This article was subsequently published, with some edits, in the Winter 2022/2023 issue of The Boundary Waters Journal.
It was late June and we had just returned from our annual family trip to the BWCA. The kids were still reliving their adventures and I was dreaming of that solo trip I never seem to find time to take. Lost in my own thoughts, I faintly heard my wife mention she was taking a late-July girls’ weekend out of town and that the kids would be spending the week and Grandma and Grandpas. This was my chance and I was determined not to blow it.
As I began planning the trip in my head, my mind wandered to my younger brother who had never experienced the awe and wonder of canoe country. I resigned myself to the fact that a better use of this opportunity would be to take him along and hopefully plant the seed of life-long inspiration. I immediately gave him a call, had him block the dates, and warned him that we might not have much for entry-point options.
And thus began the worst trip ever…
Planning for the Worst Trip Ever
Picking an Entry Point
It had been decades since I visited the BWCA in July and my only thoughts were how busy, hot, and buggy it would be. Not to mention a less than ideal fishing environment and lack of entry permits due to the surge in interest during COVID. I assumed the former would be true and quick look at Recreation.gov solidified the latter. Outside of large lake only permits, our options were slim and limited to entry points that I knew absolutely nothing about.
Like throwing a dart at a dartboard, I chose Magnetic Lake off the Gunflint Trail. A quick perusal of well-known BWCA sites like BWCA.com, BWCAWild.com, and Canoecountry.com solidified my perception of high traffic. It looked like this wasn’t going to be the trip for me, but hopefully it would be good enough for my brother.
Fire Danger Erupts
Then things took a turn for the worse. Our trip was planned and our preparations were complete. We were ready to brave the bugs and the crowds in hope that an enjoyable time could be salvaged. Then the warnings started coming in. Family friends gave warning about low water levels not seen since the 1970s and how impassable sections of the Granite River would be. The Forest Service put a ban on campfires, in my mind the cornerstone of canoe country camping. Then the extended drought inflicting much of the Northwoods led to multiple forest fires, some just outside of Ely. Eastern sections of the BWCA were closed and campers were located and moved to safer areas.
It was uncertain whether we would even be allowed to enter if the fire ban were to stay in effect. To add insult to injury, even if we were able to continue with our trip, we would be fighting the haze and smoke. I was beginning to regret my rash decision to plan such a late and unexpected trip. Our mother was worried sick, and my sister-in-law was starting to second guess the trust she had put in my abilities to keep her husband safe and secure. Hopefully, my brother wouldn’t leave wondering why I’ve wasted so much of my life exploring the area.
And we’re off…
I got off work at 3PM, met my brother at my house in Long Lake, and began the seven-hour drive to the edge of the wilderness. And we had a blast. While we have always stayed close, it had been years since we’d had enough time alone to just enjoy each other’s company. We reminisced about the good old days, shared our love for music, and in general had a wonderful time.
On the drive up a mutual friend invited us out for a quick refreshment at his favorite watering hole, the Two Harbors Moose Lodge. It couldn’t have been better. Gone were our worries about the challenges that laid ahead. All we could think about was how excited we were for this short getaway. We parted ways with my friend, blasted the Allman Brothers, and wound our way up to Gunflint Pines Campground where we’d get some shuteye. We picked up our permit first thing in the morning from Gunflint Lodge and off we went.
Gunflint Lake was beautiful. It was a calm, quiet morning without another soul in sight. The slight northwesterly breeze did nothing to impede our progress and we made quick time to Magnetic Lake and to our first portage. My brother was wondering why I made such a fuss about crossing big lakes in a canoe.
As most frequent visitors can attest, canoe country enthusiasts get into a rhythm at each portage. That is not necessarily true with someone new to the process! But he was a quick study and we were hopping around sets of rapids with ease. As our confidence rose, our attentiveness to our map and well laid out plan dropped. At wood horse portage we ignored our better judgement and decided we’d walk the canoe down the small rapids to save time. It was an unwise decision. An hour later and we’d walked our canoe back up the rapids and took the portage like everyone else, and like the folks at the Gunflint Lodge told us to do. All that being said, we had fun and he learned the importance of proper map reading.
