I wrote this piece a few years ago for the Boundary Waters Journal. With summer BWCA permit application season just a month away, I thought it might make a timely blog post. One of the reasons many of us venture to the Boundary Waters is to seek solitude. But what is solitude?
The conventional wisdom of finding deep solitude in the BWCAW was to put a big portage behind you or go after Labor Day. Both of these strategies are less effective today. Ultralight canoes have made deeper penetration less intimidating and word has gotten out that September is a special time in the Boundary Waters. Now the advice you hear is, “Get TWO big portages behind you or go in October.” The trouble with getting two big portages behind you is the BWCAW is like Chile; you don’t have to go too far in before you start coming out and thereby getting closer to another entry point. October? Maybe, but it’s a gamble. In four BWCAW October trips in the past two years I’ve had wind, cold, rain and snow every time. We did find plenty of wilderness solitude, but scant sunshine.
The simple solution to finding solitude is: go to Quetico. With less than one tenth the visitors and with a shape like Brazil, put a few portages behind you and you will find solitude.
There is another way. Realize that if you travel in the BWCAW’s most pleasant traveling months you are going to encounter people and likely your mammal tally is going to sound something like, “We saw a moose, three otters and 37 people!” The trick is to focus on the first two-thirds. With canoeists it’s not to difficult to do this. Think of paddlers emerging from a portage not as an intrusion but rather as a navigation aid. Bumming a walleye off a fisherman can spice up your dinner fare. Watching kids cliff jump can help you to recapture your youthful zeal and maybe tempt you to join in. And truthfully, watching a skilled paddler silhouetted by a setting sun can enhance your view. Embrace who you encounter at portages. They are canoeists, not orcs and trolls. Swapping stories and helping each other is part of wilderness travel. When you camp, if you position your tents strategically you won’t even see paddlers zooming by. Remember if a canoe party passes your campsite and you don’t see them, hear them or smell them, were they really there? If you do feel a funk coming on from the madding crowds, tighten your sandal straps aim toward the bush, and walk a quarter mile. You will find wild creeks, unblemished tree trunks and plenty of solitude. Just make sure you remember your way back to camp. There is such a thing as too much solitude.
The key is a positive mental attitude. I admit motor boats and party monsters still can get my back up and I admit there are days I need to be more zen like. Paddling the Rio Grande last February we had travelled for seven days without seeing another human, through canyons, past mountain lions and without a whisper of civilization. On the last day a roaring jet boat pounded its way past us. My bowman and I were appalled, disgusted, and scowling. My friends talked with the jetboaters and then paddled away grinning from ear to ear, cans of ice-cold beer in their fists. Sometimes maybe it is best to take what you get and be happy.
My niece Karen and I had paddled the arctic Hood River for over two weeks. We had seen musk-ox, caribou and barren-ground grizzlies. But we never saw another person. Camped on the Arctic Ocean I started thinking about a group of paddlers that I knew was behind us. What the heck? We paddled two hours upstream and arrived at their camp just in time to help celebrate a birthday.
Mid-July, temperature in the nineties I was paddling a sultry Insula Lake with my daughter and her best friend. It seemed like we were part of a grand parade of canoes. People swimming. People fishing. People everywhere. I knew of a 2-star campsite off the beaten track. We found it empty, grabbed it, and had a shady, peaceful evening with nary a passerby.
Somewhere between seeking and sneaking away from people is the sweet spot of a quality wilderness experience.
But how can you commune with nature if you cannot find an empty campsite? Those rocky slabs and spacious pine needled carpeted tent pads may be spoken for but even at the busiest season there are more campsites than groups. After camping atop pushed over willows on the Northwest Territories‘ Liard River and on a cobble field on Nunavut’s Burnside River, believe me, if there is a red dot on a Fisher map you can squeeze nine people in there. It may be a sardine can wayside, but so what? Canoe camping is canoe camping and there’s nothing better. Some nights the quest for an empty August campsite can get headlight late, but even those hunts will be fun adventures, at least in retrospect. Memorable partially because they will be rare. Even in mid-summer I sometimes have found lakes empty of campers and had my pick of a half dozen campsites including 5-star beauties. When I hear people disparage the BWCAW for being too crowded, I can only ask, “compared to what?” Compared to lakes ringed with cottages, noisy with jetskis and choppy from bass boats. Even a busy peripheral BWCAW lake in midsummer has lots of space and opportunity for solitude.