Unplugged and Off-the-Grid ~ Our Island Home (Part 3)

We finished our seventh portage of the day, and finally found ourselves in Long Island Lake, with the goal of setting up camp on the island closest to the portage.  A pair of loons greeted us as we began paddling toward the island.  My sons lifted their paddles and just floated along for a short while, until the loons swam past their canoe.

Loons on Long Island Lake, BWCA

Drawing closer to the island, we could not yet see the entry to the campsite, but could smell a burning campfire.  We made our way around the backside of the island, and sure enough, another group already had beat us to this lovely site.  Fortunately, Long Island Lake has numerous options, so we pulled out our maps, and decided to make our way to another island site.  The campsites are first-come, first-serve, and on popular lakes you do not want to leave campsite selection until late in the day, as you may need time to paddle or portage elsewhere to find an open site.

The second island campsite was open, so we unloaded our gear and settled in for the next two nights.

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The campsite was open enough to provide a cross-breeze which helped keep the mosquitoes at bay, yet provided shelter for our tents and campfire.

Long Island Lake island campsite in the BWCA

The island was not overly large, but a couple of paths led to the opposite side of the island and some interesting rock outcroppings on one side.  And, of course, there was the necessary trail to the latrine!

The path to the latrine

Each designated Boundary Waters (BWCA) campsite has a latrine located far from the lake, consistent with the BWCA’s rules regarding toilet facilities and water quality.  Bring your can of bug spray with you!  The latrine is usually in a wooded spot where the mosquitoes love to congregate — and you are revealing some usually protected parts not typically slathered in insect repellent!

Our island campsite latrine.
Our island campsite latrine.

The sloping rock from the campsite to the water’s edge was a perfect spot for fishing . . .

Fishing from our campsite on Long Island Lake, BWCA

. . . . or getting lost in a good book.

Long Island Lake, BWCA campsite

Perhaps once a day we would see another canoe paddle by in the distance, but otherwise we enjoyed a feeling of solitude on our little island home.

Ciao! ~ Kat

Other posts in this series:

Coming soon:  Part 4, Exploring By Canoe

Unplugged and Off-the-Grid: Getting our Paddles Wet (Part 2)

Turning off the cell phone and leaving it behind for four nights is a liberating feeling. Once we were up the Gunflint Trail, cell phone signals were no more.  Problem-solving while camping and on the water in the BWCA would be handled through good old-fashioned brain power rather than plugging the query into Google.  No email, text, Facebook message, or other digital note required immediate attention.  Video games, Netflix and other screen pursuits could not compete for family time and attention. 

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) is a special area comprising over 1 million acres of lakes, rivers, streams and forests located in northern Minnesota’s Superior National Forest.  The U.S. Forest Service describes perfectly the appeal of this region:

Wilderness offers freedom to those who wish to pursue an experience of expansive solitude, challenge and personal integration with nature. Because this area was set aside in 1926 to preserve its primitive character and made a part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964, it allows visitors to canoe, portage and camp in the spirit of the French Voyageurs of 200 years ago.

Paddling down the Cross River, Minnesota

Hungry Jack Outfitters shuttled us to our entry point, along with the two canoes, four personal packs, two equipment packs and one food pack that contained all we would need for the next three nights.  We put in at the Cross River, working our way to the formal Cross Bay Lake entry point, still three portages away.  As I explained in Part 1, entry to the BWCA from May through September is controlled by quota permits to specific entry points.  Some entry point permits allow motor use, others permit paddle only.  Some permits provide for day use while others are for overnight access.

Portages are paths on land connecting bodies of water.  A portage is measured  in rods, with each rod equal to approximately 16.5 feet or 5 meters.  The length is not as significant as the terrain — wet conditions can make for slippery rocks and muddy paths, with uneven footing or elevation changes adding to the challenge.  And, regardless of the length or terrain, each portage means unloading and reloading the canoes, with two of us portaging the canoes, two of us portaging one or two packs each (one strapped to our back and the other carried on our front), and then always a second trip back on the portage trail by one or two of us to pick up at least one pack that remained.

Our permit provided for overnight paddle use via the Cross Bay Lake entry point — the red circled “50” on the map.  The starting point for the trip was northwest of the entry point, with a short paddle down the Cross River, and two portages (approximately 50-rod and 40-rod) to Ham Lake, followed by a short 24-rod portage to Cross Bay Lake.  Our goal for the first day was to reach and set up camp on one of the island campsites on Long Island Lake, another four portages beyond the entry point.

BWCA map

Many portages are located next to small waterfalls or fast-moving streams of water.  They are marked on the maps with a number indicating the rod length of the portage, but some require an eagle eye to spot as you work your way across a lake toward the suspected location of the portage.   The entry and exit points of several portages we navigated during our first day on the water were quite rocky, and required careful maneuvering as we approached them to avoid scraping the canoes we were paddling.

