Explore Minnesota's Boundary Waters by canoe

Paddling through 4,000 sq km of waterways is easy in the USA’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, but at some point, you will have to carry your canoe on your head...

8 mins

The list of things you can do with a canoe on your head is – not surprisingly – much shorter than the list of things you can do without a canoe on your head.

Take turning around, for example. Even in a dense forest, sans canoe it’s a doddle. Barely the work of a second.

But stand in the same forest with a canoe on your head and it becomes, if not totally impossible, at the very least life-threatening. 

Which leads to a pertinent question: what do you do if you’re following a trail through dense forest with a canoe on your head and the trail runs out? It’s not like you’ve got the best view anyway, wearing a 5m-long boat over your eyes. So if you do take a wrong turn in the woods, you’re pretty much up... ahem, you know where, without a paddle.

And when that particular wrong turn is taken in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, USA, it’s time to start asking yourself some serious questions. It’s ironic that if you want to experience the world’s most pristine wildernesses you have to travel to its most-developed country – Americans do wilderness like nobody else.


Minnesota does wilderness like nowhere else (Shutterstock)

Take the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), for example: 4,000 protected sq km of lakes, rivers and woods running for 160km alongside the Canadian border, with no roads, no electricity and no buildings. No powered vehicles are allowed in and planes are even forbidden from flying overhead. There are a handful of hiking trails, but really there’s only one way to travel around here: by canoe.

The BWCAW, along with the equally big Quetico Provincial Park – its ‘other half’ in Canada – is without a doubt the best place in the world to experience a good ol’ backwoods canoe adventure, Davy Crockett-style. For this particular brand of adventure, there are two essentials: the right equipment and the right experience. And while I had neither in great supply, I knew a man who did.

Canoe virgin sets off

On my first morning, I set off with Blayne Hall, a local canoe guide. Blayne’s job was simple: turn me, a canoe virgin with a smidgen of camping experience, into a hearty backwoodsman, able to look after myself for three nights, on my own, in the wilds.

To my surprise, the first morning was going quite well. Canoes, unlike kayaks, are comfortable, stable craft and, using a double-ended kayaking paddle, Blayne was showing me just how easy they are to handle. As he glided through the placid waters of our first lake, and I zigzagged haphazardly along behind, he casually started chatting about the local wildlife.


The author was helped by a canoe guide in the waters (Shutterstock)

"People come here to see the big ones – moose, wolf, bear and deer. And you have a good chance of seeing any of them. But I like the smaller locals too: beaver, mink, fox and otter. Plus there’s blue heron, common loon, bald eagle. And as it’s mating season you might hear the grouse drumming – sounds just like a carpenter at work on his hammering."

Truth be told, I wasn’t actually that interested in hearing about the grouse, deer or otter. As a solo camper, it was the bears I was more concerned with. I thought it best to mention this.

"Black bears aren’t grizzlies,” Blayne laughed, as though I’d just admitted to an irrational fear of squirrels. “They’re like big racoons – a rock gets rid of them. We only see bear trouble when a camp is used regularly, every night, all season. Then the bear learns to put it on his route."

Not likely, I conceded, in an area where entry is by permit – the chances of seeing more than a handful of people in a day are slim. I scanned the trees on either side of the narrow lake anyway. I couldn’t see any hungry bears, but then the foliage was so thick I couldn’t really see anything. Clearly, this was a topic we’d have to return to later.

But the thought of bears had done one good thing: it had taken my mind off my paddling. As often happens when the mind isn’t involved, the body soon gets the hang of things. I was paddling confidently alongside Blayne – I couldn’t believe how easy canoeing was. We’d covered 5km and were reaching the end of the first lake. Blayne pulled gracefully into what looked like the beginning of a trail.

"This is where we portage,” he grinned, with just a hint of sadism. “You’ll soon get used to portaging."

6 of the best ways to see bears in the wild

Black bears can be seen in Minnesota (Shutterstock)

Portage sounds easy

Now, the great advantage of canoeing over hiking, apart from the serenity of being on the water, is that you can camp in relative luxury. In my one-man canoe I had two giant backpacks for ballast. One was packed with my camping gear: tent, clothes, sleeping bag, comfy air mattress; the other was full of food. Real food, none of that dried nonsense. I had ham, eggs, bacon, cheese, a frying pan. I even had steak and brown sauce. Did Davy Crockett worry about his cholesterol levels? No. Was I going to? Hell, no!

This is all very well when you’re canoeing along, but what happens when you get to the end of the lake? Generally, the lakes in the BWCAW are very close to each other – more often than not, less than 50m separates them. But they are also normally on slightly different levels, which means a waterfall, or at the very least a set of rapids. Picturesque, to be sure, but not so canoe-friendly.

The solution to all this is the portage. It sounds easy: you put your pack on, grab a paddle, then flip your canoe onto your shoulders, where it should balance comfortably. Blayne went first. No problems.

Then I humped the big pack on, staggered over to grab my paddle and tried to bend down to reach my canoe.

"Mind your back, now."

I grunted, I heaved, I strained, I staggered, and managed to get the canoe onto my shoulders. I set off down the trail, staring fixedly at the small patch of ground I could see under the nose of the boat. Hey, I thought, it was ungainly, but it didn’t feel too bad.

The beautiful lakes in Boundary Waters (Shutterstock)

About 37 seconds later, my shoulders were on fire, my arms screaming for mercy. Sweat trickled into my eyes and my breathing was ragged. Blayne eased past me, like one juggernaut overtaking another on a motorway. The portage was less than 200m long but I was exhausted by the end of it.

"Don’t worry – you’ll soon get the hang of it,” Blayne told me, seeing my face. “It’s all about finding the canoe’s balance point."

After the trip back to pick up my second pack, I was glad to be back on another lake, gliding gracefully along the water towards – thankfully – just a 25m portage to our third lake. It was here that we were to set up camp.

Campsites are dotted everywhere in the BWCAW. But you’ve probably got the wrong idea already. This is camping backwoods-style. A site is just a grassy clearing at the water’s edge, big enough for a couple of tents, a log or two to sit on and a ring of stones for a fire. Walk back from the water for 50m and you’ll find an open-air long-drop hidden among the trees. That’s it.

Camps are situated on the water's edge (Shutterstock)

While I crashed around looking for the concrete throne, Blayne set up camp. He wasn’t quite as blasé about bears as he’d suggested earlier, and showed me his wilderness burglar alarm.

Wilderness burglar alarm

"I put my food under the upturned canoe, about 5m from my tent," he explained. “Then I balance my pots and pans on top of the canoe, and go to sleep with a few good-sized rocks by the door of my tent. That way, if a bear does come for the food he’ll soon wake me up, and a couple of rocks will see him off.”

I went to sleep with a Stonehenge of rocks at my tent door, just in case. But by the next morning, the pots and pans were still in place.

Now came the moment I’d been dreading. Blayne was happy with my canoeing and camping skills. It was time for me to carry on alone. As we pushed our canoes out into the glassy morning water, disturbing a snoozing bald eagle in the tree above, Blayne turned left and I turned right. I was alone in the wilderness.

At first, it was just as difficult as it had been the previous morning. But as I paddled, things got easier and I soon started learning things for myself: always wear your waterproof trousers; keep your map and water bottle handy; hold both sides of the boat when you’re shifting position; always go for a pee on a portage. They are the kind of things that are soon learned, but never forgotten. I was gaining experience.

Then I realised that I was rather enjoying myself. Then I got lost.

Bald eagles can be spotted in Minnesota (Shutterstock)

I’d crossed a couple of lakes, managed a couple of shortish portages. I paddled across a small lake, just a few hundred metres across, and found what I thought was the start of the portage trail. Out I hopped, put the pack on, swung the canoe up on my shoulders, and toddled off. With hindsight, the path was obviously not as wide or clear as any of the others. But then hindsight is pretty far-reaching, whereas canoe-vision only stretches 2m.

Before I knew it, I was in a tangle of trees, with a canoe on my head and no path. You can safely add ‘reversing’ to the list of things you cannot easily do with a canoe on your head. Whereas ‘banging around’, ‘tripping’ and ‘cursing loudly’ are easily achievable.

In the end, I had to turn myself around underneath the canoe and back out that way. A quick paddle along the lakeshore revealed a how-could-I-have-missed-it whopping great portage trail. Maybe I’d make it back to civilisation after all.

The Portage From Hell (yes, it has a name)

Blayne had warned me about it: man and canoe versus 1,100m of northwoods. First, the steep climb; then the narrow manoeuvres trying to corner between trees, followed by the descent of the slick, green rock next to the waterfall. By this point, I felt sure I had done at least 10km. My shoulders were screaming and I could see stars, but I was determined not to stop. Next came the quagmire (and I remembered Blayne’s words: "it’ll be a little soft on top". How I cursed him.)

Finally, after what seemed an eternity of portaging, there was the final slap in the face: three fallen trees blocked my path. Add this to the list of things you can’t do with a canoe on your head: climb over a fallen tree. At least, not without more cursing. The air turned so blue even the mayflies were blushing.

The serene Boundary Waters (Shutterstock)

But when I finally sloshed, muddy and bedraggled, through the last bit of sucking bog to the lake: ahhh, the ecstasy. I’d earned my canoeist’s stripes.

I paddled for a couple of hours, and the next portage, almost as long, hurt much less. Like Blayne said, it was a matter of balance. At the end of the next lake lay that night’s camp. The water was so still I could watch the mayflies scoot along, leaving V-wakes like mini-speedboats.

It was when it started to rain that I realised I was totally happy. Fat drops patterned the water and instead of thinking "oh no",  I thought "how pretty". I stopped paddling and listened to the drops spattering around me. It was like Blayne had said: "With a good rainsuit, you can forgive pretty much anything."

Things you can do with a canoe on your head? Maybe that list wasn’t so short after all.

This article was first published in issue 81 of Wanderlust (2006)

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