and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! by
OK! What about the bugs? Are there really bears? Two questions I got
asked thousands of times as an outfitter for the past twenty years.
The short answer to those questions is yes. There are some of both.
However, I've discovered that folks love to tell bug and bear stories.
Part of the excitement of a wilderness trip. I mean, what's the point of
going to the wilderness if you don't have to brave some man-eating mosquitoes
and camper-eating bears?
First, the bug question: Yep, we have some. We have some mosquitoes,
sometimes some black flies, and sometimes some biting flies.
How bad are the mosquitoes? Well, at their worst they can drive you
into your tent at sunset. At their best, during the latter half of the
summer and during dry seasons, they can be virtually non-existent. Most
of the time they are no worse than sitting in your own backyard having a
barbecue. Except, of course, you can't run into the house in the
If you come early in the season, from ice-out through Memorial Day,
you are generally safe because the mosquitoes have not hatched yet. Many
paddlers have learned to enjoy this season for that reason as well as
the blooming wildflowers, seeing newly born animals, and very few
people. If you do come at this time of year you will also need to be
properly prepared for spring rain, cooler temperatures, and ice-cold
water. Lake trout fisherfolks love this time of the year because those
trout are right up near the surface and easy to catch.
Once Memorial Day rolls around our region starts to warm up and the
bugs begin to hatch and the fish become very active as a result of
warmer water and lots of surface bugs to eat. The time frame from
Memorial Day through about the fourth of July is the best fishing of our
summer. And the fisherfolks have learned to cope with mosquitoes as a
trade-off for premier fishing.
If you come at this time of year you'll want to be prepared for some
company from the mosquitoes. That means some taller boots to protect
your ankles, long pants, long sleeved shirts, and a headnet (mesh
netting which drapes over your cap or hat ... some cool new models have
them built in for ease and comfort) for sunset fishing forays. Headnets
cost less than five dollars and weigh nothing so it's always a good idea
to have them in your pack.
Of course, mosquito repellant is a necessity. And there are many
kinds on the market. Those with a higher concentration of DEET work the
best but you want to minimize how much of this chemical you put directly
on your skin. I recommend a spray bottle so you can just apply it where
you want it. Otherwise, put a small bottle of repellant in a zip-lock
bag with a bandana or rag. Put a few drops on the bandana and wipe the
repellant on your neck and the back of your hands as needed. The
repellant companies are wising up to this now and making products with
less DEET in them and some with no DEET in them at all. I recommend
having a bottle of 100% DEET and a bottle of 30-40% DEET for each person
at this time of year.
can wreak havoc with plastic items such as monofilament fishing line,
plastic sport watches, plastic eyeglass lenses, camera bodies, and the
like. So use some care when using DEET. This stuff was born in the
jungles of Vietnam so you know it works and that it is potent.
Obviously, great care must be taken to keep this spray out of your eyes.
Children should be supervised when using these higher dose products.
One of the new clothing products on the market has proven to be
extremely beneficial for comfort and keeping those skeeters at bay. And
that is the lightweight ''ExOfficio'' style of pants and shirts that you
see many folks wearing for outdoor activities. The ExOfficio company
started it all and brought zip-off pants to the outdoor world but
several other companies now make similiar products. They are light, dry
quickly, are pretty bug proof, and roomy and comfortable. Wearing these
clothes will mark you as a paddler in-the-know.
Except in dry seasons, the black flies will often show up around
mid-June for a couple of weeks. They are the small, roundish, black bugs
that you will find crawling around your ears, neck, ankles, wrists, and
eyes. In fact, they are small and light enough that you may not even
feel them until you reach up to find blood behind your ears.
Many folks confuse other flies with the black flies. They do not look
like house flies or deer flies or horse flies. They are smaller and
usually come in large numbers, swarming around your head. Repellants
work to a certain degree and some companies even market products
designed to be better at repelling black flies. The repellant will keep
them off your skin but they'll still hang around your head. That's just
the way it is.
A headnet is essential for the black fly season. Sometimes you'll
just want to put it on for some relief from their constant presence. On
portages, back at the latrine, or at sunset they can be pretty
bothersome. It is important, at this time of year, to pick lunch break
spots and campsites with care. An open, breezy site will offer you great
relief from the black flies. And having a rock shelf to sit on and eat
your meals will offer you a welcome break from black flies in your
If you are going on a canoe trip in June make darn sure everyone in
your party has a headnet packed. And hang on to yours tightly! Some of
the best fishing I've had in my life has been with a headnet on! Black
fly season only lasts about two weeks and by the end of June you're
usually safe unless it is an unusually late spring. Of course, with an
early ice-out they can come in May so be prepared.
I know many men, and a few women, that use black flies as an excuse
to smoke bad cigars on canoe trips. They claim it keeps the bugs at bay.
The bugs haven't been bad enough for me to try that technique yet but it
does appear to work. Darn good excuse to smoke them stogies anyway!
Where I live, on the end of the Gunflint Trail, we don't have many
other bugs. Folks would always ask about deer flies and horse flies but
we don't see many of those. I understand that in other regions, where
there are more low-lying areas, they may have more of those. The
precautions outlined above, especially the lightweight clothing, will
generally handle these bugs pretty well.
Some other bugs we do have I call ''ankle-biters'' for lack of any
other name. They are the little house-fly looking bugs that nail you in
the ankles when paddling or sitting on shore. They are lightning fast
and there is nothing so frustrating as not being able to smack one of
them once in a while. Sweet revenge. Some savvy customers, from North
Carolina, started bringing fly swatters to keep these ankle-biters at
bay and to exact some revenge once in a while.
