First Timer in The Boundary Waters

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2017 – First trip to the Boundary Waters.

I’ll start by saying that it wasn’t my idea and I did virtually none of the planning. I was invited by my buddy, Andy, and we were going with his brother in law and friends. That said, here is what it looked like for a first timer:


As I said, the planning was done by someone I had not met. Thankfully he had been there before, and he knew what he was doing. We were going to go in on the Grand Marias, MN side. As a noob, I called it Grand Merry-Ass and I still call it that today, despite being corrected many times by the good people of Minnesota.

You have to plan kind of early. The Boundary Waters is accessed through entry points. Each entry point allows only so many permits per day. If, for example, you want to go in through entry point 55 (Saganaga Lake), you need to get a permit for entry point 55. We ordered right through the outfitter, who were great btw and we’ll get to them soon enough. Rick (Andy’s BIL) was the trip planner so he contacted the outfitter very early.

We were going Memorial Day weekend, 2017 and I believe he started calling them in October or November 2016. Why so early? Entry point 55 only allows 3 permits per day. Each permit would allow up to 9 people. Our group had 6, so we would have been good with 1 permit, although I believe Rick and his friends had one permit, Andy and I had a second permit. This was because we were coming out a day before them. Permits are time-based as well.

So, Rick coordinated with the outfitter, who ordered our permits right on January 2nd. We had our permits and a reservation with the outfitter, so we were set for a while. On to gear and personal planning.


I had a lot of stuff but not enough. I’ll work to put together a gear list and post it on here as a resource. I went in as a Backpacker. Light on gear; just the essentials. I used a backpacker pack and brought nothing but Mountain House for food. I basically spent five months second guessing myself, adding things and removing things, right up until the night before we left.

My pack was about 75 pounds, which is about average, for the BWCA. I’ll just say that all that planning, and overthinking did me no good. I brought way too much of most things and not enough of a few other things. Is that how it always goes though?

One thing of note with gear and planning, is the map I ordered. My buddy, Eagle suggested I get a map of where we are going from I have a picture of my map below. It was waterproof and a great thing to bring. The outfitters all have actual Boundary Waters maps, which are all also topographic and waterproof, but also show the locations of all portages and sites. I liked having both, as the map showed the landscape as it is, and the BWCA maps showed BWCA specifics.

The Drive There

We left on the Wednesday, before Memorial Day. The drive to the outfitter was about 9 hours from where I live. I was set to meet Andy in Duluth, which is just over halfway, for me. The drive from Duluth to Grand Marias was beautiful. Waterfalls, lake scenery and a cool tunnel to drive through, all contributed to my excitement and we drew closer.

We were meeting the other guys in Grand Marias, so we stopped for lunch at a place called The Fisherman’s Daughter. It was right on Lake Superior and it was delicious. From there we went to The Gunflint Tavern. Again, good stuff and a tasty microbrew before heading in. Rick purchased a growler of beer before we headed out, which hit the spot later that night at the outfitter.

Everyone arrived and we were off. The drive to the outfitter was about 45 minutes to an hour and was very scenic. One things of note: You lose cell coverage immediately upon leaving Grand Marias. Like… immediately. The Gunflint Trail heads east out of Grand Marias and you start to gain altitude. Not a lot but noticeable.

I failed to fill with gas in Grand Marias and was concerned that the quarter tank in my Jeep was going to be insufficient to get me to the outfitter and back. I know, bonehead move. I was with a group I didn’t really know, except for Andy and going somewhere I was a little nervous about. Slipped my mind but it turned out to be ok. In the end, I did have enough gas to get to the outfitter and back to Grand Marias on Sunday. There was a gas station about 35 minutes in also. I didn’t stop but the gas station had old school pumps so it may be subject to specific hours or cash only. I’m not sure on that, but it’s there and was open when I drove by around 3:00 PM.

The Outfitter

We worked with Seagull Outfitters. They were great. Legit great. From working with us to get permits, to the check in process, to canoe rentals, to bunkhouse lodging the night before heading out, to the “tow” and pickup services, everything was great. Seagull has a nice little shop, with maps, branded clothing and many of the supplies that most people probably forget.

We arrived at 4. The check in process, for us, took about 45 minutes. We paid for everything individually, everyone seemed to have one or two extra things to buy and there were first timers in the group, so we had a short video to watch. The video focused a lot on fire safety, which makes sense considering the fires and whatnot.

