Molly Crickman is a graphic designer currently living in Madison, WI.
How many years have you been going to the boundary waters?
I went a lot as a kid, but in typical fashion rebelled against my parents’ interests in high school and college. I started going again three years ago.
What do you love about it?
I love it because it’s wild, beautiful, challenging, pristine, remote, and a chance to learn from and bond with my dad.
Please describe the boundary waters.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is a vast series of lakes and rivers within Superior National Forest in Northern Minnesota. Most lakes have one to several campsites that come equipped with a fire grate and a pit privy, and most lakes have portages between them. The two main ways to visit are to canoe in to a lake of your choosing and set up a base camp, or to essentially “backpack” your way through a loop and break camp each night.
What route (or favorite route) do you take, and how far do you travel?
I like to do a new route every time! Though to get into the BWCAW you typically need to go through an outfitter (they’re located on edge lakes, have all kinds of equipment rentals, bunk houses, and a place to park your car) and I’m a big fan of Seagull Outfitters on Seagull Lake. So the entry and exit point is usually Seagull Lake.
How long do you spend there? Is that the amount of time you recommend?
I like to spend a full seven days, though that is not necessary. A long weekend would be ideal to really get a taste and do a nice loop. But it’s possible to go for just a night or even just the day.
Can you describe a typical daily routine?
Get up with the sun! Not always by choice but it’s hard to sleep in up there. Whether or not it’s a moving day determines the activities. If I’m moving camp, it’s time to have breakfast and then break camp. Then I’ll spend a good part of the day paddling and portaging through lakes and scouting for a new camp on my route. Once I’ve found a good campsite, I’ll set up camp again, get in some evening fishing, play card games, cook dinner, start a fire, and watch the stars. If I’m not moving camp, then I’ll eat a quick snack and go fishing around 6am, before the sun hits the water and the fish are biting. Afterwards I’ll come back for a proper breakfast, then head out for some exploring. There are old growth cedar forests, cliffs, waterfalls, and more to see!
What kind of shape do you need to be in?
You need to be in decent shape. I don’t prepare specifically but I lead a very active lifestyle. Good cardiovascular health is key for stamina on long paddle days. You also need to be able to lift and portage a canoe for anywhere from a few feet to a mile.
Who do you go with?
My dad always, sometimes my cousin comes along, sometimes friends come along.
What have you learned from your dad?
Everything! Catching, cleaning, and cooking fish has been the most rewarding. Now he’s teaching me to identify where they’ll be in a lake, using species habits and lake structure that’s shown on our maps.
Packing and Gear
What is your packing list (for about 7 days)?
2 pairs Patagonia long underwear, one lightweight, one expedition weight
4 pairs Smartwool or similar socks
1 pair Lowa Renegade Mid Hiking Boots
1 pair Classic Tevas
3 pairs Patagonia Underwear (doubles as swimsuit bottoms)
1 Under Armor sports bra (doubles as swimsuit top)
1 Turkish towel
1 Non-cotton tank top
1 Thin cotton sahara shirt
1 Long sleeved top
1 Patagonia base layer top, expedition weight
If the weather looks extra cold then Uniqlo UltraLight Down jacket comes along too
1 Wool watch cap
1 Pair fingerless wool gloves
1 Pair Buff leather palmed fingerless fishing/paddling gloves
1 Tilly Hat
1 Arc Teryx Gortex Rain Jacket/Outer Shell
1 Pair Mountain Hardware Waterproof Outer Shell pants
Travel bottle of Dr. Bronner’s
Travel bottle of toothpaste
Flask of whiskey
2-Man tarp tent
North Face Cat’s Meow sleeping bag
Thermarest sleeping pad
Bear vault(s) to hold food
Vaseline soaked cotton balls (to start fires)
Camp stove + fuel
Iodine tablets as backup
Shammies/sponges for cleaning
Small cooler with worms and leaches (not necessary but helps catch more fish!)
Camelback day pack
What 1-3 (or more) gear items take your trip to the next level?
