe loaded, and it was another day for an adventure!Published in