The Way We Used to Travel in the BWCA

People, Recreation


Most canoe trips into the Boundary Waters begin with a portage. You unload your gear from your car, haul it over a trail and place it at the edge of the water. The magic usually happens fifteen to twenty minutes after paddling away from shore. Around the time you stop wondering about what you might have forgotten and the busy noise of the world melts away. Surrounded by the singing of birds and the rhythm of paddles splashing in the water, the feeling of being somewhere timeless comes over you. 

Modern adventurers have been drawn to these waters for over a century. Needless to say, people didn’t always have 40-pound Kevlar canoes, titanium cookware or Gore-Tex rain coats. At one time canvass tents, leaky ponchos and cast-iron pans were the norm.

Travel might have been rougher, and adventurers may have had to carry a much heavier outfit, but just like today, they found it easy to fall in love with this watery wilderness.

We asked three long-time members to recount their experiences in the Boundary Waters during the 1960s and 70s. These accounts provide a unique look at how wilderness travel has changed, and at the same time, express that timeless love for the wilderness shared by thousands.

Where are your husbands?

By Jan Hagen

Black and White photo of canvas tent in the BWCA


My first trip to the Boundary Waters was in the early 1960s with my parents and brother. We made our way into Basswood Lake with two Grumman canoes lashed together and powered by a small motor. We spent five days on Basswood, sleeping in a walled canvas tent in our huge sleeping bags and cooking with a cast iron skillet over the campfire. Canned food was a big part of the menu. Even though it was August, we only saw a couple of other parties.

In 1964, I once again voyaged to the BWCA, this time with a small group of Girl Scouts. On one portage, we met a group of fishermen who wanted to know if our fathers were bringing over the canoes. Our group also stopped at Isle of Pine in Knife Lake for some root beer from Dorothy Molter.

By the early 1980s, travel in the BWCA had changed. The tent was now a lightweight Eureka Timberline, the REI sleeping bags packed down into their own stuff sack, and a small Coleman one-burner stove offered an alternative to cooking over a campfire.  Some of the food was freeze-dried and none of it was in cans. The canoe, however, was still a Grumman—a 17-foot, 79-pound whitewater canoe that able to dance in whitewater, track well on large, windy lakes, and make you sweat and curse when you carried it on your shoulders.

During this time, my canoe partner Carol and I took many wonderful trips in the BWCA, retracing voyager routes, finding pictographs, wildlife, and watching northern lights. We had to double portage, first with the packs, then go back for the canoe and remaining gear. Two women alone in the canoe trip must have been still been a rare sight in those days. More than once we were asked if our husbands were bringing the canoes.

We sometimes gave names to various campsites. Unfortunately, one was called Pig Island because the previous campers had left a mess. On Friday Bay, in Crooked Lake, we came around an island and interrupted four guys about to go skinny dipping. Want to guess what we named that one?

Today I live in upstate New York. My canoe is a 15-foot solo, weighing in at all of 32 pounds. I still use my Duluth packs to carry gear when I vacation at a walk-in cabin in the Adirondacks. The Adirondacks are lovely, but nothing compares to “a land lying north and northwest of Lake Superior.”

A native of North Dakota, Jan Hagen grew up in Duluth and learned to canoe at a Girl Scout camp on Half Moon Lake near Eveleth, MN.  She now canoes on the Mohawk River/Erie Canal and in the Adirondacks.

Family Adventures

By Esther Kellogg

Classic older photo of 3 kids fishing in an aluminum canoe by a rock face in the Boundary Waters.


My first canoe trip into the Boundary Waters was in 1970 with our four kids, two canoes, and two energetic springer spaniels. Our daughter was fresh out of diapers and our youngest son was five. Our oldest son was twelve and able to portage the second canoe, and his brother, ten, could manage a heavy pack. The boys were already experienced having taken a number of trips with their dad starting in the late 1960’s.

Those were the days of bulky life jackets, leaky tents, heavy cook pots, and ponchos for rain gear. With no freeze-dried food, meals were basic with a lot of fish and delicious baked goods coming from the reflector oven. Because of bears, we gave up bacon for breakfast. Without thinking to treat the water, we drank straight from the lake.

