75 Miles & 5 Days of Wilderness Canoe Backpacking: Why Vacations Totally SUCK

75 Miles & 5 Days of Wilderness Canoe Backpacking: Why Vacations Totally SUCK

My buddies and I have adventure in our blood. Parking our butts on a beach at an all-inclusive is a solid no-go. So, we opted to take a non-vacation “vacation” in northern Minnesota’s canoe area wilderness. Over the course of 75 miles and five days, we paddled and portaged our way through a chain of 40 freshwater lakes, rivers and lakelets chasing the one thing we all yearn for, and the one thing only Mother Nature can give: a damn detox from the outer world. Here’s my take on the journey. Plus, why Spartan CEO Joe De Sena thinks vacations are dumb, always. 

boundary waters wilderness canoe backpacking trip

Oomph. The 70-lb food pack hits the soggy earth as I sub-gracefully slip it from my achy shoulders to the lakeshore. I stand up straight for the first time in over an hour, having just bagged the 480-rod/1.5-mile portage from Lujenida Lake to Zenith Lake, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) — a non-motorized water web that sprawls across northern Minnesota into Canada. 

As the pack thuds, I almost biff it. My 110-lb frame is unaccustomed to bushwhacking over half my bodyweight up steep, slippery single track, across wet, granitic rock and through squelchy, ankle-deep mud — two paddles in tow.

I’m soaked. The gentle, cool mist that greeted us as we paddled north from Sawbill Lake's put-in earlier that morning had turned to a torrential downpour somewhere along the hike. 

I grin at my oldest, best friend Tyler and his long-time partner, Heidi, who are there waiting for me, mowing down Clif Bars, and crouching under foliage to dodge the deluge. “Ffff-eck man,” I gasp. “That was a haul.” Tyler laughs, then glances warily at the sky. 

The steady rain lashes our faces, mixing cocktails of sweat, sunscreen and bug spray. Bushes rustle behind me. The bow of a Northstar canoe pierces dense red pine, and Alton, my backcountry partner for the trip, comes tromping through the brush, our boat overhead. He flips it to his hip, then sets it partially into the water. 

A bright flash of lightning illuminates our exhausted, eager faces. Then, less than two seconds later, the loud CRACK-BOOM of thunder vibrates my bones. 

We’re here for vacation. Or rather, non-vacation, because trucking gear, boats and food for miles and days through unpredictable wilderness conditions isn’t easy, even in warm summer months. To most, it sounds like hell. To us, it’s heaven.

It’s day one of our five-day, 75-mile trip. We had planned to paddle-portage at least ten more miles to Little Saganaga Lake before nightfall. But after huddling to count lightning-thunder intervals and discern our risk of getting fried, we decide to bolt for Zenith’s sole campsite and hunker down to wait out the storm. 

We toss our packs into the canoes and dig our paddles deep for a short, hair-raising haul across open water. Thunder and lightning tango overhead. Electricity threatens to swoop down and kiss the tallest thing it can. 

We move fast and hard toward the site — an obvious depression in the dark-green shoreline ahead — and minutes (maybe, years?) later, gratefully ground the flat-bottomed canoes. In hushed focus, we hoist our packs up the bank, flip the boats and string up a tarp. 

Having grown up on the north shore of Lake Superior close by, Alton, Tyler and I were BWCA rats by default, and Heidi, a badass from Jersey, spent summers outfitting tourists for the wilderness at Sawbill Campground, where she and Tyler logged several trips in their mid 20s. We all knew what we we’re doing. And agreed a trip like this, in weather like this, would be wretched with someone who didn’t.  

There’s a lull in thunder for a moment. “Maybe it’s lightening up and we can push on,” says Tyler wistfully, his words punctuated by another BANG-CRACK. We burst out laughing, just relieved to be off water and under shelter. 

“Not sure we’re going anywhere tonight,” Heidi smiles. We nod, and break out the beef jerky, knowing she’s right. 

I shiver, strip down and reach for my warmest layers from the dry bag. We string up lines and start spreading out soggy gear. Eventually, the rain softens and Tyler and Heidi crank out a steak dinner (a day-one treat). I forage for anything that’ll burn and Alton breathes life into the feeble fire.  

