Boundary Waters Catalog Blog

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Wilderness Camping is not just a guy thing

Thursday, April 19, 2018 Guest Blog by Cara Berzins

Ladies, no matter what hats we wear and titles we carry, I suspect that there are some core things we all want. For example, I carry the titles mom, wife, teacher, writer. I’m always looking for ways to improve how I carry those titles. I think as women we are always looking for ways to grow, and unfortunately, we tend to doubt ourselves and wonder whether we are doing any of those things right. I know I do. 

I believe I know a secret and unexpected way to build confidence and reduce doubt and guilt. This is my story of how wilderness camping shaped my identity and set me up for a happier life. 


I was 1 year old when I visited the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time. It’s a wilderness camping area of supreme quiet, endless forests, and interconnected lakes stretching across the northern border of Minnesota. Every summer, as a family of 5 and sometimes with friends, we meandered the over 1500 miles of canoe routes traversing more than 1000 lakes. 

Not only did my parents get double takes because they brought young children with them into this utterly remote wilderness camping area, people noticed when two of the three little ones were girls. 

As my sister and I grew, we became increasingly aware that we were a rare breed in the BWCAW. We couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment when we were able to load ourselves up for portages with ease while guys with other traveling groups looked on openmouthed. One of us would help the other slip her shoulders into a large bulky looking canvas canoe pack. Sometimes, to avoid coming back for another trip over the portage we would carry two packs. The other would be strapped on backwards so the backpack part hung in front. (Believe it or not, this method was actually easier because the weight was distributed more evenly!) Then the one carrying the packs would prop up the canoe as the other centered her shoulders under the yoke. Away we went after taking all of 3 minutes to load up. Seeing a teenage girl carry a canoe on her head all by herself was a shock to some of our fellow campers. Seeing how impressed they were was a huge self-esteem boost to me in the years when girls usually feel especially awkward.

The wilderness does not discriminate. When the wind howls and the waves rise into frothy whitecaps, you still need to paddle back to your campsite whether you are male or female, 8 or 80. You need the same bare minimum of gear to survive and enjoy your time in the wilderness. As yet, there is no portage concierge available to shunt these belongings from one waterway to the next. This fact makes it seem like a man’s world. Instead, this very fact makes wilderness camping the great equalizer.


I believe these experiences have shaped my self-image in fundamental ways. 

  1. I feel strong and sure of myself. Traveling for miles powered only by my own muscles taught me to be confident in myself and my ability to handle physically demanding situations. 
  2. I feel a connection with nature that is strongest in this true wilderness, but helps me seek out and find that same feeling even in places where nature is scarce.  
  3. This connection with nature is like a deep seated well of tranquility. It helps me combat anxiety and stress, which gives confidence in my emotional ability to handle demanding situations. 
  4. Being at the mercy of the elements taught me that I can’t expect things to always be easy. It also taught me not to give up when the going is hard.
  5. I learned to think outside the box. Sometimes you need to be innovative and learn to make do with what you have when you are traveling with the bare minimum. (Once we traded minnows for toilet paper from a group of fishermen. Priorities😉)
  6. I learned to distinguish between need and wants. You quickly realize what is needed and what’s not when you have to carry it all for a couple of miles.
  7. The value of cooperation and teamwork is obvious in the wilderness. If you aren’t paddling in unison, you get nowhere fast. If you don’t work together to set up camp, it takes twice as long.


Some of my happiest memories are times we spent as a family camping. The sound of a paddle swishing through the water, the call of a loon, the lapping of waves, rain on the tent flaps, beavers slapping the water with their tail, various bird calls, the rustle of our feet on the portage, waterfalls thundering, wind rushing through the treetops. How often do we experience these sounds anymore? The effect they have on the mind and body is . . . I struggle to come up with the right word. Invaluable, healing, soothing, life altering.

