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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

Humor on the Canoe Trail by Steve Volkening

A good sense of humor is just as essential an ingredient to the success of a canoe trip as Gore Tex raingear or a good map. After a tough paddle into a strong headwind, a steep and rocky portage, or an invasion of blood-thirsty mosquitoes, canoeists can sometimes loose their patience. At such times, a dose of humor can quickly diffuse the situation. It can also go a long way in setting a positive tone for an enjoyable trip.

Many visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or Quetico Provincial Park live a considerable distance away. Their trip Up North is a much anticipated event. For me, it is one of the highlights of the year. Whether you go to fish, observe wildlife, escape the pressures of modern life, or just spend time in the woods, you go to enjoy yourself. You don't want to have it spoiled by a disagreement over the choice of a campsite, or hard feelings because one member of the group always seems to avoid his turn at washing dishes. When tempers may momentarily flare, a sense of humor can help relieve the tension and put things in the proper perspective.

There are many ways to bring some levity to a canoe trip. Just keeping a positive attitude and noticing the funny things which inevitably happen when city dwellers live in the woods for a week is a good start. The ability to laugh at yourself is an asset. On my last Quetico trip, I watched two friends tip their canoe just a few feet from shore. They tried to maneuver it so that the person in the bow could step out onto shore and not get his new boots wet. He lost his balance, and got a nice dunk in the lake instead. Rather than loose his cool, he just laughed.

Some times it takes a little bit of planning. For the last three group trips, I have thrown a few small humorous signs in my pack. I saved a few decorations from my 50th birthday party in the shape of road signs. They relate to getting old and worn out. They are appropriate for us aging Baby Boomers as we re-discover muscles we haven't used since the last canoe adventure. I am always the first person awake in the morning to make coffee and enjoy the beauty of the sunrise. So, I put up a different sign around camp each day.

A red and white triangular yield sign says "Yield to Aches and Pains." Another mimics a yellow and black road construction sign and reads "Soft Shoulders and Stiff Joints Ahead." I also found a discarded sign, at the college where I teach, which announces "The Faculty Dining Room will be closed today" and posted it in the kitchen area by our food pack. The group's favorite was one I "borrowed" from a hotel and hung on a branch along the path to the latrine area. It stated, "This rest room is serviced continually. If you don't find this area satisfactory, please notify the Front Desk. We will respond promptly."

Cliff Jacobson, noted author of numerous canoe books, even suggests in his Canoeist's Little Book of Wisdom, "a plastic pink flamingo or an inflatable orange octopus is worth bringing on a canoe trip if it makes you smile."

I have thought about bringing along a short piece of extension cord. When the group is huddled under the tarp trying to stay out of the rain, it would be fun to pull it out. With my best effort to keep a straight face, I would ask, "where do I plug in the coffee pot?" Once on a school rafting trip on Utah's San Juan River at least 50 miles from the nearest town, one of my students actually pulled an electric hair dryer out of her bag and asked where the outlet was. She was dead serious, and we laughed about it all the rest of the week.

Use your own imagination. You may have your own ideas about some practical jokes you can play on your paddling partners. Just remember, whatever props you bring along need to be packed back out. They shouldn't be heavy or bulky.

Of course, it is natural to tell jokes, swap lies, and tell stories around the evening campfire. Some of my favorite memories from canoe trips are the times telling jokes around the fire over a cup of hot chocolate. It's when things aren't going as well as you had hoped that a sense of humor and a positive attitude can save the day. In the midst of a difficult portage, try out your worst pun. Blurt out some meaningless trivia - the more obscure, the better - when the flies start to bite your ankles.

A trip to canoe country should be fun. You drove all those miles and paddled and portaged to your favorite lake to have a good time. You need to be safe in the wilderness, but you don't have to be serious all of the time. When planning your next canoe trip, consider what you might bring along to play a practical joke on your paddling buddies. Build up your repertoire of jokes and funny stories. Most important, bring along your sense of humor. Others in your group will appreciate it and you will have more fun.

Now, if I could just find that currant bush to plug in that espresso machine!


--article courtesy of

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