A Few Winter Updates

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, winter came very early to the Gunflint Trail this year. Our last canoe group got off the water less than a week before our first snowstorm of the year and that first snowfall didn’t go anywhere; we’ve had continuous snow cover on the Gunflint Trail since October 26. That means we’re already in our second month of producing weekly winter weather updates.

Here’s this week’s edition:

You can view the rest of our winter report for the season on the winter report page or subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Now that it’s officially December, we figured you might be joining us in our winter-y, holiday-focused state of mind. In that vein, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that the Gift Shop Mini-Mart is open for business, offering a variety of Tuscarora/Boundary Waters themed stocking stuffers and apparel.

If you or a loved one has some camping equipment on your Christmas lists, we also have a handful of #3 Quetico Superior portage packs left (these sold really quickly, so buy now if you want to snag a couple) and are also selling off our older ALPS Mountaineering 20 degree sleeping bags on the bottom of our used canoes page

Here’s to a month of days that are merry and bright! 

The Best of Camp Reads: Edition One

On our canoe trip packing checklist, we list a “good book” as a camping essential and judging by how depleted the Paddlers’ Library in the Dining Hall was in midsummer, many of you agree.

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(Don’t worry, the shelves are looking a lot fuller these days, thanks to a delivery of books from the local Library Friends’ annual used book sale.)

As we watched all those books disappear this summer, we thought, “hey, you guys like reading . . . AND you like canoe trips, so maybe you’d enjoy some book recommendations about outdoor adventures.” With the lengthening nights, most of us are hanging up our lifejackets and picking up books, so hopefully these reading suggestions will help get you through the winter evenings until next summer’s paddling season.   


Pre/Early Readers 

Three Days on a River

Three Days in a Red Canoe on a River, by Vera B. Williams

While this book definitely isn’t about a Boundary Waters trip (on day three, the group paddles through a town), I don’t know of a children’s book that does a better job of introducing overnight canoe camping to young children. Williams – who also authored the award-winning, A Chair for My Mother, along with other children’s literature classics – captures the excitement of picking up a canoe, plotting out a route on the maps, and discovering the perfect campsite. However, she also doesn’t shy away from some of the challenges of canoe camping, such as paddling through inclement weather and the real consequences of standing up in a moving canoe. The book’s sweet illustrations will charm readers of all ages. This book might just be the ticket to ease an apprehensive young camper’s worries about or pique interest in an upcoming canoe trip. 


Young Readers 

Hatchet Gary Paulsen

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen

If you do have an apprehensive young camper, maybe don’t opt for Hatchet as read-aloud material before your next BWCAW trip. This “worst case scenario” young adult novel set deep in the Canadian bush follows Brian, a young teenager and sole survivor of a float plane crash. With little else than a hatchet, Brian proceeds to not only survive, but thrive in the deep wilderness, answering the question of many young visitors to the Boundary Waters and Quetico: what would it be like to live out here all by yourself? In the name of full disclosure, I will admit read this book when I was the target age for this book, somewhere between the ages of  8 – 12, and never reread it. At the time, I found the book fascinating, but realize now that Paulsen’s descriptions of a 13-year-old’s survival skills are probably pretty unrealistic. Paulsen’s subsequent sequels to Hatchet aren’t good, but if you’re willing to suspend disbelief, Hatchet is an enjoyable wilderness read. 


Adult Readers

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Canoeing with the Cree, by Eric Sevareid 

The inspiration for many a canoe trip to Hudson Bay, Sevareid’s Canoeing with the Cree is perhaps the first great modern canoe trip memoir. In 1930, fresh out of high school, Sevareid and a friend embarked on a canoe trip from Minneapolis to York Factory, Ontario, Canada on Hudson Bay. Sevareid went on to be a notable war correspondent for CBS during World War II, and it’s easy to wonder if the grit he needed to be a successful war reporter stemmed from that four month, 2000+ mile canoe journey he took as a young man. Since its publication in 1935, Canoeing with the Cree has never gone out of print and in those 80+ years, at least two other books (and countless blog posts!) have been written about copy-cat canoe journeys. 

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Distant Fires, by Scott D. Anderson  

Perhaps the best known Canoeing with the Cree copycat journey is that taken by Scott D. Anderson in 1987, which he tells in his memoir, Distant Fires. While not an exact copy of Sevareid’s route (as a Duluth native, Anderson opted to start his journey in his hometown, effectively cutting about 500 miles from the route), Distant Fires is noted for its humor as it recounts the adventures of two college aged men sometimes working with, sometime working against Mother Nature on their three-month adventure. Sadly, Anderson died in 1999 at just 33 years of age, making Distant Fires a solemn reminder of how important it is to seize canoe trip opportunities in youth. 