Nancy Piragis summed it up well on the welcome video for Piragis Northwoods Company. She said, “I never forget a canoe trip. I never forget a day in the woods. But I forget days at home, I forget days in the office. . . Every single time you go out there’s always memories to be had.” You find that life has been reduced to what is right in front of you. No distractions, no rushing, no multitasking. It’s so good for your psyche and your brain.

Humans seem to be built to perform their best when at one with nature. It makes us happier, healthier, calmer. This effect has even been hitting the headlines recently. I especially enjoyed this recent episode of Innovation Hub on my local NPR station. It’s about the scientific evidence that nature is good for us.

One of the saddest side effects of modern living is that people have started to fear nature. And yet nature has so much to give us. They flood their yards with spot lights at night, they avoid uninhabited areas because they are afraid of the animals. For me, the sounds of nature are so soothing, it seems absurd to be afraid of them. I remember when I realized how much people fear nature. I was camping with friends, a single mother and her daughter. She mentioned they might not sleep well because of the noises. That night in my tent I listened with extra attention to the forest noises. Because I was listening so intently and imagining how it would sound to someone unfamiliar with the forest, my senses were all on high alert. Suddenly, I heard a terrifying, unidentifiable rumble. For a few scary moments my mind rushed through a whole series of animals until it finally dawned on me. A jet was flying high overhead! I felt relieved to finally identify the noise. But this confirmed my previous opinion; the creature most to be feared is our own species, humans. No animal noise could sound that terrifying. In the end my friends slept well, and decided they loved camping.


My parents gave me a priceless legacy by taking me wilderness camping as a girl. Since then we have camped with my nieces and my daughter. At first the noises and the wildness made them nervous too. But soon enough they feel just as comfortable and at home as they would in their own house. The difference is, instead of being enclosed in walls and under a roof, the lake cradles them under the vast blue sky while the forest sings its lullaby.  

Experience wilderness camping for yourself. If you want to learn to believe in yourself, if you want to connect with nature more deeply than you thought possible, if you want to shake off the built-up stress and pressure of every-day life, then wilderness camping might be just the right thing for your next vacation!

Editor’s note: Piragis Northwoods Outfitting offers a fully guided Women Exploring Wilderness Canoe Camping Trip. We also have Women Guides on staff as well as men, each with excellent experience in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We also have all the gear you need for your trip at The Boundary Waters Catalog and for RENT.

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First Impressions

A revisitation of two early blogs by Taylor Ham

Friday, May 11, 2018 “Portage to my first paddle of 2018”

On May 6th I woke up early before work and knew it was going to be a good day on the water. I went to work knowing that I would have to leave early so I could take advantage of the weather.  With zero resistance my manager told my co-worker Joe and myself to have fun and be safe. 

We left town at around 3:30 PM and had a nice drive up the Echo Trail to entry point 23 Moose River North.  Its about a 45 minute drive from town.  It was my first time portaging or paddling of the season.  The first portage into Moose River North is about a half mile long, it is a beautiful portage that is relatively flat.  It is always interesting how your body will react to the first portage of the season.  Carrying a boat isn’t always the most pleasant feeling but it is something over the years that I have grown to be very comfortable with.  

When we got to the water I was a little relived to get the canoe off of my shoulders.  As we began to paddle I started to regain skills that come with every summer I spend here in Ely.  There are three portages until you get to Nina Moose.  Joe and I finished our second portage and we paddled for just a few minutes until we spotted something unusual in the water ahead.  It looked like small rapids, or like water was running over a stick in the water.  As we got closer the movement in the water got further away and we realized that it was three small otters.  We followed them up the river for about half a mile before they realized we were behind them.  They swam to the shore and scurried away to the woods. 

The reason I chose to go to Moose River North is because there is a high peak that you can easily climb to the top of and see all the rest of the river and Nina Moose Lake.  I had been there a few times before in previous years and I wanted to see it in the spring time.  Its not marked on a map anywhere but when you arrive you can see where people in the past have gotten off of the river.  We climbed to the top of the hill and the wind picked up as we got out in the open.  The sun came out from behind the clouds and we sat up there for a while and talked about our grand paddling plans for the season.  After a while we climbed back down to our boat and paddled to Nina Moose. 

