Taking on the Boundary Waters with Kids
By Paul Strubell
My 2 year old son and I have a taken a series of adventures together. Already visiting 8 National Parks and countless nights camping together, but I decided this summer to try something a little wilder and potentially more challenging. I was looking for a wild place. A place to unplug. A place with loons calling on the water. A place where you might see wolves, bear, and moose. A place where there are no cars or stores. I wanted to take him to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The plan was a week long road trip to Northern Minnesota that included stops in Minneapolis, Lake Superior, and ultimately three days and two nights backcountry canoe camping in the Boundary Waters.
When I first began researching the trip it became apparent that I would want to break up the 11 hour drive to the Boundary Waters with a stop or two along the way to make the trip more fun and entertaining for my son. So we reached out to friends to visit in Minneapolis. They lived about half way and would be a great stop over to break up the travel time.
I also started reading about kid friendly Boundary Waters trips. There is a lot of good information out there, but I think the online consensus was if you are bringing small children to the Boundary Waters go to Hog Creek and Perent Lake. The biggest issues for small children are the long portages and the potential for bug bites. Kids require a lot of extra gear. That means more trips to haul everything. If you are two parents and kids it is a little different, because you can have a parent with the little ones at all times, while the other trucks the gear across the land. If you are a single parent like me, that isn’t the best option. Hog Creek is amazing for this reason and it is probably why I saw several sets of other parents with kids under 5 setting out from the parking area as we arrived. Though most were only heading out for overnights with the little ones. I had a larger adventure in mind. This meant I also had a lot more gear and food to move. I was able to fit everything into a large dry bag and had all of our food inside my Yeti 45. I use it as a bear proof box by adding the appropriate Master Locks. We had icepacks inside it for the first two days of the road trip, but I dumped the icepacks and only left one mostly frozen gallon of drinking water inside to keep everything cool. It worked perfectly. I packed the extra space inside the cooler with dry goods and food for 4 days in case we unexpectedly needed to stay longer.
Hog Creek is entry point 36. From the parking area it’s short hike down to the creek where you then paddle down the winding grassy river towards scenic Perent Lake. Hog Creek will take you about 2 hours to navigate. Or at least it did when we floated it in mid July. About ten minutes into the float you’ll encounter a rocky but short portage around a small set of falls. From there you will run into beaver dams and fallen trees, but I was able to paddle through everything on the way down to Perent. On the return leg, I did have to exit the canoe briefly to drag over a beaver damn. Given the minimal portages and relaxed point of entry, Hog Creek means you are nearly always paddling and that makes it easier on both the parents and kids.
I planned to spend three full days in the backcountry, but that meant I also needed to secure a place to stay the night before we picked up our canoe and heading in. We snagged a spot just off Lake Superior and 12 miles from our canoe rental spot at Tettegouche State Park. Which ran about $35/night. Most of the activities and restaurants are along Lake Superior, but the campground is set back along the Baptism River to the westside of the highway. It was a very chill campsite. The site are close together but well protected by trees. There is excellent trail access from the campground. It rained a bit on our stay there, but we did hit up the hot water showers in the morning before we picked up our canoe from Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte, MN. They can also help you obtain your backcountry permits.
I thought a great deal about protecting my son from mosquitos before we were out there and basically my plans worked. I did however underestimate the swarms we would encounter in the parking lot of Hog Creek. My mind was focused on keeping him relatively bite free in the canoe and at camp, but I overlooked how fast we would be swarmed as we were loading our gear. I had to make some quick decisions and he took a few wallops before I was able to get him back inside the car as I packed and moved gear to the water. Once we hit the water and the sun was shining it wasn’t an issue.
As we entered Perent Lake, I had a pretty good idea of where the more popular campsites were located and opted to grab something relatively close to the entrance rather than push into the wind with hope of getting an idyllic island site. I choose a site close by the mouth of hog creek for several reasons. 1) It was a hot two hour float down to the lake and my son was ready for lunch. Like a small human bomb about to go off. I needed to diffuse the situation. 2) I was conscious that on a big lake like Perent (1600 acres) that if the weather turns south, you can be required to wait out a storm if the lake becomes difficult to cross. Being close to the exit means we could likely work our way into the safety of the creek on short notice. 3) I also wanted to be able to make campfires to keep the bugs at bay. This would also provide some time honored goodness and give my son the opportunity to sit by the fire at night. The access to down firewood at the more popular camps can be limited. The latrines are also a little more regularly used. Gross. 4) Finally, I knew that because were would be there two nights and three days, that we would have plenty of time to set up camp and then explore the rest of the lake without our gear in the coming days. Even relocating if we found a perfect available place. I was very pleased with our site though. We stayed at the camp directly south of the entrance to Perent Lake from Hog Creek. The only noticeable downside was the lack of a good entry point to swim. Our rock entry descended quickly and you couldn’t get in or out easily. The only other issue we had was when the resident snowshoe hare chewed through my Platypus Water Filter hose when I left it hanging outside overnight.
Thermacell Portable Mosquito Repeller – I have to say I was skeptical of how effective this little guy would be, but honestly it exceeded expectations. I opted for the smaller of the two units in this style. After reading reviews I learned that the units that use kerosene to heat the scented pads might be slightly better than the units that use rechargeable batteries but it is likely such a slim margin it is hard to know. I used this primarily to allow my son to sit near our camp kitchen and fire when I was preparing meals. It worked beautifully and as advertised. Reduced the threat of mosquitos significantly. That offers a lot of piece of mind for a parent. We used other forms of prevention like long sleeves and pants, spraying Deep Woods Off on clothing and the exterior of our tent and I built smoky fires to stifle them, but the 15 foot bubble created by the Thermacell was a game changer for the Northwoods.
