Instead of my normal weekly recap of training, I’m sharing a recap of our trip this past week to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA.)
Thanks to Covid-19, we had two big international trips cancelled this year: Bhutan in May and Patagonia in September.
The silver lining of the pandemic? We found time to make a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) a priority!
There’s a great article in the Star Tribune about how the pandemic has revived the allure of the Boundary Waters, and it is definitely true in my world. After our other trips were cancelled, we knew we needed to get out of the city and the Boundary Waters sounded like the perfect place.
I feel like everyone I know who is even somewhat outdoorsy has been, or plans to go, this summer. And though its a little late to plan a trip this year, I highly recommend anyone reading this to look into visiting next year. Hopefully this post is helpful in planning a trip if you do decide to go!
The BWCA is a Minnesota gem; it really is an incredible place that anyone with an interest in camping and the outdoors should visit at some point. It’s beautiful, peaceful, but also an adventure!
I had only previously been once and Dustin (my husband) had been there twice before this trip. Going forward, we plan to ensure we go much more frequently- maybe yearly!
First time with the dogs!
Even though both Dustin and I had been to the Boundary Waters, this was our first time bringing Matilda (our 11-year old vizsla) and definitely the first time for Ruth (our 1-year old vizsla). In hindsight, we might have wanted to wait a few more years to bring Ruth, as she is very much still a puppy and the trip was a lot for her. It was sort of like bringing a toddler to a candy store; she was kind of over-stimulated and maybe a bit stressed by all the new things she was experiencing. It wasn’t all bad; I go back and forth about whether it was good to introduce her to all this so she’ll be more comfortable next time, or to have waited until she was a bit more mature before bringing her.
In fact, before the trip, we were more worried about bringing Matilda, the older dog, thinking that this trip would be too much for her at her age. But that was far from the case; I think the trip gave her her youth back! Matilda was SUCH a great trail companion! We can trust her completely off-leash; she’ll never wander very far. She always wants us to be within sight for her. She stays on the trail and is so happy to plod along at our pace.
She truly seems to be having a really good time in the great outdoors.
There were times when Dustin would get ahead of me on the portages and Matilda would always come back to check on me.
I’m really glad she got to have this experience and it was so obvious that she loved it. Such a sweetie.
Tuesday, August 18:
We left Minneapolis around 8 am. It is about a 5-hour drive from Minneapolis to Grand Marais, Minnesota, where the Gunflint Trail starts. (If you’re flying to Minnesota for your trip, you could fly into Duluth to cut the drive in half and rent a car there.)
We didn’t need to be at our outfitter until 4:30 pm for a route planning meeting, but we wanted to leave some time on the drive for a few stops.
Stops along the drive from Minneapolis to Grand Marais:
Our first stop was for lunch at Betty’s Pies in Two Harbors, Minnesota, which is just north of Duluth, Minnesota. We placed an online order when we were about 20 minutes away and didn’t need to wait to long for our food to be ready. Of course, we each got a slice of their “World Famous” pie, but after a hearty burger/fries, we saved the pie for later.
Our second stop was at Palisade Head for the view. Unfortunately, it was pretty crowded there- especially for a random Tuesday! I guess everyone is traveling locally these days.
Still a beautiful view.
We arrived in Grand Marais around 2 pm and decided to kill some time with a stop at Voyageur Brewing.
It was quite busy, but they were doing a good job keeping everyone socially distanced and everyone was wearing a mask when not at their tables. In fact, I was very impressed in Grand Marais overall; it seemed like all the businesses were following the CDC guidelines.
After the stop at Voyageur, we headed down the Gunflint Trail to our outfitter, Seagull Outfitters, which was about another hour drive from Grand Marais.
You are really UP there in the middle of nowhere for this trip!
Our BWCA Outfitter:
This was Dustin’s third time- my second- working with Seagull Outfitters. They helped us with our permit as well as planning a route that would work well with two dogs along. We rented our Kevlar canoe from them as well.
We had them supply all of our food too. We could have probably done that part ourselves, but its nice to have it all compartmentalized by meal and organized by someone else. We aren’t the best at planning enough food ourselves, especially when we’re as active as we are paddling/portaging for hours every day, so it was worth it to have the outfitter arrange all of that.
Most meals were dehydrated packages where you just add boiling water (made on the little camp stove we brought along.) There were some more perishable type food items that were in a cooler bag that we were to eat on the first day, but generally everything else was non-perishable.
With the food, they also gave us what they call a “bear barrel,” which is essentially a hard-sided lightweight barrel with a locking cover, backpack type straps for carrying it, and anther strap to secure it to a tree, far from the tent of course, to prevent bears from getting to the food.
