A Little about our BWCA with Kids Approach
We recently returned from our third trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) with our kids and boy was this one exciting. These trips started when they were 3 and 5 years old. Now Betty is 5 and a half and Henrik is almost 8! It is amazing how much they have changed since our first trip. It is equally amazing how much they can handle, and this trip truly tested theirs (and our) limits.
One of the core tenets of our travel philosophy, especially with the kids, is to gradually increase the duration and complexity of our trips. We believe it is best to start small and achieve consistent wins. Think of it like baby steps. We want the kids leaving with positive memories and with an excitement to return.
In following our own guidance, this was the third year that we entered through Entry Point #37, Kawishiwi Lake. Each year we’ve increased the distance we traveled, the length of our trip, and the number of times we changed camp during the trip. You can read about our first two trips here and here. In due time we will also write a detailed post on how to plan a trip from this entry point, including tips, tricks, to-dos, maps, routes, etc. to help others get out and enjoy this beautiful part of the country. But first let’s talk about The Storm!
This was the first year that we would stay for a full week, which for me is the ideal amount of time to unplug from the world. It often takes a couple of days to let go of all your worries and tasks at home and be present. I believe this is true of all travel, whether it is wilderness based or not.
And we’re off
Like in prior years, we drove up to Kawishiwi Lake, which is West of Tofte, MN after work on Friday. Our goal was to camp in the parking lot, however we were lucky and were able to find a spot at the remote Kawishiwi Lake Rustic Campground which is managed by the USDA Forest Service. In prior years, these spots had been full. After overuse caused by additional travelers during the COVID era, the Forest Service limited the number of permits available at 27 entry points, which included Kawishiwi Lake. As we will touch on later, this was much needed in high traffic areas and made this trip even more enjoyable.
We happened to arrive during the Painted Turtle nesting season, where they are actively digging holes in any sand and gravel they can find. Anyone that has driven on a gravel road during this season knows it can be quite challenging. Instead of potholes you end up dodging live turtles! When we went to pitch our tent, we had three different females all digging in the tent spot. It took a little bit of Tetris work to get set up without interrupting their very important duty! It is always exciting to see nature at work up close and personal.
We awoke the next morning and had our traditional donuts for breakfast.
Pro Tip: We like to travel early in the morning when the wind is usually lighter and the lakes calmer. We eat a quick meal and hit the road, usually with a mid-morning snack stop after a long portage. Getting started early also give you more flexibility in the day to adjust the duration of your travel based on kids’ energy levels and to deal with unexpected delays (i.e. weather). It also gives Dad a chance to fish if good opportunities arise.
Day 1 – Paddle and Portage
Like in years before, we crossed Kawishiwi Lake and meandered up the river and through Square Lake. Our goal for day one was to make it to Malberg Lake, ideally at the beach campsite we stayed at in 2021. When we got to Polly Lake, we decided it was time for a proper meal. We were lucky that the campsite that we stayed at in 2020 was open. We pulled up and made some sandwiches. It was fun to see the kids explore their old stomping grounds. They had very fond memories from their first trip but, against their desires, we convinced them to push on. As a compromise, we agreed to let them play in the rapids where the Kawishiwi River leaves Polly Lake. We spent countless hours there on our first trip catching tadpoles, so it was fun to relive those experiences.
After three portages and a little paddling we arrived at Koma Lake. There is a famed campsite on the West side of the lake that has always been occupied when we came through. To our surprise it was open, so we pulled ashore to do a little exploring. While we could see how great the site would be for large groups, it was nothing compared to our site on Malberg so we moved on. At the portage into Malberg we saw a group of guys with a dinner’s worth of nice sized smallmouth bass. Given they were moving on they were happy to share their secrets. We made note to return the next day. We too caught enough smallies for a nice fish fry that evening.
Days 2-4 – To areas unknown
The big change this year was that we were going to venture beyond Malberg Lake. After two great nights we decided to move on to Amber Lake. We knew from exploring last year that the portage from Malberg to the Kawishiwi River from our site would be muddy. What we didn’t know was how muddy! At 65 rods, it was not a terribly long portage. What we quickly learned was that it would take some time. It ended up being a series of small portages followed by paddles through muck. Later our kids told us it was the best portage of their lives and they couldn’t wait to do it on the way out! It is amazing how different their reactions were than ours…
The paddle down the Kawishiwi River was beautiful, and quiet. There wasn’t a single sign of other campers. We expected it to be quiet this deep into the BWCA, but we didn’t expect complete silence. At one point we saw some commotion up on the shore. It was at this point we all realized that Kristen needs glasses. She pointed out that there was a man playing with his dogs at the campsite to our left. I looked at the map and informed her that it wasn’t a campsite. Upon closer inspection it also wasn’t a man, or a dog. There was, however, a group of otters playing joyfully on the shore though! We had not seen an otter on any of our prior trips, so this was pretty exciting.
We rounded the corner and entered Amber Lake. We are longtime Boundary Waters Journal subscribers and a perk of being an active 3- or 5-year BWJ subscriber is that Stu Osthoff himself will provide free trip advice if you catch him during the off season. We had reached out to Stu for this trip purchased the maps we would need. He then scribbled all over them with great advice, part of which that Amber Lake was great for catching walleye. Walleye fishing in a canoe is a challenge, and that challenge is amplified by the two little people sitting in the middle. Needless to say, I was happy to not have to go out prospecting blindly.
We set up camp and went for a swim. Our site had a huge sand beach that was shallow enough to provide plenty of room for the kids to play. The temperature was projected to be around 100 degrees, so we knew this beach would come in handy. For those that do not know, Canoe Country temps rarely hit 100, especially in June where evening temps can dip into the low 40s. Turns out the forecast was spot on. It was hot. Too hot. We had pancakes for a late breakfast/early lunch and went for a swim. And then another swim. And then another. The heat was unbearable and reminded us all of the five years we spent living in Malta.
Another Anthony Planning Mistake
While the kids played on the beach Kristen, and I went out to pump our drinking water. We pumped for what seemed like ages before we realized something was wrong. After some monkeying around we realized the filter on our Katadyn Hiker pump was shot. Being the minimalist I am, we did not have a spare, so we resorted to boiling water for the remainder of the trip. It was one of the few things I was left in charge of, and I had failed. Lesson learned!
The one danger with hot weather in northern climates is that they generally are followed by storms, and strong ones at that. Per Kristen’s requirement, we always bring both a personal locator beacon and a weather radio on our trips. We turned on the weather radio and the prognosis was not good. Strong winds were coming our way around midnight. When we set up camp, we always take care to pick tent sites away from potential falling trees (red pines in particular). This site did have some large red pines that could easily snap or uproot in a storm. It also had a ton of old growth cedar which is exceptionally strong. We found a site that looked like it was out of the wind line and nestled in the cedars.
We also take care to find places to shelter should the weather get too bad. We noticed some rock outcroppings that could be good, however they would be a long run if we were caught too late. There was also a large, downed tree right behind out tent that could serve as shelter from flying debris and falling trees. We were all beat, and hot, so went to bed early.
Kristen and I were awaked around 11:30pm by faint signs of lighting. We always keep a tidy camp at night, with no loose gear lying about and our canoe position to hopefully survive a storm. A Kevlar canoe wrapped around a tree is no way to end a trip!
