Friday, August 29, 2014

Mama’s New Addiction - A Boundary Waters Trip Report

At the Horseshoe Lake to Allen Lake portage.
In the past I served as “Director of Outdoor Recreation” for our family. Director, step aside! With his boyhood passion for canoe camping reignited, my husband recently began surprising me by suggesting and orchestrating family canoe trips.

Having just returned from our first ever Boundary Waters Canoe Area adventure, I can say only one thing. The man is brilliant. What a fantastic idea for a family camping trip. Boundary Waters...I’m hooked! We’ve been back only a few days, and already it’s impossible to stop scrolling through trip photos and daydreaming about our next Boundary Waters adventure.

Day 1, august 16, 2014

After weeks of preparation for our first ever Boundary Waters Canoe Area trip, Day 1 finally arrived. On the road by dawn on a foggy Saturday morning, we headed north. Our daughter’s patience and cheerfulness despite the long drive made the ride nice for everyone. Although more smiley and giddy than usual, she insisted she did not look forward to canoeing or camping. She also made it clear she wanted to see a moose, but not a bear or a snake. 

Tettegouche State Park.
When we finally stopped for lunch at Subway in Two Harbors, we realized we would get to the Rockwood Lodge fairly early. Time to lollygag! We selected Tettegouche State Park as our stop. The fog had dissipated earlier in the day, and the rain had also taken a break. Now it was pleasant and sunny. 

The moment my mind turned to hiking trails, I realized that I had forgotten my boots and would either be wearing my office shoes or my camp sandals (which are quite slippery and uncomfortable on portages) all week. Thank goodness my husband packed the Neos he bought me for Mother’s Day. What a relief – and a fantastic Mother’s Day gift as well. The Neos could cover my office shoes on portages. All would be well.

Amber loves the water worn stones of Lake Superior.
We enjoyed hiking around Tettegouche, taking pictures, and dipping our feet into beautiful Lake Superior. My daughter especially loved the lakeshore’s wave-polished stones. She selected them carefully, as if only the prettiest rocks would make proper projectiles. Then she tossed each one into the water, thrilled at their fantastic splashes and ripples.

There were so many interesting and scenic stops along Lake Superior on Hwy 61. I longed explore the waterfalls, light houses, and hiking trails along the way. My husband, who handled the driving and logistics for this trip, wisely pushed on to the Rockwood Lodge. But the seed has been sown, and I Iook forward to exploring the area in the future.

Mike and Lin at the Rockwood are the best!
After checking into the bunkhouse at the Rockwood, we dined at the Trail Center on the Gunflint Trail. Their kids menu clearly states kids may have a sucker if they clean their plates. So, of course, our daughter read it and loudly started asking, “When can I get a sucker?” I told her after she finishes dinner. Then she started in with, “Why is the food taking so long?” 

To distract her we started a game of “I spy” looking at all the interesting antiques and artifacts that decorate the Trail Center. When dinner arrived, she immediately realized she couldn’t eat her large portion of fish. The sucker talk kicked back into overdrive. To my relief, she was distracted from the sucker obsession when she spotted a fox out the window. But then she started thinking about critters.
Dinner at the Trail Center Lodge.

A natural worrier, our daughter had trouble falling asleep back at the bunkhouse. She needed Mom to snuggle in her tiny bunk (not an easy fit). She mistook Mom’s sleeping bag on the next bunk for a dragon. Then she thought Dad’s gear on the bunk above him was a zombie, and if not a zombie then at least an intruder. 

She insisted she was not worried about going into the Boundary Waters, but she did ask a number of questions about bears and snakes. I was not worried about bears and snakes. I was worried about my daughter’s ear issues escalating. Before the trip we had been to the pediatrician 4 times with a stubborn ear infection.

day 2, August 17, 2014

We rose at daybreak to eat the ham and cheese sandwiches I had packed for breakfast. It was tough waking our daughter after her difficulties falling to sleep the night before. Finally, I coaxed her out of the bunkhouse and into the cold, gray morning. The minute she opened the door, a pit bull belonging to the occupant of a neighboring bunkhouse ran at her full speed. Its owner called, but it wouldn’t retreat. We did, back into the bunk house. 

Despite the drama, the owner did not leash his dog. Maybe he simply couldn’t, as it would not come when called. Our child was afraid at the put in as well. The dog kept running at her, causing her to leap into my arms. This left my husband with the job of unloading the car and preparing the canoe with inadequate help from us. Thrilled to finally be getting on the water after all the planning and waiting, he didn’t seem to mind.

Off we go!

We paddled across breezy Poplar Lake into a misty morning. Although it was cold and wet, our daughter was singing, smiling, and asking questions. This showed she was happy and interested in our journey. We were all excited to be on the water.

