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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

Planning Your First Group Canoe Trip by Steve Volkening

Although solo canoe trips are becoming increasingly popular, most people come to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Area in northern Minnesota or Quetico Provincial Park in southern Ontario as part of a group. This beautiful area features thousands of lakes on both sides of the border and is the world's largest waterways wilderness. It offers great fishing, photography, wildlife, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, camaraderie around the evening campfire, and an escape from the everyday pressures of work. Whether you use the services of one of the areas' many outfitters or outfit yourself, now is the time to start thinking about your group's next trip.

Plan Ahead

The success of most canoe trips is usually not dependent on the weather, whether the fish were biting, or whether the bugs were and drove you into your tent at dusk. Your enjoyment is often related to the extent which you planned, or did not plan, for the trip. Michael Furtman, noted Boundary Waters author, puts it this way: ''Poor planning will equal a poor trip every time.''

It is a good idea for members of your group to get together and discuss their goals prior to even applying for the permit. It is much easier to work out any differences of opinion in the comfort of a living room than along a portage trail three days into a much-anticipated, but poorly-planned trip. Before ever putting your paddle in the water, members of the group should reach consensus on such major issues as:

  • What is the purpose of the trip?
  • Where do you want to go?
  • Do you want to stay in the same campsite several nights or travel daily to see more territory?

[PHOTO: A photo of a group of men gathered uder a kitchen fly, with tables and coolers around the area]Some decisions are fairly straight forward. One of the most obvious choices for the group is to decide where you want to go. Will you camp in the designated single-party campsites of the Boundary Waters (with fire grate and latrine) or in the less-crowded Quetico (fire ring only)? Entry permits are needed for both, and you also need a Remote Area Border Crossing permit as well for Quetico. There are roughly 29 entry points into the Boundary Waters from Ely, 23 from the Gunflint Trail, and 3 from the Crane Lake area.

In addition to deciding where you are going, it is also a good idea to plan your last night's campsite to be within an hour or two's paddle from your take out point or where you meet the outfitter's motor launch. That way, you can have enough time in case the wind comes up, the portage is used by another group, or if morning fog delays breaking camp as early as you had anticipated.

When deciding when to go, the biggest challenge is often coordinating the vacation time for members of the group. Since most groups want to leave during the weekend, consider starting on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. If possible, try to avoid such obvious busy times as the 4th of July and Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. By careful planning, you can avoid these peak periods and also the most popular routes. You can probably select a campsite in a remote bay and have the area all to yourself.

Group Dynamics

One of the basic decisions centers around how many members will be in your group. Both the Boundary Waters and Quetico set a maximum group size of nine. In the Boundary Waters, there is also a limit of no more than three canoes. In Quetico, there is no restriction on the number of canoes in the group. On both sides of the border, the size limit applies to camp, while on the portage trails, or paddling on a lake.

The size of the group has a number of implications other than just the size limit on the permit. Traveling with a larger group presents a number of challenges you may not face with a smaller number. Having been in groups of two, three, five, six, and nine, I confess that nine is an awful lot of folks to camp and paddle together, at least for me.

Finding a large enough campsite becomes difficult when traveling with a big group. There are many beautiful campsites in both the Boundary Waters and Quetico. Not all that many have enough room to haul out four tandem and one solo canoe or have enough flat ground for tents for nine people. If you do travel in a larger group, you may find it easier to find room for a number of smaller shelters instead of three large, four man tents. A hammock with a waterproof fly can be hung in the trees where a tent can't fit and save open ground for the tents.

Personally, I like to sleep outside, so I can watch the evening stars. I usually try to find a spot away from the tents - often just a small depression in the granite lined with reindeer moss. That way, I have a bit of privacy and don't take up flat ground needed for the tents. On my last Quetico trip, a storm approached after dinner and I had to quickly erect my small backpacker's tent to escape the rain. There was literally no flat ground left in camp to set up my tent. All the available level ground was already occupied by tents put up the night before by others in my large group. I had to run down to the shore in the dark and carry back a series of large rocks to secure my tent lines on top of the granite slab.