Paddling rivers is very different than paddling lakes, although the rivers in the Boundary Waters don’t flow very strong it is still important to read the water as it flows over rocks and other things in the water.  Its a good idea to have good communication between yourself and your paddling partner to avoid the things that can damage your canoe.  I would draw from the right or left from the bow seat to quickly change the direction of the boat.  The person in the stern cant always see the incoming rocks so its important for the person in the bow to always be watching to protect the canoe.

We paddled to Nina Moose and the wind completely died.  We spent some time there to write down our thoughts and to capture some of the science.  Two swans landed in the lake and we also shared the lake with a loon.  It was the first time since getting back to Ely that I had heard the call of a loon.  The sun was hinting to us that it was time to start heading back.  The sun was behind the trees on our way back so the temperature lowered considerably.  The water was clear as glass and in the reflection you could see the shore line.  We ran into a beaver that swam about 15 feet away from us before diving under us and popping back up 15 feet behind us.  We also saw our otter friends again and it seemed as if two of them were fighting but they disappeared to the woods again.  

Spring time is such a wonderful time to go into the Boundary Waters, even if it is just for a day trip.  It’s as if you get to watch the world wake up right in front of you.  I’m excited for another season of padding in the most beautiful country!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018 “Solo Canoeing — at peace with yourself”

I cannot decide if I prefer to paddle in a group or if Id rather just go alone.  The thing that I love most about solo paddling is that whether it’s just a day trip or a multi-day trip there is no outside pressure to do anything.  No schedule in a sense, unless YOU make one.  You have to be disciplined enough to accomplish your goals and you are the only one responsible to push yourself.  When you are alone it’s all up to you.

For my first solo paddle I took it easy and went to entry point #14 Little Indian Sioux North.  I have been there once before during last season, but it was at the end of a very long day so I didn’t have the energy to explore. It made for an easy decision to go back.  Unfortunately, due to a small wrist injury, I was not able to make it to my planned destination which was Devils Cascade. I will leave that for another day, I suppose.

I took a Northstar Magic on my trip.  The Magic is my favorite solo boat to paddle. It handles better and portages better than any boat that I have tried yet.  I also prefer to use a kayak paddle, that way, I feel like I am able to cover more ground.

The weather on the river was absolutely gorgeous and the wind was very mild, not a cloud in the sky.  I paddled slowly down the river, stopping often to listen to the earth singing.  I didn’t see a single person out there even though the parking lot was packed for fishing opener.

When I first arrived at the portage I jumped out of the boat into the chilled water, I could hear water rushing.  I walked back and forth along the portage until I found a good spot to sit down and read for a while.  The portage is 60 rods and it leads to another segment of the river.  I sat there for a good while to gather my thoughts and enjoy the sound of runningwater .

When I got back on the river I searched for a nice sunny spot on the shore where I could have some lunch.  As I ate, a small family of turtles joined me on a log.  They stayed there until I got up to leave.

My first solo paddle of the year wasn’t very eventful but not every paddle into the Boundary Waters has to be about what you saw, how far you went or what you did. A vital part of every experience should be about how your body is feeling and most importantly how your mind is feeling when you’re finished.

Luckily with the Boundary Waters so close, I never really feel like we are finished — there’s always another day and another lake to explore.  Maybe I’ll see you out there.

Taylor Ham, Piragis Northwoods Outfitting

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Walleye Fishing Spring 2020

Fishing Walleye Spring 2020 by Tim Stouffer

For a couple of weekends in a row we’ve gone out fishing for walleye close to Ely in the late afternoon leading into evening. Usually this time of year, jigging with minnows or leeches is a go-to formula. The trick is finding them during constant air and water temperature fluctuations and sunlight and barometer changes. They always seem to be most mobile in the Spring and less likely to stack up anywhere and stay very long. I chalk it up to both their predatory nature and their particular avoidance of light in favor of shadow.

