Pack The Kids
"I'm going to do it as soon as my kids get older!" I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard that from a prospective Boundary Waters visitor.
So, when are they "a little older?" When is it time to take your kids along? In the canoe outfitting business we like to say "we've seen it all." So let's see what we've learned from observing lots of families over the years. After that I'll tell you specifically where you can take them for a great outing. (See the map above.)
Your first likely question, as to how old your kids need to be, is really one you can answer only for yourself. What I tell parents is that if the child has been on various outings with their family, such as picnics, hikes and campouts, then they will probably do just fine in the Boundary Waters. If they haven't had much exposure to the outdoors, then it really doesn't matter how old they are.
What I've witnessed with our guests, and the many youth groups I've lead, is that kids generally adapt quite well if the trip is well planned and the route not too long. We have seen the entire spectrum among our guestsanything from ten months to five or six years old and up. I would recommend practicing on short local trips before jumping into the Boundary Waters with both feet.
Your second question will probably be about how many days you should spend on the trip. My answer is always the same: It really doesn't matter how many days you choose if you've picked a suitable route. The number of days you have available tends to be dictated by your household schedule anyway. It's very unlikely you'll have too many days to spend on any vacation. Don't make the canoe trip too short, though, or the kids won't have a chance to become comfortable on the trail. I recommend four to six days for a good family trip.
Before we get to specific routes for your family, let's get a few bases covered. Short and sweet is the key, whether you're paddling, portaging, making camp, fishing, or gathering wood. I don't have to tell you about the shorter attention spans of children. But what many parents, or trip leaders, fail to realize is the cold hard fact that they are going to do 99 percent of the work. This is true on any vacation... and doubly so on a canoe camping trip.
So, what do I mean by a suitable route? First of all, plan to camp on smaller lakes whenever possible. Take advantage of motor launches to get across the larger ones. Keep the portages short and few in number. Plan to set up a comfortable base camp so you only have to make camp once. A long day trip is fun with only rainwear, fishing poles, and lunch in a small pack. Kids love to explore but, again, keep everything short... the time spent fishing, the time spent sitting in the canoe, and the time spent between snacks and drinks.
So where are these routes? Well, some of the best are just off the end of the Gunflint Trail... so close to the road you'll be amazed how easy it is to get so far away from civilization.
Cross Bay Lake (Ham Lake) entry point #50, Fisher map F-12, off the Round Lake road. See route "A" on the map.
This one always tops our list of recommended family routes. It has smaller lakes to minimize wind problems as well as short portages in the 20-60 rod range. For the most part, the portages are fairly level and absent of trouble spots for shorter people. There are only three permits per day so make your plans early. The route is well known for an abundance of moose and has enough hungry pike and bass to keep the kids occupied for hours (see Moose Country, BWJ Summer 96).
Larch Creek entry point #80, Fisher map E-4 or McKenzie map 5, off the Gunflint Trail north of the Seagull Guard Station. See route "B" on the map.
They don't get any easier than this. An hour's paddle down the narrow stream and you're in Larch Lake. No portaging is necessary other than pulling over a few logs and beaver dams. From Larch Lake you're a short hop from Clove Lake and the Granite River system. You'll find small cascades and waterfalls with walleyes, small mouth and northerns nearby. The creek can get low later in the summer, or in a dry year, so check with the Forest Service or your outfitter before you head out. Only one party per day is allowed to enter Larch Creek so make your plans early to get a travel permit.
Magnetic Lake entry point #57, McKenzie map 5, from the public landing on Gunflint Lake. See route "C" on the map.
You can make a nice loop out of this route by entering on Gunflint Lake and coming out through Larch Creek. You'll have three portages going in, one being 100 rods, but it still won't take you more than a few hours to get to a nice campsite on either Clove or Larch Lake. The small cascade at the end of the rapids dumping into Clove is beautiful and a great spot to begin your search for walleyes and bass. The campsite on the north end of Clove has a nice sandy beach for swimming. Only three permits per day, though, so make your plans for the "Granite" as early as possible.
Saganaga Lake entry point #55, Fisher Map F-19, accessed via public landings at the end of the Gunflint Trail. See route "D" on the map.
If you'd rather not portage at all, consider a trip along the border west of American Point. Campsites are limited, and there are quite a few permits for Sag, so plan your visit for a slower part of the season and a mid-week time frame. You may take advantage of a motor launch to American Point to avoid crossing Saganaga on a windy day. There is a beautiful sand beach campsite down the shore and some protected ones in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd bays. See route "D1" on the map.
