Border Lines: A Boundary Waters Expedition – Part 1

By Ryan Salm

In the fall of 2015, photographer Ryan Salm, his wife Lauren Bobowski and their friend Dane Shannon set off on an expedition across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on standups. The BWCA is a famously remote fishing, paddling and boating destination carved by glaciers and covered in thick forest in the northern reaches of Minnesota, along the Canadian border. This is their story, straight from Salm’s travel journal and originally published in our 2016 Gear Guide.

8/29/15 | Day One

Just had a group realization: this is going to take some serious hard work. Definitely doable, but paddling hard is going to be key. At first it was cruisy and enjoyable but we had our first bout of wind and it seems to change everything out here.

After scoping out potential routes, we decided the best and most interesting option would be to take an inside passage through a large series of lakes on the way to the “Border Route.” It also seemed that these inside lakes would be more sheltered from the typical N-NW winds that we were told about as well as provide a nice juxtaposition to the lakes we will be encountering later, which are long and narrow instead of small and scattered.

So far, I’ve had a run-in with a beaver, a standoff with a squirrel and a meeting with a loon that popped up from under water at the front of my board and scared itself.

As the tiniest bits of civilization (the ranger station) dwindle away, we begin to see the true world of the Boundary Waters. Mosses, loon sounds, rocky outcrops and the boreal forest engulf us. It’s also evident that I failed to do some research; this area is severely affected by recent fires. Smokey skies and a huge burn zone are quickly becoming a reality.

The first portage of the trip was a bit of a shock. It’s not something you can prepare for. While we were excited at first, it was almost a mile long and we couldn’t seem to figure out the most efficient way to go about it. We made the call to keep the boards inflated and re-pack our bags to keep the load efficient and comfy on our backs. Every 100 yards or so, I found myself stopping, stepping over the board and switching hands before moving on. I was awarded with my first blister of the trip.

8/30/15 | Day 2

A few things have been on my mind while paddling in the “Land of Canoes.” First, what place does standup paddling have here? It’s clear that we’re the only people traveling by SUP out here—everyone else is in canoes—and they’re moving more efficiently and faster than we are.

Keep in mind that many of these canoes are two- or three-person vessels. When the wind hits a standing body versus multiple people sitting down, there’s far more resistance for the former. But our vantage point, paddling comfort and the ease of getting in the water for a quick swim are unmatchable.

The wind has been consistently southwesterly, which is completely different than what we were told. In addition, we keep finding leeches in between our toes and on the bottom of our boards. Even after a few days, my feet are starting to crack and my trusty paddle gloves have holes in them. This could be a long, arduous adventure.

8/31/16 | Day 3

The sunset tonight was pure magic. A haze has been with us since we arrived in Minnesota. It kept teasing that it would disappear but then it would just get greyer. After the first few days it was evident that this zone was being influenced by some wildfire hitchhiking in the wind. But by midday today a blue hole emerged in the sky and the clouds began to push away from the inside out.

By early afternoon the sky was fully bluebird. As sunset moved in toward us, perfect clouds lined the sky with a clear horizon line for the first time on our trip. The sky ignited and the loons called. It was wilderness in epic proportions.

This entire “inside passage,” as we call it, has been perfect for paddling, every lake different in size and shape and uniquely beautiful in its own way. Many of them appear to have different mini-ecosystems. Some are clear, some are brackish, some are covered with lily pads. It’s not uncommon to encounter three lakes in a row, all with different water colors, brown to green to blue.

Life here is subtle: paddle stroke, paddle stroke, paddle stroke, look around, take in the surroundings, more paddle strokes, get to the end of a lake, take your gear off the board, put on sneakers, walk through the forest then do everything in the reverse order and paddle across another lake. Before we knew it we were approaching The Border Route.

This is the first installment of our three-part series from the 10-day Boundary Waters expedition featured in our 2016 Gear Guide.