We have all the backpacking gear, but you could potentially rent EVERYTHING from Seagull; they can help with as much or as little as you need.
Another benefit of working with an outfitter is that we could stay in their bunk house Tuesday night, so that we could get an early start on Wednesday morning. Our bunk house room had eight beds, four bunk beds, and there was a shared bathroom/shower for all guests staying in other rooms. They provided us with a simple breakfast (yogurt, cereal, juice, coffee, an apple) for the morning of our departure as well.
Since we arrived on a Tuesday night, it wasn’t as busy as a Friday night (for Saturday morning departure.)
Both dogs actually decided to sleep by me on my sleeping bag for our bunker night…very cozy, ha!
After getting everything sorted out for our Wednesday departure, we drove back down the Gunflint trail to grab dinner from the Trail Center. Takeaway only; I had a grilled cheese with tater tots; I needed some serious fuel before a big day the next day of paddling and portaging!
Wednesday, August 19:
Departure day! We had a 7 am pickup to take us to our entry point and were up early to do any last minute preparations.
I remember being nervous the first time I headed off for this type of trip- would I be ‘tough’ enough? What if something terrible happened, like an injury or severe weather? Was it going to be a terrible time?
This time, I wasn’t as nervous about myself, but worried about the dogs; what if one of them got injured? What if they encountered a bear or a moose…or a wolf pack?
Remind you, there is no cell phone service and we did not have any sort of satellite phone!
(Spoiler alert, the dogs were just fine. So were we.)
The Outfitter provided us with a ride to our entry point, which was the Cross Bay entry, #51.
Along with the canoe, paddles, and lifejackets, we had the bear barrel with our food, plus a pack with all our gear (tent, etc) and another Duluth pack of other necessities. And the packs were heavy! The food barrel was probably the lightest of the three.
We maybe could have squished things in more and fit everything into one very heavy pack plus the food barrel. But the pack with all of our camping gear was very heavy; there was no way I could carry both the bear barrel and the Duluth pack while Dustin carried the canoe, especially while managing the two dogs. So essentially we were going to have to make two trips on each portage regardless, so splitting things into 2 lighter packs (which were still heavy!) plus the food barrel made more sense.
Upon entry, we paddled a bit before our first portage to Ham Lake and then paddled across that lake to portage over to Cross Bay Lake.
Then we had another portage to Rib Lake; it was really windy crossing Rib Lake and we were both getting pretty tired and hungry. But we still had to make it through Lower George Lake and Karl Lake before reaching our final destination for the day, Long Island Lake.
At this point, we had been paddling/portaging from about 7:45 am to 12:30. At Long Island Lake, there were three nice campsites, at least one of which we were hoping would be open for us. All sites are first-come, first-serve, no reservations for the sites.
The first campsite on Long Island Lake was actually the one at which Lindsey from this blog stayed (btw, her blog is so great for ideas for unique Minnesota activities!); the second campsite was on a private island in the middle of the lake, and then third campsite was smaller but had a sandy beach area and was “starred” by our outfitter as a good one.
When we arrived in Long Island Lake, both the first and second were already taken; we even paddled past the private island site and I asked a little kid who looked to be about 7 when she thought her family was leaving and she told me “I don’t know, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day!” Ha!
Since the first two were taken, we could have kept potentially kept paddling a bit further to check out a few other island campsites farther away on Long Island Lake, but we were quite hungry and quite tired. We were ready to stop paddling!
We decided just to take campsite option #3 with the sandy beach that was open; better safe than sorry!
And it was a nice site. No regrets for our first night.
By 1:30, we had our tent set up and were stuffing our faces with turkey sandwiches from our food barrel. (Eat the perishable food first!) It was warm this day, so we took a dip in the lake before relaxing at the campsite and eventually watching the sunset over Long Island Lake.
Our dinner that evening was rehydrated chili. It definitely doesn’t photograph well, but was it was pretty tasty!
Both dogs were pretty pooped by the end of day 1. That first paddle/portage was at least 5 hours of activity and the whole experience was new to both of them.
Carrying the packs across the portage is hard work for the humans and keeping track of all the new smells and sights was hard work for the pups!
I slept pretty hard that night too. We have a small backpacking tent that is technically a 3-person tent, but with us and two dogs, it was pretty cozy!
We brought along this walkie/talkie thing that also had a weather channel. The forecast said we were in for some severe storms and all we had was a gentle rain. I don’t think the forecast is all that helpful for such a big area like the BWCA!
