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“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.”
“it’s kind of like car camping, except your car is the canoe and you need to pick up your car and all of your stuff, then carry it around and set it back down on the road in order to keep driving.”-me
We’re back from our 5 day canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness! This is a two part post:
- Part 1: Trip prep, route details, daily journal of days 1-3
- Part 2: Day 4-5, gear faves, what worked and didn’t work on my first BWCA canoe trip and a bug furry surprise at the end!
Welcome to Part 1!
I’ve wanted to go on a Boundary Waters Canoe trip for years. YEARS! My family and friends have heard me grouse about planning two trips with our son’s scout troop (route, food, everything) and then not being able to go. And you may have read about my paddleboarding in the BWCA and backpacking 100 miles through it on the Sioux Hustler Trail + Border Route Trails, finishing my first 52 Hike Challenge on Eagle Mountain, even DOGSLEDDING on it’s edges, but weirdly NEVER experiencing it in a canoe (which is how most people do it).
I had resigned myself to the idea that I was going to have to hike every single trail in that one million acre wilderness before I finally saw it in a canoe…but things finally lined up and I had the opportunity to co-lead a trip through Thrive Outdoor Women’s Adventures with my amazing friend Pam (Soka) who happens to be a highly trained and experienced BWCA Wilderness Guide!
Woo! LETS GO!
- 7 Women
- 30 miles
- 10 lakes
- 4 rivers
- 16 portages
- 18 beaver dams
- 5 days
LENGTH 30 miles
DIFFICULTY challenging, requires wilderness/navigation experience
DATE HIKED September 12-16, 2023
MAIN FEATURES The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness area is on the ancestral and contemporary homeland of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ , Anishinabewaki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ people. You can read more about the history and culture of Minnesota’s Native communities here.
The BWCA is 1-million-acre wilderness (1,090,000) that is located within the Superior National Forest on the border of Northern Minnesota and Canada and spans 150 miles across the state. One of its most distinguishing features is the high density of lakes that connect through thick, pristine forest.
It holds 1,100 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers and streams. Much of the other 80% of the area is forest. The BWCAW contains the largest remaining area of uncut forest in the eastern portion of the United States and attracts over 150,000 visitors per year.[It contains more than 2,000 backcountry campsites, 1,200 miles (1,900 km) of canoe routes, and 12 different hiking trails and is popular for canoeing, fishing, backpacking, dog sledding, and enjoying the area’s remote wilderness character.(wikipedia)
Four days in the BWCA: EP14 – Little Indian Sioux River – Upper Pauness Lake – Lower Pauness Lake – Shell Lake – Little Shell Lake – Lynx Lake – Ruby Lake – Hustler Lake – Oyster Lake – Oyster River – Lake Agnes – Nina Moose River – Nina Moose Lake – Moose River – EP16.
For navigation, we primarily used the Fisher and McKenzie Maps, and supplemented with the Earthmate GPS app that connects to our Garmin Inreach Satellite devices. Note: It’s important to make sure to know how to use a map and compass before heading out on a wilderness trail, and a good opportunity to brush up on those map reading skills.
Know Before You Go
- The Boundary Waters is a remote wilderness area. Know your skill level, route and how you will get help if you run into an emergency.
- Permits are required for all overnight visits to the BWCAW from May 1 through September 30. There are a limited number of permits issued per day, so be sure to plan ahead. Reservations can be made online and picked up at the Ranger Stations. From October 1 through April 30, permit reservations are not necessary, but a permit must be filled out at the permit stations located at each entry point.
- Visitors must watch a Leave No Trace Video before their trip and are required to pack out all trash and properly secure their food from Bears and other wildlife.
- Cell phone coverage is spotty to non-existent and should not be relied upon.
6 weeks before our trip, each participant was provided a physical training plan that included gradually building pack weight, mileage and some upper body workouts that got our paddling muscles in shape. From there, we received a gear list, had a “canoe day” at a local lake and learned the basics of portaging, important canoe strokes and safety information. This is one of the things I love most about Thrive, there is a great deal of effort invested by the leaders to ensure that every woman has what they need in order to feel prepared and confident before they head out on a trip.
Day 1: Hudson WI to Ely, MN
On the first day of our trip, we loaded up our gear into a big van and headed North to Ely for the night. We stopped in Cloquet for some Mexican Food and made it to the Outfitter to hit our bunks just in time for bed.
Day 2: EP14 – Little Indian Sioux River – Upper Pauness Lake – Lower Pauness Lake – Shell Lake – Little Shell Lake – Lynx Lake
- Distance 10.3 miles
- 4 portages 40, 60, 216, 15, & 4 rods
- 1 river
- 5 lakes
Morning brought a hearty breakfast, rearranging of packs, and loading everything up into another big shuttle van that transported all our portage packs, pfds, paddles, canoes, and food that we would need for the next 4 days.
We enjoyed the 45-minute drive, winding deep into the woods on the Echo Trail, arriving at Entry Point #14. We unloaded all our gear, (2) two person and (1) three-person Kevlar canoe- and we were ready to roll!
The air was cool and crisp, and it felt like Fall had just made her grand entrance!