After checking in, we had the evening to do whatever. We did some fishing, right off the dock, as Seagull Outfitters is right on Seagull Lake. We went down the road to Walk of The Wilderness Canoe Outfitters for dinner. Burgers and beers were all great and we reviewed some maps while we were there.

Back at the outfitter, we enjoyed some of Rick’s microbrew and a cigar before turning in early. We had an early departure time on Thursday so there was no late-night partying for our group. I think Any and I may have been the last to turn in, around 9:00 PM.

One last item of note on the outfitter: they have Wi-Fi. I was able to check emails, post about our adventure, so far, to social media and call my family. The Wi-Fi was nice.

Day 1

We were up and getting ready by about 6:00 AM. Our tow was set to take us across Saganaga lake, which allows motors, and drop us off at Saganaga Falls. Seagull Outfitter’s Tow service isn’t really a tow. They actually load up three or four people into a fishing boat, canoes on a custom apparatus on top, and give you a ride. Our tow service was scheduled to leave at 8:00 AM.

We loaded up all of our gear into Chevy Suburban’s (older, not soccer-mom style) and trailers and left a little early. We weren’t the only group heading out at 8 and we didn’t want to be held up by pokey stoners, so we were up and at em’.

The Suburban’s take you about five to ten miles down the road, where we unloaded everything from Suburban’s and trailers and loaded up the boats. The people who work for the outfitter, mostly college-age kids, were all great. They were ready to do all the heavy lifting for us, although we all did our share anyway.

It was chilly, but not cold. Considering that there was still ice on lakes, just a few weeks prior, it was nice to only need sweatshirts, stocking hats and gloves. The ride was cold… Not bad + wind = cold. Thankfully the ride was only about 30-40 minutes and we were dropped at Sag Falls.

Saganaga Falls is, as the name would imply, a waterfall. So, our first order of business, after unloading the tow boats, was to portage. It was not a long portage; 36 rods, I believe. Portages are measured in rods and a rod is about 16.5 feet, so it was about 600 feet. Not bad. There was a bit of terrain and multiple trips were needed but, all in all, not bad. The shoreline on the Granite River side was a bit rocky so getting loaded and set with the canoes was tricky but very doable.

Note on the canoes: We rented kevlar canoes. The deal with kevlar canoes is that they are much lighter than aluminum canoes, but you have to be careful with them. They will puncture easily if you try to take them over rocks. You trade weight for careful use.

The Granite River was a nice paddle. We had about a quarter mile paddle, before reaching our second portage at Horsetail Rapids. This was another short portage (about 20 rods) and water levels were high enough that we could jump out and walk the canoes and gear about a quarter of the way though. Then it was a short, easily navigable trail, until putting back into a nice sandy beach on the other side.

Back on the Granite River, we had a couple mile paddle to Maraboeuf Lake, where we had planned to setup camp for the week. We arrived at the lake after about an hour or so of paddling and chose site 431, as it was right at the mouth of a little inlet and figured the fishing would be good.


Site 431 was very nice, but the shoreline leaves a lot to be desired. It’s all boulders and deep water. There is no easy way to disembark and unload. So, we balanced and helped each other. Once unloaded, everyone setup their spot. I use an Eagle’s Nest Outfitters hammock, so I found a spot in a ways, with good trees and a clear path into the woods to hang a bear bag.

Once my hammock was setup, I also setup a tent. See what I mean about overpacking. I brought the hammock, bug net, tarp and a tent too. I wasn’t sure how the hammock was going to go so I bought both. As it turns out, the hammock was awesome, and the tent was nice to have as well. It was kind of like having a storage shed for all my stuff. We were setup within an hour or two and jumped right into fishing.

Camp was great. Fishing was great. The weather… not great. It rained most days, but we were prepared for that and managed well. We all have raingear and plenty of tarps, so we had a very pleasant week. Some notes:

Bear Bag: I have some Sea To Summit dry bags, that I kept non-perishable food and some Mountain House meals in. From my site, I went back about 200-250 feet and found some trees that looked to be strong enough to support the bag. The bag was maybe 15 pounds. With a carabiner and some paracord, I hung the food up about 20 feet. We never really had issues with bears, and I question if the whole bear bag thing was worth it. Better safe than sorry, I guess.

