BWCA – Sometimes You Just Gotta Disappear
I’ve always wanted to go on a multi-day trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Who wouldn’t? It’s hard work, the mosquitoes are relentless, and if you do something wrong, you could die. But it’s also friggin’ cool! The best way to describe it is, “untouched.” The water is clear – full of microbes that want to ruin a dinner party; but the water is clear and there is barely any trash (thankful the jackass tourists go graffiti and leave their Mountain Dew bottles somewhere more accessible, this place is special). Plus, the areas are restricted to only a small number of permits per day/week so you really don’t even have to wear pants if you didn’t want to. I mentioned relentless mosquitoes, so yes, you DO want to wear pants, but just saying, on a windy day you wouldn’t have to for the sake of modesty. I think in total we saw 14 other people, and that included a single party of 9 canoers… canoeing aficionados? paddling participants? birchbark pilots? I don’t know what to call them, but there was a gaggle of 9; the maximum number of people the BWCA will issue a single permit. Small groups help preserve it.
I am told when you go to the Boundary Waters you are entering the home of the animals who live there. If you count a crap ton of birbs I couldn’t identify, a chipmunk with boundary issues, and those 2 drunken beavers who made me thankful I always pack earplugs, I suppose that’s true. I was hoping for a bear that I could serenade with pots and pans, or at least a moose in the distance so I could pee my pants, but no dice. I did hear things I wanted to believe were moose calling in the evenings, but it was probably just an elk, or if deer make noise – one or six of those. I sleep with earplugs because that slight breeze that always barely rustles your tent flap in just the right way to make you wonder if there is a hungry mouse eating your tent drives me crazy, but when I was relaxing, or able to take a moment to just sit still, it was really great hearing the critters. Birbs, mostly – with calls I didn’t know could be so ornate and long. In the city, birbs chirp on occasion and then choke on the smog and die a sad and truncated death when someone brings a new strain of West Nile into the country. Up here though, they would just go and go. I think happiness could arguably be defined with the life cycle of a birb in the BWCA…
So, wilderness camping in itself is interesting. My normal mode of travel never takes me more than 50 meters off something resembling a road, and never more than 45-minutes from breakfast. But this trip required more planning and research. It is not like if you use up all of your band aids you can just swing by a pharmacy and grab more – no, here, you have to have it with you or not have it at all. I spent a lot of time staring at the maps before leaving, so I think I had just about every piece of shoreline memorized – a far cry from my questionably unhealthy codependence with a device that tells me how many hundreds of feet I have to go before I miss my exit and recalculate. I felt like this was the kind of environment where Murphy was going to pop out from under a lily pad and insist that everything go wrong, so I spent a lot of time making sure I understood the environment I was getting into. Menus were planned, even. There was a map in a securable waterproof bag, ID’s in pockets so when someone trips on your corpse in a couple of years you could be identified, carabiner clips to secure everything to the boat if it flipped – I had every kind of water purifier and fire starting tool I think they make, toilet paper stashed in every waterproof bag, I even clipped my nails short for this so I wouldn’t get staph and die when I ripped one off during a portage.
Physically, you also have to be ready for anything. Sometimes portage points are hard to see, so you could look around for a long time looking for it and have to make a few passes. Additionally, the camp sites are on a first come, first served basis, and also hard to spot. Even though management is really good about reducing the human impact, that does not necessarily mean the site a mile away will be free, and if it isn’t, you need to be ready for another several miles of paddling and even a few more portages. I went with Adequately Brave Guy (ABG) who had been to this area before and got lucky on both accounts, but I’m told that isn’t necessarily normal. We elected a more beginner level area, but some can be more challenging, so it is important to have a solid grip on your abilities and your ability to push yourself if you have to.
The trip itself went very smoothly and with some of the most beautiful scenery I think the country has to offer. There was no cell service so there were no plaguing emails that just “had” to get answered, there were no politics, no status updates, nothing. There was no tunnel vision, no distraction, you pretty much were forced to get away and push the reset button, whether you like it or not. It was just you and the wilderness. At first you feel like you are missing out on something by not having your device, but then it becomes ok. You hear the wind, the water, the birbs, and you just get comfortable about it, you even forget to care about it. And then when you’ve decided you like being unplugged, it’s time to go. You get in the car and you don’t want to turn on the radio. When you get home, it feels weird to turn on the TV. None of these things are bad things. Life is too short to spend it glued to a device, to strangers on the internet, to the people you barely know. It is more than worth it to see some of the coolest things that only you and a very small percentage of the population has even thought about visiting.
