Sunday, August 24, 2014

August 16-21, 2014, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Our family took our first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota. We planned a five night stay but left a day early to avoid predictions of rain and storms we heard from our weather radio. We had fairly poor weather, but as my wife exclaimed "A rainy day in the Boundary Waters is better than a nice day at work." We planned for a few different route options but ended up basecamping on Horseshoe Lake and taking day trips. We covered a total of about 30 miles between paddling and portaging and visited six lakes. Read on for more details about our trip or check out a slide show I put together of our pictures.

We left from the Madison, WI, area around 6am for what Google says is an 8-hr drive. We kept a nice pace for the first several hours of the trip with a quick drive-through stop at McDonald's in the Dells for breakfast. We made it to Two Harbors around lunch time and let Amber pick Subway for lunch despite many more interesting options off Hwy 61. Just after Two Harbors, succumbed by the views and a pedestrian bridge over the Baptism River, we pulled over at the Tettegouche State Park rest area to stretch our legs and take in the sights of Lake Superior. This is a really nice park, and according to the videos in the visitor center/rest area, there is a ton to do in the park, including camping, paddling and hiking. We walked across the bridge, went down to the river and lake, threw some stones and took in some sun and nice views. We explored the visitor center, and Amber coveted some of the toys, while I was thinking about getting one of the patches. We didn't buy anything at the time but used the toys as a bribe for good behavior. We ended up stopping here again on the way back to let Amber pick out a small toy as one of her rewards for cooperating. After an hour or so, we headed back on our way to the Gunflint Trail. There was major construction along the trail, so we had some delays. With a quick stop in Grand Marais for gas, we made it to Rockwood Outfitters around 4:30.

We checked in with Mike and Lynn and Rockwood for our stay at the bunkhouse. They really are great people and helped make for a smooth trip for us. Amber was enthralled with the bunkhouse and seemed more interested in hanging out there than outside by the lake. We managed to coax her out for dinner at the Trail Center, which I have heard a lot about from others who have visited the Gunflint Trail. Amber and a couple other patrons saw a fox across the trail, but Lorraine and I missed it. After dinner, Lorraine was tired, so she went to bed while Amber and I played cards and dipped a line in Lake Poplar. I was worried that I would have trouble sleeping because I was excited and not used to sleeping on a bunk, but I got a good night's sleep. I think I got most of my jitters out of my system in the weeks leading up to the trip.

Sunday morning, Lorraine coaxed Amber and me out of bed just after 6 am. I felt pretty stiff and tried stretching out my kinks but had no luck. After showering and navigating the chaos of packing our stuff and trying to sort out which miscellaneous items would stay in the car and which would come with us, we were ready to load the boat and get going. Amber stepped outside to an unleashed pit bull whose owners had no ability to control him. Unfortunately, we would run into it and its careless, disrespectful owners on the portages. The morning was misty and chilly, probably not even 50 degrees F, and there was a SSE wind at about 10 mph. We got on the water just after 8am.

The paddle across Poplar was uneventful, and we found the portage to Lizz with no problem. We took our time as we were figuring out our routine. All of a sudden something rushes past me, and I notice it is the unleashed disobedient pit bull. Argh!!! I ask the group where they are going, and they tell me Gaskin, which means they will be taking the same route as us. We decided to take our time to let them get ahead of us. Apparently, we weren't slow enough as we ran into the group again. This time another group with two well-behaved dogs were coming the opposite direction, and the pit was being entirely aggressive with them. Fortunately, the owners of the pair had control over their dogs and ordered them onward without incident. This pit even jumped in someone else's boat. Some people! Anyway, the thing that struck me most about the trip to Horseshoe was how crowded and muddy the portages were. We've encountered fewer people on some of our state park camping trips. Anyway, people we encountered gave us encouraging news about open campsites, some of which they had just vacated. We were told the best Horseshoe site was the one on the Eastern side of the Southern peninsula. It was taken by the time we got there, so we took the Western facing site on the peninsula. We arrived right around noon, and after a quick break, we set up camp. I had quite a bit of lower back pain for the paddle in and was worried it would put a dampener on our trip, but my back improved, although I could never get rid of some kinks I had in my shoulder blade. We would end up base camping here as we weren't very excited about packing up and moving in the wet weather we had.

Amber was excited to get to camp, as I promised her one of the two gifts I had brought along if she cooperated on our first day of travel. She couldn't decide if she wanted the game or the toy, but ultimately picked the toy. She was incredibly excited to find I had brought along a $15 3-in-1 Lego. It earned me title of "Best Dad Ever" for at least a couple hours. We built the Lego vehicles and played Uno for entertainment.

