Well-Prepared Paddler by
The Boy Scout motto, ''Be Prepared'', is good advice whether for an
extended wilderness canoe trip in the BWCAW or Quetico Provincial Park
or just for a short afternoon paddle close to home. I found out recently
the importance of this slogan I had learned many years earlier when I
chose to ignore it. I overlooked factors such as weather conditions and
proper equipment in favor of getting out for a short paddle on an
unseasonably warm spring day. I followed the slogan ''Carpe Diem''
(Seize the Day) instead of ''Be Prepared''.
Not To Do It
Cliff Jacobson suggests in his Canoeist's Little Book of Wisdom,
''paddle your canoe at least once a month every month of the year.''
Because northern Illinois had such a mild fall and winter, I was able to
get out at least a day or two each month. I recorded in the little log I
keep that it was 58 degrees on January 27 and 60 degrees on February 24.
What a treat to take the canoe out on such a day.
March featured colder days and more snow, but still mild when
compared to other years. By the 30th of the month, I still had not yet
had the boat out. However, the forecast for that day was for 50 degrees
and blue skies. I threw my kevlar Mad River Explorer on top of my
station wagon and headed for the water.
It was warm and sunny, but it was also quite windy. The local
weatherman said on the news that night that there had been gusts of
25-30 mph that afternoon. I let the desire to ''keep the streak going''
cloud my judgment. After all, it would only be a short day paddle of
several hours less than 20 miles away from home. It was no big deal;
just a nice couple of hours alone in my boat to take advantage of the
My destination was the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Originally dug by
hand in the 1830's, it connects Lake Michigan with the Illinois River.
It is now designated as a National Heritage Corridor. It is only 3 or 4
deep in most places I go, 20-40 feet wide and protected from wind by
trees on both sides. The old tow path, once used by mules to pull barges
of grain and limestone, is now a popular hiking and bicycle path next to
Although I knew that I would never be caught out on a big lake like
Saganaga or Basswood in such wind I would be OK for a short outing on
the canal. Since there is no current to speak of, I don't have to worry
about a multi-car shuttle. I simply park, paddle as far as I want, and
then paddle back to my car. Not a very challenging trip, but there is
often wildlife such as deer, mink, muskrats, and lots of birds to watch.
And, after all, there is usually ice on the canal at that time of year,
so just being out was a bonus.
I headed out with the wind to my back. I hardly had to paddle, but
could just drift along scanning the banks for animals. The return trip
into the wind would be more difficult. I put a few rocks in the bow,
moved up to the mid-section on a kneeling pad to get better control, and
Then, I did something new - I flipped. Not even as a Boy Scout years
ago working on a canoeing merit badge had I ever swamped a canoe. I got
soaked and drenched my binoculars. I was dripping wet in 40 degree water
and a 20 mph wind. I was covered in mud from the shallow canal. I was
also a mile away from my car.
Rather than wearing the high-tech miracle fibers I use on trips to
the Boundary Waters, I had on jeans and a cotton flannel long-sleeved
shirt. It was clear that the wind would prevent me from safely paddling
any further. I dumped out the water, secured the paddle under the seat
with a bungee cord, and portaged down the tow path. Canoes are rare on
this little canal, and hikers and bike riders aren't used to seeing
them. They were totally surprised to see my carrying a canoe and
squishing down the path in my soggy boots.
Flipping a canoe on a local stream just one mile from the car is not
a major disaster. I was cold, wet, muddy, and a little embarrassed. I
zipped up my PFD to keep my body core warm, and sloshed back to the car.
However, not heeding common sense in the Boundary Area can have dire
consequences. Flipping over in the middle of a large lake can go a long
way towards ruining a trip. Lost or ruined gear and deadly hypothermia
are real possibilities. Overestimating one's paddling ability or
underestimating the flow of a rapids can have fatal results. Proper
equipment, careful planning, and a healthy respect for the wilderness
should be a part of every Boundary Waters trip.
I never wear blue jeans or cotton flannel in the Boundary Waters.
Since March 30, I don't even wear them for local day paddles. Jeans are
heavy to pack and take forever to dry when they become wet. Mosquitoes
also seem to be attracted to the color blue. Quick-drying brushed nylon
is a much better choice. There are some wonderful nylon pants loaded
with plenty of pockets with zippers or hook and loop closures.
Convertible pants, with zippers above the knees can serve as both long
pants and shorts. I also bring several long-sleeved nylon shirts. Again,
they are loaded with pockets on the chest, a mesh vent on the back, and
tabs to secure the sleeves when you roll them up. Even on hot summer
days, I tend to wear long sleeves for sun protection. Some brands are
even treated to a sun protection factor of 30. Columbia, Ex Officio, and
Sportif all make great nylon clothing that is light, comfortable, and
will last for years.
A hat with a brim is also necessary. It will shield your face from
the sun, keep the rain off, and is also handy in fanning a smoldering
fire. A bandana is great for wiping sweat from your eyes. On a hot day,
you can dunk it in the water and tie it around your neck to cool off.
Occasionally, it's even used to blow your nose.
