Category: Boundary Waters Recommendations

Holiday Winter Gear Gift Guide 2018

While some Christmas carols would have you believe that the holiday season falls squarely in the middle of winter (hear’s looking at you “In the Bleak Midwinter”), in Minnesota, the holidays pretty much kickstart winter which makes them the perfect time to “present” your loved ones with all their winter gear needs. While we know some of you might not even want to hear the words “holiday gift guide” until the Thanksgiving turkey is a distant memory, we wanted to give you a heads up on the off-chance some of these items go on sale during the Black Friday/Small Business Saturday/Cyber Monday hoopla. After all, there’s nothing worse than discovering the perfect gift idea for the Boundary Waters lover or outdoors enthusiast on your list until right after you’ve blown the last penny on your holiday gift budget, except maybe paying full price for a gift that was on sale . . . last week.

1. 100% Wool Long Underwear Sure, long underwear kind of ranks up there with socks when it comes to Christmas present “wow” factor, but if you have a winter camper on your list, they probably already know wool is king when it comes to Boundary Waters winter wear, and they will love a pair of 100% merino wool long underwear. Great for warmth and wicking moisture, we aren’t super brand loyal when it comes to wool long underwear. I like Minus 33 in midweight and expedition, while Andy finds Icebreaker fits him best.  

2. Fleece-lined Flannel Shirts These have inadvertently become the Tuscarora uniform in the last couple years. They check all the boxes for northern Minnesota wear: nice Northwoods aesthetics, cozy, and easy to layer under and over. Honestly, we wear these year-round – as a base layer in the winter, a shirt in the fall and spring, and a light jacket on those cool summer mornings. Bonus: These are on sale for 20% all weekend over at L.L. Bean

3. Nils Hand Ice Auger No Boundary Waters ice angler should be without a Nils Hand Ice Auger. The fastest, the most efficient way to drill holes by hand, the Nils takes the struggle out of drilling holes and allows you to spend more time fishing. 

4. MarCum fish finder If you have an avid ice fisherman on your list who’s looking to step up their ice fishing game, a MarCum fish finder is a good option. We like them because they come in a variety of price points and are pretty intuitive to use. MarCum’s also a Minnesota-based company and we’ve had great experiences with their customer service. 

5. Ion Ice Auger While you can’t use this auger in the Boundary Waters, this is a great option for fishing Boundary Waters border lakes such as Gunflint Lake, North Lake, and the Canadian side of Saganaga Lake or lakes in the greater Minnesota area. This auger makes quick work of ice fishing set-up each day. Lightweight and quiet, the battery holds its charge for an exceptionally long time and since it’s battery, not gas, powered, you don’t have to deal with any smoke or stinky fumes. 

6. Duluth Pack Lure Lockers So simple, but so effective, these are a great gift for your fishing buddy. Made of Duluth Pack’s signature heavy-duty canvas, you velcro these little patches around your lures to cover up hooks, saving you from the headaches of snags and tangles.

7. Lake trout ice fishing lures You can never have too many fishing lures in your tackle box. If you’re looking for an affordable stocking stuffer, consider a couple of our favorite lures to set up your angler for lake trout ice fishing season. We like Berkley PowerBait 3 in. Power Tubes in white for targeting large lake trout, while these Northland baits (which I affectionately call “My Little Pony” baits due to their sparkly, pastel palette) are a good bet for lakes with more moderately sized lake trout. 

8. Haat Rods Good ice fishing rods are hard to find and these are great ice fishing rods at a good price from a small Wisconsin-based business. These are well-made, high quality rods with good action that are a step above what you can find in your average outdoor goods box store.  

9. Hydroflask 32 oz Wide Mouth Insulated Stainless Steel Bottle  We’ve had our Hydroflask bottle for years and it goes on basically every one of our outdoor winter adventures. It really does live up to its hype of keeping drinks hot for 12 hours. We’ve used it to bring soup for lunch while we’re out ice fishing, but mostly we use ours to keep our coffee hot . . . see item 10 on the gift guide list . . . 

10. Alakef French Roast coffee beans Sorry, we can’t come to your home on Christmas morning to whip up some of Tuscarora’s famous French toast, but you can have a taste of Tuscarora in your coffee cup this winter. We brew Alakef’s French roast in our dining hall, so if you’re wondering what the secret is to our coffee, here we go. Roasted in Duluth, buying Alakef coffee is a delicious way to keep your gift dollars local this season. 

