A Summertime Canoe Trip with Teenage Girls

“My kids don’t even know what a pheasant is,” exclaimed my exasperated daughter, Greta, as we sat around the dinner table. Greta is about to enter her last year of college, but this summer she is a camp counselor at a suburban school district’s “Summer Adventures Program.”

The paucity of knowledge about the great outdoors by the kids in Greta’s group seems to be a symptom of the times. Increasingly, wild spaces are usurped by housing developments and shopping malls. Even in rural Minnesota it can be challenging just to find open public ground. Parents are keeping closer tabs on their kids and are leery to let them wander too far off the beaten track. Not only is access to the outdoors more limited, but interest in nature by kids seems to be waning as well. The demands of organized sports, the instant gratification of video games, cable TV and the internet, have, for many kids, supplanted more natural pastimes. As a child I lived at the edge of a 400-acre wood. I spent much of my free time exploring that woodlot, building forts, pursuing animals and just being alone in the trees, along bubbling brooks and on the banks of mysterious swamps. Those experiences helped build the man I was to become and those types of experiences can be just as positive for the youth of today. So it is with a sense of duty that I make it a point to introduce young people to outdoor living, and especially to the joys of canoeing in the Boundary Waters – plus it is one more excuse to throw a canoe up on the roof rack and journey to the end of the road and beyond.

This summer the plan was to take my 15-year-old daughter Zoë and a few of her best pals on a midsummer loop beginning at Lake One. Schedules being what they are, it turned out to be just me, Zoë and a red-haired girl named Ashley. Ashley was brand-new to canoeing and so had yet to be introduced to the magic of the BWCAW. We left on July 23rd and the weather forecast was for a week of hot and dry.

In mid-summer I like to travel light. Moving gear and canoe across a portage in one swath speeds up travel dramatically and carrying a minimal amount of clothing keeps things simple and mirrors the carefree spirit of July. Traveling light was going to be even easier when John Diller, CEO of Savage River Canoe Works offered me an opportunity to demo one of his high performance, ultralight, graphite tripping canoes. It was his 18.5 foot Susquehanna and it weighed just 35 pounds. The canoe was not equipped with a portage thwart so I clamped some webbing to the aft and center thwart and when necessary slid two paddles underneath for a yoke. It was a blend of vintage technique and one of the hottest high tech hulls on the market.

Photo by Rob Kesselring
Photo by Rob Kesselring

I was able to easily carry the canoe and a pack-barrel with all our food, a cook kit and a stove. That left two packs for the girls. In one pack we had 3 sleeping bags, a tent, 3 pads and all our clothes. In the other, a saw, an axe, the filter-pump, a tarp and everything else including a second tent. Now you might question a second tent for three people who planned to travel ultralight but to 15-year-old girls, the privacy of their own tent was important. Zoë gave me instructions, “Dad, pitch your tent far enough away from ours so that you can’t hear what we are talking about, but close enough so that if we scream for help you will come running!” That sounded like a good plan.

The big plan was 27 lakes in five days. Our route would take us through the numbered lakes and up the Kawishiwi River, through the islands of Lake Insula, up Alice Lake to Thomas Lake and eventually to Kekekabic Lake and then north to Knife Lake and the Canadian border before heading for home via Birch, Sucker, Newfound and Moose Lakes. It wasn’t a complete loop but I figured I could leave the girls and the gear at LaTourell’s Resort and hire Bob LaTourell for a lift over to my vehicle parked at the Lake One entry point.

The high temperature in Ely July 23rd was 92 degrees and with a steamy dew point it will likely go down as the most uncomfortable day of the summer. Our pent-up enthusiasm from the long car ride gave us a good push and we passed several canoeists on Lake One and Two. With Zoë and Ashley paddling on the port side and me on the starboard with rarely the need for a correction stroke, we were moving fast. There was not a seat for Ashley so she was up on the top of a pack and I teased her that she looked like Cleopatra. But with a 56-inch paddle she certainly helped with the thrust. I was accustomed to high-performance boats being a trifle unstable and I wondered if we could safely paddle with such a high center of gravity but I was surprised. Despite the race-boat inspired design, the Susquehanna is the most stable tripping boat I have ever paddled.

