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Canoe Country Shoulder-season Tips

Dispatch No. 2 from the Freemans' year in our nation's most popular wilderness area

Photos by Dave Freeman

Dave and I have just passed the one-month mark for our Year in the Wilderness. Now that we are well into October in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, we’ve felt the chill of frost at night and have noted the seemingly rapid loss of daylight. The thing is, there is still some great paddling to be had in the fall. With the appropriate gear and mindset, an experienced paddler can comfortably witness the glory of nature in the shoulder seasons.

Dave and I are no strangers to shoulder-season travel. Our first experience involved kayaking around Lake Superior in September and October of 2006. We’ve also canoed through the end of September on the Mackenzie River and then during Paddle to D.C., we were on the water through December 2 as we worked our way from the BWCAW to Washington D.C. I’ll share some of the tricks we’ve learned over the years and the gear we use in case you’ve been pondering getting out on the water in the shoulder season yourself.

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Heated tent

It is so worth it to use a tent with a wood stove when the temps dip below freezing at night. Granted, you have to keep in mind where you’re traveling and if gathering firewood is allowed and practical. We have used a two-person canvas tent for years, along with a collapsible wood stove. Yes, we were even able to pack these in our kayaks. What we’re using now is a tipi-style tent by SeekOutside along with their collapsible wood stove. This is the lightest winter tent setup we’ve come up with yet. Our eight-man tipi only weights 15 pounds including the stove. It will easily sleep four people with a lot of gear.

Additional gear items to keep in mind are tools for processing firewood–a folding saw is a must and even a hatchet or axe make life much easier. We heat the tent in the evening and dry out our gear, but we let the fire go out overnight. This means that a sleeping pad with a decent R value and warm sleeping bag are musts.

(Check out C&K’s latest sleeping pad, and sleeping bag reviews)

Drysuit

This, in our minds, is a must when it comes to shoulder season safety. Any time the temperatures are such that a capsize would mean a quick onset of hypothermia, we don the drysuits.

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Hands and feet

I have poor circulation and have spent years trying to find the appropriate hand and footwear for chilly, rainy October and November days. Here is what I’ve found out: Mittens are warmer than gloves, and insulated pogies are awesome. When canoeing, I’ll usually wear neoprene mittens with fleece gloves inside. If the likelihood of precipitation is slim, I’ve even been known to wear my winter mittens– basically a Gore-Tex over-mitt with some sort of insulated mitten inside. Thick neoprene pogies have been the best solution I’ve found for shoulder season kayaking.

For footwear, there are many options and what works for canoeing might not necessarily fit in your kayak. My trick here is to get boots or booties a size or two too big so that I can wear extra wool socks inside without constriction. Also, you want your drysuit to have built in Gore-Tex socks. Keeping those tootsies dry is key!

One last thought when it comes to keeping your appendages warm … wear a hat! Preventing heat from escaping from your head will help keep your whole body warm. Along the same lines is a rather obvious, but often forgotten piece of advice I learned from polar explorer Will Steger–you need to keep the pathways for bloodflow warm. In other words, wearing super-insulated boots and beefy warm socks will not help your feet warm if you haven’t adequately insulated your legs too. So, yes, wearing long underwear or even polar-fleece pants plays a role in keeping your feet warm. The same concept applies to your hands.

Calorie intake

You’ll want to pack more food for a cold weather trip than you would for a summer trip. Calorie-dense, high-fat foods are good, like nuts, butter and oils. You can sneak these things into your meals pretty easily by adding spoonfuls here and there. For example, my morning coffee lately contains a spoonful of coconut oil.

We use a bulk method for food packing, so we pay attention to the number of pounds per person per day. A summer trip might be 1.25 per person per day. Now we’re averaging 1.5 pounds per person per day and will soon ramp that up to 1.75. This winter we’re planning on 2-2.25.

Water treatment

This, of course, depends on where you’re traveling. If only everyone could paddle on water that is clean enough to drink straight out of the lake, which we tend to do in the BWCAW. Everyone has their personal favorite form of water treatment, whether it is filtration, chemical treatment or UV treatment. If we take water near shore, in smaller gunky ponds, or in streams with current, we’ll use a LifeStraw Mission filter. The thing is, if you’re using a filter, you can’t let it freeze at night. That may mean sleeping with it in your sleeping bag. If you’re into UV treatment, keep in mind that battery function decreases in the cold, so you may want to warm up those batteries before use. If you’re into chemical treatment, check the instructions on the package, because it often takes longer to work with cold or cloudy water. Here’s one last thought for you … old fashioned boiling. This is no problem if you are using a wood stove in your tent and have an abundance of fuel. In our winter travels we typically boil water and pack our water bottles in insulated cozies so they don’t freeze. It can also be a nice treat to fill up a thermos with hot water for lunchtime cocoa or soup.

Check the weather report

While we have experienced numerous flat, calm and sunny conditions in our fall travels, there can be some nasty fall and spring storms. Your margin for error shrinks the colder the air and water temps get. Paddle within your skill level and make conservative decisions when it comes to heading out in wind and waves.

I hope some of this advice helps you get out there to enjoy some of the great paddling that is to be had in the shoulder seasons. You’d be surprised by the number of gorgeous days you’ll experience. The added bonus is that you’ll probably have the waterway to yourself, because all those fair-weather paddlers stayed home!


— Dave and Amy Freeman will be sending in regular Dispatches from their #WildernessYear. (Check out Dispatch No. 1, ‘Why the Boundary Waters Matter.’).

— Learn more about the mining threat at SavetheBoundaryWaters.org, and check out the Freeman’s educational info at WildernessClassroom.com, or follow them #SavetheBWCA and #WildernessYear.

— Check out the Freemans’ Paddle to D.C. awareness-raising journey.