BWCA ho! Prepping a toddler and preschooler for canoe camping


Me and Adam in the BWCA, circa 2005. We’re so young!

Before we had kids, Adam and I took a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) every year. The BWCA is an amazing place — 1,700 square miles of true wilderness, accessible only by canoe/kayak and your feet. The area is dotted with lakes and rivers with portage trails connecting them, so in one day you can paddle from lake to lake (hauling your canoe and all your gear over the portages in between) or you can paddle in, find a great campsite, and stay there the whole time.

Adam Clearwater campsite


Our last trip was in 2010. After a few beautiful days paddling the Kawishiwi River and nearby lakes, we’d paddled out, packed up the car, and headed into Ely to celebrate. I was about to order a beer at the Chocolate Moose when I had a brief wave of dizziness, and changed my order to herbal tea. Two days later we learned I was pregnant with Beatrice.

We’d briefly considered mounting a trip once we had kids, but knew we wouldn’t really have “fun.” Moments of fun, likely, but also a lot of moments telling our wiggly, energetic Beatrice to sit down, stay with us, be careful. We could have done it, but the lows seemed likely to outweigh the highs.

But this year I started wondering if we were ready for a short canoe camping trip. We’d already planned two vacations at the Ely cabin, so when we were up in June I floated the idea by Adam. “What do you think about stopping in the BWCA permit office and see if they had any good canoe routes for young kids?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. So while he changed Blythe’s diaper I went to the permit office with Beatrice, and by the time they joined us I’d picked on a route with the office’s advice and was ready to book it for when we returned to Ely in July. I felt a little embarrassed as we continually redirected the girls as we finished up reserving our spot — as if the permit officers were thinking, “You’re taking these two into the BWCA? These two that can barely keep it together in the permit office?”

But the thrill in my heart upon looking at maps and contemplating campsites confirmed to me that we’d made the right decision.

So we set about prepping our toddler and preschooler for canoe camping, to remind the girls what it was like and help us think through logistics.

First up: canoeing. We portaged from our house not with the intention of practice, but because we were lazy (we figured out by the time we’d lashed the canoe to the car we could be at the lake). But it ended up being a good exercise. Adam carried the canoe on his shoulders and I carried Blythe in the Beco and held Beatrice’s hand and the paddles. Once we got to the lake we did a couple laps. The girls LOVED it! Last year when we paddled we had to continually redirect Beatrice from leaning over the edge. This year they voluntarily seated themselves right by my feet.

family portage

Then we did a camp-out in the backyard. That was a nightmare. We brought the kids in already sleepy at 7:45 p.m. It started off promising, with lots of book reading, but then the WHAT IS THIS CRAZY TENT and overtiredness ballooned into them truly bouncing off the tent walls, jumping and spazzing and clawing me. Real truth: I totally lost it and had to step out of the tent for a few minutes to calm myself. Beatrice finally passed out at 9:30 p.m. and Blythe kept going until she literally passed out after 10 p.m. Agony. But warning bells of recognition went off in my head, remembering our first camping trip with Beatrice, who at 16 months had done the same thing. At least we know what to expect.

So assuming the weather doesn’t look ominous, the plan is on. I’m not sure how much paddling and portaging we’ll do. There are nice campsites on the first lake we’ll enter on, so maybe we’ll make that our homebase and explore from there, or many we’ll continue on to other lakes (at most the route is an out-and-back, and the multi-day options are limited enough to make it a lesser-used spot in the BWCA). I’m still plenty nervous about it, but we’ll be extra careful with the kids and gentle with ourselves, and see what happens.

The BWCA always finds a way to make magic.

bwca sunset

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