Paddling Home in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota
Story and photos by Heidi Siefkas

Paddling, wandering, and camping can do wonders for the soul when disconnected from Wi-Fi and reconnected with nature—despite the occasional obstacles.

Boundary waters travel story

The pops and whistles from our campfire were the percussion section of the starry night's playlist. The songs of loons calling their mates replaced my ever-running to-do list in my head, reminding me how much I had missed the tranquility of the Northwoods. That evening, a wooded area open on three sides with a granite rock beach was home.

I grew up in a rural Midwestern town near the Mississippi River; paddle trips were a part of childhood, coming of age, and something passed on to other generations. This week-long canoe camping trip through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) of Minnesota was a needed disconnect from the 24/7 news, whether fake or not. It was a respite from an endless email inbox, text dings, Fitbit step counts, and marketing cold calls at exactly the wrong time. Many pilgrimages home are done alone; however, this time I explored the pristine lakes of Northern Minnesota with my other half—or better said—the captain of our yellow canoe, which we nicknamed Yellow Fever. If you didn't already know it, Minnesota's unofficial state bird is the mosquito.

Boundary waters campsite

Over a Million Acres of Untapped Wilderness — Where to Begin?

With 1,500 miles of canoe trails and over a million acres of untapped wilderness and countless lakes, our challenge was to choose where to begin and end. To make it easy, we compromised on canoeing a loop along the historical Gunflint Trail, making our beginning also our finale. For the rest of the adventure, we would let Mother Nature, our own rhythm, and even serendipity steer our adventure. I mentioned that my other half was the captain; when it came to navigating, spotting portages, and deciding when a Plan B was necessary, however, I was the CEO of Yellow Fever.

On our first day, we left the outfitter mid-morning, not in a rush nor on a timeline. All cellphones were turned to airplane mode and placed into one of our several dry bags. We launched equipped with our tent, sleeping bags, fishing pole, rain gear, cooking stove, and a week's worth of food, just in case we didn't catch fresh fish along the way. As we paddled across Popular Lake, we left civilization behind us and entered the Superior National Forest. There would be no summer homes nor hunting cabins, only birch and conifer forests and thousands of miles of granite shoreline welcoming us back home to nature.

bass fishing in the boundary watersOur first lake of many was shallow and marsh-like, a wonderland for moose, deer, and black bears. With only the swish swish of our paddle strokes, the calls of Canadian geese, loons, and ducks replaced the voice of Siri showing us the way through the North Shore's construction detours. For those unfamiliar with the Midwest, both Minnesota and Wisconsin have two seasons: winter and construction season.

A Private Island and Fresh Fish on the Lake

Each afternoon, the captain and I would debate on which campsite to call home. In the Superior National Forest, there are several campsites on most lakes, each providing your own slice of Northern paradise. We were never in sight of other campers, only seeing faint smoke rising from another's campfire. One memorable afternoon, after accomplishing four portages and five lakes, we got particularly fortunate. We arrived at our well-deserved home for the night, which was our very own private island. Beat that Richard Branson!

With plenty of birch wood to make a fire and trees to hang our hammocks and bear bag, we set up home base. Then, we took a brisk swim, drying off by sunning ourselves on the warm granite rock beach. With our two-man tent pitched and fire-ready, we had a decision to make on dinner. On this private island, there was no personal chef nor fresh fish market delivery. We had to decide: would it be a fresh fish over the fire or a ready-to-eat meal cooked over our stove?

bass fishing in the boundary watersAs dusk set in, the nightly ambush of mosquitos prompted me to put on my insect-shield pants, long-sleeved shirt, and hat while starting the fire. Meanwhile the captain, not affected by mosquitoes, cast a line into the water in hopes of our first dinner option. After nearly an hour of casting and losing more bait to tree trunks and grass than fish, we saw the bobber submerge. With twilight flickering off the lake, the man versus fish began. The fight to get the largemouth bass to shore became more heated with the suspense of an approaching thunderstorm. If you've heard it is best to fish before a storm, we certainly agree with that philosophy. The Captain snagged a three-pounder; thus, we renamed the island, Bass Island.