Last year I rented a Kevlar solo canoe that weighed ~30 lbs (your average canoe weights 50-60lbs, and aluminum ones can weight upwards of 90lbs). I could flip it onto my shoulders for portaging so easily! It really opened up longer and more aggressive routes without having to worry about fatigue towards the end of each day.
Any shopping advice for buying gear?
It seems like A LOT of gear and it would be if you had to buy it all at once! Many items, however, have multiple purposes. For example, my rain jacket shell and rain pants shell double as my ski jacket and pants, I just wear more layers underneath in winter.
REI Garage Sale, Craigslist, smaller sporting goods stores like Fontana in Madison, WI or Paragon in NYC’s annual sales, and second hand stores are great ways to score big discounts. Look for quality items too, they’ll last you a lifetime.
What food do you bring/eat? What are your favorite camping/backpacking boundary waters foods?
Walleye are always the desired catch. I bring pecans, olive oil, and a lemon and cook them in foil boats in a fire. For breakfast we have coffee and bannock (quick bread) cooked in a pan. Usually you can find all kinds of berries so I like to add those too. I always bring my berry identification guide for the weirder ones, but you’ll easily recognize raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries in abundance. I also look forward to a rare chance to enjoy thimbleberries, dew berries, red currants, and service berries.
We bring Landjager sausages, hard cheese, nuts and chocolate, and Clif bars for lunch and snacks, and dinner is fish or beans and rice or spaghetti, prepared from dehydrated ingredients.
What are three good how-to survival tips you can impart?
- Always tie your canoe up when you land somewhere and keep your life jacket with you, even if it’s just for a minute. Swimming after a canoe is no fun, especially without a life jacket.
- Be prepared to deal with wildlife. Knowing what to do if you encounter a bear is very important.
- Always have a plan for what to do if you get separated. If you’re crossing a big lake in a big wind this can happen easily, so it’s good to have a rendezvous point picked out ahead of time
What is the most difficult aspect of this trip? How do you overcome it?
Sometimes you’re just so tired it’s hard to want to do anything. Keeping your mind sharp and focused on the task at hand is key.
How do you manage your period if you get it on this trip? Diva cup all the way. It’s much easier to deal with than tampons, which are irresponsible to leave behind, which means you have to pack them out. Diva cup is easy, takes up less room, and is better for the environment.
What is one story of a big challenge you’ve faced on a trip to the boundary waters?
Last year we put in paddling directly into a 30mph head wind. We had to cross a big basin with three-foot whitecaps that were crashing into my canoe. I was in a solo canoe that didn’t weigh much, and I hadn’t put in enough gear to help weigh me down. The wind was pushing me every which way and I was afraid if it pushed my perpendicular to the waves I would swamp the canoe in the middle of this basin a mile from any shore. I got separated from the group because of the wind and could only paddle in one direction, the wrong direction. My plan was to get to the closest shore and follow it around until I got to the rendezvous point, but that would have taken hours! I had a bit of a panic attack, not knowing what to do, and eventually I calmed down and figured out that if I used my double bladed paddle as a lever, I could get going in the right direction and finally made it back to my group.
What is one triumphant story from a trip to the boundary waters?
A couple years ago I was exploring by myself pretty close to sunset. I had portaged into another very small lake that had no one on it, and likely no one coming through that evening. I pulled my canoe up to campsite to check it out and while my back was turned I hear my canoe scrapping off the rock I had set it on. Everything – my map, headlamp, whistle, life jacket – was in the canoe! This lake had a river current running through it so my canoe was quickly being dragged away. I sprinted down the rock and leaped into the water as far as I could and managed to grab the tail end of the rope attached to my canoe and was able to swim it back to shore. Now I’m soaking wet and the sun is going down and it’s about to get cold. I paddled as hard as I could for camp and just made it. Luckily my dad had a fire going so I was able to get out of my wet clothes and warm up!
How have you seen yourself improve and grow on this trip through the years?
It gets easier every year, my skill set gets sharper and I’m always learning something new.
Photos by Molly Crickman
Interview conducted by Evy Bround