The Cost of Paddling 32 Miles Through the BWCA

Photo courtesy of the author.

At one point during our five-day trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (henceforth BWCA), I mentally downgraded it from vacation to trip, but experience is probably the best word for it.

Between the thirty-two miles of paddling, some of it fairly hard, and the need to wave mosquitos out of the latrine before using it, our time in the Minnesota wilderness seemed a little too draining to be called a vacation. But it certainly had the cost of one.

There’s an idea — or at least, I’d had the idea — that going into the wilderness is a pure thing, a return to simplicity, a paring down of excess. Once, in college, I spent the entire week of a climbing trip to the Nevada desert sleeping curled up in the back of my minivan, living off of pop-tab cans of soup and mini Nutter Butters. Most of my money was spent on gas there and back.

Not so this trip. By my count, my husband and I spent $1,229.77 in direct costs for our week up north, not including the cost of the large amount of camping gear we already owned.

The spending began before we left our home in Minneapolis. We’d arranged for friends to housesit and watch our two dogs, and wanted to be sure they were compensated. I purchased an extra bag of dog food ($25) and a case of Rolling Rock ($16.02) and we left them cash ($150) in a thank-you note with care instructions for the pups.

Then, after several hours of packing and tidying house, we made a last run to REI. Here I bought a 50 SPF sun shirt ($34.95 on sale, and I wore it all week) and a buff ($25, and the one thing I would not buy again, mostly because I still can’t figure out how to wear it properly on my head). Then, at last, we were off on the four-hour drive up north after a stop for gas ($34).

We met up with our good friends — two other couples — at a grocery store in Silver Bay. We already had most of our food ($76 in dehydrated meals from Mountain House and miscellaneous snacks from our pantry) but picked up a few final things — Clif bars, baby carrots (which we accidentally left in the car the morning we paddled off), mini Snickers bars, Craisins and, perhaps most importantly, sirloin steaks, which our group decided to cook to celebrate our first night in the woods ($36.74). We rounded off the evening at Betty’s Pies, a North Shore institution, where I had a slice of turtle coconut pie and a veggie pastie and my husband went with classic apple pie ($25.67).

That night we stayed in the home of the art teacher of one of our friends, where we re-checked our bags and removed surplus weight. We rose as the sun did for the two-hour drive to Ely and our entry point at Lake One.

It was late Monday morning by the time we reached Kawashiwi Lodge & Outfitters, Inc., the place we would be launching from. First we stopped in Ely at another outfitter to rent a waterproof food barrel (called a “bear barrel,” though not actually bear-proof) for the week ($37.59).

Kawashiwi was laid back, rustic in a natural, unintentional way. The owners’ children had the run of the place and there was dusty taxidermy on the walls. We unloaded our gear near the dock and were fitted for oars and life-vests. My husband and I decided to rent canoe seats at $5 each per day, an added cost I was hesitant to make but was grateful for after the first hour in the canoe ($53.69). The boats themselves — made of Kevlar, which is both lighter than aluminum and doesn’t get hot in the sun — were $47 plus tax per day ($252.34), and to enter the BWCA at all required a permit ($33 for both of us).

We liberally applied sunblock and bug spray (3M Ultrathon, $6.36 for a spray can, and probably my husband’s favorite purchase of the week) as our group’s navigator went over a map with the outfitter’s owner.

And then, at last, we were off onto the water.

We paddled ten miles that first day, stopping only for lunch on the rocky shore of a small island. For four of the six of us, it was our first trip to the BWCA, and the four portages we made that day were learning experiences. By the last day, we were fairly seasoned at hoisting the canoes and carrying the packs and paddles, but day one saw its share of scrapes and swearing.

There are designated campsites in the BWCA, but no reservations. You paddle until you find an empty one in roughly the spot you want. At peak season — late July/early August, when we went — it can be tough to find a site, so we opted for Fire Lake, a little ways off the main routes. The two extra portages it took to get there paid off.

Weary and grimy with bug spray and lotion, we paddled up to a campsite just before evening. After securing the canoes but before setting up tents, everyone went for a swim. The water was cold, the rocks slimy with algae, and it was so red with iron you couldn’t see more than a few feet below the surface, but it felt great. After pitching our tents we cooked the steaks on the fire grate. Nobody had brought steak knives and so we ate them as best we could — in my case, with a spork out of a collapsible bowl. They were delicious.

