I’ve paddled wild rivers in Alaska and northern Canada, hiked mountain ranges from the Beartooths to the Cascades and explored scenic wonders ranging from Yellowstone’s mudpots to Costa Rica’s mangrove forests.
All are spectacular.
But every year — as I have done for 40 years — I head north to Minnesota’s beloved Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Because in terms of sheer beauty, solitude and accessibility — not to mention often-spectacular fishing — our own wilderness waterway is unparalleled.
While most BWCA visitors are experienced, every year first-timers travel there — some prepared, many others not so much. Newcomers sometimes are conspicuous by the armfuls of gear, often stuffed in black plastic garbage bags, they lug across portages. Or by their bluejeans — slow-drying cotton scorned by most Boundary Waters paddlers.
There are easier, better ways. Exploring the BWCA wilderness should be a wondrous experience, not a pain. And it is, with the proper gear, clothing and know-how.
So on the eve of another open-water BWCA season, we solicited tips for first-timers from readers who are veteran BWCA travelers. And they delivered, offering no-nonsense, sometimes provocative, suggestions — ranging from what adult beverages and footwear to bring, to group, route and gear advice.
We’re not endorsing them all. Some are, well, unusual. Take the suggestions that interest you (edited for length and content) and vet them yourself. But even seasoned BWCA trekkers should find some of the tips thought-provoking.
This ain’t a resort
Go light. Leave the tables, chairs and coolers at home. Go with freeze-dried food (it’s gotten a lot better; Mountain House is a good brand), one change of clothes is plenty, and rent a Kevlar canoe if you don’t have one. If you can’t do a portage in a single trip, you probably have too much stuff. Don’t skimp on the bug spray though. Last June on the Nina Moose River, the mosquitoes were epic.
Nathan Vik, Maplewood
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Pick up that birch bark
Besides taking 15 or more trips with experienced groups, I have led 10 or more neophyte groups to the BWCA and always recommend the following:
• Don’t try to carry everything across the portage in one carry. The walking is as much of the experience as the paddling and should be enjoyed. Two carries also allows bringing some “luxury” items.
• Decide ahead of time who is going to carry what on portages and stick to it unless there is common agreement to change. This prevents things being left behind.
• On the first day everyone should pick up a dry piece of birch bark and keep it in a pocket. There are few better fire starters.
• Each one should have their own toilet paper, plus a little extra. Rather than one large roll, have several smaller ones stashed in various places, each in a plastic bag.
• Cross the portage carrying the lightest load first. Enjoy the walk, look at the scenery, and make note of difficult portions of the trail that will have to be dealt with under the heavy load.
• If it is lunch time on the portage, look for a lunch spot off the trail. Avoid lunching at the landings and becoming a nuisance to other visitors.
• Bring a golf umbrella. It is more readily available than your rain jacket and pants. An umbrella and rain pants are far more comfortable, and just as effective as a rain coat around camp, at the latrine or crossing a portage during a passing shower.
• Boxed wine is good. Leave the box behind and bring only the bladder. When the wine is gone, the bladder is a good water flask.
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Sense of humor a must
Welcome to one of the most unique, beautiful places on Earth.
Every spring our group gets together to plan our trip. Talk about what kind of trip you want, traveling from lake to lake or base camping with day trips. Talk about your route, get maps and get familiar with them. Talk about equipment, food, clothing and any little things you may want to bring. Talk about all the fun you will have.
Safety first! Wear your PFDs, put on sunscreen, and pay attention to the skies and winds. Pack your rain jacket on the top of your Duluth pack. Be prepared for all kinds of weather. You can still have fun if it rains.
Don’t bring more than you can carry, but bring enough to be comfortable for all kinds of weather. Walkie-talkies are on our equipment list. It is easy to get out of talking range in your canoes. When you pick up your permit, pay attention to the movie and do what it says.
Bring your sense of humor and sense of adventure. Be respectful of this precious wilderness area. Take care of it.
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Early, early, early
Here are a few tips for the first-timers:
• Do NOT overpack anything — food, clothing, unnecessary items. Think about every ounce you’re going to carry.
• Make camp early. Which means get on the water early; early morning is gorgeous in the BW. Be off the water by early afternoon.
• Bring a tarp. In wind, rain and hail, it will be worth the weight.
• Wear hiking boots on the portages. I’ve seen people in flip-flops. They have to be rookies. You’re a long way from help if you gash open a foot, sprain an ankle, etc.
Tom Pecharich, Rogers
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You’ve been warned
The lakes and streams on the Canadian Shield are beautiful but carry risks. The rocks are especially beautiful and dangerous along the shoreline. The black ones and especially wet black rocks are very slippery, like grease. Consider you’ve been warned.
Jim Goudy, Austin
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Books, bugs and brushing
Here are a few tips that I recommend for any BWCA camper.
• Don’t forget your toothbrush!
• For God’s sake, bring a head net to keep bugs away.
• You aren’t going to read that novel; leave it at home.
• 100 feet of parachute cord makes life easier in ways you haven’t thought of yet (but will when you need it).
• Even if you have waterproof bags, wrap everything you’ve packed in a 10-x-10 tarp. It can serve you in a million ways.
• Don’t rush. The wilderness doesn’t care how many trips you make per portage.
