I stood atop the mossy rock at the lake’s edge where we had eaten dinner only a few hours prior. It was dark now and I took in the incredible northern night sky before me. The air was brisk, the stars were reflected in the mirrored lake and I didn’t even care that I had put my tennis shoes on the wrong feet. Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, also known as BWCA for short, was already slipping into my soul.
Our lesbian adventure began in Ely (pronounced “Ee-lee”), where we picked up our required permit. Our group was comprised of six women of varying ages: two in their 30’s, one in her 40’s (me), one in her 50’s, one in her 60’s and one in her 70’s.
With permit in hand, we drove some 20 minutes to the put-in point on Mudro Lake. It was clear from the get-go that the water was much lower than it usually is, causing longer portages, muddy conditions and shallow areas. ( I was so glad I had brought my tall mud boots!) We continued on knowing that we were heaviest at the beginning of the trip.
By schlepping our three canoes and what seemed like an endless amount of Duluth bags from lake to lake, Mudro lake changed to Sandhill Lake which changed to Tin Can Mike Lake. We decided to overnight in one of the three campsites in this strangely-named fresh body of water.
Once we unloaded the canoes and schlepped them up the rock everyone began doing things: setting up tents, collecting firewood, filtering water, making a campfire. It was a frenzy of trying to remember where things got packed and where tents, tarps and bear bags should go. Suddenly, a loon called and everyone stopped in their tracks to listen. We had arrived!
For dinner that night, we enjoyed sesame patties with mushroom gravy. Still suffering from the migraine I had had for two days, I was eager to slip into the tent and go to sleep. All night long I happily heard the loon, each call filling my soul with excitement followed by a calm. The next morning I was migraine free!
One of the most observable aspects to camping in the wilderness is how much we normally rely on, and seem to always be aware of, the time. I had to remind myself when my curiosity got to me that it didn’t really matter what time it was. I enjoyed letting my dependance on time slip away.
We packed up camp and portaged over to Horse Lake, a considerably larger lake than any we had previously traveled across. We found a campsite very near Horse River, which flows into Horse Lake from Canada. We planned to stay at this location for three nights to accommodate Shabbat.
My canoe was the first to arrive at our new accommodations and while unloading the boat I flipped it and suddenly felt the full chill of the water up to my shoulders. My waterproof boots were rendered useless. After bailing out all the water from the canoe, and from my boots, I was thankful I had brought another change of clothes.
Dinner that night was of particular interest! We had goulash and fresh corn bread, which was prepared using an interesting technique. You take hot coals from the fire and place them on top of a closed pot. Heat also comes from below creating an oven effect. The process was amazing to watch and the corn bread was delicious!
After doing the dishes and hanging the bear bag, we sat around the campfire and sang songs, even getting some rounds going.
As planned we ventured up Horse River. We aimed to get up to the Canadian border to see a waterfall and some pictographs but alas this was not to be. It took us 2.5 hours to breakfast and leave camp and so we didn’t get onto the water until 9:30am. Then we discovered that due to the water level being so low, we got to experience what we decided to call “bonus portages”.
The scenery was incredibly beautiful with lush green dripping from both sides of the river. The rocks, albeit cumbersome to maneuver over, added texture in the way of geometric shape to the already gorgeous scene.
At some point we decided that we would not go further and opted to have lunch on the riverbank. We were an inch away from Canada on the map! After nourishing ourselves with crackers, hummus, carrots, peanut butter and trail mix we headed back to camp just in time to prepare for Shabbat dinner, which needed to be completed before the sun went down. The companionship, teamwork and sense of adventure on our excursion warmed my soul.
Shabbat dinner was a kitcheree (an Indian dish) with quinoa, mung bean and pistachio creme, shredded coconut and fresh lime juice. I never thought such an elaborate meal would be possible on the third day of a trip in the wilderness. (It’s amazing what you can do beforehand with a dehydrator!)
After dinner we were all invited to share in the Shabbat service, marking the beginning of Shabbat, a day of rest for practicing Jews. How lucky that we had a rabbi amongst us!
The service included a prayer in Hebrew and partaking in eating a piece of Challa bread. There was also a blessing for all the children of the world.