We had nice first day, complete with good weather. After we set up, I was laying on the landing rock to work out my back ache, when I was surprised by a visit from a Forest Service Wilderness Ranger and a guy from the Conservation Core shadowing her. They were checking sites for maintenance needs and asking for permits. After a pleasant chat, they left us to our day. Lunch was quesadillas with foil-packed chicken, which tasted like tuna. I don't think I want to bring this chicken again. Dinner was cheese and summer sausage. We took a paddle on the southwest arm of Horseshoe, and we went to bed without a fire because we were all tired. We traveled about 7.5 miles.

I slept until about 7:30 on Monday morning, which was about ten hours of needed rest. Breakfast was oatmeal, sausage and cheddar cheese. Amber ate two strawberry-flavored oatmeal packages, which is quite amazing considering she usually doesn't even finish one. After breakfast, we took a leisurely paddle around the southeast end of Horseshoe looking for critters. We also took the portage to Vista Lake without the boat and ran into the ranger and her companion, and amazingly, she found a wedding band at the landing. Unfortunately, they had no news of good weather in the forecast. We returned to camp for lunch and had tortilla pizzas for lunch. This is one of my favorite camping meals, and it's pretty easy to make. Amber opted for a bagel with honey. Later, the rain rolled in and was pretty hard for nearly an hour. I looked out the tent to see 1-2 inches of water around, and the bottom felt like a waterbed. Fortunately, we had no leaks and only a little moisture seeped through. Maybe Cliff Jacobson is right that we should put an innie in the tent. 

 The weather stayed overcast with occasional sprinkles, but it was pleasant enough for us to not be stuck in the tent or under the tarp. Amber dipped a line in the water from shore, and we took a paddle to get some more water to filter. She stood up in the canoe, making it obvious she's getting more comfortable in the canoe. Hopefully, her comfort will not turn into carelessness. Amber has been singing a lot, especially when she goes to the tent to play by herself, but when asked, she claims everything is lame and boring. We know better, and I've been catching her saying "This is fun." We played a bunch of Uno and built some Legos. Despite everything being wet, I built a fire. It took my constant attention for an hour or so, but I managed to get a hot fire to burn away the remnants of the last campers who left the site in a less-than-desirable state. They left uneaten crayfish with meat in the fire pit and shells from the crayfish and pistachios all around camp. The fire pit was full of fairly large, barely charred logs as if they couldn't keep the fire going or dumped their crayfish boil right into the fire before leaving. People are such pigs. I enjoyed the fire and went to bed around 11. We traveled 3.5 - 4 miles Monday.

I slept another ten hours until nearly 9 am on Tuesday. The morning was wet, dreary and foggy.I had visions of waking up early to go fishing while out here, but I love sleeping so much, and my camp bed is incredibly comfortable. Amber also slept in late, giving Lorraine some time alone to soak in the wilderness. We missed two eagles fishing, although with one nested across from our campsite we had plenty of opportunity to watch it. Still, Lorraine got the best of the show from them. Amber polished off an apple cinnamon and a strawberry oatmeal, but I just wasn't hungry.

We took a day trip to Vista Lake, this time with the boat. Vista is a beautiful lake, and the portage from Horseshoe is not bad, but the landings suck. They are rocky and slippery and getting in and out of the boat is not so pleasant. We overshot the southwest campsite and headed to the southern-most one, which is a very nice site with incredible views. We had a snack-like lunch at the site, then moved onto the other site on the southern part of Vista Lake. This site leaves a lot to be desired and has a very steep landing. After looking around, climbing around and seeing the rusty artifacts, we headed back to camp. Amber earned her second bribe, a chess, checkers and backgammon camping game. Amber and I played in the tent for awhile, even making up some games. We had spaghetti with meat sauce for dinner, then I decided to take the boat out fishing. I spent about half an hour paddling around before I got my first bite, a ~12" walleye. I'm not much of a fisher, but I've taken a little interest for the first time this year. The one fish was enough to satisfy my fishing desire, but now I wish I would have tried for some more. It was my first fish caught from a canoe. Hopefully, I'll have many more. We skipped the fire, and we were all in bed by 9 or 9:30. We traveled about 4.5 miles on Tuesday.