• Learn how to paddle and carry a canoe on sunny days BEFORE you go. The grading curve gets steeper when it’s pouring buckets of rain, you’re sliding around in the mud, and you are being eaten alive by mosquitoes.
• Leave no trace! Pack out every single piece of trash you bring in. Nothing brings you back to the “real world” you are escaping than a piece of trash on the trail.
Brian Carrier, Buffalo
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Go with someone who knows what they are doing and has been there many times before. It is the fastest possible way to get a leg up on traveling by canoe, and will allow you to quickly gain skills and tricks that are otherwise earned “the hard way.” This really can mean the difference between a lovely vacation, and an “I’m never doing this again” moment.
Jon Brelie, Minneapolis
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Layover day required
As a 12-time veteran of the BWCA, I have a few tips:
Take a layover day. The whole reason you have ventured so far north was to relax and enjoy nature, so do it.
Call an audible. Every trip can be planned down to the exact minute, but what happens when the campsite you picked is taken or the portage is flooded? Most of my favorite memories are from unplanned hiatuses that are more enjoyable than the original plan.
Bring an extra paddle and life jacket. I have been on 12 different summer trips and have had five broken paddles.
Get the right maps. Follow the rules. As an avid outdoorsman I love the wilderness but have more friends every time who want to come or cheat the rules. No cans makes your packs lighter, small groups make it more enjoyable. I’ve seen eight moose because we stay with our small group and stay quiet.
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Planning is essential
• Identify your possible group members and the group leader. Plan a “reasonable” route — for first-timers, 5 to 7 miles a day, depending on the age and physical abilities of the group.
• Get your entry permit as early as possible.
• Plan a group packing list (I have a working Excel sheet of the “group gear” list I edit every year to add/remove things as a good starting template).
• The group leader should estimate expenses and tell each member what their estimated individual contribution will be. The group leader should collect a financial commitment from the other members. It’s easy for a potential group member to back out of the trip if they have no financial commitment.
• Have a meeting where there is a “group inventory” of gear.
• Plan out each meal and how much snack food the group will have throughout the trip. Also, allocate a small amount of food in excess as an emergency.
• Pack in advance! Weigh your packs, see how everything fits, and test carrying the packs as if on a portage.
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Feet in the water
Pack shoes or sandals that can dry out quickly or that you’re not worried about getting wet! It really helps to guide your canoe into portages or camp sites by getting out of the canoe while in shallow water.
David Sandager, St. Paul
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Bears and scotch
The rocks can be treacherous — always know where your feet are when you’re portaging or just walking around your camp site. Paddle the lightest canoe possible, but avoid noisy aluminum — portaging a heavy canoe is no fun. Re: your food packs, don’t worry about bears too much, but be mindful of squirrels. They can chew through cloth and plastic in a hurry. I’ve never worried about getting my drinking water from the lakes except when near a beaver dam, where giardia is a risk factor. The most important tip: Enjoy! It’s a rare privilege to be able to paddle in such a magical place.
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Don’t count on eating fish
My sister and I will take our 22nd BWCA trip this June. Our tips include:
• Go with a veteran the first time. Watch, listen and learn.
• Decide why you are going. Is it for fishing? Enjoying the silence? Photography? Plan your trip accordingly.
• Don’t think you’re going to eat fish every meal. Between weather, wind and mayflies, they may not be biting.
• Be OK with, and prepared for, rain, bugs, wind and bugs (did we say bugs?!?)
• Leave the books and electronics at home. Just be in nature and watch. You’ll see amazing things.
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Dry your own food
Always bring a stocking hat and gloves. Learned the hard way two years ago when I woke up to frost on my tent — on Aug. 2. Make and pack your own dried meals. They are less expensive and taste so much better than what’s available to buy. Almost any recipe can be dried with a few, simple tweaks.
Stephanie Dowell, Buhl
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Bourbon and sausage
Gear: rain pants and jacket; good sturdy boots with ankle support; wool socks (wet, soggy feet, no problem!); wool sweater.
Calories: summer sausage (for snack or fried for breakfast); waxed cheese (keeps surprisingly well and the fat/protein combo is awesome); nuts and more nuts.
Drink: The portable UV wand is so much better than pumping a water filter; advise one wand per person, takes about one minute to purify a bottle of lake water. Bourbon! Nothing like it to warm you up after a windy, rainy, cold day. Starbucks has a great instant coffee.
Austin and Rachel Damiani,
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An outfitter makes it easy
Use an outfitter, especially if you are not equipped to camp or experienced to camp or only enter the BWCA rarely. Your trip will be much less stressful and more enjoyable when the outfitter takes care of everything. This was how I went the first time with my 12-year-old son and how I’d go again.
the rev. Mike VerWay,
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Respect your setting
My suggestions as an avid canoeist:
Respect. It should go without saying that one should respect the BWCA, after all, it is one of the last true wildernesses in the Lower 48.
Have a plan. Be sure that family members or friends know an approximate route of what lakes, portages and other detours you may take. Pack out what you pack in.
Etiquette. If you come to a portage where a group is unloading their things back into the water, give them the courtesy of finishing up their launch, especially if it’s a crowded landing area.
Enjoy yourself. Take a breath. Oftentimes we can get caught up in the moment of a difficult portage or an impossibly hard paddle. But take heart knowing that you are exploring a wilderness that very few get to traverse. Take solace knowing that you are surrounded by the sublime.