[Alex finishing a portage]

Boundary Waters Canoeing with the Center for Outdoor Adventure

This report chronicles a short canoeing adventure. The three-day trip, in early October of 2006, was organized by the University of Minnesota Center for Outdoor Adventure. We put in at Sawbill Lake, which is on the southeastern edge of the BWCAW at the end of the Sawbill Trail.

These pages were written and organized by me, Reid Priedhorsky. You can click on captioned images for a larger version (of the listed choices, this gets you “medium”). Uncredited photos were taken by me. The text and the report as a whole is copyrighted by me, and photos are copyrighted by their respective owners. All rights are reserved.

Comments and feedback are most welcome at reid@reidster.net.

Table of Contents


Map of our trip. The line, gathered using GPS, traces where I went; others’ paths were similar but not identical.

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Cast of Characters

We consisted of eight people assembled nearly at random. I’ve been on several trips like this in the past — having led for the Macalester Outing Club — and it’s always worked very well. The camaraderie that develops is really great. On this trip, I didn’t think that happened. It was too short, and this matches my previous experience as well. It seems to always take a few days for people to really warm up to each other. This was clearly developing here as well, but three days was just too short.

Anyway, we were:

  • Fearless Leader Mike, University junior.
  • Fearless Leader Al, also a U undergrad, who, if he had a nickel for every time someone said that, would be lavishly wealthy.
  • Monika, a German Studies graduate student.
  • Wanjiru, from Kenya.
  • Amanda, a political science undergraduate.
  • Martha, a geography undergrad.
  • Alex, civil engineering grad student from Belgium.
  • Me, semi-professional nerd specializing in human-computer interaction.

Several folks knew each other before the trip. Here is a diagram:

Day 1, October 6

Not long after eight o’ clock AM on October 6 found me hoisting a duffel full of camping equipment onto my back and wandering off to the U. I arrived in the COA offices at the appointed time of 8:30 and found it full of activity. Soon Alex the Belgian and I were paired and rapidly repacking our personal gear into a Duluth pack.


Me packing in the COA office.

Photo by Alexandre Depouhon
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Alex with the COA van. Note the trailer full of canoes.

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By 9:15 — only 15 minutes late, not too bad — we were off, one large van, eight people, and four canoes on a trailer with no working brake lights. We stopped for food shopping and lunch in Two Harbors, photos at Tetteguche State Park, and finally turned onto the Sawbill Trail in Tofte, MN. This wound through the post-color-peak fall North Woods, until we arrived at Sawbill Lake.


The North Shore of Lake Superior

Photo by Alexandre Depouhon
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After unloading, dragged everything down to the water’s edge. It had been eight years since I had been in a canoe, and I don’t remember ever being particularly good at steering one. But, in a fit of self-confidence, I volunteered to steer.


Monika and Al preparing to put in.

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Alex and I stepped into our canoe, and we were off at around 4:30. I was a little baffled and pleasantly surprised to discover that whatever I had learned about steering a canoe, I had retained. We paddled along under rather foreboding overcast sky with only minimal meandering.

We traveled northward on a slightly choppy Sawbill Lake. Alex enthusiastically spotted a bird. It was a rare species, known for its ability to do realistic log impressions.


Observe carefully my mad canoe-steering skillz.

Photo by Alexandre Depouhon
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Soon we arrived at the first portage, a modest 30 rods (500 feet) to Alton Lake. It had a soft gravel beach, and we were able to climb out and unload without getting our feet wet. I felt like a greenhorn doing so, but my feet also remained warm and dry.


Unloading the canoes at the first portage. L-R: Amanda, Martha, Mike, Monika.

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I manhandled a canoe onto my shoulders and trundled off. It was unwieldy and very heavy on my shoulders. Unloading it was extraordinarily awkward, since I had burned out my shoulder and arm muscles keeping the canoe level. I’m sure the operation looked highly amusing, but fortunately no one else had yet arrived on the Alton side.


Alton Lake from the portage landing.

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Al bringing a canoe over the portage.

