While millions of Americans were checking their social media newsfeeds during election week, I had the great fortune to spend time in the vast wild of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) with close friends. And not just any friends, but friends who have served with me in war zones. So it’s fitting that I share our adventure hunting the BWCA on this Veteran’s Day.
Some might wonder why a couple of guys would hunt whitetail deer in the BWCA in November when there are several options much easier and more productive. But there’s something in our DNA that craves the challenges, ignores the risks and endures the discomforts in pursuit of wild adventures. Despite unusably warm weather, a journey like this will come with periods of cold, mental frustration and injuries. And that began within the first minute.
We arrived at the landing by 9:30 am with a whole day of canoeing, camp setup and scouting ahead of us. I was joining Tommy and Jeff for half of their planned 10-day trip in the backcountry. The guys were using a 17 ft Kevlar canoe weighing only 35 lbs and filled it with gear and provisions that would support their lengthy stay.
(Photo taken right before starting our journey. From left to right: Tommy, Jeff & Jake)
When it was time to go, Jeff jumped in the front seat and Tommy scooted into the back. Since I had my waders on, I gave the pair a push off and the journey began. As I walked over to my canoe to get started I was immediately startled by the sounds of rushing water. I looked up and Jeff and Tommy flipped their canoe and were swimming in cold lake water. I was in my canoe holding back laughter (which I was not good at).
10 seconds into a 10-day trip and we were off to a bad start. Jeff and Tommy quickly swam towards the landing and began drying off. I spent 20 minutes looking for Tommy’s GPS at the bottom of the landing, only to chopstick it up with paddles to find a broken unit. Demoralized and wet, the guys started questioning the logistics and merits of the trip. But quick thinking paved the way to problem solving. We decided to switch canoes so they had the heavier and more stable aluminum. And the gear would have to be equally distributed in both canoes.
Thirty minutes later and we were pushing off again ready to start an adventure.
The BWCA is the largest chunk of wild land in Minnesota, composed of more than a million acres of thick woods and beautiful lakes accessible only by canoe. To navigate it, paddlers often have to portage their gear and canoe from one lake to another using uneven, rustic portage trails. Hunting the BWCA is a lot more work than driving a truck to the edge of the woods and climbing in a tree stand 100 ft away.
The vastness of the BWCA wilderness made locating deer a spectacular challenge. We spent the next few days busting through downfall and thick timber for a speckle of deer sign. The area we chose had experienced a wild fire several years ago and a massive windstorm this summer. Those events made conditions extremely difficult for human movement.
Our days were defined by paddling along shorelines and breaking brush in the woods. Evenings were filled with sipping whiskey and replenishing calories burned throughout the day with warm Mountain House meals. We huddled around the campfire at night reminiscing about past deployments and chatting about future adventures we wanted to make a reality.
Tommy shot a grouse with his 7mm rifle on the first day of hunting ensuring we’d have some wild meat from the trip. Of course that lasted about 10 seconds as we split the two small breasts amongst the three of us.
One morning, Jeff and I were stumbling through the woods when we heard the distant sounds of bull moose fighting. We both traveled to the noise, but showed up late to the party.
The hunt became frustrating as the days went on. What we originally believed would be a physically exhausting trip, rapidly became a mentally exhausting one due to our burning desire to hike more than the terrain allowed.
On the third evening of our hunt, Tommy and I paddled into a large marsh with a winding stream through the middle of it. About an hour paddle from camp, we found a large rocky overlook position that yielded some great views. The area was the best spot we’d seen on the trip and we knew it would be wise to sit up there and glass the surrounding area.
The next morning, Jeff and I paddled to the area as the sun rose above the horizon. Not too long after our arrival, Jeff tapped me on the shoulder informing me that a deer was moving along the wood line. I quickly noticed the deer with the naked eye and directed my binos towards it. Jeff had spotted a small buck, which would’ve been a trophy to us in that rugged country.
I quickly grabbed my range finder to get a distance and by the time I raised it, the deer had vanished; never to be seen again. I eventually made a slow stalk towards the spot we glassed him while Jeff remained in the overwatch position in case I kicked him up. Walking that terrain confirmed our beliefs that it would serve as a great movement corridor for deer. The sign was plentiful.
Tommy and Jeff decided that evening that they would pull out of the woods on Day 5 with me, leaving only one day left to hunt. After all the paddling, hiking and map reading, we had narrowed down our best chance of bagging a deer to the overwatch position along the creek.
So the next morning, all three of us headed up creek to the glassing spot at daybreak with the plan to spend the whole day on the rock looking for deer with our binos. The rock was cold that morning in the shade. Gusting winds and cold morning temps made us pull out our warm weather gear as we attempted to stay warm in our stationary positions. About 10 am that morning we decided to start a fire on the opposite side of the rock for a morale and welfare boost. We left one man in the overwatch position at all times and started doing shifts.
About an hour into this operation, I was standing near the fire with Jeff, shooting the shit, when behind him and across the creek I saw three does come running through the blowdown to the edge of the water. The deer were only 130 yards away and a relatively easy shot for us to make. But due to a BAH (Bad At Hunting) error, the deer spooked off giving us little opportunity at bagging a deer on this trip.
(Jeff enjoying the fire right before we spotted the deer)
We stayed on that rock, glassing the surrounding area until nightfall with no luck. It was a humbling experience paddling the hour back to camp in the dark, but I couldn’t help but crack a smile. The three of us enjoy eating deer and the meat does go to good use. But we live in modern times and our families won’t starve this winter since the supermarket down the street has plenty of fresh meat stocked year round.
I smiled on that paddle back to camp because I can’t imagine a more enjoyable experience than hanging out with my buddies, enduring the trials and tribulations that mother nature threw our way in the vast wild country of northern Minnesota.
It’s important for men to stay connected to wild country and be tested by the hardships that come along with living in remote areas. The concrete jungles and cubicle lifestyle we live back in the cities is abnormal and stressful. Getting out and paddling in wild country is good for the soul. Especially when it’s shared with friends. Some day, in the not so distant future, we hope to bring our sons to experience the beauty and ruggedness of hunting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in November.