The planning and preparation started like our many other trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in Northern Minnesota; pouring through maps to find an entry point and route, securing a permit, pulling out the gear, picking up groceries, packing the packs, and loading the canoes on the trailer. The crew eagerly anticipated the upcoming trip. After the final checks and goodbyes, it was time to head east on Highway 2. It was that moment with mixed emotions as I watched the crew leave with the canoes in tow. I would not be making this trip to the BWCAW with my son Derek. With 17 trips under my guidance, he was now the group leader and ready to experience canoe country without his Dad.
As the crew left, my thoughts began to wonder if he was ready to take on this challenge. As a way to rationalize that he was ready, I did some comparing. My first trip was with my uncle and cousins in 1986 to Hog Creek and Perent Lake. After just 2 trips and at the age of 18, my friend and I took a trip to Clearwater, Johnson Falls, and Mountain Lake prior to starting college in the fall of 1987. I have made a trip every year since. Derek, on the other hand, is now 21 and has been on 17 trips. I reassured myself that he was ready, but would he make all the appropriate decisions?
In all of my trips, our group mantra has always been; “It’s all part of the experience.” As those who have traveled into canoe country know, the experience can be both positive and negative. The positive and unforgettable experiences keep us coming back to canoe country, while the adversity we sometimes experience are those we vividly remember and acquire some valuable lessons. Hopefully Derek remembered the lessons learned.
Overtaking my worrying was a walk down memory lane as I reflected back on our experiences together. In 1998 after Derek turned 4, I convinced my wife that our son was ready for his first trip to the BWCAW. My journal entry for Derek’s first trip captures the moment:
In the summer of 1986, before my senior year of high school, my uncle asked me if I would like to go to the Boundary Waters because they needed a 4th person. My first impression was that this place was something special and I promised myself to come back every year. I was also excited to introduce others such as family and friends to this special place.
The more I went the more I couldn’t wait to share it with my own children. When you were born in February of 1994, I was already planning and looking forward to our first trip to the Boundary Waters. I said, “as soon as Derek is potty trained, he’ll be ready to go.” This year (1998) the opportunity was finally here and I found some other interested family and friends that wanted to be a part of your first BWCA experience.
I started organizing and planning about 3 weeks prior to our trip. I felt (and always have) that the key to a successful trip is careful planning and organization. I was reluctant to tell you that we were going right away because I didn’t think you would understand where we were going, what the Boundary Waters was, and you would always get over anxious anytime we would go somewhere. You would countdown “sleeps” as a measuring stick to count the days. Finally, it was getting closer and I wanted you to be a part of the preparation of the trip, so I told you where we were going and who we were going with. You were really excited and immediately asked, “Dad, how many sleeps until we go?” It was 10 at that point. You did a great job of counting backwards every day. We went grocery shopping together for the food and also spent time together setting out the equipment and checking it out. You asked many questions and I explained what everything was used for.
Zero sleeps and it’s time to go. We said goodbye to Mommy. We stopped at a gas station in Grand Rapids for gas and an ice cream treat. You told the cashier; “You know what, we’re going to the Boundary Waters and I’m going to catch a big fish.”
As I read through the journal for Derek’s first trip, I was glad that I captured the moments in writing as he certainly would not have remembered the trip nor would I continue to remember the details.
Derek’s second trip in 1999 took place over the July 4th weekend (enter at Island River, Isabella River, Quadga Lake, Bald Eagle Lake, exit at Snake River). Our experiences from this trip would be forever remembered.
We’re off to the Boundary Waters for your second trip...As we approached the final portage before our destination, Bald Eagle Lake, my friends decide to try to run the rapids. We portaged our stuff to the end and waited for their appearance. A few of us made a second trip on the portage and still no sign. Finally, they emerged with the badly dented up and punctured canoe. They made a poor decision to run the rapids and were very lucky not to be injured seriously.
Sigurd Olson best described this scene; “...as long as there are young men with the light of adventure in their eyes and a touch of wildness in their souls, rapids will be run.”
In the morning on July 4th, we fished a little bit but then the sky started to look a little threatening. We picked up the camp and prepared ourselves for some rain. Later in the morning, a loud roar could be heard followed by some intense winds so we all headed into our tents. After about 15-30 minutes, the strong winds decreased and it rained for a couple of hours. After the rain stopped, we went fishing. We talked to another group that was camped on Bald Eagle and they said that they had many trees in their campsite get blown over, so we were pretty lucky. (Only later would we fully realize the damage that the storm did).
Since 1999, there have been many other memorable experiences during our annual trip, including introducing my other son Ben to canoe country. Some of these experiences include the long portage, Border Route Trail, Johnson Falls, jumping off rocks into the water, and trips in October. But as Derek reflects on past trips, his most memorable trip included his brother Ben, uncle, grandpa and cousins.
The trip to Hog creek to Perent Lake with grandpa’s 2 sons and 5 grandsons remains my most memorable trip. I can vividly remember grandpa enjoying the company of his grandsons. Grandpa shared his knowledge and experience in catching and cleaning fish. We enjoyed jumping off a rock into the lake which grandpa willingly kept up with his grandsons in following suit. I remember this trip as a turning point for me as a trip participant to playing an active role in all duties required for a trip into canoe country.
Looking back, my initial goal was to ensure my sons had a positive experience in the BWCAW so they would want to continually return. In doing so, I did most everything while they played, fished, and explored. Over the past several trips, I started asking more questions and turning over some of the duties to Derek and Ben. I knew that I was not going to be on their canoe trips indefinitely, so they needed to learn things on their own. As I turned over the duties, I first had them assist me with my guidance and eventually allowed them to complete tasks on their own. A few examples include, setting up a tent, starting a fire, hanging the food pack, portaging, filleting a fish, and reading a map.
