A Weekend Trip to the Boundary Waters with Kids? Really??
We love taking trips to the Boundary Waters (BWCA, BWCAW), especially with our kids. And like all true Boundary Waters lovers, we start dreaming of our annual 10-day summer trip around Christmas! It is just when winter begins to settle in that we long for the open lakes and beautiful vistas of canoe country. For some reason, we have always connected the BWCA with big trips.
A weekend trip never crossed our mind until we this year when we were looking for some new fall camping ideas. We kept running into trip reports of families exploring Perent Lake via the Hog Creek Entry Point (Entry Point #36) on the southern edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). To our surprise, many of these trips were for 3-4 days long. One of the main themes of our travel style and this blog is to be flexible and here we were stuck in our old ways!
It took us a while to process such a short trip in our minds. Was it worth the 5+ hour drive from our home in the Twin Cities? Would we have enough time to enjoy it? Could we be flexible if bad weather reared its ugly head? To our surprise, the answers turned out to be yes and we found this is the BEST beginner trip to the BWCA, with or without kids.
What is so Special about Hog Creek (BWCAW Entry Point #36)?
Check out our Complete Guide to Hog Creek (BWCAW Entry Point #36) here. For a recap:
The southern part of the BWCA (Tofte District) is a series of entry points running east to west that are relatively close to each other. They are designed to take paddlers north into the heart of canoe country. That is, except for Hog Creek. It leads to just one lake, Perent Lake. While technically you could continue west via a series of portages on the Perent River to Isabella Lake, that lake also has its own entry point, so you’d just be bumping into the next groups of canoers. We like to avoid the crowds and find true wilderness solitude if we are going to be working this hard! For all intents and purposes it is a one lake entry point.
A quick review of the map reinforced the idea that Hog Creek (BWCA Entry Point #36) would be perfect for a quick in-and-out trip. We could basecamp at one site all weekend and focus our attention on exploring a large and beautiful lake. The fishing looked good and river paddles are always fun when you have kids along. Hog Creek is also much closer to the Twin Cities than most other entry points, so our drive was considerably shorter.
Paddling Hog Creek
The Tofte District of the BWCAW is flatter and less rocky than the border lakes region (Kawishiwi and Gunflint Districts), both of which make a trip to this part of the Boundary Waters with your kids even more manageable. It consists of meandering streams connecting expanses of open water. Portages can be long but are not tough due to very small changes in elevation.
The paddle down Hog Creek to Perent Lake is a great example. As the crow flies, the paddle is about 2.2 miles long. As the canoe meanders, it is closer to four! We turned left from the entry point beach and continued downstream. We weren’t on the water more than a couple of minutes before we came to our first beaver dam. Technically there is only one portage on this route (apart from the 15 rods from the parking lot to the canoe launch), however there are plenty of beaver dams!
Random Musings on Beavers
There is an interesting coexistence between beavers and their human counterparts. Beavers work tirelessly to build and maintain their dams. To them they are a lifeline. The damn raises the water level high enough so they can build their lodge and survive through the seasons. To us canoers, they are a nuisance. They break up what would be nice paddle and force us to get our feet wet. Sometimes we even have to unload our canoes just to pass and get up and over one! We unintentionally cause small amounts of damage to their living masterpieces. Without complaint the beavers come out and fix them almost immediately. We’ve been on routes where we crossed a damn one day, only to come back through the next and see it repaired.
Hog Creek Continued…
At beaver dam number one, we pulled off on the left, helped the kids out of the canoe, and were able to pull the canoe over, fully loaded, without any issues. It was a big dam (and a damn steep drop), so we were a little concerned for how the trip back would turn out. The water level above the damn was close to two feet higher than below! How a bundle of sticks holds back that amount of weight is mind boggling.
