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Paddling and Portaging the Boundary Waters, a Group Adventure By David Riddle

A certain exhilaration accompanies feats of physical endurance, especially when there is doubt about one’s abilities to begin with. Especially when such feats involve carrying 16-foot canoes on one’s shoulders for over a mile. Especially when one is 60-something years old and unaccustomed to such tests of strength and will.

So it was not without some uncertainty – trepidation is too harsh a word – that I said yes to my neighbor’s invitation to join him and a few of his buddies in early September on a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in upper Minnesota. Our group was small, just five men, but the Boundary Waters Area is huge. Over a million acres spanning the U.S.-Canadian border, a series of interconnected lakes and streams formed long ages ago, when mile-high glaciers gouged troughs in continental bedrock. Minnesota license plates bear the slogan, “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” for good reason. Beyond the multiple entry points, there are no roads in this wilderness. Water is the only way.

Our organizer and leader, David Parker, has made this wilderness journey multiple times, starting with visits in his youth. Over the years, he has brought groups of high school students to experience this vast wilderness, and a few years back he brought a group of inner city Chicago troubled youth, who at one point, according to his story, threatened a mutiny of sorts when they decided they’d had their fill of vastness and wilderness . Now 58, Dave was exploring the possibilities of offering this journey to more mature audiences. It was to be a retreat of sorts, a chance for Christian men to step away from everyday demands of work and home and see what wilderness has to offer for body and soul. 

I can’t speak for the overall maturity of our group. In many ways we were still just boys-in-the-woods, but age-wise the majority of us were getting up there. Craig Clapper, a retired pastor who recently completed a hike of the Appalachian Trail and has written a book about it, is 64, and my semi-retired engineer neighbor, David O’Brien, is 67. The only one of the group who could lay reasonable claim to the word youth, is Nathan Crabtree, a twenty-something-year-old EMT. And while we’re naming names, let me introduce myself, a 64-year-old retired middle school science teacher, David Riddle. So, yes, this group of five hearty souls included three Davids. “Hi. I’m David. This is my buddy David, and this is my other buddy David.” (If you don’t get the reference, you’re probably not old enough to remember the TV show “Newhart.”)

One of the things about wilderness, this one in particular, is it takes some doing just to get there. Dave O and I drove eleven hours from our homes in western North Carolina to South Bend, Indiana, which was our gathering point for the adventure. Our group met together to assess and assemble our gear and a bodacious supply of food, which had been purchased by Dave P. The quality, quantity and variety of food spread out on Dave’s basement table for re-packaging was a bit overwhelming to me at first glance. Since retiring three years ago I’ve taken up backpacking again, so I’m familiar with transporting my own food into the wild woods. But compared to my simple, lightweight trail fare of oatmeal in the morning and ramen noodles at night, this was a king’s feast. Pancakes, biscuits and gravy, hash browns, oatmeal with assorted dried fruits and nuts, powdered eggs, summer sausage, coffee – and this was just for breakfast. Lunch was bagels, cheese, summer sausage, beef jerky, dried fruit, nuts, and soups, if we decided we wanted something hot, along with powdered drink mixes. Dinners raised the bar still further. Our first night out we had steak and baked potatoes, cooked over an open fire. Other nights we had our choice of varied freeze-dried rice or pasta dishes, supplemented with tuna, chicken, beef jerky, or summer sausage. 

By the way, did I mention summer sausage? By Dave P’s rough calculations of ounces per person per day, we wound up with five hefty foot-long sausages (that’s one apiece!) for the duration of our week-long journey. I thought at first it was overdoing it, and Dave admitted, “You may be sick of this by the time we’re on the way home,” but overall, it was a surprisingly adaptable menu item. We sliced it for bagel, cheese and sausage sandwiches for lunch, fried it for breakfast, and cut up chunks to add to the rice in the evenings. In the end, I think we returned with one unopened, but I never really got tired of it. I just thought maybe I’d taper off my intake for cholesterol reasons. I had a routine doctor’s appointment, with blood work, scheduled for the day after my return home.

