Canoe tripping in the BWCA with young kids (2.5 and 4 years old, 2015)

Guys, we did it! Three days in the BWCA with young kids, and it was truly, honestly, FUN, and we wanted to stay longer!

Last year (when the girls were 1.5 and 3) we definitely had “fun,” but it was more of a 60/40 fun/effort, with the none of us sleeping well and Adam being sick. This year everything seemed a million times easier, due to the girls being older and a good dose of luck.

We chose the S. Kawishiwi River Entry Point 32 because the Kawishiwi has flexible route options, a ton of campsites, is only 20 minutes from Ely, and most importantly, is more like a narrow lake most of the time so we wouldn’t have to worry as much about wind. (A lot of Ely area entry points start out on big, wind-prone lakes). My biggest BWCA fear is wind, so avoiding big lakes would help prevent having to fight across lakes or getting windbound.

Adam’s family has a cabin on the Eagle’s Nest chain of lakes (between Ely and Tower), so we stayed there a couple nights before our trip so we had plenty of time to prep. The weather forecast looked good but windy, and when I woke up at 6:30 a.m., there were whitecaps on the lake. Even with our promising route, I felt sick with worry. We figured we might as well head out and if we got there and it was crazy windy, we could always head into town and wait until it died down.

S. Kawishiwi River entry point young kids

So we drove to the entry point and portaged the 147-rod portage into the river. The portage in from the parking lot was a real one — fairly flat but rocky and muddy. For most of our portages, Adam carried the canoe and alternated between carrying a pack with it and going back for the pack and doing it separately. Beatrice (4) carried a school-sized backpack (with the sunscreen, bug stuff, small water bottle, sun hats, map bag, snacks). I carried a big pack on my back and Blythe in a carrier (Beco) on my front. Thank goodness Blythe (at 2.5) still happily rides on my front, because that made it so easy! I’m not sure what we’re going to do next year. We strapped the paddles into the canoe and clipped life vests and camp chairs on the back of the packs. I did take the canoe on one portage to make sure the girls saw that I can. (And I truly can! We just fall into our patterns).

Thankfully the river was fairly calm — the wind was only a riffle, and a tailwind at that! So we set off paddling up the river. Bee was initially confused why we were not immediately stopping at a campsite to swim, and I remembered that oh yeah, she hasn’t done this before. (Last year we went right to a campsite). We got her involved in the sport of judging the campsites from the water and looking for the best one for swimming, and that helped because a lot aren’t outwardly awesome for small kid swimming. We paddled for 3-4 hours, having lunch at a teeny 5-rod portage around a Class I rapids and doing a 70-rod portage into Clear Lake. The first campsite we saw — the island one — looked great, so we took it!

BWCA camping with young kids

The rest of the day we swam, napped (me and Blythe), played around, ate, etc. Every aspect of camping — from making a fire to hanging the bear rope — was fascinating to them,  so we didn’t get bored. The bugs were so good (i.e. minimal) that we stayed out until it started to get dark. Blythe was crazy in the tent as they tried to wind down for sleep, but she was that way at the cabin too, so we got through it and they both fell blissfully asleep, all night long, no potty trips, and woke up after us in the morning.

Day two we woke up to clouds, but we had oatmeal, packed up, and headed out to return to the river via the 70-rod portage. It started to rain at the portage landing, but by the time we were finished the sun was shining, and it continued all day. We had the best weather I’ve ever had on a BWCA trip – sun, mid-70s, so warm enough to want to swim a lot, a light breeze to keep the bugs away, and cool enough to sleep comfortably in your sleeping bag at night. Lucky, lucky, lucky!

BWCA camping with two year old

2.5-year-old-Blythe “writing” in her journal.

We meandered back up the river, paddling up a teeny rapids, and did a 30-rod portage. We wanted to keep going further up the river (and farther away from our car) but I got nervous of being too far away, because I’d neglected to pack much extra food. (I pretty much nailed it in bringing exactly what we needed, which was dumb). So when we saw a beauty of a campsite around noon we took it, and had a repeat of the previous afternoon — lots of swimming, napping, etc. I made a fire for warm-up cocoa (the girls swam until they shivered) mid-afternoon. Around 7 p.m. the girls were getting fussy so we headed out for a pajama paddle. When we got back we played a card game in the tent and then fell asleep. (The tent pad had a slope, so the girls wiggled up and slide down a few times during the night.)

S. Kawishiwi River

The last day we packed up and leisurely made our way out, repeating the portages, and made it back to Ely for a late victory lunch at the Chocolate Moose.

One of the highlights for us as we continue to camp and trek with the girls is seeing their pride in getting more independence and learning new skills. Bee really craves responsibility, and asked us if she could walk to the latrine by herself at the first campsite. We said yes, because we could tell by the way she asked us that she knew how serious of a responsibility it was. When she took a bit longer than we expected I tiptoed up the trail and saw her trying to figure out the strap to her overalls, so I tiptoed back so she could have the thrill of completing her first trip all to herself. She also enjoyed being able to carefully feed the fire.

The best things we did:

  1. Allowed ourselves to look at the clock (we took our cell phones for cameras and put them on airplane mode). I usually make myself play the game of unplugging from clocks, but man, does actually knowing the time help me manage expectations, my own and the girls. Last year we ended up going to bed WAY too early, so this year, when I was hungry around 3, we had second lunch instead of accidentally having dinner too early.
  2. Packing a sufficient supply of treats. There isn’t much that lollipops and cocoa can’t fix.
  3. I overhauled our first aid kit and repair kit before we left, which gave me a great piece of mind. We’ve never had a real need for it but I felt good knowing it was solid.
  4. Man, having potty trained kids is awesome. They both were really skilled at crouching and peeing and not getting their pants wet — is this some innate small child skill? We pretty much had to do zero effort on that front (except Blythe didn’t always get the intricacies of trail bathroom etiquette, such as you don’t pee right by the eating area).

Things we learned + notes for next year

  1. More food.
  2. We had Bee carry a pack because we thought she’d want to be like us and it was nice to have a small bag for quick access, but the pack slowed her down a bit, and I’d much rather carry a little more weight and move faster. We tried this (us carrying her backpack and she walking with nothing) on the 147-rod portage on the way back, and it was way better.
  3. We tried the highly rated Repel Lemon Eucalyptus natural bug repellant this year.  I didn’t think it worked as well as the Good Earth Squito Spray we used last year, but Adam thought it worked better. Both worked fine — we felt covered in the bug department, especially considering the favorable conditions.
  4. If you had a kid who still regularly naps like Blythe, I think tent naps are best (longer, uninterrupted). If you have a kid who doesn’t nap anymore or is in between, planning for a canoe nap is probably better. We’ll have to think about this next year as Blythe will be in occasional-nap mode by then.

Thanks so much BWCA! We’ll see you next year!

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