How Not To Get Lost in the Woods

Each year, a handful of people get really lost in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In this 1.1 million acre wilderness area lacking both navigational signs and cell phone service, the odds of getting horribly lost are extremely low. Of the 250,000 annual BWCAW visitors, only a dozen or so require Search and Rescue assistance each year. Still, you can make your odds of “staying found” even lower by following these tips.

In the Boundary Waters (and in life) practicing good situational awareness is the best way to avoid emergencies such as bodily harm or getting lost. Simply keeping your map in front of you at all time and actively identifying landmarks on the map as you pass by them is usually all that is needed to successfully navigate in the Boundary Waters. We often tell our guests to imagine themselves in a little canoe icon that’s moving across the map, just like you can follow that blue location dot on your phone’s map app. Another things that really seems to help people navigate in the Boundary Waters is to turn the map so it’s always pointed the way you’re going.

Beginning of a Boundary Waters trip
It seems like a high percentage of BWCAW visitors are “map people,” who really enjoy studying maps and are pretty geographically savvy. But whether or not you feel you have an innately good sense of direction, we believe everyone has the ability to be a good wilderness navigator. In this day and age where we have GPS units built into our phones and vehicles, we can become pretty passive navigators, so it’s not a bad idea to “practice being found” when you’re traveling on unknown route or navigating through a new city by being a more active navigator. Look at the full route so you picture it in your mind as you drive before you hit the “get directions” button. When you feel turned around in a city, find a landmark that will help you figure which direction you’re pointed. When you hone these skills in your everyday life, you’ll make it that much easier to navigate with a paper map in the Boundary Waters.

Even if you’re not the primary navigator on your trip, always have a general idea of where you are on the map. On the off chance that your primary navigator becomes incapacitated, you need to be a position where you can pick up the navigation “slack” for your group.

McKenzie Boundary Waters navigation map

You might consider yourself pretty good with directions, but if you’ve been on a particular canoe route countless times, you still shouldn’t solely rely on your memory. Trees fall down, beavers build dams, hillsides erode. Take a gander at the map every 10 minutes or so to avoid any nasty surprises.

Although there are a lot of great GPS devices that can make navigating in the Boundary Waters infinitely easier, we still strongly recommend that every group has at least one complete set of paper maps that covers your entire route. You can still plan to exclusively use your GPS device during your trip, but a good back-up map is a must in case you run out of battery or drop your device in the lake or on a rock. You can’t go wrong investing in a set of Fisher, McKenzie, or Voyageur maps and they make a great trip souvenir.

No one sets out on their trip planning to get lost in the woods, but it’s good to remember that it’s a fate that could befall any Boundary Waters visitor, regardless of age or experience. When you getting that niggling feeling that something’s not right and you’re not exactly sure where you are, stop at that very moment, study your maps, and figure it out. If you can’t, backtrack to a point where you’re sure you know where you are. If possible, flag down another group and ask for directions. Most people are more than happy to help.
Tuscarora - Trip Planning

Remember, getting lost on a lake is not a big deal. Sure, it’s not a pleasant experience and you might lose some time, but when you’re lost on a lake, you’re in a self contained area and the likelihood of bumping into other people who can point you in the right direction is pretty high. Eventually, you will figure out where you are and can get on with your trip. However, getting lost in the woods is a big deal, so practice extra careful situational awareness if you ever find yourself off the beaten path in the Boundary Waters forest. Stick to establish portages and trails to make it easy to back track.

Have you ever gotten lost in the woods? How to you get “found”? What advice do you have for navigating in the Boundary Waters?

When The Sun Doesn’t Shine on My Ol’ Kentucky Home

So I went to the Kentucky Derby back in May. 

During my childhood I’d always go over to my grandma’s to watch the Derby on the first Saturday of May and in adulthood, I’ll use it as an excuse to mix up a mint julep, but to say Derby Day is integral to my springtime traditions is a stretch. Although, I suppose maybe that’ll change now that I’ve been part of the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”

The decision to attend this year’s Derby was based around my goal of visiting all 50 states (only 11 to go) and while deciding to attend the Derby in order to check off Kentucky was an easy decision, it turns out figuring out how to attend the Kentucky Derby is more complicated.

