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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

Tapping the Magic: Leading Youth Groups in the Wilderness by Ed Stiles

The Boundary Waters is a magic place for kids.

Sheryl Swenson, of Canadian Border Outfitters, sees this magic renewed every season. "The kids are incredible," she says. "It is just wonderment out there, especially for the smaller scouts." Every rock is a potential arrowhead, and every clearing is a place where voyagers or Indians might have camped.

"There is no place on Earth like the Boundary Waters," adds Pastor Don Eslinger, an 80-trip veteran who leads three groups a year from Normandale Hylands United Methodist Church.

For many suburban kids it's their first time beneath a star-studded sky unobscured by lights, or their first time sitting by a campfire as the moon slips across the lake. They hear the loon's tremolo and the wolf's howl, and they feel the thrill of paddling across choppy water.

But Boundary Waters magic isn't guaranteed just by renting canoes and plunging into the wilderness. Every outfitter has seen youth return wet, discouraged and exhausted. For many of these kids, it is, unfortunately, their first and last trip to the wilderness.

So what separates good trips from bad ones?

Good Leadership is Most Important

Outfitters and trip veterans agree that good leadership makes good trips. That doesn't mean you have to be part drill sergeant and part Indian scout to succeed. But you do have to plan well and understand the kids in your group.

"The key is having the right expectations," says Nancy Seaton, of Hungry Jack Outfitters. "Is everyone in the group on the same page? It's important to be really clear on what they want to get out of the trip, and to set it up so they can achieve those things." If some want to earn a scout patch for paddling 50 miles and others want to sleep late and fish for walleyes, some kids - and maybe all of them - will come back disappointed.

Age plays a role, too. Older teenagers can handle more portaging than younger ones, says Susan Wold, of Cliff Wold's Canoe Trip Outfitting Co. "Sometimes we have father/son groups and the kids are 11 or 12 or 13," she says. "They are limited in the number of portages they can take." The miles covered and portages crossed depend mostly on the dads, who do much the work.

Joel Norby, who leads Boundary Waters trips for Scout Troop 448 in Omaha, has solved this problem on some trips by recruiting enough boys to fill two or three permits. One group might go off for a 50-miler, while another might base camp and fish. This requires additional leaders, and Norby has been successful in recruiting dads, uncles and grandfathers to help out.

Travel or Base Camp?

Eslinger, on the other hand, likes to travel, and those who sign up for his trips know this. Traveling, he says is like moving through a combination garden and zoo. "You see things you wouldn't see if you were just in camp and talking," he says. The best way to learn about the area is to go out and experience it.

But that experience should be well planned. Each summer Eslinger travels the same route three times. In May, he scouts the route with the men's group, which includes several Boundary Waters veterans. Then later in the summer he leads a youth group and then an intergenerational group over the same terrain, taking a day longer than on the men's trip.

The intergenerational trip has included campers ranging from 4th graders to those over 60. The age difference hasn't been a problem, he says. "When you are with eight other people, the age and gender things go away because you are working as a team to get from Point A to Point B," he says. "Everybody has to be involved. All have responsibilities and are held accountable."

Norby doesn't always travel every day. It depends on the group. "The key to a successful trip is letting them have a good time," he says. "One of the things we learned is to go when it's warm. The last five trips we have gone during the third week of June. We let them sleep in during the morning when we're not traveling. They go out and fish, and the boys go swimming every day. It has gotten to be a tradition that in the late afternoon they hop into swimsuits to jump into the lake."

Who Does the Camp Chores?

But wilderness trips aren't all about fishing and swimming. Someone has to put up tents, pump water, cook and hang the bear bags.

"You need a strong fellow or woman who has a good handle on group dynamics and division of labor," Wold says. "Everyone should be doing some work and everyone should get some leisure."

"There are four tasks at a campsite," says Eslinger, who assigns two people to each task. These include putting up tents, securing the equipment and starting the fire, cooking, and clean up. He roves among the groups and lends a hand where needed. At the next campsite each person does a different task and works with a different partner.

Norby doesn't draw up a duty roster. His scouts do a lot of camping and generally volunteer for tasks. One may mix dessert, another might want to pump water. "We make dishwashing a group event," Norby says. One person washes, one rinses, and one holds the bag. They put the dishes in a mesh bag and hang them from a tree to dry. "I do a lot of the dishwashing," he adds, with a smile. "That way, I know they're clean."

Complete or Partial Outfitting?

