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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

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! by Roger Hahn

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.

[IMAGE: Canoe headed for grassy banks at sunset]Skeeters

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 Boundary Waters.

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.

[IMAGE: Man in hammock in the wilderness... at the right times of the year, the BWCA is almost bug-free]DEET 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.

Black Flies

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 koolaid.

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!

Other bugs

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 portage.

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.

[IMAGE: Chipmunk on a rock. Chipmunks are cute, but NOT in your tent! Don't eat in your tent]I 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 tree.

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 problem, too.

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.


--article courtesy of

Wildlife Trivial Pursuit Wildlife List

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