On the portage between Poplar and Lizz Lakes, we didn’t see the owners of the pit bull on the trail until we doubled back for the last of our gear. But we knew they were behind us as evidenced by their dog underfoot. Relieved to end round two of my daughter’s pit bull panic, we pushed away from shore.
We paddled onto Lizz Lake where our entry into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area was greeted by a loon. The mist turned to light rain. It made for a cool paddle as opposed to the hot summer paddles we had become accustomed to back home. Soon we were portaging from Lizz Lake to Caribou Lake through the muck.
Welcome to the BWCA!

Before we finished our portage, the pit bull appeared on our heels. Suddenly it shot passed us, jumped into the water, and started snarling at canoe occupied by a woman and two dogs. This led to a bit of a dog fight. To our relief, this caused the pit bull to lose interest in us altogether. Unfortunately, the lady and her dogs appeared pretty upset. Although ready to take off, we held back to let the woman disembark so she could proceed to the “safe” end of the portage with her dogs.

Since we had already stepped aside, we decided to hold back a bit longer to let the pit bull clan pull ahead. When they were across Caribou Lake and long out of sight, we pressed on. It was a good decision for everyone. Although the portage to Horseshoe Lake was crowded and muddy, it was relatively pleasant and peaceful since my daughter no longer clung to me in fear.

The rain clears up for our final portage before setting camp.

By the time we chose our basecamp on Horseshoe Lake, the rain stopped and the sun came out for several hours. The mosquitos went into temporary hiding, and we basked in the sun’s warmth. It was a great thing we enjoyed the sun as much as we did, as the remainder of our trip would be fairly wet and cloudy.

I told my husband how delighted I felt that our campsite faced west, perfect for sunsets. We set camp, and had chicken and cheese quesadillas for a lunch at about 2:30 p.m., late enough we didn’t need much for dinner. 

I decided to clean up crayfish and other trash remnants previous campers left behind so as to deter foraging picnic pests. We were happy to leave the site cleaner than we found it. A bit later, the National Forest Service wildlife management people surprised us with a visit to check out the campsite and the latrine. I don’t typically run into authority figures when wilderness camping. This was a first for me. 

When they left, our daughter dipped her feet in the water and played around the campsite in a state of constant humming and singing (a sign of high happiness). She was even singing while alone in the tent playing with Legos. She earned a small Lego set as a reward for good behavior on the trip in, and Dad was dubbed “best Dad ever” for bringing Legos. 

Snack time.

While we ate cheese and sausage for dinner, my husband noticed an eagle across the narrow expanse of Horseshoe Lake. We couldn’t actually see its nest, but heard young squawking as the eagle left them. Seeing animals we don’t normally see at home reminded our daughter that she wanted to see a moose. She asked to go for an evening canoe ride to spot critters. We had a nice paddle, but we did not see a moose.

As we returned, I voiced my fears that I wouldn’t get to see the sunset due to the return of the cloud cover. Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong. Somehow the colors shone through the clouds for five glorious minutes. Little did I know, this would be the only sunset we would see this trip. I am so pleased to have enjoyed it.

Mama's only sunset this trip.

We ended our first day in camp tired but happy. Dad’s portaging the 70 pound Royalex canoe had compounded an already sore back. So we retired to the tent without a fire, tired but incredibly happy. Our daughter’s ear still hurt. When asked if she had fun, she called canoeing “boring”, but said she still wanted to see a moose. 

Light rain fell throughout the night, and all slept well.

day 3, august 18, 2014


Good morning Horseshoe Lake!

Dawn greeted us with sprinkling rain, setting the tone for the day’s weather. Still dark, I used the red headlamp setting to avoid waking my sleeping family. I sat on the cold, rainy latrine seat looking like I had a pair of bright red eyes on my forehead. With a cacophony of flapping, a small owl arrived overhead. It perched on the lowest branch on the nearest tree to my left and drew a figure “O” with its head. Then it cocked its head to the side as if trying to figure out what type of critter my light could possibly be. 

Eagle looking for fish in the rain.

I’ve never been this close enough to reach out and touch an owl in the wild before (about 4 feet). If only I had the camera at hand…but who brings a camera to the latrine when it’s dark and wet? I went back to camp to watch the mist on the water.

Eventually water bugs appeared, fish started jumping, and loons started calling. Just as I started to think nothing could be more wonderful, two eagles began to fish, putting on an amazing show. It was around 6:30 a.m. I wished my family were awake to enjoy this with me. Admittedly, if we’d been our usual noisy selves, the spectacular fishing show with the eagles passing so close by would probably not have occurred.

