A cool breeze tickled my nose, waking me up from a much-needed rest. When I closed my eyes nearly an hour ago, Odessa—my chocolate-dipped border collie—lay right beside me. Now I could hear her splashing like a boulder into Gaskin Lake.
I sat there for a while, wanting to be still. I mean that’s why a lot of people go out into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: to find a moment to just be.
The Boundary Waters hugs the U.S. and Canada border and stretches across a million acres in the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. We were there in September, a time of year when you don’t know what season you’re going to get. Summer? Fall? The season can even change from one lake to another.
That’s what makes it my favorite time of year to go. It’s a time of transition.
Of course, the fact that the plumes of mosquitos die down has nothing to do with it.
But the Northwoods is a constant that has always welcomed me back. Crystal-clear freshwater, loon calls echoing across the water and forested, rocky landscapes are a few of the things you can always count on.
You can paddle through her lakes hundreds of times and never do it the same way. But it takes some planning and good gear, especially if you want to do things differently like we were about to.
I’d said for years how much I wanted to do the Boundary Waters with stand-up paddleboards. It’s my preferred mode of transportation. If you do it right and pack light, it’s fine. The bigger concern for the Boundary Waters would be how to portage a paddleboard. Rigging shoulder straps from bow-to-stern is one option, but my partner Aaron went a step further by building detachable wooden racks to carry the boards on our shoulders, just like a canoe.
Aaron and I planned a five-day trip, starting on September 9th. Jordan, his old friend from a wildland firefighting crew, and his son Mason were the first to sign on. Steph and Ann, two of Aaron’s paddle friends from the Twin Cities, joined as well. It was their first time in the Boundary Waters.
Our team drove up the iconic wooded Gunflint trail to Rockwood Lodge and Outfitters, one of the many outfits on the periphery of the Boundary Waters. Tucked away around a bend on Poplar Lake, the outfitter was our launch and landing spot on the way out. We had reserved two Northstar tripping canoes from the outfitter—lightweight, kevlar boats ideal for navigating the maze of trails and lakes.
As we pulled up to the lake, the sprinkle took a slight breather transforming into a cool, humid mist. Odessa sprung from the car, running inside to make sure she greeted every human. No doubt, she took some free handouts in the process. The puppy-like spring in her step told me she knew exactly what we were about to do. It wasn’t her first rodeo in the Boundary Waters.
Jordan and I topped off the inflatable boards with a little more air while Steph and Ann reorganized the gear. Behind me, I heard the outfitters’ curiosity and borderline incredulous tone as they asked how we were going to do the trip on stand-up paddleboards.
While paddleboards were not unheard of, they are still rare. And it certainly wasn’t the last time we were going to explain ourselves to passersby.
The rain grew steadier as we strapped two drybags to each of the paddleboards. The rest of the gear was piled into the two one-foot canoes, along with one soggy dog.
The outfitter gave us one final warning: our intended route was busy with reported black bear activity. With summer almost over, the bears were taking every opportunity to gain extra calories, and once a bear figures out that a paddler’s pack might contain the mother lode, it becomes a real problem. We borrowed a rope and pulley system to make hanging up our food packs a bit easier.
We launched our flotilla, heading directly southeast shortly after 10. Or perhaps it was later. We were on wilderness time.
Nature decided to gift us one last hurrah before she turned the page onto the next season. Shades of green still glowed through the gunmetal gray skies—a signature look for the upper Midwest.
Steph’s laugh and infectious positivity cut across the water. Joining Ann, Steph had opted to start out on the Escape and her paddle hit the portage rack as she took a stroke nearly sending her into the water. There were still some kinks to work out.
The paddle across Poplar was uneventful, minus several glances at the map to make sure we were headed in the right direction. Navigating in the Boundary Waters can be a bit tricky on the bigger lakes dotted with islands. Without any high points to reference, the shorelines and islands tend to blend together, especially in the rain.