BWCA portage entry

The Kevlar canoes that Hungry Jack Outfitters provided as part of our outfitting package were wonderfully light — I have no great upper body strength to write home about and yet I could quite easily hoist the 45-pound canoe without assistance, lowering the padded yoke onto my shoulders while lightly holding the sides to maintain the canoe’s balance as I walked down the trail.

The view while portaging a canoe.

With each portage, our efficiency increased.  On our third portage, we were formally welcomed to the BWCA!  I pulled out my camera and announced a photo was needed as my husband portaged our canoe.  The muttering I could hear coming from under the canoe was a clear refusal to slow and become an even-more-appealing target for the mosquitoes which swarmed heavily on the protected portage trails.

Entering the BWCA

When I wasn’t helping pilot through shallow waterways, I  would periodically announce my intention to set down the paddle and snap a few photos, pulling my camera from the watertight dry bag I used as a camera bag for the trip.  We drifted past towering rugged walls of rock, with my husband keeping the canoe on course from the stern.  I could easily have slowed our relaxed pace even further, just taking in the quiet scenery.  My peaceful photographic sojourn ended each time when an impatient voice from the back of the canoe asked if I was planning to pick up my paddle again sometime soon.

BWCA sights while paddling

Due to the unpredictable rainy weather conditions, we wanted to push on to our destination — a campsite on Long Island Lake.  We crossed paths at one of the portages with another group returning from that lake and they assured us the lake was virtually empty and we would have our pick of campsites!

Safely unloading the canoe at the BWCA portage.

The sky remained dark with heavy clouds, and the winds worked against us on many of the open waterways.  The rain clouds spit on and off, but we thankfully did not meet with any lightning that forced us off the lakes.  We paddled on, finding our rhythm of traveling together on the water.

Heading toward open water in the BWCA

Rather than stopping for a shore lunch of sandwiches, we pulled out the snack bag from the food pack and selected a quick energy granola bar or candy bar to tide us over.  As we drew close to our final stopping point for the day, the boys were almost out of sight by the time we finished loading our canoe and hit the water again.

Another BWCA portage successfully navigated.

Ciao! ~ Kat

Other posts in this series:

Coming soon:  Part 3, Our Island Home

Unplugged and Off-the-Grid: Gearing Up (Part 1)

Recently, I introduced you to (or for many of you, reacquainted you with) Minnesota’s cabin culture.  In northern Minnesota, I dare say that Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) trips are woven into the region’s culture just as strongly.

Amazingly, in over 20 years of living “up north” we had yet to make it into the BWCA for a family camping trip.  With our oldest son approaching his senior year of high school, we made the time this summer for a short introduction to the famed pristine beauty.  Because we have always tent-camped while traveling by car, we were not unfamiliar with camping, but we needed a little help equipping us with the gear that is needed for the BWCA “camping by canoe” experience.  Thankfully, there are plenty of folks who make it their business to outfit individuals and families for such trips.   

BWCA hungry jack outfitter 6_19_13

Based on a friend’s recommendation, we worked with Hungry Jack Outfitters up the Gunflint Trail to outfit our family with both gear and food, and to suggest route options and entry points which met our needs and interests for the three nights we would be in the BWCA.   We made our reservations months in advance, due to the limited availability of permits allowing entry at each point on each date from May through September.

Image courtesy of Hungry Jack Outfitters, http://www.hjo.com

Upon our late afternoon arrival, we were greeted by owner Dave Seaton, who spent the next hour or so orienting us to our gear, and to the BWCA rules and regulations.  The remainder of our orientation (primarily addressing the canoe and paddles) would take place in the morning.  

Hungry Jack’s full outfitting package includes a night in their bunkhouse.  The furnishings are sparse, but comfortable, just a place to lay your head before hitting the water the next morning.  But, what a treat when you wake the next morning to a basket of muffins still warm from the oven delivered to your door!

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Hungry Jack Outfitters’ bunkhouse

Hungry Jack Outfitters is situated on the shores of pretty Hungry Jack Lake. The sunset through the trees, viewed from the bunkhouse walkway, set the tone for the days that followed — and ended up being the only sunset we fully enjoyed, due to the heavy cloud cover and rain that persisted for most of our trip.

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The view from the bunkhouse toward Hungry Jack Lake

Before we turned in early, we drove back to the Gunflint Trail to enjoy a classic pre-trip meal at the Trail Center Bar & Restaurant.

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Trail Center is the perfect spot for a cold beer with a hearty burger, in surroundings that are wonderfully relaxing and one-of-a-kind — a classic Northwoods establishment.

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WIth the assurance that we had just consumed enough calories to sustain us over our three nights in the wilderness, in the event we lost our food pack along the way, we unrolled our sleeping bags on the bunkhouse beds and rested up for our adventure.

