Everybody needs a $300 walleye, don’t they, and there’s no better place to catch one than in the Northern Minnesota. I’ve heard said that at least once in a lifetime a person needs to go canoeing in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, which incidentally is the best place on earth to land a $300 walleye! And so it is that we embark upon an epic wilderness canoeing adventure, with our hearts set on catching some elusive walleye!
So, what is this place? That’s what many people asked me when I told them about our summer vacation plans to go canoeing in the Boundary Waters.
I will tell you what it is. It’s the pride and joy of Minnesota! It’s an incredible wilderness area in Minnesota adjacent to the Canadian border that is protected, and its absolutely perfect for canoe trips!! The BWCAW contains over 1200 miles of canoe routes on rivers and lakes and streams, 12 hiking trails, and over 2000 designating camping areas.
The process of arranging our trip took me a bit of work. First of all, I had to figure out how the system works, and then find an outfitter. I suppose we wouldn’t need an outfitter if we had our own canoes, but we need to rent.
In order to access the Boundary Waters you need permits. That’s easy enough. Right? Well, not so much. First you need to figure out which part of this vast wilderness you want to canoe in. Then you select your entry point. On this map you can see there are over 70 entry points.
Each entry point allows a limited number of access permits per day, of which many are booked out months in advance. Some entry points allow only one or two permits per day, while others have up to 25 or more. I discovered, since I want solitude, that I need to pick an area with less permit availability. Some entry points require canoeing on lakes that allow small motorboats, which to me is not what I want in a wilderness, so we select entry point 33….. there’s only two permits per day….each permit allows for 9 people….. I buy both permits….. because I am hoping to talk someone into going with us…..
We are entering the wilderness area from near Ely, however, I later read that entering from Grand Marais puts you into a much more beautiful area. Next time…..if there is one….
Initially I had managed to talk 18 people into going on our excursion, which fills both permits. As the date approaches, however, I have some people bailing out. On launch day we are down to 12.
I am nervous about our group though, because my sister and her husband are coming along. My sister is NOT a camper, and here I am hauling her into this mosquito infested forest! And I am supposed to be the tour guide in a place that I have never been to before. How that works, I don’t know!! I hope this doesn’t happen to us! Glub…. glub…..
Reason # 1: Service. Good service. Capable service. Willing service.
Reason #2: No exhorbitant nonrefundable upfront fees.
Almost every other company I looked up had nonrefundable fees, and when I reserved this trip 6 months in advance I had no idea how many people were going with us. As I already mentioned, we had quite a few people back out! If we had used another outfitter we would have ended up paying for all those who cancelled. The only money I have given to the outfitter so far is a $100 deposit.
We arrive at “Way To Go” about 3 pm on Monday as planned. First up we get lessons on how to carry a canoe. That’s crazy. There’s no way I will be carrying one of these! You have to hoist that blasted thing on top of your shoulders without knocking off your head!
After our lessons we head into the darling nearby town called Ely. The outfitter brings us to the permitting location, which also sells camping gear…. fishing gear….. and fishing permits. David wants to catch some walleye, so we leave the store significantly poorer. So far he is just catching some grief from me….. for spending so much money on fishing gear!
We have our last supper before heading into the Boundary Water wilderness at a restaurant called Insula. It’s a little pricey for a little two-bit town, especially when you have a bunch of kids along.
I order walleye fish and chips. I feel like I have to get a taste of walleye while I am up here in northern Minnesota. So far David has spent $300 on various lures and gadgets and bait and licenses to fish, and he is hoping to catch some walleye. I am not holding out too much hope. This walleye sets me back about $20….. a relative bargain……
Good thing we didn’t count on getting a hotel room in Ely, because this town is a busy place in the summer. We are staying at the outfitters, where they have these awesome dorm rooms for up to 7 people for $25 per person. Initially they agree to allow us to have 9 people per room, but in the end, since our group is smaller, we don’t need to overload the room. There’s a queen bed and some bunks in each room.
I will tell you what the awesome thing is about this room. It’s big! We have lots of space to pack and organize our stuff! The low roof lines are dangerous if you’re a head hitting kind of person.
The downside of these rooms…… no refrigerator, no microwave….no coffee maker…. and since we are going canoeing for four days we have food along that needs to be cold. Luckily the outfitter allows us to put our cold stuff in their fridge and freezer. I am not too sure how legit that is, because I don’t think I would want to mix some random customers’ foods with my own if I were an outfitter.
Now, pay attention to the table and benches….. it makes a great spot to have breakfast. More on that later.
The room is so cozy that I think maybe we should just stay here and forget about going into the wilderness…..I am crazy to even think it’s okay to drag my sister out there. It’s one thing if I can survive, and I love camping!!!! But it’s an entirely different thing to bring my sister who hates camping!
I fall into an uneasy sleep, regret and misgivings gnawing an ulcer deep in my gizzards.
In the morning we are up early. We have opted to have breakfast provided by the outfitter. After I booked the trip the price went up to $7 per person (we pay $5 since I booked before the price increase and they honor the deal).