Stream at Vista Lake

After an oatmeal breakfast with sides of leftover cheese and sausage, our family went on a paddle around Horseshoe Lake. We decided to walk across the portage to see Vista Lake. We were again surprised to run into the National Forest Service people. It was raining. The portage was slippery and the lake was filled with slick rocks on the Vista Lake side of the portage. With Dad’s back still sore, we decided to wait a day to portage over for our paddle on Vista Lake. 

We had tortilla pizzas and corn for lunch, our daughter had a bagel with honey. Later, we got chased into the tent by an afternoon thunderstorm. The heavy rain caused an inch or two of water to surround our tent. Our shoes in the vestibule were flooded. Between our sleeping mats, the floor bulged with water. It felt like a waterbed to the touch. 

My daughter started to cry, as she recently saw floods washing away homes on TV. She needed reassurance. Things got wet, but we didn’t mind too much. Our soaked footwear led to some cold feet later. But when the rain fell back to a slow drizzle, our daughter played at fishing, forgetting the storm ever happened. I rehydrated beef stroganoff and peas for dinner. I must digress and mention the stroganoff recipe posted by Ripple on the BWCA forum, found by my husband, and cooked by yours truly before dehydration was the biggest food hit of the trip. Our daughter even loved it. Thank you for posting Ripple!

Vista Lake.

Our daughter’s fishing catch consisted of a tree and the bottom of the lake, but she had fun spotting turtles, frogs, chipmunks, and the like. She also had fun playing games and cards with Mom and Dad, playing with the canoe, and devouring loads of attention. She smiled and sang. She didn’t seem to mind the rain and the mosquitos. After lingering for a few minutes at the campfire and scarfing down two marshmallows, she asked to go to bed early. My cold, wet feet agreed. Time to snuggle into the sleeping bags and warm up.

day 4, August 19, 2014

Another gray, wet morning led to another day of on and off rain. The eerie early morning silence was finally broken by the long, lonely call of a loon through the fog. Soon the fish started jumping, and two eagles put on a glorious show of fishing and flying. I suspected, as I sat there in the foggy stillness, that perhaps I was so quiet and the air so thick with fog that they forgot I was there.

My family slept late. I decided to spend some time enjoying what can only be described as a mycologist’s haven, just my camera and me. I’ve never seen so many types of fungi on one campsite, too many to show here. Amazing.

Orange mushrooms.

When my family emerged from the tent, we had an oatmeal breakfast. Then we paddled back to Vista Lake, this time exploring the lake and its empty campsites. The sites were soaked. I suspect the rain drove campers away. Views of the lake from the campsites, despite the gray rainy day, gave credo to Vista Lake’s name. Truly beautiful.

Exploring a campsite on Vista Lake.

We returned a bit cold and wet, but incredibly happy. Our daughter spent some time playing Legos and singing in the tent, while I hydrated spaghetti and green beans for our late lunch/early dinner. The meat sauce proved delicious despite its trip through the food dehydrator. Dad and daughter decided to fish while I cleaned up camp, relaxed, and took some photos. Once again our daughter caught the bottom. Dad caught a fish.

Dad catching a fish.

At the end of the day, our daughter said ear hurt. I was glad to have her medicine along. Of course, she still refused to admit she was having fun despite all the smiles, giggles, and songs. And she still most definitely wanted to see a moose.


day 5, August 20, 2014


Beaver crossing Horseshoe Lake.

Although beautiful, the gray skies and tranquil mist of the near dawn disappointed me. This was the only day forecast to be rain-free and already a few light sprinkles cooled my skin. Our daughter rose at daybreak begging to take the camera out for some early morning moose hunting. My husband drug himself out the tent, and off we paddled to look for moose.

Slapped by a beaver.

We saw six beavers crossing narrow areas on Horseshoe Lake. The beavers slapped their tails on the water to scare us away, providing an exciting show. We also saw loons and ducks. We did not see a moose.

The clouds rolling away.

We enjoyed a brunch of dehydrated hash browns and Spam near noon. After, a miracle happened. A thick line of clouds suddenly moved out, revealing blue patches of sky and sunshine.

We hung gear and clothing to dry while we played card games and Legos. We dried our tent and moved it to higher ground. Song birds came out to play. A hummingbird even visited our campsite. Although the clouds soon returned, it did not rain for the rest of the day. Hurray!

My daughter and I went for a girls-only canoe ride, giving Dad a little break. She asked, “Are you sure you can paddle without Daddy?” Then she asked, “Can you turn the canoe without Daddy?” She got pretty nervous that we were going to “crash” anytime I paddled near the shore.

Our girls only canoe ride.

