What’s Biting Me?! A Guide to Boundary Waters Bugs

If you’ve spent any time in Minnesota in the summer, you know that there’s almost always some sort of insect wandering around, hoping to feast upon your blood. We all wish it wasn’t so, but it seems the price we pay for beautiful, pristine wilderness lakes and forest is dealing with a herd of tiny vampire bugs.

We know fending off biting insects is probably not your favorite Boundary Waters activities, but with our extremely short growing season, these bugs play an important role in the Northwoods ecosystem. While you might see the tick you just pulled off your sock as the bane of your existence, that pretty little songbird chirping away in the tree above you might see that very same tick as a tasty protein-packed snack. 

Cue, Circle of Life.

via GIPHY

Still, there’s not much we can say to make you feel better about the bugs you will undoubtedly encounter at some point when you visit the Boundary Waters and Quetico. Even the oft-spread rumor that black flies pollinate blueberry plants seems to be based around wishful rather than accurate science. The “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” philosophy is really not applicable here, so we subscribe to an “offense is your best defense” mentality. Below, we’ll spell out what biting insects could be eating you and how best to keep them at bay. 

What’s Biting Me?!
Most prevalent time
Bite characteristics
Best defense
Beware of . . .
Mosquitoes
All summer, can linger into autumn evenings
Itchy, but easily treated with calamine lotion or hydrocortisone ointment
DEET; Citronella and/or Lemon Eucalyptus oils
Especially prevalent in wet summer seasons
Black flies
June to mid-July
“Though she be but little, she is fierce.” Blackfly bites often bleed and swell. They can remain visible on your skin for weeks after the bite.
DEET; Citronella and/or Lemon Eucalyptus oils. Long sleeves and headnets are best defense
Some people have severe allergic reactions to blackfly bites. Avoid letting blackflies feast upon you
No-See-Ums
Summer nights
Itchy red blotchy patches on your forearms and legs
DEET, Long-sleeves and pants in evenings
These teeny gnats are drawn to light and can pass through window screens. To keep from inviting no-see-ums into your cabin or bunkhouse, limit how many lights you have and keep windows partially closed.
Stable flies
Mid-July – August
Sharp, stabbing bite, but few lingering effects
Wear a hat and socks. These pests are particularly fond of ankles and scalps.
Don’t tip over the canoe or cause yourself serious injury with a paddle blade when you decide to take a swing at the trio of “ankle biters” who are buzzing around the canoe hull.
Horse Flies
Late summer
Painful bite. Most people exclaim “this fly is taking a chunk out of my skin!” while the bite occurs.
Avoid camping near low areas where horse flies breed.
Horse flies hunt by sight, so the flailing you do keep mosquitoes and black flies away will actually attract horse flies
Ticks
Snow melt – early July
Often found scurrying on your body before it bites and attaches to your skin for an extended feed. If it does attach, consider smothering it in Vaseline or peanut butter or just accept that you will lose a little chunk of skin if you pull it off.
Permethrin treated clothing
Be sure to do a daily “tick” check on dogs and small children, especially if you’d passed through dry grassy areas during tick season. Ticks are very hard to kill: consider death by latrine or fire upon removal.
Hornets and Wasps
Mid – late summer
Very painful bite with lingering sting for hours after bite
Watch for and avoid nests
Especially prevalent during dry summers; be careful on portage trails

Favorite Camp Eats

Here at Tuscarora, we try to be straight with our guests. And our camping food menu, well, it’s just plain confusing. So if you book an outfitting trip with us and find yourself scratching your head when it comes to making meal selections for your trip, we’re sorry: it really is us, not you. 

So we thought we’d take a moment to highlight some of our personal camp food favorites to give you an idea of how we approach camp food decisions. Spoiler alert: we keep it simple and we’re not afraid of redundancy.  

BWCA Camp Food Breakfast

Oatmeal 

Breakfast might be the most important meal of the day, but when I’m camping, there’s no risk of getting “analysis paralysis” about our breakfast options. We’re having oatmeal.  

Sure, the idea of whipping up some eggs “en plein air” for breakfast makes me feel cowboy-esque and like I should spend the day ahead “gettin’ along my little dogies.” And when enjoying pancakes alfresco, who doesn’t think of Pa Ingalls drizzling his johnnycakes with molasses next to the family covered wagon? As romantic as a big camp breakfast sounds, all that pioneer/cowboy literature fails to mention the mountain of breakfast dishes that the likes of Ma Ingalls and Hotbiscuit Sally  had to tackle before they could get on with their day. 

So, we eat oatmeal – either instant with some dried fruit and nuts or a granola – when we’re on trail. Maybe it’s boring, but I pretty much eat the same breakfast day in and day out at home and there’s really no reason to change that when we’re camping. Versatile, filling (with the right add-ins), lightweight, minimal waste, minimal dishes, just add water that was already getting boiled for tea and coffee anyway, oatmeal checks all the camp food breakfast boxes. 