Thursday, August 20th:
We were up early to a lovely foggy morning. We made a rehydrated breakfast scramble (just add boiling water and let it sit for 15-20 minutes) and some instant coffee.
As we sat back to enjoy our breakfast, we saw the family who was on site #1 pack up their canoes to leave. After they were gone, we decided to paddle over to that site to see if it was nicer than ours.
They had a great big rock with a great view of the lake.
We decided to take down our tent and move across the lake to option #1 for night #2. We were all settled in pretty early though. Plenty of time for relaxing! We really didn’t want to ‘go-go-go’ the whole time, so it was nice to have most of the day at essentially the same lake, albeit a different campsite.
Lunch on day 2 was hard salami/cheese sandwiches and some trail mix. Dinner was rehydrated chicken pad thai; this one was pretty good!
Can’t beat those Boundary Water sunsets, with only the sound of an occasional loon!
Friday, August 21:
An early morning breakfast of another rehydrated breakfast scramble before a full morning of paddling/portaging from Long Island Lake back to Karl Lake to Rib Lake to Cross Bay Lake.
We had been forewarned that the portage from Cross Bay Lake to Snipe Lake was going to be tough. Another father/son paddling duo told us that it was impassable in their canoe and that we would have to get out and pull our canoe through knee-deep mud/sludge.
I was dreading this part, and as we got closer and closer to where the portage was, it got harder and harder to push our canoe with our paddles.
The picture doesn’t even do it justice; we had already muscled our way through as much mud as we could when Dustin decided to get out to see what lie ahead.
It had to be done. We got out and just portaged the packs and then carried the canoe across the mud, keeping the dogs in it as long as we could, since the mud was so deep.
The mud/sludge was nasty and stinky. I was worried about leeches and snakes and who knows what other scary things in that murky water. Definitely my least favorite part of the trip.
Side note, speaking of leeches, when Dustin was getting water at the Long Island Lake campsite on night 2, he went into the water barefoot and ended up with one very large leech along with about 30 tiny little baby leeches on his foot! SOOO gross!
Fortunately, the muddy section was relatively short before we made it to the actual portage.
Our map had the portage from Cross Bay Lake to Snipe Lake marked as “easy.” I honestly think that on there as a mean joke! It was one of our hardest portages. Rocky, steep, slippery, muddy…challenging for sure.
FINALLY we made it to Snipe lake. Whew.
And it was worth it, Snipe Lake was gorgeous. It had a bit of a different topography than Long Island lake- a bit more dramatic.
Here’s my panoramic view from the campsite.
We got lucky as one of the prime campsites on Snipe Lake was open, so we snatched it up before 11 am. It was another campsite with big rock out front that offered a lovely vantage point for the sunset.
Friday was one of our hottest days, temperature wise. There were multiple dips in the lake to rinse off (but not bathe!)
The rules for bathing or cleaning dishes in the Boundary Waters are as follows:
“To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use biodegradable soap. Scatter or spew soapy water far back in the woods from your campsite and away from water sources. Biodegradable soap is not considered biodegradable when dumped into the lake or river. It takes soil for it to breakdown properly.
A PackTowel is a good option to bring for when you do get in the lake, rather than a regular towel. It barely takes up any space at all!
Our camp dinner Friday night was a vegetarian spaghetti (i.e. another rehydrated meal from a package.)
Saturday, August 22:
We made it to the final day. We survived!
We were up early to take down the tent and getting everything loaded back into the canoe for the final paddle/portage out.
Our last two portages were our longest- 180 rods and 150 rods. The first was really challenging too. I was a sweaty mess carrying the packs on that one! We went from Snipe Lake to Missing Link Lake to Round Lake.
Our outfitter had scheduled our pickup from Round Lake at 9:30 am at the public access site on Round Lake. Those last two portages were pretty long, so we knew we had to hustle to get there on time; we did end up being about 8 minutes late, but pretty close. We got a ride back to the headquarters where we could use their facilities for a shower and then load up the car for the drive back to Minneapolis.
What about the BUGS?
Generally, most people say that the bugs in the Boundary Waters are insane. But both times we have gone in August, the bugs have been essentially non-existent. This time was no different. I could not believe it, but I don’t have any mosquito bites! There were also several portages that were really tight, where during tick season, we would have for sure been coated in ticks, and most definitely Ruth and Matilda would have had ticks on them, but we never saw any ticks. Ruth does have a few bug bites and some scratches (probably from jumping over trees and brush) on her belly; hopefully those heal quickly. But no ticks that we know of!