Our first portage—only 53 rods—was an easy one, although we were immediately thankful for the knee-high Boundary boots as we slogged the gear up onto the bank. Portages are measured in rods. One rod is about 16 feet or the length of a standard canoe. Although the distances are a bit deceiving because, with our crew and gear, we hiked each portage at least two times.
Halfway down skinny Lizz Lake was the moss-covered U.S. Forest Service sign telling us we were officially in the wilderness. The rain still fell at a steady beat but soon faded into the background.
A small wooden dock helped us gain our footing as we exited the shallow, muddy lake. On the 73-rod portage to Caribou, we answered some questions about our paddleboards for some curious portagers and heard our second warning about bears. From that moment on we made a point that someone would always stay with the food bags and Odessa, equipped with our sole can of bear spray. It probably slowed us down a bit, but the peace of mind was worth it.
Caribou Lake opened up as we headed west, skirting along the north side of her islands. On the westernmost part of the lake, we found our quick 15-rod portage, followed by a shallow marshy stream that we floated on to get to one more 15-rod portage that brought us to Meeds Lake.
We were tired and soggy as we hit my least favorite part of canoe camping: finding camp.
Earlier in the day, we decided to grab one of the two island campsites on Meeds Lake for the night, providing a bit of a buffer against the bears. When we found the first camp occupied, intense relief washed over us to find the second one empty. Steph, Ann and I set up camp and dinner while Jordan and Mason scoured the island for wood to start a fire.
I’m not sure what happened faster: Odessa falling asleep by the fire, dreaming all the day’s smells, or me opening the boxed Cabernet Sauvignon – my drink of choice while camping.
Our trip that day was roughly a 4.5-mile paddle with 1.5 miles of portaging, and by now we were in a groove. With a little Cab to warm my core, I looked forward to hopping into the tent with a wet-smelling dog.
I woke to Odessa pawing me in the face and rolling around in the tent. I’m sure it was at least an hour before her usual breakfast time, but she was ready to go. I, on the other hand, was pretty stiff.
Clear skies and calm waters welcomed us that morning, which was good. We had a long day ahead of us, but at least our clothes and boots were (mostly) dry. Before we left, I took Odessa on a short nature walk around the island. I needed a minute to just be. That summer I moved to Milwaukee to start a new job and career. And after some issues with my new landlord, I ended up spending most of the summer without Odessa. I needed to make up for some lost time.
Moments after we began our paddle, a man on the distant shoreline waved us down. Another bear warning.
The goal that day was to make it to Winchell Lake, one of the bigger lakes in the area. But first, we had to hopscotch through a number of small lakes—Swallow, Pillsbery, Henson and Omega. From far away the shorelines may look the same, but it’s not until you dive into the woods on a portage that you realize just how diverse the mosaic landscape truly is.
Some portages are rocky, while others are muddy or moss-covered. Some are lined with dense forests and others tall grass. Burn scars and regrowth add a layer of character in some parts. Sometimes you can even come across a waterfall.
The portage racks for the standup paddle boards were working out much better than the first day. After Steph’s near swim, Jordan and Aaron cut off the excess wood that stuck out on the sides. We also realized it was worth the effort to take the racks off on longer paddles because it gave more legroom. It was also a bit of a puzzle figuring out what part to hold and how to balance them while portaging them overhead. But we figured out our rhythm, especially toward the end.
Jordan and I took a turn paddling the boards on Pillsbery and Henson, just in time for the wind to show up. An encounter with a headwind in the boundary waters can be precarious, especially on a paddleboard. But we dug our paddles into the water and got a good workout just before lunch.
By the time we got to Winchell it was late in the day, and we could see a couple of groups in front of us vying for a spot. We knew we’d find a spot on the long, skinny lake, but we surely didn’t want to paddle to the end after the day we had—6.5 miles of paddling and 3 miles of portaging. After a bit of anxiety, we found a campsite on the north side of the lake with a perfect spot to go for a quick swim. A big sloping rock made for a great place to sit and watch the sun set behind the forest, ending the day with the same sense of calm we started with.