An early-morning departure and eleven hours driving put us in Ely, Minnesota, just about as far north as you can go on four wheels and pavement and still be in a U.S. zip code. Our first night’s destination and staging point was Pack Sack Canoe Trips and Log Cabins, a multi-purpose outfitter operated by Gene and Jane Ott. We had dinner in town and I said good-bye to the last salad greens I expected to see for a week. We slept in the Pack Sack bunkhouse and roused ourselves early for our embarkation on Sunday morning. Jane drove us and our canoes and equipment to our put-in point on Fall Lake. The skies were clear, the winds calm: a perfect day for paddling. And paddle we did, some thirteen miles altogether for day one.

We also got our first taste of what portaging was going to be like. At its north end, Fall Lake pours into Newton Lake through a small series of rapids that are too much for canoes loaded down with supplies. So we beached our canoes, unloaded our gear, and proceeded to haul everything along a quarter-mile trail through the woods to the put-in point for Newton Lake. Each canoe was provided with a yoke at mid-point, complete with shoulder pads, to facilitate overland transport. And once I had some help getting the canoe turned upside down and positioned just right, I found it was indeed possible to carry a 62-pound (I asked the weight later to be sure of bragging rights), 16-foot aluminum boat with only minimal strain. My main thought along this first portage was, how much farther? But before too long I started seeing the other guys heading back along the trail to retrieve the packs, so I knew it couldn’t be too far. That was our plan for portaging. First, three of us would haul the canoes, and two would carry gear. Then we’d all go back to get the rest of the gear, which was a challenge of a different sort. Backpacks are designed to be worn, well, on the back. But we had not only our own individual packs, but also two duffels and a Duluth pack with cooking gear and food and a tent and camp chair and axe and saw and paddles and fishing rods ... and you get the picture. Anyway, we found it best to carry a pack on our back and another on our front, then fill our hands with whatever else needed hauling. So the canoe-carrying portion of the portage required a considerable outlay of energy, but the pack-and-gear-carrying part was equally demanding. Remember, on this first day out, I was still in the can-I-actually-do-this phase of the adventure. Happily, the answer, so far, was yes. 

We had two portages on day one, the second only an eighth of a mile, as we passed from Fall Lake to Newton Lake and on into Pipestone Bay, heading ever northward toward the U.S.-Canada border. We reached our campsite on Basswood Lake, close enough to tomorrow’s first, and longest, portage that we could hear the roar of the rapids. We set up camp and got a fire going and took a brief swim in the clear, brown-tinted water. Down south I associate this tea-brown color with tannins leaching out from plant matter submerged in swamps. I assume it’s the same up north; just substitute bog for swamp. 

Another interesting thing about this northern water: I was told it is drinkable, without filtering or chemical treatment, that is, straight, as long as you fill your bottles some distance from the shore and preferably not from the surface, but reaching elbow-deep to get the water below. I was hesitant, since this contradicts decades of abiding by the maxim, never drink open water unless you treat it first. I hedged my bets initially, saving water brought from Ely for drinking until it ran out, then filtering another liter at the edge of the lake for the second day’s needs. But the other guys seemed unconcerned, and by the third day, I was dunking my bottle with the rest of the group as we paddled along. For the record, water drawn along the shore for camp use was boiled in the course of cooking, so whatever unsavory critters may have been lurking at the water’s edge were rendered harmless. And as I write this now, some three weeks after, I’ve experienced no internal ill effects. Everything’s still working according to plan.

Our first night’s camp was idyllic. Perched on bare rock sloping down to the water, facing east, we could see the almost-full moon rising just before sundown. Actually, we saw two moons, and two sets of darkening spruce and fir trees on the farthest shore, mirrored in the still lake surface in the fading light. We baked potatoes in the fire (a tad too long, but a little charcoal is probably good for you), and we had steaks on the grill, for which there were no complaints. We chased it all down with cup after cup of hot spiced tea, a mixture of Tang, instant tea, lemonade mix, cinnamon, and cloves. We shared evening devotions, discussing some of Jesus’ parables selected by Dave P, before the daylight ran out. Then, since the forecast had called for clear weather through the night, some of the guys decided to “cowboy camp” and sleep under the stars. Nathan and I slept in our hammocks, feeling more like old-time sailors than cowboys, I suppose. We took pains to hang the food pack, having been warned of bears, and having seen plenty of raccoon sign by the waterside. I discovered my hammock was right above a chipmunk’s entrance hole, but he didn’t seem to mind, and since I knew he’d be sleeping through the night, I wasn’t worried that he had seen where we hung the food pack.

