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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson

GOING NORTH - WHAT YOU CAN - AND CAN’T - LEARN FROM CANOEING THE BOUNDARY WATERS

Updated: May 28


Yes! The fishing (and everything else!) is AWESOME in Northern Canada. North Knife River, Manitoba

 

You’ve made many successful trips into the Boundary Waters. You’ve never gotten lost - maybe just confused for awhile; you’ve weathered storms, made fire in the rain, never capsized or been threateningly cold.  After each trip, you’ve come home smiling. Now you dream of canoeing a wild river in Canada or Alaska.  Does your experience in the Boundary Waters qualify you for a remote northern adventure? Yes and no!  Here’s what you can learn from your years of canoeing the Boundary Waters.

NAVIGATION

Rivers that flow into Hudson Bay are terribly confusing as they approach the Bay. Here, the delta sprawls amidst a mix of islands and dead-end channels. The flowage changes from year to year so maps can’t be taken too seriously. Still, navigating the Boundary Waters can be equally confusing. Why? Because even the best BWCA maps are no match for the detailed 1:50,000 scale Canadian topos. The Boundary Waters has plenty of islands, bays and channels to confuse you. In short, if you can read a map and compass well enough to confidently canoe the BW’s most complex lakes, you’ll do fine in Canada. However, you’ll need to understand magnetic declination and contour line interpretation and, if you bring a GPS (recommended), the UTM system of positioning. A GPS screen map is not good enough!

THE ABILITY TO MAKE FIRE

The ability to make a fire in any weather marks you as an expert.  If you can make fire on a rainy day in the BW you can do it anywhere.  Indeed, it’s often more difficult in the Boundary Waters than in other places because all the good wood on the established campsites has usually been picked over. On the other hand, fire-making in Canada is easy - there’s so much dead, downed wood everywhere that you can just about throw a match into the woods and yell “fire!”  Barren land trips are the exception, of course.  Here (in addition to your trail stoves), you may want to bring a compact Littlbug™ stove (left below) (littlbug.com) and rose clippers so you can snip dead willow branches and burn your garbage.


Kopka River, Ontario.


CANOEING SKILLS

Canoeing a big lake like Saganaga or Brule when the wind is up is like canoeing a big lake in Canada, with one exception: arctic waters are bitterly cold -- a capsize is deadly! You just can’t take chances!

 


Cr. Rob Kesselring

OPEN WATER CROSSINGS

Boundary Waters paddlers often paddle straight across a lake, making a beeline from portage to portage. This procedure can kill you on a wind-tossed northern lake. It’s VERY difficult to estimate distance on the tundra because there are no trees for reference - a  shoreline that appears to be a few hundred yards away may be a mile or more! You must consult your map before you commit to open water crossings!

Making "pita pizza." Recipe/procedure in CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Ed.


COOKING SKILLS

Meal preparation and cooking is the same up north as in the Boundary Waters, with one exception: northern waters are very cold so your stove will use much more fuel. Add wind and cold and you’ll go through fuel fast.  Gasoline and propane stoves are far superior to butane stoves in this environment.  Bring TWO identical stoves, in case one goes down. For gasoline stoves, figure on burning one tenth of a liter of fuel per person per day. Pot “cozies” save fuel and cooking time, and keep food hot long enough for seconds.  See my book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition for details.

Above: Latiseino River, Norway


Left: The 3+ mile portage around Wilberforce Falls, Nunavut, Canada


PORTAGING

Some of the portages in the BWCA are as tough as anything you’ll find in Canada. The difference is that Canadian trails are not cleared or marked. Often, animal trails (or none) are your only option.  Bring tools to clear a portage (axe and saws) and bright-colored plastic surveying tape to mark the way; and always scout the route before you carry anything heavy across.  Carry the canoe last, which is opposite of what most people do in the Boundary Waters!

 

DEVELOP JUDGMENT SLOWLY

It takes years to develop good judgment, but you can speed the learning curve if, when you canoe the BWCA, you get off the beaten path. For example, most paddlers blindly take every portage without checking the flow into the next lake.  Sometimes, you can line or wade your canoe through the connecting rapid. You won’t know if you don’t look.  And by looking, you’ll develop skill and judgment to handle the unknowns you’ll face up north.

 

FEW SECOND CHANCES

A capsize in the Boundary Waters is usually just a laughing matter; on a cold northern lake, it may be fatal.  When the weather turns sour in the BW, you can just hole up and wait for sun, later shortening your trip to make up for lost time.  On a northern river, you’re generally committed to a time frame: you must be at a certain place at a certain time, or your charter float plane won’t find you. This means that you may have to travel when you’d prefer to camp, which increases risk. Yes, you may be able to change your itinerary if you have a satellite communicator or phone - if it works!  Rental Sat phones are often problematic because their batteries (which are in constant use and re-charge) may not hold a charge for very long.  Campsites, rapids and portages are not marked on northern rivers, so every day is exploratory, and exploring slows you down. Indeed, the rule of travel “up north” is to allow “one day down in every five” for bad weather and the unexpected.

RAPIDS MAY BE HUGE, LONG, AND DIFFICULT (Cr. Peter Marshall)


You absolutely MUST be confident in Class II-III technical rapids.  Portaging and lining aren’t always an option. You can’t learn whitewater skills by paddling lakes in the BWCA.  Best take a class; you'll learn a great deal in just a day or two. The “backferry” is the most important technique on a fast flowing river with a heavily loaded canoe.  Stress this to your instructor! You’ll also need to practice “lining” your canoe around obstacles. There are some opportunities to do this in the BWCA, but only if you have lines attached to the ends of your canoe and get off the beaten path. 

Lining: North Knife River, Manitoba


Mouth of North Knife River on Hudson Bay. 15' x15' tarp fits all.


STORM-PROOF YOUR CAMP

You need a seriously good tent, plus the skills to keep it standing in a major blow. Long tent stakes that dig deep and grab hard are essential. The best I’ve seen are 12-inch-long arrow-shaft stakes which you can get from Cooke Custom Sewing (cookecustomsewing.com). Strong tarps, large enough to accommodate your crew, are a must.

Sue Harings (my wife). Wilberforce Falls, Hood River, Nunavut, Canada


CLOTHING AND FOOTWEAR

Sandals and sneakers which work for the Boundary Waters are worthless on cold northern rivers. You need knee-high rubber boots (I prefer NRS Boundary Boots), warm insoles and wool socks.  Camp footwear should be tough enough for serious hikes.  Clothes should be wool, nylon and fleece.  Reliable rain gear is essential. Provide back-ups for everything.  Packs must be waterproofed to the nth degree. The sloppy packing you see in the BWCA won’t cut it up north. A canoe spray-cover can be a lifesaver.

 

Transitioning from the BWCA to a remote northern River requires learning some new tricks.  Except for whitewater and lining skills, you can learn much of what you need to know from books and by attending seminars by those who’ve “been there, done that.”  

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*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on how to safely canoe difficult rivers.


*My teen book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL! mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type.  Adults love it too! Now available as an audio book!

 

My 90 minute video, THE FORGOTTEN SKILLS details the most important camping skills. If you can do them all you'll be a hero to your friends!

 

My long out-of-print book, CANOEIST’S Q&A (available as an e-book) contains 25 true scenarios (plus FAQ's) that define the wilderness canoeing and camping experience--a great training tool for those who go beyond the beaten path - now available as an audio book under the new title PADDLER'S GUIDE: WHAT TO DO WHEN THINGS GO SOUR.

 

XXX

 

 

 

 

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