We paddled another couple of minutes before we came to the first and only portage which passes to the right of a set of small rapids. This is the only point on the whole route where the land on both sides of the river converges tight enough to cause any noticeable movement in the water. The portage is only 15 rods so we quickly unloaded and carried gear across. We tend to be single portagers, which means we load ourselves up like donkeys and haul everything, yes everything, across in one trip. However, we often will double portage (take two trips) on short portages. Our logic is that it takes more time to prepare the gear for a single portage than it does to make multiple trips when the trips are short. Plus, this was a leisurely weekend trip so there was no rush.
We know people tend to avoid portaging, but if you are bringing kids on their first trip to the Boundary Waters, they can be a life saver. Paddling all day is boring. We like to break it up with some short (when possible) portages to keep things interest. The kids can run around, stretch their legs, and have a quick snack before returning to the monotony of paddling.
A Missed Turn?
According to the map our next obstacle would be finding where our little creek merged with the larger Hog Creek. The map showed we’d need to take a left turn not long after the portage. We never noticed a turn! We ran into the same issue on the way back too which makes us wonder if the stream heading the opposite direction is either too small or too obscured to be passable. Either way it makes navigating easier, but a little unnerving too. We rely on the turns, portages, and islands to give us the confidence that we are on the right path! Missing a major landmark like a fork in a river can quite easily shake that confidence, even on the easiest of paddles.
River Bends and Beaver Dams
When we say the river winds through the marshland, we mean it. It was exhausting keeping our 19 ft Northstar Northwind 3-seater on the correct path. Our kids thought it was hilarious when we kept getting tangled in the brush on the opposite side of the creek. The created a game out of it where they would drop into the canoe, cover their heads, yell “Car Wash” and laugh at us as we righted the canoe only to do the same after the next bend! We tend to think of ourselves as reasonably skilled paddlers so this was a bit embarrassing! Thankfully the kids are the only witnesses.
There were two additional beaver dams on this route. The first was another large damn where we again pulled off the the left, helped the kids out, and were able to cross with relatively dry feet. The second is much smaller and we just sailed right over it through an opening in the middle. Poor beavers work all day just to have someone knock the top off!
Home (Perent Lake) at Last
The entire paddle from Hog Creek Entry Point to Perent Lake took about four hours. Upon arrival were pleased to see we had the lake almost to ourselves. We are big fans of island campsites in the BWCA. The kids like the sense of mystery and adventure that come with seclusion and we like knowing they can explore to their hearts’ intent and never get lost. We set up camp on the first island site we saw and enjoyed an afternoon exploring our new home.
Camp Food Philosophy
There are many philosophies when it comes to camp food. Some backcountry travelers cook beautiful gourmet meals on the trail complete with side dishes and boxed wine. We do not follow that approach! When we are on a trip to the Boundary Waters with kids, we look for quick and easy. Part of the reason is due to the fact that kids are picky eaters. We are looking for the maximum calorie to complaint ratio. The other is because we like to control and simplify as many variables as possible when camping in general, and especially with kids. If we keep the amount of mental and physical effort that goes into planning and cooking meals to a minimum, then we can focus our attention on having a safe and fun canoe country experience. Plus, if kids do not eat, they get crabby, and crabby kids are no fun in the backcountry!
A Typical Backcountry Dinner
We settled in for the night and roasted some hot dogs over the fire. This weekend was special as brought a package of Jalapeño Cheddar brats for the adults instead of the standard Nathan’s Hot Dogs. It may seem trivial but that is as close to gourmet as we get! The fire grates at BWCA campsites are great for our style cooking. Just build a small fire, lay your hot dog and bun across the grates, and voila!, a perfectly cooked meal. We bring a small reusable travel shampoo bottle filled with ketchup to save weight and space.
On short trips we’ll bring a bag of hot dog buns and on longer trips will substitute the buns for mini flour tortillas. The latter packs the same caloric punch but takes up less space in our food barrel and doesn’t get squished. Kristen is gluten-free so occasionally she’ll bring corn tortillas and roast them over the fire as well.
