Family Camping In The Boundary Waters

December 2, 2002
Filed under Camping Destinations, Midwest Camping

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One wouldnt think that you would have to travel to Ely, Minnesota to enjoy the best coffee of ones life, but on this particular morning I found myself in a little cafe in Ely, savoring the finest cup of joe ever. At the table with me were my wife Susan and our sons Maxx and Alex, and one of our closest friends, Ken Shannon. In between slurps of coffee we were slamming down scrambled eggs and blueberry pancakes like a pack of ravenous wolves. A casual observer might have concluded that we hadnt eaten for a week.

Such was far from the case. We had just wrapped up a five-day canoe trip/family camping in Minnesotas Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) and we had eaten fairly well. Long days of paddling and portaging will work up a serious appetite, though. After the breakfast had taken the edge off of our hunger, we discussed at some length our recent experience.


We enjoyed other parts of our trip more than the portages. Carrying the canoes, gear, and supplies overland is serious physical labor. On the philosophical side, one can argue that a good portage builds character.

With the right frame of mind, one can appreciate a portage. It gives you a break from sitting in the canoe. Wildflowers and blueberries often border portage trails. Walking through the woods lets you closely observe the birch, balsam, and other trees that are often obscured by riverside alders or distance while on the lakes.

All that having been said, I recommend that if youre planning a trip to the Boundary Waters, you pack lightly and efficiently, so that you can carry all of your gear in one trip during each portage.


One of the books I read while planning this trip was Living Like Indians (Allan McFarlan, Dover Books, 1999). We were visiting an area originally inhabited by Native Americans, we would be traveling in watercraft invented by them, and we were visiting some pictographs created by them. I wanted as much as possible to get in a Native American frame of mind.

On our second day out, we were making a long portage around a set of rapids on the Nina Moose River. A cow moose was grazing in the meadow that sat at the far end of the portage. Ken, Maxx and I returned to the head of the portage to retrieve the rest of our gear, leaving Susan and Alex to watch the moose.
Once within earshot on the return trip, I could hear my youngest son screaming at the top of his lungs, sounding like he was being scalped. Hurrying forward as best I could, the sight that greeted me was Alex shaking his mother, face red and tears streaming down his cheeks. Take it off! he screamed. Take it off! Mom, if you love me youll take this leech off my foot!

Susan absolutely refused to have anything to do with the leech, so as soon as Alex saw me, he made a beeline for me. I managed to get the canoe off my shoulders before he knocked me over, and I pulled the leech out from between his toes. The leech was returned to the river, and Alex gradually regained his composure. The moose that I had hoped to see more of was nowhere to be seen.

That evening over a ceremonial cup of hot chocolate, we gave Alex an Indian name for the duration of the trip. Although Alex wasnt particularly fond of it, he became known as Screaming Leech.


Leeches notwithstanding, our party loves to swim. On a warm day, at a perfect campsite on Lac La Croix, we had a wonderful platform for watery fun: a rock ledge hanging over waters about 12 feet deep. From this ledge we held jumping and diving contests, with cheers and hollering from our small crowd of spectators.

Do not think for a moment that the water was warm, though. Once in the water the swimmer searched for and tried to stay in a warm spot, a small pocket of water a few degrees warmer than the surrounding liquid. Since there was some current, these warm spots moved slowly, forcing the swimmer to paddle around searching for them or get out of the water for a blast of some warming sunshine.


We took a leisurely three-hour paddle north up Lac La Croix. We were searching for a large cliff face on the Canadian side of the lake, fishing as we looked. Upon spotting the cliffs, we paddled hard to get across the lake to examine the rocks, which have pictographs on them.

Its believed that members of the Ojibwa tribe painted the picto-graphs on the cliffs between 700 and 1200 years ago. The paint is red ochre, which is made by mixing iron oxide with fish oils. This simple pigment has clung to that cliff face through a thousand solar cycles a millennium of incredibly harsh winters.
Hand prints and simple drawings of human figures and moose adorn these rocks in a red tint. The simple dignity of this art provoked a sense of wonder and a powerful emotional response within us.


Prior to the trip, the five of us made a little wager of a dollar each on who would catch the biggest fish, just to add a minor touch of competition to the trip. As another incentive, two of our meals were planned as fish dinners. If we didnt catch some fish, we didnt eat.

