Wednesday, January 2, 2013

BWCA/Quetico Route Planning

I have been reading the article in the Boundary Waters Journal titled Water, Water Everywhere - But Where to Go?, which is the "collective wisdom" article in this issue. The article is mostly about how the authors choose a route for a canoe trip. Since the article is over 30 pages long, I haven't been able to read all of it yet, but it did get me thinking about how I plan my own route.

There is already a page on the MN Canoeing website devoted to route planning. On that page, I listed 8 questions that you should think about when planning where to go. In this blog post, I will talk about how I answer the questions when I plan my own route.

How far do I want to paddle?
If I am base camping (which is usually the case), the time spent paddling depends on the length of the trip and the season. The longer the trip, the more time I will spend getting to where I plan to stay. The longer hours in June/July also allow more time spent paddling. If I am planning a trip lasting a week or longer, I will spend an entire day (maybe two) paddling to the camp. In the long June/July daylight hours, I won't hesitate to spend 8-10 hours paddling on those days. For a simple weekend trip, however, I want to allow ample time to relax in camp. We will paddle 4-5 hours and then set up camp. We leave at sunrise Monday morning to head back to the landing.

If I am moving every day, I plan for four hours (or less) of paddling. This gives the group enough time to set up camp at the new site and enjoy the afternoon. I usually base camp, but in certain situations I will plan on moving periodically. I am a scoutmaster, and if I am planning a trip for my Boy Scout troop, then I will plan on moving every day. I will also consider this if I am with a group that doesn't get to come to the BWCA very often. I want to give them the experience of seeing as much of that gorgeous country as they can.

The paddling time I plan for, of course, depends on the group. When I take trips with young children, I only plan to paddle an hour or two. My wife and I will be taking our son, Weston, on his first canoe trip this next year. He is turning four years old in August. We want him to have a great first experience, so we are going to be flexible and not push hard. We will probably only be paddling two hours at most.

How do I know how long it will take me to paddle to a certain place? I use the RouteFinder on the BWCA/Quetico interactive map. I change the settings to match how I typically paddle and portage. (Not everybody's setting will be the same - I know what mine should be through experience.) Before I created the RouteFinder, this process would take at least one hour for each route I was looking at. Now it only takes a few seconds. At the moment, the RouteFinder only works for the BWCA, not the Quetico. I am about 25% done with creating the Quetico routes and will release it when I am finished.

On the return trip, the travel time is usually reduced by a full 25%. I use the RouteFinder to figure out how long it should take to get to our destination and then take a quarter of that off for the return trip. We normally both paddle and portage faster on the return trip. I'm not sure why, but the 25% has been a very consistent figure for me.

As always, safety comes first. If the weather doesn't cooperate or other concerns arise, the plan will be modified or thrown away completely. I know I cannot depend on the estimates I made before the trip. The situation on the water always prevails. I have to be willing to be flexible.

Do I want to do a loop or come out the same way I came in?
Because I usually only take one car, I have never been able to do a loop. I always have come out at the same entry point I started at.

What do I want to see?
My life-long goal is to do a canoe trip out of every entry point in the BWCA. My answer to this question, then, would be that I want to see a little bit of everything. I really like seeing waterfalls. My wife really likes to hike to tops of hills and see the views. We do not plan our trips around seeing pictographs, but if I know there is one on the way or close by, I will go and see it.

Because of my work on the website, I also try to visit as many campsites as I can to rate them. Rating all the campsites on a particular lake is usually a major goal of my trip. My beautiful paddling partner (my wife) is supportive of this.

Do I want solitude?
Solitude is plays a major part in deciding where I want to go. On the route planning page, I give three tips for finding solitude: go a long ways in, do at least one long portage, and find a secluded campsite (even on a busy lake). I use all three methods to find solitude. Sometimes I use just one of the methods on a trip, sometimes all three.

I will add one more tip to the list - plan a trip in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall). In the spring and fall, I like to go to the "busy" lakes that I normally wouldn't go to in the summer because they are too crowded for my taste. I like to take a trip right after the ice gets off the lakes in the spring. There typically are not a lot of people going then, so I will go to the more popular lakes. We have gone to Knife Lake (through the Moose Lake entry point) and Lac La Croix (through the Moose River North entry point) in the spring and saw only one or two other canoes the entire trip.

What kind of campsite(s) am I looking for?
I usually want to stay at campsites that are at least "3 stars" (out of five). I do research on campsites using three different websites: MN (of course),, and the PCD (for Quetico trips).

Not getting a great campsite isn't a deal-breaker, though. Neither is not finding campsite information on any of campsites. On those trips, I have a lot of fun exploring an area that I know little or nothing about.

How important is fishing?
Outside of canoe country, I am not a big fisherman. I am also not very good at it. Despite this, fishing is one aspect of my canoe trips that I really enjoy. I always plan on fishing. On my spring trips before fishing opener, I go to the Canadian border lakes, which have different fishing regulations and seasons, so I can still fish.

This is not to say that lousy fishing equals a lousy trip. I enjoy all parts of canoeing, not just the fishing. I have had great trips where I never landed a single fish. Put a different way, I would say I like having the option of going fishing, even if I never do or the fishing is just bad.

How many portages and how long should they be?
I usually plan my routes based on total time and don't consider the difference between paddling and portaging time. To me, four hours spent traveling is the same whether it is portaging or paddling. That being said, long portages make me stop and think. If the portage in question is between one-half and one mile (160-320 rods), I won't hesitate on doing it, but I will plan so we don't have to double portage. Anything over one mile (320 rods) makes me pause and think about whether we want to go that way or if there is a way around it.

The group I am going to be with, of course, does influence the decision of whether to portage or not. Some groups require "special consideration" when thinking about portaging.

How far do I want to drive?
I live almost directly west of the Boundary Waters. It takes about 5 hours to get to Ely and 10 hours to get to the Gunflint Trail. That five hours in driving time makes a big difference in where I am planning on going. Because of this, most of my trips have been out of the Ely area. If I only took one trip a year, the driving distance wouldn't be as much of a factor, but since I take several trips every year, it is something I think about.

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