In the morning, the sun took the moon’s place, rising above the trees and reflecting off the water. A little more breeze this day, and a little chill in the early morning air. The breakfast campfire felt good, and we enjoyed coffee, pancakes, hash browns and onions, along with fried summer sausage, and bacon, and maybe something else too, but three weeks later I find my memory is unclear in some of the food particulars.

Sometime that morning, which like most of our mornings was leisurely and unhurried, Craig was fishing, and I was down at the water’s edge just looking around. The early sun shining through the tea-colored water was giving the underlying rocks a golden glow. And then, as I looked, I saw one of the rocks was moving. It was round, about ten inches across, and it had legs, a long neck and even longer tail: a snapping turtle! He was prowling the shallows in search of his own breakfast, I assumed. I called out to the others to come and see. 

I love turtles, all kinds, and I particularly like snapping turtles just because they look so dinosaurish, with their large head and row of jagged scales down the length of their tail. I’ve handled plenty of large snappers, carefully of course, in various nature center programs in my pre-public school days. But what I witnessed this morning by the side of Basswood Lake was a new addition to the repository of my turtle repertoire. 

When Nathan joined our group, standing with us on the rock that sloped down to the water’s edge, and watching as the turtle slowly crawled and swam along the edge, just below the surface, he simply asked, “Can we catch it?” I imagined at first he was thinking of using Craig’s fishing rod, but then it was clear he had something else in mind. Without waiting for an answer to his question, Nathan peeled down to his shorts, stepped carefully down the sloping rock and slipped into the water, just a few feet away from where the turtle was still looking for something to eat. The turtle turned and looked toward Nathan, then turned away and resumed his foraging. Nathan eased his way through the water, keeping his eye on the turtle’s progress. The turtle speeded up a little, and just as I thought he was going to swim away, Nathan grabbed his shell from behind, with both hands, and lifted the turtle from the water. The rock shore was steep at that point, and it wasn’t possible for Nathan to climb back up the slope with both hands holding the turtle. I moved close enough to grab the turtle by the tail and bring him up for all to see. 

The first thing I noticed was the leeches. The turtle’s feet were covered with them, probably a dozen at least on the sole of each foot. I wondered if we should try to remove them, just as a favor to the turtle, but somebody said, he’ll just start bleeding all over and the leeches will come back anyway. We looked at him for a bit, as he hung there, neck stretched out sideways. We wondered exactly how much damage those jaws might do, if a finger were to get too close. (Not as much as some folks think, actually. Yes, there would be blood for sure, but bones would still be intact. And you can forget the broom handle myth.) After a little while we carried him back to the edge of the water and let him go, imagining the stories he would have to tell his buddies around the fire that night. Well, probably not an actual fire, but you get the idea.

We packed our gear and had morning devotions selected by Craig from a John Stott commentary on Psalms. Then we prayed for “strength for the journey” and loaded up our gear. We had decided to take turns in the 13-foot single canoe, and today was my turn. A short distance led us to our longest portage for the trip, which was 1.1 miles. And I was thankful to be carrying a shorter and lighter canoe this time (about 51 pounds). Still, I couldn’t make the whole distance without stopping to rest a couple of times. There were other groups in transit as well, and I asked one guy heading back for his second load, “How much farther?” He just laughed, and I didn’t bother to query anyone else. Eventually, we all made it, all three trips, and all our stuff was assembled at the next put-in point. We paused for “first lunch” before continuing. Then after just a short distance on the water, we did it all over again. And then after a while longer, we did it again, and yet one more time, pausing for “second lunch” above Lower Basswood Falls. By the time we were on the narrow stretch of Basswood River, heading for our second night’s camp, the wind was picking up and clouds were rolling in. Temperatures were still mild, but it was unclear what the wind might be bringing with it for the next 24 hours.