11. Camelbak H.A.W.G. Mil Spec Backpack We got this backpack for me to take hiking through the Peruvian Andes because I needed a backpack with a chest and waist strap and the idea of not fumbling with a water bottle at 15,000+ elevation was appealing. Turns out, this is the perfect sized day pack and sits comfortably on both Andy and my backs. We don’t often use the Camelbak insert, but it does come in handy on longer hikes. It also works very well as a carry-on bag, fitting easily under the seat in front of you so you don’t have to get into hand-to-hand combat over the overhead bin space.    

12. Light My Fire Original Swedish Firesteel Whether you ice fish, winter camp, snowshoe, or cross country ski, having the ability to start a fire is one of the best things you can do for winter safety. This small, compact magnesium fire starter is a great option for the Christmas stocking. Unlike matches, the Swedish Firesteel will work even if wet and the striker handle doubles as an emergency whistle. 

P.S. None of the links below are affiliate – we just really like these products and think they could make your winter Boundary Waters adventures even better.


The Best of Camp Reads: Edition Two – Epic Journeys in a Boat

We’re back, with another batch of book recommendations for your camping, travel, or winter fireside reading pleasure! Last year, we revealed some of our favorite outdoor adventure reads. (Check out our post – The Best of Camp Reads: Edition One.) This year, we got even more specific and settled on “epic journey featuring a boat” for our book recommendation theme.

Read on to see if you agree with our recommendations and definitely let us know if we missed an obviously epic (boat) adventure or two. 

Pre/Early Readers

Paddle to the sea
Paddle-to-the-Sea, by Holling Clancy Holling 

Holling Clancy Holling wrote numerous children’s books in the mid-2oth century with an educational slant, often focused on American geography. His most famous work, Paddle-to-the-Sea is a beloved piece of North Shore elementary school curriculum and is responsible for thousands of canoe figurines bobbing around Lake Superior. A young boy in the Nipigon region of Ontario carves a figurine of a man in a canoe and sets the figurine, named Paddle-to-the-Sea, adrift in Lake Nipigon hoping the figurine will eventually make his way to the Atlantic Ocean via the Great Lakes waterway. As Paddle moves through the Great Lakes, he provides a firsthand look at the geography and industries that shape the region. Perhaps the most literary feat Holling pulls off is making you truly care about the fate of an inanimate object.  

Young Readers
La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

I hesitated to put La Belle Sauvage (Book One in The Book Of Dust trilogy which builds off the story started in Pullman’s extraordinary His Dark Materials trilogy) in the “young readers” recommendation slot, but since it’s the only book included in this post that’s officially classified as “young adult literature,” here it lies.  Just know that if you’d prefer to not have your child exposed to the F-bomb or themes of sexual abuse, don’t give your kid this book. In fact, a couple of the books recommended below for adult readers would actually be better choices for middle-school age readers. 

At any rate . . . 

If you’re already familiar with Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass), La Belle Sauvage continues Pullman’s exploration of metaphysical themes and the story of Lyra Belacqua, but picks up the narrative thread at the time of Lyra’s birth. La Belle Sauvage is the name of main character Malcolm Polstead’s beloved canoe and the canoe plays an important role as Malcolm paddles epic floods to carry baby Lyra to safety as the world around him turns towards war. 

Adult Readers

The Odyssey The Odyssey, by Homer

If you haven’t read The Odyssey since you were assigned it in middle-school English class, it might be time to give it another go. One of the oldest adventure stories in Western Civilization, Homer’s The Odyssey  tells of Odysseus’s ten years lost at sea with his crew after the Trojan War.  During their decade of epic adventures (and misadventures),  Odysseus and his men survive storms, cannibals, mythical creatures, and enchantresses. The English translations of The Odyssey are very readable so don’t let the story’s classification as a “classic” scare you off. 
The Endurance
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing

This is another “adult” book that could double as a “young reader” book for anyone in middle school and up. What started as just another early 20th century Antarctic expedition, quickly became one of the most epic true stories of survival and human resilience. When Sir Ernest Shackleton’s aptly named boat The Endurance becomes encased in ice in the Weddell Sea in early December 1914, Shackleton marched his crew of 27 men across the shifting ice shelf to sail to Elephant Island in lifeboats. From there, Shackleton must sail one of those open boats 650 nautical miles with minimal navigation tools to reached South Georgia Island where he can get help for the men remaining on Elephant Island. Incredible really is the only word to sum up this tale. 

