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Scenery and Solitude in the BWCA | Part 1

This post is part of a series, click here for the full story.

In the grand scheme of things, we have it really, really good. Not only do we both enjoy adventure travel — and each other’s company —  but we also have two sets of grandparents in our lives who are willing to undertake the adventure that is keeping our kiddo while we’re in the woods.

What happened after we met my parents in Dallas to hand him over for the week was wild and woolly — and well-documented. Mamaw and Papaw are no strangers to technology and they wield a wicked iPhone camera. No need to worry.  The swimming, longhorning, Sea Worlding, and workshopping. It’s all coming. And — spoiler alert — they had entirely too much fun. I can’t wait to tell you about it.

But first!iPhone_072813 1089_edit Tales from the Boundary Waters!

Getting There

Dallas is roughly halfway between our house in Fayetteville and my parents’ house in San Antonio, and to sweeten the deal it’s where my sister Laura lives with her husband Leo AND it’s not a bad place to catch a flight. So we all rendezvoused in Dallas for a quick supper and a quick visit and the official delivery of our little guy to the grandparents for the week.

Two quick and painless flights and one uncharacteristically pleasant rental car experience later and we were headed north out of Minneapolis. Next stop – Ely, Minnesota.

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Ely (pronounced Ee-lee) is, in a word, adorable. An entire town overrun with relaxed, carefree folks like us — there to inhale the sweet scent of VACATION. It’s small and quaint, and in a bit of a time warp. The downtown area seems largely unchanged by the last fifty years, and the whole town seems oblivious to the fast-paced, technology-driven “outside” world we’re used to.

Ely is so adorable they can even get away with things like this:

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The only tweeting around here is courtesy of actual birds.

Naturally, I took one look at that sign then whipped out my phone and shared it with Facebook.

Just outside of town we easily found our destination, North Country Canoe Outfitters, and were able to put a face and a handshake to the names and voices of the folks with whom we’d exchanged phone calls and emails over several weeks in preparation for our trip.  John and Kathy — and North Country — are in their 30th year in Ely, outfitting city folks like us for trips into the Boundary Waters. They have a staff of college kids who couldn’t have been more helpful and polite as they walked us through our gear, the food they’d packed for our trip, and the all-important canoe portaging lesson. Much more about canoe portaging to come.
Tip! Lay eyes on all your gear before you get to the woods. We trusted that everything was in the pack — which it was! — but it would have been smarter for us to have them unpack everything as we walked through the list. When we got to camp the first night we felt like Mary Poppins — pulling item after item out of the packs.

We would be traveling with three packs: food pack, gear pack (cooking items, tent, sleeping bags), and personal pack (clothes, shoes, passport, camera).

Jeff showing off his new portaging skills.

Jeff showing off his new portaging skills.

All set to go with lightweight gear, tent, sleeping bags, and five days’ worth of camp food we settled into a quiet corner with John to review The Map. The Map was our ticket around the lakes, and — along with our passports and the satellite phone — earned a spot in the “mission critical” bag during the trip. John charted a route for us that still left us with a few options for each day, but gave us some recommendations for good camping spots to shoot for each evening. The plan was to fly into Canada (Quetico Provincial Park, or just “The Quetico”) then paddle and portage back to Minnesota where the area is called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) wilderness. Five days, four nights.

As John talked us through our route and nonchalantly reminded us here and there by pointing — be careful around these rapids, or the sunset from that island is incredible — we were getting more and more excited while also starting to worry. This map? That’s it. No guide. No experience in the area. At what point do all the islands and trees and rocks start to look the same? There aren’t street signs out there, people. And there aren’t even trail markers like in a National Park. You have to follow the map and pay attention, and I may honestly have the worst sense of direction you’ve ever seen. (I’ve lived in Fayetteville for 13 years and routinely take the long way between Point A and Point B.)

We were sharing the property with a rather large group of Boy Scouts the night before our trip, and John and Kathy upgraded our bunkhouse reservation to a private cabin — so we could get a little more privacy from the hoards of teenage boys swarming around. There must have been fifty of them.

After getting a recommendation for the local pizza place, we wandered back into town for a bite to eat at Sir G’s Italian Restaurant where we continued to marvel at the northern Minnesota accents ringing through the chatter around us. A little more wandering through some downtown outfitting shops before a final wander back to North Country for the night.

This post is part of a series, click here for the full story.

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