When the stars began appearing, we walked over to a long flat rock that jutted out from the land like a mini-peninsula. Gathered on the rock, I lay down and peered up mesmerized by the sparkling view above. The half moon to the left shone on the water, which I could hear lapping at the rock around me. I was fully aware even at the time that this experience was feeding my soul.
I awoke early to a beautiful sunny freezing cold morning. The green of the opposite shore of the lake was fully alit by by the sun. My eye went directly to the top half of the one tree that had already changed to a bright red. I could hear the water touch the rocks of our entry point and I felt the lake was calling me. I wanted to participate in this scene.
So, I put on every piece of clothing I had brought and headed to the hammock. As if on cue, a bald eagle flew overhead. As I lay swinging gently, the cold crisp breezes that morning breathed life into my soul.
In honor of Shabbat (and it was cold and windy), we enjoyed a day at camp, playing bananagrams, doing crosswords, reading and doing Sudoku. One of my favorite parts of the day was taking a walk along the lake.
For dinner, we had pasta with mushrooms, broccoli, beets, tomatoes and peas. (My desire to buy a dehydrator grew.)
We packed up camp and moved over to Fourtown Lake with two short portages and a few brief, but rocky, “bonus” portages. I saw a beaver swimming in the lake and several turtles basking themselves in the sun but the highlight of our travel day was when a loon popped up just to the right of my canoe. What a treat!
We found a new campsite on Fourtown Lake, where we overnighted for the rest of our wilderness adventure. After setting up camp, I enjoyed the gorgeous view from the site out over the lake. I once again found myself wanting to participate in the scene so I decided to join a few others skinny-dipping in the cold waters.
The frenzy of first getting in subsided (my screams against the cold finally subsided too) and the calmness of the refreshing cool water seeped into my soul.
Dinner was extra special that night because we were celebrating a birthday! We had wild rice mushroom risotto and pineapple upside down cake. The celebratory dessert was made using the same Dutch oven technique as was used for the corn bread. It was a total success!
The sky turned a gorgeous pink that backlit bands of cloud. We all grabbed our chairs and bowls of food, found a good spot on the rock and instinctively fell into silence as we appreciated the changing scenery before us.
After the bear bag was situated and the dishes were done, a few of us took a canoe out and basked in the awe and wonder of the stars above. What a great way to end a beautiful day!
We awoke to a completely still lake with the water perfectly mimicking the sky but as soon as we got into the water, the wind picked up. We canoed to a beautiful spot across the lake to have lunch. The sun came out and heated up the flat rocks of the area and I could not resist simply lying in the sun to warm up. Before I knew it, I had fallen asleep.
A kingfisher travelled with us along the shoreline as we paddled home. It was during this trip that I learned about Aspen trees, which I had mistaken for birch because of their white bark. I was told to press my ear up to the tree trunk and listen when the wind blew.
So, when we got back to camp, I found an Aspen tree and did as suggested. I heard nothing. I tried another and got the same disappointing result. I was beginning to wonder if they were simply having fun with the Floridian when I spotted a third young-looking tree and tried again.
I placed my ear intently against the narrow tree. When I again didn’t hear anything, I decided to shake the tree to emulate the affects of wind. Lo and behold I heard a rattling of sorts that sounded both hollow and like it was under water. It was amazing!
Just then I heard drops of water delicately land on leaves of plants all around me. The frequency of the drops increased and it began to sound like I was walking through a symphony. I allowed the music of the Boundary Waters to penetrate my soul as I walked back to camp.
Dinner included beet risotto with peanut sauce and fresh fire-roasted bread. The bread was made by putting the dough directly into the coals. The rest of the evening was spent listening to the rain hit the green tarp above us as we played games underneath.
It was exit day and I found myself thinking of Mindy and wondering how her week had gone. With each item I packed up, each step I took and each paddle I made, I knew I was that much closer to a phone call with my love.
It turned out that this was the most scenic canoeing day we had the entire trip. We glided through long grasses, colorful lily pads and insects dancing on the surface of the water. We passed rock faces covered with soft pale green lichen and perfectly created spider webs that were glistening with water droplets. We watched a heron fly out of the tall grasses and into a nearby tree.
With my mind often going to reconnecting with Mindy, I had to work hard to stay in the moment. I sure would have hated to miss out on such a beautiful experience. As a result of being mindful, the stillness of gently traveling through this morning scene nourished my soul.
