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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

The Well-Prepared Paddler by Steve Volkening

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''.

How 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 nice day.

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 the canal.

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 headed back.

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.

Be Prepared

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 mountains.

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 return.

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 weighsAAA Explorer Road Kit 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 emergency shelter.
  • 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 choices.
  • 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 dark.

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.


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