Wednesday, July 18, 2012

BLOG 16. What Can You Learn From the BWCA? by Cliff Jacobson

By Cliff Jacobson

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.

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, the UTM system of positioning. 

The Littlbug stove burns hot and clean and uses very little wood. It's the lightest and most compact wood-burning stove available.
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 more difficult in the BWCA than in most other places because  all the good wood on the established campsites has 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 throw a match into the woods and yell “fire”!  Barrenland trips are the exception, of course.  Here, you may want to bring a littlbug™ stove and rose clippers so you can snip dead willow branches and burn your garbage.
Canoeing a big lake like Saganaga or Brule when the wind is up is similar to canoeing a big lake in Canada, with one exception: arctic waters are bitterly cold--a capsize is deadly! You just can’t take chances.

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 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!
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. Two gasoline stoves are mandatory. You’ll burn about one-tenth of a Liter of fuel per person per day. Pot “cozies” save the day.  See my book, “Expedition Canoeing” for details.

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. Bring tools to clear a portage (axe and saw) and some bright-colored plastic surveying tape to mark the way; and always scout the route before you carry anything across.  Carry the canoe last, which is opposite of what most people do in the Boundary Waters!

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 flowage 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.

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 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 phone—if it works!  Rental 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.
The rapids can be long and difficult.  Cliff: 14-foot Pakboat (folding canoe)
Call Steve Schon 1-800-223-6565 to order a Pakboat Folding Canoe or get your questions about them answered.

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 can learn a great deal in just one day. The “backferry” is the most important technique. Stress this to your instructor! You’ll also need to practice “lining” your canoe around obstacles. There are some opportunities in the BWCA, but only if you have ropes attached to the ends of your canoe and get off the beaten path.  
Cliff: Lining around a difficult rapid.  14-foot solo Pakboat (folding canoe)
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 (you can special order these through Piragis).

Sandals and sneakers which work for the Boundary Waters are worthless on cold northern rivers. You need knee-high rubber boots, warm insoles and wool socks.  Camp footwear should be tough enough for serious hikes.  Clothes should be wool and nylon.  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 life-saver.

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”. And you can practice your new skills in the BWCA and on local rivers.

Cliff Jacobson

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