The vast majority of BWCA visitors paddle and hike during daylight hours and for good reason. It’s safer, there’s more to see, and daylight travel aligns with normal sleep cycles. Night travel, on the other hand, provides a higher risk of getting lost while paddling; it’s also easier to fall and get hurt while portaging. Finding a campsite (and knowing if it’s unoccupied) is exponentially more difficult. For those of us looking to lengthen our paddle days, extend our trip, get a jump start for a short number of available days, or to gain a unique perspective of canoe country, traveling beneath the stars may be just the ticket. It’s certainly not for everyone, and I would discourage most people from making a habit of it. For those looking to try it, here are ten tips and tricks to successfully canoeing at night.
- Red Light – Keep Seeing at Night
The classic trick of using a deep red light stands true. Using a deep red light doesn’t impact your night vision the same way that white light does. This is especially important when using light to check a map or compass when more light reflects back. White light is helpful for spotting portages on shorelines in the dark, something that can be tricky on less-traveled routes. When trying to see up close though, red light is the way to go. Check out this great explanation from the National Park Service about the science of using the right light.
- Take Advantage of Environmental Light When Available
When natural light is available, use it! This can come in the form of starlight, moonlight, or northern lights! When the moon is full, traveling can be *almost* as easy as daytime. Clear, starlit skies make seeing shorelines relatively easy from the water and, as they have been used for millennia, stars can help keep you on course using the North Star as a guide. Northern lights are rarer, but I have experienced nights where they are bright enough to see by. On the flip side, one of the greatest challenges to nighttime navigation is cloudy skies or foggy horizons. When the clouds are obscuring the sky, navigation can be really tricky. It becomes nearly impossible to make out distant shorelines and forces a person to “fly by instrument” (explained more below.) If a storm is working up along the horizon, lightning can give passing glimpses of the shoreline, helping the problem. Just don’t stay on the water when a storm gets too close!
- Tricky Orienteering
“Flying by instrument” is easier said than done in a canoe in deep darkness. To orienteer well with a compass, it really helps to be able to see landmarks on the far shoreline to line up with. In the dark, this is impossible. On clear nights, there may be silhouettes to match up with which helps. If the skies are cloudy, and the far shoreline is obscured, then it becomes really important to follow the shore as explained below. In the event that you need to make a crossing though, here’s how I would handle it. Look at the map and determine your bearing on your target. Line up your bow with that bearing to give yourself a relative frame of direction. On the map, pick out a landmark you are bound to encounter such as an island or a prominent peninsula. Even if you waver from your course slightly on the crossing, keep your eyes out for landmarks to readjust the course as you encounter them. This is challenging and large open water crossings should be avoided at all costs while night paddling. In modern times, you can use a GPS and this makes knowing where you are and where you are going much easier. However, as a rule of thumb, do not substitute modern technology for common sense or the hard skills of being able to navigate yourself. In the event of getting lost, follow the nearest shoreline in a direction confirmed by your compass. Point out an unmistakable landmark to encounter like a particular island or a stream. Just like getting lost in the forest, if you have searched for a good amount of time, it’s okay to call it a night. Never make a situation worse by continuing when you should stop. Everything will be more clear come daybreak.
- Follow the Shore
Sticking close to shore is the easiest way to maintain a consistent heading and monitor landmarks as you pass them. The risk of following shore too closely is hitting underwater obstacles such as boulders and down trees that can be nearly impossible to see in the dark. Pay attention to your underwater topographic maps, if your lake has them, and stay a safe distance from shore where obstacles are of no issue and the shoreline is still in site. In the case of no underwater topography records, play it safe by traveling as far from shore as you can while still being able to distinguish some details from shore. Make extra sure to take a wide birth around points where underwater sandbars and rock sholes are more likely.
- Avoid Narrow Channels
Whenever possible, avoid paddling through narrow channels. These are canoe killers in the dark where rocks seem to come out of nowhere. Patching holes in a canoe is not enjoyable, and is made even less so when doing it “after hours.” Save yourself the trouble. Whenever possible, go around instead of heading through stretches where obstacles are more likely to be.
- Trouble Staying Awake?
Just as when driving a car, staying awake can be a real challenge when we diurnal creatures attempt to push on into the night shift. Every person who has fought the urge to nod off has their own secret defenses, and canoeing is no different. I will say that it can be a tricky balance. Portaging gives a good energy boost as the change from a comfortable canoe seat to walking does a great job of awakening the mind. However, portaging is also where the highest risk of night injuries is on any canoe trip. Do what you can to get by with snacks, conversations, and the occasional head dunk in the lake. Remember, a clear, rational mind is more likely to make good decisions and less likely to get lost or paddle into a submerged boulder.
- Campfires and Flashlights
If you end up tiring out while nighttime canoeing and are in search of a campsite, it can be a real trick, especially in places like the BWCA where campsites are pretty much mandatory. Knowing if a campsite is occupied can be a challenge. Early in the evening, look for campfires and flashlights, a sure sign of occupancy. Later, look for canoes parked by the water. Night-time canoeists are enough of an oddity that you can easily terrify an unwitting group. Be cautious, be considerate, and be quiet. Noise travels a long way over water, especially on calm nights.
- Bow/Stern Roles
The roles of a bow and stern paddler become extra important while nighttime navigating. The bow paddler’s role as a lookout is key. Sometimes being 12 feet further ahead is the difference between perching on a boulder and avoiding it. The bow paddler will also be the most important “flashlight shiner” when looking for portage landings. Communication is extra key at night for a smooth paddling experience.
- Wet-Footing Blind
Wet-foot canoe landing in the dark is fairly risky. The general inability to see far into the water means a lot of it is by feel. Drop-offs can really sneak up on you and a headlamp only shines so far into the water. It’s wise to do a lot more things as a team such as putting a canoe into the water and loading packs. The worst is landing in boulders as they cast shadows that conceal tripping hazards. Minimize risk by taking smaller steps, testing those steps as much as possible before committing, and, whenever possible, using something to steady yourself like a stick or paddle (don’t use a nice one.)
- Shallow Water, Shallow Strokes
As you pull up to a portage after dark, begin taking smaller paddle strokes. This accomplishes two things. In shallow water, moving slowly at night will help avoid collisions. Shallow strokes also mean a lower chance of bouncing a paddle off a rock or getting it wedged and subsequently broken. You can’t always avoid it, but remember the rule that if the water is shallow, your strokes should be too, especially at night.