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Bagels 

On family camping trips growing up, bagels were consumed basically at every meal and they’re still my camping bread of choice. While they’re certainly heavier per serving than a loaf of bread, they’re also more filling and don’t squish easily in the pack. They work well toasted for breakfast with peanut butter and jelly and you can take out that PB&J again for lunch, or top your bagel with summer sausage and cheese (block or cream) for an easy mid-day meal. We realize we’re starting to sound like very lazy camp cooks, but we’re 100% in the no-cook, no dishes lunch camp. 

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All about those snacks

Since we’re not exactly going all out for breakfast and lunch on the trail, snacks are an important part of our calories throughout the day. A batch of homemade granola bars at the top of the food pack is a great treat for the end of a strenuous portage.

GORP is another snack staple. We make ours with peanuts (preferably not dry-roasted), milk chocolate M&Ms, and raisins.

We also grab handfuls of almonds and dried fruit and we’re certainly not opposed to a well-timed Snickers bar should endurance (and tempers) start to falter. 

CampCook

We do actually resign ourselves to dishes when it comes to dinner. We’re often pretty content with some instant soup and cheesy toasted bagel for supper, but we have a couple freeze-dried meal favorites. 

Red Beans and Rice 

We added this meal to our camping menu last year and it quickly became a guest favorite. We usually use Vigo or Backpacker’s Pantry brand and then add sliced bratwurst or kielbasa to make an easy, filling one-pot meal. If adding sausage, you’ll want to plan to consume this meal within the first couple nights of your trip. 

Salmon Pesto Pasta 

This is a Backpacker’s Pantry item, but we like to mix it with Cache Lake’s Country-Blend Vegetables for a tasty pasta primavera. (If you’re wondering where this option is, it’s on our vegetarian menu, but we’re happy to pack it for you on request.) It tastes a lot “fresher” than many freeze-dried meals and it’s basically a one-pot meal since you just add water to the pasta’s meal pouch and can make the vegetables in the same pot you boiled your water in. (By the way, if you’re worried about the waste created by camp food, Backpacker’s Pantry just rolled out a recycling program for their pouches. Hallelujah!) 

SmorePudding

What your favorite food to eat on trail? Agree or disagree: everything tastes better in the woods. 

Round Lake is Ice-Free!

If you’re here looking for current ice conditions on Gunflint Trail lakes, we finally have good news to share. As of this morning – May 8, 2018 – Round Lake is ice-free. With a soft steady rain currently falling, the remaining little icebergs should dissolve quickly.

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The lake was mostly open yesterday, but wind pushed the remaining ice into the eastern shore of Round Lake, effectively icing us in. However, last night, we took one of the new motorboats for its inaugural spin. After “ice-breaking” through about 200 yards of rotten “candled” ice, we made it to the open part of the lake, where we joined a pair of loons and a beaver. 

Round Lake May 7 2018

In the name of ice out reconnaissance, we hiked over the Missing Link portage, which was alternately mucky or covered in slippery hard snow pack. We found Missing Link wide open, but the low water levels on both Round and Missing Link Lakes and the brook running between those two lakes likely indicate that Tuscarora Lake has not opened up yet. However if you have a Missing Link BWCAW permit for fishing opener weekend, you will definitely be able to do some paddling, but right now what you’ll find on Tuscarora Lake is a “choose your own adventure” sort of situation for the new couple days. 

Missing Link Portage spring

In case you need further confirmation that it’s been a very long winter, keep in mind that Round Lake iced over on November 8, 2017, which sets today’s ice out date just one day short of six full months of ice coverage on Round Lake.

Missing Link spring

Happy paddling!

Recap: 2018 Winter Lake Trout Season on the Gunflint Trail

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It feels a little strange to write a recap on the winter lake trout fishing season when Gunflint Trail lakes are still covered with more than two feet of ice and the entire Great Lakes region is seized in Snowpocalypse 2018. During this very long winter, lake trout season proved a very welcome diversion. Usually lake trout season’s start at the end of December correlates with when winter is really starting to sink its teeth into the Northland and by the time the season closes at the end of March, the lakes’ snow cover has often completely melted off. But this year, the season started in what felt like deep winter and ended in what still felt like deep winter, so the fact that we couldn’t ice fish for lake trout either now or in early December feels especially arbitrary. 

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If you follow any of our social media (Facebook or Instagram) this winter, you know we take ice fishing pretty seriously. We don’t have much time in the summer to get out fishing, so we like to make the most of it during the hard water season. Primarily, we target lake trout for no real reason other than that’s what we’ve always done. 
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Andy does his best to get out fishing at least once a week in the winter and usually gets out more often than that. So when a quick gander at our Facebook and Instagram feeds might make it look like we enjoy endless ice fishing success, the reality’s more like that quip about Carnegie Hall.

New York City pedestrian: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Answer: Practice, practice, practice.

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Behind each smiling photo of someone holding out a beautiful lake trout, there are literally hours of waiting by the hole, debates on whether to move or switch baits, eating snacks, and jigging off minnows. 

 
Ada Sag Lake trout

Some of us are more patient than others. I collected a grand total of one fish photo this winter. Andy on the other hand . . . 

