Summertime Fun in Canoe Country

I am up in the Boundary Waters working on this blog post and the predicted high temperature, despite early May on the calendar, is mid-eighties! It reminds that the peak canoeing season coincides with the heat of the summer. So how do you beat the heat?

The First rule is: reframe the situation. Instead of focusing on avoiding being sweaty and hot, embrace the warmth. I lived in the Arctic for nine years, where for ten months it was cold. I promised myself never to complain about a half-dozen hot summer days. That is also good advice in the BWCAW, where for nine months it is cold. However, I must confess that my promise was tested on a singular July day on Lake Insula. I was camping with my daughter and the afternoon was sweltering. We had traveled early in the day to avoid the worst of the heat. Our camp had some shade and that is where we pitched our tent. We played cribbage in the tent, but without a breath of air, the tent was more of a sweatbox than a refuge. Outside the tent, flies half the size of prunes, harassed us without mercy. Most insects lack even a shred of empathy. They hungered for our blood and dived at us with Kamikaze abandon. Our choice was sweat in the tent, sit in the shade and be bloodied and harried by flies, or plunge into the cooling waters of the  lake. We cycled sauna-like between the three alternatives as the sun slid, ever so slowly, toward the horizon. We were tempted to complain, but that would not have alleviated our discomfort nor speeded the descent of the sun. Sometimes especially in October you can feel grubby at bedtime not on that hot summer day and a dozen sauna-swim cycles.  By nightfall we were squeaky clean.

Some hints from 70 BWCA canoe trips to help you cope with a heat wave: Safety first, lukewarm lake water is not going to cut your thirst; drink it anyway. Before a long portage I drink an entire liter of water. I learned to do this on an arctic trip where I became severely dehydrated, which led to heat exhaustion, and the wooziness and nausea that comes with it. I was in a weakened condition for three days. The only good thing about that condition was that my partner agreed to portage our 80-pound Royalex canoe five miles over the Arctic Divide. I experienced a miraculous recovery shortly after he finished the portage. I don’t care how much no-see-um netting your tent has, it will be a sauna on a sultry summer day. Pitching the tent in deep shade can help. If you can find a tent made of Egyptian cotton and coarse mosquito netting you will be happier. At least you will be happier until it starts raining and then you must carry wet canvas across the next portage. If you have strong ankles and toes like bullets, Chaco sandals are the shoes of choice. Boots are toasters. Wearing as little clothing as possible is also a good idea for many reasons. You need to avoid sunburn, which just makes a hot day feel hotter. A good purchase is a summer, 40-degree, down sleeping bag. Down has a greater range of comfort than synthetic fibers, but even a down three-season bag will broast you on a hot night.  A 40-degree bag is really good down to sixty degrees, which is about as low as the night-time temperature gets during heatwave. Cooking over a fire can be hellish on a hot summer evening, but if you have a twig stove like a Littlbug, you won’t need such a big fire. On a glassy water, blue sky, near triple-digit day even a mad dog does not want to be out on the lake. Better to be paddling by 6:00 am and make your miles before noon. If you are stuck out there in the afternoon sun, wear a white, cotton Tilley hat, soaked with lake water and that will keep you sane for awhile. Life jackets can be sweat suits, shop wisely. And, let’s not be too silly. If you are sober, a good swimmer, a good paddler, on a calm lake, and the water is warm and there are no non-swimmers in the boat, it is okay to doff the PFD. Many yoke pads are black or brown, they are solar collectors on the lake and heating pads on the portage. Covering them with white canvas or silver duct tape can help. If you use a blue barreI for your grub pack cover the black lid with silver furnace tape – the type with release paper. This will dramatically reduce the temperature inside the barrel. Using a CCS barrel harness that covers the barrel and lid works even better. Soaking the harness with water will result in evapo-cooling which could mean you might not have to pour the Hersey bars on to the marshmallows.

l asked fabled outdoor writer Cliff Jacobson for his advice on beating the heat in the Boundary Waters. His reply was just two words,  “Dry Martinis.”

The one big advantage of the BWCAW on a hot day is the cool clean lakes. I have canoed down rivers in Asia during insufferable hot and humid days, but I was reluctant to swim because the water was muddy and infested with crocodiles. Africa has crocs too, plus hippos. South America? Large dastardly fish that can strip the flesh off your bones and little parasitic fish that swim up the your most intimate orifices and latch on to your pink insides with poisonous barbs.  When it’s hot in the Boundary Waters swimming in the lakes and waterfalls is a safe salvation. Best of all, on those rare, steamy summer nights, a skinny dip in the moonlight is one of canoe country’s greatest carefree pleasures.

October will come soon enough, enjoy the heat.

Summertime Fun

Rob Kesselring: Speaker/Writer/Consultant
Member Outdoor Writers Assn. of America
USFS Licensed Wilderness Guide
PO Box 1313
Lakeville, Minnesota
55044     USA
web page and blog:

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