We were very disappointed when our first trip of the season to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) was canceled due to cold weather back in May. Our four day, three night trip to Clearwater Lake during the long 4th of July weekend came soon enough, though, and we were busy packing and planning in the days just before the trip. It would be our son, Jack’s (2 years), third trip to the BWCA and our nephew, Ryan’s (10 years old), and daughter, Rowan’s (8 months), first time in the BWCA. Aunt Katie (who joined us on our inaugural visit last year) was once again by our sides to help and join in on the fun. The weather forecast looked dismal leading up to the weekend but I chose to ignore it and hope for the best, while preparing for the very real possibility that we would spend much of the weekend waiting out rain showers in our tents.
As with all of our trips some things went well, others were more challenging. Overall though this trip was a resounding success with good times had by all. Below I’ve listed what I planned for, learned from, and how a trip with kids and babies along was successful.
Our first time to the BWCA was last year and I was six months pregnant with our daughter, Rowan. We visited Kawishiwi Lake and everything was ideal; the campsite, the weather, the spirits of the group. My only fault in that first trip was the horrendous job I did in meal planning. We had about 50 pounds of food, most of which was never eaten. This trip I planned meticulously and realistically. I decided to pack only one backup meal, many snacks for each of us, and simple, easy to make meals. Planning food for this trip was my very own trial before I would need to begin planning food for our family for a month when we venture off on our big Arrowhead Traverse at the end of July. I must be a bit egotistical here and say that I totally nailed the food. I may even go so far as to say I knocked it out of the park. We returned home with minimal food stuffs left in our newly purchased cooler portage pack from Kondos Outdoors in Ely.
One thing I was certain to do before leaving home was repackage most all the food. For example: I measured out exactly enough pancake mix, writing on the ziplock bag how much was packed and how much water was needed, then we just poured the water into the baggie, which decreased our dishes for the morning. For our first morning of fresh eggs on our breakfast sandwiches I had pre-scrambled the eggs in a ziplock baggie before leaving home. We had read about using boiling water and cooking the bag of eggs easily, it didn’t work out well for us and a bit of the bag melted… Maybe I should read a bit more into it before I attempt it again!
We also used a large water-tight 5 gallon bucket for hauling in fresh fruit and bread products that we didn’t want to get squished. I brought a bag of apples and a bag of oranges so we could still enjoy some fresh fruit while out. The other great thing about the bucket is that it can double as a chair while in camp!
For snacks I made each member of our crew their own snack bag which contained an array of granola/energy bars, trail mix, snickers, dark chocolate covered blueberries, and fruit snacks for the kids. Some special treats I brought along were licorice, boxes of apple juice, and shelf-stable Horizon Milk. For a complete meal shakedown click here.
Rowan drinks formula 5 times a day and requires her bottles to be warm. This presents a slight challenge when out in the woods but it is easily overcome with some good planning. Knowing that when you camp things are never very clean I didn’t want to bring a large tub of formula for her that would potentially, and more than probably, get really nasty really quick. Instead, I pre-packed individual baggies of formula for each feeding. I had found that snack-sized baggies were too difficult to pour from but that this smaller baggie from Amazon worked great. The largest bottle size Rowan currently drinks is 6 ounces but there was definitely room in these baggies for a couple more scoops if you should need it.
Heating up water for the bottles was made easy by our Jetboil stove, which can boil water in no time flat! We would use the excess water we heated to clean the bottle after she was done. It was nice having a small mesh bag to put the bottles in and hang them from a tree to dry. Also, having two bottles along was nice if we weren’t able to wash them immediately.
We spoke with our pediatrician before leaving to make sure that the water we filtered from the lakes would be clean enough for her to drink and she basically told us that if it was good enough for us it was good enough for her and there was no need to worry about double filtering.
When canoe camping the rule of thumb is to bring along two outfits, one wet to be worn while in the canoe, and one set of dry clothes to be worn in camp. That’s exactly what I packed for myself and Bobby. I added in additional clothes for Jack as he is a bit unpredictable, more willing to get muddy, dirty, wet, or anything else. So, having more than just two sets of shirts and pants was definitely key.
For Rowan we stuck with just two outfits and two sets of PJs. We did get to try out our new Scrubba Bag on one set of her PJs after I managed to spill a good portion of her breakfast all over her… It worked surprisingly well and having some extra rope along to use as a clothesline was perfect.
Having warm layers for the chilly mornings in camp was vital, as was our frequently used rain gear. It’s great that Rowan now has an Oakiwear Rainsuit of her very own now that she’s a bit older and bigger!
Good hats and long sleeved/pant, lightweight base layers not only protect the babes from the sun but the bugs as well. Wool socks and two pairs of shoes (one for use in the water/one for in camp) is also important for overall comfort while exploring via canoe.
We generally don’t use bug spray but we did pack Picardin bug repellent from Sawyer per our pediatricians recommendation. She agreed with us that using Deet around a thumb sucking toddler and a busy baby who puts everything in her mouth wasn’t a good idea. She also agreed that pretreating our clothing with Sawyer’s Permethrin spray was also recommended. We ended up only needing the bug repellent a handful of times and were more grateful that we had brought along the Benadryl Itch Cream. If nothing else this provided peace of mind for Jack when he did get bit. He is very allergic to mosquito bites and swells up badly when bit. So, for him, any relief is good.