(We've had families with small children use poles to lash their canoes together, catamaran style, and leave them that way all week. It provides a stable platform for smaller children who like to move around. Leave a couple of feet between your canoes and keep the bows slightly closer together than the sterns. Cut some poles from dead trees in the woods or bring along a couple of 2x2s. Use duct tape to secure them to the thwarts, or crossbars, in your canoes.)
Another great trip off Big Sag is southwest into Red Rock Lake. You can get a towboat ride to the small stream that runs from Red Rock Lake into Red Rock Bay. Often times you can skip this ten-rod portage by walking, or lining, your canoes up the stream. Red Rock is a good lake for walleyes and bass and is surprisingly quiet. There are nice campsites hidden back in some quiet bays. You can make short day trips into Alpine and Rog Lakes from there. See route "D2" on the map.
Marabouef Lake, part of the upper Granite River system, can also be easily accessed through Sag. You may elect to take a boat ride to Sag Falls, where two short portages around the waterfalls, and Horsetail Rapids, will put you into the Devil's Elbow region in a couple of hours. This lake has fantastic walleye fishing and plenty of big bass too. Your kids will also get an educational look at the August '95 forest fire as you walk the two short portages (see Fire on the Gurlflint, BWJ Winter 95). See route "D3" on the map.
Seagull Lake, entry point #54, Grandpa, Rog, or Alpine Lakes, accessed from the public landing on Seagull or the Seagull River landing at the Trail's End Campground. See route "E" on the map.
The 230 rod Grandpa Lake portage may be a little long for small children, but if you've got teens or pre-teens to keep busy, you'll love Grandpa Lake. This lake is lightly used and full of hungry northern pike. Tie on a steel leader and a number 3 Mepps spinner, and turn 'em loose. One father and son, who spent three days in Grandpa Lake last summer, reported catching and releasing over 75 northerns. The portage can be a little muddy in one low spot, but it's well worth the trip. See route "E1" on the map.
Alpine Lake is a popular destination off Seagull. It is a gorgeous lake, with great fishing, and can be a good family choice if you take advantage of a launch across Seagull with smaller children. There are some super campsites off the beaten path and some nice day tripping options to the north and south. As always, get your permit early and try to go during the week. See route "E2" on the map.
Rog Lake, which lies between Seagull and Alpine, is a pretty little lake with only one campsite. You certainly have to take a chance that the site is open, but it is a real treat to have a lake to yourself. Your family will enjoy catching and releasing the nice brookies and smallmouth bass in Rog. And the kids can paddle by themselves without being very far out of sight. See route "E3" on the map.
Missing Link entry point #51, Fisher map F-12, accessed from Round Lake on the Round Lake road. See route "F" on the map.
Even though the portages are longer than you might like, it's still fairly easy to get to Missing Link Lake or Snipe Lake. Missing Link offers some fun fishing for brook trout and rainbow trout. Snipe has a few trout, as well as bass and northerns. You can make a short loop out of this by using the Cross Bay entry point to begin or end your trip. Because the Missing Link Lake entry point is generally used to access the mile-long Tuscarora portage, it is often available when other permits are taken.
Brant Lake entry point #52, Fisher map F-12, accesses via Round Lake and the Round Lake road. See route "G" on the map.
Brant Lake can see a fair number of folks passing through to Gillis and beyond, but can also be quiet during the week and at off peak times of the summer. The far eastern campsite is just enough off the main travel route to give you the solitude you are looking for. Brant is a shallow lake with pike, perch, and bass. Spend some evenings in the southwest arm of the lake and you are sure to see some of the lake's resident moose. You are within an easy day trip of lakes with brookies and lakers in them too. And, if you head north towards Bingshick Lake, you can spend some time hiking on the Kekekabic Trail. As is the case with other routes I've mentioned, you're never far from the car in case of an emergency.
Now that you've got a few places to go, don't forget the most important thing. Don't try to take the kids on your canoe trip. This should be their trip from the very beginning. Including looking over the maps and selecting a route together. That way, they will be motivated and excited about the challenges of getting to a lake you've chosen as a family.
Try to organize your gear so they have a pack of their own to carry. Give them responsibility for some camp chores. Resign yourself to the fact that you won't be catching as many fish as you will be untangling lines. Get them some rain suits and rubber boots so your adventurers won't have to stop if it rains a little. Pack some things for them to do in a tent should it rain a little longer. And, above all, have plenty of snacks and drinks on hand.
Make it interesting for your kids. A daily Boundary Waters scavenger hunt can be fun as well as educational. Especially if the reward is an extra s'more around the evening campfire. Bone up on your plants and animals too... because your kids will have a million questions. Just like you did when someone took you to the Boundary Waters for the very first time.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication