Kicking and screaming I got drug on the most "non-vacation" vacation last week and lived to tell the tale. First we must define the difference between "nature" and "wilderness."
Nature – what you see out your windows: birdies, bugs, sporadic deer, groomed trees and parks.
Wilderness – expansive untamed space completely untouched by human hands.
To be clear – while I would consider myself a "nature lover," I see the "wilderness" as completely inconvenient and unnecessary. The wilderness didn't care about my opinions when she threw thigh-high mud and steep boulder hills in my face last weekend and I know she was laughing when the clouds opened up to soak our campsite. The wilderness mocks you!
While the Boundary Waters Canoe Area isn't exactly one of the "7 wonders of the world" it is still a place you should probably see. People drive from all over to experience the solitude and it all begins by picking up your pass at the ranger station. Below is my step-by-step guide to surviving your extended stay in the wilderness.
Shoes – You will be looking at those Keens in your closet (the ones you bought while posing as an outdoor enthusiast) thinking the BWCA is just the place to wear those. THINK AGAIN. Keens stay wet for a VERY LONG TIME! Not only did these shoes give me blisters while climbing, they took hours to dry by the fire.
Pack 2 pair of shoes – we found that Chaco and Teva wore the best and we were all wishing we had a pair of Crocs (no fabric to stay wet) for when we arrived at camp.
Clothes – The BWCA is colder than you think. Lake breeze and cold water. Pack more long sleeves than short for both the temps and the bugs.
Gear – Back something with a back rest. After canoeing all day you will have a log at best to sit on at your campsite. All you will want to do is recline. Forgo some weight in the "kitchen utensil" department and pack a camp chair instead. Bring at least a small tarp to hang up in case of a downpour. You'll want something over your head and your pack.
Cooking Supplies – THESE ARE HEAVY. Take the time in advance to pack just a section of tin foil and buy smaller containers for things like Olive Oil, Peanut Butter and Jelly. Packing the entire container adds unnecessary weight to your pack and will make you crabby. Pack a LONG ROPE for stashing your food in a tree.
STEP 2 – Picking up your pass / Planning your route.
In order to spend the night in the wilderness you have to plan ahead and pay for a pass. Yes, you have to PAY to see rocks and trees. When you pick up your pass you are forced to watch a video during which they break the news that you will be carrying out all of your garbage and that you should use your "INSIDE VOICES."
ARE YOU KIDDING ME? If you can't yell in the wilderness, where can you? IGNORE THAT RULE – follow the rest as best you can.
Plan a route that is manageable for you. We made about a 40 mile loop. That was TOO much for me. If I were to do it again I would choose a destination lake to camp for 2-4 nights and make day trips from there. Portaging is a BEAR – spend more time in your camp chair!
STEP 3 – Launch
No matter where you enter you're only a few paddles from your first portage. Don't expect this to be pleasant. There is never a good place to get out of your canoe so plan on stepping in the water. The portages in the BWCA are difficult, steep, rocky, overgrown and long. If you need to practice walking around your neighborhood with 100lbs of weight on you and a canoe over your head – I recommend you try it out on flat ground first.
There are TONS of beavers in the BWCA. They damn up everything. It might look like a stretch of water is portage-free but upon closer inspection you'll be hopping over a beaver damn. Expect the unexpected and don't forget to look down. There are lots of shallow waters and you'll get hung up on a rock you didn't see coming.
STEP 4 – Camp
Camp sights in the BWCA are not reserved. If you are paddling towards a destination, plan to arrive around lunch time. Although the passes into the BWCA are limited, the best campsites are usually taken. You DO NOT want to be stuck with 2-3 more portages to find an open site. Get to your site early and watch the tired faces of fellow paddlers when they found out that you have beat them. Woa-ha-ha-ha.
Stashing your food can be an adventure. I recommend you use a 100ft rope, tie something heavy onto the end (tent stakes are too light, hatchet is too dangerous) and toss it over a branch. While the forestry service would recommend you tie your pack between two trees, I would find a leaner with a strong branch and pull it up on that. Just so it's not against the trunk of the tree (animals can climb trees).
Pooping – All official campsites have latrines. This is a creepy, wide-open seat in the wilderness about 150 feet from camp. They are gross and you will never get used to it. Hover whenever possible.
STEP 5 – Exit Strategy
Whether you were over-anxious and completed your loop a day early or you're headed out of the BWCA with a new love of the wilderness not a minute too late, you'll be emerging back into civilization with super-stinky clothes and a face you haven't seen in a mirror since you parked your vehicle. Stay in a hotel, perhaps Duluth, and grab some good grub. We liked the Canal Park Lodge for it's free apps, great breakfast and lake-side rooms.
If I can do it, you can do it. Portaging not recommended for children.