Don’t get me wrong, we did take preventative measures against the bugs. We treated our clothes and gear with permathrin. I sprayed myself with 100% DEET (I used this brand.) I brought along this bug suit that several friends swear by, but I didn’t need it. In fact, most evenings, we sat outside until the sunset and the mosquitoes just weren’t a problem. It was shocking! In summary, the bugs in August are nothing like the bugs in June and July. I have decided I will never go to the BWCA in any other month, due entirely to the bugs!
Where do you go to the bathroom?
All of the campsites have a latrine somewhere nearby; they are often quite a hike from the actual campsite and are just a big pit in the ground. Bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer!
Note that if your trip takes you across the Canadian border (which requires a different permit), there won’t be latrines at the campsites; you’ll need to dig your own trench to bury waste or carry it out.
Yikes! 5 days without a shower. How did I handle it??
I know I can be a little high-maintenance day-to-day, but I’m proud of myself for also being able to be outdoorsy when I need to be. Of course, I very much was looking forward to sleeping in our king bed with soft sheets and my pillow, rather than in a hot 2-person tent with Dustin and two dogs!
Other essential BWCA gear:
Ruffwear Dog Lifejackets:
These jackets were great for safety, obviously, but also because of the helpful handle on the top. We would easily pick up each dog and lift them into or out of the canoes, especially when the entry points were slippery rocks or deep water. Ruth and Matilda were both really well-behaved in the canoes; they never tried to jump out or tip us over. They were surprisingly chill!
A Water Filter:
Ours is a Platypus WaterGravity High-Capacity Filter System. It was quick-working and easy to use. Yes, you will need to filter your water for cooking, drinking, etc. Some people say that you can safely drink straight from the lake, but I wouldn’t risk it! You can rent a filter from your outfitter too if you don’t want to purchase one.
NUUN- lots of it!
Even after filtration, the lake water might have a bit of a funk. We brought a few tubes of NUUN along to throw into our Nalgene water bottles to make the water taste better. Our outfitter also included several packets of Crystal Light, but I didn’t love those flavors that much.
I wore Tevas and Dustin wore Chacos. Your feet are going to get wet; you generally unload the canoe with your feet in shallow water. I also brought along my Goretex Brooks Cascadia trail shoes, the same ones I brought along to Antarctica when I ran the marathon there.
I actually wore the Brooks for the paddling/portaging as the portages were treacherous (in my opinion!), and I wanted full foot protection.
But the Tevas were great for hanging out at the campsite.
And when I wanted to, I could rock the ever-fashionable socks/sandals look with dry SmartWool socks!
A must. I brought 3 pairs and could have used 4, since I often got them wet with my Brooks Cascadias when paddling and it was good to be able to alternate a dry pair at the end of the day.
Though we got lucky and didn’t need them, that definitely isn’t always the case! I brought the same jacket and pants that I brought to Antarctica.
Boxed/bagged red wine:
…if you’re into that sort of thing. 🙂 Beer or white wine doesn’t make sense since you really can’t bring coolers plus glass and cans are forbidden. Everything you bring, you have to carry across all those portages. Weight matters. Plan accordingly!
The Right Fit in the BWCA?
Truthfully? I mostly wore Oiselle! I had one SmartWool sports bra, but everything else was Oiselle, even my hat.
What can I say, I am a true Oiselle fan. Most of what Dustin brought was Patagonia; I think he wore the same pair of shorts (that were also swim trunks) the whole trip.
A bag in the car with clean clothes for that post-BWCA shower.
I packed a bar of L’Occitane soap, my favorite R+Co. shampoo (smells so good!), and some luxurious scented lotion (obviously a no-go while in the BWCA!)
It felt like a 5 star spa in that bunk house shower, ha! Putting on clean, dry clothes after a hot shower was seriously heaven. I often say a post-flight shower or a post-marathon shower is the best type of shower, but a post-BWCA shower could definitely top those!
I had such a great time exploring this beautiful part of Minnesota. With so many other trips and events cancelled this summer, it was so nice to get away from our phones and work and completely check out and be in nature for a few days.
If you have any questions about our trip, our outfitter, our gear, or anything else, please don’t hesitate to ask! I’m tentatively planning a trip there next August for my 40th birthday and trying to convince my sisters to come. For my oldest sister Cresta’s birthday, we went to NYC, then for Erin’s, we went to Napa Valley, and for Emily’s, we went to Tampa in May 2019. So we’ve done big city, winery, and the beach.
How about some good old fashioned backpacking in the BWCA for mine?