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.
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.
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.