Welcome to the BWCAW blog of Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service!

See our websites at ElyOutfittingCompany.com and BoundaryWatersGuideService.com.

We are a Boundary Waters canoe trip outfitter, Quetico outfitter, and guide service in Ely, Minnesota. This Boundary Waters blog shares photos, stories, humor, skills, and naturalist insights from guiding in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Most entries are from our founder and head guide, Jason Zabokrtsky. He is the Boundary Waters Blogger.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Back to Civilization


After a fun week of venturing through the BWCA with David and his sons, we returned to civilization today. This trip made memories of varied weather (sun, clouds, wind, rain...); long paddling days; an excursion to Thunder Point; sighting lots of wildlife including eagles, moose, otter, and loons; fishing for lake trout, pike, and walleye; and genuine warmth and conversation around the campfire. This photo shows us before our last portage as we leave Parent Lake.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Juneberry Tree in Bloom - The "Popcorn Tree"

Sitting around our campfire on Disappointment Lake, David asked about the "popcorn tree" behind the tents. What a perfect description! Juneberry trees are covered in spectacular white blooms now. From a distance, they appear to be covered in snow white popcorn.

Juneberry trees are often called "serviceberry trees." Serviceberry is probably a more appropriate name because the berries won't mature until July. Maybe I'll return to this campsite for some serviceberry pancakes then!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thunder Point on Knife Lake

One of the most spectacular views in the BWCA is from the top of Thunder Point on Knife Lake. We day-tripped from our camp on Fraser Lake to it today. This photo is taken from the top of Thunder Point looking southwest toward the Isle of Pines. The Isle of Pines is the former home of a local legend, Dorothy Molter.

On the way to Thunder Point, we got lucky and Peter spotted a cow moose with a newborn calf along the shore of Fraser Lake. The calf was probably less than a week and maybe less than 48 hours old.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Speckled Alder Catkins

These are catkins on a speckled alder tree. The tiny flowers on the male catkins are shedding pollen that pollinates the female flowers. The male catkins are 5 to 10 centimenters long.

While gathering firewood today around our camp on Ima Lake in the BWCA, I worked my way through a dense thicket of speckled alder. The pollen burst away from the catkins in cloudy puffs.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Gear Review: BWCA Boots For Cool Weather

The safest way to get in and out of your canoe at a portage is to "wet foot" it. As you canoe up to a portage, turn your canoe parallel to the shore and step out of your canoe and into the shallow water before the canoe touches a rock.

It is dangerous to try and keep your feet dry by stepping on a rock that is out of the water. Why? You may lose your balance or slip as you precariously stretch to reach for the dry rock. The result is a possible flipped canoe or an injury from your fall. And your canoe will get banged up in the process.

In blistering hot summer weather when wet feet are okay, I recommend old sneakers or rugged closed toe sandals while paddling and portaging.

However, in spring, fall, and cool weather, wet feet are cold feet. That's when I recommend Northerner brand Max model rubber boots for a very cool price of only about $20. This probably isn't a recommendation you'll receive from an outdoors store that wants to sell you a Chota Quicklace Mukluk for $120. But, I grew up on a farm and that sort of a price tag sends my head spinning. And the Northerner Max works better at a fraction of the price.
I recommend the Northerner Max for cool weather. Here's why:
  • 100% waterproof
  • Durable
  • Aggressive tread makes it super-stable on rocks
  • 15" high which is about right for the depth of water at most portages
  • Adequate support for portaging
  • Easy to slide off to let your feet air out while paddling across the lake
  • Value-priced
If the weather turns warm and sunny, your feet will sweat in these boots. Then it's important to air your feet out as you paddle across the lake so your socks don't get wet from perspiration. You also need a second set of comfortable dry shoes to change in to for around camp. Dry feet are happy feet.

I recommended that the group bring Northerner Max boots on the trip this week. They did and the weather has been cool, with rain this afternoon. They can't imagine not having these boots.