   Wednesday, we were all up early and on the water by 6 am to look for some critters. Amber has been desperate to see a moose, but unfortunately, we never got to see one. However, we did get a treat to see a family of beavers. We went to the SE campsite, back down to the Vista portage and back to We paddled to the northwest arm of Horseshoe and took the portage to Allen sans  the boat. There's a rocky shallow section near the portage in which we got stuck, so be careful if your heading that way. We saw plenty of paint on one of the rocks, so we were not the first to hit it. Amber enjoyed playing on the rocks on the Allen side of the portage, and we took a bunch of pictures. We also followed a loon around Horseshoe Lake on the way back to camp. Dinner was garlic parmesan bannock with parkay squeeze butter. Amber went to the tent to play around 7 and amazingly crashed for the night. That almost never happens at home. I built a fire while Lorraine cleaned up camp, then we listened to the weather forecast on the radio. The forecast was not promising for Thursday afternoon nor all day Friday, when we planned to leave, so we floated the idea of leaving early if we had a window. We decided to wait and see. I watched the fire until about 10 pm before putting it out and heading to bed not knowing if we would be leaving in the Once again, Amber had two packs of oatmeal, and Lorraine and I had hash browns and Spam. Amber and I dipped a line from shore, but it was not a good spot for fishing as the water is only a couple feet deep there. The morning was terribly overcast despite a forecast suggesting some sun, but we finally got treated to a few hours of sun in the afternoon. It was enough to charge some batteries for the phone, which I use for GPS, and the camera and to dry our clothes, much of which was wet due to the weather and muddy portages. The forecast was for more rain, so we decided to move the tent in preparation. We ate taco meat, beans and tortillas for lunch. Amber had ackaged buttery noodles (Knorr brand, which is similar to the Lipton ones). We paddled to the northwest arm of Horseshoe and took the portage to Allen sans  the boat. There's a rocky shallow section near the portage in which we got stuck, so be careful if your heading that way. We saw plenty of paint on one of the rocks, so we were not the first to hit it. Amber enjoyed playing on the rocks on the Allen side of the portage, and we took a bunch of pictures. We also followed a loon around Horseshoe Lake on the way back to camp. Dinner was garlic parmesan bannock with parkay squeeze butter. Amber went to the tent to play around 7 and amazingly crashed for the night. That almost never happens at home. I built a fire
while Lorraine cleaned up camp, then we listened to the weather forecast on the radio. The forecast was not promising for Thursday afternoon nor all day Friday, when we planned to leave, so we floated the idea of leaving early if we had a window. We decided to wait and see. I watched the fire until about 10 pm before putting it out and heading to bed not knowing if we would be leaving in the morning. We traveled about seven miles on Wednesday.  

Thursday morning I got up around 8 am, hours after Lorraine as usual. The forecast was for rain most of Thursday and Friday with chances of thunderstorms, so we decided to pack up and leave early. We were packed and on the water just after 10 am. We arrived back at the outfitter shortly after 1 pm after a slight detour due to an overshot of Rockwood by paddling around (instead of between) the islands on Poplar. We showered, chatted with Mike and Lynn, bought some souvenirs and headed out around 3 pm. We stopped at Tettegouche to pick up a patch for me and a small memento for Amber, then we ate dinner at Betty's Pies. While waiting for dinner, I saw that the detailed forecast specific for the area in which we camped was much better than the general forecast we heard on the radio. Although it was a little disappointing to leave early, I think we made the right decision based on the information we had at the time. We decided to head home instead of possibly getting a hotel and doing some sightseeing as we had contemplated. We made it home around 1am.

Overall, I think we had a really successful first BWCA trip, and there's not too much I would change. Our food barrel was pretty heavy, so I might want to lighten the load a little by leaving out some heavy items. We didn't portage very far, but if we plan to go any farther, I think an ultralight kevlar canoe is in order. If I'm not a more experienced fisherman by the next trip, I will be tempted to leave the fishing gear at home, although it wasn't a great burden to carry it. We just didn't spend enough time fishing to justify it. Now, I look forward to planning the next adventure to new waters.

Here are some additional pictures of our trip:

Friday, August 8, 2014

Gearing Up (part 1 - the gear bag)

In anticipation of our upcoming trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, I have begun (possibly prematurely) packing our gear and thought I would share. I guess I would proclaim to be a gearhead as I get pretty excited about tools and equipment, especially related to canoeing and camping. I think I read every thread on the gear forum. Anyway, maybe others will be interested in seeing my gear. Today, I'm just going to show what I pack in the equipment bag. Hopefully, I'll get around to showing our sleep systems and food in subsequent posts. I might as well post my entire canoe camping list. The items in the equipment bag are in bold.

 portage pads
 thwart bag
 seat cushion


 sleeping bag

 rope bag



 long sleeves fleece
 rain pants
 rain jacket
 hats (sun & warmth)
 shirts (long and short sleeve)
 camp towel
 day pack
 sandals/camp shoes




 cooking utensils
 eating utensils
 dry food
 snacks/energy bar
 tooth brush
 tooth paste
 soap/shampoo (biodegradable)
 pain reliever
 toilet paper


 garbage/grocery bags
 ziplock bags
 bug spray
 emergency kit (in pfd)
 bug net
 weather radio

 maps and guides
 phone (with waterproof case)

 Our tent, which I've shown in previous blogs is an REI Halfdome 4. I essentially bought this for myself for my birthday last year, and it's been a good purchase for us. We upgraded from one of those 50 lb big box store tents that could sleep a small army.

One of my favorite pieces of gear is our new Cooke Custom Sewing silicone coated nylon tundra tarp. For two or three years, we were using various canopies for our car camping trips, but they kept getting destroyed in storms. The CCS tarps are legendary among the canoe camping community, so I picked one up at Canoecopia with the expectation that it will endure harsher conditions than the canopies. Plus, it's something we can portage! By the way, I got the 1.9 oz 12.5 ft x 14 ft version. I also pack about 300 ft of 1/8" polyester utility cord in various lengths. You might notice that some of them are reflective, and I try to use those for lines that need the most visibility and that may pose a hazard for someone not paying attention. I've yet to run out of rope, so 300 ft is probably excessive, but it's not very heavy and worth carrying, in my opinion.

I got a 21" Sven folding say for Father's Day and had a chance to use it on our Sylvania trip. It works pretty well, at least on 3-6" downed logs. I didn't care for how it handled smaller branches, so I try to break them by hand or with the hatchet. I also have an Ozark Trail multi-tool. This is pretty much the only thing I've ever gotten from Ozark Trail that was worth anything. Surprisingly, this tool is fairly well constructed, and the edges are not too bad. I usually also carry a Swiss army knife in my pocket when camping.

I also like to bring a fire starting kit with multiple flame sources and various fuels. I found Vaseline-soaked cotton balls to work pretty well, but they don't seem to catch fire as easily as regular cotton balls, so I bring both. I've let Amber start some fires using the fire steel, and she can only do it with regular cotton balls that have been pulled apart. I don't think Mom would ever let her play with fire like that, but hey, what are dad's for? I also like to bring some of the commercial fire starter blocks for those days when fires don't come so easily, such as when it rains or when the available wood is all wet. I put the kit in a Sea to Summit 2 L dry sack (thanks, honey!).

Despite not being very exciting, a first aid kit is kinda mandatory, especially since I'm responsible for taking care of my family. Grandma (my mother-in-law), with the help of my wife, got me this REI backpacker's first aid kit. I left everything in it, and one of these days, I'm going to replace the tweezers with a nicer pair. I also added a small bite and sting relief pack, as well as some water purification tablets as a backup to our filtration system. Oh yeah, I'm working toward putting together an emergency repair kit for our gear and boats. So far, it consists only of gorilla tape.

Speaking of water filtration systems, my wife came through big time with this Father's Day gift. She picked up a Sawyer 0.02 ┬Ám complete water filtration system. Although the reviews at are not that great, it worked flawlessly for us. 

One of the advantages to canoe camping over backpacking is the ability to bring a number of comfort items. Other than our wonderful sleeping pads, no other piece of gear adds more comfort to the camping experience than a good chair. The strong, lightweight Helinox Chair One and REI flex light chairs certainly make for a more pleasurable camping trip, and they have performed really well for us so far. They do tend to sink into soft ground, but a number of people have reported some fixes, such as putting racquet balls on the feet.

We also bring and LED headlamp for each of us and a small Black Diamond Voyager lantern, which can also be used as a flashlight.

I just put fresh batteries in the headlamps, but we do have some other electronics I want to keep charged. We have a weather radio that can burn through batteries and bring a point and shoot camera, and I also use my smartphone as a GPS. Therefore, I picked up a Goal Zero Guide 10 plus solar charger kit that allows me to charge batteries or devices. It works pretty well, but it's kinda heavy, especially with the batteries. It does provide some piece of mind to know that we can recharge our batteries and electronics, and as I mentioned earlier, gear makes me happy! I put it in an 8 L Sea to Summit dry sack.

I put all this into an old school Camp Trails internal frame backpack from the late 90s. To keep everything dry, I use a 6 mil polyethylene liner (M-215 from Duluth pack). 

I also attach some carabiners and gear ties to the pack as they serve multitudes of purposes. The only other item that will likely go in the pack are my camp shoes. In theory, I like the idea of using sandals, but they often leave me exposed to bugs and hazards, and they make my feet feel dirty after a day in camp. I also don't care for wearing socks with sandals, so I've landed on using some slip-on  deck-type shoes. They're pretty comfortable as long as they stay dry. 

Anyway, that's the gear bag. I'd be glad to talk gear, so leave a comment if you have questions or suggestions.