Any time you take the leap and bring a toddler along on an adventure it’s a toss-up as to whether or not it will go well. Sometimes, like our first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) with 23-month-old Jack, the trip is a resounding success and you come home feeling energized and encouraged (and let’s be honest, pretty sleepy too!). Other times, the journey isn’t successful. When this happens we always go through a period of reflection. We ask ourselves, what went wrong? Why did it go wrong? What could we have done better? What can we take away from this?

As we drove the 5.5 hours home after a difficult and disappointing trip that was cut a day short, we had a lot of time for some serious reflection. We boiled our bad trip down to poor planning and poor parenting at several turns. So, here it is, our list of “What Not to Do on a Trip to the BWCA with a Toddler”.

Don’t Over-Book Yourselves

Summer is beginning to wind down here in Minnesota so we are doing everything we can to cram as much as we can into the last few weeks of great weather. Added to that, is the fact that I’m pregnant, now into my 3rd trimester, and we still have several trips left on our to-do list to complete before my discomfort and desire to stick close to home becomes too extreme.

Bobby’s parents had asked us to go on a camping trip with them during the first weekend in August, and after our great first experience in the BWCA with Jack this past July, we all agreed that a return trip would be well worth it! We also wanted to visit True North Basecamp in the Cuyuna Lakes Region and thought it would be a good idea to stack those trips, beginning at the basecamp and continuing further north to the BWCA.

Getting ready to leave Basecamp for the BWCA

Getting ready to leave Basecamp for the BWCA

This decision meant that we were beginning our trip into the BWCA already exhausted after several days of travel, 3 poor nights of sleep, already covered in bug bites, and ready for a break. When setting forth on any trip into the wilderness you should be rip-roaring ready to go and excited. All I could think about was getting home to my comfortable bed and ice cold water and found myself almost dreading the canoe trip. When you have a toddler along on a trip to the wilderness you definitely need your wits about you and Bobby and I were both already running on reserve energy.

Go Before the Third Trimester of Pregnancy

I am not a happy pregnant person. I struggle daily to keep my spirits up, to keep our rambunctious two-year-old engaged, and to do all of this while keeping myself relatively comfortable and safe. I was able to camp until 32 weeks when pregnant with Jack and continued to hike until 38 weeks. At the time we were living in Seattle, WA and hiked much more regularly than we do now. I figured that since I would only be 28 weeks pregnant at the time of the trip that I would be ok. I failed to recognize that every pregnancy is different and this second time around for me has been far more challenging than it was with my first.

28 week baby bump

28 week baby bump

Our baby girl, who is due this October, is transverse breech making me incredibly uncomfortable. I also have what my midwife calls an, “irritable uterus”, which boils down to lots of Braxton Hicks contractions if I do too much. I have really intense back pain that requires me to sit or lay down in order to feel any sort of relief from the stabbing pain in my back. Plus, all the other pains that go along with pregnancy, like sciatica, round ligament pain, and the need to pee every hour meant that I was basically useless and oddly resembled another giant portage pack that needed to be gently set in the canoe and carefully removed, but with the added bonus of needing regular snack and bathroom breaks in between.

Just chilling in my chair while the others prepped the canoe.

Just chilling in my chair while the others prepped the canoe.

A toddler doesn’t understand any of this and expects, and wants, Mommy to be her usual self. I do everything I can to muster up the energy and enthusiasm he requires me to have, but, I often fall short and Bobby has to pick up the slack. He has done more and more for me as my due date nears and I can’t imagine how exhausted and overwhelmed he is with everything. Somehow, we are making it through and making it work but it takes massive amounts of effort most days.

Don’t Prep Them Too Soon

We made the mistake of getting Jack prepped and excited about our trip in the canoe with Grandma and Grandpa far too early. His extreme excitement resulted in him not napping in the car on the long drive up. We had hoped he would sleep for the majority of the trip, as he was already about 4 hours short on sleep from the night before, and were greatly disappointed as he happily chatted with us most of the way. He wanted to have the sunroof of the truck open so he could see the canoe and constantly asked, “Where Papa? Where B? (his name for Grandma Brenda) Canoe with Papa?” over and over for hours on end.

Chilling in the car.

Chilling in the car.

Before we set off in the canoes Jack had only slept for about 30 minutes in the truck. He usually naps 2-3 hours a day so we should’ve anticipated that his overall lack of sleep would ultimately lead to some unpleasantness later…

Don’t Start Too Late in The Day

We made the rookie mistake of not arriving early enough at the entry point. It was past 2:00 p.m. by the time our canoes left shore.

Excited to finally be on the water!

Excited to finally be on the water!