Craig started fishing again as soon as we had pitched tents and hammocks and gathered firewood. He hooked something big, big enough to break his line, and after that he was motivated to catch the one that got away, not only for the thrill of it, but also to get back his lost lure. He continued his quest the next morning, and managed to get another lure hung up on the bottom near the shore. In an attempt to retrieve it, he fell out of the canoe and landed on a rock, which punched a neat hole into his lower back. Painful, to be sure, but not debilitating, not at first anyway. 

But the injury introduced an element of uncertainty into our situation. How serious is it? We’re at least a day and a half away from cell phone service. Is it going to get better or will it get worse? Is it just muscle damage, or is there something deeper, vertebra or disc involvement? EMT Nathan was the best one qualified to offer an opinion, based on external examination anyway. Nathan thought wait and see was the most reasonable course. Craig offered his assessment from the inside, which was, yes, it still hurts, but it didn’t restrict his movement. So what do we do? Everybody had brought some type of pain medications, some heavy-duty, some light, in anticipation of our own aches and pains from the rigors of the journey. So Craig had a variety to choose from, and combined with prayers for healing and for continued strength for our journey, we decided, after morning devotions, we were ready to push on for our third day on the water in the wilderness. 

Our original itinerary was to make a large arc from Fall Lake north to the border, then northwest along the U.S.-Canada boundary, then south through Lake Agnes, Nina-Moose Lake, and to a take-out point on Moose River. Overall this would be a journey of about 60 miles, which we expected to complete in seven days. We hadn’t covered as much distance in our second day, due mainly to the time required for four portages, but this third day was going to be portage-free, so we expected to make up for lost miles. 

Navigation in the Boundary Waters can be tricky. Unless you keep track of your location at all times, it’s easy to get confused. Coves and points and islands can look remarkably similar, and compass bearings are essential to keep yourself headed in the right direction. The navigational duties were shared at first between Dave P and David O with the latter taking over the main responsibility as the days went by. We were never lost, but there were a few times when I wasn’t exactly sure we knew where we were. One time in particular, I had sighted a rocky point and just knew it was one we’d seen before, would have bet real money on it. But wiser heads prevailed and the truth became clear.

For our third day, we re-shuffled ourselves in the boats, and David O and I were together for this leg of the journey. Our route continued north along Basswood River, a narrow channel between tall rock walls in some places, opening wider in other spots. The sky was overcast and the clouds hung low. In the morning the wind was only a problem on wide water, but we were still making good time. We stopped on a rocky point on the Canada side for a leisurely lunch, building a fire for something hot to drink. Did we also cook soup? I’m not sure. But I know we ate summer sausage. No doubt whatsoever about that. Craig also caught a nice-sized bass, which he decided to keep for supper. Just how big is “nice-sized”? You’ll have to ask Craig. While Einstein’s theory of relativity is generally understood to refer to objects moving in space and time, it has a secondary application to fish. The greater the distance in space and time from the actual catching of the fish, the more variable the size of the fish becomes. I’m not certain that Einstein was familiar with this application of his theory, but fishermen have understood it for millennia. 

By mid-afternoon, the sky was lower still, and the wind was growing stronger and colder. We fished our rain-proof layers from our packs and donned our stocking caps and hoods. Craig had decided his back was still feeling all right, and the paddling even seemed to be helping some, or maybe it was the drugs. At any rate, it wasn’t getting worse, so that was some comfort to us all. 

We continued through Wednesday Bay and into Thursday Bay, both part of Crooked Lake. (I’m not sure what happened to Monday and Tuesday Bays, which appear to be missing from the map.) By the time we were coming into Thursday Bay, the water had widened out considerably and we could see a mile or more in the upwind direction, to what looked like a wall of gray coming across the water, headed for us. The waves were increasing in size, with occasional whitecaps, not particularly scary yet, but we couldn’t be sure when that might change. We also weren’t sure exactly how far we still had to go to our next campsite. My main concern was the direction of the wind relative to our line of travel. Paddling into oncoming waves is difficult, but not dangerous. But a heavily loaded canoe, turned broadside to even moderate waves can start to rock side to side, and if you start taking on water from waves breaking over the side, you’re going to have trouble. 

