Around the Base – BWCA Portaging and Route Planning

Around the Base – BWCA Portaging and Route Planning
Portaging A Canoe in the Boundary Waters – Part of Route Planning

Understanding that BWCA portaging and route planning go hand in hand is important.  The subject of our Boundary Waters Night presentation this year was “The Art of the Portage.  We talked about the ability to “embrace” a portage.   I think in the military we used to say “embrace the suck.”  Perhaps a bit synonymous, at least at times.  One of the major points of the presentation was the suggestion that in order to make portaging easier you should “trim it down.”  Bring less, and what you bring should be well organized and well packed.  Let’s think for a minute how this relates to overall trip planning.

bwca portaging


Boundary Waters Trip Planning

We often find when folks start putting a Boundary Waters wilderness trip together, they become obsessed with a route.  Their foremost consideration is where they will go.   They find every guidebook ever written on the Boundary Waters, every web site that comments on routes, and every blog post remotely concerned with the BWCA.  While I applaud the initiative and diligence, there are some other concerns that should come first.

First, let’s pin down the parameters of our trip.  Dates, when can we go? How long can we stay?  Who will be in our crew?  This is supremely important, as the essence of a great trip is to match the itinerary to the group, not the other way around.  Trying to take your small kids or elderly parents on that killer trip you did after you graduated from collage with a couple buddies is asking for trouble.  What will be the focus of our trip:  sightseeing, fishing, family together time, camping, etc.. Will we go to Quetico or the BWCAW? What is our budget, aluminum canoes or carbon fiber canoes?  Do we take advantage of an outfitter or just pull up to a public landing and shove off?  Once we have put our book ends in place we can start to get specific.

BWCA Route Planning – Three Questions

Rather than getting hung up on the exact route you will travel, answer these questions: 1) How many different campsites do I want to stay in?  The two ends of the spectrum are a basecamp where we stay in one spot for the entire trip vs. a traveling trip where we pick up and move every day of the trip.  A simple consideration with huge ramifications.  2) How much work do we want to do?  Are we traveling light and set up for tough portages, or heavily laden with our glamping luxuries?  Do we want to spend long days paddling or enjoy some R & R at a 5 star campsite?   3) Finally, are we willing to work for solitude?  If you want to discover that elusive wilderness solitude that John Muir and Thoreau wrote about, are you willing to work for it?

bwca knife lake route

Use A Boundary Waters Outfitter (like us)

If you are a Williams and Hall guest, we hope that having answered the above questions, you will bring us into the picture at this point.  What we are very good at, is distilling the above considerations into the parameters of a perfect trip for your crew and then carefully matching it with the physical paddling routes in canoe country.  That task is really fairly simple if your crew has done the homework outlined above.

bwca canoe route planning

Every group that returns from a trip, provides us with good intel that will help us shape your trip.  Things frequently change in the woods, fire conditions, prescribed burns, rain, forest service trail projects,  crowding, or something as simple as a beaver dam can all have dramatic impacts on our recommendations.  We encourage our guests to do the homework and come armed with the answers to those questions.  Then allow us to help them work out a specific route plan upon their arrival at our base.  This is a much better use of time.

If you are not one of our guests, my encouragement would be to do the homework suggested above first, then turn to your research sources for detailed help.  Remember always to have a Plan B in your back pocket just in case you need to adjust on the fly.  Paddle On!


Paddle On. Be Free.

For more information on BWCA Family Canoe Trips, click here, or call us at 218-365-5837