Fall is a magical season in canoe country: a brief respite of quiet calm between the relative chaos of summer and the icy grip of winter. And, in many ways, the experience of a canoe trip in the BWCA is greatly enriched by the season. Once October 1st rolls around though, the looming threat of snow is ever just around the corner. So how does one extend their canoe season into this most unpredictable of months? I have paddled a canoe in the BWCA in beautiful, warm October weather and I have paddled through a day with 7″ of accumulated snowfall. November too has its charms, but ice breaking to get to portages is a skill hard-learned. This article will cover my advice on how to plan for the unpredictable and shape an unforgettable experience amidst the wonders of shoulder season. Here are the top ten things to be aware of when planning an October trip to the BWCA
1) Prepare for flexibility: Fall is the season in canoe country which demands the most flexibility because the weather can be so unpredictable. Every fall trip I have been on pretty much has led to a route change of some kind. Maybe a stretch of water I thought would be open froze up. Maybe a group member was getting too cold to push it and stopping was the safe bet. Maybe heavy snowfall, or worse, rain hampered traveling. Whatever it is, fall can throw a lot of extra variables. Don’t make the classic mistake of being so fixated on your goals that you push yourself into trouble. Roll with the experience that fall gives you and make the smart decisions for the best trip.
2) The days are shorter, the nights are longer: One big extra variable is the length of days. In the summer when the sun rises early and sets late one can seemingly travel as far as their bodies will let them. This is not the case in the fall. Travel days are fairly short and one must make the most of the waning light. Getting up early and making breakfast in the dark buys time, but one of the most uncomfortable experiences in canoe country is crawling out of a sleeping bag when the sun’s still down to a morning hovering around freezing and a tent covered in frost. Moving to put on the frozen footwear adds to the experience. Unpredictable weather can help add to or heavily reduce the amount of light you have to travel by. Undershoot your mileage a tad from what you would normally try to accomplish in the summer.
3) Beware Big Water: This is one of the most important risk management decisions. Every year in early or late season there are water rescues in this state for people who didn’t proceed with enough caution. The water temps are dropping quickly.. Big water crossings are where people can get into a world of trouble. I tend to stick to smaller lakes this time of year for multiple reasons (more explained below) but one of them is ease of getting to shore in an emergency. This may sound overcautious, but believe me, I have plenty of experience to stay safe on big water in a canoe, but I also know the consequences if something went wrong. Hypothermia is a real danger this time of year and a life jacket may not save a person if they dump too far from shore. Be extra cautious. Though this season is beautiful, and, in theory, the activity is the same, the consequences can be higher for the under-prepared.
4) Choose Entry Points with Care: One of the wondrous highlights of October 1 is the exit from quota season. What this means for people who are not familiar is that you may choose ANY BWCA entry point you want so long as it is an official entry point and you fill out the self-filled permit at the box. This is a wonderful time of year to visit the high-use areas some of us choose to avoid at the peak of summer. This is also a lot of freedom to choose the route which fits the style of trip a person is trying to accomplish as well as making smart decisions. See the previous point for some indicator of why, but some entry points definitely cater to a good fall trip. Big lakes can be risky and rivers can be uncomfortable since low water will force a person to spend a lot of time getting in and out of a canoe (ie lots of time in the water.)
5) Over pack, this is not a season for hyperlight: The rule of thumb for fall trips is hope that it’ll be 50 degrees and pack like it will be 0. Pack a warmer sleeping bag than you anticipate you’ll need. The temperature can swing 20-30 degrees from mid-afternoon to early morning. Layers are super key for staying comfortable. Plenty of clothes are not a bad thing, and definitely bring layers which can keep you and your gear dry. Every spring and fall there are dozens of BW rescues from people who came into their off-season trip utterly unprepared. This wilderness can be beautiful but it can also be harsh. No you can not just pack one shirt and a rain jacket like some people do during the warm season. There are consequences when the weather is wet and cold. And it’s better to have to take an extra trip on the portage than to be under-packed once you reach camp. Come prepared for this off season and you will have a wonderful adventure.