It would take four portages to bring us back to our starting point. I arrived to the small parking lot with oily, campfire-infused hair, chapped lips and aching muscles. But, I left the Boundary Waters with a rejuvenated soul.
Permits: permits become available after January 1st each year. There is a reservation fee of $6 and the camping fee is $16 per adult person (flat fee, not per night) regardless of how long you stay in the wilderness. But you must enter on the day that your permit states and availability is limited so it is helpful to know the specifics of your travel plans as early as possible.
Packing: many folks use what is locally referred to as a Duluth bag, an oversized backpack designed to hold tents, sleeping bags, clothing and so much more. I recommend placing a large plastic bag into the Duluth as a lining in order to keep all of your belongings dry. In the event of a downpour or a canoe tip, you will be glad you did!
Also, because you will be portaging everything you bring, try to pack as lightly as you can. Perhaps find a lighter tent or lighter shoes. Consider bringing only one extra pair of clothing; after all, there is no need to change your clothes every day. It is important, however, to bring an extra pair in case the clothing you’re wearing gets completely wet. You will need something to wear while the clothes dry.
Life jackets: Minnesota state law requires a life jacket for each person in the boat. Unless you are under the age of 10 you are not required to wear it. Some people use it as an extra cushion while paddling.
Crossing into Canada: If you are canoeing on a border lake (a lake that straddles the US/Canada border) you are permitted to paddle anywhere on the lake and even land on the Canadian side without a passport or additional permit. However, if you wish to portage to another lake or overnight, you will need to show your passport at one of the three official border crossings before doing so.
On the Canadian side, you will be entering into the Canadian province of Ontario and more specificly into Quetico, a provincial park. Be sure to read about their permits, as well as rules and regulations as some are different from those on the US side of the border.
Do I need to filter water in the BWCA?
People have varying viewpoints on this. There is a parasite called giardia present in the lakes in the BWCA. This microscopic parasite can cause a diarrheal infection known as giardiasis. While it doesn’t sound like something fun to contract, thankfully it is quite rare. Still, is it worth the risk?
Giardia apparently live in the shallow parts of the water and can be also present in the first two feet of water even in the middle of a lake. Some people feel comfortable collecting water in the middle of the lake over two feet down and others find it simply easier to filter their water. If you have a group of more than one or two people, I recommend filtering anyway as collecting enough water for a bigger group would be considerably difficult.
To make a completely informed decision in this regard, it’s important to understand more about giardia and giardiasis.
painter: a small rope that is tied to the front and back of the canoe used to tie the canoe to a nearby tree or rock along the shore.
bow: the front of the canoe. The person in the bow is responsible for pointing out rocks, logs etc.
stern: the back of the canoe. The person in the stern is responsible for steering.
portage: the act of carrying a canoe over land.
bailer: a small container, usually plastic, that is tied to the canoe and used to collect and dispose of water that may accumulate in the canoe (from heavy rain, from flipping a canoe or other sources).
PFD: personal flotation device, aka life jacket.
rod: a length of a canoe. This measurement is used when describing portage distances. For example, a short portage could be 30 rods.
A Word about “artifacts” in the BWCA
While spending time in the Boundary Waters you will most likely come across what are referred to as “artifacts”. Apparently, the history of the area included the logging industry and those who worked in that field simply tossed their trash into the woods. While they are historical, I personally found them to be junk (albeit old junk) and I felt that coming across these items in the woods and around campsites detracted from the wilderness experience. Others in my group felt differently.
Regardless of how you feel about these metal items, folks are asked to leave them where they are. Many, perhaps who like me, also felt that they were created an antique junkyard atmosphere, cleaned them up and tried to discard them. Those working for the park, however, simply returned them to the woods, meaning that many of the “artifacts” are no longer even located where they were initially found.
A Word about Urban Boatbuilders in St. Paul, Minnesota
Two of the three boats we paddled in came from Urban Boatbuilders, a non-profit organization whose mission it is to empower youth to succeed in work and in life through woodworking and experiential learning.
I was delightfully surprised at how well put together these boats were! They were also quite the conversation piece when we met other travelers and their light weight made the portages much easier. They happily take donations and are always looking for volunteers if you happen to live in the Twin Cities area.