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 started on Fall Lake in the boundary waters. Our route took us through Basswod, and then up the man chain in Quetico. We then looped around American point and through a series of lakes to get to Lake Insula. We ended by paddling through lakes 1, 2, 3 and 4, covering about 120 miles in total.

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. 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!

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.

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.

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.


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.