Then came the roar. At first it sounded like an airplane flying overhead. Then it got louder. When it sounded like a freight train was approaching camp, we realized what severe really meant. The wind hit us like a ton of bricks, flattening our tent in a millisecond. While I tried to hold the tent up with my feet, Kristen had the kids up and flying out the back door almost instinctively. I was proud to see her react so quickly and calmly. We were curled up behind a fallen log and under a sleeping bag when we heard a giant crack. We’d come to find out in the morning that the crack was a large tree behind us that snapped in half about midway up. We realized the angle of our log shelter was not ideal, so in a lull in the wind we all hopped over to cozy up on the other side. I have never in my life heard wind as loud as what we were experiencing. Everyone was able to stay calm, however Henrik was shaking. He asked how he could be shivering when he wasn’t cold. Over the roar we explained to him that it was a symptom of shock and that his body was just reacting to the craziness around him. Then we heard another crack, this one seemed too close for comfort.
Day 5 – The Aftermath
As almost as quickly as it started, the wind passed and was followed by rain. We ran back to the shelter of our tent, which I was able to bring upright again. The wind continued, as did the rain, but not at dangerous levels. It was difficult to sleep for the rest of the night as anytime we heard the wind pick up our bodies immediately went into flight mode. This feeling stayed with us for the rest of the trip. While we do not have any measure of actual windspeeds, the level of destruction and we saw the next day tells me they were at least in the 60-80mph range.
We were slow to get moving the next day. The kids were still a bit frightened (as were we). We surveyed the damage and were surprised to see how close the two fallen trees were to camp. One was hung up in the cedar trees not far from our tent. Thank God for those trees! We were happy to see that our meticulous cleaning up of camp the night before resulted in not a single item damaged or blown around out side of one tiny pink Croc.
Despite the fear and uncertainty, some great lessons were learned. First and foremost, Kristen and I learned that the additional time we spend picking a tent site, locating safe ground, and packing up camp at night is well worth it. Our kids also learned why a high degree of preparedness is important. More importantly, our kids learned that with adventure comes risk. We can manage that risk by being aware of our surroundings and adapting to them, but we cannot eliminate that risk. They also learned that just because you are afraid doesn’t mean you quit. We could have easily packed up and left that morning, but we decided to stay.
Day 6 – And Life Goes On
We tried to paddle down the river to Fishdance Lake to see some ancient pictographs, however after the short portage the wind was still too strong and our will to paddle too low. Our camp was still exposed to the prevailing wind, so once back we decided to move. We rarely move camp late in the afternoon as it does not give much room for error. However, we felt this day warranted special considerations. We quickly packed up (in a record 15 minutes) and paddled upriver to a site we had seen earlier that we knew would be more sheltered. It ended up being a great decision. We had a peaceful night and another swim. While I never was able to hit the famed walleye fishing on Amber Lake, both kids pulled in a walleye right from shore at our new site, which provided fish for an amazing breakfast.
The next day we portaged back through the muddy portage we came in on and made our way back to Polly Lake. Our plan was to spend 2-3 nights there before our time was up. The trip took longer than expected because I forgot my life jacket on one of the portages from Koma to Polly. After some backtracking we picked it up and were back on track. Our site from two years prior was taken. After some dismay we decided to see if the island site we see each time we pass through was open. It had never been open before. We pulled up and much to our surprise had it all to ourselves! It was a beautiful site with plenty of space to play, a great swimming spot, and one of the largest white pine trees I have ever seen.
Day 7 – Another Storm and our Graceful Exit
We pulled out the weather radio in the morning to see what the last couple of days of the trip held for us. To our surprise there was another sever weather warning for our area, this time with golf ball sized hail and unpredictable 60+ mph winds. We decided one near death experience was enough for one trip and made the difficult decision to head out early. We wanted to end on a good note and felt this was the best option. Our paddle out was uneventful. When we reached the boat landing there was an old-timer from Two Harbors that had come up to fish. He was warning folks about the storm, which was expected to come between 4PM and 10PM. We looked at each other and smiled knowing we made the right decision.
It was only Thursday though, and we were still on vacation. We decided to see if we could find lodging on the North Shore for a new type of adventure. This post is already getting a bit long in the tooth, so we’ll save the rest for another day.