I love to go camping and get away from it all: cell phones, the office, proselytizing religious groups, etc. There are many grades of camping ranging from John Muir types who need only a blanket, tin cup, a little oatmeal, and some tea to those who think roughing it is a weekend at the Holiday Inn Express. I am not picking on anyone; the only wrong way to camp is if you are not enjoying the experience.

Perhaps my favorite way to get away is by canoe. Canoeing is as old as the peoples of North America, and indeed was the only way to get around much of the continent in many places until quite recently. The North West Company, one of the largest companies in the world in the latter 18th and early 19th centuries, had its entire trade network from Montreal to Lake Athabasca (something like 3000 miles by water) driven by canoes. They are fast and efficient on the water and light enough to carry over portages. For the outdoorsperson, a canoe allows you to carry more vital necessities (I am taking about wine, specifically) than would be practical for a backpacker, and gives a fisherman total access to water too far out for the shore fisherman, and water too shallow or reedy for a motorboat. It is a good way to get around.

That said, there are lessons to be learned in the fine art of canoeing in order to make the experience not suck. Canoes have trade offs for all their advantages. In order to make them light, they often lack the robustness of other watercraft. While they are far more stable than most people think, doing stupid things like leaning way over the side and standing in the canoe can cause it to tip. They tend to be low to the water and as such can take on water quite quickly in rough conditions.

I am fortunate to live on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a huge federal wilderness designed expressly for canoes. In my hundreds of miles of paddling and portaging, I have experienced many of the ups and downs that come with the territory. While, like always, I don’t claim to be an expert, I have learned a few lessons (often painful) in my adventures that I wish to impart to anyone who might be looking to try their hand at canoe camping.

#1 – Take care of your feet. On one of my first canoe trips I had the idea that since I was going to have wet feet anyway, why not just wear sandals? That way my feet would dry faster and be more comfortable. I bought a nice looking pair of adjustable sandals with Velcro closures. It turned out to be the worst idea I have ever had, bar none. Portages are often muddy and that mud made the Velcro refuse to stick. On the first day my sandals kept falling off and even were tripping me as I walked; not a good thing with a 90 pound aluminum canoe on my shoulders. I had to use 550 cord to lash them onto my feet, which resulted in bigger problems. All of the mud and grit from the portages and landings got under the straps and, like sandpaper, pretty much shredded the top couple layers of skin off of my feet. When you are miles into the bush, it is not like you can just hop on the bus and go home, you have to suck it up keep going. I did, and I have permanent scars on my feet from the abrasion and where the 550 cord was digging into my Achilles tendons.

So the lesson is wear footwear with good ankle support and socks of some kind. I personally use Waters neoprene booties pared with Chota portage boots. The Chotas have full ankle support and drain quickly while the booties protect me from any grit that might enter the boots and keep my feet warm in cold water (although I am thinking of switching over a to simple pair of wool socks instead of the booties). You don’t have to have specialized footwear, however, hiking boots will do just fine.

#2 – Accept that you will have wet feet. You do not want to know how many canoes have been destroyed because people who were afraid of getting their feet wet got into the canoe while on an rocky shore and tried to scoot into the water. I once saw a guy with a beautiful cedar strip canoe (the canoe equivalent of a Chevy Corvette) do that on a gravel beach; it is enough to make a grown man cry. I recently saw a group of guys load up their canoe on a boulder beach (the canoe was almost suspended in air on four or five pinnacles of rock), try to get in, and swamp the canoe. They repeated the process again, and swamped again. Meanwhile I walked straight into the water to about calf depth, set the canoe down so it was floating, loaded my gear, got in, drained my boots over the side for 10 seconds, and off I went. I could feel the envy.

You can get away with the “sit-and-scoot” method with an aluminum canoe, but you can obliterate a Kevlar canoe in short order that way. So why not just always use an aluminum canoe? Many people do (I used to), but my Kevlar canoe weighs 50 pounds at 18.5′ versus 80 to 90 pounds for an old Alumacraft which is only 16′ long. Kevlar is also faster and quieter as aluminum is rough on the microscopic level, causing drag. For most of us, once you try Kevlar you will never go back.

While my feet will be wet during the day, I always bring a pair of dry, light shoes for camp. I have a pair of Steger moccasins that I bought on sale, and they are awesome. They pack flat, are comfortable, and are perfect in every way. You have to be able to dry your feet at night or you might end up with foot fungus or trench foot. I like to pack light, but a second pair of shoes is a necessary addition.

#3 – Assume that the canoe could tip over at any moment. I have never had my canoe tip on me, but I always prepare for it. It is amazing how many people have crap strewn in their canoes from tackle boxes to coolers to chairs. If their canoe tipped over, they could spend hours trying to gather all of their loose gear, and would lose any of it that sank.