After having paddled a canoe alone plenty of times during my 40 years as a single person, it struck me as odd at first that she thought me incapable of canoeing without her Daddy. She made me realize that in her experience, the order of the world has only been one way.

As we paddled, the mosquitoes magically disappeared. This afternoon, the black flies started biting our ankles. I wondered if the precipitation drying up or the air becoming warmer and causing us to sweat had attracted the flies.

Our base camp on Hoseshoe Lake.

The black flies didn’t stop us from enjoying ourselves. My daughter dipped her paddle into the water and did her best to contribute to our paddling efforts. When we returned to our basecamp, I made rehydrated tacos and black beans served with tortillas. I added a side of Knorr butter flavored noodles (my daughter’s favorite) which to my surprise provides a nice complement to beany taco meat.

Later, our family paddled to the portage that leads to Allen Lake. We had a bit of excitement getting stuck on the rocks on the narrow part of Horseshoe Lake heading towards Allen Lake, but the hangup was quickly maneuvered.

The portage at Allen Lake.

Our daughter enjoyed playing on the boulders on Allen Lake. This kept her entertained for quite some time. As the sky began to darken,  we headed back to camp. We devoured bannock with squeeze-bottle Parkay for dinner, satisfying on its own after our heavy taco lunch. Our daughter decided to go to bed around 7:00 p.m. 

I had looked forward to the possibility of glimpsing the northern lights on this trip, and this night had the best forecast for clear night skies of the trip, with a forecast of partly cloudy skies. I’m not sure whether we would have seen this had the sky been clear. But I looked forward to trying nonetheless. In reality, the sky was so cloudy I thought it might rain. The opportunity eluded us. In fact, we never saw a single star the entire trip due to the persistent cloud cover. 

We did enjoy a peaceful campfire while listening to the weather radio. The forecast called for showers and thunderstorms with heavy rains starting Thursday afternoon and continuing through the weekend. Originally, we had planned to paddle out first thing Friday morning. 

Paddling out in a thunderstorm with our daughter didn’t sound good. We also didn’t want her trudging through the portages after heavy rains. We imagined them becoming boulder strewn creeks rather than muddy footpaths. After struggling with it, we postponed our stay or go decision until morning. 

day 6, august 21, 2014


Mama's last day.

As always, I emerged from the tent at the first hint of dawn. The National Weather Service still called for showers and thundershowers in the area starting in the afternoon, with thunderstorms likely throughout the night. This alone might not have deterred us, but they also forecast heavy rains with areas of localized flooding. The portages coming in had mud slicks that were challenging for my daughter. I imagined that portaging out Friday after a night of heavy rains might lead to mutiny on my daughter’s part.

Watching the eagle fly home through the morning mist for the last time.

I lingered over a bowl of oatmeal embellished with nuts and dehydrated tropical fruits. Soon it was time to watch the eagle fish while its young cried for the last time. When the eagle retreated, I sat for a very long time waiting for the day to brighten, already missing the waters.

The sky became an odd shade of gray-pink which gave the surroundings an eerie, out-of-the-movies appearance. When the gray-pink gave way to a bright cloudy sky, I walked slowly to the tent. Reluctantly, I told my husband I would stay if he insisted, but that I thought it wise to go.

Caribou Lake on our paddle out.

We were pretty quiet packing up camp. Goodbyes to the wilderness can be tough. But my daughter got excited thinking about TV, our dinner stop at Betty’s Pies, and selecting a souvenir on the way home. Her cheerful chattiness put the bounce back into our steps. 

We saw a couple of groups on the portages out, far fewer than on our way into the Boundary Waters. The solitude gave us time to linger, shoot the camera around, and enjoy the journey without blocking others’ progress. I felt nostalgic for our time in the wilderness to continue, and relished the extra time to linger.

Portage at Poplar Lake.

On Poplar Lake, the wind strengthened and we felt the temperature drop. Paddling became a strain in our gear-loaded canoe. Clouds thickened overhead as we made our way back to the Rockwood Lodge for our much needed showers.

Maybe we made the right decision leaving a day early. Maybe not.

fond memories

Although she did more singing and smiling than ever, even now that we’re home our daughter still refuses to admit she had fun camping and canoeing in the Boundary Waters. Her ear feels better, and she still says she wants to see a moose. As for myself, time moves quickly in the wilderness. I feel so much more myself, and so very much at home in the outdoors. I loved every wet, muddy, rainy minute of it. My husband, like me, can’t wait to get back out there and do it again!

Ducks near camp.
Mama loves loons.


  1. Nice write-up. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much and and are wanting to go back.

    1. Thanks Gator Paddler.
      Pretty good profile pic you've got there!