Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness
As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. – Herman Melville
We love exploring the edges of maps and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters are my new favorite place. In our typical fashion, we basically did zero research before arriving in Ely, one of the gateways to the boundary waters wilderness in Superior National Forest. We pulled into the Spirit of the Wilderness guide shop where we could rent a canoe and apply for a backcountry permit, with no idea where we wanted to go. When we started looking at maps, all I saw were a million lakes to choose from and a million unknowns. Sometimes the only thing you can plan is the beginning.
So, we got a 5-day backcountry permit with an entry point and entry date, the rest we would wing once we hit the water. We had big, amazing maps with the locations of all the designated campsites, dry bags and buckets with all our gear and a canoe. All we had to do was plan a reasonable distance each day and hope one of the sites in that area would be open.
The first and last day we would have to paddle through a large lake that allows motorboats. We were offered a shuttle for a fee, but we opted to paddle it ourselves. Big water sucks in a canoe. Inevitably the wind will pick up and try to push you back where you came from, capsize the boat or just frustrate you to pieces. That’s my experience anyway. But, hey, it’s not an adventure if it’s too easy, right?
Shit gets tough and that’s when it’s important to surround yourself with people that push you to be your best. By the second day I cursed my decision to paddle 50 miles, battling headwinds, navigating between islands and lugging all our gear across portage after portage. It hurt. I actually wondered why people do it. But my partner is a rock and he never wavered (even though there were times it was tough even for him).
By the time we got to camp in the early afternoons, I would be done. Dead beat. I sat down and cried more than once. My boyfriend poured whiskey, started fires, cooked meals and rubbed my sore muscles. Slowly I would relax, happy to have reached our goal for the day. The tears and frustration would subside and be replaced with pure gratitude. For the wilderness and the healing nature of water, a partner that carries me through as long as it takes and for my own determination and strength. It ain’t easy keeping up with the toughest guy I know. If he didn’t know what I was capable of, I’m not sure I would either.
This is what our trip looked like in numbers:
- 5 days
- 50 miles
- 20 portages
- 12 lakes
- 1 river
- 4 ponds
- several meltdowns
- infinite moments of beauty
We paddled along the Canadian/US border, practically high-fiving Canadians across the invisible line drawn between our two countries. We saw turtles sunbathing on branches over the water, a beaver swimming across a lake, Loons serenaded us all day, our phones didn’t pick up a single signal, the sun kissed us awake each morning, we jumped in the crystal clear waters, filled water bottles from the edge of our swimming holes and sat around fires at night. I think it’s the most biologically diverse place I’ve ever been. Except maybe under water in the sea of Cortez. It’s lush and friendly and this time of year (September), warm and no bugs!
I loved navigating by paper maps. Most of the time our smartphones do all the navigating for us, even if we pick and choose the route we want to take. But out in the boundary waters where phones don’t work and it seems like you have an infinite number of directions to choose, it makes you be in the moment and actively engaged with your surroundings. And that closer engagement, I’ve found, imprints the landscape more vividly and permanently on my mind. When I look at these maps again, I’m instantly taken back to the condition of the water, the wind direction and shape of the islands ahead. I’ll never forget how we relied on ourselves to find the perfect campsites and survive in the wilderness for five days, free from the tethers of technology. I highly recommend the trip. The boundary waters are bucket list worthy for sure!
If you’re lucky enough to be in the BWCWA, you’re lucky enough.