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Sunset on Hungry Jack Lake

Ciao! ~ Kat

Coming soon:  Part 2, Getting Our Paddles Wet

On the Beaten Path is Sometimes Worthwhile

If you research campgrounds at Glacier National Park, as I did before we camped there several summers ago, the Many Glacier Campground on the eastern side of the Park is usually described as “one of the most popular” campgrounds in the Park.  For me, phrases like that are usually a red flashing warning sign to run in the opposite direction.

Entrance to the Many Glacier section of Glacier National Park

But, as we sketched out a rough itinerary for our week-long Montana road trip, I kept returning to Many Glacier Campground as the ideal spot to explore Glacier’s iconic scenery, including convenient access to the Iceberg Lake trail (which I wrote about in this post), and what seemed to be a large number of tent-friendly sites.

Down the road from Many Glacier Campground
The drive into the Many Glacier section of the Park is beautiful, with Swiftcurrent Lake just down the road from the campground.

When the National Park Service has a chart of historical “fill times” for the campground, showing high season campground fill times of 8:00 a.m. on some days, you know that capturing a site at Many Glacier Campground is serious business.  And, for you campers in the crowd, you know that just because there are some open sites, not everyone wants to have the spot immediately next to the entrance gate, nor does everyone desire to bask in the glow of the toilet building every evening.  We were camping relatively early in Glacier’s season, at the end of June only a few days after the “Going-to-the-Sun-Road” was plowed through for the season (I promise a future post on that incredible drive!).  Despite the fact that noon was approaching when we arrived, we were able to capture a cozy site nestled in the trees.

Many Glacier Campground   Many Glacier Campground

The campground is adjacent to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, which provided token-operated showers for campers, as well as a cafe and gift shop (after a relatively warm 10-mile hike, the huckleberry ice cream at the gift shop was especially refreshing).  Because of the bear threat in the Park and campground, the rangers are militant about making sure campers have secured all food and other items that attract the bears.  Coolers, cooking equipment, dry food goods — all had to be stored in your vehicle, day or night.  On a warm day, this means the ice in the coolers melts quickly, which was another convenient aspect of having the the gift shop (which included a small grocery section) nearby — but not so close that we knew they were there while enjoying the campground itself!

Jack Gladstone performing at Many Glacier Campground

Many Glacier Campground had a wooded amphitheater where evening ranger talks and other programming occurred.  We were lucky to have our stay coincide with a presentation of the “Native America Speaks” program, which usually takes place at the historic Many Glacier Hotel down the road from the campground, or at the St. Mary Visitor Center.  Jack Gladstone is a Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter and a Blackfeet tribal member, who often performs as part of the Native America Speaks series.

Many Glacier's amphitheater at the base of Grinnell Point

As we sat at the base of Grinnell Point, in the waning evening sunlight, we enjoyed listening to the legends of Glacier National Park and history of the Blackfeet tribe in music and words.  A deer ambled through the woods on the edge of the amphitheater, pausing as if to listen with us.  We bought two of Gladstone’s CD’s at the end of the program, and are reminded of the magic of Glacier National Park whenever we play them.

I leave you with one of Jack Gladstone’s songs in the video below, and share with you some of the lyrics from his song, “Legends of Glacier”:

Gray Wolf and Beaver Chief caretake the land

The heart is the Sun’s beating drum.

Owl eyes and eagle wings perfect the view

Where spirit and matter are one.


Permit your wings to transcend the things

Consuming and cluttering life

You’re one on one with Creator Sun

And Legends of Glacier survive.


Ahh – Listen deep to the voice

That calls from our home long ago

We’re on the knife edge of time

We feel, but never quite know.


The youngest of all of her children are us.

The ones still learning respect

The soul awakens, the heart is revived

And Legends of Glacier Survive.

Keep Legends of Glacier alive.


Ciao! ~ Kat

I Walk Slow ~ reblogged from Backpacking Kids

Tonya of Backpacking Kids has written a beautiful post that reminds us why patience is rewarded when introducing kids to the outdoors early in life. I can still picture my 15-month old crawling away from the campsite as we tried to throw something together for dinner at the campstove, and fondly recall the photo I have of the boys more recently during our Glacier National Park camping trip reading around the campfire, as the sun dipped below the mountain ridges. Enjoy this post! ~ Kat

Backpacking Kids

“I walk slow. I walk slow. Take my hand, help me on my way.”
Lovers’ Eyes, Mumford & Sons

When I’m out hiking or backpacking with my kids, I am often stopped by people who ask me how I got my kids to do it. They explain that they have kids too, but they didn’t bring them because they are too slow. Or they can’t go very far. Or they have to take too many potty breaks. Or they get tired and cranky. The reasons (excuses) come pouring out, but it all boils down to inconvenience.

Yes, hiking with kids is more difficult than hiking without them. Yes, they walk slow. But the answer to successfully hiking and backpacking with children is simple: Start them young and be patient.

When my son was two years old, hiking with him was very tedious. I could not get him to keep…

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