If you're driving to Ely, you can buy Northerner Max boots along the way at L&M Fleet Supply in Cloquet (click here for directions) or Virginia (click here for directions). This photo shows the crew this week with Northerner Max boots and happy feet.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Launching a Six Day BWCA Canoe Trip


Today I launched a six day BWCA canoe trip with a dad and his two sons. We put in at crystal-clear Snowbank Lake. This photo shows David proudly watching his sons, Eric and Peter, paddle away from our lunch spot on Ahsub Lake.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Gear Review - SPoT in the BWCA


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This entry is by guest Blogger Kyle Courtaway. Kyle has extensive backpacking, canoeing, and camping experience. He lives in Illinois and ventures to the Boundary Waters as often as he can.

People travel in the wilderness to, among other things, feel a sense of space apart from other humans. It is one aspect of being in the Boundary Waters that I have always valued.

I brought a satellite phone during my first canoe solo trip in case there were any emergencies and to put a call into my wife halfway through. While I felt like it was a smart decision, it also felt like a very large connection back to civilization. Personally, it felt like there was always a “crutch” in case I felt uncomfortable. Also the act of dialing a phone and speaking to someone back at home can have the effect of taking you out of the wilderness. The reality is that whether traveling alone or with a group it is important to have a method of communication in case something unexpected occurs.

On my solo trip this month, I took along the Satellite Personal Tracker (SPoT). The SPoT is a device that, similar to a sat phone, uses satellites as a method of communication (as opposed to mobile phones that are still spotty in the BW).

However, it is the differences between the SPoT and the satellite phone that, I believe, make it a great alternative to the sat phone for wilderness travel.

Construction: The first thing that you notice is that the SPoT is half the size of the sat phone. This makes it easier to carry in the day/fanny pack leaving it closer to you in case of emergency.

Durability and Portability: The SPoT is both durable (hard plastic shell) and waterproof. The sat phone requires it’s own waterproof case. This gives the sat phone a bulky profile to carry with you and generally leaves it sitting in a portage pack.

Communication: This is really where the SPoT is the optimal choice. The SPoT interface has three function buttons:
  • 911: Sends a rescue signal and alerts the first responders to your location.
  • Ask for Help: Sends a SMS text or email message to family and friends for their help at your location (obviously this is a non-life threatening emergency).
  • OK: This button sends a pre-programmed SMS text or email message to family and friends and includes a link to Google Maps so they can see your location.

While the first two function buttons are critical, it’s the OK button that I found to be the best of part of the SPoT. This button allowed me to let my wife and family know I was ok as well as give them a picture of where I was without mentally leaving the wilderness to do it. In the "OK" email, SPoT provided a link to Google Maps showing my location. The above Google map is a sample from my trip. The SPoT also provided a set of satellite waypoints so I could review my route post-trip. Using the SPoT is unobtrusive; I would send my OK message when I was preparing dinner at night and put it away. Luckily, I can only give a first-hand review of the OK function and will have to leave the 911 and Ask for Help buttons for another trip!

Finally, the rental rate was half of what a satellite phone would have cost. For those who spend a great deal of time in the wilderness, it is still a significantly cheaper purchase than a sat phone and service. I also found the SPoT to be more reliable than the sat phone, which could take a long time to acquire satellites and sometimes didn’t work at all. As a safety and communication option for the wilderness, I would definitely recommend the SPoT for a BWCA trip.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Broad Leaf Aster and Charmin


Guest Blogger: Wilderness Guide Kate Ford.

Spring is slowly creeping its way in. We are seeing lovely, warm, sun-filled days back to back with days of light snow or cold rain. Even with the wavering weather, May is providing the Boundary Waters with enough sun and warmth to coax our leaves out, as proven by these young broad leaf asters. I shot the above photo this week. Broad leaf aster is a low ground cover with other common names: lumberjack's friend or logger's toilet paper. It has a unique soft side which makes it a comfortable alternative when nature calls.*

*Note: Sleep easy. Boundary Waters Guide Service provides good ole soft, happy, Charmin-style toilet paper.