Because I paddle a kevlar canoe, I don't ram the bow onto the shore
when landing. I use a ''wet foot'' technique to load and unload by
pulling up parallel to the shore. I load or unload the gear standing in
a few inches of water. Good waterproof boots are worth the investment to
keep your feet dry. I prefer a boot that provides ankle support while on
the portage trail. A good tread on the sole to grab mossy or muddy rocks
is also important. I personally don't think tevas, tennis shoes, or
water socks belong on the portage trail. But, I frequently pass people
in other parties wearing them. They are fine around camp. It is a good
idea to wear tevas while swimming to protect your feet from sharp rocks
near shore when getting in or out of the water.
I am a convert to the benefits of wool socks - especially those made
by Smart Wool. They keep your feet warm even when wet. They aren't
uncomfortably warm in the summer. I have never gotten a blister while
wearing wool socks, not even when backpacking in Utah's Uintah
Rain gear, both jacket and pants, are essential. Storms come up
quickly in the North Woods. Nothing is more miserable than being cold
and wet. Besides keeping you dry in a downpour, rain gear also can act
as a good outer layer to block the wind and keep you warm on a late fall
or early spring trip. The draw cord on the hood and the closures on the
wrists can do a pretty good job of keeping out the mosquitoes, too.
Even just on short day paddles away from base camp, no one should
leave without a good map and a compass. Islands and bays sometimes look
alike, and it is easy to get turned around. I am told that people do go
out for ''just a short paddle'', and then have a difficult time finding
their way back to camp. When touring on extended trips, it is a good
idea for each person to have a map and keep track of your location. It
is also important to let someone know your plans. Whether you leave the
group for a short day paddle or are out for several weeks, it is a good
idea that people know where you are headed and when you expect to
Besides proper clothing, well-prepared paddlers should bring some
version of the ''Ten Essentials''. They only weigh a pound or so, but
can make the difference between a minor inconvenience and a potentially
- ruined trip if you don't have them handy. I never enter the wilderness
without the following items in my thwart bag or drybag.
- Firestarting Material - A small zip lock baggie with
waterproof matches and some form of fire starter. A number of
commercial fire sticks or pastes work well to start a fire even in
wet conditions. I use cotton balls saturated in petroleum jelly.
20-25 can be crammed into a 35 mm plastic film canister.
- Emergency Survival Blanket - A Space Blanket weighs only
4-6 ounces and keeps out rain and wind. Good ones can reflect back
80% of one's radiant body heat. They can serve as a rain tarp or
- Mini Flashlight or headlamp - No one plans to be out away
from camp in the dark, but it can happen. Having a light source for
an unexpected evening out comes in very handy.
- Water Supply - Of course, in the Boundary Waters, you are
surrounded by water. Still it is a good idea to have a 32 oz.
Nalgene bottle of treated water and some iodine tablets. Paddling
and portaging is thirsty work, and you need to stay hydrated. For
the caffeine-addicted, throw a few tea bags in the bottle, and you
have Sun Tea.
- Food - Paddling burns up quite a few calories. It is a good
idea to have a few lightweight and nonperishable snacks to recharge
your batteries. High energy food such as Power Bars or GORP are good
- Mini First Aid Kit - Lots of commercially-prepared First
Aid kits are available. I just throw a few small adhesive bandages,
disposable antiseptic wipes, a clean handkerchief, some aspirin,
sunscreen, and lip balm in a baggie in my dry bag. This is adequate
for minor scratches and scrapes, but no serious medical problems
- Back packer's Trowel and TP - In case you need to ''heed
the call of nature'', it is a good idea to be prepared. Be sure to
follow the Leave No Trace technique and go at least 100 feet from
the trail or water and be sure to bury your waste and paper.
Remember, there are no latrines at any campsite on the Quetico side.
- Odds and Ends - Your experience will guide you in what
other items you wish to have along. The key is not to take too much,
but still have what you need. Talk to other canoers or professional
outfitters for their suggestions. A multitool or good pocket knife
often is useful. A small length of parachute cord tied to the bow is
great for tying the boat during a lunch break or lining through a
very mild rapids. For this summer's trip, I put a couple red
reflective stickers on my canoe so that it can be seen at night. I
also picked up a small emergency flasher. I plan on doing some night
paddling and the red beacon will help me locate the campsite in the
The Boundary Waters is one of the truly special places on earth. It
provides beautiful scenery, great fishing, abundant wildlife, and
solitude for those who seek it. Yet, it is a wilderness which demands
respect. You can't afford to take if for granted. Having the proper gear
and coming mentally prepared will enhance your enjoyment.
Try to avoid becoming a prisoner to a rigid schedule, whereby you
feel that you need to make so many miles each day or reach a certain
campsite. Be flexible, but not careless. Accidents most often happen
when you let down your guard because you are in a hurry.
Be open to new experiences and chance encounters. Some of my best
wildlife viewing came when I least expected it. I took a ''wrong''
channel and ended up in a quiet back bay with several moose. A casual
after dinner paddle blessed me with a twilight ''close encounter'' with
a family of river otters.