Through the gradual release of my “teaching” vs. their “learning,” I noticed that even after everything I had thought I taught them, mistakes were still made. Only when Derek and Ben were allowed to do a task on their own instead of me showing and telling, did they complete the tasks more efficiently and accurately. Mostly through their struggles, were they really allowed to learn. I enjoyed watching the learning process take place through collaboration, critical thinking, failure, and redos.
It was challenging for me to watch Derek and Ben struggle through certain things when I knew the correct answer or a better way to do something. For instance, I watched them put up the tent incorrectly. Other times, we added some distance to our paddles as they misread the map to find the portages. I usually knew where the portages were, but I allowed them to figure it out after they were not able to find it the first time. They worked their way through some of the obstacles, and then would ask me for assistance. I would respond with a question such as, “what do you think” or “have you thought of?” I believe I would have done my sons a disservice if I had not let them think through problems. After all… “Learning is their journey. Let them navigate. Push them to explore. Watch them discover. Encourage their questions. Allow them to struggle. Support their thinking. Let them fly (Krissy Venosdale).”
In addition to wilderness skills, I also tried to model and impress on my sons other intangibles such as the respect of this special place many fought so hard to protect. We always practiced “leave no trace,” left our campsites better than we found them, and left a small pile of prepared wood by the fire grate. They also learned the key to a successful trip is planning and preparedness. And finally, we always were mindful that help is a long way away, so we were careful and made good decisions.
In 2012, just our immediate family took our first trip together. We secured 2 permits for the same entry point so Derek and Ben could take a side trip on their own. After a couple of days, Derek and Ben set off for 2 nights. I was more sad than worried, knowing that my sons no longer needed their Dad. The boys learned a great deal about being on their own while my wife and I were just a couple of lakes away. This trip also prepared me for my own transition of letting go. This trip remains as Derek’s second most memorable trip.
I remember planning for the trip, looking through maps and talking about possible routes to explore. Then, Dad presented us with an option for Ben and I to take a side trip on our own because he knew we both had experienced many trips and were ready to experience canoe country on our own. I was not worried at all because of the number of previous trips and experiences. I really enjoyed spending time with Ben as I was leaving for college in August. The route looked doable on a map, but some of the portages were very challenging. As Ben and I paddled to the south end of Sawbill Lake, I saw my Dad and Mom in the distance sitting on the dock waiting for our arrival. Prior to gliding into shore, I was overcome by a great sense of accomplishment. Having it all come together to be out there on our own was made possible through the lessons Ben and I were afforded through our Dad. We passed the test and knew our Dad was proud of us. Only later did I fully realize how hard letting go was on my Dad.
It seemed fitting Derek would choose Hog Creek and Perent Lake as a trip leader with his friends. After Derek and his friends returned from a fun trip, they were eager to share stories from their adventure. Listening to their stories, I smiled to myself and knew my question about Derek’s readiness and ability to lead others into the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness was answered. To see four young men willing to venture into the wilderness, without Wi-Fi, and enjoy their time in the BWCAW was truly rewarding.
Letting our children fly also means letting our children pursue their passions. When I was a child I loved being outdoors and camping. After my first trip to the BWCAW in 1986, canoe country became my passion with a promise to myself to return each year. I wanted to learn everything I could about the BWCAW, so in the pre-Internet days, I went to the library to find books and periodicals. At a camping show in the Twin Cities in 1987, I picked up some information on a new publication called the Boundary Waters Journal (BWJ), which I ordered and read all the stories.
The BWCAW continues to be one of my passions. I am grateful to have shared so many trips with my sons with many wonderful memories. I made it clear they did not have to have the same interests as me and should never feel obligated to go on trips, but they always wanted to go. According to Derek, his interest in canoe country started with his first trip and grew over time:
I still remember my Dad hyping up our trip to the Boundary Waters. At such a young age, it didn’t really make sense to me about this mystical place you, along with family and friends would go canoeing and exploring. So, it seemed very interesting to me. After the first trip, I wanted to continue to hang out with my Dad. It was mostly a bonding experience; going there and being together.
Making an annual trip to the Boundary Waters became really interesting to me when I finally started to figure out how to do things on my own, through the teaching of my Dad, contributing to the group effort. The contributions I made such as finding firewood, starting a fire, cooking and other camp duties provided me with a sense of personal pride and accomplishment.
From Derek’s experiences, I asked him what advice he could pass along to anyone hoping to introduce children to canoe country.
I would take the same approach; just provide the opportunity and experiences to truly understand, and grow to appreciate, the beauty of nature in a pristine wilderness area. Being secluded, without crowds of people, offers increased chances of seeing wildlife and nature’s other treasures. Childhood experiences in the BWCAW always include life lessons that may not be replicated otherwise. Circumstances are not always perfect, adversity happens and it is up to the group to figure it out as a team. Also, let your children explore, learn, be curious, and even struggle a bit. The skills of wilderness camping are important to perfect, but the mindset of perseverance and a sense of accomplishment are even more important for children to experience. This mindset will continue to be present as children grow into adults.
The BWCAW is a place where everyone ultimately learns much more about themselves. What an incredible gift to pass along to our children and generations to come. Letting our children fly does not only pertain to the BWCAW, but life in general. Share your passions with your children, allow them to pursue their own interests, and be patient to observe their learning process in action.