Boundary Waters Canoeing

 

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.

Approaching a portage.

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.

Portaging the canoe.

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.

Three-four person tent.

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.

We never fished, but saw others catch a few!

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!

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  1. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Oh wow.  I spent 2 weeks there when I was 15, summer of ’91, on an Outward Bound trip.  Unforgettable up there.  I’d have to dig out my maps from that trip to remember just which lakes we hit (I do remember spending a lot of time on Basswood Lake), but some of those portages were nasty.  I remember one that was filled with hidden mud pits – you’d put your foot down, and it would just keep going down as your canoe crashed down around you.

    • #1
  2. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Great story. Thanks for sharing.

    • #2
  3. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    I have always wanted to do this. Unfortunately, the age difference between me and my brothers alienated me from potential camping mates :p My husband is not outdoorsy.

    • #3
  4. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    Oh wow. I spent 2 weeks there when I was 15, summer of ’91, on an Outward Bound trip. Unforgettable up there. I’d have to dig out my maps from that trip to remember just which lakes we hit (I do remember spending a lot of time on Basswood Lake), but some of those portages were nasty. I remember one that was filled with hidden mud pits – you’d put your foot down, and it would just keep going down as your canoe crashed down around you.

    Basswood Lake is to the north of our main lakes, which included Lake One, Insula, Thomas, Ima, Ensign, and Moose. On the 5 day trip we followed the actual boundary between the US and Canada, and ate lunch on the Canadian side.

    • #4
  5. Pony Convertible Inactive
    Pony Convertible
    @PonyConvertible

    I have been there 4 times with Boy Scouts, as an adult leader. Since we always had younger kids, we adults had to carry more than our share.  I am not complaining, I did go back 3 times with them.

    The last time I went my boys and their friend were young adults.  That was much better.  Nothing like arriving at a portage and having 3 young men who want to prove their brawn.  By the time I got out of the canoe and took my water shoes off to clean out the gravel, the canoe and packs were gone.  I was usually left with nothing but a couple of paddles and PFDs to carry.

    • #5
  6. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Pony Convertible (View Comment):
    I was usually left with nothing but a couple of paddles and PFDs to carry.

    Those are some well-raised young men! Kudos.

    • #6
  7. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    These sound like amazing family experiences.

    • #7
  8. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Great story. I remain in awe of you outdoorsy types.

    • #8
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    Great story. I remain in awe of you outdoorsy types.

    I went outside once. Never again, man. There were insects and people out there. Very scary.

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Who would name a lake “Lake Insula?” Why not Islands Lake or Lake of the Islands? Why stuff that one Latin word in there? Or, put the whole name in Latin, but half and half? Argh!

    Sounds like a nifty camping trip, though.


    And this conversation is an entry in the Group Writing Series under the February theme of “We Need a Little Summer.” If you have summer stories or stories of heat to tell and want to warm us up as I am hearing the snowplow do its thing outside, our schedule for February and sign-up sheet is here. Why not sign up today?

    • #10
  11. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    I have that very tent.  I used it on 3 month cross country motorcycle trips back in my early 20’s – twice.  I spent a lot of time in that tent.  I still have it somewhere.

    • #11
  12. Painter Jean Member
    Painter Jean
    @PainterJean

    Wonderful story – thank you!

    Despite having been raised in Minnesota, I was only up in the Boundary Waters once. I’m afraid that my experience was so awful I have no intention of ever going back. First, we had to portage a mile to get to our first lake. This was not a nice introduction to canoeing. It was quite warm, but light-weight clothing was not an option: We happened to hit the area at the height of the black fly (think gnats) hatch. They crawled and bit everywhere, so long pants were a necessity, as were long-sleeved shirts fastened tightly at the wrist. Hats with mesh screens draped into our shirts were also necessary.

    At night we stooped over the campfire to get relief from the mosquitoes, which took over from the black flies when the sun went down. We deliberately made the fire smoky on account of the mosquitoes. Eating was difficult because it was almost impossible to open one’s mouth wide enough for food without letting in scads of black flies.

    The most relief I found was to go into the lake up to just under my chin while wearing my hat with its mesh screen. That was the only way to not get bitten. If only I could have spent the whole time there…

    I will never go back, never never never never!!!

    • #12
  13. Whistle Pig Member
    Whistle Pig
    @

    Great story.  I love the BWCA and Quetico (the Canadian wilderness area on the other side of the border).

    I’ve been up there more times than I can count, including two solo trips, but have never gotten my wife up there.  If you want some quality alone time – head up to the BWCA on your own.

    • #13
  14. Whistle Pig Member
    Whistle Pig
    @

    Painter Jean (View Comment):
    Wonderful story – thank you!

    Despite having been raised in Minnesota, I was only up in the Boundary Waters once. I’m afraid that my experience was so awful I have no intention of ever going back. First, we had to portage a mile to get to our first lake. This was not a nice introduction to canoeing. It was quite warm, but light-weight clothing was not an option: We happened to hit the area at the height of the black fly (think gnats) hatch. They crawled and bit everywhere, so long pants were a necessity, as were long-sleeved shirts fastened tightly at the wrist. Hats with mesh screens draped into our shirts were also necessary.