That evening, it was a bass cooked over an open fire followed by rubbing our bellies in the shelter of our tent. Shortly after finishing a rushed shore dinner, the skies opened up and released gusts of wind, lightning, and heavy rains. From bedtime into the wee hours of the morning, the storm was relentless. I know it ended around 3 am as I didn't sleep much; I was on high alert counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” after each sight of lightning to see how close the storm was. The captain slept like a log.

Four-Letter Word of the Boundary Waters

The next morning, the campsite was a muddy mess. Our tent didn't leak, but it was wet outside and damp inside from condensation. It would take hours to dry it in the sunshine so we broke down camp in hopes of finding an early afternoon place to call home to dry out our tent and gear before another nightfall.

On this day, like most days, we crossed multiple lakes, needing to carry the canoe over land anywhere from twenty rods (rod=16.5 feet) to one hundred rods. Regardless of how light your canoe is or how well you've packed, most enjoy portaging like getting a tooth pulled. In fact, I know couples that have threatened to break up over portages.

Granted, portage isn't literally a four-letter word. However, when you're carrying a forty pound or more canoe while your shoes are wet and you're getting bitten by mosquitos and horseflies, you'll agree that portage equates to many other four-letter words.

Boundary waters portage

The most portages we did in a day was five, but you must remember that most paddlers need to do one portage with the canoe then double back to do the same with the gear. In essence, you double your portage distance, which means a sh*!-ton of rods. That is, unless you are a gladiator and can carry the canoe and all your gear on your back while on steep inclines, wet rocks, and mud. Because of this, after a five-portage day, the CEO and captain of Yellow Fever came to the unanimous decision to nest for two nights in the same campsite. You could call it our rest day in the BWCA.

Last Night and Mother Nature's Finale

Allowing our bodies to rest and gear thoroughly to dry out, we set out on our next-to-last day recharged. With the wind at our backs and sun shining, we had forgotten about the aches and pains of days prior. Relishing the fact that we would be spending our last night amongst the nourishing sounds and sights of the BWCA, we wanted our finale home base to be ideal for two of Mother Nature's masterpieces: sunset and sunrise. Mid-afternoon, we found said site, which faced East, South, and West. We called it Three Beaches. Arriving before sundown provided enough time to gather wood and cast a few lines.

Sitting by the fire, listening to the whistles and pops, we appreciated the moment with loons singing as the sun set over the lake's shoreline. Our five-star view and Mother Nature's symphony provided an ambiance that no Michelin star restaurant or luxury resort could. There's something to be said about a sharing a hot ready-to-eat meal washed down with a celebratory cardboard box of wine no matter where you are.

All of sudden though, nature crashed our dinner party with a downpour. Without any warning, a storm cloud passed over our campsite causing us to grab as much as we could of our dinners and wine in a mad dash to get in the two-man tent for shelter. It continued to rain for more than an hour, extinguishing our fire, while we shared stories and the rest of the wine from our cramped quarters. Luckily, the rain stopped just in time as I was feeling a pressing need to visit the au natural ladies' room.

Boundary waters canoe

If you've ever been in a two-man tent you know that there is no graceful way to exit. You need to turn towards the door, which can be a flexibility test even for a yogi in a small tent. Then, you must unzip the screen and rain fly, put on your shoes, and get up from the ground without taking part or all of the tent with you. Preemptively, I had put on my headlamp prior to stumbling out of the tent, of course, uttering a few choice four-letter words in my exit. However, I was immediately silenced. I didn't need my headlamp because the evening sky was stop-in-your-tracks bright. Above, the Milky Way was shining more vibrantly than I remember the night sky from the Sahara Desert, the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or even my childhood farm. It was a great surprise and parting gift from the Boundary Waters.

Paddling Home

Paddle trips have been a part of my childhood, coming of age, and well into my over-the-hill era. This week-long canoe camping trip was a needed disconnect from it all, forcing the quieting of our minds, trusting our guts, and returning to nature, which is everyone's North Star. Although many pilgrimages home are done alone, this time the captain and I paddled together, returning close to both of our original birthplaces and even closer to the curative powers of wilderness. If you ever need to reboot and get a necessary shift in your perspective, immersing yourself in nature can be the best medicine. We hope to paddle home again well into our more mature years for another dose.

Heidi SiefkasHeidi Siefkas is an author, TEDx speaker, and adventurer. Her books include Cubicle to Cuba, With New Eyes, and When All Balls Drop. You can learn more about Heidi's adventures and books at

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