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Alton Lake was kind of choppy and breezy. Alex and I headed out first, across the lake in search of a campsite. The first three were all taken, including, unfortunately, the island site. With the other canoes strung out far behind, we hung out in the lee of an island.

After regrouping, we headed for the opposite shore. Route-finding was reasonably difficult. I had a hard time distinguishing the outline of shore and islands. I did bring along my shiny new GPS unit, but I hadn’t figured out a place to put it that was convenient for navigation.

The camp turned out to be pretty easy to find. Alex and I scouted it out. I was a little skeptical; it seemed nice, but I didn’t see too many level tend pads. However, it was getting late, and the consensus was that gambling on the next one wasn’t such a good idea.

We set up camp and enjoyed a fine north woods sunset.


Al and Mike ordering us to bed.

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Martha cooking a delicious substance of some kind.

Photo by Alexandre Depouhon
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Wanjiru, Alex, and I were in one cook group. We used the MSR cook kits and stoves (SimmerLite) provided by COA. Supper was red beans and rice with green peppers and corned beef. It was pretty good if a bit salty.

Setting up the bear bag was epic. By this time it was well after dark. Mike and Al wandered off to set it up, and for some time we could hear them thrashing around in the bushes in various places around camp. Eventually, I wandered down and found Al using a canoe paddle to bat at his shoe, which was at the end of the bear rope, suspended high in a tree. I tried a longer paddle, and then Al tried to use the paddle to place a strap around the shoe. Suddenly, Alex burst out of the darkness with a large stump. He placed it against the tree — the shoe was still out of reach, so Alex leapt scrabbling up the trunk, grasping it bear-hug style with both arms and legs, and climbed up enough to grab the shoe and pull it down.

When we gathered the food together, it was incredibly heavy. It filled up a #3 Duluth pack (bear in mind that we were out for only 5 meals). With two pulling on the rope and two lifting it, we managed to get it high enough.

Rather than being the regulation 6 feet from the trunk, however, the bag was resting against it. We sent Alex clawing up again to attach a second rope, which we intended to use to pull it away from the trunk, but the angles weren’t right and eventually we gave up.


Our excuse for a bear bag.

Photo by Alexandre Depouhon
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We hung out around the fire for a while, and people drifted off to bed.

Day 2, October 7

I woke up around 8:00 AM or so. It looked like it would be a fine day. Breakfast was ramen noodles, which were a bit salty for the first meal of the day.


Camp on the morning of Day 2.

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View of Alton Lake from our campsite landing.

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Alex and Mike putting up the bear bag in preparation for our day trip.

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We planned a loop trip, visiting Beth, Grace, and Ella lakes before returning via Beth to Alton and home. The water was still a little rough when we set out and paddled across Alton towards the first portage.


Amanda and Martha arriving at the portage from Alton to Beth Lake. Mike and Monika are next.

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The portage from Alton to Beth was 140 rods (about 1/2 mile), considerably longer than the previous day’s.

As I was taking photos at the end of the portage, an unfortunate camera malfunction occurred. The camera suddenly zoomed fully out and ceased responding to the zoom lever or any of the menu buttons. Otherwise, it worked fine, so I was able to still take pictures the rest of the trip, but the problem was very annoying. (I later sent it in for warranty service, and Canon fixed it quickly and with no hassle.)


Beth Lake.

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Putting in after the portage from Alton to Beth.

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Paddling across Beth Lake.

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On Beth Lake we saw a loon. Alex and I paddled quietly up towards it, but it wouldn’t let us come closer than several yards before slipping beneath the surface. I felt a little bad to bother it in that way, but it was very cool to see one up close.

The portage that waited for us was a doozy. It was 285 rods, nearly a mile. It was my turn to carry the canoe, so I loaded up and trundled off. The 22 minutes it took me to get through were epic. Any network excutives seeking material for a dramatic miniseries bursting with suffering and anguish, please contact me at reid@reidster.net.


Al coming off the killer Beth-Grace portage.

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Grace Lake from the killer portage.