Back then, Cabin 16 Ranger Station was still open on Basswood Lake, where it was not uncommon to see a floatplane. The location of the Station made it easy to quickly pick up a permit and paddle into Quetico. The ranger, Wilbur, and his wife Bernice, were fixtures at the station and spent time chatting with the canoeists who came through.

Dog perched on the bow of a yellow canoe, with a smiling woman paddling.


In 1972, our July trip was particularly challenging. It rained all week — we later learned it was the rainiest week in Minnesota history. Ponchos provided little protection, nor did the two soggy tents. The canvas Duluth packs got heavier in the rain. Instead of sitting around a wet campsite with four dripping-wet kids, we packed up our gear each day and kept going. Without a doubt, today’s gear makes canoeing much more comfortable.

In the early days, there was much more trash on the camps sites. The family got into picking up what we found and packing it out. We could manage the tin cans and bottles in the fire pit but, at one campsite, we left the lawn chair behind for someone else. Fortunately, wilderness ethics have come a long way. When we took our last trip together in 2009, my husband was 78 and I was 75. By then, all we found were twisties and maybe a bit of foil.

The annual canoe trips were a great family experience, and my husband and I greatly enjoyed over fifty trips together. In later years, introducing our grandchildren to the beauty, solitude, and challenges of the canoe country has been a true gift.

Esther Kellogg has lived most of her life in Minnesota where she has worked on a farm, taught grade school and volunteered with many organizations. Her future husband introduced her to canoeing when they were dating in the 1950’s. Her close-knit family of four children and seven grandchildren also enjoy wilderness canoeing and hiking.

Bulky packs and heavy canoes

By Amy Oppenheimer

Growing up out east, my first experience of the Boundary Waters was with Minnesota Outward Bound in 1976. Initially, my impression was, “who flattened my beloved Adirondack Mountains?” The trees, the rocks, the smell of Balsam and sun-baked white pine needles made it feel like I was back in my home stomping grounds – only it was ironed down.

Black and white photo of canoe as a table in the BWCA


Right away, the instructors at Minnesota Outward Bound drummed up warnings of hypothermia. For good reason. In the 1970s we didn’t have the most sophisticated waterproof gear, not like today. There were sixteen seams on my tent fly that needed sealing, and I didn’t have enough common sense to bring a ground cloth, so there were some damp nights — and mornings. Once, after a cold and wet morning paddle, our shivering crew had to stop to build a fire.

The biggest challenge for me was portaging. Not in the least because it seemed we were always going through swamps or blowdowns and then more swamps.

Add to this the 17-foot, 70-pound Grumman canoes that were the workhorses of the time. They were monsters to carry.  At just under 5’2”, I lacked the muscles to get the thing up on my shoulders. I could paddle all day into a head wind, but portaging the canoes was beyond me. The black flies came with you and you had no hands free to kill or swat away these monsters, the stern either dragged on the ground or the bow dipped low enough to conceal all but a few feet ahead of your toes.

I carried the packs instead. These packs wouldn’t kill you, but they were no treat to carry, either.

The basic Duluth packs we used were designed to turn your neck muscles into iron. Take a square canvas sack, add adjustable two straps on the side and a loop on the top, meant to put some of the load on your neck, add as much gear as you can stuff into the thing and find a rugged portage. Your neck will resent you for a long time. By my third trip, I was using a real pack with a frame. I didn’t care that it didn’t fit into the canoes as well!

Years ago, a serious hand injury ended my paddling days and now, it has been almost 40 years since I last paddled in the Boundary Waters and Quetico. I know things have changed over the decades, I suspect that the things that I loved about the BWCA still are there. The sense that you could canoe for days and weeks on pristine lakes and end up a thousand miles from anywhere, the feeling of following in the footsteps of the Native Americans and the Voyaguers and the sheer joy in the beauty around you, lives on.

After a three-day Outward Bound solo trip, Amy Oppenheimer discovered that she could never be a true hermit. She ended up entrenched in the suburbs of Boston rather than living in a shack in the Adirondacks and currently spends as much time as she can traveling and on photography trips in upstate New York, Vermont. When those places get too wet, she heads to southern Utah.

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