As trip planning begins, one of the first decisions is whether to opt for a complete outfitting package or to take some gear from home. With a complete package, the outfitter supplies everything, including food.

Nancy Seaton, at Hungry Jack Outfitters, says some youth groups opt for complete outfitting, while others go for a partial package. "Sometimes they have good and appropriate gear," she says. "And sometimes they don't. A dry tent is an important part of the trip."

Susan Wold, at Cliff Wold's Canoe Trip Outfitting Co., says complete outfitting, while more expensive ensures that everyone has good equipment of the same style and quality. If some kids are dry in $300 mountain tents while others are soaked in discount store specials, it can be hard to build group spirit.

"If they bring anything of their own, the leaders should make sure it will do well," says Sheryl Swenson, of Canadian Border Outfitters. "It can be a disaster if a tent has a big hole in it that's letting in rain and bugs."

Cost, of course, is a factor. Partial outfitting can be cheaper than complete outfitting, providing group members already own good tents, sleeping bags, stoves and other camping gear.

Eslinger opts for complete outfitting, and the trips cost $225 per person. Some families can afford this, but there are camperships for those who can't "If they want to go, we can help them get there," Eslinger says. "I have people who subscribe to help the kids get there. They understand the value of these trips, and we see this as building people."

Norby's scouts already have a lot of their own camping gear and buy a partial-outfitting package. "The troop has invested in good tents," he says. "And part of being a scout is taking care of equipment and watching out for it."

Omaha troop members pay $270 per scout and $275 for each adult. This covers everything except snacks and souvenirs from home to backwoods to home again -- all the meals, including a steak dinner in Ely; lodging; transportation; and other trip expenses.

"There is a little extra in that cost for contingency," Norby says. "The crazy cost of gas last summer made me pad the cost for this summer in case gas gets up near $2 again. The other thing to remember is that it's easy to give money back at the end of a trip, but it's hard to ask for money when you run short."

Norby returns the extra cash after he replaces lost or broken equipment and replenishes expendable items such as water filters and dishwashing supplies.

He also notes that 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds have difficulty keeping track of their money on a weekend campout, let alone on a two-day drive and five-day wilderness trip. "With my system, I don't have to worry that a kid won't have money for food on the ride home."

What Kind of Canoe?

While some groups bring a lot of their own equipment, almost every youth group rents canoes, paddles, and life jackets. The kind of canoes they rent depend on the groups' goals and experience.

Some outfitters don't recommend lightweight Kevlar for youth groups because it's a more fragile material and can be punctured by rough handling. But Nancy Seaton, of Hungry Jack Outfitters, says, "I find that the ones who use Kevlar are happier. More than half of our scout and church groups use Kevlar canoes. Kids are more likely to be injured if they're trying to lift beyond their capacity. With proper instruction, they can take care of Kevlar."

Sheryl Swenson, at Canadian Border Outfitters (CBO), says a lot depends on the paddlers' abilities and where they want to go. At CBO, scout groups usually rent either aluminum or the new Duralight canoes made by Souris River. Duralight is a Kevlar-type material, but not as fragile as true Kevlar. It weighs a little more than Kevlar but quite a bit less than aluminum or Royalex.

Scout groups use Duralight if they do a lot of portaging, she says. On the other hand, if they have paddlers who are greatly mismatched in strength, size or experience, they often opt for tough aluminum canoes that have a keel, which makes them track well.

Eslinger's church groups rent Kevlar canoes. The night before the trip, he points out what a 16th of an inch looks like. That's the thickness of the Kevlar canoe's skin. "I tell them they're not made to run aground. You don't use paddles to heave them. You move gently. I emphasize that if we break a canoe, we will sit out there. It's all proactive stuff before we go."

In addition to caring for canoes on the water, he makes group members responsible for equipment in camp. "People have tasks," he says. "Every paddle and lifejacket has to be accounted for before we go to bed. That means it is put under the canoe and everything is tied down. We make sure that things are together before we go to bed so we don't have to go out and do it when a rainstorm comes along."

Norby's scouts pass up the Kevlar and use Royalex canoes -- generally Old Town Penobscots because they make a wider and more stable fishing platform. "With Kevlar, my fear is of a kid losing his balance when he's trying to get out of the water, falling and smashing the canoe," Norby says. "With the Royalex, you can put a couple of scratches in it, and it's not a problem."