LL Bean Water Resistant Mountain Pants – When you are stepping in and out of a canoe into shallow water it’s nice to not carry that water back into your canoe with you. Its also nice not to drag your cuffs around as added weight for the next few hours. Watching these pants wick away water as I loaded and unloaded the boat was both entertaining novelty and a notable practical achievement. They pack down small and weigh very little but unlike other water resistant camping style pants I have tried in the past, they wear more like chinos. They have a comfortable weight and reasonable stretch. They don’t swish when you walk much either.
Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter – Though I did fill our water bottles and use a frozen 1 gallon plastic bottle as our ice for the cooler that could be used as drinking water as it melted, I knew that wouldn’t be enough for three days. I brought along my gravity filter for things like cooking, cleaning, brushing teeth, and for additional drinking water when we ran out of the good stuff what we packed in. It worked great despite not removing all of the tannin color from the lake water, though it was still pretty clear. My son actually never drank the filtered lake water and I had enough clean water to keep him exclusively on the good stuff. I had no issues at all drinking the purified lake water. I much prefer gravity systems to a pump style filter especially when you are camping in one spot and aren’t as worried about how small your unit packs down. I have used this model for a number of trips and it works well. However, I think if I was buying today I would go with this newer model.
Hydro flask inside Yeti 45 – With my son being two years old he is still accustomed to having a little milk before bed. I was hoping to continue to offer him that while also having some milk on hand to improve some of our camp meals like oatmeal and mac n cheese. Knowing that our only cooler ice would be what remained of the frozen gallon, I needed a way to keep milk cold. My plan was to pre chill my 32oz Hydro Flask and then fill it with cold milk. I wouldn’t open it until we got the the boundary waters three days later. I would simply put it inside my Yeti 45, which would have ice packs inside for the first two days. Then take out the ice packs and fill the cooler with all of our dry goods, fruits, veggies, and leave the frozen 1 gallon of water as the only cooling system. I also packed a sleeve of smoked salmon against the wall of the cooler against the frozen gallon. Well it all worked to perfection. The milk stayed fresh inside the Hydro Flask in the semi cold cooler all week. I opened it multiple times and it kept for 5 days. Only later when we returned home, did it start to turn. Using the Yeti as our bear box was great. It kept everything safe, cold, and also doubles as a great camp table. In order to turn your cooler into an IGBC approved bear box you simply lock it with these bad boys from MasterLock.
Day 1: We hit the Neil Smith Wildlife Refuge to visit the bison herd on our way to Minneapolis to catch up with some old friends. The visitor center is closed on Mondays, but we still had lunch in their outdoor pavilion and drove through the wildlife loop to see the bison. We arrived in Minneapolis at our friends place around 5pm. Our boys hit it off and played well sharing their diverse collection of cool toys. I made the comment to them that staying with old friends and sharing a meal with people you care about is so much better than grabbing a hotel and hoarkin’ down a continental breakfast in the morning.
Day 2: We pressed North through Duluth #ivebeentoduluth and arrived at Tettegauche State Park in the early afternoon. We did a lot of hiking, rode out a big thunderstorm in the visitor center, and camped there at Baptism River for the night.
Day 3: We packed up and showered quickly. We hit the Schroeder Baking Company along HWY 61 for coffee and donuts. Shortly after we picked up our BWCA entry permits and rented our #wenonahcanoe from Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte, MN, before heading out for Hog Creek. Its about a 45 minute drive from the outfitter to the entry point along scenic forest service roads. As we were unloading the car and packing we saw several other parents and kids getting ready for their adventures as well. We paddled with the current, grabbing our site around 1pm. We had lunch, set up camp, and we took a nap. Later that day we set out exploring the lake and swimming. Campfire and a tasty dinner closed out the day. We heard loons calling out as the sun set.
Day 4: I woke early and snapped some pictures of the fog rolling over the lake. Cole and I hiked the shore trials and played games in camp most of the day. Around 4pm we set out to explore the coves and grassy bogs to the east side of the lake. We got back to camp around 7:30pm and started a campfire and dinner. Loons called to each other as we fell asleep.
Day 5: We had breakfast and packed up camp. With rain in the forecast for the afternoon, we were in the water heading back up Hog Creek by 10:15am. Paddling upstream was easy in the Wenonah ultra lite Spirit 2. We had to line through a beaver damn going upstream that I was able to run through on our previous down river float. Two hours total and we were back at our entry point and packing up the car. We dropped off our canoe and grabbed a tasty lunch in Tofte at the Coho House. From there we headed back to Minneapolis for another stay with our friends. They were such great hosts we wanted to go back, but also needed to complete a rescue mission for Woody, who in classic Woody fashion was left behind.
Day 6: We headed back home. Stopping again at the Neil Smith Wildlife Refuge to break up the drive. This time the Nature Center was open and we spent some time inside looking at the educational tools and tearing up the gift shop.
Overall we had a fantastic trip and would recommend this same plan to other parents looking for a way to get their children to the Boundary Waters. I was able to overcome a lot of the challenges simply by bringing the right equipment and just accepting that this was going to be a bit harder than if I were going alone.
Canoe camping is such a beautiful way to travel and experience the wilderness. Though my son is only 2.5 and he likely wont remember the trip later, I know that these types of trips are so beneficial to his core sense of self and foundational experiences.