First BWCA Adventure with Kids

BWCA Kids Trip - Grumman Aluminum Canoe

This article was subsequently published, with some edits, in the Summer 2023 issue of The Boundary Waters Journal.

The Beginning

It was the last week of June and we were just pulling into the launch at entry point #37 on Kawishiwi Lake. Our original plan, which was hastily devised in the two weeks prior, was to give our children, ages three and five, their first taste of the Northwoods. We would camp on this first lake and give them a small taste of the wonders of the Boundary Waters. As we loaded our canoe, we decided to take one last look at the map. The kids were shaking with excitement and we were really itching for something more. We decided that a trip to the BWCAW would not be a real trip without a portage or two, so we changed our destination to Lake Polly and off we went.

The paddle across Kawishiwi Lake was beautiful. There was a slight headwind and the sun was shining. Our kids were hunkered down in their Grandparents’ old Grumman canoe resting against our tattered portage packs. Their level of excitement was palpable as was their sense of awe with the new world around them.

BWCA Kids Trip - Beautiful Lake View

Like any well-intentioned parent, we had come well-prepared. Meals were planned out, both for caloric content and likelihood of being eaten. The main food groups of hot dogs, mac and cheese, and marshmallows were in ample supply. Clothing, packs, and fishing gear were all carefully selected. We even had a secret stash of Matchbox cars and a couple plastic dinosaurs to fend off any potential fits of boredom. More importantly, as parents we had spent the appropriate amount of time worrying about our trip. How would the kids handle the long days, lack of structure, and complete lack of the comforts of home? Would the mosquitos or flies be unbearable? Would the weather hold out? Would our kids get bored? Do they even like Matchbox cars and dinosaurs anymore? There are a million questions that can come up in a situation like this and, between my wife and I, we covered them all.

The paddle across Kawishiwi Lake was beautiful. There was a slight headwind and the sun was shining. Our kids were hunkered down in their Grandparents’ old Grumman canoe resting against our tattered portage packs. Their level of excitement was palpable as was their sense of awe with the new world around them.

A Change of Plans

As we made our initial paddle, we told the kids that we wouldn’t be stopping on the promised island campsite and instead, we would spend the day paddling and portaging across a couple of lakes and rivers. We were fully prepared for fits of whining and complaining. Apart from a question about what a portage was, the only other response we received was OK. OK? How could their only response be OK? We had just completely changed course, cutting out the much-anticipated chance to sleep on an island and adding a significant amount of time and effort into the mix. After our incessant planning, it felt a bit like a slap in the face. All that effort and all they could say was OK? No whining? No complaining? Nothing? The situation felt a bit anticlimactic.

The paddle up the Kawishiwi River towards Square Lake was one of those times where your pride as a parent must be visible from the outside. The paddle itself was peaceful. The water was calm, the sun was out, and there was just enough wind to keep us cool. The excitement and intrigue that our kids exhibited was the real highlight. They were so curious about all of flora and fauna around them. Our daughter loved being able to reach down and touch the yellow and white pond lilies and our son was fascinated by the variety of dragonflies that were circling our canoe. It felt like the life that kids should be living, all day, every day.

As we approached Square Lake, we came across a small beaver dam. Our son’s eyes became wide as he asked how we would be able to continue up the river if it was blocked. Without skipping a beat, my wife started singing the common children’s song We’re Going on a Bear Hunt!,“We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh No! We’ve got to go through it!” As the kids watched wide-eyed, we pulled up to the beaver dam, hopped out, and pulled them through it. There was a deafening silence as they processed what just happened before the outbursts of excitement came through. We even grabbed them a small stick off the top to show them their first beaver teeth marks. I’m still not sure the younger one really understood that the beaver chewed the tree down. It’s hard to know what is going on inside the head of a three-year-old.

The Wind and the Fire

The small jut on the eastern edge of Square Lake was their first lesson in the power of wind. We went from a very tranquil river paddle to small white caps racing across the lake. The lack of vegetation from the recent fires gave the wind a direct route to the side of our canoe. As my wife and I increased our focus on rounding the corner, I looked down to see our kids, again unphased. They were more interested in why all the trees were gone than the fact that Mom and Dad were struggling to keep the canoe upright and moving in the correct direction.  

Next up was a short river paddle to Kawasachong Lake. I must admit it was a bit eerie pulling out onto the lake. This was our first time paddling through a burn area and it was a strange feeling to be out in the middle of a lake surrounded by what looked like small bushes. As we crossed Kawasachong we ran into a pair of trumpeter swans. Our daughter immediately recognized them as being the same large white “geese” we encounter on our trips to grandma and grandpa’s house, where we generally run out yelling “go away geese” to keep them off the lawn. Thankfully our kids showed some unusual restraint. The pair swam right across in front of our canoe and were close enough that we could all admire their webbed feet pushing them along. We also saw a solitary eagle perched high in a charred pine tree surveying the landscape. It was at this point in the journey my wife and I began running through all the bad things that could possibly happen on our first portage, which at one point included losing a kid or having to carry each of them across the portage.

