In 2013, I had the opportunity to join 4 paddling friends for a 6 day canoeing excursion in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota. This had long been a place on my “bucket list” so I was fortunate to garner an invite on this annual tradition with experienced backcountry paddlers.
Our trip leader, Bob, has done countless trips to the Boundary Waters over the years, including many with Big City Mountaineers, so we were in good hands for this trip!
Planning for the trip began in January – we gathered a few times to discuss meal planning, wine preferences, route planning and our personal goals for the trip (stargazing and photography for me) There were many tasks to be delegated – buying dehydrated food, making GORP, buying stove fuel, water treatment, sunscreen, bug spray and many other items we would need for our 6 day wilderness excursion. We also had to agree on a route fairly early in the year so that we could secure our wilderness permits and canoe reservations. This is key as they only allow so many travelers to “put in” and “take out” each day on each lake, so it’s important to know which lake you are applying for, and always have a Plan B!
After a packing party a few nights prior to our departure, we were ready to hit the road!
What to pack for 6 days in the backcountry? Not much, when there are portages involved! This is my clothing for the entire trip:
On departure day, we gathered in the Western Chicago Suburbs early in the morning for the 8 hour drive to Ely, MN. After a few stops, lunch at Camille’s Sidewalk Cafe in Chippewa Falls, we arrived in Ely in time to do some last minute shopping and grab our final civilized meal. It would be dehydrated meals from here on out!
The outfitter we used for this trip was Canoe Country Outfitters. While this was not a guided trip (which are available for a much steeper price) we still relied on the outfitter for canoe rentals, permits, shuttle, satellite phone rental, as well as lodging the night before and after the wilderness trip. We provided our own food, paddles, life jackets and maps. A guided trip would provide all of these, in addition to a rugged outdoorsman cooking savory meals over a campfire each night. We had Bob for that!
Bright and early on a Friday morning, we loaded up our shuttle van and headed to the put-in on Lake One. Last call for flush toilets and running water! Months of planning were about to pay off. I’ll admit to a slight case of nerves as well – I get them before every backcountry trip – what am I doing here, am I in good enough shape, are my paddling skills up to snuff, will my dog eat the adorable Schnauzer she’s staying with, etc, etc….but it’s all good once we hit those glassy Boundary Waters.
On day 1, we paddled through Lakes 1, 2,3, 4, on to Lake Hudson and finally to Lake Insula. We had our first portages with a full load of food and gear for the next 6 days.
As the backpacker of the trip, I was designated as the food mule, meaning I got to carry the portage pack containing the huge blue bear vault. This job was NO JOKE! That pack was flippin’ heavy, and lacked the internal support frame like a backpacking pack. I pretty much had to hunch over to keep from falling backwards!
Sometimes portages were to get us from one lake to the next. Other times, like the picture below, were to portage around rapids. This wasn’t a whitewater trip! Each portage involved unpacking the canoes, splitting up the gear, loading up our backs and two lucky paddlers got to carry a canoe on their head!
Since Bob had so much BWCA experience, he knew which campsites to aim for, and each campsite was magnificent! We usually arrived at camp in early afternoon, where we would beach the canoes and set up camp. Each site had a fire ring and a pit toilet off in the woods, as well as plenty of room for our two tents.
Everyone is dying to know – how and where do you go to the bathroom? While many backcountry trips involve a shovel and a cathole, places like this with designated campsites would quickly turn into a mine-field, so pit toilets have been installed. Still fairly rustic, and the more popular sites can get quite “full” if you know what I mean!
Once camp was set up, it was time for happy hour. Just because we’re camping, it doesn’t mean we can’t be civilized! Cheese, crackers and wine? Yes, please, we’ve earned it!
After happy hour, we usually broke off for some alone time – swimming, reading, napping, hiking around the island or peninsula we had camped on. We took turns with dinner duty and dishwashing each night. Most dinners consisted of a soup mix like Bear Creek, with pouch chicken and dehydrated veggies. For this trip, we used a JetBoil Group Cooking System.
After dinner, it’s time to hang the food bag from bears, which was no small task! Yes, I stood there watching while everyone did the heavy lifting. Somebody needed to document, though!
I mentioned earlier that one of my goals was stargazing. Sadly, hours of paddling and fresh air day after day meant I was never able to stay up late enough to see the stars! That’s pretty much the story of every backcountry trip I take! We portaged a tripod all over for nothing.
Day 2 we paddled across Kiana and camped on Lake Thomas, then on to Hatchet and Ima the next day. Day 4 took us through Jordan, Cattyman, Gibson, Ashigan and Ensign. Day 5 we explored Splash, Sucker and camped on Newfound Lake after a pit stop in Canada.
One of the more interesting tasks in trip planning is calculating things like how much toilet paper you’ll need. You don’t want to carry too much stuff, but you also don’t want to run out! We weren’t quite sure of our supply, so the sidetrip to Canada was partially so we could “borrow” some TP from the ranger station.
After our last night on Newfound, we paddled out to Moose Lake and stopped for a photo opp at the Boundary Waters boundary.
Here we are, back to almost civilization, haven’t seen a hot shower in 6 days, and we all cram into Bob’s Jeep Liberty for the short drive back to Ely. High five, we did it!
Once back in Ely, we took turns showering, watching a week’s worth of dirt swirl down the drain. The rest of the group was ready for some lunch and shopping in the small town of Ely. Me? I’ve been sleeping on the ground for a week, humping a crazy heavy portage pack and sitting in a canoe….I’m heading to the SPA! Before we even got to town, I was searching Yelp for the Pebble spa, which I’d seen when driving through town at the beginning of the week. I booked a Hot Stone Massage for that afternoon. Talk about an amazing treat to cap off the week! The spa is in an old house in the center of town, with a super cute boutique store in front.
I stumbled out of the spa after an incredibly relaxing hour on the massage table, rejoined the group for some more shopping, then off to a steak dinner and early bedtime. The next morning we hit the road at dawn for the 8 hour drive back to Chicagoland.
I can definitely see why some people return to the Boundary Waters year after year – I hope to return someday, but in the meantime have so many other places to explore.
This time, I would have 1 quick day at home to catch up on laundry and work, unpack, repack and head west for a Colorado backpacking adventure! Back to back backcountry vacations? Awesome!
For more photos, click here!