Generally I prefer the versatility of nightcrawlers and so I got some along with rainbow minnows.

Last weekend we set our anchor off an island where we could see the rocks dropping off sharply and found the bottom around 17 to 20 feet.  We got hits off the minnows nearly immediately two different ways, neither of which was really a traditional jigging method. Usually you lift the jig and let it drop, leave it for a bit and repeat, picking up bites during or after the drop. In this case, we picked up most our bites either during the retrieve or when returning back to our rod after leaving it to sink to bottom while netting a fish for someone else. These “dead pickups” as I call them are particularly fun. We chased them in this style for a while that day and got enough to have a fantastic dinner. We even picked up a Northern that I made Pike Dip out of.

Northern Pike Dip upper left, homemade Tarter sauce middle, Walleye fried in panko and flour and yellow mustard egg coating upper right, homestyle potatoes bottom.
Ritz crackers too. YUM.

Pike Dip Recipe: Sauté the pike in butter salt pepper and garlic powder. Afterwards let it chill. When cold pick out any “Y” bones left and break up by hand. Chop up celery and yellow onion. I did five stalks and one small onion and four tablespoons of pickle relish for a small/medium fish. Mix all together with a couple of big spoons of mayo. Add black pepper salt garlic powder and a little crushed red pepper if you like and chill. Goes great on a hearty cracker or if you like a rich sandwich like tuna salad on toasted bread. NOTE: Curry powder or Cumin adds another layer of flavor if you back off the garlic.

A week later we returned to the same spot after a couple of nights where we experienced frost advisories overnight and a day where we rose above eighty degrees. That’s northern Minnesota for you, weather in constant flux. We tried near the island from before. On the rocky shoreline a young muskrat was scurrying back and forth in the sun. He was too quick to get a picture of and I simultaneously had a bite. It lead to nothing as did the next hour and so we moved to the nearby shoreline away from the island and began to fish much shallower, casting into the shoreline and retrieving the jigs with rainbow minnows again and nightcrawlers. We got equal hits on both, nearly always on the retrieve from 4 feet to 9 or 10 feet deep. Besides the walleye I picked up a nice sized perch and we released  two feisty Northern Pike. We were joined quickly by a Bald Eagle and some noisy gulls. A pair of loons evidently had this spot on their mental maps as well, because as dinner time for us came and went, they outpaced us in their catch and enjoyed their regular meal time.

The slow and steady breeze seems to wear you out on the water in a calm and somehow refreshing way. Have you noticed that. A good kind of tired after a few hours on the water? The vocalizations of the Eagle, the gulls and the Loons surrounded us. I wished that I’d been able to hear the muskrat or to have been able to watch him for more than a few seconds. His oiled coat had glistened a dark reddish brown in the sunlight as he flitted between blueberry shrubs and undergrowth. I wondered if he frequented the island or if he was just exploring.

Everything slows down out on a lake. The concentration on what you can and cannot feel at the end of your line, what it might be and how long to wait before setting the hook is a new constant after a long winter of walking on water. The sense of touch associated with the rise and fall of slow waves, of current pushing you, takes time to rediscover. The warmth of the sun and the comfort of the sound of the wind blowing through the pines doesn’t require any such adjustment. When you feel those, you are caressed by peace. You embrace them like silence, so different from our everyday noise, so full of comfort is the soundtrack of the woods around.

Gull blends into the trees and looks like a gap in them at first. Eagle keeps watch.

I didn’t take a temperature of the water. It seems cold but warming daily as is normal for late May. I’d jump in and go swimming. Most people not from here would prefer to wait a couple of weeks. The blackflies are still doing their thing to benefit the blueberries and the mosquitoes weren’t bad until it was time to go home. Normal. As I sat in my backyard an hour or so later cleaning fish, their were scores of huge honey bees droning away as they fed on the newly blossomed crab apple and cherry trees in my yard. I’ve never seen so many before. They also buzzed about the dandelions and found our tiny Lilly of the Valley buds. 

