If you’ve never been camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (also known as the BWCA), it’s truly a wonderful experience (assuming, of course, that you like to go camping. If your idea of roughing it is slow room service, you’re probably already thinking that we have differing ideas of what wonderful means.) Being someplace where the water is so pristine you can still safely drink it (from 30 feet offshore, let’s be sensible, people!), where bald eagles are in abundance, moose are rare but might show up, and any number of other critters abound to greet you does have it’s charms.
The BWCA is located in northeastern Minnesota, and is most of the “pointed arrow” part of the state. It’s over a million acres of pure wilderness, where no motors of any kind are allowed – boats, cars or float planes. It borders Canada’s Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks, which are also wilderness areas of over 1 million acres combined. When you go camping there, you go in by canoe, bringing what you need in the canoe, carrying it on your back, and you learn that traveling light is absolutely critical. You really CAN get by with only one extra set of footwear, a couple of t-shirts, a few shorts and guess what? Underwear can be turned inside out before being washed. No kidding! You laugh now, but after a long day of paddling, broken up only by the multiple treks over the rocky portages where you made multiple trips carrying 65 lb packs on your back, believe me when I tell you that every ounce counts.
I know it seemed like a great idea at the time bring in the box of wine, but by the end of the third set of half mile portages, where you have to climb over huge boulders with the packs, and make three trips each way to get all your crap, suddenly you’ll be asking yourself “what can I leave behind” and realize the answer is “nothing!” Because you’re now out in the middle of nowhere, and no one leaves anything behind. Except maybe small children that have had too much sugar, but I think the park rangers pick them up daily and drop them back at a special ranger station or something.
So back to camping. After you get into the BWCA and find your campsite, there are a couple of really important things to do. First, find the tent pad, but don’t kid yourself, it’s not padded, it’s hard, it’s the ground for heaven’s sake. You want to pitch your tent on a spot that is a) relatively small rock free, b) slightly slopey but not too much, so if it rains, you’ll get water run off and c) not near a widow maker. What’s that you say? Well, that would be a tall, old dead tree, that has the potential to come down on top of you in a wind storm. Bad, bad idea. After you find that, find the path to the toilet seat before you need it. They don’t have outhouses there, the whole forest is your outhouse…but they do have fiberglass toilets on top of pits that were dug, so at least there is something to sit on. It’s a little strange to be outdoors like that but it’s always situated back from the campsite for privacy and eh, you get used to it. Finally, and do this before you actually spend the time pitching your tent….for the love of God, find the tree you’re hanging the food pack in. Yes, you heard me right. You need to hang the food to keep it away from the bears. I think when I first talked about that one with my husband before my first trip (and about his 24th), it was fine in concept but it wasn’t until we were actually in camp that it got real, and I started to think about what could happen. Holy crap, we could have a BEAR IN CAMP!
So we get everything set up, food pack is up, tent is pitched, toilet runs are done, dinner has been rehydrated and eaten and dishes washed, dried and put away. We’re in the tent for the night. It’s quiet. Really quiet. Unearthly quiet. Except for the bugs, the crickets, the mice, the owls, the bats, the coyotes, and “OMG what the HELL WAS THAT?” and by now husband is patting my hand and saying “it’s ok, honey, it’s nothing. Go to sleep”. Sleep? How am I supposed to sleep? It’s too freaking loud for me to sleep! There is noise everywhere? The wind is blowing, the trees are creaking, I swear something is going to fall over and kill us. The ground is like a rock. I can’t get comfortable, I want my pillow, I want my bed. My brain is racing with everything I have back home with my creature comforts that are missing here. It took what seemed like forever before I could start to relax even the tiniest bit. Then it happened. Husband is sleeping, I can tell by his breathing (wives just know these things.) Against the side of the tent is a rustling sound like a brush rubbing up against it. I grabbed his arm “honey, what’s that!!” waking him up with a loud, urgent whisper. Because of course I’m positive it was a bear, and we’re gonna die, and waking him out of a sound sleep is the thing that will keep us alive. Too bad I couldn’t see the flaw in that logic then, but being exhausted and sleep deprived will do that to you. In return he gives me the husband sounds of “ungh, snort, what?” because of course, he was sleeping. “Something brushed up against the tent!” He then did what all good, experienced BWCA camper husbands do. Pats my hand and says , “It’s nothing. Go back to sleep”, because he assumed I’d already been asleep. Argh, seriously? A bear probably brushed up against the tent and all you can say is go back to sleep? I know I hardly slept a wink that night, terrified out of my mind. I mean, if it’s a bear, don’t I want to know if it’s coming in the tent and I’m gonna die?
Well somewhere between terror and dawn I did fall asleep, and woke to daylight. We got up and he said “you realize what you were probably hearing was a squirrel’s tail brushing up against the tent?”
Nuh-uh. That was NOT a squirrel. It was HUGE, killer bear size. In my sleep deprived mind it was so loud, I know it must have looked a little like this:
The dreaded squirrel bear. I swear that’s what it had become without sleep and the fuel of sugar and caffeine. And I just knew the next night, I was going to be it’s next meal. Thank goodness I was so tired by nightfall, I didn’t give two hoots, and was almost in a coma before I hit my pillow made from a pillowcase stuffed with a t-shirt and rolled up pants.
Go ahead and laugh, we both do now, and in fact we’ve been there three more times and have had fun with this story every time. But each time we’ve gone back, I’m pretty sure the squirrel bear has been out there watching on my first night back in camp as I try to relax and get used to the sounds, just waiting for his opportunity to brush against the side of our tent.