Just like at home, routines are important for keeping the kids grounded and for setting the right tone for the trip. Our bedtime routine includes brushing our teeth, changing into separate dry sleeping clothes (this is especially true if it is cold out!), and playing a game of cards or reading. On this trip the kids became immersed in a serious game of War and we were able to read our books and relax. That is not common. Usually it is a family game of Go-Fish, Kings Corner, or Yaniv, which is a game we picked up from a group of Israelis while were were exploring Guatemala on our honeymoon. It’s a super fun and easy game for adults and kids. Maybe we’ll write a post to help spread it to the masses!
Sunday and the Big Graduation
Sunday was meant to be our fishing day, but high winds meant travel across the larger expanses of the lake was too dangerous. It was unfortunate because Henrik (and Kristen) were graduating from a kid’s fishing reel to an adult sized, open-faced spinning reel. As kids became more interested in casting and retrieving, the low gear ratios of closed-face reels do not create the right lure action. It makes the fishing experiences frustrating and causes any heave lures (i.e. our favorite Mepps spinners) to sink. We decided it was time to change and would recommend making the switch even earlier than we did. Henrik is eight but could have moved over to a shorter (6″ or under) adult pole and reel combo much sooner. Like with anything, if it is not fun kids will not enjoy it.
Fall Fishing for Monsters
In the Fall, Northern Pike come into shallow waters to feed before life slows down and the ice moves in. We rarely target Pike, however decided to take advantage of nature’s cycles. They are relatively easy to find this time of year and put up quite the fight on light tackle. Plus, if you catch a big one the kids will end up thinking the Loch Ness Monster may live in the depths of canoe country! Make sure you bring a long pliers and steel leaders as their teeth can be pretty sharp. The pliers will protect your hands and the leaders your line!
It was good thing we came prepared as the fish were biting! Northern Pike are known for their ferocious strikes. Their long bodies are tailor made for ambush strikes. They wait in the shallows and then explode in a fit of fury. Pike also like to follow bait right up the the boat or shore before attacking.
Henrik and his Monster
Case in point. Henrik was casting, focusing more on his new reel than the act of catching a fish. He brought his bait right up to the waters edge and stopped for a brief second. At that instant a Northern jumped out of the water and onto the rock in front of us in an eager attempt at dinner. Henrik’s face lit up and he immediately handed us his pole. He said he was done fishing and it took some a few minutes before he was willing to try again. Seeing that little sea monster fly through the air had left him a little shaken.
Nature’s Life Lessons
One of nature’s great benefits is that it presents countless teaching moments that are not present at home. For example, even though the wind might be whipping across the open expanses of the lake, creating sea spray and white-caps in the process, it is always calmer on the leeward side of an island or peninsula. It is a bit like life itself. While we may feel like we’re caught in a storm, there is always a pocket of calm nearby.
Finding Life’s Zen
We decided today would be a good chance to help illustrate this lesson, both in practical and philosophical terms. We loaded up the canoe with fishing poles and paddles, threw on our rain coats and life jackets, and set sail into the open seas. There was a small channel between our island and a point extending from the opposite shore. The lake was quite rough in the open expanse of water between the two, but looked relatively calm once it had the benefit of protection from the point.
The waves were about 18″ high and would crash into the bow of the boat at each impact. We cut into the waves at an angle to avoid taking them broadside, which is a quick and easy way to capsize. Kristen and I paddled hard as the kids hunkered down in the canoe. As quickly as the waves came, they went. When we crossed that imaginary line where the wind could no longer reach, the lake was calm. Dead calm. And hot! We had been bundled up on our island in the wind and were surprised to need to shed a layer. We entered our peaceful bay and it was like a completely different world. A little pocket of calm. The sun was shining, the wind was quiet, the surface of the lake was almost like glass, and the fish were biting.