Portages are not calculated in miles or kilometers in this part of the country…distance is determined in a unit of measure called “rods”–as in, fishing rods! There are 320 rods in one mile.
Our trip started and ended on a river. Our first paddle strokes into the wilderness were through winding routes cut through tall, swaying wild rice. We laughed about getting stuck in the weeds and our paddle/driving skills, but it was a beautiful way to greet the wilderness. All alone out here… on a midweek trip… just us seven women…
…and then I heard my name, and then I heard it again…a gleeful shout coming from an oncoming canoe! We were not alone, it was someone I knew! Amy from our Women and Wolves trip, and her husband were just leaving the BWCA and it was such a treat to run into a friend….IN THE WILDERNESS. We chatted for a quick minute, took a photo and caught up. They warned us of the many beaver dams ahead and epic thigh-deep mud at one of the portages. What a great way to start the trip!
Our 3rd portage was the longest today at 216 rods, from Lower Pauness to Shell Lake – and had a hefty hill to climb. After that haul, we stopped for a lunch of smoked salmon + jerky looking out towards Shell Lake. We stepped carefully around a living bog while our bodies and canoes rested a bit.
I felt a little excitement as we approached Shell Lake- I remember camping on this lake with friends during our hike of the Sioux Hustler Trail. That was one of my favorite campsites on that trip- you can read more about it here and watch out youtube video. I think Shell Lake was also where the epic mud was located. We successfully navigated it, as each canoe tried a slightly different exit. No one lost a shoe or got sucked in. But we DID find bear prints on the shoreline!
We saw trumpeter swans on several lakes today and enjoyed watching them land and take off in pairs and large groups from the water. So many swans!
Our campsite on Lynx Lake was a 5-star site on top of a large rock with a beautiful overlook of the lake. After setting up camp, securing canoes and getting settled, I took a nice long swim in the sun. The water was cold and clear, and felt like a perfect way to say hello to Fall and goodbye to Summer. We ate like queens, homemade black bean burgers on fancy buns with alfalfa sprouts (the luxury!) Campfire, soggy socks, camp chairs, and a nice little watercolor painting of the lake at sunset. This is not like backpacking.
Day 3: Lynx Lake – Ruby Lake – Hustler Lake – Oyster Lake
- Distance 6.5 miles
- 3 Portages 280, 10, 310 rods
- 4 Lakes
Morning started for me at 4am. I was wide awake, stayed in the tent for a little while and then packed up my quilt + chair, put on all my warm clothes including my puffy, hat and mittens and headed down to the big rock facing the Eastern shore of the lake. There I sat…for almost an hour…in the dark, on this big, beautiful earth that was slowly moving, until the sunrise crested over the black silhouette of the boreal forest. I had a similar solitary sunrise experience in the Grand Canyon, and it was one of my favorite moments of both trips- just being quiet and enjoying the start of a new day full of possibilities. Another delicious breakfast cooked by chef Pam and we were out of camp by 9am and back on the water.
Our first portage of the day was another long one at 280 rods. It led us to a small lake called Ruby Lake. This lake has a phenomenon that I had only recently heard of, freshwater jellyfish! Many from our group saw them. I think I saw one? But it might have been a white rock. Honestly, it was kind of windy and I was just trying to concentrate on staying in the canoe while peeking over the edge. But google it, they are a real thing.
We walked right across the Sioux Hustler Trail on our third portage of the day. It was our longest one of the trip at 310 rods. It brought back memories from our September 2020 trip, standing in the cold rain looking across the campsite from the Northern tip of the lake. It made me grateful for the sun and warm weather we had on this trip.
One more lake to paddle across and then we’ll find another 5-star campsite for the night. Oyster Lake has an even nicer rock outcropping than Lynx Lake…so after setting up and settling everything in, it was time for another swim! We took turns jumping off the big rock and swam in the cold, clear water before dinner time. The cold water took our breath and it felt good to be clean and in cozy warm clothes for dinner.
The evening was filled with another delicious dinner made by Pam, more watercolor painting, fourteen soggy socks hung on the line, campfire, and a good soaking rain. The good, soaking rain turned out to be a not-so-good soaking rain when I realized at bedtime that our rental tent had seriously leaked, and my quilt was soaked through in the torso area.
More rain was coming, so we quickly relocated our tent across camp, under Pam’s big green tarp (I’m so glad she had that along!). I remember learning over 10 years ago, as a Scout leader that what you are supposed to do in this situation is put your rain gear on and climb into your wet bag…so that is what I did. And I got hot, really fast- so I took it off. Amazingly, my body heat dried my quilt very quickly, and it all worked out. I credit the thin fabric and dry down technology in my Enlightened Equipment quilt– it’s not just marketing, folks. It dried really quick and saved my bacon. Whew.
Be sure to check out Part 2: Day 4-5 on the water, gear faves, what worked and didn’t work about my first BWCA canoe trip and a bug furry surprise at the end!
Have you explored the Boundary Waters by foot, canoe or even dogsled? Its an amazing wilderness that deserves our respect, protection and awe! Share your stories in the comment or join the conversation on Wandering Pine Facebook and Instagram.
Other posts about the BWCA you may enjoy: