Key Skill: J-stroke
Paddling across 23 lakes takes more than just muscle power. You’ll need a bit of finesse to master this basic corrective stroke, which allows continuous power-stroking on one side while keeping the canoe from drifting off a straight line. (Note: Use this stroke when sitting in the stern; the bow person should use a forward paddle stroke at a constant pace.)
1. Grip the paddle with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Raise your top hand to about head level, and keep the paddle vertical in the water.
2. Pull the paddle through the water, keeping it close to the canoe. Push forward with your top hand and pull back with your bottom hand, and engage your core to fight arm fatigue.
3. Toward the end of the stroke, rotate the powerface (the side of the paddle blade you pulled toward yourself) away from the canoe, and use your lower hand to push it away from the stern. This entire motion should resemble the shape of a J when paddling on the left/port side of the canoe.
4. Repeat every three to five strokes, or as needed to keep tracking straight.
See This: Common Loon
Minnesota’s state bird is a constant companion along this watery route. Listen closely for its four distinct calls. The tremolo (an alarm)sounds like frenzied laughter; the wail (a long-range social call) resembles a wolf’s howl; the hoot (a close-range social call) is soft and short; and the yodel (made by males to defend their territory) is a rising call that ends in a variety of short tones. In summer, loons sport black-and-white checkered backs and have iridescent black heads and red eyes.
Seasoned Boundary Waters paddlers say that completing each portage in one trip (a “single portage”) is key to traveling efficiently through this lake-filled landscape. “The Tuscarora-to-Missing Link portage takes about an hour, but if you have to make multiple trips, it can take up to three hours,” says Wilderness Ranger Brad Kremske. Make sure all your gear fits into two packs per canoe. Stuff the big pack with camping gear, and reserve the smaller pack for food, jackets, and other items you may need throughout the day. At every portage, divvy up the load so that the person hauling the canoe carries the smaller, lighter pack. The person with the heavier pack brings the two paddles. “You can travel twice as fast by doing this,” says Kremske.