Dave O and I pressed on, along with the other two boats. There were moments when we were close to the shore and having difficulty keeping the wind from blowing us onto the rocks. Other times, when we had to turn sharply, we struggled to execute our move quickly, between wave crests. It felt a little dicey at times, but we managed it. We started getting some heavy mist blowing in from the rain we assumed was just a short time away. What we needed was a campsite. Fortunately, we found what we needed just in time. We unloaded our canoes, turned them upside down, and set up our shelters just as the rain was beginning in earnest. There were still a couple of hours of gray daylight left, so we just hunkered down to wait. 

Eventually, the rain stopped, though the wind continued. We managed to get a fire started and cooked supper, including Craig’s bass, had our evening devotions, and went to bed. It rained off and on through the night, and the wind never let up. By first light, I could see columns of mist like tall ghosts being hurried across the surface of the water by the persistent wind. I’m guessing the gusts were up to 20 miles per hour. (I’d said 30mph at the time, but I just checked the Beaufort Wind Scale and had to revise my estimate downward, even though 30 makes a better story.) 

My hammock was tied beneath some pine trees, and in the early morning light I heard and felt a series of pine cones dropping loudly onto the tarp stretched above my head. I thought perhaps the wind was the cause, but I hadn’t heard any cones falling in the night. I wondered if it might be a squirrel, since I’d seen numerous red squirrels in other campsites, and I knew they ate the seeds inside the cones. But why so many falling? Are the squirrels so clumsy they can’t cut one off and eat it without dropping it? Finally, I convinced myself it must be Dave O playing tricks or checking to see if I was awake yet. I got out of my cozy nest, put my shoes on, and had a look around. Nothing. Everyone else appeared to be sleeping, and I couldn’t detect any squirrels overhead. So I climbed back inside, since it was much warmer in my hammock than facing the wind. A little while later, Dave O did show up, but when I shared with him my pinecone puzzlement, he assured me that this wasn’t a morning for playing tricks. We had some serious considerations before us. Later I realized that the squirrels cut a bunch of cones and drop them; then they come to the ground to eat them. 

Despite the sogginess of our firewood, we succeeded in starting a fire and cooking breakfast. Nothing too fancy this time, but we did have summer sausage(!) and something hot to drink. We also discussed whether it was wise to continue on our intended route, since we were four days from cell phone service if we pushed ahead as planned, and only two days away if we decided to turn back and retrace our route thus far. We had several concerns. The weather was primary, since all we knew was the forecast from before we left called for snow flurries by the end of the week. We also were not quite at the mid-point of our original plan, beyond which was going to be new and unfamiliar territory to us all. Dave P had not been on the final half of this particular route before, or not for many years at any rate. We were uncertain about rain, not that getting wet is terrible in itself, but soaking wet, in strong wind and lowering temperatures is something to be avoided if possible. It was 42 degrees at that point. Also, even though Craig’s back was still doing okay, with the help of pain meds, we weren’t sure he was out of the woods yet either. All told, we decided the prudent thing to do was head back the way we’d come, through familiar territory. We’d be in cell phone range in plenty of time to call Gene and cancel our original pick-up plan, and we could take our time on the way back as long as the weather was good. 

It was a good decision, though not without difficulties. The first leg of our journey back still had us dealing with strong wind and waves. I decided to tie our packs into the canoe, as a precaution in case of ... well, I really didn’t want to think too much about that. But we bested the wind and waves, and when we made the turn from the wide open water into the narrow channel of Basswood River, we could relax a bit. This was Wednesday, our fourth day of traveling, and we covered all the distance we’d made the previous day and then some, camping in a sheltered cove on the western side of Basswood River. We had a loon and an eagle to keep us company. We also had a zillion tiny critters in each pot full of water we collected for our cooking. I hadn’t brought anything with sufficient magnification, but I’d feel confident enough to identify them as some species of micro-crustacean: daphnia, copepods, fairy shrimp, or something similar. Nothing to worry about health-wise, but the water was teeming with life! And there was evening, and there was morning: the fourth day. 