6) Plan for breaks, manage the paddle/portage rhythm: On the warm days, fall trips are fairly similar to a summer trip. Paddle down the lake and not get out of the canoe until it’s time to portage. On the cold wet days though I have observed a dramatic swing of body temperature from nearly hypothermic on the water to sweating on the portages. It’s much easier for a person’s core to stay warm while walking with a load than simply paddling. If I have too long of a stretch between portages, I have found that it’s easy to get cold. Take breaks to move around and warm up if you have to. Have your layers set to take layers off when you start to portage and be ready to layer back up on the other side. For me, portages manage a lot like a backpacking trip or a run, you want to start the portage a little cool or you’ll overheat. Also, make sure that whatever you’re wearing for layers on the portage that the outer layer remains waterproof. The trees have a way of holding moister and a soaked underlayer is no fun. A good windbreaking layer is also super key for those paddle stretches. Sunny days are marvelous chances to warm up and dry out, but there are also plenty of cloudy and rainy days too. Staying dry is the key to staying comfortable. Whether the moisture comes from rain above or sweat from within, managing layers can keep a person warm and dry.
7) Pack for hearty meals: I pack food a lot hardier in the fall than in the summer. As temperatures drop, the body begins demanding more calories. Don’t shy away from fatty options like cheese and meat. Fall isn’t the trip to lose weight on. There’s a reason that bears, squirrels, and all of nature is eating to their heart’s content. Your greatest source of comfortable warmth isn’t the layers you wear but an internal furnace which is well stoked. Eat hearty!
8) Specialized Gear: There are some pieces of gear that I bring in the in-between seasons which don’t come along in the summer. Obviously I pack more heavy clothing as I mentioned above. I have also become a firm believer in waterproof socks. Now hear me out, these sound like a gimmick. Waterproof socks though have proved to work super well for me as a way to keep feet warm even when I have to get in and out of the canoe throughout the day. I then wear wool socks under the waterproof but try not to overstuff. The paradox is that if you over-insulate your feet and try to stuff them in boots, your feet will freeze from a lack of bloodflow. Try to balance good insulation with good blood flow! I also know plenty of people who transition to the lined muck boots during this season which works great as well. Gloves are key also. Thin gloves are best preferably ones made from wool or fleece since they will end up wet at some point and a material which keep insulating thereafter is key. Thinner gloves make for easier paddling and too thick of gloves often make a person grip tighter leading to blood flow issues which can make the hands colder. A lot of friends of mine use some form of handwarmers too. It’s a nice way to warm the extremities. There are butane fueled ones if you prefer to avoid the disposables.
9)Communicate Well: Part of the unpredictable nature of fall is that plans will change. Carry a communication device that will work in the BWCA if possible (spotgen, in reach, sat phone…) Snowfall or ice can trap a car in a parking lot if unprepared for it and a change of routes due to unpredictable conditions can change a person’s itinerary. Let the people back home know about the unpredictability ahead of time so they are also prepared for plans to change.
10) Enjoy the Perks: After all the cautionary messages above, I realize I have given fall this unappealing perception, and I don’t mean to. Fall is the phenomenal balance of the rugged and the sublime. If you’re blessed to spend part of this fall in the BWCA, treasure those moments in their entirety. For the fall is a season where beauty permeates the landscape unabated. I close my eyes and remember back to my first fall canoe trip and a morning waking up on Winchell Lake. Across the choppy, grey waters, the hills danced as aspen cloaked in their finest gold attire trembled from the westward tumult. And the pines sparkled as yesterdays snow still clang to them as if the stars themselves now grew on the branches. Our tent poles labored under the soaking weight of evening snow which likened us to the feelings of a bear crawling out a den for a final time before winter’s sleep. And as we fired up the stove for a quick breakfast, I took a deep breath. Despite the wind, the landscape otherwise seemed silent as if the snow gulped up every noise in a quiet indicative of coming winter. The birds had already left it seemed, at least the ones who knew better than to weather the coming season. And a chill rested on the air which threatened to fill the bones with cold yet my jacket stood guard against it. And in that quiet, cold morning, I saw the land through this marvelous season which so few get to experience. In the summer time, this lake is alive with groups coming and going, but the high cliff on the opposing shore is a reminder that this land has seen many things come and go and with it the seasons are a rhythmic steadiness of years passing ever by. I reflect on this wonderous yet fleeting season and try to embrace the challenges alongside the beauty as another canoe season comes to its close and another winter steadily approaches.