Finally, around dusk, the clouds break and… stillness. Then, the gentle, hollow wail of a loon echoes around us. Another, closer by, answers the hunting call, and they symphony for a few moments. I breathe in the scent of wet pine, dark earth and smoky fire. My jaw unclenches for the first time in a long time. It’s good to be back, I think. Alton seems to read my mind, and we share a knowing glance over flickering flames.

boundary waters canoe backpacking trip

Why Vacations Suck Your Time, Money & Energy

From my experience, vacations, in the traditional sense, can feel more depleting than restorative. To be clear, by “vacation”, I’m not just talking about taking time off. Or digital detoxes. Or bailing on the grind. All of those practices are essential to fostering mind-body health, now, perhaps more than ever. 

I’m talking about burning precious PTO on physically stagnant, commercially driven trips that leave you feeling lethargic, broke and weak AF. And then, likely, you re-enter routine more drained, anxious, hung over and deprived than before you left. The cycle continues. 

Think: slurping bottomless piña coladas on beaches and stuffing your face at all-you-can-eat buffets. Or standing in line for three hours at theme parks to ride rollercoasters for 90 seconds. Or embarking on cruises, where your best bet for outdoor exercise involves dodging other tourists as you run laps around the upper deck. It has been years, but I’ve tried one or two vacations like these. The result? I came back needing a vacation from “vacation”. Not so, when I bust my butt in the wilderness and crawl out deservedly exhausted and high on fresh air.

As an avid adventurer, I quit corporate publishing a couple years ago to run my own freelance writing business, and ultimately, prioritize flexibility and freedom. Away from my desk, I spend spare minutes soaking up woods, desert, water or mountains. By recharging like this, I maintain my health and, as part of my creative process, I’m more productive, overall. 

When I ache to fully unplug and clear my head, I opt for what I call “non-vacations”, a.k.a. strategic time off doing awesome things that push my limits — like the BWCA. The last big trip I took, I hiked the Camino de Santiago, a 600-mile trail across northern Spain. I don’t mess around with my down time. And neither does Joe De Sena, Spartan Race Founder and CEO.  

I know he thinks vacations are B.S., so when I returned from my BWCA trip, I called De Sena to get his take on taking time off.

“I feel the same way about vacations as I do about rest and recovery,” he tells me. “I wonder, what we are recovering from? We’re not living in Vietnam during the war, we’re not being chased by saber-toothed tigers, and we’re not holed up in a cave. I mean, yeah, it’s not easy to juggle everything, but I view life in the first world as a vacation.” To stay at our optimal health, physically and mentally, we should always be recharging, he says. “Not just twice a year for a week here or a week there. And certainly not making it harder on ourselves with vacations that set us back.” 

Yes, he says, life is hard work. We wake up early with our to-do list and hammer it out. We have kids and mortgages and responsibilities. But to truly disconnect from the world and reconnect with ourselves? “Throw your phone away,” he says. “People who are productive don’t turn off. Sitting on a beach sounds awful to me. Go be productive in other ways. Meet friends and do a 50-mile trail run.” De Sena’s favorite non-vacation is flying somewhere remote, snagging his posse and crushing an adventure that allows them to talk for 8-12 hours a day, doing hard things outside. This, he says, builds relationships, community, connection and resilience.

He also does business that way. “Lots of people meet for happy hours to talk shop. I don’t,” he laughs. “I take my business partners outside. It’s the oldest trick in the book to seal the deal.”

As for the pandemic? No excuses. “Go set up a tent in Vermont or hike up a mountain,” he says. “Get creative. Being outside is one of the best places to be right now. That’s the way I decompress. I do something giant and collapse on the living room floor. It feels great.” 

Back in the BWCA… 

canoe backpacking trip

The morning after the storm, the sun’s rose-gold glow peeks through pine bows and birds’ chorus sings us from slumber. We lower the food pack from the bear rope and cook breakfast. Oatmeal with scoops of peanut butter and dried-banana chips sticks to our insides for the seven-hour paddle-portage ahead. And coffee tastes better in the backwoods.

We pack up our damp gear, refold maps and load the canoes. We push to the next lake, and the next. And the one after that. The flip-flop of paddle and portage become rhythm — each stretch of water different than the last. 