The fifth day was still windy, but we were spared any rain, and the temperature stayed in the forties and fifties. This was our repeat of the four-portage day, but we had the advantage of knowing we could handle it. We took a couple of alternate routes, which just made the portages different, but not really any easier. And on our fifth night we made camp on Guppy Island in the northern part of Basswood Lake. I don’t know if it actually has a name, but it looked sort of fish-shaped on the map, and that’s what Dave O started calling it, and it just stuck. Once again, we were spared the rain, which was threatening as we arrived but held off long enough for us to get our shelters set. Then at supper time, it let up and we had another feast. What exactly? I’m not sure, but you can bet it included ... summer sausage!

From this point we had two days left to cover the distance we’d covered in our first day. We debated, briefly, whether to end a day early or stay through Saturday as planned. We decided to keep the early-ending option in case of nasty weather, but otherwise we agreed we were having too much fun to cut it short. We planned a side trip for fishing the next day and a short finish on Saturday. Our final camp actually had a pebbly beach, one of very few that I saw. However, the fire ring and tent sites were higher up on a fairly steep bank. Nathan and I hung our hammocks at the edge of a drop-off, reminding ourselves that one miss-step during any night-time excursions would be an unwelcome wake-up call. 

This campsite, more than any other, was overrun with chipmunks. They scurried everywhere and didn’t seem to be afraid of the hulking creatures that had invaded their territory. Nathan sat for a while feeding bits of tortilla to one; I set out peanuts and raisins by the hole of another. I know you’re not supposed to feed wildlife, but at least they weren’t bears. We wondered if the chipmunks would be bold enough to get into the food pack, but remembering that they are daytime creatures, we didn’t concern ourselves with food security. We’d long since stopped hanging the pack at night. It just didn’t seem necessary. Large critters didn’t seem to be around. No bears; no moose. Craig and I had heard wolves one night, but they were far away. (We decided we’d say they were wolves, because it sounds better than saying we heard coyotes. Anyway, they were howling and not yipping, so I’m satisfied we’re probably not lying.) I also saw some large doggish tracks in the mud at a couple of portages, but again, I’m not qualified to say for sure they were wolves. 

So nothing came out of the woods to eat us or our food. In fact, we had a good bit left over at the end. And we’d definitely eaten well throughout our journey. One night we had brownies, baked in Dave P’s light-weight campfire oven made from an angel food cake pan, a jello mold, and a flat cake pan. You’d have to see a diagram to get the picture; I’m not even going to try. But it worked! On the last morning we had biscuits and gravy, with biscuits baked in a cast iron skillet on top of the fire grate. In the end we had to split them in half to get the insides done, so they ended up sort of like English muffins, but they tasted great. And after we’d eaten our fill, we tossed the remainders into the woods for the chipmunks, or the bears, or the wolves. 

Our last day still had two portages, but they were short. The wind still challenged us until the very end, but the clouds had lifted. So we started in sunny weather and ended the same. A little cooler on this last day (I wouldn’t have wanted to go for a swim), but we had no sign of the snow flurries predicted a week before. Gene met us at the take-out point and we all got back to Pack Sack and showers. It was nice to remember that water is good for cleaning as well as for traveling, and that it comes in both hot and cold. Then we drove into town and treated ourselves to dinner at the Grand Ely Lodge. I believe I had a salad, one of those with all sorts of things cut up in it. And I’m pretty sure I asked them to skip the summer sausage.

We spent another night in the bunk house, and then we rose early the next morning, loaded the last of our stuff in the van, and headed back for civilization. It took eleven hours of highway-speed traveling, which is an adjustment from paddling three miles per hour, to get back to South Bend, where we unloaded, said good-bye to Dave P and Nathan, then headed for Craig’s house and one more night before Dave O’s and my final journey back to North Carolina. 