But by mid-afternoon on the glassy water of Lake Three the only living things that seemed to be enjoying themselves were various species of flies. There were big buzzing horseflies that bit like sewer rats, quick little house-fly look-a-likes that attacked ankles with a burning sting and ugly mid-sized flies that seemed content to just burrow in your hair. With no wind, blue sky from horizon to horizon and a blazing sun, by mid-afternoon I was afraid my crew would either evaporate entirely or turn into a couple of mad dogs. So I sought out a shady campsite on Lake Four. After a swim I looked at my watch and it was 3:30, ugh, five hours to sundown. We decided on some cards in the tent as a respite from flies but even with the tent pitched in the deepest shade the inside was a sauna masquerading as a tent. Trying to concentrate on the cards with sweat dripping from my brow, I began to question the wisdom of mid-summer camping in the BWCAW.

The level of ventilation in the tent did not help matters. One of the biggest scams foisted on the camping community is tent manufacturers extolling their no-see-um bug netting. No-see-um netting may keep out the tiniest of insects, but unfortunately, it also barely lets through air. Tent manufacturers utilize no-see-um netting only because it sews as easily as nylon and to use real mosquito netting would require a more sophisticated sewing technique. On a hot day, when a tent outfitted with mosquito netting can be a cool refuge from the heat, similar to a cabin’s screen porch, a tent with no-see-um netting is a sweat lodge. Unfortunately, for the last twenty years it has been almost impossible to purchase a new tent that utilizes open meshed, mosquito netting. We sweated our way to suppertime.

Hot dogs and beans were appreciated and six-foot marshmallow sticks helped keep the kids away from yet another source of heat, the campfire, but I could sense the seeds of mutiny were sprouting in the hearts and minds of my crew. Sad faces and whispered expressions of discontent were clues. There are three keys to getting kids to embrace the wilderness: provide food they will like, keep them busy and let nature be the classroom without a lot of added lectures. A hot dog can work wonders, but against this heat wave and fly attack I wasn’t sure it would be enough.

Thankfully on the morning of day 2 the wilderness worked its magic. A gentle breeze pushed away the humid air and most of the flies. A couple hours into our paddling a gorgeous beach campsite was empty on Lake Insula. Regardless of time or schedule, there is no good excuse for passing a good swimming hole on a hot day when traveling with kids. The girls took a long swim, inventing various games and challenges. Three-hour lunches are fine in the summer, there is so much daylight you can dawdle all you want and still get into camp with plenty of time to set-up the tents and build fire. In fact, failure to dawdle will only result in getting tired too early in the day. There is the possibility of not being able to find an empty campsite late in the day, but on this trip, even though it was July, most of the campsites were open. Only on Alice Lake did we have to paddle on and on before we found a site that was nice and unoccupied.

A crucial event happened during the afternoon of the second day. We were cruising along on the Kawishiwi River with a good head of steam and Ashley in the bow when, WAM! In forty years of canoeing I have never hit a rock harder. Had our canoe been equipped with air bags, they would have deployed. All of us were thrown from our seats and the canoe bucked like a hornet-stung mule.

A sheepish Ashley turned around and said, “I was looking to the right and that was clear, and I looked to the left and that was clear, but I guess I forgot to look straight ahead.”

No one likes to smash a high performance graphite hull into a rock but at moments like these it is wise to hold off on any reprimands. Accidents happen and accidents happen especially to beginning canoeists. More importantly this trip was about building a canoeist not preserving a canoe. So all I said, and I said it with a laugh, was, “I bet you’ll see the next one!” I must confess my optimism might have been partially influenced by the fact that it wasn’t my canoe. Later at the campsite when the girls were in their tent I took a good look at the bow. Expecting the worst, I was amazed to see no significant damage. Although it is always wise to treat canoes gently, these ultralight boats are far from fragile.

When you upgrade to a Kevlar or Graphite canoe it is easy to go on and on about the weight or the innovative hull shapes that are impossible to achieve with aluminum, Royalex, or wood canvas boats but there was another extraordinary feature on the Savage River canoes that deserves mention. One of the ways these canoes weigh-in lighter than the competition is through an innovative rail design. Utilizing a carbon sleeve around a foam tube, which is then impregnated with resin creates a rigid but much thinner gunwale than on boats with rails of wood, vinyl or aluminum. As a result there is a very thin lip and portage packs are much easier to load and unload. It is as if the canoe is much larger and it makes a big difference on trips where frequent portages are the norm. Our trip was not long enough to test the durability of these rails although one would suspect they lack the ability to take the beating more traditional gunwales can withstand. But on the entire trip a pack never snagged under a gunwale and it was never necessary to wiggle and squeeze packs into the boat when reloading at the end of a portage.