Rain Gear: It really did rain every day. Not all day but at some point, every day. Bringing a rain suit was valuable. Bringing dry clothes and keeping them dry until about day 3, when I finally cleaned up and changed was great for moral. And tarps… Some kids (early 20s) came by on Friday afternoon and had a good laugh as they floated by. “Got enough tarps”, they chuckled. It rained on Friday night… a lot. We went out fishing on Saturday, in the canoes, and saw them at their site, hanging everything to dry. I didn’t hear what their girlfriends were saying (or rather, shouting) at them but it sounded pretty unhappy. Looks like those fellas could have used some more tarps.

Food: Obviously we all want shore lunch, and, on this trip, we got plenty of it. The fishing at this spot really was fantastic. For the most part, we fished for a few hours per day and kept the lines in the water, with slip bobbers, when we weren’t actively fishing. We used mostly leeches and caught more than our fair share of walleye, along with a few northern. We released most, right away, but kept enough walleye for a nightly meal. For lunch and breakfast, I had Mountain House. I was impressed that all of the Mountain House meals that I had were really good.

Coffee: I need coffee. I am one of those people. I purchased Folgers instant coffee, which came in a form factor similar to a tea bag. It worked pretty well and wasn’t horrible. Sometimes it’s the little things and a hot cup of coffee, on a rainy morning in the woods, is just want I needed.

Water: I used a Sawyer filtration system. It worked well but was a bit time consuming to fill the little pouch, attach the filter, then squeeze the filtered water into my Nalgene bottle. It’s not like I had anything better to do, really, but I should have used it as an in-line filter for a Camelbak bladder, as that would have been less time consuming. The water was good though and the filter worked great.

Fire: The firepits in the BWCA are small and well enclosed with rocks. Again, the fires that went through a few years back, facilitated a lot of new fire safety measures. With the wet conditions and small, enclosed pit, keeping the fire going was a bit of a chore. Rick had a bellows, that really helped to blow in oxygen and toke up the fire. It was not expensive, but it made a big difference. I recommend getting one for any BWCA trip.

Fitness: You don’t have to be an athlete to go to the Boundary Waters, but you have to be prepared to work. Paddling, portaging and setting up camp are work. Mental fitness is something to consider as well. The toilet is basically a bucket. It rains. It’s hard. One thing that I wasn’t prepared for, on my first trip was the isolation from the outside world. You have no contact and no means of contact with the outside world. Sounds awesome but after a few days, you start to wonder what’s happening back at home and if everyone is alright. No news is bad news, right? As a family man, I struggled with this a bit.

Gear: As I said earlier, I created a gear list and have a button below to view and download the list. I won’t go through everything I had or wish I had here. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any specific questions. It’s actually been a few years (and a few more trips) since my first trip so I am happy to help, if you have questions.

What I will say here is this, to each his or her own, when it comes to gear. While I chose to go in as a backpacker, bringing only the essentials and keeping my load light, the guys I went with did not. They were comfortable. They had these homemade barrels, fashioned to be backpacks and lined with some form of cooling system. I’m sure it was ice but one of the guys pulled out a gallon of milk on day 3. He said it was for his coffee and he liked to have the comforts of home. A gallon of milk… just for his coffee. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had gone into his tent and found a TV and a pull-out couch. These guys were comfortable. But at what cost, they had to lug all that comfort in and out with them. Was it worth it? Based on his look of satisfaction, as he sipped his milky coffee, I’d say it was.


Leaving was hell. Sure, it was a good week and it was sad to return to reality but am talking specifically about the downpour of rain that preceded and further accompanied our departure. Everything was soaked, including us. We were meeting the outfitter back at Sag Falls for a tow home at 11:00 AM. We had to take down camp, paddle and portage back and all in the rain. There are worse things, but this is where that mental fitness comes into play. Head down, power through.

We beat the outfitter back to the falls, so we had a little time to rest and relax (in the rain and cold) before the tow. Again… rain gear. Bring rain gear. We enjoyed a cigar and talked wise for a bit in our rain gear. My current raingear is Duluth Trading Company BTW. You can go with the cheap stuff, like Frog Toggs and that will work fine, unless you rip it. I brought Frog Toggs on my first trip and it ripped. It worked awesome until then. It’s just not super heavy duty.

Wrapping up, I will say that the shower back at the outfitter may have been the greatest 10 minutes of my life. The Boundary Waters was peaceful and majestic, but that shower was straight up amazing. The Culvers burger on the way home wasn’t bad either. It was a good trip and I’ve gone on a few since. I’ll get those experiences up soon. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures below and be sure to leave a comment if you have any questions or… comments.

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