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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

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Ice Out Trips by Roger Hahn

Some of my most fond memories are of canoe trips that I managed to sneak in before my busy summer season, as an outfitter, began in mid-May. And with a lighter than average snowfall this winter it may be your turn to see the Canoe Country as it awakens from its winter slumber.

When To Go?

The short answer is anytime you can. Keep an eye on the weather, talk to the Forest Service or your outfitter, and keep those Duluth packs ready. All it takes is a little rain, a little wind, and those lakes can go out in a matter of hours.

Bear in mind that the smaller lakes will generally go out first. The larger lakes simply have more ice and it takes a lot more to break up that ice. So plan your route accordingly. Areas that have more moving water will also tend to go out first.

On the end of the Gunflint Trail, where I've lived the past 20 years, we look for ice to go out the last week or two of April. It's almost always out by the first of May but it has also gone out as late as the 18th of May!

If fishing is a must then you'll have to wait until the appropriate seasons are open. With a little research, however, you can find areas that have "special" seasons that don't coincide with the more normal restrictions. (For example, if you travel right along the border, in the spring, you can fish for northern pike. And if you go into the Quetico you'll discover that the lake trout season stays open from January through September. Be sure to double-check all of your information and have the proper licenses.)

Do Your Homework!

It's important to know that in early spring you can't count on all of the usual services that you find the rest of the summer. Ranger stations, fishing license stations, canoe outfitters, motels, restaurants, and the like may not be open or may be on severely restricted hours. Check and double-check so you don't have any surprises.

As an outfitter, I had folks show up at my place in April looking for a ride across Seagull or Saganaga on our launch boat; way before we had our docks or boats in the water.

In the Boundary Waters you'll need a travel permit anytime in the "ice free" season. Of course, you'll be able to pick out any entry point you want as the demand will be very low. In the Quetico you won't need one until the Park officially opens later in May but you are required to pay your camping fees by dropping them off in the "drop box" at a ranger station at any entry point.

Dress For Success!

Springtime is no time for amateurs. The water is just above freezing and you'll only survive a few minutes if you end up in the drink! Above all, a proper life jacket is essential and should be worn every moment you are on the water. Make sure your PFD (personal flotation device) fits over and under your layers of clothing. I personally like to wear mine AS a layer, close to my body, and size everything to fit over it. That way I can shed layers easily, throughout the day, and put them back on as the temperatures cool off. If you have to put your PFD on every time you change layers you'll likely forget to put it back on. And this can be a fatal decision.

You also need to make sure that you and your paddling partners have a solid plan in case someone does end up in the water. Paddling close to shore, staying with your canoes, always wearing your life vests, and having dry clothes packed in waterproof bags are just a few things you should plan on doing.

Getting the wet person to shore, quickly getting them into dry clothes, and getting them up and moving about are the most important things. Once they have some body heat going, internally, you can think about getting out your stove and supplying them with hot drinks. The victim should be warm before you stick them in a cold sleeping bag. Jumping jacks, running in place, or running up and down the latrine path are good ways to get warm quickly. It's imperative that you not let the person just sit there, freezing, while you start a fire!

Deadly Hypothermia!

Unless you've experienced it you have no idea how debilitating hypothermia can be. Improper rain gear is usually the culprit. For a spring trip, or any trip for that matter, a full rain jacket and pants is considered essential gear. As are 100% waterproof boots. Anything less can spell trouble.

If your partner becomes unusually quiet, moves too slowly, can't make decisions, and is shivering you might have a case of hypothermia on your hands. Dry clothes, some jumping jacks, and some hot soup will usually bring a person back pretty quickly. Don't take no for an answer as the victim of hypothermia cannot think for themselves and you will need to do it for them. They can thank you later.

A buddy of mine, who had hypothermia and didn't know it, once tore everything out of his personal pack looking frantically for his bandana; which was sticking out of his back pocket the entire time. When I realized what he was doing I was able to point it out to him, get him to put on his stocking cap, and feed him some hot soup. In a matter of minutes he was back to normal. We still laugh about that scene.

