Taking young kids on a BWCA canoe trip

Previous post: Planning and prepping for taking young kids on a BWCA canoe trip

On the days leading up to our BWCA trip with the girls, it seemed like an awful lot of work. Our trip was going to be two days (one night), which is the most gear and effort for the least amount of days.  And sometime between our last time Boundary Waters trip and now, we ‘d gotten old and upgraded to giant-size Thermarests that we couldn’t live without. The thought of getting everything in to our usual two packs (one big, one little) was ridiculous, so I added another big pack to our ever-growing shopping list.

And then there was the weather. My favorite weather app predicted strong thunderstorms, with waves of regular thunderstorms rolling through overnight. So we talked to our trusted BWCA permit guys and they shrugged their shoulders, and said that it’d be hot — good swimming weather. We also checked in with the Ely cabin neighbors, seasoned canoe trippers, and they didn’t seem worried, and offered the good general advice to make camp early and if there was lightning, keep the kids on our sleeping mats. (I knew there was a reason we updated to the giant size!)

taking young kids on a BWCA canoe trip

So we drove an hour from our cabin on the Eagles Nest Chain of Lakes to the Slim Lake Entry Point. Although it seemed like we had a ton of gear, we surprised ourselves by being able to carry it all on the portage on one trip. (The portage was pretty short and flat — maybe 90 rods?)  Mostly because Adam is a beast: he strapped the paddles and life vests into the canoe, hoisted on one of the packs, and swung the canoe up on his shoulders. I buckled Blythe into the Beco on my front and then donned the other big pack on my back. We didn’t plan on Beatrice carrying anything, so she just held my hand.

Slim Lake landing

I didn’t realize how crazy loose this pack was on my back — a good synch on the straps would have settled it more snug on my back.

We chose Slim Lake for a couple reasons. It’s not a popular lake since you can’t go in more than four lakes before facing a 600+ rod portage. It’s a long, narrow lake, so it wasn’t likely to be too windy (a lot of the Ely-area entry points are on big, windy lakes). And it had always intrigued me on the map. Our plan was to check out the three campsites on Slim and if we saw one we liked that wasn’t occupied, camp there. If not, we’d portage into Rice Lake (a shallow lake with one campsite), and if not there, portage on to Hook.

We paddled to the south campsite first, and when we saw it was a nice site (and had a good layout if things got stormy), we took it. We spent the day setting up camp, having lunch, swimming, paddling to check out the lake and give Blythe a nap, swimming some more, and having dinner.

Slim Lake campsite

Blythe at campsite

And remembering how beautiful the BWCA is.

The girls are at such a glorious, enthusiastic, curious age. Beatrice, learned about kindling, and birch bark, and moss, and says that her favorite part of the trip was the smelly potty in the woods that had no doors. Blythe added loon, paddle, fire, and life jacket to her vocabulary, sat and snoozed oh so sweetly in the canoe leaning up against my leg, and learned to identify the loon’s call.

Blythe at campfire
Me and Bee

But there are also the non-glorious parts of being 18 months and 3. Blythe’s thing recently is to say “No no no no” to everything we say to her. When Beatrice isn’t asking “Why?” in response to everything we’ve asked her to do, she’s ignoring our requests. I don’t even want to think about how many times I told her not to drag her hand in the water as we paddled.

And then, there was the sleeping.

When the girls started getting sleep-clumsy and shriek-y, we called bedtime, partially because we were both tired ourselves (and Adam especially so, since he was pretending he didn’t have the flu). So we all entered the (hot, sweaty) tent, and attempted to get the girls to sleep. Adam passed out off and on, Beatrice, who hadn’t napped, slept, but Blythe was unstoppable. Finally Blythe woke Beatrice up and we were all up again, awake, and it wasn’t even dark yet. We must have went into the tent crazily early. I thought we were all done for, but finally it started getting dark, and finally, finally, Blythe feel asleep, and we all followed. It was a restless night, though, since it’d been so hot Blythe fell asleep in just her diaper, and our efforts to keep her covered or wrestle PJs on her were unsuccessful.

But hurrah — it didn’t storm, and we didn’t even get a drop of rain.

Adam in Slim Lake BWCA

Doesn’t it look like evening is potentially on its way in this photo? And this was at least an hour before we headed in.

Blythe asleep at Ely cabin

This is what bedtime is supposed to look like. 

