Boundary Waters Canoe Trip

I recently took a trip to the BWCA which is located in Northern Minnesota. I read about the BWCA when I lived and worked in Minnesota between 2001-2003 and have wanted to make a trip there since that time. The BWCA is a large area as the map link details, and it is easy to become lost considering most of it looks the same. Travel through the BWCA is only recommended for experienced hikers/canoers/campers/survivalists. A member of my rugby team worked in the BWCA for a few years and organized a group trip for 8 of us for 5 days. I want to describe our trip and also note things I would do differently in the hopes that this can be a resource for someone planning a trip.

The trip turned out to be quite different than what most of expected it to be. We utilized Voyageur Canoe Outfitters to supply our gear and entered the BWCA at Round Lake with a final destination of Gillis Lake. We had 4 canoes for the group and approximately 700 Lbs of gear and supplies. We had to portage 8 times between Round and Gillis lakes. Some of the portages were short and trivial, but several were challenging due to length and/or terrain. The portage terrain varied from muddy swamp to rocky mountainous passes. We all were or are rugby players that work out regularly and so all members of the group had some minimal level of good physical fitness. The trips in and out of the BWCA were physically challenging for all of us.

We were all surprised by the level of difficulty of the portages and the remoteness of the entire BWCA. This is no place for beginners. There are many ways a person could become injured in the BWCA with very limited means of receiving assistance. You basically are on your own once you enter. Please keep this in mind if considering a trip into the BWCA with children, YOU ARE COMPLETELY ON YOUR OWN. We passed two families with young children on the portages. I’m sure they had wonderful, memorable trips with their children, but it would be too much of a safety risk in my opinion.

High detail topographical maps that show the allowed camp sites and portage entrance/exits are a necessity. It is a challenge to find the portages from the lakes even when you know approximately where it is at. GPS units may make navigation easier however, batteries die and electronics fail and so I wouldn’t recommend complete reliance on GPS.

Camping is only allowed in defined sites and are first come first serve (at least as far as I could tell). “Leave No Trace” camping is mandatory and so everything carried in must be carried out (including garbage). The camp sites are primitive and extremely basic. There are no benches, tables, etc. Our campsite had a fire grate and a couple of crooked rocks that we tried to utilize as tables. We did not have portable chairs in our supplied gear and so weaved a small bench between trees using nylon rope and cord.

The biting flies and mosquitoes were every bit as relentless as Minnesotan’s claim them to be. We were constantly applying repellent and being attacked. A few of the guys slept outside of the tents and claimed that once it became completely dark that the bugs disappeared. I was up at first light and was being attacked by mosquitoes immediately and incessantly throughout the day. Smoke from the fire did nothing for us. Wind kept the mosquitoes at bay, but did nothing to the flies.

Our goal for the week was to catch as many fish as possible. We failed miserably. We did not get a single bite. All 8 of us fished using many different lure and live bait combinations around the lake and in surrounding lakes. We did not fail to catch fish due to a lack of effort or variety of tactics. The lake that we camped at and fished in the most (Gillis) is a deep lake with very little transition from the shoreline. The depth increased rapidly from the shore to a max depth of approximately 180 feet. Most of the lakes appeared to be bedrock lined with no sand/dirt/vegetation. The water is extremely clear. The lack of vegetation led me to believe that there are none of the typical lake fish (bass, crappy, pike, etc.) in these lakes. No fish were visible in the few shallow areas that we found as we trolled around the lake. If there were lake fish there then we should have seen at least 1 in these shallow areas. We also trolled through the deeper water at varying depths attempting to catch lake trout but came up empty.

The weather was very warm for the area (~90’s). Our original egress plan was to pack up at first light Friday morning and hike out. However, it stormed Wednesday during the night and started storming heavily Thursday at approximately 1200. We waited for 2 hours for the storm to subside (which it didn’t) and made a group decision at 1400 to exfiltrate the BWCA while we still had enough daylight instead of spending a wet night in the tents. We hit the water with our gear in the middle of a thunderstorm at approximately 1445. It stopped storming approximately half way through our egress. Our impromptu (and risky) decision turned out to be a good choice because it stormed very heavily Thursday evening and the temperature turned cold. It would have been a very wet and cold evening and I’m not sure the tents would have survived the high winds. We hustled and were able to get to our extraction point on Round Lake in approximately 4 hours.

If I were to make a return trip to the BWCA I would obviously do some things different. I researched lists of recommended gear prior to the trip but don’t feel that any of the lists I found were perfect. The following are recommendations that I feel are notable and not necessarily obvious. Hopefully this will be a resource for someone planning a BWCA trip and will make their trip more comfortable.