The fishing was excellent, however. We ate walleye and bass, fried to a golden brown. Hearty appetites, stoked by long days in the fresh air, were completely satisfied by delicious fish and accompanying rice pilaf.
The fishing competition went back and forth. I caught the first fish, then Maxx got a bigger one, then Ken took the lead. I thought I had a lock with a smallmouth bass of almost 4 pounds, but on the morning of the last day out, Maxx got a pike of about 26 inches in length. In a little ceremony at the ice cream stand in Ely, we all presented Maxx with his prize money, a small reward for a job well done.


Before we left on the trip, John Schiefelbein, owner of North Country Canoe Outfitters, showed us a video about traveling through the Boundary Waters. One of the scenes that particularly struck me was one in which a black bear visits a campsite while the campers are eating, the bear more or less inviting himself to dinner. I went into the Boundary Waters expecting to see bears at every campsite, kind of like Yogi and BooBoo in Jellystone waiting for an opportunity to steal my pick-a-nick basket.

We never saw any sign of bears, much less lose food to any. But we saw plenty of wildlife, and almost lost some of our vittles to smaller camp thieves.

I always enjoy seeing deer and they are common in these woods. Moose are much more exciting, and we saw two while making portages. These large creatures are certainly among the animals you hope to see on any trip into the Boundary Waters.

However, my favorite Boundary Waters critter has to be the loon. Its eerie cries echo across the lakes, answered by others of its kind, adding an element to the north woods sensory experience that nothing else can begin to match. The wild cry of the loon is the essence of the north woods.

Loons dont rob your food stores, fortunately. Every night in camp we would hang our food from a tree to protect it from bears. Even though we didnt see any bears, every wilderness campsite has furry and sometimes feathered friends that will rob you blind if given the opportunity. They can be raccoons, mice, skunks or porcupines, and even crows have been known to steal food from campers. On this particular trip the perpetrators were squirrels and chipmunks.
One thing about losing food in the backcountry its irreplaceable. Hanging the food every night was a small price to pay to be sure we would have all our supplies the following morning.


You will encounter a variety of insects on a trip to the Boundary Waters. Some, like mosquitoes and black flies annoy the daylights out of you, especially if there are a lot of them. On our trip we took lots of insect repellant, but we hardly used any. The mosquitoes only got thick one evening, and by that time we were nearly ready to go to sleep.
Many of the insects you see in the Boundary Waters are lovely creatures that add richness to the tapestry of life there. While we were there mayflies were thick, with brown drakes and the giant Hexagenia species being particularly prevalent. Dragonflies accompanied us everywhere. Butterflies flit hither and yon, and honeybees pollinate the profusion of wildflowers.


The one evening that enough mosquitoes showed up to annoy us, I decided to take my dinner down to a big rock at the waters edge, hoping the breeze would blow them away. My companions recognized a good idea, so they quickly came down to join me. Instead of sitting down to eat, Maxx stood on the rock I was sitting on, trying to eat and keep his balance on the small perch.
His attention thus divided, he dropped his spoon. It hit the rock and bounced into the water, fluttering from side to side as it sank into the depths. It was lost, a bent piece of stainless steel that perhaps some archaeologist will find in 20,000 years or so. In keeping with our native theme, we had a little ceremony in which we gave Maxx his Indian name. We christened him Loser of Spoons.


Like insects, rain can be a source of annoyance or pleasure, depending on how much of it there is, how well prepared you are for it, and your attitude. The rain gods smiled on us for most of our trip. During the first four days we had only one heavy shower during our visit to the pictographs. That all changed on our last day, when we were heading for the takeout.

We left Nina Moose Lake and headed up the Nina Moose River under a heavy overcast that promised rain. Before we reached the first portage, lightning flashed, thunder crashed, and the skies opened up. We made three portages that day, slipping and sliding through mud, and although we got soaked, we didnt care. Our trip was almost over and it had been a splendid experience for all of us, with many firsts for everyone. And everyone was safe and well. My only regret was that we didnt have a couple more days to spend there.

Rain is a part of the wilderness experience. So are insects. So are sunsets, and loons, and sky and water. The BWCA has all these things in abundance, and if a little rain and a few bugs are part of the tariff one pays to visit there, then its a small price to experience such a magnificent piece of wild America.


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