We’d intended to move campsites again the next day, but one of our friend’s tents broke as he was setting it up. He was able to rig something workable with a tarp and a fair amount of guylines, but we all decided to make the Fire Lake site home base for the week, though later in the week we paddled a 12-mile loop to explore the lake we’d intended to camp on.

Staying put was a good choice. We didn’t see any other paddlers on our section of lake, though it was home to a pair of loons and their chicks. One of the best parts of the trip was watching the little family throughout the day, the adults diving and coming up with fish to feed their young, and listening to their famous calls. We spent our downtime reading and swimming to nearby islands (wearing life vests made this a marvelous and novel method of transportation), and constantly reapplying mosquito repellant. On Tuesday storm clouds gathered on the horizon, and we quickly worked to rain-proof camp, setting up more tarps (including one we’d purchased just before the trip, $69.95) and covering our firewood with a canoe. It rained all evening, stormed all night — with much ground-rumbling thunder and unsettlingly close lightning — and rained much of the next day. We passed the time below our tarps, venturing out in rain jackets only to use the latrine (the mosquitoes were sadly not dissuaded by the weather) and heating water over Pocket Rockets and JetBoils for our dehydrated meals.

At one point a few days in, as we drank our “dirtbag mochas” (a packet of hot chocolate plus a Starbucks VIA Instant coffee) my husband turned to me as we sat in our miniature camp chairs purchased for the trip ($97.90 for both) and said, “This has been a pretty cheap week.” I laughed, lovingly. (I’m the bill-payer and budgeter in our household.)

But it was worth it. We saw eagles and beavers and many more loons (no bears, fortunately, though we had to hang our food bags every night). The lake water we filtered for drinking, cooking and washing was among the best water I’ve tasted anywhere. We watched the Milky Way Galaxy emerge on our last night at the campsite. I used a latrine from which, if you were so inclined, you could pick ripe raspberries and wildflowers. We heard maybe two planes overhead over the course of five days, and only one cell phone was brought between the six of us (it was only used occasionally, to set a timer for meals). I can’t remember the last time I watched entire weather patterns move across the sky, and it was remarkable to spend a week not reading the news, or answering emails, or even knowing the time.

Still, I was ready for civilization by Friday. We broke camp as the sun came up and the mist burned off the water, and I thought about fresh food and a shower and sleeping on a mattress. The hours and miles back out was some of the hardest paddling of our trip — the wind whipped up the lakes into near-whitecaps, and once my husband and I were pushed into the shoreline. Luckily, by this point we were all more seasoned at portages and paddling.

We were very glad to see the dock of the outfitter that afternoon. We’d elected to stay in one of their bunkhouses that night so we could explore Ely the next day, and for $35 plus tax per person ($77.27 for both of us) we got a twin-size bunk and access to a shower house. Once we’d all showered (incredible, though I still had dirt on me after the first wash-through) we went into town for dinner.

This, too, was amazing. Two beers each and we were all fairly giddy, and eating food that didn’t come out of a bag was amazing ($82.30). We’d all intended to go out on the town that evening — or at least stay up, drink more, and play cards — but ended up passing out around 8:30 instead.

Saturday morning we loaded up the cars and headed back into Ely. We stopped for coffee and quiche ($19.72) then spent a few hours walking Ely’s main street, stopping in art galleries, outfitters, and the kinds of clothing stores unique to the Minnesota north (Mukluks, anyone?). Our last stop in the area was to the International Wolf Center ($26 for both of us), where we spent an hour exploring the little museum and watching their ambassador wolves play and lounge. There are wolf packs in the BWCA, but I was glad to see them here as opposed to meeting them on my way to the latrine, glimpsed by the narrow beam of a headlamp.

Driving home was an uneventful affair — a stop for gas and McDonald’s ($24 and $13.72, respectively). By this time I was back to doing mental math for the trip, thinking about returning to work and the rest of the world, and trying to ignore a dozen or so mosquito bites. It was great to see the dogs again, and as good to sleep in our own bed.

The next day, our friends came over to use our backyard for drying out tents and tarps, go over trip highlights, and tally up costs owed (one couple fronted the deposits and costs for the canoe rentals, entry permits and the bunkhouse).

And, of course, there was already talk of next year.

Genna Soufflé lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two dogs. They have seen a 900 percent increase in camping since moving from Chicago two years ago. She looks forward to/dreads seeing their REI dividend next spring.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Experience Series.

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