Boundary Waters

I took a break from taking a break last week and traveled to Northern Minnesota to visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) with my mom.

I had never considered a long duration canoe trip before, but after the BWCA experience it’s clear that this type of geological formation is ideal.  A large body of water would provide multi-day canoe opportunities, but the severity of wind and storms increases as the body of water grows larger.  Even on some of the larger lakes that we were on, the wind was pretty intense.  A series of small lakes shields you from the wind and weather, as well as providing somewhat changing scenery along the way.  You just have to make sure the portages aren’t so long:  our longest portage was 185 rods (an archaic unit) or almost a full kilometer!

It’s an interesting contrast – in the French fur trading days, the BWCA was a major transportation network; today, it’s the exact opposite.

One of the many portages

One of the many portages

Island scenery

Island scenery

There are no signs in the BWCA.  None.  You better have a map and compass or you will be seriously lost (more on this later).  Combined with relatively few canoers in the area, making a wrong turn with no map could put you in an emergency situation.  I don’t know if I agree with not labeling portages and campsites (apparently they were labeled a long time ago but the signs were used as firewood!), the idea is to preserve the sense that you’re in the wilderness.  There’s about 20 search-and-rescues per year, but I’m not sure labeling anything would reduce that number.

Haul this kevlar beast

Haul this kevlar beast
Lake Superior, the largest body of fresh water in the world

Lake Superior, the largest body of fresh water in the world

Sour cherries

Sour cherries

Aspens and Pine were by far the most common trees. The aspens had just started to turn color

Aspens and Pine were by far the most common trees. The aspens had just started to turn color

Island Panorama

Island Panorama

Sky on Bear Island

Sky on Bear Island

The trip was great for the first four days – we had great weather, no bugs, and healthy portions coffee and food to go around.  In fact, we had so much food (always coordinate on food planning and have the other person agree!) we decided to stay and extra day on a great island campground in Lake Three.  The BWCA maintains a ridiculous number of campsites in most of the lakes, but they’re single occupancy only.  Near the end of the season, it was never a problem to get a great campsite.  This island we parked at on day four was perfect: large, sunny and protected.  A path around the circumference of the island indicated that it was well-used, certainly within the range of an out-n-back weekend trip.  We cook a potato/onion/cheese scramble, string up our food pannier in the tree, and lay the rest of the panniers near our tent aside a log.  After a few pictures of sunset and watching two Iridium flares, I crawl in the tent.  I was awakened at 2 in the morning by the pot, precariously placed on a log, falling to the ground.  It was some animal trying to get into the panniers (which have no food or obviously smelly items in them), we shine the light and blow a whistle.  The coast is clear and go back to bed.

I was awakened again, maybe a half hour later, to the unmistakable sound of something scurrying down a tree trunk.  I shine the light by the food-tree and sure enough, the rope is cut and the bag is gone!  It must be a bear!  Perhaps not in the best state of mind, we figure a loud whistle and a banging pot and pan might scare the bear away from the food bag before he gets into it.  I lead the way, headlamp on with a ceramic mug in one hand and a steel frying pan in the other.  We circle around the island until I notice two reflected beady eyes.  I bang on the pan, but I just see the eyes slowly move to look at me.  Not wanting any trouble, we retreat to the tent.  We look back at the campsite and find two of the panniers stored by the tent gone!  This included the map, the compass and the GPS.

I remembered that there was a camper in the adjacent island, maybe a 20 minute paddle away.  So we decide, before we get back to sleep, that in the very early morning we will set out and take a picture of the camper’s map to continue.  It would be disastrous to set out without a map in the BWCA.  The bear visited two more times that night and I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep; my adrenalin ensured my sense of hearing was at its peak.  We wake up in the morning and instead decide to return to the site to see if the map is there.  Making plenty of noise, we locate the panniers (all were in the same general area) and luckily retrieve the map, compass, and GPS with a new broken screen.  The panniers were a complete loss…

Anyway, even though I lost three awesome panniers, I learned some things:

  • Wildlife threats are real
  • Panniers are perfect carry-in-your-mouth bear sized bags.  We would have been better off to have larger dry bags
  • Even better than larger dry bags are the proper solution, bear canisters.  They are round hard plastic containers that the bears can’t carry off or bite into.  They may not be very practical for light backpacking, but we certainly should have had them for the less volume constrained canoe trip
  • Hanging food up by string is not a very reliable option – a good tree is not always available!

We regained some level of composure when we met a paddler on our way out – he heard that seven (7!) campsites were hit by bears in the nearby lake that evening.  I guess they were on the prowl and explains why they weren’t really scared off by loud noise.

It seemed like a pretty big bear It seemed like a pretty big bear

Sunset on the highest point in Wisconsin

Sunset on the highest point in Wisconsin – Rib Mountain

Sunny September

I’m feeling especially inarticulate today so pictures it is!

Starting the internship - drawing up a survey

Starting the internship – drawing up a survey

In Chicago for the weekend

In Chicago for the weekend

Wisconsin River panorama

Wisconsin River panorama

Wisconsin River

Wisconsin River

Sunset on the Wisconsin River

Sunset on the Wisconsin River

Night Light

Night Light

New electric lighting

New electric lighting

Kitchen shot

Kitchen shot

 

Lots of rain means I'll have plenty of shower water

Lots of rain means I’ll have plenty of shower water

 

Boundary Waters trip - about 35 miles on this track (probably more like 45-50)

Boundary Waters trip – about 35 miles on this track (probably more like 45-50)

Finland geography is similar to the Boundary Waters/Quetico as they were both formed by icebergs during the last ice age ~17k years ago. Native Americans inhabited the area shortly thereafter.

Finland geography is similar to the Boundary Waters/Quetico as they were both formed by the retreating icebergs during the last ice age ~17k years ago.

How I did my bike tour

Don’t let the title fool you – this is not a ‘how-to’ guide on touring.  This immediately leads to my first and most important point:

Nobody tours the same way

I was lucky to meet so many tourers along my journey, almost exclusively in the Northern hemisphere touring ‘season’ of June-August.  The styles of sleeping, eating, bikes, gear was more diverse than I could have possibly imagined before my trip.

Some would only sleep in hotels or BnB’s, some would camp exclusively – including in major metropolitan cities!  I settled into a popular and moderate routine – I would camp everywhere with the exception of large cities where I had business to attend to.  In the large cities, I would find a hostel, which are always very accommodating to bikes and bicyclists.  Sleeping was the largest and most inconsistent cost incurred during my tour.  I gradually learned that the services offered by hostels which I initially thought were required (laundry, internet) are easily done elsewhere in the case of laundry, and mostly unnecessary in the case of the internet.  In future tours, I will keep this strategy as it’s well fitted to my personality and level of planning.

More about the camping, as this strums up a peculiar level of anxiety in a new tourer.  Let me just say that it was never a problem for me in Europe.  I was in three self-marked zones of camping: Sweden, which allows camping anywhere in the land legally, Northern Europe which forbids wild-camping legally, and Eastern Europe where nobody cares about legalities.  I took more caution in Northern Europe with camp site selection (probably unnecessary) and picked places more out of the way.  This did result in my camping on private property, though I never crossed a fence or a warning sign to do so.  My philosophy is if I leave no trace and I’m out by morning, this is ‘fair use’ of the land and anyone who contests can come up to my tent and argue with me (never happened!).  Not sure I would try this method in the USA.  In countries that had a good primitive camping infrastructure, I would support it as much as I could.  I set up my tent ~100 times in Europe and only twice I had people come up to the tent.  In both cases, they were curious and tried to get me to stay in their house instead of in the tent.  It rarely took more than 45 minutes from the time I decide to camp to the selection of a good campsite.  Camp site selection is fun and (somewhat counter-intuitively) reduces logistical anxiety by eliminating waypoints in your route.  I must say camping in Eastern Europe was the best.  There are no laws against wild-camping (or if there are, don’t worry about them) and since all of the land was owned by the government during the Soviet era, not all the land has been ‘returned’ to private hands, so much of of the land is simply woods, free for you to play in.

Eating is pretty simple, and expect how you eat to change during the tour.  I started cooking soups with local veggies and meats but gradually moved toward eating bread and cheese plus a small meal from a restaurant each day.  Many couples bring big gas stoves and a huge rack of spices; I find this too much for my use.  I prefer to eat simple (no cooking, few ingredients) and cheaply for most of the day and get a good local taste at a restaurant.  This was a good mix of cost and easy logistics.

Bike and gear styles are all over the map.  I met an Austrian duo that packed serious mountain climbing gear, along with typical heavy-touring gear.  All their panniers were bulging and must have weighed over 40kg for gear alone.  I also met an American couple who toured with a small backpack strapped on the backs of their mountain bikes.  There’s not much advice to give here, except plan a little outside your current comfort level and pick your general route to match your gear.  If you’re traveling in Europe, you probably don’t need so much bike repair gear or food and water, but if you’re in remote areas of Central Asia you will need lots of space and gear.

Shorter, targeted trips are best

I think my 4.5 month trip was about 1.5 months longer than the ‘sweet spot’ of touring.  Three months allows great distance to be covered and complete detachment from worldly problems, but not too long to drag out.  Many tourers I met were borderline tired or burned out after traveling for such long trips.  This burned out feeling is exacerbated by logistical battles of very long distance touring – clothing/gear utility, visas and culture change.

Traveling alone is good, but touring is a couples sport

I met only a few people touring alone, almost everyone else was a young (25-30) couple.

Endless Summer

What’s to be said?  The Great Bike Trip is over.  I’ve been flying under the radar for the past few weeks, visiting people and dealing with minor logistical items that define my adult life.

I’ve decided to stay in Wisconsin until the end of October, which will give me plenty of river time.  I got a small taste the other day on the Wisconsin river.  Living away from my home certainly made me appreciate the activities available in Wisconsin that I didn’t take full advantage of.

Sandbar

Sandbar

Sunset in Wisconsin

Sunset in Wisconsin

I’m living in a shack in the driftless region of Wisconsin, an area passed by glaciers during the ice age.  Heavily forested with rolling hills, it’s a beautiful reminder of where I grew up.  Now, to the shack:

Top-secret location

Top-secret location

No electricity or running water.  You can see the rain bucket and screen which collects wash-water, the one-room shack and kitchen.  An outhouse/pantry is situated a handful of meters away.  I’m sill learning the logistics of living in a shack, working in an office, and playing on the river.  The trend has been to move all of my belongings to the car to be sure I have everything available.

Kitchen shot. I added the guitar.

Kitchen shot. I added the guitar.

I’m not completely isolated, of course.  I’m interning for my mother in the Architectural Design business.  I will learn some interesting design guidelines and follow projects, and in return I will perform cost-analysis, technology consultation, and general grunt labor.  The office (obviously) has electricity and internet access.  The Spring Green area is vibrant – live music, American Players Theater, and an amazing Astronomy Club.  The other night, I gazed at Messier objects with my own eye I had previously only seen on APOD.  I told bad science jokes and puns late into the night, feeling right at home.

Wisconsin winter is long and dreary; my plan is to escape to Asia for the duration of the winter.  Maybe this is my take on Endless Summer.