Jen holding two of her favorite catches. Look at that smile!

It sounded like the promise of Summer to come, outside in the yard in Ely. It was Spring in all of its glorious rebirth. Rising.

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Solo Fishing

By Taylor Ham

Paddling from a solo canoe is something that I have become very comfortable with. I’ve spent the last five summers paddling them when I can’t find anyone to go with. My favorite solo canoe to paddle is the NorthStar Magic. They are very lightweight, easy to portage and for someone with good balance, stable enough. After a very dreadful morning of listening to current events going on in the twin cities my heart ached and I needed to go somewhere to be alone. 

I portaged to South Kawishiwi in hopes to catch some small mouth bass. I have caught some pretty decent ones there before, so I thought I’d try again. The spot I was thinking of was very easy to reach and wouldn’t take too much time at all. I saw the perfect rocky shoreline with a few downed trees and I casted in. First cast and I had a fish on! How exciting to find a fish just like that! I fished that shoreline and caught two more bass and two small pike. I decided to keep moving to the original spot I had planned to go to. I found a nice rocky bay and I casted in, the lure barely hit the water before I had a 15in bass on. 

solo fishing by canoe with Taylor Ham

It’s a new skill I’m learning, managing a canoe specifically a solo with a fish on. If you aren’t anchored in it can be seconds before you’re blown somewhere dangerous. This small mouth had put up a good fight and was flying out of the water before I got it in the boat. I stayed in this spot and only caught a small pike and decided to move on. It was getting late and I needed to get back to town for work, so I started to paddle back. 

I saw a bay that I couldn’t pass up, so I dropped anchor and my lure was sitting in the water right next to the boat and a fish came up and gobbled it right up. Another decent size! I was running out of time but was so excited, so I stayed for another thirty minutes and caught two more nice fish. Too much fun when you find the fish and have a productive day on the water. I would always prefer to share my excitement of fishing with someone else. A tandem canoe makes it easier to control but fishing from a solo canoe adds a new level of patience and skill especially on a windy frustrating day. More days like this to come!

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Fishing for Summer

By Taylor Ham.

After spending my last winter in the cities I’ve realized there is no other place for me than a small town like Ely, MN. I feel so incredibly lucky to be able to call it my home. Something that has been brought to my attention is the accessibility to wilderness I have that many people don’t. Working at an outfitter gives me the ability to rent gear and take it places that for some people only comes once a year or even a lifetime. For me it comes every day if I choose. It takes just a little discipline and the desire to get out on the water. This past winter while focused on my health and healing I spent a lot of time thinking about the spring days I would be fishing in the BWCAW. 

I don’t know much about fishing and I had made It my goal for the summer to fish as often as I can as well as listen and retain as much information as I can about it. What I have found is that fishing is an expensive hobby, but it has been well worth it. It has been occupying my mind most of the time. Catching fish is one of the most exciting things that I have ever experienced. 

When you work a full-time job it’s not hard to make time, you just have to prioritize what you want. If you’re tired you just have to push through, especially when you’re learning something new. The odds increase drastically the more I have my line in the water. For me it is not enough to spend just my days off in a boat. Finding time in between shifts at work to be on the water is key to every summer I’ve spent in Ely. 

Before my shift a friend and household member Nick and I wanted to fish on Little Gabbro. We got up at around 5:30 AM, got organized to be on the water by 7:00. Wasn’t quite early enough to get the morning bite but it was a beautiful morning regardless. Caught a few small fish and sometimes that’s enough. After drifting around for a bit, I noticed something on a distant shoreline moving around. It was a moose and her two babies! The most incredible wildlife I had seen in the Boundary waters to date. It made the whole trip worthwhile. 

Look close near the fallen tree 🙂

The reason I live where I do is for mornings like that. The accessibility I have to wild places surprises me every day. 