Monday, May 18, 2009

False Morels - Deadly Portage Mushrooms

False morel mushrooms are sprouting up along BWCA portages and area hiking trails. I saw my first of the season a few days ago. Yesterday we saw about a dozen along the Bass Lake Trail near Ely.

These false morels are deadly. Eaten raw they may lead to diarrhea and vomiting within a few hours. That's followed by dizziness, lethargy, and headache. Then, in severe cases, delirium, coma, and death in five to seven days.

However, some in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and around Ely, consider them a delicacy when prepared properly. The toxin in false morels is gyromitrin. The toxin, or some portion of it, is released by drying, par boiling, or sauteing. During these processes, the toxin is released as a gas. If cooked indoors without proper ventilation, the gas may poison the preparer.

Most guidebooks and wilderness guides wisely recommend treating all raw or cooked false morels as poisonous. Some research suggests that eating even properly prepared false morels may lead to poisoning. That is because individual false morels may contain different levels of the toxin, preparation methods reduce the toxins but may not eliminate them, and individuals react differently to different levels of the toxin.

With that said, I've eaten several meals of Ely-area false morels sauteed with butter. Their consistency and taste is remarkably similar to the safe gourmet true morel mushrooms. I had no known ill effects. However, since learning more about the significant potential dangers of false morels, I've concluded the risk probably isn't worth the benefit of this hazardous morsel.

Pictured are false morels on the Bass Lake Trail on May 17.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Southern Belle's Musings on the Boundary Waters


Editor's note: Guest blogger Jessica Fuller provided this entry. Jessica is from North Carolina and ventured into the BWCA with Guide Kate Ford.

In North Carolina, a dusting of snow means closed roads, cancelled classes and empty toilet paper aisles. In North Minnesota, it simply means it's time for a trip to the Boundary Waters.

Kate and I began our trip through Lake One and Two with overcast skies and extra layers, but by evening's end, we were sitting comfortably under a star filled sky making s'mores. The morning brought sunshine as well as my first canoe portage - a bit shaky, but no harm done to the boat, nor flora, fauna or Ford (Kate, that is).

I reflected with Kate that the North Woods is the kind of place to remember when life seems hectic. When I am back in NC, it will be nice to know that the loons are still calling, the beavers are still building, the water is still flowing and the trees are still reaching their spring buds to the sky. Thanks to Kate and Jason for a wonderful adventure! I'll be back!

This photo shows Jessica portaging a canoe for the first time.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Today's paddling advice from Mike Hillman

Winds gusting to 35 mph and snow whipping in your face greeted canoers this morning.

Mike Hillman, host of the polka show on WELY radio today, provided some advice to those canoers:

"Put on every article of clothing you have, and go east."
I took this photo at about 11 AM today.
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Thursday, May 14, 2009

The North American Bear Center May Surprise You

One of the top fears of newcomers to the BWCA is bears. Specifically, peoples' imagination can take a wild ride when visualizing bear encounters.

However, the common fear of black bears is largely due to the media's mischaracterization of our largely harmless black bears. If you're one of those scared of a Boundary Waters trip because of these creatures, a trip to the North American Bear Center near Ely may be all you need to unshackle yourself from unwarranted concern.

For example, the Bear Center studies bears by attaching radio collars around their necks, and then monitoring them. When I visited this week, I learned from a researcher that the wild black bears are not sedated when attaching radio collars. Instead, one person may feed some snacks to the bear while the other walks up and straps the collar on a wide-awake, wild black bear. And the bear lets them do it!

You will see lots of interesting and surprising research video throughout this educational and interesting destination.

Above is Ted, the biggest black bear in the viewing area at the Bear Center.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wintergreen Northern Wear Has New Owners

After 24 years in the performance clothing business, Paul and Sue Schurke recently sold Wintergreen Northern Wear (the clothing manufacturing and retail store) to Curt and Becky Stacey. The above photo shows (l-r) Curt, Becky, Sue, and Paul.