My recommendation for these small flies with large teeth is to wear
tall leather boots (I wear the Maine hunting shoes, or Bean Boots, on
all my canoe trips) which they can't bite through. Since I kneel when I
paddle I can't afford to let them have their way with my ankles under
the seat of the canoe where I can't get at them. I have also started
wearing the lightweight pants most of the time which keeps all of the
bugs away from my skin.
I have seen some no-see-ums on occasion (well, you know what I mean)
so be sure the tent you have has the small mesh designed to protect you
from them. Most new tents have this but if your tent is older it may
not. Many years ago, when I lived in Ely, I spent a couple of horrible
nights out in the BWCA with a tent that did not have this feature. A
buddy, who I was introducing to the BWCA, probably won't ever forget
that experience. Nor will I.
Lions, and tigers?
Well, there are no lions or tigers. But we do have a good sized
population of black bears that make their
home in the Boundary Waters and Quetico. These are relatively small and
harmless black bears.
Let me repeat that. They are relatively small and harmless. Black
bears are herbivores! Not carnivores! In other words, they eat roots,
bugs, and berries. Not people. Period.
However, they are not dumb animals and they have learned that Duluth
packs and campers mean that food is present. So, if you make it easy for
them, they are not opposed to a free lunch. Most often, if you see one
at all, they will come in after dark and try to snatch your food pack.
And they know where those packs are because folks camp, cook, and eat in
the same spots all the time.
A golden rule here is that the more popular the entry point the more
potential for a late night bear visit. So try for obscure routes and
you'll probably never see a bear. As an outfitter I outfitted thousands
of people over the last twenty years and I can count the number of bear
visits on my two hands. So the odds are highly in your favor.
Many folks used to ask me about leaving their food pack on a portage
unattended. I've never heard of a bear problem during a portage but if
your outfitter, or the Forest Service, has told you of a problem bear
you may want to keep an eye on your food if you're gone on a longer
If you get visited by a bear you should attempt to scare it off. You
can bang pots and pans, shout, and even throw rocks. The more miserable
you make it for the bear, on his or her first visit, the better off
you'll be ... and so will the bear.
always recommend that you keep a clean camp and don't have a lot of
crumbs and trash laying around. If you have leftovers be sure to bury
them way back in the woods so you don't attract critters. I've never
found bears to be very interested in my fish or fish guts but it's a
good idea to clean your fish on some rocks away from your camp and leave
them on the rocks for the gulls to clean up.
In grizzly country they always tell you to cook in the same clothes
and leave those clothes outside, not bring your toothpaste in the tent,
and other good tips for keeping these aggressive bears from attacking
you. This is not necessary in the Boundary Waters region. But I wouldn't
recommend that you bring food into your tent. It will just make a mess
and attract small critters such as mice, squirrels, and chipmunks.
Many people hang their food packs, between a couple of trees, at
night. I personally don't bother with this but in some places it might
be a good idea. I usually just put my food pack under my canoe and stack
my pots and pans on top of it. That way I get a wake-up call if a bear
should come through. I've never had this happen, so far, but it gives me
some peace of mind anyway.
The Forest Service, or your outfitter, can explain how to hang your
pack if you choose that option. It's not easy to do so be sure you're
prepared with at least two strong 50' ropes to get it up adequately
between the two trees. You'll almost never find a single limb to just
throw a rope over in our country. We just don't have trees like that. So
you'll likely use the two rope method where the pack is suspended
between two trees ... with one rope going from the pack over to each
Cliff Jacobson, one of the most prolific paddlers and writers of our
region uses a different technique for his food pack. His theory is
simple and he believes that Boundary Waters bears know right where to
come to because we all use the same campsites over and over. So he
simply puts his food pack out in the woods and away from camp. So far no
bear has stumbled upon his food pack and he saves himself the trouble of
trying to hoist heavy packs ten feet or more off the ground.
Obviously, the more fresh food you bring the more scents that you'll
have wafting around your camp and the heavier your food packs will be.
If you pack like a backpacker, with freeze-dried and lightweight foods,
you'll have few scents and a very light pack to hoist.
What if the bear won't leave? What if it's mama bear with cubs? My
recommendation is to pick up your camp and move at the earliest possible
time. There's no sense fighting over a campsite. If the bear has cubs
they'll usually run up a tree when you try to scare them off and then
you're stuck with them until they feel safe to come down. And, of
course, you don't want to get between mama bear and her babies!
Many, if not most, of my outfitting guests were always a little
disappointed that they never got to see a bear. Truth is, you probably
won't either. If there is a drought, and a shortage of berries in July,
they might come looking for a hand-out. But the truth is that out of the
thousands of visitors that come paddling each summer only a handful will
see a bear at all.
Bears that do become a problem tend to stay in one specific region
and hit the same campsites night after night. So it's best to avoid
those areas and plan your itinerary around that small section where a
bear has been visiting campsites. If you have a bear problem be sure to
report it to your outfitter and the Forest Service so others can avoid a
As I always told my outfitting guests you'll likely have far, far
more trouble with the small critters in camp. The red squirrels,
chipmunks, and field mice love to nibble and can chew right through a
canvas or cordura nylon Duluth pack if you let them. So keep things
clean and wrapped up tightly. And don't feed the critters as it's
ultimately bad for them and bad for the campers who follow.
Most of all, try not to listen to horror tales of bears and bugs.
They are most likely exaggerated and propagated by folks who were
ill-prepared for them. People would not come to our region in the
numbers that they do if things were as bad as these stories would have
you believe. Wind, rain, bugs, bears, and the like are part of our
wilderness. So, like the Scouts say ... be prepared.