So, what do I think about all of this? Mainly, it was a wonderful experience, shared among five men of faith, in a pristine wilderness setting, an opportunity to get away from the day-to-day busy-ness of our civilized lives, and deal with life on more basic terms. A chance to be reminded of the completeness of creation on its own, with minimal modification from humans. Well, we did have the fire grates and little numbered potty seats at each campsite, but I’m not that much of a purist. We enjoyed conversations, around the campfire and on the water, that moved beyond the normal guy topics of weather, or sports, or daily news. We considered questions, from scripture and from life, that have a little more to chew on than typical guy-talk. The multiple uses for summer sausage, for example. But seriously, in particular, I am especially glad that I was offered this opportunity, and that I actually did it, that I was able to do it, physically speaking. In fact, by the time I’d gotten back home, I was starting to feel a little cocky, looking forward to telling my doctor, “Hey, you don’t need to worry about my blood pressure or my heart. Look what I just did! And I’m 64!” 

But life is not without its little ironies and comeuppances. On the morning after my return, I happened to run into a friend who was half-way through her morning jog. She stopped for a minute and asked me how my trip had gone, and I gave her my now-stock answer: It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That is, I‘m feeling pretty proud of myself for having completed the trip with all its arduous demands, but it took about all I had just to do it, so I don’t think I’ll be going back again. She said, “I know what you mean. I was on the Boundary Waters one time. Carrying those big aluminum canoes all by yourself is a little tough till you get the hang of it.” I asked her how long ago that was, and she said, “Let’s see, it was a girls’ summer camp, between my eighth and ninth grade year, so I guess I was 14.” 

Hey, doc. Don’t worry about me. I’m still as strong as a 14-year old girl! 

2013 vacation By Jim Roberts

Just returned home on 8/3/13 after another 8 day stay in the lovely Ely area. Our family has vacationed in Ely since 1990 when my youngest Brother purchased a home on Burntside Lake.Our children and now our grand children try to join in every year. Enjoyed BlueBerry fest again and the peace and tranquility of the Area. Town continues to be welcomming and we'll be back again next year! Thanks to All for keeping the Area so comfortable!

Past & Present! By Christina Elg

I visited Ely back in 1973. I was on a trip with one of our high school Nuns/teacher.  There were three of us plus two inner city at risk kids.  The trip had it's ups and downs, mostly ups, but what I remember most is the prisine beauty of the area.  My husband and I visited with our childern again sometime around 1992 and it was pretty as ever.  We are headed back this July with our grandchildren and my husband's brothers and sisters.  The only pictures I have from the past are in my head...this time I hope to take many many pictures of the surrounding beauty!

Garden Lake Resort By Elaine Novak

A friend and I went to Ely from a trip up the North Shore to visit the Bear Center. We stopped at the tourist center to find a place to stay. We asked if there was a place on a lake that might take us for one night just to sleep. She called the Garden Lake Resort and asked if they could take us for one night. What a wonderful surprise to us when we drove in to the resort. It was a spotlessly clean and beautiful cabin we stayed in. The owners were wonderful and it was hard for us to leave in the morning. We did get to visit the Bear Center and also the Wolf Center. There is so much more to see in the area that I know we will be back in the spring. We will also stay more than one night and enjoy the wonderful resort a little more. A big thank you to the owners of the resort and the information center for telling us about a place that we would not have found on our own.

Boundary Water Fishing 2012 By Grady

Our annual Minnesota fishing trip led us to teh boundary waters this year. We stayed at Latourell's and had a great time. The fishing was awesome and the staff was great. We rebooked for next year as soon as we left.

Blue Heron Exceeds All Expectations By Wendy Sperberg

On many vacations, the reality cannot live up to the exectations.  Not so with our stay at Blue Heron B & B.  Every detail in the virtual tour was exactly as pictured.  To be able to walk down the path to our awaiting canoe and enter the BWCA with all its splendor was a daily treat.  The hosts and staff are the friendliest, most helpful folks you will find.  And to top it off, we even got to see the Northern Lights from our campfire.  Could not edit the vacation to make one single detail more perfect.