You should avoid cotton in any garments on a spring trip. All clothing and outerwear should be made of synthetics or wool. You won't find as much wool around these days but it can be found in surplus stores. Although heavy it does retain warmth when wet. (But takes a long time to dry, too.) The new synthetics are light and don't actually absorb water in to the fiber's core; meaning sweat and rain stay away from your skin. This makes you comfortable and warm all the time. (Don't forget those cotton briefs! Cold, damp underwear make you feel chilled all day and all night!)

Your spring canoeing gear should, therefore, include waterproof boots, wool/synthetic socks, roomy and sturdy rain pants, a roomy and sturdy rain jacket, wool/neoprene/fleece gloves, and a wool/fleece stocking cap. You must also consider the warmth rating of your sleeping bag and pack extra insulation to put under your sleeping bag at night. Remember that the ground is still frozen!! An extra foam pad is worth the weight and space.

Of course, on a spring trip, it goes without saying that each and every piece of your gear should be packed in waterproof bags; double waterproofed is even better. You can't afford to pull out those dry clothes only to find them soaked!

Plan For The Worst!

You might get lucky, as I have, and paddle through the canoe country in the end of April in a t-shirt and shorts. You might also find every day of your trip plagued by wind, rain, sleet, and snow. Or all of the above.

In my opinion, a small camp stove is worth its weight in gold on any canoe trip. On a spring trip it's a must as far as I'm concerned. If you get wet you can have hot tea on hand in minutes. If it's nasty outside you can lay in your warm sleeping bag while the stew cooks outside on the stove. (A vestibule, or front porch, for your tent is a great thing to have!) A little extra fuel and some extra hot drinks are trip-savers!

You must have some lightweight clothing, sunscreen, and bug repellant along in case the weather is unseasonably warm. And you must be prepared for "winter" canoe camping in case mother nature gives you one more blast of her fury.

File A Flight Plan!

An experienced pilot knows how important it is to file his or her flight plan before leaving the runway. And so should you. If worse comes to worse, you'll be darn glad that some family members or friends have some idea of when you are overdue and where to start looking for you. If you are going solo, or with just one paddling partner, this is even more important as you cannot count on other party members to assist you or go for help.

While I normally urge paddlers to use tents and tarps that blend in with the landscape it might not be a bad idea to have something a little brighter on hand in the early spring or late fall. If someone has to come looking for you, especially in a float plane, a nice blue or orange tarp might be all it takes for them to find you. Especially if you've told folks that you have one with you.

Going Solo?

Since you are waiting for an unpredictable ice-out it may mean difficulty in finding a paddling partner at the last minute. If so, should you go alone? My answer is yes. But it's not without risks.

Anytime you go solo you run additional risks. A sprained ankle, broken leg, or deep knife cut can mean serious trouble. These are rare in the Canoe Country but it could happen. So, first of all, you need to avoid doing things that can put you in that position. (No scrambling on rocks or cliffs, no running of small rapids, no paddling in stormy weather, no axes or "Rambo" knives along, and no climbing of any trees.) With a little extra caution you should have no problem at all. But you must look before you leap at all times. Consider the consequences of your actions beforehand!

I have personally done countless solo trips in many wilderness areas. And they are some of my most fond memories. I can move at my own pace, spend all day on a pastime of my own choosing, and explore interesting places to my hearts content. If you haven't tried it I urge you to do so. It can really teach you a lot about yourself.


One of the most wonderful parts of a spring trip is seeing the newborn wildlife. Just bear in mind that those mama animals won't take kindly to you being too close to their young ones. Give them a wide berth.

I've never seen, or heard of, any bear problems in the spring. Sure, these creatures are waking up from a long slumber, but they are usually not in the habit of expecting campers with food packs to come along. Normal bear precautions should serve you just fine. Most of the animals develop their bad feeding habits later on in the summer after lots of campers have passed through the campsites.

The Good News!

No bugs. No people. Lots of firewood. More wildlife. Total choice of campsites. Laying in the spring sun; buck naked. Superb fishing. Cheaper rentals. And total solitude. What more can you ask for.

Well worth the price of a little extra preparation and some proper equipment.

And there is something magical about feeling like you are the first person to see the Canoe Country in the spring. It gives you some braggin' rights. Or simply puts that contented smile on your face weeks or months before anyone else. Enjoy!


--article courtesy of

Sans Souci Winter Sojourn
2003 Ice Out Tough Lesson

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