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A Contemplative Paddler’s Fireside Companion, by Timothy McDonnell

McDonnell’s A Contemplative Paddler’s Fireside Companion offers an alternative to epic canoe trip memoirs like those produced by Sevareid and Anderson. Rather than recounting a single canoe trip odyssey, A Contemplative Paddler’s Fireside Companion is a collection of essays drawn from McDonnell’s cumulative experiences of canoeing and kayaking in the wilds of Canada and the upper Midwest. Forget the “veni, vidi, vici” bravado that can come with some wilderness memoirs. In this thoughtful tome, McDonnell get at the spiritual “why” of wilderness experience. And if the last name looks familiar, yes, we do refer to Timothy McDonnell more commonly as “Uncle Tim” around these parts. 

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The Necessity of Empty Places, by Paul Gruchow  

Andy recommends the work of Minnesota native Paul Gruchow, particular The Necessity of Empty Places in which Gruchow discusses the intrinsic value of the United States’ many wilderness landscapes. “If there is any cure this side of the grave,” Gruchow writes, “I am certain that it lies in the balm of nature.” If you’re looking for a more canoe trip focused read, Gruchow also authored Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild.   

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Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

Like it or not, it’s pretty hard to find a wilderness book with a female protagonist. While you’ve no doubt heard of Cheryl Strayed at some point in the last five years, if your only exposure to her is in passing pop culture references (I’m looking at you Gilmore Girls) or the Reese Witherspoon movie, I’d urge you to experience the actual book. Essentially a coming of age memoir, Strayed dabbles in many subjects in Wild including drug use, twenty-something career/life drift, and divorce at a young age, with the central theme being her coming to terms with the sudden loss of her mother to cancer at the very end of Strayed’s tumultuous childhood. For a book centered on a solo hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild is surprisingly focused on human interaction. Yet, it still captures the essence of a wilderness camping trip, from the tedium of camp food to the profound impact passing encounters with other individuals on the trail can have. 

We’re curious: What are your favorite canoe trip/wilderness books? 

The Most Important Piece of Camping Gear You Can Pack

There’s one thing we think should be in everyone’s pack.

If you don’t have it, you might have to end your trip early.

You might even put yourself in a life-threatening situation.

At best, if you need it and you don’t have it, you’ll be mighty uncomfortable.

Like it or not, you’ll be happiest if you invest a bit of money in it. 

Hopefully, you won’t need it at all; but trust us, it’s worth the extra weight.

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Yeah, it’s rain gear. 

While I often quip that a good attitude is the best thing you can bring on a canoe trip, rain gear is the actual physical item that it’s truly foolish to leave the canoe landing without. Boundary Waters weather is notably capricious and no matter how often you study the forecast before departure, there’s no guarantee that even the best weather pattern will hold for the entirety of your trip, even if you’re just doing a day trip. 

When we say you need rain gear, we’re talking about two specific pieces of apparel: a rain jacket with a hood and rain pants. Unless you like paddling around with a lap full of water, ponchos are for ballparks, not the Boundary Waters. 

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Remember, a rain jacket is just half of your rain gear formula. We see a lot of people heading into the woods with only a rain jacket. While the no-rain pants rain gear solution might work well for running errands on rainy days, just wearing a rain jacket is in many ways worse than not wearing any rain gear at all. A rain jacket funnels water onto your thighs, eventually drenching your bottom half until you’re far wetter than if you’d foregone rain gear all together. Whatever you do, don’t pair just a rain jacket with cotton pants; if you do, you’ll be wringing pints of rainwater out of your pants at the end of the day. 

Your rain gear needs depend on which season you visit the Boundary Waters in. In spring and fall, when the average temperature is the 50s and 60s, you’ll want a heavy duty set of rain gear. While we tend to associate hypothermia with winter’s extreme lows, in actuality, hypothermia could set in after just a couple hours of being wet and underdressed in 60 degree weather. In the shoulder seasons, a pair of rain gear bib overalls will prevent “gapping” between your rain pants and rain jacket when you’re sitting in the canoe or in camp. In the summer, you can get away with a lighter weight pair set of rain gear. Frogg Toggs are a great budget-friendly, albeit not super durable, rain gear solution. However, if you plan to make canoe tripping a habit, you’ll be the happiest if you spend a little more money on a set of rain gear from a reputable outdoors company that fits you well and that allows you a full range of motion.  

