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Covering more than a million acres and boasting more than a thousand pristine lakes, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in northeastern Minnesota is the largest wilderness area in the Midwest. Visitors might encounter Northern Lights, languid moose, howling wolves, sky blue days or frustrating rain. Loons, solitude and a sense of accomplishment are guaranteed. The late writer and philosopher Sigurd F. Olson helped preserve the Boundary Waters and said that it’s the memories of particular Boundary Waters campsites “and how they made you feel” that keep hold of people.

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Easy canoe pull-outs on an island breezy enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay, along with flat tent areas, are hallmarks of a good campsite. | PHOTO: Ian Shuman.

He was right. That best campsite (occupied for two nights out of a four-night, five-day trip), was our own three-acre island with granite cliffs, level tent sites, a cooking area with sunset views of a private bay, and fragrant white pines lined up just right for our 16-year-old son’s new hammock.

Thanks to a flat tire, a dead headlight and a Frankenstein-worthy lightning storm, the drive up, predictably, was more “Modern Family” than “Walden,” but after years of promises to ourselves, the family canoe trip officially became a rite of passage for a second generation.

We probably wouldn’t have known about the campsite without booking our trip through Ely, Minnesota-based North Country Canoe Outfitters which, like many in the area, provides National Forest Service permits, food, canoes, and camping equipment. But not every outfitter has the expertise of John and Kathy Schiefelbein, who have set up trips here for more than 30 years.

Sheridan Street in Ely is lined with locally owned galleries and shops. Restaurants and motels offer a taste of decadence after several nights of camping. | PHOTO: Mark Shuman

“We start with a blank slate for each group,” John said over the phone while we planned the trip from our home in the Chicago suburbs. In other words, he tries to organize routes based on physical ability and preferences involving fishing, moose encounters, Native American pictographs and on and on.

Cost also plays a factor. Canoes weigh between 34 and 72 pounds, and equipment quality and weight, food choices and other factors pointed us to a mid-range package (and a 55 pound canoe) running about $150 per night, per person including permit fees and taxes. This got us large tents, which are worth the extra weight in comfort, and some nice meals including steaks for our first dinner and bacon and eggs for the first breakfast.

Outfitter John Schiefelbein first paddled the northern tier of the border lakes canoe country as a Boy Scout in 1965. | PHOTO: Mark Shuman

The real value of an outfitter, however, is expertise, and much of the advice from Schiefelbein came in a machine-gun quick 40-minute briefing the morning we left. “By the way, I’ll get the headlight fixed while you’re out,” John began, before launching into his briefing with Sharpie notes on waterproof maps. In minutes, we had determined the length of the trip (about 26 miles) the number of portages, and learned which types of fish were on a half dozen lakes, which campsites have Sig Olson-worthy greatness and which “are full of mosquitoes, even in February.” There were notes on dangerous rapids, deceptive straits, and harrowing asides on the Pagami Creek Fire, which destroyed 100,000 acres in 2011, and caused the region to smell like campfire even hundreds of miles away.

After breakfast on the Schiefelbein’s veranda, our two canoes were loaded onto a special boat, and an employee dropped us off at the edge of the Boundary Waters (no motors are allowed inside) on the banks of the Kawishiwi River.

Day one was for working out the paddling kinks, and remembering how bone-tiring portages get. We reacquainted ourselves with the challenges of navigating the wilderness with a map and a compass, and even began to ask ourselves how we could get lost on a river.

Navigating with map and compass and portaging our gear were bigger challenges than paddling during this family trip. | PHOTO: Mark Shuman

It’s a big river, though, with lots of islands and false points, so rather than canoe past 7pm, we settled for a campsite not recommended by John, and soon understood why: mosquitoes. About an hour after sunset they were everywhere, including inside my right lung. The mosquitoes start to thin out toward the end of July.

When my wife Ann and I took our last trip together to the BWCA in 1999, we covered some of these same lakes. It felt like a short time ago, but our two boys hadn’t been born yet, and on this trip, our oldest, Ian, took the lead in hoisting the canoes on portages and became de facto navigator because the two teenagers were already faster paddlers than we were.

Upstarts, but they came in handy.

Sunrise Point. Dawn on our own private island. Our outfitter recommended an early afternoon arrival at relatively “busy” Gabbro Lake in order to up the odds of finding the best campsites unoccupied. | PHOTO: Mark Shuman

Canoe camping is relatively luxurious since canoes hold more gear than backpacks or sea kayaks, but all that stuff also has to be carried, or portaged, around rapids and between lakes on rocky, sometimes steep trails that can be as short as 20 steps or a mile or longer. Because some of the backpacks weigh almost as much as the canoes, the teenaged help on the portages was a blessing.

On this trip we didn’t hear any wolves or coyotes, or encounter a moose or the Northern Lights, as I hoped we might. There were no run-ins with bears, either, although on my own first trip as a teen, a black bear sliced up one of our Duluth packs and bit right through some canned food inside.

More valuable than a moose encounter was our family encounter, with rocks to swim out to on a three-acre campsite while the lonely songs of loons and whitethroat birds echoed in the lingering northern sunset.

 

WHEN YOU GO

Permits are the prizes in the BWCA, so the best advice for travel here is to plan ahead. This is especially true for visits during July and August, the busiest months.

While at least a dozen outfitters operate out of Ely, North Country Canoe Outfitters impressed us with their friendliness and comprehensive knowledge.

For links to the BWCA’s official government website, information about other outfitters and about Ely, Minnesota, the BW’s gateway community, visit the Ely Chamber of Commerce.

Ely is a place for exploring and luxuriating in good food and hot showers before and after your trip. There are some nice attractions, too. The International Wolf Center advances wolf survival through education and provides great viewing opportunities with an open-air habitat. The Center schedules lectures and films and has informative exhibits.

Some of our favorite restaurants included Rockwood Bar & Grill, a good choice for a splurge dinner with a beautifully-landscaped patio; Gator’s Grilled Cheese Emporium, a cozy and friendly spot for lunch or brunch; and Insula, a popular spot with locals offering vegetarian and healthy options in a loft-like setting.

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Tagged: Midwest, Minnesota

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