But Roylex Penobscots weigh 60 to 65 pounds, which is a big load for smaller boys. To get around this, Norby asked a woodworking friend to make yokes that can be clamped on the ends of a canoe. "We clamp a yoke to each end and even two smaller boys working together can take the canoe over a portage," he says.

Norby also emphasizes that portages should be enjoyed and that his scouts walk them twice. "The first time across they put on a pack and take their fishing gear and paddle," Norby says. "This gives them a chance to look at nature and the lay of the land, and they get a good view of what's going on."

On the return trip Norby tells them to relax, enjoy the scenery and even shoot a couple of photos. "Then the two of them lift the canoe and take it over, set it in the water, load it and we're ready to go."

What to Take?

In addition to camping gear, each person has personal gear that includes clothing, toiletries, flashlights, binoculars, cameras, and other items. This is where things can really get out of control. So Eslinger limits personal gear to no more than 13 pounds per person. "They need to know what not to bring," he says. This includes cosmetics, three extra sweaters or anything electronic. "We're trying to get away from that stuff (electronics)," he says. "We really try to streamline. But sometimes they will streamline too much, and I have to watch that, too."

Norby says the key is to "find out what you can leave home that will make the trip better."

Good raingear is a must. This usually means a rain suit. While outfitters will supply ponchos as part of an outfitting package, ponchos aren't adequate for extended rain. "We shake our heads when people come up and hope that it doesn't rain because they're not ready for it," Seaton says. "They have to factor that in -- that it will happen."

Dan Waters, of Canadian Waters Outfitters, says parents don't have to mortgage the house for an expensive Gore-Tex suit. "You can get a good rain suit for $25," he says.

Footgear is equally important. "We always talk to parents and leaders about footgear," Swenson adds. "Shoes that have no tread are a big problem on portages where there are slippery tree roots and rocks. High-topped sneakers are OK, but we hate to see a whole group in open-toed sandals. That's stub-toe city."

She also recommends that every kid carry a bandana. "You can wash your face with it, put it around your head to keep the sun off, wet it and tie it around your neck to stay cool, or you can even blow your nose on it, if you have to."

Logistics: Before and After the Trip

Long before the gear is packed or the canoes push off, the trip has to be planned, the money collected, and the kids recruited.

Outfitters can help with wilderness permits, route planning, fishing licenses, and border permits. But it's up to the leaders to collect the money, recruit the kids and give them the skills they'll need for the trip.

Norby starts recruiting in December at the troop's Court of Honor meeting. He posts picture boards with photos from the previous summer's trip, complete with captions.

Then, as kids sign up, he collects a $70 deposit from each scout and a $75 deposit from each adult, with the balance due a month before the trip. He takes the deposit money to a camping store that gives the troop a 15 percent discount and buys the freeze-dried food for the trip.

Most are Richmoor meals for four. "You can feed four people on three packages (breakfast, lunch and dinner) for 30 bucks a day," he says. In addition, he provides an extra granola or Rice Crispy bar per person per day.

After collecting deposits, Norby makes a record sheet of how much was paid and when. "One year, when I had a big group, a dad gave me the deposit twice. Last year, I kept coming up short and went back and realized I had forgotten to write in one of the checks. It's important to keep records straight on where the money is coming from and where it's going."

In the months before the trip, he has three meetings with the scouts and adults. "At the first meeting I go over the itinerary and what to pack and what is paid for," he says. "I also make up a three-ring binder for each family." This is used for filing handouts on everything from leave-no-trace camping rules to instructions for operating the stoves to copies of the permit and the forest service rules for wilderness travel.

"The first year I just gave out handouts, and they went every which-way," he says. "So now I run off copies and put everything in a three-ring binder, and they have a place where they can keep everything together."

Norby also teaches the troop's canoeing merit badge class. He starts with an instructional video from Old Town Canoe that explains basic paddling techniques. Then, a couple of weeks before the trip he goes to a local lake on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon where he helps scouts and adults with their paddling skills.

Finally, the day comes from the 12-hour drive from Omaha to Ely. He tells everyone to pack his snacks and soft drinks for the trip beforehand. Each car has a cooler and trash bag. This cuts down on lengthy stops at gas stations because scouts aren't scattered all over the store shopping for treats. "With a couple of dads in the car, one pumps gas and one cleans the windshield," he says. This cuts down on time at the station. "The longer we stand there, the more the kids want to go shopping for candy bars."

He also requires that a scout who changes cars notify the driver of the car he's leaving and the driver of the car he's switching to. "In cars and on the trip, we also push the buddy system, so we know who will be together," Norby adds.