Because it’s a good 5+ hour drive to BWCA from Minneapolis, we decided it would make more sense to drive 1/2 of the distance immediately after work, camp overnight, and then set off in the morning to pick up the canoe. The logic was if we did the entire drive in one day you are basically just cutting off several hours of your vacation in the car, and you won’t be dropping in until 1 or 2 pm if all goes well, and that only leaves you with a few hours of daylight. If anything goes wrong, like a camp site is taken and you have to paddle several more miles to the next site, you could be setting up camp at night, and that is just not the safest idea when you have to set up a bear bag and collect firewood on your own. This allowed us a little liberty in time, so I recommend this process. You really eliminate the morning, hurry-up and sit in the car for several hours. Good thing, too. I bought a fancy air mattress for the trip because my self-inflating Thermarest is a little fat and hard to pack. Since I was going the ultralight route, I needed something smaller. Well the fancy mattress deflated 3x in the night, so on the way to BWCA I stopped by an outfitter in Duluth and bought another one. I don’t think I could have gone the next week straight on the ground because I’m a god-dammed princess. But if it were not for the little test run, I would have been stuck and probably become insufferable.
So we stopped in Pattinson State Park. It was a cute park, quite possibly the cleanest state park bathroom I had ever seen, and about 40-minutes from Duluth so it definitely fit my criteria for breakfast proximity since it was going to be the last day for me to get some hot eggs for awhile. It was a little hard to find a “mom & pop” style breakfast joint in Duluth because the whole place seems to be overtaken by snobby pretentious artisans who mistakenly think arugula has a place on hash browns. But we found Uncle Loui’s Cafe and it was exactly the divey greasy spoon you need to find before a road trip.
So we got the air mattress debacle sorted out. Got on the road, a couple hours up the North Shore later we got the canoe, watched the very informative video that they make you watch before you get to the lakes, and set out for the last hour of the drive.
The day before we set out to BWCA 2 visitors were killed in a nasty storm. They were farther north than we were, but it still sticks in your mind that the current string of weather is pretty aggressive, and with very tragic consequences. In Duluth, there were still fallen trees and power outages when we passed through, 2 days after, and we could see in some areas where recent storm damage had disrupted the shoreline so we were well aware that we were not immune just because we were in a different area.
Because it was expected to start raining HARD at any moment, we played it safe and hugged the shoreline all the way through Brule Lake. That extra maneuvering really adds distance to your day so I was pretty spent when it was time to set up camp. Knowing the rain was on its way, we took on a more careful strategy for setting everything up. We decided to put the tent in the thick of the trees as much as possible – big, healthy trees, so they would be likely not to be blown over on us while we slept, basically in an area that was covered enough to reduce our exposure. We staked down the tent and, I think for the first time in owning my tent ever, we actually used the guy lines.
To compound the exhaustion, I drank some water, but just not enough through out the day. Since everything required to be purified, every bottle refill was either 30-minutes with iodine, or a stop to boil water, filter, and then let it cool. It was an ordeal so I didn’t stay up on it like I should have. About half way through Brule Lake I was just barely starting to feel a lag – which, the rules of dehydration go, the second you ask, “Am I maybe dehydrated?” you already are. I realized I had a Life Straw (Thanks Cairn) in my bag so I began filling up my water bottle with lake water and relying entirely on that. The convenience and speed of water intake made it worth its weight unobtainium and kept me going. I was lucky not to be in too rough of shape, but I still took a few hours after setting up to relax and let the water do its thing.
According to GPS we paddled something like 56 miles. Personally I thought it was more like 30-35, but who am I to question something that makes me into that much more of a badass?
In the end it was a great trip to get away, take stock, and have a adventure in one of the best preserved wildernesses still around.
As always, thanks for sharing this story with me