You spend the day paddling over placid water mirroring the sky, looking for moose along the shoreline. You throw a line in and the fish practically jump into your boat. After a delicious meal over the campfire, the sunset presents brilliant hues of orange, purple, and blue you never knew existed. It’s not quite time to crawl into your completely waterproof tent; you must stay awake a little longer to catch glimpses of the mysterious Northern Lights. A wolf howls in the distance.
What is that whining sound?
It’s the sound of the mosquitoes arriving at your campsite to wake you up and debunk a few of the common canoe tripping myths in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW, Boundary Waters, BW).
Reality: Ask any woodsman— building campfires is an art. Time and time again, one of the most humbling experiences for people new to wilderness adventures is starting and maintaining campfires. Ensuring the flame stays consistent while you’re cooking can also be a challenge.
Solution: Safely practice building campfires before going into the wilderness.
Reality: Whether it’s stepping into the water to dock your boat on portages, the rough portages themselves, canoe paddles splashing, or simply rain; staying dry is nearly impossible.
Solution: Quality tents and raingear are a must. Always keep a pair of clothes dry for slipping into at night. Wool socks make wet feet bearable.
Reality: Over 250,000 people visit the BW per year. On some trips you will hardly see anyone, but on others you’ll be spending time waiting for groups to cross portages and have a difficult time finding open campsites at night.
Solution: Travel deeper into the Boundary Waters or avoid visiting during the busy summer months of July and August. Once you’re at least two days from an entry/exit point, you will see a significant drop-off in traffic.
Reality: Ambitious plans hatch easily with a full belly sitting in front of a woodstove. Overestimating how far you can travel in a day can be dangerous and just plain not fun. Most groups can comfortably travel 8-12 miles/day (unless you’re Doug Merriman or Paul Keller).
Solution: Stop to smell the roses. Plan mileage conservatively. Less is more!
Reality: The night sky is spectacular in the BWCA, and we’ve glimpsed the Northern Lights several times. But they often involve waking up at 2 am, fending off mosquitos, and squinting at the sky trying to decipher whether we’re looking at a cloud, the Milky Way, or if it is indeed the Northern Lights, which are notoriously difficult to predict! Plus, mosquitos love to eat stargazers!
Solution: Use bug spray. Also, websites such as Space Weather can sorta predict auroras. Just be sure to check the forecast before your trip, since cell service is spotty or absent in most of the BW.
Reality: Fishing from a canoe is much more difficult than from a motorboat. You are battling wind and waves, usually with no clue of the depth that you’re fishing. Carrying your rods, tackle, and bait across every portage can become a real mess. You have to clean your fish away from camp and properly dispose of the remains (part of the Leave No Trace principles and to prevent visits from bears). Now, throw a few young kids into the equation!
Solution: Never count on catching fish to eat; think of them more like a bonus meal. Under packing food is guaranteed to wreak havoc on your trip. Be prepared to spend several hours fishing if you want to catch enough for a meal.
Reality: Did I mention how wet canoe trips can be? Most folks who take their big cameras out on trips stash them in a waterproof case while traveling during the day and only pull them out when they’re on dry land. Splashes from paddles and waves can wreck your camera, and portaging loose electronic gear is never fun.
Solution: Buy a high quality, waterproof camera case with straps to stow your camera on portages and while in the canoe. The drawback is that it will take some time to pull your camera out quickly. Or, you could opt to bring a smaller, waterproof point-and-shoot camera that you can slip in and out of your pocket fast.
Reality: I have seen more moose and bears driving to and from canoe trips than I have actually on canoe trips, but don’t let that fool you; they are around! Just ask the groups who’ve had food packs quietly stolen by hungry black bears just a few feet from their tent in the middle of the night.
Solution: The Boundary Waters “Big 3” are elusive creatures. Canoeists hoping to catch a glimpse must be very quiet. Early mornings are the best times for seeing moose.
However, most days out there are full of ups and downs. You may experience calm waters, but the fishing is horrible. You may be catching tons of walleye, but the wind is so strong you feel seasick when you set anchor over an 18’ hole. The sunset is brilliant, but the mosquitos are ferocious. I have been in each of those situations!
The good news is that when you look back on your trip with the inevitable rose-color of nostalgia, you’ll either have forgotten about that day you were soaking wet and cold, you’ll learn from it, or you’ll remember it as the heroic moment that it was— when you saved your crew from hypothermia by using your canoe as a large umbrella and leaning it upside down on the fork of a tree, huddled under it for warmth, and exchanged stories about those good ole’ days when you were warm and toasty.