If you are raising children in Minnesota, it is your duty to take them to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness at least once in their young lives. But until last summer, my husband and I couldn’t agree about the best approach.
A veteran of many rough portages into the backwoods, he’s been pointing out which plants most closely approximate toilet paper since before our three kids were Cub Scouts, teaching them to pity the nervous families we’ve met on trips out West who ring jingle bells to keep the bears away.
I, on the other hand, have nothing but sympathy for the jingle-bell types, having had a too-close encounter with an equally surprised moose on Isle Royale when I was a kid. Also, freakishly allergic to the no-see-ums of the Northwoods, I once had an eyelid puff up, Rocky Balboa–style, on a paddling trip, leaving me with one working eye and no depth perception for the long portage back.
So while my husband hungers for a total wilderness immersion experience, I like a quick exit strategy—with access to urgent care. Fortunately, we found the perfect meeting place at Bearskin Lodge, a historic family resort on the Gunflint Trail, just a few paddle strokes from the million-acre expanse of water, sky, and mosquitos that make up Minnesota’s greatest natural treasure.
If you’ve been there, or have just seen the postcards, then you already know the Boundary Waters is one of the most beautiful ecosystems on the planet, deserving of every superlative the team from National Geographic bestows. But while the B-Dub regularly makes the list of 50 places to see before you die, it’s no Disney World for kids.
On our drive north, we did our best to prepare our boys, ages 7, 9, and 11, for the hardships they would likely endure: swarms of black flies and mosquitos; blistering hours of J-strokes; risk of sunburn, heat stroke, and hypothermia; trails tangled with ancient, toe-stubbing roots and rocks; and soggy sandwiches laced with the aftertaste of DEET—all the amenities Minnesotans have come to expect from the BWCA.
We didn’t mention the privation that would hit them hardest until we turned left at Grand Marais and heard a groan from the back seat. “Hello? Did you know the cell phone doesn’t even work up here?” the sixth grader asked, incredulous. After five hours of Angry Birds, he was finally forced to look out the window. As we made our way to the lodge, he counted three hawks, a possible eagle, four deer, and a red fox that we should have kept a closer eye on. That night she crept up on our cabin deck and stole one of my son’s brand-new water sandals. We later learned her name was Imelda because of her fondness for collecting quality footwear left out by lodge guests.
Wildlife encounters like this are a big part of the Bearskin Lodge experience. My mother still remembers watching a local woodsman gut and flay a black bear here in front of a crowd of tourists when she visited with her parents in the late 1940s. Fifteen minutes after check-in, our kids gave up all hope of a Wi-Fi connection. Happily unplugged, they spent days learning to paddleboard in the small bay on the west end of East Bearskin, tipping over and trying again until they were able to stride the water like Venetian gondoliers. From our private dock, we heard wolves howl in the morning, watched loons dive in the afternoon, and welcomed fellow lodgers back from their fishing expeditions in the evening.
We might have been perfectly happy doing nothing but this all week, were it not for an afternoon trip up to Grand Portage National Monument to remind us that we were here to travel like the Voyageurs. At the close of the 18th century, the beaver pelt boom turned an 8.5-mile portage along the Pigeon River into a profitable crossroads for international trade—a cultural moment you can see re-enacted every August at the annual Rendezvous Days and Powwow. (This year it’s slated for August 8–10.)
As we toured the Heritage Center and watched interpretive films about the derring-do of these red-capped, chanson-singing superheroes, my middle kid concluded that paddling up and down the same lake just wasn’t going to cut it. “If you want to tell people that you’ve been to the Boundary Waters, I think you actually have to carry a canoe,” he said. Enough with the toe-dipping, we decided—it was time to take a deep breath and dive in.
The next day, we rose early, slathered on the sunscreen, packed an army’s worth of sandwiches, snacks, and water, and set out in canoes across East Bearskin. A light breeze across the water kept the 90-degree heat from bearing down, but it did nothing to break up the dark cloud of mosquitos that chased us up the portage trail to Crocodile Lake, official BWCA territory. The boys ran straight up the hill with their packs, whimpering, while I calculated how long it would take to turn it all around and go back to the safety of our cabin.
Grand Portage National Monument
But by the time we carried the canoe up to the next launching point and reconnected, they’d already accommodated themselves to the blood payment required to reach this elevated cloud-mirror lake steeped in lily pads and pines.
“This is the worst!” the oldest one laughed, slapping a juicy one on his younger brother’s shoulder.
“Let’s get out of here!” the middle one agreed, surprising us by grabbing a paddle and climbing right back into the canoe.
These beginners had mastered the most important lesson of the BWCA: Welts are temporary—but memories last forever.
Laura Billings Coleman is a writer in St. Paul.
If You Go
Bearskin Lodge: The classic resort on the Gunflint Trail has lodges and 11 cabins with full kitchens and private docks on the edge of the BWCA. 124 Bearskin Rd. E., Grand Marais, 218-388-2292, bearskin.com
Pack it in, pack it out: That’s the rule for keeping the Boundary Waters pristine for the people behind you. But if the burden of packing for your family is what’s keeping you on shore, consider hiring one of the many knowledgeable and reasonable outfitters in the area to pack for you. Outfitters can point you to the most rewarding passages among the BWCA’s 1,500 miles of canoe routes and set you up with the permits you’ll need to gaze at the stars from one of the BWCA’s more than 2,000 campsites. bwca.com
Flinty Characters: Don’t miss the wonderful little Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center, near the southeast edge of Saganaga Lake. This interpretive center showcases the lives and legends of pioneering spirits such as the late Justine Kerfoot of the Gunflint Lodge, who didn’t give up portaging her wood-frame canvas boat until she was 90. 28 Moose Pond Dr., Grand Marais, 218-388-9915, chikwauk.com
Stretch your legs: To get your bearings in this corner of the Boundary Waters, take the mostly vertical hike up Honeymoon Bluff, near the Flour Lake Campground. A round trip will take you to a scenic outlook above Hungry Jack and Bearskin lakes. The view of the wilderness is especially great when the sun sets. northshorevisitor.com/hiking-trails/gunflint-trail.html
Malts and moose: Just four hours of paddling at a leisurely pace can burn more than 1,000 calories, so you deserve to refuel with one of the legendary malts at Trail Center Lodge, a burger joint that retains its 1938 logging camp vibe. Then, after your burger and before bedtime, be on the lookout for trucks and minivans parked along the shoulder of Gunflint Trail, a sure sign there’s a moose sighting. 7611 Gunflint Tr., Grand Marais, 218-388-2214, trailcenterlodge.com