We had brought along mosquito head nets had things been really bad but, we found ourselves lucky with the bugs, in that only the No-See-Ums and Mosquitos seemed to be out. I never found a tick on anybody and the black flies weren’t biting. We got even luckier when a beautiful Swallowtail butterfly kept visiting us in our campsite. That guy really loved Jack’s Keens!
We had rain showers as we embarked on our trek and throughout our first paddle. We had had grand plans of canoeing three miles to the campsite with the best rating on the lake from the Clearwater Lodge website. However, the rain was dampening our spirits, our bodies, and our stamina. We instead opted to stop at the first campsite on the lake. We had thought it would just be for lunch but soon realized that all parties were anxious to get warm and dry inside a tent.
We had rain on and off for the rest of that first day and patches of rain during day 2. I had come prepared with games like Uno and Spot It as well as a Ranger Rick Jr Magazine, a Thomas the Tank Engine Magazine, and a Bob the Builder Activity Book with stickers.
These became clutch throughout our weekend in the woods, not only during the rainier times, but also when the kids needed some quiet time away from the group. Jack spent a solid 1/2 an hour coloring one day. He is a social guy but also enjoys his time alone doing independent play so this was a great way for him to do that.
The nice thing about bringing along magazines is that they are disposable. If they get rained on, ripped, or ruined in some other fashion it’s perfectly okay.
Our Nemo tarp tent was also great to have during the rainier/buggier times of day. Since it has netting on all four sides, a breeze is constant, and we can easily cook inside if need be.
The doom and gloom forecast did not come to fruition and we were pleasantly surprised by the sunshine and mild temperatures we had.
Rowan blew us away on this trip by becoming mobile! She learned to crawl in the tent, learned to go from her tummy to a sitting position, and started to work on pulling herself up.
Having a crawling baby in the woods can be stressful, when no surface is that soft, sticks, rocks, pinecones, leaves, and all manner of forest detritus can easily make it’s way into her mouth. We have an amazing Knee Bed from Northstar canoes that Rowan sits on while in the bottom of the boat, to keep her warm and dry, and it also became her camp chair.
She would quickly roll, scoot, or crawl her way off the large, soft pad which meant that somebody had to be assigned to sitting with her at all times. This could’ve been exhausting but with the help of Aunt Katie, cousin Ryan, myself and Bobby the work was nicely divided and she was safe at all times. She may have gotten a bit of extra iron as she did manage to sneak the occasional fistful of dirt… but hey I’m a firm believer in the eating dirt will make you stronger theory so we chose to just let it go!
We got lucky with Jack, in that, he loved wearing his Stohlquist lifejacket from day one. With Rowan we are not so lucky… She HATES it. And when she’s in it, everybody in a nearby radius knows because her shrieks of outrage echo around the lake. She was only happy if in somebodies arms, or standing, or being sung to constantly. This did lead to a 2 hour singalong in the canoe one day….
We are on the hunt for an alternative solution for her, that will hopefully be more comfortable for her. In the meantime we are happy to report that Grandpa Mike, one of her favorite people, is now planning on joining us on the canoe portion of the trip. This means we will always have an extra adult to sit in the canoe and deal with her. No more one-handed paddling for Bobby! Our hope had been that she would be content sitting solo in front of the sterner, playing with toys and looking around. Not so much! Hopefully, after a solid week of canoeing she gets more used to it.
This was our first trip to the BWCA with our new Northstar Northwind 20 canoe. We were seating 5 people total in the boat and tried many an arrangement throughout our trip. We tried having the two boys sit on a bench together which worked well for the first 10 minutes before they both began to complain that the other was taking up too much space…
In the end, what worked best was having one adult member of the crew sit on the knee bed with Rowan (or Rowan and Jack) while two other adults paddled.
This arrangement even led to the rare canoe-smile from Rowan, not commonly seen.
On our 1/2 mile paddle out on our last day. We got a good glimpse of what life will be like when we have two children able to paddle. Rowan slept (fitfully) at Bobby’s feet while Jack and Ryan paddled with us.
Adolescent Crew Member
This was our first time, since working at Boy Scout camp a decade ago, that we took an adolescent on a canoe trip with us. Our nephew, Ryan, is 10 years old and has car camped a lot. I had done my best to prepare him for what a trip to the BWCA would be like but he was still surprised by a lot of what was thrown at him. Where’s the picnic table? Why is this trail so narrow? Where are all the people? That’s our camping stove, it’s so tiny?!? We gave him a lot of tough love and set our expectations of him high, yet still reasonable. He was expected to keep track of his gear, set up his own sleeping area, help with the dishes, help with the water filtering, help with Jack and Rowan when needed, and to participate in our canoe songs. Some activities he did with more gusto than others but in the end he had nothing to say but positives. He beamed with pride after filling his own sleeping pad by himself. He learned self reliance when we would allow him to paddle in the solo canoe near our campsite.
His self-efficacy increased when going up the “hardest trail” he’d ever done, when we day hiked to the top of one of the nearby palisades.
He learned responsibility when helping with camp chores and the younger kids.
He also learned rationing as I gave him his own snack bag on day one and told him he could eat whatever he wanted whenever he wanted but that that bag of snacks needed to last him the whole weekend and there was no extra.
He also learned that I’m not afraid to talk about bodily functions when in the woods, and did (as promised) check in with him to make sure he was successfully doing everything he needed to be doing on a daily basis. We taught him the importance of water consumption when out in the woods. Katie and I harped on him a lot, encouraging him to drink water regularly. Katie had had the foresight to bringing along some powdered gatorade to flavor his water with which he loved and definitely helped him drink more.
Overall, I think this trip did him a world of good as he has been having some health issues lately. Those four days in the wilderness put color back into his cheeks, a spring in his step, and joy into his eyes and voice that hadn’t been there for awhile. I think it was a time that made him realize that despite the difficulties in life we may be thrown, we are still capable of a lot more than we realize.
Always our biggest question; did anybody sleep?!? The answer was a resounding YES! Rowan finally seems to have gotten into the swing of things when it comes to sleeping in a tent. As long as she has Bobby to snuggle up with she will happily sleep at night. Waking occassionally but never for long. The hardest part with her is that she likes to sleep in a corner of her crib, which means she tries to scoot herself to the corner of the tent, which just isn’t safe. Also, getting her to settle down in such an exciting space can be tricky. It worked well a couple of times to simply trap her between two sleeping pads. This won’t work for much longer so we enjoyed it while it lasts!
We had brought an egg-crate, foldable sleeping pad for her that she really didn’t like. So, Bobby ended up sleeping on that most nights while giving up his Ex-ped to her.
Having the Merino Kids sleepsack was just as key as it has always been, since Jack was an infant. The nights did get chilly so she was often under Bobby’s sleeping bag as well. She never once woke up cold though!
As for Jack, this camping thing has become old hat for him. It was easy, on the nights he wasn’t totally ready to go to sleep, to simply hand him one of his magazines and tell him to go to sleep when he was ready. This prevented the usual bouncing around the tent and he would eventually set it at his feet and fall asleep.
The kids took ridiculously long naps every day which meant that, we too, got in some much needed rest midday. These are so routine for our kiddos at home that we never had a problem getting them to sleep in the tent during the middle of the day. One key thing we do is play white noise on our cellphones. Both kids sleep with a sound machine at home, so hearing that noise is a good cue for them that it’s time to sleep.
For me, I struggle to sleep when it’s so noisy so I wear headphones with either quiet music or a well-known audiobook playing (like Harry Potter or Anne of Green Gables). Having a couple new audiobooks to keep me company during naptime was great too! We don’t feel comfortable leaving Rowan alone in the tent so a parent always has to be with her. I, personally, can’t sleep for 2-3 hours midday so after my brief siesta it’s nice to have something to occupy me.
Every time we’ve done a BWCA trip we have basecamped and set forth on day trips. This time around was no different except one of the day trips we did was a short paddle to a hiking trail! The Palisades Trail is a half mile scramble to the top of one of three palisades on the lake that affords sweeping, breathtaking views of the area (we’ve included a map of the trail at the end of this post).
It is totally worth the effort of not only finding the trailhead (which is harder than it should be) but also the rocky, tree-filled, trail that takes explorers to the top.
Jack was insistent on walking the whole thing by himself despite a scary fall and tricky footing. He did it! On the way down he got pretty stressed out and asked for a time out to collect himself. After that he was, once again, happy as a clam and ready and willing to ask for help when he needed it.
Every trip there are always a few pieces of gear that stick out as the hot topic of a trip. We sit around, marveling at this piece of camping ingenuity and thanking our lucky stars that we have it along on the trip. This trip, it was our new Platypus Gravityworks water filter. On our last trip we had an old handpump MSR ceramic filter that works great but takes tons of effort. With 6 people in camp and lots of fresh, clean water being needed, having this thing was so wonderful and easy. We kept imagining how much time would’ve been wasted filtering with our old one had we not had the foresight to make our lives waaaayyy easier with this beauty!
Having our breathable Lillebaby soft structured carrier along was great for having Rowan in around camp when nobody was available to sit with her. It was also great for the two day hikes we did while there.
The Final Day
Our last moments in the BWCA are generally tantrum filled, as Jack screams and cries as clean clothes are forced on his dirt-encrusted body while his beloved “new” (canoe) is tied to the roof of our truck. It’s a time of sadness as another adventure comes to an end. It’s a time of joy that we all made it out safely. It’s a time of realizing just how seriously bad we all smell. And it’s a time for celebration. Before leaving home I froze bottles of water and gatorade and hid them as a surprise treat under the backseat of our truck for all to enjoy as we reveled in the success of our trip.
This was by far our greatest trip to date in the BWCA and we can’t wait to glide our canoe through this pristine area next month. This trip gave me a boost in confidence as we prepare to set forth on what is to be the longest most difficult trek we’ve ever embarked on.