  1. First Aid Kit: Probably shouldn’t have to mention this. We believed that our outfitter was supplying this in our gear but it was not included. Be sure that you have one and that it is thorough.
  2. Keep it Light: Get the lightest gear possible. This goes for everything from footwear to food to the canoe. The lighter the better. The portages are no joke in terms of difficulty and light gear will make things easier.
  3. Water: Water treatment is a science. Take the time to educate yourself and decide on what will work best for your situation. I took a portable pump type filter and it worked fine. It would have been nice to have a longer inlet tube so that I could have thrown the end out into deeper water from the shore. The filter has a lot of small plastic pieces in the pumping mechanism that could have easily failed. I should have taken a chemical treatment (like iodine) as a backup to be safe. Be sure to take a collapsible bladder (whatever size works for you) and a water bottle for drinking out of (I took a 1L bottle and it was fine).
  4. Salt: It was hot as previously mentioned, and judging by the cramps that I had the first night I was low on electrolyte. Be sure to get enough salt in your diet to prevent this.
  5. Maps, ingress, egress, emergency travel plans: It is important to acquire highly detailed topographical maps that indicate portage entrance/exit/length, elevations, lake depths, etc. Plan your ingress/egress routes prior to entrance and file your travel plans with someone (park service, outfitter) so that you will be considered MIA if you don’t show up at your extraction point on time. You are required to file for a travel permit and this is probably part of the permit process (I didn’t file our groups permit).
  6. Emergency Communications: Familiarize yourself with emergency signalling procedures prior to your trip. There are seaplanes that fly in the area on occasion (we saw 2 in 4 days). They can be signaled in the event of an emergency and supposedly look for the distress signals. I am a licensed amateur radio operator and would pack a small 10m/20m radio for comms if I were to return. I seriously doubt anything on VHF/UHF would have enough range to be of use. I believe an emergency call on a low power 10 or 20m radio with a small antenna would work fine. Satellite phones are another option.
  7. Clothing: Get rugged outdoor trousers (think Bear Grylls) made of fast drying synthetic material (be careful around the fire) that synch at the bottoms. The synthetic material should be impervious to insects which will make your life much better because you will probably portage through knee deep swamp that will wash off insect repellent and you will be swarmed by flies and mosquitoes in seconds. Obviously take shorts for swimming. Take a mix of short and long sleeved shirts but don’t overpack, remember you can wash them. Shirt material should also be made of something impervious to insects. The weather can change fast and it is difficult to know what you will face in advance if you are there for more than a few days. You will need to pack for all situations. Be sure to pack a light rain parka.
  8. Insect Repellant, Calamine Lotion/Spray: Do not underestimate how much insect repellant you can go through. Your clothing should be your first line of defense, but bring plenty of repellant just in case. Mosquito and fly bites may not be completely preventable. Take some first aid lotion for treatment and relief.
  9. Headgear: Consider a mosquito headnet or tactical shemagh to give yourself relief from the insects when you need it. A brimmed hat would have been nice in the rain.
  10. Footwear: Some type of rugged outdoor hightop light boot that drains well and dries rapidly. They need to lace up tight so that they don’t come off in the muck. They should have a sole that will grip flat wet rock well. Some people recommend teva sandals but I think a light boot would be better for the portages because they protect your feet in the muck. The tevas are fine for wearing around the campsite or in the canoe fishing. Pack enough socks, you will want a clean dry pair for both ingress and egress.
  11. Canoe: We rented fiberglass canoes that were approximately 80 Lbs. Carbon fiber canoes are available and are approximately 30 Lbs lighter but are also more susceptible to damage from rocks. The fiberglass canoes got heavy (at least for me) on the longer portages but were very resilient to rock damage. If your upper body strength is limited you may want to consider one of the lighter canoes, just be careful of rock damage and bring duct tape for emergency patching of leaks.
  12. Lighting: Be sure to have a headlamp that straps to your head. I was the only one that took a flashlight instead of a headlamp and wished that I would have had one.
  13. Tent: Keep it light and make sure that it is waterproofed in the event you are caught in storms (like us). I recommend something that is low profile so that it will survive high winds. Include stakes, tie-down gear and possibly a multi-function hammer/hatchet/axe/pry-bar to try to beat the stakes in with. Keep in mind that most of the ground is bedrock with little to no dirt cover and so staking the tent is very difficult. Ensure the tent has enough room in case you are trapped in it for several hours. Ensure that it has enough windows and vents to let air circulate when it is hot/humid. Be sure to bring a tarp to put under the tent if it doesn’t have a tarp type bottom built into it.
  14. Cot: We had small (2×3) inflatable thermarest pads to sleep on. These were not very comfortable and would not have done anything for us if the tent bottoms had leaked. I recommend a very light, small cot to get you up off the tent bottom and keep your sleeping bag (and you) dry in the event of water in the bottom of the tent.
  15. Mess Kit: Try to avoid dishes as much as possible because they have to be maintained which probably means washing in lake water and then having to deal with sanitation issues. If taking a mess kit be sure to remember dish sanitizer. Get something that doubles as hand sanitizer if possible and necessary.
  16. Chair: I did not notice any benches or tables in the BWCA. It would have been nice to have a small fold out chair to sit in. There are plenty of very compact and light models to choose from.
  17. Book: We actually had time available after food prep, camp site maintenance, fishing, swimming, etc. to read. I didn’t take a book and wished I would have.
  18. Camera: I took waterproof disposable models and one failed leaving me with 7 out of 27 pictures. I didn’t know that there was an issue with the camera until I had it developed. One of the guys in our group took a solar charger for his phone and used the camera on his phone. I think this was probably a good option. Just be sure to pack it in something waterproof in the event that it goes in the water.

Please feel free to contact me if you have questions. I’m not a BWCA guide but I play rugby with one.