I stopped in to the Wintergreen store in Ely to introduce myself to the new owners. Becky is minding the store while Curt is in Michigan staying with their two kids while they finish the school year. Becky and Curt have Minnesota roots and are moving their young family to Ely this summer.

Sue will continue to provide design consulting, and Wintergreen Designs will continue to collaborate with Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. The Stacey's intend to keep production right here in Ely, expand internet marketing and group sales, and promote the made in America label.

Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge will continue to be operated by Paul and Sue Schurke, as a separate business entity.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Snowshoe Hares Know It's Spring

This is one of two snowshoe hares I've seen this week. Both of them have recently changed color from a snow-white winter coat to their summer camouflage brown. They know it's spring and they're blending in with the brown and nibbling at the green.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Springtime Boundary Waters Moose


I photographed this cow moose and her calf today while paddling near Lake Four in the BWCA. As I paddled past a narrow inlet, I glimpsed what looked like an upturned tree root. I twice backpaddled against the wind to get a better look, then used my camera zoom to confirm they were moose.

As I approached, I noticed the odd-looking white on their shoulders. When I returned home, I called Tom Rusch, the DNR area wildlife manager in Tower, to ask about the white areas. He immediately recognized the issue. He says that, since about January, these moose have probably been vigorously rubbing against trees to scratch off some of the thousands of winter ticks latched onto them. The scratching tears away patches of the moose's coat and shows their white undercoat and skin.

These ticks aren't the wood ticks found on the family dog, but instead unique moose ticks that grow as large as your pinky fingernail. The ticks stress the moose and are linked to increased moose mortality, and our dwindling moose numbers. Rusch says moose ticks drop off in the spring. If they drop on snow they die. If they drop on grass they reproduce. Shorter winters may be contributing to an increase in these ticks because they drop on grass unveiled earlier by warmer springs.

About three-fourths of area moose show rubbing indicators like this now, says Rusch. However, the white patches won't last through summer. The moose are just starting to blow their coats, and their lighter summer coats will grow through and give them the stereotypical dark brown coat. I hope to get some photos of a healthy-looking bull this fall.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Wenonah - Where Canoes Are Born

We picked up new Wenonah kevlar ultralight canoes at the Wenonah Canoe Factory in Winona, Minnesota, this week. Owner Mike Cichanowski (above, left) greeted us. He grew up in Winona, on the banks of the Mississippi. He's a paddler at heart and has inspired innovation throughout the canoe industry. His company is now the largest producer of kevlar canoes. The plant manager, Mark Amunrud (above, right), gave us a full tour of their production facility, including the composite, Royalex, and polyethylene canoe manufacturing centers.


All Wenonah canoes are made in Minnesota, by people who know and love the Boundary Waters like we do. Throughout the plant, pleasant employees greeted us with helpful info on the construction of their canoes.

We use ultralight Wenonah kevlar canoes because they make portaging a breeze. Most folks who've been there know that trading in a 65 or 70 pound aluminum canoe for a nimble 46 pound kevlar makes the difference between a backbreaker portage and a joyful walk in the woods.

Kevlar canoes are made from the same kevlar fibers as bulletproof vests. They are incredibly light and strong - though the kevlar canoes don't stop bullets.

One of the things that struck us about the manufacturing of Kevlar canoes is the amount of human labor required. Rather than being stamped out or easily molded, the Kevlar canoes require skilled hands at every phase - applying the gel coat, installing the kevlar layup, foam core, foam ribs, seats, and gunnels, and putting on the finishing touches. A video about the manufacture of Wenonah kevlar canoes is at http://www.wenonah.com/.

About six Wenonah Kevlar canoes are born every day. We took the above three home today.


Tomorrow I begin a three or four day solo BWCA paddle with our new Wenonah kevlar Encounter canoe.