Life of Pi

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

Who doesn’t like a good shipwreck story? Life of Pi focuses on the childhood of Pi Patel, but primarily focuses on what happens to Pi after the boat he’s traveling to Canada on with his family and a bunch of zoo animals sinks, leaving Pi alone on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. In a journey somewhat reminiscent of the Kon-Tiki, Pi and Richard Parker drift across the Pacific Ocean. The story of Pi and Richard Parker’s survival on the lifeboat is interesting in and of itself, but the novel’s larger exploration of “the truth about truth” makes the book particularly compelling and also provides some interesting plot twists.  

Although I do enjoy the work of Ang Lee, I liked the book so well, I probably won’t ever watch the movie. If you watched the movie, but didn’t read the book, this is an easy and thought-provoking read. 

Undaunted Courage
Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose 

The Lewis and Clark expedition is the ultimate American adventure story, as evidenced by the ubiquitous signage about their voyage any time you drive out West and come within 20 miles of the expedition’s path. Although I always think of Lewis and Clark trekking over the Rocky Mountains, a large portion of their multi-year expedition took place in boats on the Missouri River. Undaunted Courage provides an interesting and in-depth look into a truly impressive journey.  

The Best Fall Color Hikes on the Gunflint Trail


We think every season is hiking season on the Gunflint Trail. However, it’s seems like for many people, autumn holds the title of “favorite hiking season.”  Although the Gunflint Trail doesn’t boost a large population of maple trees like the Lutsen/Tofte area of Cook County closer to the shore, the fall color season is still pretty stunning, with crimson moose maples, golden aspens and birch, and blazing tamaracks.  

As we approach peak fall colors on the Gunflint Trail, here are some of our favorite “leaf peeping” hikes. 


Since it’s basically our backyard, we recommend the Centennial Hiking Trail year-round, but the trail really is in its elements in the autumn. A 3.3 mile loop, you’ll want to budget about 2 hours of hiking time for this moderately difficult hike. Not only will you view abandoned mining test pits and walk on a 19th century railroad grade, the second half of the hike offers great vistas, especially looking across the Round Lake Rd beaver ponds towards Gunflint Lake. 


Access the trail from either a small pull-off  on the Round Lake Rd (located just past the beaver pond – do not park by the snowmobile trail crossing) or the Kekekabic Hiking Trail parking lot about .5 miles up the Gunflint Trail from the Round Lake Rd.  


You can certainly get some nice fall color views from the Magnetic Rock trail, especially from the open rock faces overlooking spruce and tamarack bogs, but for the best fall color vistas around Magnetic Rock, we recommend Magnetic Rock as approached from Warren’s Road. We did this 3.3 mile hike (one way – assuming you park a car at each end of the trail, or 5 miles if you want to hike back to Tuscarora) back in late fall 2015 and loved the panoramic view offered of Gunflint Lake and beyond. As you hike northwest towards Magnetic Rock, you’ll both view and hiking through a valley. You can read our full write-up here

If you don’t want to go all the way to the end of the Gunflint Trail, consider swinging into the Northern Light Overlook parking lot about 13 miles up the Trail from Grand Marais. From there, you’ll access a short, but very steep hiking trail and within 20 minutes time, you’ll be drinking in view of Northern Light Lake, the Brule River, and the Gunflint Trail. This trail is sometimes referred to as “Blueberry Hill” (not to be confused by a hike of the same name on the grounds of Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center), but all the signage refers to Northern Light.    

Fall Washington Pines

Is a Boundary Waters Trip Right For You?

If our Pinterest account can be believed, a handful of the people who end up on our website each day are driven by this question: “Is a Boundary Waters trip right for you?” Granted, if you’re reading this blog post, you probably already know a Boundary Waters/Quetico trip works well for you, but we figured we’d take this information that’s been buried on our trip planning page so it’s easy to find and share with people you know who can’t quite decide how they feel about canoe tripping. 

Obviously, we’re biased: we think everyone should experience the Boundary Waters and Quetico. (Check out our 10 reasons why every 20-something should canoe trip.) If you’re on the fence about taking a trip to America’s most popular wilderness area, here’s some real talk about what a canoe trip is all about to help you determine if a BWCA trip is right for you.


Do you like being outdoors?

Kind of a no-brainer, but the people who get the most out of their Boundary Waters experience are folks who gravitate towards spending time outdoors no matter what corner of the world they’re in. Previous camping experience definitely isn’t a pre-requisite for enjoying a BWCA canoe trip, but it is helpful if you feel at ease being outside for extended periods of time.

Are you comfortable on self-guided adventure and do you trust yourself or someone else in your group with navigation?

