Birch bark canoe trip to the boundary waters

Last year I helped my friend Jarrod Stone Dahl build a birch bark canoe, it was quite simply one of the highlights of my traditional woodworking life. We only had about an hour with it on the water though and part of the dream was always to paddle a canoe in a proper wilderness area in the far North. This year we did just that. Our team included Jarrod, my friend Ken Leinback, a truly inspirational guy and my apprentice Zak. We also had three great hand built boats. The birch bark we built last year. Jarrod’s 1930’s wood and canvas canoe and Ken’s 2 seater cedar strip kayak, we took that on it’s maiden voyage together about 25 years ago.USA 2015-532

We put in at Sawbill lake which is 20 miles up a dirt road, in the summer this place is apparently really busy but in October it was dead.

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The outfitters was just about to close down for winter. USA 2015-530

This pile of hire canoes gives an idea of what it must be like in the summer but even so folk tell me that after a few hours paddle you see very few people.USA 2015-529

Sawbill is the entrance point to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness  over a million acres of lakes and forest, home to bear, wolves, beaver, moose, bald eagles and allegedly great fishing. This is what it looks like from the air as we flew over on our way from the UK. USA 2015-481

So we packed our canoes and set on our way, we would not see another person for the next five days.USA 2015-477

First campsite.

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Paddling about collecting firewood at dusk.

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Ken doing a bit of fishing USA 2015-462

One of things I had hoped to do on the trip was test drive my prototype bushcraft axe we did some firewood processing and I carved a spoon or two but the firewood was such easy stuff it did not have to work hard.

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We spent happy evenings sharing stories round the campfire. USA 2015-446

This was my first good view of a beaver lodge. The large domed earth covered mound is the lodge where a family of beaver live. Out front is the larder, piles of branches part submerged. The beaver eat the bark of these branches over winter. The lakes will soon be frozen over but access to the lodge and food store is all underwater. The water was already incredibly cold, their fur must be an fantastic insulator. It was the fur trade which drove the economy in this region, the trade routes were the lakes and rivers and the cargo vessels were birch bark canoes.USA 2015-444

The kayak and Jarrod in his canvas canoe. These two would clear off into the distance with ease leaving me working furiously and not very efficiently to keep up. Over the five days my paddling improved but I was still a long way short of Jarrod’s graceful efficient action. USA 2015-441

Unloaded ready for one of the very many portages. USA 2015-433

Crossing one of many beaver dams. Having built a lot of dams myself I know how hard it is to hold back over 2 feet of water. This is very impressive work. USA 2015-422

Pulled up at another perfect campsite.

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Next morning up before sunrise for some fishing.

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The silence here was truly incredible. I have only experienced it before in Northern Sweden but it is at times total silence. No wind, no airplanes overhead, no distant road noise, no birds, nothing complete silence. USA 2015-404

Sit on a lake like that for an hour or so in a boat built from the materials growing around the lake and it is quite a profound experience even if you catch no fish.

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I have few photos of portages because they are very hard work. When you hit land you unpack and start carrying there is no time for taking pics, it is really hard work. This is the end of a particularly grueling portage, nearly a mile over steep rocky terain. First you carry the heaviest packs, then you go back for your boat and most times we needed a third trip for the rest of the packs so a 1 mile portage means walking 6 miles, 3 of them with heavy loads. USA 2015-361

and then the sun came out

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Moose footprints, we saw lots of these and fresh droppings but sadly did not see a moose.

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and another portage, most days we had three or four of these.

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and then the weather cleared again, we were incredibly lucky to get this in October, it could have been snowing.USA 2015-337

Paddling still waters alone in silence, three days paddle from the nearest dirt road, it does not get any better than this. For me this is a spiritual experience. USA 2015-327More fishing still no fishUSA 2015-314

Me in a very happy place

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What a campsite

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Did I mention my bushcraft axe? USA 2015-260

Ken went fishing at sunset and finally caught our only fish of the trip a decent walleye. We had spent $160 on permits but it tasted great.USA 2015-256

Campsite visitor, I guess we will probably be the last folks he can scavenge from for a while.USA 2015-247

Loading up in the mist otter scat in the foreground

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This day we got really wet. My canoe sprung a leak so I was kneeling in 3″ of ice water we had a long way to travel with some big portages.
USA 2015-232We stopped for lunch made hot soup and patched the leak in my canoe with spruce tar and bear grease as you do.

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The last campsite. We arrived here after a long day, the last portage was in the dark followed by paddling across a lake and searching for the campsite by headtorch. No campfire but we rigged up a tarp cooked and were ready for bed.USA 2015-220

The very last portage in the rain.USA 2015-217

Thankfully the final lake we had a tailwind and almost surfed the last mile home.USA 2015-198

Closing selfie. It was a very special time with very special people. What did I learn? Very hard work when shared with good friends can be fun. Time spent deeply immersed in nature is a fine antidote to time spent in front of a screen. If you find truly amazing, inspiring people you should go out of your way to make sure you spend quality time with them, there will be very valuable outcomes yet unknown down the line. Those five days will be remembered in fine detail in many years time, they were precious. I should strive to make more times in my life when I am living like this. USA 2015-192

6 Responses to Birch bark canoe trip to the boundary waters

  1. Justin November 17, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    Looks like a fine trip, Robin. We should all heed the advice in your last paragraph, it would be a better world if we did.

  2. Dan Bell November 17, 2015 at 8:21 pm #

    What a fantastic trip – looked like it had just about all the ingredients to make it truly memorable, even when the weather turns or you get a leak (!), tough kit hiking, these are things to look back on with fondness in years to come. Thanks for sharing, though have to admit to being a little bit jealous.

  3. graeme November 20, 2015 at 9:00 pm #

    Looks a great trip Robin, there’s another lesson that you touched on, for those who don’t like madding crowds the tail ends of the silly season are great times to visit natural areas.
    Must have been very satisfying to test the quality of your workmanship in such a committing way.
    Would be nice to see what sort of spoons you were able to produce in the wilderness with your axe.

  4. Paul Birchell November 23, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

    A great summary of a fantastic looking trip! Brought back memories of a similar trip I did in Algonquin several years with my then girlfriend, now wife. I love being able to go to a place like that just out of season and have it all to yourself! I hope that doesn’t sound too selfish. I was also very impressed with the canadians approach to managing national parks – at the time some of the rules and permits seemed a bit bureaucratic but the payback is that the park itself suffers a minimum impact from human disturbance and the quality of the habitat and the volume of wildlife is stunning.

  5. Billy Turkington. November 30, 2015 at 1:04 pm #

    Robin you were in a wonderful part of the world,fair play to ya , as they say in ireland.
    Did you spot any Bear,s !!!. Regard,s Billy.

  6. siobhan morris December 1, 2015 at 9:00 am #

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful photographs. What an amazing trip !

    Best wishes.


    England, UK.