Keeping Everyone Safe

This is just the start of safety procedures for the trips.

"This can be a very dangerous place," Swenson says. "Kids need someone to tell them not to do dangerous things. Don't run into the lake; no diving; wear a life jacket in the canoe."

"Fortunately, we have had very few injuries," Eslinger says. "But we don't do goofy things like chop wood in tennis shoes or whittle."

The worst problem he has had on 80 trips came during an intergenerational trip. At 4:30 a.m., lightning struck a tree about 50 feet from camp. "It traveled through the root system, and left one of our people for dead," he says. Fortunately, Eslinger had just completed a CPR class. He gave the woman CPR, sent for help, and eventually she was evacuated by seaplane. She recovered and returned with her husband the following year.

What could have been a tragedy turned out to be positive for his congregation. It brought home the importance of CPR, and now the church offers two CPR classes each year. "We have trained over 300 in CPR," he says.

Norby's worst experience came on his first trip to the Boundary Waters when his son slipped on a rock, banged his shin and couldn't walk. "The next morning, we went back to the outfitter, and my son was hobbling on one leg. It wasn't broken, just badly bruised, but it was two days before he could put weight on it. It was a long trip back for him that day."

So safety is something Norby emphasizes each year. "Any time on the trip, anyone can tell anyone else to settle down," he says. "The youngest scout can tell me, 'Hey, Mr. Norby, settle down.' That's part of keeping everyone safe."

Another important factor is making sure everyone wears a life jacket at all times on the water, even excellent swimmers. In fact, it's almost always the good swimmers who drown, says Dan Waters, of Canadian Waters Outfitters. They're comfortable around the water and sometimes don't wear their life jackets.

Swenson explains why she always wears hers, "If for some reason I tip over and get clunked on the head, I want my face to come out of the water. Anyone else can figure out where I am and pull me ashore. Whether you're a good swimmer or not doesn't matter. Wear the life jacket."

For added safety, Norby's scouts pack an old pair of water sandals or tennis shoes for swimming. This helps prevent stubbed toes and cut feet.

Encouraging Reluctant Paddlers

While some kids need to be reined in to keep them safe, others approach the wilderness reluctantly. "Initially, they may be apprehensive and struggling to determine whether they can do it," Eslinger says. "They need someone who says, 'You can do it, and I'll go with you.' "

In the early 1980s, one girl was extremely apprehensive about the trip. Her friends and Eslinger kept pushing her, and she finally agreed to go.

"When I see her now, she says, 'That was the best summer I ever had. Every time I think of it, I smile,' " Eslinger says. "It gave her a lot of self-confidence. Those who are reluctant and feel they might not be able to do it often become some of the best campers.

Finally, Be Flexible

After all the plans are made, the canoes are launched and the trip begins, the last task is to stay flexible and know the options, Seaton says. "Things change when you get out there. You just may not be able to do what you thought you were going to do. Someone may get a bad sunburn or who knows what the problem or change might be."

If you're wind-bound for a couple of days and need to turn back, rather than complete your loop trip, or if the group is tired and needs an extra layover day, that's just part of the experience. Going into the wilderness means traveling into the unknown, where you can't control everything and where the unexpected happens. Sometimes it's the excitement of seeing moose or pictographs, hearing loons or watching a Technicolor sunset. Other times it's battling headwinds and rubbing sore muscles.

This uncertainty is part of magic that is so good for kids - and adults.



  • Canadian Border Outfitters has been introducing kids to the Boundary Waters for 35 years. CBO offers a Wilderness Preparation Course in which they take guests out to practice canoeing strokes, visit a campsite to demonstrate camp set-up, and cross a portage trail to teach proper portaging techniques.
  • Canadian Waters Outfitters is owned and operated by Dan and Cathy Waters, who founded the business in 1964. They have been camping, fishing, and paddling in canoe country since the early 1940's, and have outfitted more than 100,000 people during the past 30+ years.
  • Hungry Jack Outfitters is owned and operated by Nancy and David Seaton, who have traveled through canoe country extensively, guiding others and on our own. Canoeing in the BWCAW has been a part of our lives since childhood.
  • Cliff Wold's Canoe Trip Outfitting Co. is owned and operated by Cliff Wold, Sr., a veteran Canadian and American Canoe Trail Guide. For years he guided groups over the BWCAW lakes and portages. He has been working in the area for 41 years.

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