    At night we stooped over the campfire to get relief from the mosquitoes, which took over from the black flies when the sun went down. We deliberately made the fire smoky on account of the mosquitoes. Eating was difficult because it was almost impossible to open one’s mouth wide enough for food without letting in scads of black flies.

    The most relief I found was to go into the lake up to just under my chin while wearing my hat with its mesh screen. That was the only way to not get bitten. If only I could have spent the whole time there…

    I will never go back, never never never never!!!

    That’s too bad.  I’ve never had to deal with a black fly hatch while in the BWCA.  I did while camping elsewhere on the North Shore and it is indeed miserable.  If you want to assure yourself of not having to deal with black flies or mosquitos, head up in mid-September or later, after the first frost.  Of course, if you go up in October it might snow on you, but that could be really cool.

    • #14
  15. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Painter Jean (View Comment):
    We happened to hit the area at the height of the black fly (think gnats) hatch. They crawled and bit everywhere, so long pants were a necessity, as were long-sleeved shirts fastened tightly at the wrist. Hats with mesh screens draped into our shirts were also necessary.

    At night we stooped over the campfire to get relief from the mosquitoes, which took over from the black flies when the sun went down.

    I can confirm both, although the mosquitos were typically worse. In general, if you are in a canoe away from shore with either the sun shining or a mild wind, the critters wouldn’t be a problem. While portaging, the trees blocked both the sun and wind, so you needed a good insect repellant.

    Instead of using our own equipment, by renting the tent and sleeping bags we didn’t have to worry about using insect repellant, as these items were washed by the outfitter. In May 1976, the flies and mosquitos were much worse than our early August family outings.

    • #15
  16. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Vectorman (View Comment):
    I can confirm both, although the mosquitos were typically worse. In general, if you are in a canoe away from shore with either the sun shining or a mild wind, the critters wouldn’t be a problem.

    It’s not bad until one’s big enough to fly up and lift the whole canoe. Then you know you’re in trouble. (Or is that only in Michigan?)

    • #16
  17. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    Love it !

    • #17
  18. Painter Jean Member
    Painter Jean
    @PainterJean

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):That’s too bad. I’ve never had to deal with a black fly hatch while in the BWCA. I did while camping elsewhere on the North Shore and it is indeed miserable. If you want to assure yourself of not having to deal with black flies or mosquitos, head up in mid-September or later, after the first frost. Of course, if you go up in October it might snow on you, but that could be really cool.

    I have to fault my guides, two friends of mine, who did have extensive experience canoeing in the BWCA. They knew that I and another friend of mine accompanying me had NO experience and that this was our first trip. One of my guide-friends was a fellow falconer, the other was a fellow falconer’s wife. The equivalent would be if, on their first hunting trip to experience falconry, I stuck them in a briar patch with snow up to their thighs, in below-zero temps, and told them to beat the thorny brush for rabbits – end of desire to know anything about falconry. Basic principle: If you want to share the joy of a particular activity with newbies, do what you can to make it a pleasant experience. My friend accompanying me, a friend from my childhood whom I had hoped would hit it off with my other two friends, got as much pleasure out of the trip as I did. She didn’t even try to put a cheerful face on it, which I did as much as possible. Honestly, I don’t think they could have done a more effective job of making me dislike even the suggestion of going up there again.

    • #18
  19. Mike Kenny Member
    Mike Kenny
    @MikeKenny

    The canoe rests have all been removed, along with the very unobtrusive fence post style signs at some of the portages that told you which lake it went to, and how far it was.  I used to go up there with my father and brothers, then with friends, then with my son and some of his friends, but we usually went in by the end of the Gunflint trail.

    • #19
  20. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Painter Jean (View Comment):
    At night we stooped over the campfire to get relief from the mosquitoes, which took over from the black flies when the sun went down. We deliberately made the fire smoky on account of the mosquitoes. Eating was difficult because it was almost impossible to open one’s mouth wide enough for food without letting in scads of black flies.

    Oooh.  I’ve been there several times between 1967 and 1982. Never went during black fly season, though.  Don’t think I would care to.  In fact, if I ever went there again I’d prefer to do it after the first frost.

    We usually went from Sawbill or Gunflint, but once with a church group we put in at Ely.

    • #20
  21. WI Con Member
    WI Con
    @WICon

    I’ve been there twice – amazing experiences both times. Think when I go back with wife & kids though, I’ll try that September timeframe noted to reduce bug nuisance ( they were brutal in June & July). I recall my buddy and I had to be in the tent before sun down, we’d push the clothing packs against the zippers to close off any routes for the buggers. Had to pee before sunset and hold it till morning – there was an audible din to them at night.