We started planning the trip in late September last year and while one would think nearly nine months out from the actual event would be plenty of time to figure out logistics, apparently by Kentucky Derby standards we were basically cutting it to the wire. In the end, we opted for a package deal through Derby Experiences. It seemed like the most straightforward way to accomplish our primary objectives of sitting in a chair at Churchill Downs (aka, not standing in the allegedly unruly infield crowd), securing a hotel room (prices are crazy inflated for Derby weekend), and oh yeah, actually getting tickets to the Derby.

The steep price to pay for attending the event that synonymous with a state doesn’t stop at hotel rooms. Flight costs to Louisville over Derby weekend are insanely inflated (aka: you could fly round trip to Australia for less) and while it’s a little cheaper to fly into the closest cities of Indianapolis or Cincinnati, in the end, the most economical option was to fly into Dayton, OH and road trip from there. The packed interstate on the drive back to Dayton on Sunday afternoon told us, we weren’t the only ones with this “budget travel” idea. 

Kentucky Oaks 2018

Other things I learned about the Derby as I prepared for the trip is that the Derby is a lot more than just the one televised race on Saturday evening. I sort of assumed that there were other races on the track leading up to the Derby race, but didn’t realize that it was a multi-day horse racing festival. While we missed Thurby festivities (races, a parade, and parties on Thursday somewhat tailored towards the local crowd), we were at Churchill Downs all day for both Oaks Day (Friday) and the actual Derby on Saturday.

Derby 3

The Friday before the Derby – Oaks Day – is devoted racing three-year-old thoroughbred fillies . . . aka, lady horses. Although fillies can opt to run in the Derby and three have actually won the race, the vast majority of horses in the Derby are three-year-old colts and geldings. It’s traditional to wear pink on Friday as a nod to the fillies.
Derby1

 (In this picture, it’s about 80 degrees with 110% humidity, but stay tuned . . . .) 

Derby2

The weather forecast never looked great for Derby Day and the morning dawned rainy and cold. 

Derby5

It’s hard to tell in this photo, but the condensation is frozen on that mint julep glass. 

Derby4

What do you do when it’s pouring rain on Derby Day at Churchill Downs? You accept a  clear plastic poncho as part of your ensemble and carry on. 

We didn’t bet much on Oaks Day, mostly because we weren’t sure what we were doing, but we did both bet on the actual Oaks race and when my pick for “show” came in third and I was rewarded with actual cash money ($4.85 to be exact), we realized that betting was a pretty simple and cheap way to increase your interest in any given race. (The minimum bet you can place is $2 and we stuck to the $3-5 range for all our bets.)  With the steady rainfall, we spent the day packed under roofs near the betting booths and concession stands with all the other people from our open air seating section and adopted a highly personal algorithm of horse names we liked, odds, and expert picks to place our bets. It should be noted, that while we both came out ahead with our bets, attending the Kentucky Derby is in no way a money making venture. 

Derby 6
By the time our shuttle bus rolled out of Churchill Downs on Derby Day, we knew we’d been part of a historic event: it had rained 3 inches, making it the rainiest Kentucky Derby ever.

It wasn’t until June 9 (Belmont Stakes) that the significance of the race we’d watched really sunk in. That’s when Justify became the 13th Triple Crown winner.  I’m happy to report that he was pick to win “across the board” on Derby Day and it was fun to watch him continue to dominate at the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. 

I doubt I’ll return to Churchill Downs for another Derby, not even to see if we might get better weather. Unless you’re a horse racing fanatic, the Derby falls pretty squarely in the “bucket list” category of travel experience. But I’ll always be glad I went for a fun, albeit soggy, experience. 

What You Need to Know About Blueberry Season on the Gunflint Trail

The Second Annual Biggest Blueberry Contest on the Gunflint Trail is just around the corner. Blueberry season, aka “the most wonderful time of the year,” is celebrated by Gunflint Trail residents and visitors alike. This plentiful wild edible is a staple of a Northwoods diet and picking berries is a favorite Gunflint Trail pastime.  

Around here, our measurement unit of choice for blueberries is gallons. You can have your cups, your pints, your handfuls of blueberries to toss on oatmeal. We’re in it to win it. And by win it, we mean, enough blueberries in the freezer to have a pie every month of the year. 

While we’re not about to tell you where our favorite berry patches are, here’s some berry season insight to help you play with the blueberry picking big dogs. 
Blueberry1

I personally use July 20th as the Gunflint Trail blueberry season’s official start date because more often than not, there’s a pick-able amount of ripe blueberries then. However, I usually wait until the first week of August before heading out picking myself because I prefer not to have to pick around unripe berries. Most years, ripe berries remain on the plants through the end of August, although they will start to shrivel and become overripe, making picking a little trickier if you wait until the late season. 