A larger group also means heavier food and equipment packs to carry across the portages. More wood needs to be gathered and cut if you are cooking on an open fire. If you are using a camp stove, there are additional fuel bottles. There are more trips needed out on the lake to fill the water containers. Portaging with a large group also becomes more complicated. Many portages don't have room to load or unload as many as five canoes. The landings can become pretty crowded with nine people.

Differences Of Opinion

A larger group also increases the likelihood that there may be differences of opinion about the expectations for the trip. Odds are more likely that disagreements may arise about details on how far to travel, which campsite to stay at, which lake to fish and so forth.

It is important to match your group's skill levels and physical abilities to your canoe adventure. An often overlooked factor in planning is the physical condition of each member of the group. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a canoe party can travel only as far and fast as its slowest member. Are all members of your group in relatively the same physical condition? If not, the ''super athlete'' in the lead boat may become impatient with an out-of-shape friend who constantly lags behind.

How far the group intends to travel should be discussed before leaving home. Many suggest that 6-10 miles of paddling and 3-5 portages make up a good day. The average paddling speed (unless there is a strong headwind) is about two miles per hour. Portage lengths are marked on maps in rods, with each rod equal to 16 feet. An 80 rod portage is roughly one-quarter mile. Many people double portage, meaning they carry the canoe across first. Then they go back and make a second trip with the food or personal packs. That makes an 80 rod portage three-quarters of a mile long for those who double portage. While some portage trails are fairly flat, others have steep inclines or large boulders to negotiate.

If someone in the group is a novice camper, it may seem like it takes forever to set up the tent or break camp in the morning. It can be frustrating for the group to wait. Does at least one person in each canoe have adequate compass and map-reading skills? Many bays, islands, and peninsulas look alike. How confident are you of the group's navigational skills?

Choose Partners Wisely

Before setting out, it is a good idea to assess the personalities of the members of your group. While you can put up a tarp over the kitchen area in case of rain or spray on extra insect repellent if the bugs are bad, what do you do with someone "out of sync" with the rest of the group? What about the "nagger" or the one who always seems to disappear when there are dishes to wash or food packs to hang? It is probably a good idea to discuss ahead of time how the work around camp will get done. How will you divide up the routine duties?

It is important to work out ahead of time the expectations each member of the group has. How flexible are they, and are they willing to make compromises?

If the fisherman in the group are catching the "big ones" in the bay just around the corner from the first campsite, will you stay an extra night or move on as planned to get to the falls that others wanted to reach? If there is a photographer in the group, are the others willing to wait while he snaps off a roll of film at a pictograph site or waits for the light to fall on a flower along the portage trail?

I personally go on canoe trips for solitude and viewing wildlife. I prefer the more isolated lakes and less-traveled routes. But, these may not be the best fishing areas for the guys I travel with. I know that I am more likely to see wildlife traveling alone. It is unlikely to surprise a moose as part of a flotilla of noisy aluminum canoes; especially when someone breaks out in a spontaneous chorus of ''Row, Row, Row Your Boat.'' When traveling with such a large and lively group, I get my ''fix'' by escaping in a solo canoe for extended day trips on my own. I throw some gorp in my small dry bag along with some emergency gear and portage several lakes away for the day. Those solo days provide an opportunity for quiet reflection and a chance to watch the loons for an extended period not possible while traveling with a large group.

I have enjoyed each of my five trips to the Boundary Waters and Quetico immensely. Whether as part of a large group or small, with a group of friends of just my wife and son, each trip has been memorable. I wasn't certain what to expect on my first group trip, so I concentrated just on what gear to bring. I have come to realize that planning for a canoe trip involves more than just equipment. It also involves your paddling partners.

It is never too early to have a meeting and start planning next year's trip.



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