Remember, cold can kill, regardless of if the calendar says January or July. Older adults and young children are the most susceptible to hypothermia, so make sure everyone in your group has a set of waterproof gear that fits them well. In the case of older and/or hand-me-down rain gear, be sure to test out its waterproof qualities before you start your trip. There’s nothing worse than assuming your rain gear is waterproof only to discover that your shoulders are absolutely drenched after two minutes of torrential rain on day one of your trip. The next time you’re washing your car in the driveway, have your kids put on their rain gear and give them a good spray with the hose. Not only will you be in the running for “most fun parent of the year,” you’ll also know whether you need to scout out new rain gear before your next outdoor adventure. 

When everyone in your group has great rain gear, you might find that you don’t mind rainy days one bit. Rainy days are great travel days, because covering ground and seeing new sights is a more rewarding way to spend a dreary, drizzly day then huddled under the tarp, playing endless game of cribbage, hoping for the rain to stop. Rain transforms the Boundary Waters into a dewy fairyland that’s a joy to explore . . . when you’re warm and dry. 

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Whether or not to pack rain gear should never be a question. Always place your rain gear at the top of your pack, just under the top flap and on top of the pack liner so you can easily grab it when the far horizon starts to darken with rain clouds. In one of life’s little paradoxes, if you don’t pack rain gear; it will rain. If you do pack rain gear, you just might be in for beautiful, cloudless days your entire trip. 

Why Seagull Lake is the Best Route Choice for BWCA First-Timers

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If you call us up and ask for a route recommendation for your first Boundary Waters canoe trip, chances are, we’ll mention Seagull Lake.

This large, versatile, and visually stunning BWCA lake near the end of the Gunflint has a route to accommodate every type of Boundary Waters first-timer, whether you’re a new parent wanting to introduce your toddler to the Northwoods (hello, Seagull Base Camp), an avid angler looking to cover some distance (Border Route), a scout or church group in search of good fishing and easy portages (Red Rock Loop), or an experienced backpacker, but first-time paddler, who wants to get a snapshot of what the Boundary Waters is all about (Seagull to Round, or vice versa).  

It might seem a little strange that we so often recommend routes that don’t start on the lake where our business is located, but we feel strongly that Seagull Lake provides one of the best Boundary Waters introductions out there. The public landing on Seagull Lake is just a 10 minute drive from Tuscarora Lodge and we offer free shuttle service to and from Seagull Lake with any canoe rental.

Of course,we’re a little biased.

Andy and I lived on Seagull Lake for six years before moving to Tuscarora and I had my first overnight BWCAW trip on Seagull Lake back in my toddler days. As kids, Andy spent a lot of time at his aunt and uncle’s resort on Seagull Lake, while I ended up on Seagull Lake with fairly frequent trips to Wilderness Canoe Base with my friend, Kati. Suffice it to say, this is a lake we love and know well.

Seagull Lake looking south

We truly believe that Seagull Lake has something to offer every type of camper. You can portage off the lake if you want, but there’s plenty to explore without ever leaving Seagull Lake. 

If you’re tired of paddling, you can hike to the top of the Palisades or tackle the mile and a half portage to Paulson Lake. History buffs can search for old abandoned resort properties on the western end of the lake. (Hint: the large lilac bushes and domesticated roses are a dead giveaway that you’ve stumbled upon on a resort property.) Explorers can search for a hidden waterfall on the lake’s south shore and anglers have miles of lake to keep them busy for days. Sand beaches at many of the campsites make the lake a favorite for base campers and young families. The islands on the northern shore provide a navigation challenge for those wanting to test their orienteering skills.  Day trip possibilities include Alpine, Grandpa, Rog, and Paulson Lakes. 

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That feeling when you find the perfect Seagull Lake campsite

 

Seagull’s a place to observe Northwoods ecology in action. In the last twenty years, the lake has experienced a significant blowdown event in 1999, and three wildfires in the 2000s. Happily, fire recovery area translates into bountiful wildflowers, as well as acres and acres of marble-sized blueberries on the south facing rock faces in late July and August. 

Blueberries on Seagull Lake Boundary Waters

 

A noted lake trout lake, Seagull Lake is a Grand Slam Boundary Waters lake, meaning it offers angling opportunities for the four main fishing species: lake trout, walleye, northern pike, and smallmouth bass.  Don’t forget to try your hand at catching smallmouth in the flowage between Seagull and Alpine Lakes.

 
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A few qualms are frequently raised against Seagull Lake, chiefly that it’s a big lake with motorboats and homes.