With our toughest two days behind us, it was easy-going from here on out with an ideal forecast ahead of us. It was September 11, Mason’s thirteenth birthday. Before he woke up Steph and Ann took some twigs, pinecones and pine needles and spelled out “Happy Birthday” on the rock near the water. He had his choice of watercraft to paddle for the day, so of course, he chose the paddleboard.
Only a three-mile paddle and a 52-rod portage stood between us and our next campsite on Gaskin Lake. That morning I paddled with Ann in the canoe, taking the steering position in the back. I’d never been in charge of steering before, and you could tell. We lagged far behind the rest of the crew. As I fumbled with my strokes, she told me about the book she was reading: a thriller about a woman who was alone in the woods in Minnesota.
“Do you want to check it out?” she asked, knowing I was mad at myself for only packing one Colleen Hoover book.
“Absolutely not.” We both laughed as I nearly turned us around.
Just before lunch, we landed on a five-star campsite poking out on the west end of a peninsula. The campsite had it all: easy landing areas, space for tarps, a gravel beach, the perfect amount of logs to comfortably sit by the fire and multiple spots to sunbathe. It even had stairs down to the water. Apparently, the stairs were put in just before former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Minnesota native, visited the site on one of his trips to the Boundary Waters.
Relaxation was the theme that afternoon. Mason threw sticks in the water for Odessa. Steph and Ann read their books and chatted in the sun. And Aaron and Jordan reminisced about their days together on the fire crew. I lay near the water on the ground, which was perfectly sloped for my back. I finished my book, no longer able to stretch it out.
Cool air rolled in that night, leaving a dense fog to greet us in the morning. The iconic call of a loon cut across the water, but it wasn’t clear what direction it came from. After the fog shooed away, we bid farewell to our prime spot on Gaskin Lake and found our 98-rod portage into Horseshoe Lake. My body felt sore—but a good sore—after a much-needed day of relaxation.
As we looped our way through the horseshoe-shaped lake, we were glad we scored such a great camp the night before. More and more people became visible as we got closer to the edge of the wilderness. And something else caught my attention: blooms of thick, green scum coating the top of the water.
I’d recently written a story about how blue-green algae blooms are cropping up for the first time in Lake Superior, a lake that is typically seen as pristine. The green scum forms in waters where there is a lot of pollution runoff and can happen in lakes that are warming. Some blue-green algae blooms are even toxic and can make humans and dogs that swim in the water really sick. I made sure to keep Odessa’s nose out of the water.
Before we knew it, we arrived back at Caribou Lake, this time from the south. Several camps were already spoken for, and we settled for one on the northern shoreline that faced directly south. We made good use of another rock beach, laying out for an afternoon of swimming and sunbathing. In the distance, I saw glimpses of green reflecting off the water. As an environmental scientist turned journalist, I couldn’t stop thinking about what the algae blooms were trying to tell us. I would later look into it.
After dinner, we hoisted our food for a final time. The food packs were so heavy the first night it was an “all hands on deck” job. Now it was only a two-person gig. We never did end up seeing any bears.
We made our way across two familiar portages and razor-thin Lizz Lake back to the outfitter. A stiff wind greeted us on Poplar, which considering how great of weather we had on the trip, it seemed only fitting. We dug our paddles in for one last push and made it back to the outfitter before noon.
Odessa jumped in the car as soon as it pulled up. And as we packed up the outfitter asked us about how it went with the paddleboards. All in all, it was pretty successful. Over five days, we paddled 20 miles and hiked along seven miles of portage trails.
“I bet we’ll be seeing a lot more of those out here in the next few years,” he said as he walked back toward the lodge.
As we drove away, I knew that wouldn’t be the last time I’d take a stand-up paddleboard for a spin in the Boundary Waters.
Editor’s Note: Guest Contributor Caitlin Looby is a writer, editor, science communicator and adventurer living in Wisconsin. She spent over a decade hiking mountains in tropical cloud forests to study soil and climate change as a scientist. Now, her career is devoted to writing science stories and helping scientists talk about their work with the public. She spends her free time paddling, hiking, camping and playing with her two dogs. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
All photos by Aaron Black-Schmidt.