Now, I will tell you. The breakfast at “Way To Go” is not worth it. At all. I guess I was expecting hot food. The quality of the food is not good and in no way warrants $7, even in the middle of nowhere. If you ever come here make sure to bring your own cold cereal, milk, and fruit, or muffins or bagels……. and thereby save yourself a lot of dough. We spent $60 on a very lackluster breakfast. Basically I could have bought a 1/2 gallon of milk and a box of cereal for $6. And that table up in our room would have been perfect for quietly eating our own little cheapie breakfast.
I think we are all a little hungry to start the trip. A trip like this should ideally be started with a hearty breakfast, in my opinion. I would be glad to pay more money to have bacon and eggs or pancakes. If you know me, you know I can put on a breakfast spread!
Jeff Hway is the owner of “Way To Go”. He gives us a very comprehensive rundown of all the rules and regs of the Boundary Waters….. the smart things to do, and the stupid things to do….. what to watch out for…. how not to get eaten alive by bears….. where to fish…… how to portage properly…… how the Kevlar canoes are super fragile….. how you can only camp at designated campsites….. how you better stake out your campsite early in the day or you might not find one, even though there’s 2000 of them here….. (Let me do some math….. 2000 campsites x 9 people per campsite = 18,000 potential voyageurs…..)
The main rule that we keep hearing about….. only 9 people per group….. only 9 people allowed to be on the water together at the same time. Only 9 people allowed to be on the land together at the same time. Only 9 people allowed to be at a portage at the same time. Only 4 canoes can be at a campsite together. Only 4 canoes can be on the water together. Whatever you do, do NOT break this rule. Nine…. nine….. nine…..four…. four…. four…..
I have visions of park rangers coming and arresting me for too many people at my campsite. If I have ever heard of an annoying rule, it’s this one. If you’re in the wilderness who the heck are you going to bother by visiting at your fellow paddlers’ campsite? Are the loons going to go mad if they see more than 9 people paddling on the water at the same time? It is just a ridiculous rule. I guess we are going to have to be obedient, by the sounds of it.
I mean, I get it if you’re planning to have a huge party at your campsite, but really? How many party animals would go through the hassle of lugging canoes and all their stuff over portages and down waterways? If you’re having a huge party, you’re having it somewhere a heck of a lot more convenient than in the Boundary Waters Wilderness!!
And then comes the good part. Jeff gives us a very complete description on the map about where we are going, what to look for, what to avoid, and the best camping spots….. and fishing spots….how to catch walleye…..
The information is very helpful. Jeff is very knowledgeable. His input is very valuable and he takes his time to make sure we have everything right. He even scores campsites with the highest score of 5 reserved for the best spots! He shows us the precise spots to drop a line to catch some walleye! That’s service.
I am nervous. In my quest to avoid other people I have selected an entry point with a 3/4 mile portage in the beginning. How the heck are we going to carry everything that far through a mosquito infested forest? Why do I want to do this again?
We listen to the weather report, which had been good until today. All of a sudden the weather report is changing. Rain…. rain…. and more rain….. I am full of dread…. my initial plan had been to make the loop from Entry Point 33 up to Clear Lake and then loop around back to the South Kawishiwi River to Entry Point 32. The water flows in that direction, which will make it easier to canoe. The initial plan is to move to a different campsite each day, however if it’s going to be raining I am not interesting in tearing down and setting up camp each day in the rain. We decide to head into Gabbro Lake towards the campsite marked with a score of 5.
Wow, so much to explore here!
There’s a lot of waiver signing going on here. There should be a form acknowledging that if we have over 9 people together at once we will go and check ourselves straight into jail. We won’t even make the rangers find us, but will simply turn ourselves in! We look like honest people, don’t we? Our oldest son is a lawyer. He nonchalantly tries to avoid signing his waiver, but gets caught in the act. He will need to work on that some more.
We load up the vans. Luckily we don’t have to be involved with hoisting the canoes on the roof. That seems like an unpleasant task.
The first van carrying my sister’s family leaves 5 minutes before us, just to make sure we aren’t together when we launch. (On a side note, this van hit a deer and got totaled on the way back to the outfitters from our launching).
Are you ready, kids?
Jeff drives us about 20 miles to Entry Point 33. The dirt road is in pretty good shape. It doesn’t seem like a true wilderness in that sense, at least not compared to wilderness roads in Arizona. We see plenty of cars.
Oh oh! Look who’s here! We have more than 9 people at the same place at the same time! Hurry up, you guys!
I get smart and I ask the outfitter if one of their guys could help us carry our stuff. The owner’s son agrees to help. He is like a pack mule, and heads off in short order down the trail fully loaded with gear and a canoe on his shoulders. No one can keep up with him.
Got your mesh headgear on, Bjorn? You’re gonna need it! Jeff is a little annoyed at me that I have my camera out. In his world everything needs stuffed into the big backpacks we rented so we can have our hands free to swat at mosquitoes. I ignore his demand to pack my camera away.
FYI if you are hauling your own canoes out to the Boundary Waters, you could park your car at whatever Entry Point you are using. We pay $25 per van each way (total $100) for the pick up and drop off service, which isn’t such a bad deal considering we can’t haul our own canoes.