Awareness is Everything
We spent a good hour or so casting and retrieving with Henrik working out the basics of his new reel and Betty just enjoying the action. The fish were biting and we wanted to stay longer, however the white-caps were growing and we realized the paddle back would be more challenging. We decided it would be a good opportunity to teach the kids about the importance of awareness when exploring the backcountry. Kristen explained to them how the weather can change fast and that while 18″ waves might be a fun adventure in a canoe, 3 foot waves are not! We high-tailed it out of there, crossed the open water, and retired to the comfort of camp.
Repetition Leads to Remembering
To be honest, I’m not sure how much of these “lessons” the kids absorb. Like any other skill or habit, backcountry wilderness skills take repetition to master. This was repetition number one. My hope is we can give them consistent opportunities to improve so some day they will be the ones telling us to quit focusing on the gloom and search out that pocket of calm. Or that we’ve overstayed our welcome and its time to go back to the safety of camp. I guess the worst case is that they learned nothing and Kristen and I were able to get one more rep in.
Back to Civilization
Like all great adventures, this one too had to end. When we returned to camp we went through our normal nighttime routine of dinner, desert, campsite exploration, tooth brushing, card games, and bed, however this night we were in for a surprise!
Canoe Country Tooth Fairy
Betty had a loose tooth that we knew was close to falling out. Sure enough, out it came while she brushed her teeth. Well kind-of. It did come out while brushing her teeth, however she was so shocked that she spit it and her toothpaste into a pile of pine needles. Talk abut finding a needle in a haystack! It took us some time but we finally found her pearly white. We also learned that the tooth fairy knows no bounds. We all woke up and there was little Betty with a note and financial compensation from the infamous keeper of teeth. Another reason why a trip to the Boundary Waters with your kids is so magical!
The Paddle Home
In the morning we developed our exit strategy over a breakfast of instant oatmeal. If you are taking your kids to the Boundary Waters, a little daily planning goes a long way. It was raining and we decided it was better to get an early start rather than hang around cooking pancakes.
Paddling in the wind can be a chore, but luckily for us the wind would be at our backs for most of the return trip. Almost like clockwork, as soon as we had packed up camp, the rain returned. Canoe camping offers a number of advantages over backpacking. One advantage is that the canoe serves as a makeshift shelter. The kids just slid underneath in their Oaki rain suits and waited out the storm. We stood in the drizzle and laughed at them.
The paddle home followed the same route back up Hog Creek. We marveled at the high-bush cranberries that were ripening on the banks and did our best to keep our long canoe moving efficiently through the twists and turns of the river. While we would never do encourage this behavior paddling large expanses of water, we had the kids wear their Oaki waders on the river paddle. They could then hop out of the canoe at each beaver dam while we pulled the canoe up and over and we didn’t have to worry about them getting wet or cold.
Rain Boots and Canoeing
As a side note, I am not a big fan of rain boots or waders while canoeing. If you capsize both will immediately fill with water and weight you down. If you do insist, make sure you take a swim with your boots and life jacket on. That way you can make sure the life jacket has enough buoyancy to keep you both afloat. Also, practice kicking off your boots in an emergency. We definitely would avoid waders with attached boots. It would take quite the life jacket to keep both you and the full waders floating.
Our trips to the Boundary Waters with kids are always a learning experience. That is what we love about this part of the country. Our weekend trip via the Hog Creek Entry Point (#36) to Perent Lake was no different. Of all of the lessons we learned, flexibility was the most important. Looking back it is hard to imagine our reluctance to spend only a weekend in the Boundary Waters. Going forward, I’m willing to bet we will be adding multiple weekend trips to our annual itinerary. Maybe now we can look forward to a trip all year long instead of that excitement only starting in Christmas.
If you are looking for a quick introduction to the Boundary Waters with (or without) kids, give Hog Creek and Perent Lake a try. We think it is the perfect way to introduce yourself or your loved ones to canoe country.