So, either put everything in your pack, or tether any essentials to you or the canoe. When I am traveling, I have everything in my Duluth pack (lined with a 55 gallon drum liner) except for my paddle, life jacket, and fishing gear if I am currently fishing. That leads us to :

#4 – You only need so much fishing tackle. I have never understood how one person can need as much gear as most fishermen haul in to the BWCAW. All those nets, boxes, and multiple rods (you can only fish one rod at a time in Minnesota anyway). I understand all of the theories that different colors can trigger better reactions under certain conditions, but I do not really subscribe to it. My dad tells me that my great grandfather only ever used one type of plug his whole life under all conditions and still caught plenty of fish. I think the moral is that you will catch more fish with your lure in the water than if you constantly have your lure out of the water because you are changing it to a potentially better one. I know that there are thousands of fisherman who would argue that with me, but this isn’t their blog now, is it?

Fishing Tackle

I am able to catch plenty of fish with the following:

-A 7.5′ telescoping rod (packs down to 18″) and an ultralight reel with spare spool (generally 6# test fluorocarbon line)
-An 8″ by 5″ pouch with carabiners to clip to either my belt or to the canoe containing:

  • Small Plano box with hooks, sinkers, bobbers (the kind of slip bobbers that can clip on to an already tied line), bobber stops, leaders, marabou jigs, fast snaps (makes hook and lure change easier), and quick change clevises (great for adding sliding sinkers to an already tied line). I find that with a bobber stop and a fast snap on my line, I can set up almost any sinking, floating, or lure rig imaginable in seconds.
  • Small tin box with foam glued to the bottom holding my Panther Martin Lures (all Fly models in gold with orange bucktails and silver with yellow bucktails in multiple sizes; the best lures ever made in my opinion), fishing flies (I am new to flies so I have generic types like gold ribbed hare’s ear, elk hair caddis, and parachute adams), and a small red and white Daredevle (I have never caught anything with it, but I like it anyway)
  • Casting bubble (for casting flies with a spinning rod)
  • 4# tippet material
  • Forceps
  • Stringer
  • Fillet knife
  • Plastic bag for holding fish

If I want bait I will bring sometimes bring worms. That is all. I used to carry a net, but they are cumbersome and unnecessary if you know how to handle fish (just be sure to wet your hands in you are going to catch-and-release). If you are looking to pare down tackle for a canoe trip I recommend Boundary Waters Fishing by Michael Furtman; It is a good place to start, but you will want to tailor thing to your personal tastes.

#5 – Bear canisters are awesome. I hate bear bags. When you look up how to set a bear bag they always show a pretty little picture of a tall tree with one branch jutting out at the horizontal that is totally free of obstructions. This tree does not exist. Most trees tend to be a mass of random branches and obstructions that make throwing a line over one nicely almost impossible. Even worse, much of the BWCAW is coniferous, and if you want a frustrating experience try hanging a bear bag in a jack pine. And if you even can get the line up there, good luck hoisting it very high. You will often end up with what is dubbed a “bear piñata.” I became like MacGyver and at one point had rigged a pistol crossbow to a fishing reel in my attempt to make this easier; it didn’t really work.

Bear CanisterI now have a bear canister. it is basically a thick plastic container with rounded edges so that a bear cannot carry it off. All you do is close it, set it away from your tent, and you are done. I have customized mine with the following:

  • Coghlan’s bear bell with silencer. It has a Velcro ring to go around a walking stick in grizzly country to make the bears aware of your presence (and make them less apt to maul you). I cut off half of the loop and attached it the the canister with Velcro tape (so that it can be packed inside the canister for traveling). This way if something is trying get inside the container I will hear it and can decide if I really want to get out of the tent in the middle of the night and scare of a black bear. I try to keep everything packed in plastic inside to cut down on smells, and have never had the canister knocked over.
  • Table top. There is nothing more longed for by the wilderness chef than a clean, flat surface to work on. Robinson Crusoe’s first project after building his palisade was to construct a table, “for without this I was not able to enjoy the few Comforts I had in the World, I could not write, or eat, or do several things with so much Pleasure without a Table.” All I did was to scribe and cut a piece of scrap wood to the rough size of the opening in the canister, sand it to fit easily yet snugly, attach it to a square of birch plywood (nice and light), and polyurethane it. It is not very large, but it is a huge advantage over no table at all.
  • Cooler. Most of the food I bring is preserved in some way, but it is nice to be able to keep things like bratwurst, cheese, and eggs fresh in hot weather. It is made of two layers of Reflectix insulation (like bubble wrap with a Mylar surface) and duct tape, with a Velcro closure (I like Velcro if you haven’t guessed). It is made to fit against the rounded side of the canister so as not to take up too much space. Simple, but effective.

I also keep a large Ziploc bag inside to store garbage without it leaking. I suppose you could make a seat for a bear canister if you wanted too, but I like the table better.

#6 Cooking tips in the Wilderness. I love to cook and I love to eat, so food holds a priority for me in the wilderness. Here are some of my personal opinions and tips on camp cookery.

  • Cook KitGet an aluminum Dutch oven. The 10″ GSI aluminum Dutch oven is the ultimate in camp cookwear. Being aluminum, it only weighs a couple of pounds, cooks well on a stove or campfire, and its thickness provides even heating. I have fried fish, baked biscuits, boiled potatoes, and everything else you could want in this little beauty. Its thickness is also great on camp stoves which tend to be rather hot and can burn food easily in the standard sheet metal pots. The rest of my cooking accessories shown are two plates, sierra cups, and utensils, a measuring cup, folding spatula and serving spoon, cleaning supplies, a small brick of Ivory soap (to coat the outside of the Dutch oven, making cleaning easier), a wash cloth, a dish towel, and a foil pan to hold everything when I am using the Dutch oven. They all bungee together to make a tight bundle that packs easily and securely.
  • Bring a good stove. Campfire craft is, in my opinion, a good measure of wilderness skill. To be able to build a fire under less than ideal circumstances and then prepare a meal on it is impressive when done well. Although I love cooking on a campfire, it is not always practical and a stove is often a necessity. In summer there are often fire bans in the wilderness, and well used sites can be picked so clean of firewood that you cannot find enough to make a cooking fire. My stove of choice is the Jetboil PCS. With the pot support kit, it works great with the Dutch oven, and no other stove can make you a cup of hot chocolate in less time on a cold morning. I like canister stoves because I do not have to worry about the smell and leakage of liquid fuel, although the canisters cannot be refilled (so if you use only half a canister you cannot top it off for the next trip). So I cook on the fire when I can, but cook on the stove when I must. Also, if I want to grill steaks in the woods I often bring charcoal from home. I do not want to grill a $10 steak on pine, and a small bag of charcoal (I prefer the natural lump variety) weighs almost nothing, takes up little space, and won’t give the meat a bad flavor.
  • Aluminum foil is your best friend. I love the stuff. Need to fry something quick, but do not want to wash the Dutch oven afterward? Line it with foil. Catch a nice bass, but are out of oil to fry it? Wash it, season it, wrap it in foil, and poach it on the fire. Its uses are limitless.
  • Leave the Wonder bread at home. I love bread, but it is difficult to haul without crushing, and bagels and pita get heavy in quantity. So I get Cache Lake frying pan bread mixes. Each one feeds 2-3 people, tastes great, and cooks up in only a few minutes. If I am going to make it with a meal I will cook it ahead of time by lining the Dutch oven with foil and wrapping the bread in the foil once cooked to keep it warm by the fire. This way I only need the one Dutch oven to make a whole meal. The intrepid can design their own recipe for frying pan bread, but I like the Cache Lake stuff.
  • Here is a quick, hot breakfast for two that takes no time at all. You will need: 1 Jetboil or stove with a liter (or more) sized pot, 2 cups of water, 4 eggs, whatever you like in your eggs (seasoning, cheese, chives, etc), 2 Ziploc sandwich bags, and 2 packets of hot chocolate. Start the stove and get the water heating. In each bag, crack in 2 eggs and whatever additions you like, and beat well (trying not to puncture the bag). Once the water is boiling, turn down the heat and put the bags, partially sealed, into the water; use the lid to keep the bag tops from falling into the water. When eggs are firm, remove and serve; use the water to make the hot chocolate. I like to serve it with Quaker Oatmeal Squares. I know that people are saying that you shouldn’t cook in these bags, but I only do it once on a trip so I am not too worried (besides, everything is reported to be harmful these days).

If you are looking for little packets and pouches of food or condiments try Minimus.biz. I buy everything from little bottles of olive oil to A1 sauce there, and orders over $20 get you free shipping. Also if you are looking for little storage bottles for oil, condiments, or toiletries, I like the bottles that 5 Hour Energy comes in (cures headaches, hangovers, and makes studying accounting at 10:30pm possible). They are robust, watertight, and the perfect size for canoe trips.

I am sure that there are other tips that I could give you, but my head is starting to hurt from typing (time for a 5 Hour Energy!). I know that other people do things different ways, but these are the ways that work for me. If anyone has any specific issues they would like to raise, feel free to comment.

Hasta Luego.

Alexander Mackenzie