A day later I made plans with my partner Madeline to go fishing on South Kawishiwi in the evening after work. We didn’t catch much but again it was a beautiful time on the water. I will never complain about that. It’s a good way to spend time with the people you love. After not having much action with a jig and minnow we decided it was a good time to head back. I threw on a small Rapala and we started our lazy paddle back. After about one minute of trolling I had a good fight with a small mouth bass. It’s so exciting to reel in something big and guess what might be on the other end of the line. I will be chasing that feeling for the rest of my life I’m sure. 

As I’m learning as much as I can about fishing, I stop often and think it’s all a process. I don’t know a lot and that’s okay. But the best thing you can do is talk with people, take their advice and most importantly keep the line in the water. Cheers and happy spring!

Ice Out 2020

On Friday afternoon the sun left Ely for more southern climes I guess. The clouds rolled in and the wind picked up. Shagawa Lake has become, over the years, the official measuring stick for when the ice is out in Ely.

We went down to see what we could see, just hours before the rain came and the last vestiges of 2019’s long remembered Winter left the northland forever. It was almost too windy, but with an experienced pilot on the stick, we captured some fantastic footage of the semi-solid surface. Far from safe and discolored towards black, what was left had bunched together and begun to candle.

You can see in the film, the way the rotten black, especially during the clouded afternoon, takes on the attributes of the surface of the moon. Pockmarks, ski tracks, snowmobile tracks and even tire tracks from cars and trucks are barely noticeable like eons of traffic on the rock the orbits Earth.

Just weeks ago, someone was fishing on this surface, huddled over a hole they cut with an auger. In the hours that followed, the ice was eaten from beneath by the hungry appetite of Spring wetted with temperatures in the fifties and few thirsty gulps of rain.

The wind always seems to be the death knoll of walking on water up here in the North and it was no surprise when Saturday followed up Friday’s slow shower with a steady push over fifteen miles an hour and gusts that crested twenty. This fourteen hour blow did the trick and although bigger lakes like Snowbank and more would follow, Shagawa had freed itself.

Sunday’s sun and the cornflower blue skies that also followed showed a new season waking on Shagawa Lake and Ely. A land of sky-blue waters, straight from a Hamm’s commercial. Cheers!

Saturday also held something special in store for us on a hike at Hidden Valley just outside of Ely. On a couple of trails in different place, the trees open up and you can get a springtime view of the wetlands unfolding before you. At one, in the Summer, you can see a meadow circling a marshy area full of life.

It was HOPPING on Saturday and no mistake. I recorded the sounds and recommend turning up the volume and letting it loop while closing your eyes. It’s the sound of Life, new life and Hope, rebirth, Spring and the eternal hatching of young, both in metaphor and truth.

There’s four types of frogs in our woods this time of year. Aside from Spring Peepers and most likely the deeper voices of the Northern Leopard Frogs, there’s the Wood Frog and the Boreal Chorus Frog. Together with the songbirds and the gulls as well as some raptors we could see flying low over the valley, they made a beautiful chorus that I’ll never forget.

Stay safe, but dream! Close your eyes and you’re in the wilderness!

What follows is a great poetic adventure that I didn’t write 🙂 Tim Stouffer

There’s no video, just a recording of Nature’s rebirth.

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Remembering 2019’s First Trip

May 1st 2019 by Tim Barton

With ice out on most of the lakes and rivers on the west end of the BWCAW, We decided 5/1 was the perfect opportunity to get into the woods for our first official camping trip of the 2019 paddle season. What better way to work out the kinks than to travel 35 miles on two of my favorite rivers in the park Moose river and Indian Sioux.

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Saturday Walk, Shagawa Ice Status

The sun coming in the window woke me with its warmth. The cats were curled up, one on top of the quilt, one underneath, effectively trapping me. I wanted to sleep in. To stay with them. They are a comfort in these uncertain times. Friends that live with us. Friends I can see and play with everyday.

I wanted to get outside, though, before the day began to come on in earnest. Jen wanted to go for a walk and our steps soon found us headed towards Semer’s Park and the closest shoreline of Ely’s Shagawa Lake.