    Scenery and clean waters were fantastic though. Blueberry pancakes from wild blueberries, saw a moose. a bear and her cub. Some of my most cherished memories. Thanks for the post.

    • #21
  22. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    WI Con (View Comment):
    Scenery and clean waters were fantastic though. Blueberry pancakes from wild blueberries, saw a moose. a bear and her cub. Some of my most cherished memories. Thanks for the post.

    In addition to the blueberries, we had wild red raspberries in our (instant) chocolate pudding. Also saw a bald eagle!

    • #22
  23. HankMorgan Inactive
    HankMorgan
    @HankMorgan

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    Great story. I remain in awe of you outdoorsy types.

    I went outside once. Never again, man. There were insects and people out there. Very scary.

    And the bright light! No off switch. Sad.

    • #23
  24. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    We didn’t have black fly problems on our trip, but we did have sand fly problems – some shorelines were just infested with them, and they’d bite you all the way down the portage trail, or tag-along out onto the waters.

    We had one canoe (they were all aluminum) that had been badly dented when, during a portage, the carrier had sunk a leg into quick-mud.  Our guides warned us not to try and pound the dent out, but we were days from returning and that dent was causing noticeable drag, as it was practically a crease of over a foot long, and probably 2 inches deep at its worst (when dropped, the canoe slammed into a boulder).

    Well, pulling off from one shore we had a cloud of the damn sand flies with us.  Those things are quick, so hard to smack, but we did winnow their numbers as we pulled.  One guy, though, who was stuck in the prow of the dented boat, was going ape from the fly bites and really losing his mind.  He was screaming a blue streak of profanities, and had stopped paddling to try and swat some more down.  All at once we hear this loud *BANG!* from his boat, and he’s giving a war cry of victory.  Turns out a fly had landed right on the interior hump of that dent, and this guy had stomped it good and hard, also fixing the dent.

    • #24
  25. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    Well, pulling off from one shore we had a cloud of the damn sand flies with us. Those things are quick, so hard to smack, but we did winnow their numbers as we pulled. One guy, though, who was stuck in the prow of the dented boat, was going ape from the fly bites and really losing his mind. He was screaming a blue streak of profanities, and had stopped paddling to try and swat some more down. All at once we hear this loud *BANG!* from his boat, and he’s giving a war cry of victory. Turns out a fly had landed right on the interior hump of that dent, and this guy had stomped it good and hard, also fixing the dent.

    • #25
  26. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    HankMorgan (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    Great story. I remain in awe of you outdoorsy types.

    I went outside once. Never again, man. There were insects and people out there. Very scary.

    And the bright light! No off switch. Sad.

    Ah, you went outside, too.

    • #26
  27. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Of course, here in Southeast Michigan, that bright light outside is more heard of than seen.

    • #27
  28. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Nice photos, by the way.

    • #28
  29. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Nice photos, by the way.

    I cheat – they’re from a brochure!

    (Didn’t want to use family pictures, plus they’re squirrelled away)

    • #29
  30. Duane Oyen Member
    Duane Oyen
    @DuaneOyen

    Painter Jean (View Comment):
    Wonderful story – thank you!

    Despite having been raised in Minnesota, I was only up in the Boundary Waters once. I’m afraid that my experience was so awful I have no intention of ever going back. First, we had to portage a mile to get to our first lake. This was not a nice introduction to canoeing. It was quite warm, but light-weight clothing was not an option: We happened to hit the area at the height of the black fly (think gnats) hatch. They crawled and bit everywhere, so long pants were a necessity, as were long-sleeved shirts fastened tightly at the wrist. Hats with mesh screens draped into our shirts were also necessary.

    At night we stooped over the campfire to get relief from the mosquitoes, which took over from the black flies when the sun went down. We deliberately made the fire smoky on account of the mosquitoes. Eating was difficult because it was almost impossible to open one’s mouth wide enough for food without letting in scads of black flies.

    The most relief I found was to go into the lake up to just under my chin while wearing my hat with its mesh screen. That was the only way to not get bitten. If only I could have spent the whole time there…

    I will never go back, never never never never!!!

    Rubber Duckie and I tried camping with small daughters twice.  We were obviously expert rain-dancers, because in each case, the area had been very dry, and expected to remain dry.  In each case, it began to rain as soon as we arrived, causing the locals to rejoice.

    Our second foray was a weekend spent canoeing down the Crow Wing River, which is more Central Minnesota than Northern.  We drove to the outfitters, they drove us up farther North and left us with canoes, tents, etc. at the first campsite, and the skies opened up.  The only way for us to get back to civilization was by canoe, so the next morning we gamely packed up wet stuff and started down the river, wearing 33 gallon trash bags with holes cut out for head and arms.   We had one adult and one early elementary school age girl in each canoe.  The best adventure was when Rubber Duckie got caught in a water swirl of some sort and just rotated for a while until I could get over to her and pull her back into the forward current.

    The sun came out just as we got back to our car on Sunday afternoon.  Future adventures all involved hotels.

    • #30
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