Photo by Rob Kesselring
Photo by Rob Kesselring

Photo by Rob Kesselring
Photo by Rob Kesselring

Graphite and Kevlar designs are tougher than they look but do require a little more tenderness than the tin “battleship” I paddled as a Boy Scout. When your canoe is so light it is easier to be gentle with it. You are not so tempted to drag an ultralight over shoals as you might with a big Royalex boat, because tossing it up on your shoulders is a gruntless pleasure. In the BWCAW it is very easy to carry a pack and an ultralight canoe and that makes single portages possible and makes an ultralight canoe very desirable for BWCAW travelers. I never complain about a boat being too light, but it is nice if the canoe remains in the same place you set it. We were always careful to tie down the Susquehanna at night.

A highlight of the trip happened on Thomas Lake. A monster thunderhead had been dogging us all morning and fierce downdrafts finally persuaded me to pull into a vacant campsite and hunker down until the storm passed. As it turned out the storm growled on by us to the north, just grazing us with a few slanted sheets of rain while entertaining us with thick bolts of lightening and echoing sonic booms. A thunderstorm in the suburbs behind glass and with sirens blaring is no match in thrills for a similar spectacle alone in the wilds of northern Minnesota. Of course, we waited for the storm to vanish northward before we ventured back on the water and even then kept close to shore. Soon we were dry and checking out cliffs on Fraser Lake for potential diving holes and yet another excuse to get wet.

Neither Zoë nor Ashley had been to Canada before so they were anxious to leave behind the tranquility of Kekekabic Lake and paddle north toward Knife Lake singing, “Oh, Canada” all the way – so much for the tranquility and for the likelihood of seeing a moose. Our biggest mammal sighting of the trip was to remain a red squirrel with a thinning tail that had greeted us at our first campsite.

But we did have excitement. By treaty, canoeists are permitted to venture into Canada without passing through customs if they are following an established border canoe route. When we first landed in Canada at Big Knife Portage the girls had planned to write with mud C A N on one belly and A D A on the other and then pose for pictures. When the mud smeared, Zoë had the better idea of using some old charcoal from a fire ring and it worked splendidly –you don’t have to go fishing in canoe country to have fun. As the days unfolded these two girls were finding more and more creative ways to enjoy their time in the wilderness. On the first night, they couldn’t wait for the trip to end; now they wished they could stay longer. Ashley will always remember her first international trip anywhere was achieved by paddle.

Near Carp Lake, feeling very hungry, our hearts soared as we saw a group preparing to leave a perfect picnic spot below a cataract and just a few feet into Canada. We later learned that they were a Chicago church group of adolescent boys and a couple dads. They were packing up their last canoe just as we swung into an adjacent eddy.

As we landed the canoe one of the dads said to Zoë and Ashley, “I should get a couple of these buff boys to help you haul up those packs.”

Although I am sure this man’s intention was the best, the girls took it poorly. They had carried those packs over a couple dozen portages in the last few days and certainly did not need help from any “buff boys”. The girls were polite but hauled the packs up the bank without assistance.

As the boys launched their canoes they were complaining that they had already paddled all the way from Knife Lake but the dads consoled them with a reminder them that they had contracted a motorboat shuttle that would pick them up on Birch Lake at 4:00. The Church group had camped a week on Knife Lake and they clearly had not had as much fun as our party. We had traveled every day, sweated and strained but knew that special triumphant joy of accomplishment, a joy which seems especially triumphant in a wilderness setting.

Overhearing the boys talking about their “long” paddle from Knife Lake Ashley and Zoë couldn’t help but mock them a bit as we had begun that same day three portages and a few miles south of Knife Lake.

We ate lunch and swam around the cascades before climbing back in the canoes and for the first time the girls took an interest in the map. “Dad, if we take this little portage from Birch Lake to Sucker Lake, we could actually pull ahead of those “buff boys” couldn’t we?”

A couple hours later on Moose Lake I watched two motorboats approach from behind. Familiar aluminum canoes were strapped to overhead racks and there were looks of astonishment on the faces of the “buff boys” as they realized they had been passed by an old man and two teenage girls in a black canoe!

Girl power, you can’t beat it.

Rob Kesselring is a frequent contributor to Canoeing.com. His books, River Stories and Daughter, Father, Canoe, Coming of Age in the Sub-Arctic, are available on ShopCanoeing.com >

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