Tuscarora does not offer guided canoe trips in the BWCA and Quetico. 100% of our outfitting guests successfully navigate canoe country independently. We’ll set you up with the maps you need for your trip and go over your route carefully to mark any confusing spots before you leave our office, but you’ll need to actively navigate during your entire trip.


Do you like the idea of going off the grid?

Your cell phone won’t work in the Boundary Waters and Quetico and even if you bring an emergency communication device like a satellite phone or texting device, it can be hours before emergency responders reach your group. Boundary Waters campers are responsible for their own safety. You can help yourself avoid medical emergencies by moving carefully on portage trails and practicing extreme caution when using axes, saws, and fires.

Do you have stamina and can you tolerate moderate physical discomfort?

Almost all canoe trips require portaging, meaning you pick up all your gear, canoe, and paddles and carry them from one lake to the next. While the majority of portages are less than a ½ mile long, even the shortest portage can be strenuous. You can avoid a lot of the physical demands of a Boundary Waters trip by opting for a base camp canoe route. Part of going on a canoe trip means you will have wet feet from time to time and that you’ll be sleeping on the ground. A canoe trip is a far cry from the all-inclusive vacation, but we think you’ll find it an extremely rewarding and memorable experience.


Are you a-okay with things not going exactly according to plan?

Although people often refer to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a “park,” the BWCA is very different from what you’ve experienced in a U.S. National Park. The BWCA is maintained to be, well, wild. There aren’t signs marking portages or lakes and you’ll probably run across at least one spot where the portage trail is obscured by fallen trees or flooding. The weather in northern Minnesota is highly variable year-round so make sure you pack good raingear and plenty of warm clothing, no matter what time of year you visit.

If you answered “YES!” to those five questions, congratulations, a Boundary Waters adventure sounds like a great fit for your personality. By setting realistic expectations for your canoe trip, you can have the trip of a lifetime and you might even like it so much that you come back year after year to explore different routes and seasons. 

Favorite BWCA Gadgets: The Silky Folding Hand Saw

Despite recommending that you read Hatchet, we don’t actually recommend that you bring a hatchet (or an ax, for that matter) on your next Boundary Waters or Quetico trip. Although packing an ax might seem like a no-brainer, we feel strongly that much better tools for easy firewood production.

Unless you’re cooking all your meals over a campfire, you probably won’t need enough firewood during your trip to justify the risk that comes with operating an ax in a wilderness area. In 2016, two different groups that outfitted through Tuscarora had to ended their trips early due to injury. Both of those injuries were caused by an ax. Axes don’t only cause bodily harm, when strapped to the outside of portage packs which are then dropped into floating Kevlar canoes, an edge of the ax head often damages the canoe’s foam core.

If you’re gathering firewood that’s dead, down, and wrist-size or smaller as per the Boundary Waters rules and regulations, you won’t even need to split your firewood while you’re in the woods. For the most efficient and safe firewood gathering in the BWCA, your best friend is the folding hand saw. 

Three Sizes of Silky Saws

In recent years, we’ve come to depend on a cadre of Silky brand folding saws for our firewood and brushing needs. As you can see above, we’ve accumulated quite a collection. A Japanese company, Silky is known for producing high quality, efficient, and smooth cutting handsaws.   

For Boundary Waters trips, the Big Boy Silky Saw pictured in the middle of the above photo with the orange handle is your most practical option. (In fact, it’s the saw that Amy and Dave Freeman used during their “Year in the Wilderness” back in 2015/16.)  The Big Boy weighs less than a pound and folds down to 15 inches. We find the extra large teeth blades work best for slicing through Northwoods brush, but you can choose from extra fine, medium, and large teeth blades as well. 

Before this post just turns into an infomercial, let’s bullet point what we appreciate about Silky saws: 

  • Good ergonomics – the saw is designed to do its cutting when you pull the blade back towards your body which lessens body strain and allows you to make quick work of your firewood gathering. 
  • Easy open, easy close – While it can feel like you need an engineering degree to assemble some of the lightweight folding saws on the market, the Silky saws simply pull open and shut like a pocket knife.
  • Replacement options – You can buy replacement blades for about half the price of the actual saw. You just need a flat head screwdriver to switch out blades. 
  • Safety first – These saws won’t fly out of your hands and land into your foot. And because the blade is securely tucked into its handle when not in use, you don’t have to worry about anyone accidentally cutting them when it’s not in use. 
  • Economical –  The Big Boy retails at about $70.00. And because they’re easy to safely operate, you might even avoid a few insurance co-pays too!  

Replacement Silky Saw blades

Here’s a short video of the Silky saw in action: