For the past 10 years or so Betsy and I have travelled with some good friends on various paddling trips. Photographs from many, if not all, of those trips have been chronicled in this blog. We’ve been to Umbagog in New Hampshire (at least twice), Aziscohos on the border with Maine, the Connecticut Lakes, and a few places in the Adirondacks, Rangley in Maine.
Throughout that time we’ve talked about paddling the Boundary Waters in Minnesota – a federally regulated wilderness area on the border with Canada. After too many years of hemming and hawing, we pulled the trigger and decided that this would be the year. This is a short summary of our travels: 9 states, 2 countries, 3200+ miles driving, 30+ miles of paddling and portages, and an accumulation of stories that will be annoying our friends and family for years to come…
Before we start, this was a paddling trip – not a photography trip. I hoped it would be a source of great photographs and brought along some equipment to try to capture a bit of our experience – but photography took a second seat to the bigger challenge of the trip itself. I hope you enjoy the story and the few images I captured along the way… (Note: you can click on just about all of the images to see larger versions of them, if your screen permits.)
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a 1-million acre wilderness area west of Lake Superior on the border between Minnesota and Canada (the Canadian side is part of the Quetico Provincial Park). The U.S. side is managed by the Forest Service who controls the number of people who are in it at any one time (you have to get a permit to enter). For the most part, no motorized boats are allowed within the BWCA and you can pretty much only access it via canoe/kayak.
Here’s a map of our trip which covered 8 of literally 1,000+ lakes that are part of the BWCA (click to embiggen):
Day 1: Orange, Day 2: Purple, Day3: Green, Day 4: Red, Day 5: Peach
Betsy and I decided to drive while our paddling partners opted to fly in to Minneapolis and drive up from there (still a several hour drive!). For a variety of reasons our trip out west was a basic “hop on route 90 and hang a right in Wisconsin” kind of trip. We opted for different route on the way home. Our traveling by car made it possible to the flyers in the group to travel light – we carried their PFDs and other sundry stuff.
Our 1,600 mile trip was divided into 3 days: 400 miles to Rochester, NY, 800 miles to Tomah, WI, and then 400 miles to Grand Marais, MN and then down the Gunflint Trail. We arrived at the Clearwater Outfitters lodge in the early evening and headed to bed in the bunkhouse.
August 25th we began our adventure with breakfast at the lodge followed by a bit of orientation and walkthrough of the gear. We were going out in 3 canoes: 2 tandems and 1 solo. (It should be noted that while 2 of our group are very experience canoe paddlers, 3 of us, myself included, are kayakers and minus a few hours of test runs earlier in the summer, this was our first trip of any kind in a canoe. I had brought my kayak paddle – a very wise choice.)
Around 11am we were on Gunflint Lake heading east, with 3 canoes loaded with food and shelter for 5 days, sunny skies, and west-to-east winds predicted for the entire trip.
I, personally, was having an absolute horrible time. It took me about an hour to understand how to control the canoe – which would pretty much spin any time a tailwind touched it. After a while I worked out some strategies that made it tolerable, but I was sorely missing my kayak for this entire trip.
We stopped for a quick lunch break at a campsite around 2pm.
Discussions afterwards said that we should have stayed put there, but we pushed on. This turned out to be a less than ideal decision. The winds had been slowly but steadily picking up and we had reached the east end of the lake – Betsy noted the whitecaps shortly after we pushed off. We made our way to a bay and decided, since we were nearly done with this lake to head for the corner and the next lake (Little Gunflint) which would be much calmer. The winds and waves turned nasty and we ended up getting split up. I made it further along the coast, but (despite a stream of obscenities) I was unable to turn the canoe into the wind and ended up getting slammed into the rocky shoreline. I climbed out of the boat and dragged it about 30-50 yards to the point, got around the point and pulled it into a (slightly) calmer section – still getting whacked by waves. I proceeded to start bailing out the swamped canoe with a water bottle (occasionally set back by a wave), occasionally pulling it higher as I managed to empty more of the water out of it. Somewhere in that process I banged my arm pretty badly, but otherwise I was unhurt.
A few hundreds yards away, unknown to me, the other two canoes had given up trying to make the turn and beached themselves in a cove. We spent the next 4 hours not knowing the fate of each other, unsuccessfully tried to bushwhack our way on land, and then basically sat and waited for the winds to die down a bit.
After the adreneline stopped flowing and I realized there was little I could do until near sunset, when the winds should start to calm down a bit, I pulled out my camera and tried to take a few photographs. Even though it was trying to injure me, it was pretty in its own way… (next 3 photos with the Fuji X-T1)
Around 6:30pm, about 30 minutes before I was going to head out and either try to make my way to the cove where I assumed they had taken shelter, or head for a real campsite and hope to spot them, Betsy and Donna came around the corner – followed shortly by Pat & Paula. Relieved to see they were OK (and they me) I yelled that I would follow them and proceeded to get back on the lake and start cussing at my boat. We worked our way first to an island and then headed for the corner of Gunflint where the inlet to Little Gun would be.
There are no signposts here. It’s starting to get dark, the waves and wind are still nothing to be trifled with, we’re all tired, a bit scared, on an unfamiliar lake, and the inlet to the next lake isn’t exactly obvious. Just then a motor boat comes out of nowhere and Pat has a quick “chat” that determines he just came from Little Gunflint and he points to the inlet. We scramble there and have a much saner time working our way to a campsite that is right next to the portage we will have to cross in the morning. (The “plan” had called for us to do this portage on the first day but it didn’t account for a quarter of the day taking an impromptu survival course.) We set up camp around 9pm and had dinner around 10pm.
Glad that we managed to make it through our first day unscathed, but a bit annoyed that we put ourselves into this situation, we called it a day. Later we would learn that the winds were quite a bit higher than expected and several other groups traversing Gunflint Lake were pinned down on shore for a couple of days. While several more physical tests lie ahead, we were happy to get this first day behind us and looked forward to calmer waters.
If you have any interest in the technical aspects of photography in the wilderness, I wrote an article in my company’s blog about this trip from that perspective.