Of course, in years with very early springs (i.e. 2010 and 2012) the berry season can be bumped up by as much as a full month. Although that’s certainly not a risk this year, keep in mind that if area lakes were mostly ice-free by mid-April,  you could very well be picking blueberries over Fourth of July weekend. 
BlueberryBlossoms5212012

Blueberries aren’t a particularly finicky plant (after all, they’re Northwoods natives:  they’re tough by nature) but a bumper crop is dependent on the plants get just the right amounts of sunshine, heat, and rain. The worst weather event that can befall blueberry plants is a late frost that kills the berry blossoms. A low rain summer yields small berries, but too much rain results in less flavorful berries.

You can find blueberry plants throughout Cook County and northern Minnesota, but the bushes are particularly plentiful along the upper Gunflint Trail where the bushes prefer the jack pine forest and sandy soil ecosystem on this part of the Trail. Basically, if you take a left off the Round Lake Road and head towards the end of the Trail, you’ll be in prime blueberry territory. 

When you’re scoping out a berry picking spot, watch for south facing slopes with a little shade so the berries can retain moisture and plump up. For the most plentiful berries, take a few steps off the hiking trail or preferably get in a canoe and paddle down a Boundary Waters lake. Favorite berry picking spots include the Magnetic Rock hiking trail, Seagull Lake, and the Granite River. 

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Gunflint Trail blueberry season first-timers might be a little confused about what blueberry season is all about. Blueberry season is an informal event around here. You don’t need any permits or to pay any picking fees. You’re also completely on your own for finding berry patches: this is no “u-pick berry farm” situation. Once you know that all the cars parked along the side of the Gunflint Trail belong to berry pickers who are deep in the forest, you’ll realize just how many places there are to pick blueberries. 

Really, the only rule for picking blueberries on the Gunflint Trail is to make sure you’re on public land. The Superior National Forest map that can be purchased for about $10 at the Gunflint Ranger District office is a great resource for helping you know when you’re on National Forest land.

IMG_2367You’ll need to provide your own berry picking containers. Gallon sized ice cream buckets with lids (to prevent spillage when you walk over the rocky terrain back to your car) are the berry picking vessel of choice around here. 

One very legitimate worry among first-time berry pickers is whether or not they’ll be able to identify the berries. The question I tell people to ask before they eat a berry that is a blue color is: Is it wearing a crown? All edible blueberries have a puckered blossom mark on their bottoms (non-stem side). Whether you find actual blueberries or if you happen upon some huckleberries or juneberries, if the berry’s wearing a crown, it’s edible . . . and delicious. 

But if you find a large, completely smooth, navy blue berry on a long stalk, don’t pick it. That’s a blue bead lily (or clintonia) and while it won’t kill you, you might end the day with an upset tummy if you eat it. Luckily, clintonia are a completely different color and have completely different foliage from blueberry plants so once you know how to identify them, you will never confuse the two plants. 

BlueberryPie

Tuscarora Lodge is an “official weigh station” for the Biggest Blueberry Contest, so swing by after your day in the berry patch to enter the contest. We promise we won’t ask you where you picked the berry and we’ll even let you eat it after it’s weighed. Happy picking!

On Returning To A Favorite Place

This April, I finally made it back to one of my favorite places in the world: Louisburgh, Ireland.  A town of 600 on the southern shore of Clew Bay, Louisburgh was my home for fourteen weeks during my sophomore year of college. 

TurleenStrand2018

Betsy and I at Turlin Strand on a very windy day

A little back story: Betsy and I were freshman roommates at the College of St. Scholastica and both participated in Scholastica’s “Spring in Ireland” study abroad program, but did so two years apart. We’d been talking about going back together basically since the minute Betsy got home in 2007. About five years ago, we had fairly concrete travel plans, but life happened and it wasn’t until this winter that we finally decided there was no better time for our Irish adventure then now.