BWCA Kids Trip - Catching a Sunfish

We pulled up to the access point to begin the unloading process. Well, that is not entirely true. We canoed into the wrong bay, searched for what seemed like forever, and then found the right bay, hit a rock, and finally pulled up to the access point to begin the unloading process. As would happen time and time again, we would give a big warning to our kids to bear crawl up the gunwales and let one of us help them out, only to have them slide a leg over and step in the mud smiling. The importance of dry feet was lost on them. Had this been a May trip this story might have had a different ending. As my wife piled up our gear, I started strapping paddles, fishing poles, and other loose items to the canoe. Our son looked at me with a puzzled look and asked how we would carry our packs across if Mom and I had to carry the canoe. Needless to say, he was pretty impressed when it was on my shoulders and I was off down the trail. I think he was more impressed to see mom throw the bear barrel and a #4 Duluth pack on her shoulders and begin her march! Each kid was put in charge of their own pack, which included their water, toys, snacks, and a compass (not that they knew how to use them). Our son was put in charge of carrying the ever important first aid kit.

Our First Portage

For our first portage we decided that I would charge on ahead and my wife would follow with the packs and the little pack rats. The logic was that I would be able to keep chugging along with the old Grumman on my shoulders without the worry of running into, or yelling at, one of the kids. Once I had reached Townline Lake, I set the canoe down and started back for round two. I had not gone fifty feet before I heard their chitter chatter. The kids had started off with Mom but decided she was too slow and went at their own pace. No fear, no worries, just a five-year-old and a three-year-old skipping through the woods. I asked if they were ok waiting at the canoe for Mom to catch up. Once they convinced me it was OK and promised to stay out of the water, I went back. While they were true to their word, they did find a patch of mud to hunker down in. They did tell us later that they had seen a funny chicken cross their path. We’re hoping it was a grouse.

The paddle across Townline was uneventful, however they did enjoy sliding in the canoe through shallow, mucky water that leads to the portage on the North side of the lake. Even more so, they thoroughly enjoyed slopping through the knee-high mud up to dry land. The nice path of half-submerged logs was lost on them, or maybe they just better understood how to best enjoy those messy, buggy walks.

We had planned plenty of snack breaks to stave off any “hangriness”. Before we set off on portage number two, we offered up a snack. There were no takers. They were too interested in moving along so they could see what their first ever campsite would look like. I didn’t confess that I was the one needing a snack. Portage number two was uneventful and we were able to convince them to have a granola bar once on the shores of Lake Polly.

Our Home Away from Home

BWCA Kids Trip - Swimming in Lake Polly

Lake Polly is not a big lake, but in their minds it was endless. We paddled north along the main arm watching as every campsite was taken. It was only early afternoon, but we began to wonder if we had bitten off more than we could chew. We knew there were many additional portages and a long paddle ahead of us if Lake Polly was full. We passed through the islands sites that we had pointed out on the map, all of which already had happy inhabitants.

Just as we were beginning to contemplate either paddling down the eastern arm or moving onward, our luck hit. A beautiful campsite on the point looking towards the outlet for the Kawishiwi River was open! We unpacked our bags, stripped the kids out of their muddy clothes, and decided to go for their first skinny dip. The five-year-old was a bit hesitant. The three-year-old could have cared less. It is amazing that even to this day that dynamic holds true. After a quick swim, we unpacked our bags, set up camp, and started a small fire to prepare for dinner time.

The rest of the trip went as one would expect. We spent time fishing, albeit without much luck, exploring, and swimming. Countless hours were spent playing in the water at the Kawishiwi River outlet. We caught frogs and tadpoles, saw fresh moose tracks, and enjoyed the freedom that comes with wild places. As parents, we couldn’t have been prouder. Although there were definitely moments of ill-mannered behavior, for the most part the kids were awesome. They found the hot dogs and mac and cheese to be palatable and generally kept in good spirits.

What is normal?

Deep down, I think we were also proud of ourselves too. As I have embarked on this journey called parenthood, I’ve often thought back to my Introduction to Philosophy class and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Per Plato, there is no absolute normal, or reality, only what we allow ourselves to see. Were we chained to the floor in a cave looking only at shadow puppets, then that would be our perception of normal. Luckily for us, it is rare this day in age to be physically restricted from seeing the world around us. Any restrictions, more often than not, appear in our minds.

As parents of young children, we are Plato’s puppet master. We largely control what is projected on the wall of the cave. In these early, defining years, we are in control of what our children view as normal. It is quite daunting to think that a single human, or a pair working in concert, could have that much power and responsibility. The big question is whether or not we are up to the challenge.

Given their behavior during this trip, I feel confident we have provided them with a version of reality that is at least reasonable. They showed an appreciation for the world around them and an impressive amount of grit for their ages. There was no talk of video games, iPads, or watching shows and no complaints of boredom. The cars and dinosaurs never left their carrying pouch. My hope is that we can continue to guide them along, keeping their focus on the beautiful world that is all around them. Our wilderness areas are important, not only for their natural benefits, but also for what they provide us, both physically and spiritually. It is up to us as adults and parents to make sure future generations see and appreciate these benefits.  


The Quill Family

We are the Quills! An ordinary family sharing our extraordinary travel experiences. 


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