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After the portage, it was a gentle paddle around the C-shaped Grace Lake to our lunch spot at the next portage. Getting out of the water here was the hard part — the choice was climbing over heaps of submerged, slippery rocks or climbing up to the top of heaps of large boulders.

Lunch — standard cream cheese with sausage — was very welcome.


Monika at lunch.

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Wanjiru at lunch.

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Our fearless leaders earning their pay.

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We took a leisurely break in the warm sun, but soon we had to move on.


Alex on the Grace-Ella portage.

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After only a short dip in Ella Lake, it was up and over again to Beth Lake.


Beth Lake.

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Alex in the sun.

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On Beth Lake, Al let me use his fancy bent paddle. It was fabulous. I was amazed at how much more easily I could paddle and maneuver. Little does he know that instead of returning the paddle, I gave him a cleverly-shaped block of Cheddar cheese.


Watching the rest of the group put in from the Ella-Beth portage.

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Paddling across Beth Lake.

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Our loon was waiting for us, and willing to stay above water for a few photographs.

Photo by Alexandre Depouhon
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Returning to Alton Lake. I’m not sure what Alex is up to.

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Al showing off his no-hands technique.

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Approaching home. If you look carefully, you can see our camp’s landing straight ahead.

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Dinner was my famous enchiladas. On the thin MSR cookware, they burned a little bit, though we did most of the cooking over the fire and I think this helped considerably. I thought the end result was OK — certainly not a failure, but somewhat more burnt than I prefer. They went over well, though there weren’t as much of a hit as they usually are.


L-R: Me, Al, Mike, Monika, Alex (squatting), Martha, Amanda, Wanjiru. I tried to set up this photo with my own camera, but as the buttons weren’t working, I couldn’t start the timer. I took out the battery to reset it, but when I put it in the buttons still wouldn’t work and now it was stuck on the time entry screen! So, no more photos for this trip... :(

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Day 3, October 8

The night was very windy, and wind always makes me apprehensive. Then, I woke up baking hot. The wind had stopped and I was baking hot. I got out and opened all the flaps. Then, a few hours later, it started to rain. I leapt out of the tent and closed the flaps, climbed back in, realized that the clothes line was covered in gear, and leapt out again. Upon returning to my sleeping bag, I discovered that I had to pee. The whole process was much less stealthy than I had planned. So when the rain stopped after a few minutes — just short enough to make me wonder if it had been worth all the trouble — I climbed out of the tent again. It was all a little annoying. (Also, Amanda noted in the morning that she had wanted to strangle me.)

In the morning, it was still breezy and the water was rather choppy. It looked to me like it might be a very exciting paddle out, but it turned out to be not too bad. Sawbill Lake was much calmer, and Alex and I scored a free ride by holding onto the back of the girls’ canoe.

The drive home was kind of a let-down, as they always are. We arrived back on campus in the late afternoon.

Closing Thoughts

It was a little strange to be on a trip run by someone else. I’m very particular about my ways of doing things in the outdoors, and it was a challenge, when confronted with a trip that was run differently, to not be constantly telling others how to do it my way. I thought that I did pretty well, though, and it was useful to observe other ways.

At a gross level, the basic difference between my way and the COA way seemed to be that this trip was logistically more casual than I prefer. A key example is food: I usually plan food carefully in advance, and buy it before leaving town (and usually from multiple stores). On this trip, however, we didn’t plan anything at all until we were on the road, and we bought everything in Two Harbors. That kind of drove me up the wall. But, I also believe that exposure to this model helped me analyze the ways in which my planning is too regimented.

In the end, I enjoyed the trip, and I’m glad I went. The measure of success would seem to be, do I wish the trip was longer, and the answer is yes. I was inspired to run my own Boundary Waters canoeing trips in the future, and I look forward to writing about them in these pages. Until then, however, that’s all.

E-mail: reid@reidster.net
Copyright © 1999-2013 Reid Priedhorsky. Last modified: 2010-01-24 16:38 CST. Disclaimer.