At one time merely one of my “bucket list” whitetail bowhunts, I’ve since made several trips via canoe into far-northern Minnesota’s scenic Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW)—more than one million acres of prime public lands. These adventurous bowhunts have been everything I’d dreamed of and more, delivering up-close encounters with bruiser northwoods whitetails, as well as wolves, martens, and moose, in a truly pristine bigwoods setting with no other bowhunters around for miles.
Along the way I’ve developed a gameplan for a successful “canoe-in” quest that includes packing the right gear, and, if you’re truly serious, making time for a spring scouting trip as soon as possible after ice-out—which in this region typically occurs some time in early April, to as late as some time in May. The goal with a spring trip is to become familiar with the unique terrain, determine preferred deer travel routes (focusing on prime pinch points/funnels) and generally discover as much deer sign as possible (rubs/scrapes/trails) still visible from the previous fall. With the leaves down and dense foliage at its bare minimum, now is the time to locate sign you’d never see during a late-spring/summer scouting trip.
Small one-man backpack-type tents are fine for short spring scouting trips, but for a fall hunt, when you’ll be toting much more gear and food, you’ll want a large, roomy “base camp” model like the Altai XP tent from Hilleberg tents . It offers plenty of room for two cots and gear; even more impressive is the floorless, single-wall tent’s ultralight weight and canoe-friendly compactibility.
Critical gear is a large, lightweight tarp (Hilleberg makes several) that offers welcome rain protection while in camp, keeping you and your gear as dry/comfortable as possible during extended deluges. The preferred late-October to early November hunt period often sees plenty of precipitation in the region; on one of our BWCAW hunts it rained five consecutive days.
Good maps are critical to most any bowhunt, and even more so in the roadless BWCA wilderness. One year the area we had chosen to explore in spring was several miles from the site of a previous hunt; to familiarize ourselves with the new region as quickly as possible, we made good use of waterproof, custom maps we designed online at www.mytopo.com
Of course a key element to a canoe country trip is your choice of canoe. I’ve done this trip several ways, including paddling a single, large, gear-laden freighter-style 18-plus-foot model with a buddy. I’ve also gone in with a buddy using two large solo canoes such as the Wenonah Prism (www.wenonah.com), which measures 16 feet, 6 inches, weighs just 34 pounds in its Ultralight Kevlar configuration, is nice and maneuverable and carries a lot of gear. On a two-man hunt I like the versatility of the two solo canoes that allows each of you to paddle to separate hunt areas each day. With two canoes you can simply cover more territory faster. If you don’t have a canoe a great place to rent one for your BWCAW hunt is Ely, MN-based Voyageur North Canoe Outfitters (www.vnorth.com). Owned by the very helpful John and Lynn O’Kane, these two can also outfit all your canoe country camping gear needs.
Carrying enough food for multiple people over a week-long canoe-country hunt can get heavy—and take up valuable space—quite quickly. To save space and weight, and precious time when you’re hunting, I’ve found the best answer is toting freeze-dried meals including those from Mountain House (www.mountainhouse.com). After a long day in the woods the last thing you need to worry about is cooking an elaborate dinner, but boiling a few cupfuls of water, using a simple backpacking stove, takes just five minutes. And if one of you scores early the roasted tenderloins will taste that much sweeter.
After paddling into a remote lakeside campsite, plan on logging 8 to 10 miles per day looking for hot sign; good areas to inspect include remote beaver ponds, and well-defined funnels, which are not hard to come by in a region pockmarked by so many lakes. One fall I stumbled on a narrow strip of promising land sandwiched between a large, mostly dry grassy marsh and a large lake. Tracks, rubs, and scat were everywhere in the thin funnel; as I was setting my small portable treestand I watched a huge rutty 10-point with a unique “crooked” rack attempt to cross the opening at midday. That is, until he caught my movement and vamoosed.
Where there are serious concentrations of beavers, deer sign is sure to follow; over the years we’ve found plenty evidence of deer browsing the tops of the many large trees felled by the industrious rodents. Also check out any cedar swamps or isolated stands of pines in what can be large, featureless seas of young poplar. Deer seem drawn to the pine thickets and it’s here where you’ll often find the best concentrations of buck sign, especially rubs and scrapes.
Water of course is everywhere but you’ll want to carry a quality filter/purifier like the MiniWorks EX Microfilter made by MSR (www.cascadedesigns.com). A great tip I’ve learned the hard way is to carry an extra, replaceable filter for these compact hand-pump units, or bring one that’s easily cleaned in the field. The unique tannin stained water found throughout the Boundary Waters clogs most filters quickly, in some cases rendering them virtually useless after filtering just a small percentage of their advertised capability.
Speaking of the Cascade Designs website, also be sure to check out SealLine’s awesome waterproof vinyl Boundary Packs that are ideal for carrying/protecting all your gear in canoe country. A lightweight suspension system includes shoulder straps and waistbelt, and makes portaging loads from lake to lake a whole lot easier.
To date I’ve toted a small compact hang-on treestand (with strap-on tree steps) on all of my Boundary Waters hunts, stands like the Ameristep Buck Commander Redemption (www.ameristep.com) that weighs less than 10 pounds. I like to pair this approach with natural ground blinds enhanced with lightweight camo mesh fabric also available from Ameristep, and Hunter’s Specialties (www.hunterspec.com). One year my buddy Dan used a natural blind off a freshly beaten trail to ambush a rutty northwoods 8-point that nearly ran him over; unfortunately Dan’s arrow, shot from his favorite longbow, sailed just over the buck’s back.
The best sound in the northwoods? I’d call it a toss-up between the haunting howls of a wandering wolf pack and the eerie, shrill call of a lonesome loon. Close behind? The rhythmic grunts of a rutty buck carrying a heavy set of antlers stained chocolate brown by the sap of northwoods pines. Access the remote, lightly hunted BWCAW come this spring and fall, and you’ll experience a bowhunting adventure unlike most any other in North America—chasing wilderness whitetails that may see no other hunting pressure save for wolves.
Just the thought of returning to this isolated, watery wilderness makes my bow hand quiver.