Our Family's 4th of July Vacation By

Our family had the pleasure of spending our Fourth of July vacation in Ely.  As life-long residents of Minnesota, we had never been to this small Northern Minnesota town and were looking for a new area to explore with our 3 boys.  We decided to stay at the Grand Ely Lodge where we were able to canoe, kayak, fish, play lawn games and relax.  Directly across from the Lodge was Miner's Lake with a 4 mile trail around it.  This was a perfect length for our family to ride bike around.  On the morning of Independence Day, we took a Van Air floatplane ride given by Captain Bud.  We loaded our crew right from our dock at the lodge and reveled in the scenic beauty of the Boundary Waters.  Later that afternoon we watched the parade and in the evening took in the fireworks over Miner's Lake.  One day we visited Lucky, Honey, and Ted at the North American Bear Center.  It was fun to watch them on the outdoor viewing deck eating grapes and apples.  Our boys enjoy geocaching, so one afternoon we went to Bear Head Lake State Park to explore.  As hiking is also a favorite of ours, we hiked the relatively short Kawishiwi Falls trail to view the waterfall.  Of course, it's rare to have a vacation without at least one rainy day, but we were able to stay active by browsing some of the shops in Ely.  Then we enjoyed lattes and hot chocolate at the Front Porch Coffee and Tea Company before visiting the Dorothy Molter Museum.  Although we spent 5 days in Ely, I think we could have spent 5 more.  There is more to see and do.  In addition, one of my favorite things to do was relaxing!  Every day I had the opportunity to sit in a lawn chair and read a book or just enjoy the beautiful views this area has to offer.  As Captain Bud told our family when we departed our floatplane ride... "Each day is a gift and we decide how to open it up"

PlaneView from planebear

The Kawishiwi loop, July 2012 By Ross F. Collins

This is a great introduction to the classic Boundary Waters experience! Not so hard, but not so easy either!

Boundary Waters

I Visit Every Summer! By Jasmine Dudzik

My very favorite place to visit in Ely is the North American Bear Center! I can watch the resident bears (Ted, Honey and Lucky) all day long!  I love the restaurants in Ely, and have stayed at several cool hotels. I have been visiting every summer for three years in a row, and plan to keep coming back. I love the solitude of the woods and the lovely lakes.


A Great Week In Ely! By Brian Novak

We pace ourselves and had a full week of fun. My wife is not much of a fisher person but she agreed to go for 4 hours with a guide. She caught fish and had a great time.The highlight of my week was catching the biggest walleye of my life. We had a great time and will be back.


Making Focaccia in the Woods By Sharee Johnson

Earlier this spring we took a short weekend trip into the BWCA to do a little fishing and a little relaxing. I love to cook and figuring out ways to be gourmet in the woods is fun! For this trip I brought along fresh focaccia fixings with olive oil, rosemary, and garlic. We like to bring a little luxury along when we go camping. One of my favorite luxury items is a little, portable table. I bring along a cutting board and one of my good knives. Garlic is one of the easiest and lightest things you can pack for adding flavor to your trip.

While we were out fishing, a loon came pretty close to the boat. I got the camera ready and was just amazed that the loon opened its wings right when I was ready with the camera. That never happens!

We ended our day with a cozy warm fire looking out over the lake. Heaven.

I live here and write a blog “Musings from the Northwoods”. You might like to check out more stories of our adventures in the woods and find yummy recipes, too!

Making Focaccia in the WoodsBirdSunset

Motherly reflections of a day in the BWCA By Cheri Beatty

As I walked along a Boundary Waters shoreline with my daughters, I noticed that they watched and followed each step I took. I purposely planned smaller steps and tried to plant my feet on solid surfaces. At times, the girls would veer off and try their own routes, sometimes they would do fine and other times they would slip and reach out for me. That walk seems to be the mirror of motherhood. It’s important to be vigilant of each step we take since it would be so easy to guide little feet off course. Pointing out the riskier paths while holding out a hand for support may be the best thing a mother can do… knowing that one day, they will leap into the world and blaze a trail of their own.

Gils walking along water