Canoe Country Do’s and Don’ts

Tips for getting the most out of your next trip to the Boundary Waters and Quetico

Photo by Katie McKy.
Photo by Katie McKy.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northern Minnesota and the adjoining Quetico Provincial Park in northwestern Ontario, aka Canoe Country, can be heavenly, with water so clear and clean some still drink it straight from the lakes. You'll glide beneath fragrant pines scrutinized by eagles' eyes. It's where plucky smallmouth rise to sup fallen mayflies from glassy water and where you pluck a few walleye or trout to go golden in your frying pan. It's where, in the loaming, you'll hear the crack of a beaver tail slapping the water and where loons yodel you to sleep.

Conversely, it can be less than heavenly, where beery, cheery, bumbling, bungling paddlers, lugging lawn chairs, coolers, and even suitcases, clog portage trails. It can also be where you paddle into the night, desperately seeking a campsite and where inhaled mosquitoes are unwelcome protein supplements.

So, what are the do's and don'ts if you're seeking solitude and pristine, pleasant paddling? Consider the shoulder seasons, which are April-May and September-October, the months before and after bugs and paddlers swarm. Plus, the longer and more demanding the portage, the fewer folks you'll find at the other end.

Equipment wise, good, ankle-supporting footwear designed to dry quickly is a must, as the BWCAW and Quetico are both Canadian Shield, which means granite scrubbed by glaciers of all cushioning dirt. Quick drying shirts and pants will mean less time being damp and less chance of getting hypothermia. A hat is nearly as essential and your shoulders will appreciate a light Kevlar canoe.

We caught up with two paddlers who've gone down thousands of portage trails before you, who've made the mistakes you might be about to make and have learned a thing or two about the do's and don'ts of Canoe Country.

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Photo by Katie McKy.

Steve Freeman, a vendor resource manager for a large national furniture retailer, lives a scant four hours from the BWCAW, which partially explains his hundred or so forays into Canoe Country, including BWCAW, Quetico, and Woodland Caribou Provincial Park. He began in a 17-foot Old Town Penobscot and now paddles a Bell Northwind.

Here's his do: "Do buy a good tarp: it can make a dry place to stop for lunch no matter the weather, it keeps your gear dry, it can be used as a windbreak, plus it can save you if your tent leaks. My tarp is always at the top of my pack next to my rain gear and almost always the first thing put out when I reach camp for the day. Only if it's a bright blue sky, can it wait a few minutes to be put up. And invest in good rain gear (jacket and pants)."

And his don'ts: "Don't try to keep your feet dry at portage landings. Plan on getting your feet wet and have extra socks and dry footwear for camp in your pack. Avoid trying to overdo it for the first trip or two. Choose a route that gives you options and don't try to go 20 miles each day. Relax and enjoy the journey. There will be more trips in the future."

Then there's Pete Swiggum, a National Sales Manager for Frontline Building Products, Inc. in Green Bay, WI. Swiggum has been heading north since 1986 and paddles a 50-pound Mad River Lamoille 184.

Swiggum’s do, "Always have a cheerful disposition, especially if it's cold, rainy, windy, the fishing is bad, etc. Complaining accomplishes nothing but to drag down everyone else's attitude. Laugh, tell a joke, make a pot of coffee, do anything positive because, at the end of your complaining, you're still in the same spot with the same conditions but now everyone else is cranky too. Make the best of your trip regardless and smile."

Boundary Waters Wilderness Year, Freeman
Photo by Dave Freeman

Swiggum echoes Nike’s ‘just do it’ motto in his second do: "Just go! Take the advice you learned, put the canoe in the water, and go. Do the best you can with regards to your gear, but don't expect your trip to go perfectly. If canoe tripping turns out to be a one-time thing – no big deal. If canoe tripping becomes part of what you love to do, you'll slowly, over time, upgrade your gear. There are also several dozen outfitters where you can rent canoes and good gear as well as get trip planning and fishing advice. There is no one right way to take a canoe trip. Figure out what works for you and keep doing it."

Swiggum urges you to listen to those passionate about paddling. "Become a sponge. The most active forum on the internet related to canoeing the Boundary Waters, as well as Quetico, Woodland Caribou, and Wabikimi Provincial Parks, is www.BWCA.com. Post your questions in the multitude of forums and any number of the hundreds of veteran paddlers will offer useful advice. What to bring, places to go, menu planning, fishing advice… it's all there."

And the don'ts?

"Avoid taking undue risks. Emergency help isn't just a few minutes away like it is at home. Wear your life jacket and don't run rapids in your canoe. Also, don't run on portages. Always be able to see your feet when you’re stepping, so only carry packs on your back, not on your chest. Don’t bring an axe, bring a saw instead. Accidents can happen, but you can lower the risk of injury significantly simply by thinking ahead and erring on the side of caution."

As Nike and Swiggum say, the biggest do is just doing it.

More from C&K

Destination: Boundary Waters/Quetico, Minnesota and Ontario

Updates Dave and Amy Freeman’s Year in the Boundary Waters Wilderness