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How To Explore the Boundary Waters During a Pandemic... with the Family

NWF Director of Conservation Partnerships Jason Dinsmore offers practical advice for taking the family to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

  • Jason Dinsmore
  • Jul 29, 2020

Two trips “up north” are in the books. It’s mid-summer and that should be normal for us. This year is anything but, though.

Covid-19 is making a deadly return after a brief lull this spring. Disease hot spots abound throughout the country, but to this point, we’ve been relatively spared in Minnesota. Relatively. We have had close calls and suffered saddening losses (my Grandfather succumbed to the disease this past spring). My wife, two sons (10 and 6 years old), and me are healthy, though, and hope to stay that way.

Like every other parent out there, we are confronted by the usual summer challenges of keeping kids busy, entertained, and safe, in addition to those posed by the current pandemic. A typical summer would have us outdoors and adventuring somewhere between the Rockies and the Great Lakes, taking day trips, weekend excursions, and full on road trips along the way. But Covid-19 had other plans for us (and everyone else) this year. By July, we desperately needed a change of scenery. We needed to remove ourselves from the city. We needed the Northwoods. Sounds like the perfect time for a road-trip.

Our decision to head to northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) was made more deliberately than that makes it sound. We didn’t want to be flippant regarding our own health or the consequences of our decisions on northern communities we may pass through or interact with. To that end, we sought to limit our exposure in a few key ways. We chose the BWCA Wilderness as a location.  No roads, no crowds, fully self-sufficient and backcountry surroundings. I could count on one hand the number of groups we saw in the BWCA during our trip, and none closer than a few hundred yards away. Obviously, we packed our own food for the trip. Not too many restaurants in the back country. But we also chose to pack our own food for the trip to and from the trailhead. We would normally look forward to before and after trips to Duluth for a meal on either end. Not this time. We limited our time out of the car or the outside world to getting gas and kiddo potty breaks. Masks were worn and we hope our exposure of the north county to risk was minimal.

Weeks earlier we secured our backcountry permits for the BWCA adventure. We decided to limit our portaging (read: NO portaging). While portaging is typically a key to successfully ditching “crowds,” we guessed our chosen access lake, Seagull, was big enough to spread folks out. I also dreaded the thought of solo-portaging gear for four people while Lauren kept the kids busy (or vice versa). My heart and back just weren’t into that. The next four weeks were spent gathering gear, making sure the tried and true stuff was still serviceable and procuring replacements for anything that wasn’t. Key in our mind was how to keep our boys busy and happy on the trail (water or otherwise). Our solution came down to a few simple principles:

  1. Don’t take ourselves too seriously…we aren’t climbing Everest or through-hiking the Appalachian Trial
  2. Pack extra food and double-up on the snacks and desert
  3. Bring toys…portable and otherwise

Don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Easier said than done. We’re both former college athletes (Lauren’s career FAR exceeding my own). I’m a former backcountry ranger and we’ve collectively logged hundreds of backcountry miles. This wasn’t a trip to log miles. Its design will lend it more to logging memories and starting fires that will hopefully burn a lifetime.

As stated earlier, we opted to keep the portaging for future trips. We spent the whole trip on Seagull Lake. The crowds never materialized. Seagull felt as deep into the BWCA as any other lake I’ve floated within the wilderness. We couldn’t have asked for a better experience. We kept the miles short and snacks flowing (see second lesson below), never covering more than four water miles in a day. We still had the ubiquitous refrains of “are we there yet?” and “how much longer?”, but generally speaking the time on the water between sites was enjoyable for all.

Pack extra food and double-up on snacks and desert.

Math may be the universal language, but snacks and sugar are the Rosetta Stone, deciphering even the fussiest young camper’s whines and complaints and easily overcoming them. Here we broke the proverbial bank. Not on cost, but weight. We entered the wilderness with a floating cooler, towed behind Lauren’s kayak (note: that was too much drag for her kayak, next time we’ll be lashing it to the canoe), a dry bag full of cookies, crackers, s’mores fix-ins, and a host of other sugary delights. In addition to enough food and freeze-dried meals to feed a small army. Low blood sugar is a universal enemy on the trail…especially when manifested in the form of six and ten-year-old children.

Bring toys.

Second to a full belly, is a cure for idle hands and short attention spans. Keep them busy.  This can be as simple as singing songs or whittling sticks. But we’re vocally challenged and putting a Tennessee toothpick into my younger son’s hands wasn’t happening this far from medical aid. Electronics, banished from the backcountry, were left in the car, charged and ready for the seven-hour drive home at the end of our trip. We packed books, a favorite stuffy, playing cards, travel games, and everything else 1980’s me (read: before electronic games, tablets, and portable gadgets) would have brought on a road-trip with my parents. It was oddly nostalgic.

The cherry on top, and a stroke of genius by my wife, was an inflatable tube to tow behind the canoe for the kids to ride in and play with once we made it to camp. Our kids love the water. That said, BWCA shore and island sites, while amazing and breathtaking, won’t be mistaken for a beach destination. Their shores are rocky and some can be difficult to access for small users (or us adult ones). The best way to enjoy the water in the BWCA is, well, in the water. Water toys were a welcome boost to the fun factor for both us and our kids.

Life jacket and water shoes/Chaco-type shoes are a must. Even for the adults, our life jackets never came off while we were in the water. Not just to set the example; we were in unknown waters, with unknown subsurface obstacles. And the water was COLD.

Our trip was amazing. We were out of cell range. Emails couldn’t reach us. We were together and our time was finally our own. Challenges were confronted and overcome as a team. The BWCA Wilderness is a beautiful place that can seem daunting to the uninitiated. For those who haven’t been before or lack the friend or family member to guide them, especially with kids. It doesn’t have to be, though: take it slow and work in manageable bites.

And don’t forget to not take yourself too seriously.

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