If you’re familiar with Ireland, but have never heard of Louisburgh, you’re not alone! Louisburgh lies 12 miles west of Westport in County Mayo and originated as a “planned town” dating back only to the late 18th century. Coincidentally, my great-grandfather was born about 20 miles away in Castlebar and Betsy’s family farm (yep, still in the family) is located just on the other side of Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain that dominates the landscape. It’s a corner of Ireland still not particularly developed for tourists, although Croagh Patrick attracts plenty of religious (and nonreligious) pilgrims, there’s world class salmon fishing inland, and surfers flock to the Atlantic beaches whenever “surf’s up.” 

CroaghPatrick2018

It’s always slightly tricky business returning to a place that was very important to you and is filled with so many memories. As the years have passed, Louisburgh has taken on a kind of dreamlike quality and sometimes it can be hard to separate fact from fiction in my memories. Often when we return to a place after a long time away, I think we can be somewhat underwhelmed with our return experience not because the place has drastically changed but because our tricky, twisty memories have morphed it into something it never was.

But Betsy and I both found that reality matched up with our memories pretty closely. The people were as kind (and reserved) as I remembered, the walk from the cottages to town was the distance I expected, the beaches and river looked the same. I swear the Airlink bus route from the Dublin Airport to Heuston train station has changed though . . . .

Bunowen2018

Betsy and I learned a lot about returning to a favorite place on this trip and one of our biggest takeaways was that even the shortest trip is better than no trip. In fact, a quick trip might even be preferable, at least for the first return trip.

Of course, we sing the praises of the short but sweet trip now, but the truth of it is that Betsy and I were both at the mercy of the weather gods and the airlines when it came to the length of our trip. We were scheduled to fly out on Saturday April 14 – a day now known as the day Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport was closed for the longest time in its history due to a snow storm that stretched from the upper Midwest to the Atlantic. While I was able to make it to my departure airport (Thunder Bay), by the time I got there, no planes were flying into Toronto and my flight was delayed . . .  by 50 hours. Long story short: Betsy managed to fly out of MSP on Sunday afternoon, while I didn’t make it out of Thunder Bay until Monday night and then almost missed my connecting flight in Toronto.  The fact that we both made it to Louisburgh was cause of much celebration in and of itself. 

Suffice it to say, we had zero time for faffing about. This very short trip (six days, five nights) forced us to really think about what we absolutely wanted to do and see.

KilgeeverAbbey2018

Perhaps the thing that worked best for us was having simple, easily attainable goals that could be achieved rain or shine. 

Goals like:

  • Walk back from the pub in the dark
  • Eat a chicken sandwich from Durkan’s deli
  • Find sea glass on the beach
  • Go to the beach every day
  • Go for a very long walk 

By focusing on things that didn’t depend on weather or others, we actually accidentally unlocked “The Perfect Irish Day” one day. Our activities that day included a hike out to a 900 year old abbey and graveyard on the edge of town, afternoon tea at a new coffee shop, sitting outside our cottage in the sun near the blooming gorse bush, watching the sunset over Clew Bay, giving directions to fellow Americans, and going back to the cottage for a chat in front of the peat fire.  

Sheep2018

I think it’s also important to expect and accept change when you return to a favorite place. 

I turned 20 during my semester in Ireland so I’ve maybe changed a teensy bit since I lived in Ireland. It’s only fair to expect Louisburgh to change a little bit in that amount of time as well. Quite honestly, I’d be worried if we’d both stayed exactly the same.

In fact, many of the things that had changed were among our favorite things from this trip. There were more dining options (praise be!) and more small businesses, including a bookshop and a gift shop focusing on local sourced crafts. A decade ago, you had to get yourself to Westport to do any shopping of note, so it was wonderful to be able to keep our Euros right in Louisburgh. We noticed an increased focus on adventure travel and saw far more tourists than a decade ago. The town had also made some infrastructure changes to make the town more pedestrian friendly. Despite calling the new bridge across the Bunowen River an “abomination,” it really was nice to be able to cross the river on a sidewalk rather than sprinting across a one-lane bridge and hoping for the best.  

But the really important things are just as they always were . . .  the beaches, the views of Croagh Patrick, the sheep dotting the field, and walking into town for a pint at Joe Mac’s and a chat with (the ageless) Joe Mac himself in the evening.

Bulmers2018

Perhaps the happiest takeaway from the trip was the reminder of just how much we each enjoy this corner of the world. It refreshed our memories on how relatively simple it is to travel in Ireland and it certainly got our minds churning with ideas for future trips. 

ClareIslandSunset2018

Of course, it might be another ten years until I return again, but Louisburgh, I’ll be back. 

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