Father/son canoe-camping in Canada

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of June 12-18, 1997
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Father/son canoe-camping in Canada
Question: I am searching out suggestions for a father/son trip next summer (two or three dads, each with two sons). The boys will be between 5 and 9 years old, so they will be able to help some, but they are definitely not heavy lifters. We are interested in canoeing or backpacking, but I fear the latter may be too tough on the youngsters. My first questions concerns backpacking: Is it practical to expect two to three adults and four to six young boys to carry enough gear for a week-long trip? If so, we would probably want to set up a base camp not far from the access point and explore from there on day hikes.

Do you have any thoughts on out-of-the-way places in the upper Midwest or perhaps the Rockies that might be appropriate for such a trip? Secondly, canoeing would be much easier on the boys, and that is probably our smoothest option. Is the Quetico Provincial Park your first choice for such a trip, and do you have other places in mind that would be as interesting? We would be comfortable flying into an isolated spot, but I wonder if there are alternatives to Ely. Thanks for your help.

Bill Ratzer
Chicago, IL
[email protected]

Adventure Adviser: Trust your instincts. Five, and even 9, years old is a little young for a backpacking trip. Plus, it would be hard to set a pace that everyone can enjoy. Canoeing, on the other hand, is a great team-building activity. You can put the men in the stern, the boys in the bow, and everyone will be happy. This way, you also have the canoe as a luggage carrier; at portages the kids can carry as much as they can handle, gradually increasing their loads — and self-confidence — as the trip goes on. Another great part of a canoe trip is the fun stuff you can do along the way, like fishing, swimming, and water fights. Paddling may be tough on your 5-year-old, but when he needs a break, he can "duff" in the middle — or you can.

Ely and the Gunflint Trail out of Grand Marais are the gateways to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness in the United States. To get to Canada's Quetico Provincial Park, you need to drive to a Canadian entry point like Atikoken in Ontario, or paddle through the BWCA, which is linked by water to the Quetico.

The scenery of the parks is very much the same. In Canada, however, there are no designated campsites, so you can camp where you like as long as it looks like someone else has already camped there. You also need to dig your own cat holes and keep fires to a minimum. The BWCA, on the other hand, is more crowded, but has designated campsites complete with a biffy, fire ring, and tent pads.

The closest BWCA access from Chicago is Grand Marais (two hours north of Duluth on Highway 61) — a very driveable 10 hours away. In Grand Marais, you'll find a number of outfitters that will help you design a good paddling route, and will set you up with everything you need: canoes, packs, paddles, life jackets, food, maps, etc. The BWCA has 80 official entry points, so when you reserve a permit, you'll need to know on which lake you want to start your trip; later, you will only be allowed to enter through that lake. Call 800-745-3399 for more information. Before you make any plans, check out the book Parents' Guide to Hiking and Camping, by Alice Cary ($18.95, published by W.W. Norton & Company).

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