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Of course, sometimes the fish at the end of the line isn’t what you expect. Usually you can tell if you’ve hooked a northern pike, but some surprises this season included a burbot aka eelpout aka lawyer fish (pictured above) and even a smallmouth bass! 

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Getting out in the early part of the winter lake trout season can be tough. The temps are usually pretty cold and it’s often windy. This year proved no exception to that rule with long stretches of days where the highs were below zero. However, the low snow totals this winter made it easy to get out on area lakes once the temps warmed up a bit and from late January through the end of March, ice fishing was an at least weekly occurrence.  

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We don’t have any real tips for winter lake trout fishing success other than to be patient, take note of what seems to work for your group, and be willing to try new lakes and fishing spots from year to year. Andy invested in a couple new Haat Rods for this season and those paired with white tube jigs (the hot bait for this year)  and his trusty MarCum landed countless trout. 

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Check out our winter report page for a full recap of Winter 2017/18. 

Did you get out fishing this winter? 

Visiting the Boundary Waters’ Birthplace

Last month, Andy and I had a chance to visit the birthplace of the Boundary Waters. It’s the birthplace of a lot of other things too. 

If you’re imagining something like the Mississippi headwaters in Itasca State Park with its official sign when you think of the birthplace of the Boundary Waters, think again. Chances are, even if you’ve never visited this birthplace in person, you’ve seen it countless times in the media. It might seem a little strange that the Boundary Waters – America’s most popular wilderness area – traces its beginnings to a completely manmade structure of stone, columns, and steps in a very urban setting. 
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Nevertheless, the place that birthed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the United States Capitol in Washington D.C.

Sure, the lakes and rocks of northeastern Minnesota have existed for millennia, but the fact that today we go on canoe or hiking trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the direct result of U.S. legislators’ work in the 20th century. Without the federal legislative action taken in the 1960s and 70s, today when you checked in for a cabin at Tuscarora, you might be checking in for a cabin actually located on Tuscarora Lake and we’d work with you to motor and portage your party and your gear over the two portages between our parking lodge on Round Lake and your cabin on Tuscarora Lake. When you parked here for your winter camping trip, you might be planning to snowmobile all the way into Gillis Lake. 

Of course, the cabins that Tuscarora Lodge used to own on Tuscarora Lake are long gone, but at the end of the day, the only thing preventing you from using motors within the designated wilderness area is a federal law. (And we should all strive to be law-abiding citizens at every level of government.) At the risk of sounding too esoteric, the Boundary Waters is just an idea. A very good idea, but an abstract concept nonetheless. 

So while the trees, waters, and rocks on either side of the Boundary Waters border might look basically identical when you’re in northeastern Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as we know it today is the result of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act that President Carter signed into law in 1978. In order to achieve the protections that U.S. citizens wanted for the Minnesota/Canada boundary lake country, the BWCAW act officially defined 1.1 million acres contained within the Superior National Forest as “Boundary Waters.” The 1978 act came after decades of state and federal legislative action that slowly worked to define the Boundary Waters as one of the United States’ most special and beloved natural areas. 

BWCAWsign

Northeastern Minnesota was certainly a contentious place in the late 1970s when the Boundary Waters were being debated at the federal level. But it’s nice to think that the resulting wilderness area came about from concerned citizens and area business owners working together with their legislators and compromising. Today we’re still afforded the opportunity to voice any concerns we might have about the Boundary Waters with our elected officials. (If you’re curious to learn more about the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, you can check out this podcast from WTIP which specifically discusses how Gunflint Trail residents were involved with the bill’s passage.)  

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We were only in Washington D.C. for three nights and we weren’t organized enough to  make arrangements to watch Congress or the Senate in session. But we did tour the Capitol building and I donned my brightest plaid shirt for the occasion – a subtle nod to the 1970s Gunflint Trail business owners who wore buffalo plaid shirts whenever they visited to the Capitol to lobby about the BWCAW bill. 

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We were on a purely sightseeing visit to Washington D.C., but despite this, I was surprised at how effective the city was – with its grand buildings and innumerable monuments – at creating “that America feeling”  and making me really think (maybe overthink?!) about the impact certain acts of U.S. legislation have had on my own personal life. 

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We never got much beyond the National Mall during our visit (our lodging was just two blocks from the White House), but we managed to squeeze a lot of monuments, museums, and miles into our short visit. 

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Highlights included: 

  • Observing a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery 
  • Watching the helicopters fly back and forth over the Tidal Basin as we toured monuments 
  • Taking a break from wordy Smithsonian exhibits in the flower-filled lobby of the National Gallery 
  • Enjoying a plethora of dining options 

 

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Although we were a little early for cherry blossoms, the green grass covering the National Mall, as well as the beautiful green oasis of the United States Botanic Garden, were truly sights for sore, winter-worn eyes. During our brief trip, it snowed another foot back home on the Gunflint . . . . 

We certainly left a lot unseen in Washington D.C., but we hope to return sometime soon; plaid shirts optional.   

Have you been to Washington D.C.? What was your favorite sight?