For those of you who don’t know, as I didn’t before moving to Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) is a massive stretch of protected land that runs from Lake Superior at the Canadian border down though the Northern part of Minnesota. There are no roads or motorized vehicles, and access is limited by permits to keep the number of travelers low. The only way to get around is to pack in everything you’ll need and canoe through the hundreds of pristine lakes.
I was lucky enough to get invited by my friend Keith to join his friends Blake and Nick on a BWCA trip last weekend. Basically they were in desperate need of a fourth to even out the canoes. We drove up to Ely on Friday night, discovered a fantastic brewpub called the Boathouse where we learned valuable lessons from the locals (“the fish bite 22 feet below the surface”), tipped more than 20%, and were so appreciated for good tipping that we received 4 poker chips worth a free beer each, which we redeemed on the way out. We spent the evening in the Voyageur Outfitter’s bunkhouse, i.e. four guys in a tiny room with two bunk beds and Keith’s rancid gas.
On Saturday morning, we set out for the BWCA. We rose at 5am, packed our final supplies, loaded up the car and drove 20 miles to our entry point.
The forecast called for snow and rain all Saturday morning, but to our luck there was no precipitation. It was about 25 degrees and dark, but we were well prepared for the cold with long underwear, warm synthetic pants, fleece, down, hats, gloves, and a second set of everything. Blake proved to be an excellent leader and had given us detailed packing lists, so we were ample prepared and used everything we brought.
After a dark, miserable mile-plus portage with a 40 pound Duluth pack on my back and the canoe on my shoulders, we arrived at our put-in point off of entry 33 on Little Gabbro Lake. We were well rewarded with one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen - an undisturbed lake with mist rising off of the waters.
Now it was time to canoe. We set off, and traveled from Little Gabbro lake to Gabbro Lake to Bald Eagle lake over the next few hours (we figure 10+ miles). We had a navigation map with markings where we were allowed to camp, so we checked out a few sites before landing on the perfect one on Bald Eagle Lake. It’s one of the red dots on the SW inlet on Bald Eagle (the big one in the center of the map).
This shot above is our view from the site. At this point we took the time to set up camp: unpacked our bags, assembled tents, organized the cookware while also cooking breakfast, hung the food out of reach of the bears, and then set out in the canoes again to forage firewood with our hatchets (note to self: pack a saw next time).
The bad weather was on it’s way in, so with camp all set up we had no option than to head back out in the canoes and brave the storm. We had both rain, sleet and snow so after a few hours of exploring we headed back into camp to re-arrange the tarps, start a fire to warm-up/dry off, and headed straight into happy hour.
The sleet let up shortly after we got back to camp, and we were lucky to get an epic harvest moon rise and a clear night with stars.
The next morning after breakfast we packed up camp and canoed back out the way we had come, making better time since we didn’t get lost as much and even explored a cave. As we crossed from Gabbro to Little Gabbro through some rapidly-moving water, Keith and I noticed that Nick and Blake had slowed their canoe down and were inching towards the shore. There on the shore was a huge mother moose and her child. Awesome. We later learned that the Minnesota moose population is quickly declining due to an unknown parasite, so this siting was particularly rare.
All around an epic trip to the BWCA, and Nick embodies here.
We’ll be back next year, maybe a little earlier when it’s, you know, not 25 degrees out the whole time. But still well worth it.