The Boundary Waters

The BWCAW is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1,000,000+ acre network of rivers, lakes and wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. Our week on the water, paddling just a small piece of it, started as an idea over a year ago when we began planning this adventure. Since our arrival in the states, the canoeing expedition has been the hard date driving much of our schedule. I have always wanted to explore this area of the country and this seemed like the perfect time. We scheduled the put-in date and guide service back in January with an eye toward avoiding mosquitoes and crowds while still catching nice weather.

Day 0 – 1: Jason, our guide and owner of the Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service, met us on Friday to go over our route, our packing lists, and the BW regulations. Saturday morning we had a quick breakfast, left the bus at Jason’s shop and loaded our packs into the canoe trailer for an hour-long drive to the Moose River entry point. First canoeing task? The 160-rod portage to the Moose River.  For the unacquainted, a portage is an overland path connecting two bodies of water, and a rod is a unit of measure dating back to the French-Canadian voyageurs, about 16.5 feet or 5 meters. Our stuff? Two 19-foot Kevlar canoes, eight packs (personal packs for 6 people, plus food and supplies for a week), paddles, PFDs, and leeches. (Can’t forget the live bait!) At a half mile, our first portage was our longest and we quickly adjusted our thinking based on that trek. “Today’s longest portage is only 80 rods? Not bad!”

Less than an hour on the water, rounding the bend to the very first portage (not counting the entry point!), we came across a cow moose and calf in the river – an amazing way to start the day. We crossed a couple of beaver dams, ate lunch on a rocky bluff overlooking the winding river, and camped on a beautiful little point jutting out of the northern shore of Nina Moose Lake. After we set up camp, we put some hooks in the water just for fun. I caught a small walleye that was promptly filleted, fried, and added to dinner. Awesome! Tents up, campfire crackling, stars like you wouldn’t believe, and we called it a night.

Day 2: Up not too early, coffee was already pressed, and we broke camp. It was a long day of paddling and portaging north before we pulled up at our campsite on Lac La Croix. Jason directed us to a perfect campsite, one the Voyageurs must have also loved – a sandy cove on the north side of the point, a granite gravel cove on the south side, trees leading up to a small cliff face to our west, and smooth rocks to fish from jutting out into the lake to the east. The fire grate, logs to sit on, a makeshift table made from a slab of found granite, and level tent sites were the icing on the cake. Jason cooked hotdish for dinner (that’s Minnesotan for a casserole — Nudelauflauf for our German friends!). Later, s’mores and jokes around the fire, then off to bed.

Day 3: So, t-shirt weather is behind us. We were expecting the weather to turn cold on day three. It didn’t get as cold as expected but we definitely had a drop in temperature. We had a hard time convincing Bridger to come out of his sleeping bag. Good thing we packed layers — and plenty of hot chocolate!

One thing we were really looking forward to on this trip was fishing, especially for northern pike. I remember catching a lot of walleye and a few northerns in Canada when I was a kid and was hoping for a repeat with my dad and boys. After breakfast and some map recon, we set out with Jason leading the way for a long paddle and short portage to Kelsey Lake, which he assured us was prime territory for landing nice northern pikes. It was a lot cooler, with a stiff breeze, but on the smaller lake we were able to find calmer waters near the shore. Within an hour we had a full stringer with four northerns (score card: my dad x 2, Carson x 1, Bridger x 1), each about 24 inches long. We took pictures, had lunch, and set out for the portage site to head back to camp. I grabbed the pole with the lucky lure while we waited for the other boat to get unloaded and on about my third cast pulled in my own 18+ inch northern. Sweet! We already had almost too much to eat, so I let him go. Of course we had fish for dinner — delicious!

Day 4:  Another fishing day, this time for smallmouth bass. We paddled north in the sunshine to Fish Stake Narrows, then drifted with the wind back to the south, stopping for lunch on another beautiful grassy campsite. To get some idea of the atmosphere, picture your favorite park or bit of woodland, then remove all of the trash, crowds, noise, and pollution. No motorized boats are allowed on the US side of the park; the three times a motorboat passed by on the other side of the border it seemed shocking. The fish avoided us like crazy all morning, then hit hard in the afternoon. Three times we had two or more bass hooked on different lines, each one fighting and splashing. Ayrril landed the biggest one, roughly 16 inches long and about 5 pounds. Carson might have challenged for the title but he had two big fish get away – one in the water and one that got away from me as I was handing him over to Jason for the stringer. D’oh! Ayrril named her lunker “Fish Tacos” and that’s what we had for dinner.

On our way back to the campsite we paddled over to the pictograph cliffs we could see from our campsite. These are aboriginal rock paintings held sacred by the Chippewa of Lac La Croix. It was pretty impressive to paddle up to this massive cliff face and imagine how they were painted there so long ago.

Day 5: We were sad to leave our 5-star campsite on Wednesday but the wind had turned, blowing up Lac La Croix from the south, and we didn’t want to fight back through it all in one long day. Wearing all our layers, we paddled down the lake, hugging the shoreline when possible, then took the Boulder River route for its protection from the wind. Rounding a bend in the river we spotted an enormous beaver lodge near the bank. As we marveled at the size of it, a moose stood up rather gracelessly from the tall grass on the shore behind it, stared at us for a few minutes, then walked off into the woods. We were quicker with our cameras this time! Soon after, we portaged into Lake Agnes, 115 rods. A squall blew up during the portage and we pulled out our rain gear for the first time. We set off across Agnes and that’s where the serious wind picked up! We paddled directly into the waves for what seemed like hours, though in reality it was probably only a little more than one hour. It felt like being on a rowing machine at the gym – all effort but without actual forward progress. We were tired, cold and hungry. It was too cold and windy to enjoy a fire so we set up camp, ate dinner and turned in early.

Day 6: A short paddling day, as we were headed back to Nina Moose Lake for our final night.  We came across a white trumpeter swan, one of less than a dozen in the BWCAW. He let us watch him for quite a while as my dad snapped pictures. We found a campsite that was mostly out of the wind, then Jason loaned the boys his joke book and they entertained us while he made popcorn and pizza for dinner. Yes, pizza. On trail. Happy, happy Carson and Bridger! At our campsite that night we heard a beaver slapping its tail on the lake within 20 yards of our fire, listened to loons calling across the water, and ate our last fresh fish of the trip, a northern pike I caught while paddling around the lake with my dad as the sun went down behind the White Pines.

Day 7: We finally saw the elusive beaver swimming across the bay in the early morning light. His brief appearance was followed by loons, bald eagles, and a number of other birds. Old pros by now, we rolled up tents and sleeping bags, loaded canoe bags and fishing gear, swept the camp for trash and forgotten gear, and paddled away toward the Moose River. I told Carson and Bridger that we were a well-oiled machine – oiled with bacon and trail mix! On the way out we saw a pair of otters playing in the shallows, a spruce grouse roosting on the shore, but no more moose. Then another sunny portage – 160 rods! – and we were Ely bound. Half and hour after arriving back at the shop, a cold hard rain hit. Perfect timing!

A quick word about our guide. Yes, Jason is an amazing guide to the best fishing and camping sites in the Boundary Waters, but he’s also a great camp cook, an excellent storyteller and an endless source of information on the wildlife, history, and lore of the north woods. His love for the Boundary Waters is contagious. He made the trip for us, start to finish. Thanks, Jason, for everything!

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