While big water can be scary and challenging in high winds, in the case of Seagull Lake, its size is one of its assets. With tons of campsites to choose from, you can set up camp within a 45 minute paddle (at most) of the public landing. Close proximity to your exit point can be reassuring for anxious first-time paddlers, regardless of age.

Conversely, you can paddle for three – four hours and feel like you’re deep in the wilderness without ever portaging. We guarantee that if you’re at the far western end of the lake, you’ll forget that you’re on a lake with homes and motorboats on its eastern end. We’ve day tripped to the western end of Seagull Lake in early August and felt like we had the lake to ourselves, so don’t let the high daily permit quota (12 + 2 Seagull only permits) scare you. 

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Of all the canoe trips in your life, it is the most important for your first canoe trip to be a really good time. And that’s probably why we lean on Seagull Lake so heavily in our recommendations for first trips. It’s a lake with something to offer just about everyone and we find most people walk away from a Seagull Lake experience saying, “That was fun! Where should we go in the Boundary Waters next year?” 

Are you a Seagull Lake fan? Where did you go on your first-ever Boundary Waters canoe trip?

To Single Portage or To Double Portage . . .

Quetico Provincial Park Kevlar Canoe Portage

For many canoe trip enthusiasts in the Boundary Waters and Quetico, portages are a necessary evil. Nothing slows down your paddling momentum faster than pulling into a canoe trip landing and having to completely unload your canoe. Even the shortest BWCA portage can be challenging and I fear for many campers, portages are something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

There’s really no “wrong” way to portage, although Andy and I would both encourage you to limit the amount of loose items in the bottom of the canoe to expedite the unloading process and lessen the risk of losing something. And obviously, you should practice canoe country courtesy at portages: keep your gear to the side of the portage landing, never completely block the portage path, and quickly vacate the portage landing so that other camping parties can land and start portaging themselves.

What Andy and I don’t agree on is how many times you should go over a portage. Andy and his buddy Andrew are firmly in the single portage camp. When we did the Granite River canoe route last spring, my friend Kati and I discovered that we greatly prefer to double portage.

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The driving factor for Andy and Andrew to single portage is that it allows them to cover a great distance quite quickly and gets them deeper into the wilderness faster. It allows them to cover as more miles in one day than many people cover over their entire canoe trip and it gets them into remote areas of the Quetico that many people never see.

If you have the luxury of owning the lightweight gear needed to make single portaging possible, you can be over and out of portages in 1/3 of the time that it will take those who double portage. When you can clear a portage in 20 minutes as opposed to 1 hour, you suddenly have a lot more time to play with on any given day. Andy and Andrew like to use that extra time to fish. Single portaging can also get you into camp quicker, which gives you more time to get the campsite set up just the way you want and can also mean you have more time to make more complex (aka more tasty) camp meals such as calzones, shore lunch, or camp baking experiments.

Until our trip last spring, I always thought single portaging was the ultimate goal of canoe tripping – something to be striven for at any cost. But the truth is, I feel rushed and uncomfortable when I single portage and that in turn makes me feel like I’m missing out.

Portaging the Granite River Boundary Waters Canoe Area

I don’t want to turn this into a gender divide, but physicality definitely plays into my preference to double portage. I’ve never been very successful at carrying a pack and a canoe simultaneously – it just doesn’t seem like my shoulder have enough real estate for both portage pads and Duluth pack straps. While Kati and I are both perfectly capable of carrying a 60 lb pack filled with all our camping gear, a heavy pack causes us to walk much slower and is more time consuming for us to load and unload at the portage landings. For us, carrying two 30 lb packs provides us with surer footing on the portage paths and eliminates that straining at the portage landings. While it might not actually be faster for us to double portage, we feel speedier because of the ease at which we can navigate each trip across the portage when we have a more comfortable amount of weight on our shoulders.

I like to think my preference for double portaging isn’t just a physical reaction, but reflective of my canoe trip philosophy. When you single portage, the goal is to get over the portage as quickly as possible so you can get on the water to get to the next portage to get over the portage as quickly as possible and so on, until it starts to feel like you’re wishing your canoe trip away. When you only see the portage path from beneath a burden, the things you notice are hazardous rocks, tree roots to avoid tripping over, and puddles of unknown depths.

But when you double portage, you get one lovely walk in the woods completely hands-free. This affords you time to notice tadpoles in those puddles, the wildflowers growing along the cedar tree roots, and dragonflies sunning themselves on the granite boulders. It’s a chance to simply be in the wilderness, to literally stop and smell the wild roses. For me, it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of a Boundary Waters trip.

What your preference? Are you team single portage or team double portage?