We wove our way down the Granite River and eventually set up camp on Gneiss Lake. Apart from one group, it was empty. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and neither could he. I had spent so much time setting his expectations that the BWCA would be a veritable zoo. We assumed that the crowds would come later in the afternoon as we’d made good time, but it turned out not to be the case. It was just quite on the lake. We set up camp, had some lunch, and decided to do a little fishing. We pulled in a couple of smallies, which gave us some hope that all was not lost. And still, not a soul in sight.
Saganaga Day Trip
The next day we followed Gneiss to Maraboeuf Lake and finally to Saganaga for a day trip. When we arrived at Saganaga Falls, a group of guys had beat us to it and to five 3lb or larger smallies as well. Maybe the fishing would be OK. We spent some time at Sag Falls and then let the wind coast us back to camp.
My brother is quite the fisherman, but hooked and lost at least a half dozen fish on the way back. Much to his dismay I spent a couple of hours tutoring him on the very basics of catching and landing fish. What else are older brothers for? Later, I found out he had found a lure on one of our portages that he decided to use for good luck. It turns out it was a barbless lure! We both had quite the laugh and he rigged up another lure.
For those that do not know, the BWCA is on the US side of the border. Canada has a similarly sized park called the Quetico on their side, with slightly different rules. One of which is all hooks must be barbless. Because this route follows the international border, half of each lake is in the US, half Canada. Thus some barbed hooks to be found, and as my brother learned, some barbless!
Back to the Car
Excited about the fishing success we saw around the rapids at Sag Falls, we decided to move camp back upstream to Clove Lake so we could take our time on our final two days and fish all the sets of rapids leading back to Gunflint. We had a ton of luck. At Granite River Portage, we did well enough so he could have his first ever BWCA fish fry. While we couldn’t have a fire, we did have a Jetboil which worked out fine given the circumstances.
Our final night saw a series of thunderstorms set to roll through the BWCA. We battened down the hatches and prepared for the worst. We could see them passing to the north of us and to the south of us. The sky would slowly start to darken, we’d run for cover, and then nothing. While we were sad the area didn’t get the rain it so desperately needed, we were glad to have been spared the high winds and flying debris. Instead, we had our last sips of whiskey and watch the storms pass us by.
As we meandered our way out across Magnetic Lake, over to Gunflint Lake, and eventually our car, we sat in awe of the wonderful trip we had. The bugs and crowds we so feared never came. The fishing was great. Most large cities have more haze than we saw from the fires.
Reflections on the Worst BWCA Trip EVER
Expectations do not Always Equal Reality
It has now been a year since we returned home and settled back into our routines. I continue to think about this trip and about how much it differed from our expectations and how important expectations are in framing an experience. It is not to say that there were not any dangers, or that all our concerns were imaginary. Our estimates of the likelihood of them occurring and the impact they could have were overstated, as was our initial willingness to let those events affect our experience.
Where did this overstatement come from? Our prior experience? A fear of the unknown? The human need to overthink and overgeneralize information? Did we succumb to the trap of placing too much emphasis on news and news-like reports? Did we forget about common sense or our collective ability to endure and often prosper in environments far harsher than a slightly buggy and overcrowded trip to Gneiss Lake? The truth is that I do not know. But I do have some guesses.
Sometimes Experience Really is Best
As the world has become more digitized, we have become inundated information. Much of it is unnecessary and often of little value (hopefully it doesn’t include this blog!). It is becoming harder and harder to sift through the chaff and determine advice from noise. Lived experience often takes a back seat to whatever is on our screen. The constant barrage of information has led to a situation where we read, absorb, and interpret more data than ever in human history. Unfortunately most of that data is worthless.
My brother and I succumbed to all of this, and some. We focused on the noise and trusted information and sources that had no business providing advice. We ignored our experience and better judgement and succumbed to fear and negativity. More importantly, we did not maintain a positive and flexible mindset that is the cornerstone of any successful adventure.
The Boundary Waters is a true paradise in a world slowly succumbing to over-development. A trip to canoe country is always a reminder of all the good in this world and the great experiences that are out there for the taking. Contrary to my brother and my best efforts, we still had a wonderful trip. Let’s hope we carry these lessons through to future endeavors as well.