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An Architect’s Vacation: Paddling through the Boundary Waters

How did you spend your vacation? Did you find, like me, that having a getaway refreshes, rejuvenates, and gets you ready for the 50+ weeks to come?


This summer, my husband Carl and I journeyed through the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area of northern Minnesota and into Quetico, the adjacent lake region of Canada. We did this in a 22-pound canoe packed with all of the provisions and gear we would need to live in the wilderness for two weeks.

We enjoy these canoe-and-camp trips regularly; this was not our first trip. Our route would be a loop, up across the border (with a stop at the Canadian Park Ranger’s) and through Quetico, and end back at our outfitter’s place on Iron Lake, often canoeing up to a dozen miles in a day with up to 8 portages, or carrying of our canoe and all our gear, between the lakes or around a waterfall.

Carl dries all of our food for each trip. He then measures and packages each meal individually and labels the meals for each day. This is our all food for the trip

The area is the only one dedicated to canoeing, so it’s quiet. And because there are fewer people here than elsewhere, we saw more animals up close –– moose, bald headed eagles, loons (once just 10 feet away), beavers and otters. It’s spectacular to see a bald eagle on its nest and just to be in that place – to experience it.

All our gear is loaded in our 22 lb. carbon fiber 17′ canoe and we are ready to go. Everything we need for living in the wilderness is packed into 4 backpacks, including all our food, tent, tarp, clothes, sleeping bags, pillows and sleeping mats, stoves, water pumps, pots, fuel of our stove, kitchen and eating utensils. And our kindle with a solar battery recharger!

Two things stood out about this trip. Previously, my trainer had noticed that one of my arms was a lot stronger than the other. This was because I paddle mostly on the left and Carl paddles mostly on the right. So, 2 months ago, on the suggestion of my trainer, we started practicing for the trip by switching back and forth every 15 minutes. However, we doubted so few practices had made a difference.

In past years, it would be a lot for us to go 10 -12 miles, including the portages, in one day; 12 miles was our previous personal best. This year, though, it rained for two whole days during the trip; we stayed where we were, our small tent sheltered under a tarp on our island. Between the rain bursts, we watched the clouds, looking for a break in the weather. By the time it stopped, our vacation time was winding down and we had only one day left to padlde out. We knew it was too far to paddle back to our scheduled desitination. We were able to make the arrangements with our outfitter by satellite phone (my sole demand for additial safety as there is no cell phone service to call for help in an emergency), but there was a catch –– we would need to get to the closest pickup point 16 miles away in just one day. That was 4 miles more than our personal best! It was hard to imagine we could accomplish such a long distance. Our strategy, we decided, would be to get up early and paddle comfortablly and steadily, take breaks when we had to and savor every part of the day.

Even after 2 days of rain, we were still dry, thanks to our fabulous MSR tent and tarp. Most people do not put up a tarp over a good tent, but as your dry area shrinks with each hour of rain, and we like make sure that our tent and gear stays dry so that we stay comfortable. We also like to have some space around the tent to stand and watch the rain. We think is worth the weight of the tarp to have this level of comfort.

It was on that final day that we noticed with shock and surprise how big of a difference the proper training made in our capacity. By switching sides, our strong arm got a rest and our weak arm had become strong enough to effectively paddle. Both sides felt easier as a result.

The other thing I realized that day is that sometimes you can really psych yourself out, getting anxious and stressed over something you perceive to be beyond your ability. When we packed up and climbed into the canoe that morning, after two days of rain, we immedialty ran into trouble as there was a heavy fog on the lake, which was huge and full of islands. There is no GPS, but we each had detailed maps. We had to look at the landscape and compare it to the maps to figure out which island was which and navigate our route. In the fog that became almost impossible. The distance, too, was daunting; more for me than for Carl because he is physically stronger.

Yet it was not a race; we went at a nice, steady pace and just when we wondered if we were lost, the fog lifted revealing all the islands and the full beauty of the Boundary Waters. We reframed what that day’s experience could be and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We made it. We travelled 16 miles in one day, including portages; it was the furthest by far that we had ever canoed in a single day, yet we were completely happy and comfortable.

It wasn’t like we were stronger; we weren’t. We had gotten really good advice, applied this advice and met the day at a determined pace. We felt a huge sense of pride and accomplishment. It was a beautiful day and a meaningful end to our adventure. I came back to the office ready to work, excited about the projects and ready to handle all they would entail.

We made it! 120 miles in total, 16 miles on our last day! We are already planning our next trip!


P.S. If you are thinking about paddling in the Boundary Waters and want advice or if you you want to share your story, please drop me a line.

This is one of our favorite dinners- we bring dried tortilini and add pesto sauce, rehydrated ham and vegetables, followed by a raspberry dessert with a chocolate crumble topping. We also love split pea soup, chili or chicken stew. Every third night is a wine night, but our typical drink is iced tea. We carry 2 water pumps so that we know we can drink ‘clean’ water even if one of our pumps break.

This is a typical lunch- we rehydrate cabbage and carrots and guacamole or humus. We carry cheese and salami for the first days, and later substitute protein like grocery-store bought salmon or chicken packaged in a pouch. We bring iceberg lettuce as it lasts a long time a a few leaves helps makes a great sandwich on day 8!

We pack all of our gear into 4 backpacks. A lot of people use big square canoe packs, but we find it easier to carry our gear in our backpacks, especially if the portage is steep or rocky or narrow or long….which is just about all of them! All of our packs are old, but they are really comfortable so we stick with them. And if we can’t fit it in a backpack, we don’t take it!
The big blue pack has 2 waterproof tubes with our food as well as our bedrolls. It is our heaviest pack and on at the start of the trip before we have eaten anything, it weights about 60 lbs. The little orange pack is the kitchen. It has our camp fuel, stoves, water pumps, cooking equipment and eating utensils. it also has some fishing gear. We walk each portage twice, and Carl carries the canoe and the little orange backpack on one of his trips over the portage. The bright green pack has all of our clothes, rain gear, sleeping bags and pillows. The dark green pack has our tent, the tarp and poles, first aid kit, hammock, satellite phone and our daily lunch supplies. After a rain, this pack is a lot heavier if our tent and tarp is wet. We take 2 sets of maps so we both are navigating. We snap the map cases and lifejackets to the packs to carry them over the portages.

Carl does most of our cooking. We use an MSR whisperlite stove. Most of our meals can be cooked in one saucepan although we used to bring a camp oven and make biscuits when our children came with us.
This is an exceptional set up, as someone balanced a stone to make a camp kitchen; usually Carl sets up his stove on the camp fire grate