Bringing the Next Generation to the Wilderness

Nov 4, 2020
Sam Chadwick
pictures of two kids standing on the shore next to a lake


Last summer, I planned a somewhat last-minute Boundary Waters overnight canoe trip with my family, while we were living and working for several weeks in the Ely area. Permits to nearby spots were hard to come by (we had not planned ahead hey!), and so I picked what was available - South Moose River (entry point 8).

We rented a LARGE canoe to carry all 5+ of us - the Wenonah 4. I was about 6 months pregnant, and this would be the first canoe trip for our 6 and 3 year olds too. My cousin was along in addition to my husband and me, which was so necessary to help wrangle the kids and the stuff!

We rented the boat, some additional paddles and PFDs, and a Garmin Inreach device (in case of emergency) from Piragis Northwoods Company. I have my own gorgeous handmade Glorud paddle and Matt has a Bending Branches paddle. We have MTI Life Jackets for the whole family, and all our gear packs up nicely in our Granite Gear portage packs.

We had been staying at Lodge of Whispering Pines, on Big Lake, west of Ely via the Echo Trail. We drove a little farther along the Echo trail, took a left on a small road to come to our entry point. The river turned out to be a narrow, long meandering passage through beaver-dam created marshy pools. Five miles of that. Our very long canoe was extra work to steer through the zig-zagging pathway.

It seemed to work best like this: If I'm in the stern of the canoe, as we approach a twisty turn in the route, I call out for the bow paddler to paddle backward on whichever side I need. I then do AGGRESSIVE c-strokes on the opposite side, so the watercraft basically stops all forward movement and just rotates. Even this was not enough - sometimes we would gently crash into the humps of tall marsh grass.

Crossing a beaver damWe passed multiple super impressive beaver lodges and saw a few beavers quickly swimming out of sight. In one spot we had to climb out of the canoe in the middle of the marsh, precariously stand on waterlogged branches along an expansive beaver dam, and yank our canoe up and over the dam onto the higher water above. The beaver dams along this route are IMPRESSIVE. Spanning across quite a distance and holding back an immense amount of water. The critters must stay quite busy making and maintaining these and their lodges. The landscape looked a little different than our outfitter had recalled so I bet it changes year to year a bit as the beavers continue their engineering.

The kids did not seem to get bored or tired, they were such troopers. Cassidy loved nothing more than to drag his hands in the water alongside the canoe. Which then of course we had to try and keep him from sucking his thumb with pond-water or reed debris on his hands.

The route had two not-so-long portages. The canoe was ridiculously large as I said, and thus heavier than ideal. Matt carried the canoe, I carried a baby in my uterus - ok also the lighter of the portage packs and maybe some life jackets and paddles, my cousin Johanna carried the big pack and the big tent and did the doubling-back to pick up other things. We kept the kids on the trail between the first and last of our party, and they trudged right along on their own, pep-talking each other and just being generally adorable little kids hiking through the big woods. I was so proud of them.

We reached Big Moose lake and were happy to see more wide open water after the miles of skinny water trials through thick beaver ponds. The lake was quite shallow all the way across - you could see the bottom in many places. The first two campsites across the north edge of the lake looked occupied so we kept on. We found a retired campsite (the fire grate had been taken away but otherwise looked very recent!) but then just around the corner, a lovely big campsite with big rocks along the shore and stately tall trees all around.

We really should have stayed an extra night, for all the work it took to make it there! But we had a lovely afternoon and evening, and long next morning before packing up to paddle out. The kids loved playing with sticks and rocks. Cass found a stick he kept pretending to play like a recorder/clarinet which he called his "flute." Johanna set up a hammock. Evey and I went swimming in the evening, hooting and laughing as we floated around in the cool water.

The thing I remember most from the trip back out was stopping for lunch at the end of a portage to enjoy some Patagonia Provisions smoked salmon with our trail mix and other goodies. It was so good! Also, very smelly, and we were glad we'd eaten it last instead of carrying around fish-smelling wrappers for any longer.

Back at the car, we loaded up and drove into Ely to return our rental stuff and stopped for dinner at Insula. We were all so drained, not to mention a little dusty & dirty! By dusk we were back at our cozy cabin.

The route turned out to be more difficult and more work than I had intended for a first trip with little kids (and pregnant mom), but it worked out well and was a great time. With all the paddling and portaging, it was the way I'd usually want a Boundary Waters canoe trip to feel: a little bit challenging. We definitely should have stayed at least another night out there! I was delighted, but not surprised to see the kids enjoying themselves so much in the wilderness, just loving hiking and climbing on rocks and playing with water and among the tree trunks.

Highly recommend taking the littles in your life on a Boundary Waters canoe trip.

-Samantha Chadwick
Moose River to Big Moose Lake, August 2019

Help us protect the Boundary Waters for families and future generations of paddlers.