We set off as most other day trippers were returning. We had left about this time on our first trip but it wasn’t August, one of the more popular times to visit the BWCA. As we paddled and zig-zagged our way across and around big Brule Lake disappointment after disappointment met us as each campsite we approached was full. After a little over two hours of paddling and finally agreeing that if the last campsite we had left to check out (the one located a mere 900 feet from the entry point that we had skipped because of it’s proximity to the car) was taken then we would call it a day and head out. Thankfully, this campsite was available and we had a place to stay! Lesson learned, next time we’ll try our best to arrive earlier in the day!

Beginner Paddlers? Don’t Go to a Big Lake

Another rookie mistake for us, that we didn’t know about when planning, because we’re rookies at this whole BWCA thing, big lakes are harder to paddle on, so beginners should stick to smaller lakes. Well, choosing Brule Lake, which is more then 10 times the size of the lake we visited in July was definitely a poor choice. The size alone was overwhelming, but, that combined with several small weather cells that moved rapidly across the water as we searched in vain for a campsite for 2 hours meant that things were beyond difficult for the paddlers in the group. Jack was terrified of the wind we were experiencing and needed to be held on my lap, which left Bobby solo to navigate our canoe through rough waters. Bobby’s mother who hasn’t been camping in 20 years and had never canoed before was terrified that their boat would tip and worked hard, doing her best to paddle as hard as she could to aid Bobby’s dad who is generally a bow man in the canoe when on his annual trips to the BWCA with his buddies.

Grandma and Grandpa in their Canoe

Grandma and Grandpa in their Canoe

We were so proud of how well she did and hope that maybe one day we can convince her to come back with us, though we may have our work cut out for us there!

We had been lured to this lake because of it’s easy access, lack of portages, and plethora of campsites. We neglected to take into consideration the fact that, while there are many campsites, they are spread far apart. And, while there are no portages, the amount of paddling required far exceeded what all members of the group were capable of.

Don’t Settle for a Non-Toddler Friendly Campsite

We only had one choice, the only campsite available after exhausting ourselves with paddling. Not to mention the fact that it was approaching 5:00 p.m. and we generally eat dinner between 5:30 and 6:00. The campsite we found was not ideal for a toddler. Rock faces, short cliffs with drop offs into the water, no room for running, and many toddler hazards abounded in this site. This is touted as the “hidden gem” of a campsite on Brule Lake according to some guidebooks but for a crew traveling with an explorative and adventurous toddler this site was hours of watching near-misses.

Lots of rocks for climbing on.

Lots of rocks for climbing on.

We found ourselves longing for our campsite on Lake Kawishiwi; flat, grassy, large, and a sandy beach to play on. The two sites we’ve been to now couldn’t be more different and believe me when I say that, had we had the time and energy, we would’ve found a different site from the rocky slopes we found ourselves perched on.

Don’t Forget to Let Them Explore

I think this is where Bobby and I faltered the most on this trip. Our own exhaustion, need to set up camp, need to cook supper quickly, and so many other things led to us not encouraging Jack to explore, dare, and be himself. We kept trying to contain him, trying to convince him that he should sit with us, read with us, lay down in the tent. All because we were too tired to recognize that what he needed was to burn off some serious energy after a stressful two hour canoe ride on my lap. We didn’t see it and didn’t even acknowledge that need until we were driving home. How could we have let our own needs and emotions take over in such a way that we missed all the signs. Missing all those signs led to a serious tantrum. It lasted a long time. Breaks of happiness or contentedness appeared here and there but for the most part there was a lot of screaming, a lot tears, and a lot of frustration. We didn’t recognize the child who was with us and found ourselves at a complete loss of what to do. I wanted to scream and cry myself but knew that wouldn’t be helpful. Jack is usually so happy when camping, it’s his element but, we had quashed in him what he wanted to do most, be a Wild Child, something we usually encourage in him when out adventuring.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In my extreme exhaustion, discomfort, and hunger I finally realized that Jack needed to explore. He needed to see what was around him, so I left my hot plate of food and went with him down to the water’s edge where we were rewarded with a really incredible rainbow!

Rainbow!

Rainbow!

It was too little too late. He wanted to throw sticks and rocks in the water. I saw the steep rock faces leading directly into deep water and couldn’t muster up the patience and courage of my own to let him dare and to let him play. Another tantrum came. He wouldn’t eat. Too wound up. He wouldn’t sleep. Too much energy that we hadn’t allowed to burn off.

We just blew it. We didn’t listen. We didn’t give him what he needed to be successful. We will next time, hopefully…

Don’t Over Plan the Menu

My father-in-law is used to going into the BWCA with a group of his friends, where everybody contributes and they all cook together. When we were planning the menu for this trip I thought his meal options seemed lofty, but assumed that with four adults along we could make it work. I figured we’d be eating better then we ever had on a camping trip before! Sadly, when adventuring with a toddler the pace is different, the number of available bodies and hands to help is lessened, and the need for food to be prepared quickly and on time is a very real part of the meal prep.

Pancakes for Breakfast!

Pancakes for Breakfast!

The meals we had planned took a bit too much time, required too many cooks, and ultimately were never cooked in their entirety. We’ve all agreed that on the next trip, we will stick to our easy meals of heat and serve options that can be prepped by one person easily and quickly, and with a lot fewer dishes! At least until our kids are older and need less supervision.

Grandpa frying up some mushrooms and onions to go with our steaks.

Grandpa frying up some mushrooms and onions to go with our steaks.

What Went Right:

Along the way we did make a few good decisions. So here are a few tips of What To Do when in the BWCA with a toddler!

Jack and his Bending Branches Acorn paddle

Jack and his beloved Bending Branches Twig paddle

Do Let Them Help 

Jack loves to “help” us. Now, this means that things aren’t always done in the fastest, most efficient manner but he’s happy and entertained and, for us, that’s worth any added effort or patience needed by us. Jack loves to help set up the tent and take it down and there are definitely some easy tasks that he can be given. Stuffing stuff sacks, rolling sleeping pads, squishing down camp pillows and sleeping bags are all camp chores that a toddler can easily assist you with. Let them!

Jack helping to put up the tent.

Jack helping to put up the tent.

Do Bring a Hammock

Bobby and I had made the last minute decision on our last trip to leave our hammock at home, as a way to reduce the amount of stuff in our packs. This trip we opted to make the sacrifice and squeeze it in. We are so glad that we did! It provided lots of entertainment for our guy and it was in a safe and contained space which allowed all of us to relax for a few minutes!

Playing with Daddy in the hammock

Playing with Daddy in the hammock

Do Leave if Things Aren’t Going Well and Nobody Sleeps Well

We made the exact right call the following morning when, after nobody got a good night’s sleep, we decided to leave a day early. Jack had been up for several hours during the night, which is incredibly unusual. I hadn’t slept more than 4 hours because I was horribly uncomfortable. I actually spent a good portion of the night sitting up and listening to an audiobook because laying down was too painful. Grandma hardly slept at all either and we were all even more exhausted and worn out that morning than we had been the previous evening.

Bobby and Jack sleeping past sunrise, one perk to being up for a good portion of the night!

Bobby and Jack sleeping past sunrise, one perk to being up for a good portion of the night!

Nobody wants to cut a trip short, but, sometimes it is the best decision you can make. Jack was much happier that morning but I was feeling lousy and Grandma was exhausted and overwhelmed. These trips should be about having fun and when people on the trip aren’t having fun, it’s important to cut your losses and head out. Why push it? Why force it? We are given a lot of time in this life to go back and try again, something I am always grateful for!

Do Go on a Multi-Generational Trip

This was a difficult, yet wonderful trip to go on. To enter a wilderness area at any age is a magical experience, but, to have the opportunity to do it at just 2 years of age with not only your parents, but your grandparents along, is immeasurable meaningful. To know, not just be told, that the importance of wilderness is felt by the generations that have come before you is a true gift. For our children to be growing up in a family that has long discussions over a campfire cooked meal on the best ways to practice ‘Leave No Trace’ isn’t something that many kids will experience in their lives. I am forever grateful that we made the decision to move back to MN, after Jack was born, and that he gets to grow up going on adventures with his grandparents along. It’s trips like this that reminds me of the greatness and necessity of a village to help raise a child. The pictures we have for him to see when he’s older and the memories we take away from this trip are irreplaceable. We are so grateful that we were able to do this trip with them!

Three generations of Markos in the BWCA

Three generations of Markos in the BWCA with our Bending Branches Paddles!

Grandpa, son, and grandson in canoeing in the BWCA

Grandpa, son, and grandson canoeing in the BWCA

The BWCA is at risk from sulfide-ore copper mining near its boundaries. Please read more about why it’s important for us to protect this national and state treasure and help us protect the Boundary Waters.

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About the author


I am the youngest of six daughters and spent my childhood vacations camping in the beautiful State Parks of MN. In 2009 I married my best friend, Bobby Marko. We have embarked on numerous adventures along with our Golden Retriever, Latigo, our son, Jack (born 7/26/2014) and our daughter, Rowan (born 10/25/2016). When not adventuring in the great outdoors I spend my time as a stay at home mom and volunteer. I am a Branch Lead for the Twin Cities Hike it Baby branch. My favorite pastimes include dog training, eating chocolate, reading mysteries and crappy romance novels, and creating paper crafts, my passion lies in writing.

5 comments

  1. Thank you for this post and your honesty! I’m so impressed by the trips you take with Jack. I’ve been having such a hard time getting motivated to do anything at all at this stage, so it’s great to see how you’re powering through it all, even the hard stuff.

  2. Maura Marko

    All of your posts on the recent hikes you’ve been going out on have totally floored me, and have me wishing that I could still hike for 5 miles! It’s so great that we’ve been inspiring each other through both of our pregnancies. One day we should really try and meet in person!

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