By day, we battle headwinds and rollers, glide over lily pads sprinkled with white blooms, snake down winding rivers, hike through balsam fir and cedar thickets. We chug water straight from the lakes and eat at least 3,500 calories a day to fuel our bodies. By night, we have the “who am I, and why am I here”-type conversations you can only have with good friends fireside in the middle of nowhere. 

boundary waters wilderness canoe backpacking trip

Otters, beavers, butterflies, bald eagles and deer salute us, and we keep our eyes peeled for moose, bears, wolves and northern lights. Biting black flies, immune to bug spray, swarm our legs, ears and necks. Relentless mid-day sun encourages us to stop for lunch breaks, cliff jumping and shade.

Life seems simpler. Not easier, but simpler. We move one step at a time. Each portage, each lake becomes its own chapter in the evolution of our journey.

My body changes, too. It always does on trips like these. I’ve bagged enough wilderness miles to know my consistent training won’t prevent inevitable soreness, fatigue, collarbone bruising and piriformis pain I feel from day one. The only way to prepare for a trip like this is to paddle and portage for seven hours a day. Though I wish I could, I have bills to pay. So, I fall back on my grit, determination and perseverance. I choose to find beauty in each moment, even if it’s painful, and let colorful language fly with a grin when I need to. But, I also trust my body to rapidly adapt. And it does.

By day three, everything clicks. Setting up camp is cake. Repacking becomes a breeze. We cut our transition time from canoe to single track and back by two thirds. “Look how seamlessly everything’s working, guys,” says Heidi, ever the bright enthusiast. “It’s like magic.”

boundary waters wilderness canoe backpacking trip

Early one morning, the fourth day… I think (time seems to stop in the Boundary Waters), Alton and I go fishing. Sleepy and silent, we paddle through a six-foot-tall fog bank hovering just above the water. I tie his hot-pink pike bunny onto my fly rod and he whips a shiny-something lure into the reeds with his spinner. As I troll the fly alongside our gliding canoe (dubbed ‘Flat-Bottomed Girl’), a massive northern rises to chomp. “Holy shit, it’s a HOG!” he yells, startling me. “Set it!” I whip up the tip a beat too late and miss it, but the action alone has us hunting for more.

The next night we’re back at it and the fish are on fire. The boys pull two northern and a walleye out of Hazel Lake. As Tyler fillets and cooks the fish, we endure the most aggressive mosquito, then mayfly, hatch I’ve ever seen. The bug-coated earth moves like waves. Mayflies cook into the fish, get stuck in our teeth, our packs, our clothes, our hair — everywhere. It’s irritating, but still somehow glorious.

boundary waters wilderness canoe backpacking trip

We had passed only two other canoes from a distance a few days back, but don’t see anyone else until we’re two hops away from the Sawbill put-in at Beth Lake, a regular spot for day-trippers.

As we land the boat, a kind woman with clean gear and fresh legs asks me, “Where’d-jah come from?” in a southern drawl.

Absorbed in our own rhythm, and catching up to Tyler and Heidi, Alton helps me hoist the pack to my shoulders and I start moving down the trail, not yet ready for small talk with another human outside of my crew. 

“West of here,” I say. “Hazel Lake.”

“Oh wow, that’s sooooo far,” she gasps. “Where-jah heading tonight?” The pack, which feels familiar and lighter, is still heavy and cuts into my shoulders. I’m eager to get a move on. 

“Home,” I sigh. 

“Oh...,” her voice falters.

“Yeah… exactly,” I say. “Enjoy your trip.” And head into the brush. 

To me, it feels like we’ve been in the backwoods for a minute, and a year. As the reality of re-entering reality sinks in, our paddle pace slows and we drag on the brief 30-rod portage from Alton Lake to Sawbill Lake. On purpose. We’re stinky, dirty, bruised, sunburned, calloused, bug-bitten, scabbed-up — and thoroughly refreshed. Bliss. No one wants it to end. 

As we round the corner to Sawbill’s dock and spot a gaggle of city folk riding a paddle boat and banging canoes around, my blood pressure starts to rise. I inhale deeply, determined to carry this inner peace cultivated through hard work in woods and on water back with me. 

All told, our 36 portages at 3,093 rods/9.7 miles of trail, and 65.3 miles of paddling was light-years from an all-inclusive, and exactly what each of us needed, in our own way. THIS was 2020’s ultimate non-vacation.

We’re already dreaming of pulling permits for next summer. And until then, I’m off to find my “vacation” outdoors in this very present moment. 

boundary waters wilderness canoe backpacking trip

(With my phone off for five days, it was as good as broken. Photo credits go to Heidi and Alton.)