FOREST CITY -- It feels like you’ve been at your hectic job for 145 years without a vacation. Well, maybe just 75 years.

You need a break. Someone urges you to check out the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. You’ve heard stories about the BWCA, seen achingly beautiful photos of sunrises, sunsets, pristine lakes, soaring pines.

But, you tell yourself, it’d be a marathon: days and days of hard canoeing, portaging, setting up and taking down camp, trying to start fires for cooking, more portaging, more canoeing. And dealing with mosquitoes and black flies that would make the toughest Navy SEAL weep.

Au contraire.

Some veteran campers do go the marathon route. The BWCA, made part of the National Wilderness System in 1964, includes more than 1 million acres along nearly 150 miles on the Minnesota-Canada border. But you can take day trips, or go out for a couple of nights, and have just as much fun and be just as awestruck.

“You don’t have to take a week-long trip,” said Winnebago County Naturalist Lisa Ralls, a veteran of several trips to the BWCA, during a presentation on the subject last week. “This can be an easy kind of camping if you know your limits. It’s a little bit different than camping around here. But it’s well worth it for what you get out of it.”

Last summer Ralls and her son Jack, now 15, canoed out about 4 miles, for an hour or 90 minutes, on a two-day outing.

They were treated to a full moon one night and a major lightning show the next.

Todd Gayken of Britt, a manufacturing engineer at Winnebago Industries Inc., heard two packs of wolves howling at each other across a lake on one of his 15 or 20 trips to the BWCA. He hopes to return this fall.

“It’s a real learning experience,” Gayken said. “It is a remarkable place. You get it in your system. It just gets to where you’ve got to go back. It’s one of those experiences that you’ve got to try.”

And a rugged place. There are no roads, electrical hookups, cell phone towers, restaurants, hotels, vending machines, flush toilets — no nothing once you push off into the great wilderness.

Depending on how far you want to go, you’ll have to portage — carry the canoe and your gear along a trail from one lake to the next.

Just know that this is nature at its best. The BWCA is home for wolves, black bears, moose, big fish and, of course, the loon and its heartbreaking song. If it’s nice, you’ll see multi-colored sunsets, more stars at night than you could ever imagine and maybe the astonishing northern lights (aurora borealis).

So come. But come prepared. Basically, bring just what you’ll need. Make it good equipment, all as lightweight as possible — and keep it all waterproofed.

The bugs are there in force. But, Gayken said, don’t let them spoil your trip.

“After a while you just forget about ’em,” he said. “Find a (camping) spot with a breeze and you’ll have no bugs. I think it’s just mind over matter.”

“You do your best to keep them off and that’s the best you can do,” Ralls said. “If you think you can’t live without all your fancy gadgets, just go for a night. Just give it a chance. The benefits of getting away from everything so outweigh the inconveniences.”

— Richard Johnson is a freelance writer based in Mason City. He traversed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in 1994.


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