The next day was more of the same — campfire and lazing over a hearty breakfast, swimming, exploring, paddling and checking out the rest of the lake, and finally, portaging out.

I don’t take the risks of the BWCA lightly, and am so grateful that we had a safe trip and good weather. (The trip left me resolving to take a first aid course — I think I’d feel more confident if I had more skills). But we are so, so glad we’ve started taking our family to the BWCA and going back ourselves. I couldn’t believe how much the girls enjoyed it, and how into everything they were.

And how magical the BWCA is… you just can’t replicate or underestimate being truly out in nature with no cell phones, immersed in pristine beauty and stillness. Even when I was lying in the tent, wishing desperately that Blythe would go to sleep, I couldn’t help but admire the beautiful view and lapse into that clarity of thought and purpose that being in the woods inspires.

BWCA, we’ll be back.


Family at Slim Lake campsite

Notes to myself for next time:

  1. Always pack rain gear, even if the forecast from home looks cloudless. I had to pick up a clearance rain jacket for Beatrice from the Ely Shopko (which I thankfully was able to return after we didn’t end up using it.)
  2. Natural bug stuff does really work (at least on normal level mosquitos). Also, pro tip from the guys at Piragis: reapply it often.
  3. Kid (i.e. nut-free) trail mix seems like a yummy and adorable idea, but it’ll just mean you’ll be hunched over picking up Cheerios from your campsite the whole time. No.
  4. These sticker books are worth their weight in gold. Hours and hours and HOURS of fun for $2.45.
  5. Next time, when the sleep-clumsys set in: evening paddle.
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  1. Is that a Granite Gear Superior One bag that’s on your back?

  2. It made me so happy reading this post! We’re planning a short 3-4d trip this summer with our two boys who will be close to the same ages as your girls, and wanted some USEFUL insights about routes. When planning our first trip as parents rather than as a couple, it was completely disheartening how many bloggers, websites and even friends/aquaintences were appalled at the idea of camping with a toddler in the wilderness. We had a great 3d trip with Milo (then 13 months) base-camping on Duncan Lake off the Gunflint- over Memorial Day weekend when it got down into the 30s at night!! The key was preparation and readjusting our expectations. Now we’re planning our first trip with both boys, during a more reasonable time of year. The BWCA was such a transformative part of my own childhood and I love sharing it with my own kids, even if they don’t remember it or aren’t “old enough to appreciate it.” Every experience at this age imprints itself onto a child’s personality and who knows how it shapes the people they become?! I’m so glad you shared your experience, and can’t wait to research this route a bit more for myself!

    • Ahh, thank you Jenny! I’m so impressed with your 3-day trip with a 13 month old! We’re going to stretch it to two nights this year but you have me wondering if we should try for more. I have been longing to do the east side of the BWCA again (I haven’t been since high school) but having a family cabin outside of Ely makes the west side so convenient. I have my eye on the South Kawishiwi entry point this year… a shortish portage in and then lots of nice places to paddle and no mandatory huge lakes (wind being my nemesis). We’ll see! If you have any tips on routes or gear or anything I’d love to hear!
      Happy paddling.

  3. i am planning a BWCA canoe trip with my husband and 4 year old girl for this August. She likes to fall asleep when canoeing. We have the same middle seat as you. Any suggestions for making a comfortable and safe sleeping place in the canoe? Oh yeah, we usually bring the potty. Any ideas around that?

    • Breanne says:

      Hi Gena,
      How exciting! We’re thinking about canoe naps too as we prep for our trip this summer, because our 2.5 year old definitely needs a nap, and our 4 year old does too some days. I think we might try bringing along a kids backpack that the four year old can carry across portages (not the big hiking kind, but a regular sturdy school pack), and she can use that as a pillow, wedged behind her or between her and the side of the canoe. Leaning against one of the big portage packs helps, since the thwarts aren’t comfortable, so we push one of those forward. The girls also like to nestle against my legs in the stern, so that’s another option, and also one that might help with safety. Or maybe we’ll try flipping them around in the stern so that they are facing me but leaning against one of the big packs. I always worry about the sun, too, when they fling their faces upward to sleep and the hats slip back. I’ll have to remember to sunscreen well in advance or make sure they have hats with strings that can shade a bit while staying on. For the potty, I might try buying a cheap mesh bag and storing it in that, and shoving it in the top of a pack. At least potties are light!
      Have a great trip and let me know how it goes!