Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoeing
This summer I checked an item off of my bucket list that had been on it since I moved to Minnesota 6 years ago. A boundary waters canoeing trip. In addition to being a watersports enthusiast, I’m also an avid outdoorsman and angler. As a child I had heard tales about the legendary boundary waters. A majestic piece of wilderness nearly untouched by man, lakes teeming with fish, horse flies so big they can carry you away, and more wildlife than the zoo.
This particular trip wasn’t on my radar until about 4 days prior to its start. My uncle called me up and asked what I was doing the following weekend, I said that I didn’t really have any plans – other than going fishing with some friends. Well, as it turns out he had a fully planned, fully provisioned trip lined up with himself, his son, and his friend and friend’s son. The friend got diagnosed with a MRSA infection and had to bail at the last minute. Bad news for him, but good news for me. All I had to do was show up the night before the departure and I was in.
It’s not often that an opportunity to cross off a bucket list item drops into your lap like this. I pulled in some favors at work and was able to rearrange my calendar to get off the necessary two days of vacation.
I had a five hour drive from the Twin Cities up to the jump off point in Ely. That night we stayed a little motel. The kind that advertises color tv and air conditioning. I walked in with a duffle bag that had all my essentials for the trip: clothing, water shoes, bug spray fishing gear etc. I was then promptly told by my uncle that I had to fit all my gear into one – yes one grocery bag. In fact, my ten year old cousin was only bringing a sweat shirt, three socks, rain coat and a tooth brush. Not wanting to be outdone by a ten year old, I began to sort out the essential items from those that weren’t necessary. I ended up with a bulging grocery bag that contained my toothbrush, one pair of Helo shorts, a couple shirts, Columbia pfg zip off pants, and rain gear.
The next morning we dropped off our cars at the outfitter and then proceeded to the lake one access. We paddled around for a few hours trying to find a campsite and quickly found that the maps provided didn’t have quite enough detail to navigate effectively. We ran into a couple other parties and they had the same problem.
After about four hours of paddling we were able to find an unoccupied site that was a little off the beaten path. We broke camp and had a quick snack. It was at this point that we realized we had left the bug spray in the car. This was one of those “roll with the punches” moments and we figured if our ancestors could forgo deet, then so could we. Next we hit the lake to do some fishing. We were lindy rigging leaches, and letting the wind push us across depths ranging from 5-10ft. We caught a couple eater walleyes, but nothing of great size. We then headed back to cook our catch.
As the sun started to dip down to the horizon we could hear a buzzing din that was growing louder by the second… then the first mosquito hit, shortly thereafter we realized that a cloud of skeeters was upon us. We literally sprinted into our respective tents, dove in, and zipped up the flap as fast as humanly possible. The next fifteen minutes were spent killing all the bugs that were able to make it in the tent. I’ve never experienced a cloud of bugs like that. The cloud would hover around the tent for about 15 minutes and then dissipate. But as soon as you left the tent they’d be all over you.
The next day we made our first portage over into lake two. This actually consisted of two portages the first was 45 rods, the second was about 60 rods. For people that have never done a portage before (and I was one of them), it’s a lot of work. Strap the 100lb Duluth bag onto your back, and then hoist and aluminum canoe up onto your shoulders and balance it there. Then walk over rough terrain until your legs are about to give out, and then walk another 25 yards. Okay – that’s a little exaggeration, but despite the work, the portages were definitely worth it. Lake two was much more secluded. We landed at a camp site that was tucked away on a windy peninsula, and we were hoping that the wind would drive down the bugs. A lot of the shoreline on lake two had been burned a few years prior by a forest fire. It was neat seeing the new growth sprout up. Ironically we were paddling by one of the sections that hadn’t been burned – and I saw two trees topple; there was only a slight breeze at the time too. I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods in my life and have never actually seen a tree fall over naturally.
We caught a couple more fish for dinner, but more importantly, caught one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in my life. Shortly thereafter the bugs hit so we retreated to the tents. That night I witnessed an amazing lightning storm that was taking place in the distance. As the wind began to pick up I couldn’t help but recall those trees falling and wonder how deep the roots of the large pines next to me went.
The next morning we portaged back to lake one and spent most of the day fishing down on the west end – we didn’t have much success, but still had a lot of fun. That night a massive storm ran right over our campsite. Of course this was the one night that my uncle and I decided to forego the rain fly, so as we were woken by the thunder, rain and wind we decided to try to break the world record for putting up a fly – which is hard to do in the dark! The ground was hard, but fortunately my uncle channeled his inner cave man strength and pulled up a pretty large rock out of the ground and used it to hammer in the stakes. It was legitimately a 60lb rock. During the chaos I looked down at my bare foot and noticed it was black. This was odd because I didn’t remember stepping in mud, or wearing a black sock outside. I brushed at it with my hand, which smeared about 40 mosquitos – no exaggeration – in a gooey, bloody streak.
As this storm rolled over us I thought once again about those trees falling, made peace with the Lord and determined that if it was my time to go, at least I’d make the headlines as “Boundary Waters Camper Killed in Freak Tree Fall”. Thankfully that didn’t happen and I woke up the next day fully intact.
We made breakfast and headed for the pick up zone. We actually arrived a couple of hours before our outfitter was scheduled to pick us up. No one had cell service so I hiked a few miles to a resort that is on the entry to lake one and was able to use their phone to line up an early pick up.
All in all it was a very memorable experience and I’m stoked that I was blessed with the opportunity to take this trip. I’m not sure if I would do another one, as it was truly a lot of work. If you’re planning a boundary waters trip check out my other blog on the boundary waters for my gear recommendations.
I will say that wearing my Helo shorts were perfect for this type of adventure, and I wore the same pair the entire trip.
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