8 Safety Concerns in the BWCA

Recreation By Pete Marshall

People who have never been to the Boundary Waters often think of it as a dangerous place, full of bugs and bears. This is partially true, especially the bug part. However, with the right precautions, it’s really safe. What people fear is largely what they don’t know. We face numerous risks and dangers in our daily lives. For example: You should be freaked out by half-ton pieces of metal barreling past you at 70 mph, but chances are, you didn’t bat an eye last time you got on the freeway.

Familiarizing yourself with the risks associated with traveling in the Boundary Waters, along with safety protocols, will allow you to plan and manage risks.

In addition to wearing your life vest and leaving your contacts and contact solution at home (seriously, you look great in glasses) here is a list of the eight most common dangers you’re likely to face while journeying into the BWCA and how to navigate them.

Dark clouds over BWCA

1. Managing lightning

Of all the potential dangers that come with traveling in the Boundary Waters, lightning may be the thing that I am most afraid of. Why? For one, it’s incredibly dangerous, but more so, despite all the books on lightning safety and the standard protocols that can greatly reduce your chances of being struck or harmed by lightning, there is a degree of uncertainty that even experts can’t account for.

That being said, while there is a good reason to be afraid of lightning, there are ways to stay relatively safe during a lightning storm.

First, get off the water. But at the same time, remember that you are vulnerable on land as well. Lightning can not only strike trees or exposed people, but can actually travel underground and electrocute people from the ground.

Avoid tall trees (like those great solitary white pines), avoid open spaces, and avoid metal. Spread out from others (keep a distance of some 15 to 20 feet) and assume a safety position. This can best be done by sitting on some kind of insulated surface that can ground the shock (a life vest or sleeping pad will be your best option). Tuck your legs into your chest so that only your feet and your butt touch the surface.

You’re most vulnerable on water. If you’re out in the middle of a lake or a river, you’re going to be the highest point, and so you’ll be an ideal lightning pole.

However, if you must stay on the water for some reason, the so-called “cone of protection” is where you need to be. The “cone” extends 45 degrees from the top of the trees along shore to the water. No need to do trigonometry here – just paddle close to shore, the closer the better.

2. Swimming

Of course you’re going to swim on your trip into the Boundary Waters. What’s a trip into the BWCA without some swimming?

Kid cliff jumping

However, before you go for a dip, there are three precautions to keep in mind:

  1. No matter how strong of a swimmer you are, always swim with sandals or water shoes. The reason is simple: Your feet get wet in the Boundary Waters, either from wet-footing it at the start of the portage or from sweating in your socks all day. This makes them spongy and particularly vulnerable to cuts. Cutting your foot on a rock could very well be a trip ender.

  2. Don’t dive. Even at the go-to cliff-jumping spots in the BWCA, there is a significant risk of head injury. Which can do more than end a trip.

  3. Swim in pairs or groups. After all, this is the wilderness.

3. Wind

A strong headwind can do more than just slow you down and make you paddle harder. It can be dangerous, especially out on open water.

One of the most dangerous situations people regularly get themselves into while traveling in the BWCA is when they attempt to make a crossing from one side of a lake to the other, and in the middle of the lake, the wind picks up.

This could lead to the canoe capsizing and drowning.

The best advice is to stay near shore, but if you must venture out into the middle of the lake, do so in the morning, which is, in general, the calmest part of the day.

4. Knives, axes, and saws

When I was building a canoe at the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum and working in the shop with men who knew their way around the equipment better than I did, I once said something about how nervous I was when using a power saw. I was told this was a good thing. The moment you stop being afraid is when you lose a finger. Same can be said about using an edged tool in the wilderness.

I know more than a few experienced wilderness travelers who have injured themselves while using an axe or a knife on trail.

When using a knife, always cut away from you. The knife blade should be positioned so that if it slips, all it will cut into is air.

When using an axe or hatchet to chop wood, make sure you have a wide circle around you so no one will be in the way of your swing. If you’re standing, take a wide stance so if you miss, you don’t swing your axe into your shin.

Finally, always sheath your tools. This will prevent unexpected injuries, and is a good way to increase the longevity of your tools.

Fishing hook barb

5. Barbless hooks

Use barbless hooks. It’s better for the fish and is a lot safer for you. Not convinced? Google “barbed fishing hook accident.”

Worried about losing a dream fish?

Keep the line tight and the pressure on and you’ll bring that hog into your net without a problem.

6. Be mindful of where you pitch your tent

In 2016 a man was killed and his son was severely injured when a mature pine fell on their tent. It was an unexpected and tragic accident.

Be careful about camping under large trees, especially if they are sickly or dying. It might not be possible to completely avoid camping near large trees, but no matter what, before setting up your tent, be sure to look up and check for so-called widow makers. These are large branches that fall from up high and get caught in the lower branches. They can weigh over a hundred pounds.

7. Campfires and forest fires

As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, forest fires across the country are becoming more common and more severe. In the summer months, forest fires pose a continual risk to the Boundary Waters. In the 21st century alone, major fires such as the Pagami Creek and Ham Lake fires have burned large swaths of the Boundary Waters. For your own safety and the well-being of the wilderness, follow these precautions:

  • Know what the risk of forest fire is before setting out
  • When you can, cook over a gas stove
  • Keep campfires manageable and contained within the fire grate
  • Before leaving camp or going to bed, thoroughly drown and stir ashes and embers
Fire in a grate by the lake

8. BEARS & other Animals in the BWCA

Bears, wolves, moose, and other iconic Northwoods animals are as much a part of the Boundary Waters as cold water or birch shavings. They can also cause a lot of stress and worry. Especially bears.

Bear cub in a tree

The best thing you can do to keep your camp critter-free is to keep a clean camp.

  • Clean fish and dispose of their entrails 200 feet from where you camp
  • Make sure there are no scraps of food lying around camp
  • Be sure that all your food is tightly sealed in bags or airtight containers
  • Keep your tents away from where you eat

  • For god’s sake, don’t keep food in your tent

Some people swear by hanging food from trees at least 30 feet up and 10 feet from the tree trunk. This may help keep away a curious bear, but if a bear wants that bag, they’re going to get it. I rarely hang my food bag. However, I’m militant about keeping a clean camp.

This blog has been excerpted and adapted from our book, “A Friends Guide to the Boundary Waters.” To read the eBook and download a FREE copy, click below!

Pete Marshall is the communications director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

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