Are you going to be able to carry that pack for 3/4 mile, little nephew? No worries, lady!
So far so good. The canoes are making their way down the forest trail. The mosquitoes aren’t too bad.
My husband makes a pretty darn good pack mule, too! As for me, I am carrying a huge backpack as well. About 1/2 mile into my hike the owner’s son comes back down the trail and grabs my backpack. I’m on easy street now.
This is a nice wide trail. And the mosquitoes are not too bad. I am obsessing about the mosquitoes as I hike along. David takes a little break.
Now he has got to get this thing back on his shoulders.
I have to tell you that my mosquito defense plan is pretty comprehensive. I have a 5 pronged plan. First off (before we left home) I sprayed a long sleeve shirt, long pants, hat, and a pair of socks for each voyageur with this deadly permethrin chemical. Second, I purchased mesh screens to cover our heads with. Third, I brought along a bottle of Deet 100% with us to spray on exposed skin if needed. Fourth, I am bringing along a NEMO Bugout shelter. And fifth, I invested in four Thermacell bug repelling incense burners.
As I am busy obsessing about mosquitoes I look up and see water. Finally we are at Little Gabbro Lake at our launching point. Wow! An awesome adventure is about to be born!
We don’t paddle too terribly far before we pick our camping spots, since we decide to obey the recommendation to find our camping locations early — lest the other potential 18,000 voyageurs grab all the spots first. My sis and her crew select this spot. Now, if you pay close attention you will notice that we are breaking the 9 person rule right away! I count 9 people in this picture….. plus me….. behind the camera…… Ha Ha. Just kidding! This photo is obviously taken with a timer……
We choose a spot just across the way.
Before long my sis has the home fires burning. Maybe this won’t be so bad for her after all! I heave a sigh of relief!
These twin cousin girls want to go fishing.
Doesn’t my sister’s campsite look so inviting? My heart glows with happiness! In the depths of my soul I am hoping she is loving this.
No sooner do we settle on our camping spot than the kids are already swimming! The air is cold, but the water is warm. The squeals of delight intermittently pierce my ears.
And David is already fishing.
And my nephew is coming over for a visit….. let me count….. how many people are here now!? Only 7! Phew!
I am distracted by a handsome man for a minute…….
And then my attention is back on the swimmers. Hopefully we don’t get any c-spine injuries with kids jumping off the rock!
After a bit we scan the horizon for any stealthy rangers. When we don’t see any we quietly paddle over to my sister’s campsite. This young man is the best fire tender ever.
The twin cousin girls go out for a paddle. Making memories…..
These three men head out for a little fishing. Praise the lord, there are only 9 people at the campsite now!
Aha…. a $300 walleye!!!!! Good job!
These two fish cost considerably less. I don’t think my brother-in-law spent anywhere near as much money on fishing gear.
We better get out of here! There’s 11 people at this site for more than a couple minutes now! We head back over to our camp. It’s getting windy and rainy. And cold. A fire is just the thing we need.
I have to tell you about the NEMO Bug-out shelter! “Way To Go” outfitters did not offer this item for rent, but when I asked about getting one, they delivered. Didn’t I tell you they have good service? They purchased two brand new NEMO shelters for us to rent. The green roof is waterproof, and the walls are made of mosquito netting.
As you know, I am so paranoid of mosquitoes that I insist on having one of these for our campsite as part of my 5 pronged mosquito repelling plan. David thinks it is a waste, and results in an extra 6 lbs of weight to carry on portages for no reason. He almost had me leave it at the outfitters before we left. I am eternally grateful that I didn’t listen, for this thing is a godsend!!!! I set up my camp kitchen inside. It’s beyond perfect. The only downside is the zipper is a little sticky, and when you’re trying to escape swarms of mosquitoes it would be nice to have a zipper that operates quickly and smoothly.
David discovers he has a smidgeon of cell service in this vast wilderness, and before long he is posting pictures on Facebook. As for me, I stupidly left my phone in the car. I ask him to check the weather report. It’s supposed to get pretty stormy…. and tomorrow the high is in the 50’s. And now it looks like the rain is going to last longer than predicted earlier.
Just before sundown we hoist our food pack up in the tree with a pulley system that we rented. It’s actually a little trickier than it looks, but finally we have it high enough that maybe the bears can’t get at it. Who knows? We are told that this pulley business only slows down a bear, so if you wake up to a bear tearing into your food, you are supposed to throw rocks at it from a pile that you have placed just outside your tent. Tell you what…… there’s no way on God’s green earth that I am throwing rocks at a bear. I have my bear spray and my axe in my tent with me.
If a bear comes to eat me I will fight back.
On that note we crawl into our tents. The wind is getting stronger, rattling our tent fabric to and fro. I wake up intermittently through the night to sounds of the rain pelting against our tent. Wow, what have I got us into? I hope my sister and her family across the channel aren’t getting a soaker…..
I wonder how that NEMO shelter is holding up. I don’t know if I secured it well enough. I should go check, but there’s no way that I am going outside to get wet and cold. I burrow deeper into my sleeping bag.