Fall Wilderness Canoe Tripping: Be Safe

fall wilderness canoe trip

by Sharon Brodin

Heading into the wilderness on a canoe trip in the fall conjurs up images of pristine lakes, dazzling fall colors, crisp mornings, warm campfires…and no bugs! Glorious.

And it can be all that.

It can also be rain, wind, waves and even snow. That can make it miserable. And between cold air temperatures and cold water temperatures, there are safety considerations to keep in mind that don’t come into play during the summer months.

But first…

Why a Wilderness Canoe Trip in the Fall?

Up until just a few weeks ago I had done all my canoe trips between June and August. Then my daughter and a couple friends decided to plan a trip to the Boundary Waters the third week of September. They talked me into joining them.

The thought of:

  • Canoeing on those beautiful lakes during the height of fall color season…
  • Not dripping sweat after every portage…
  • Nights cool enough for good sleeping…
  • Campfires on those same cool nights…
  • Crisp mornings that don’t start at 4:30 a.m…
  • NO BUGS!

I couldn’t resist.

fall morning at the canoe campsiteBeautiful colors and crisp mornings at the campsites

But I also knew we needed to think a bit differently when planning a trip for this time of year in northern Minnesota in order to stay safe.

Safety Concerns when Canoe Tripping in the Fall

The biggest safety concern when canoe tripping in the fall is the combination of cold air temps and cold water temps. Falling in a northern lake can be uncomfortably cold even in the summer. But in the fall as temps drop, it can be dangerous.

If the weather’s nice—as it certainly can be in the fall—you have a chance to dry off on a sunny rock or next to an easily-started campfire. But if it’s in the 30s or 40s and raining or snowing, it can be very hard to warm up.

The nights can easily be in the 20s and 30s this time of year. Again, not a big deal when it’s dry, but add in rain or an accidental dunking in a frigid lake and you have a different scenario.

In normal years (i.e., non-COVID) there are far fewer people out there. That can be a good thing—fewer people, a better wilderness experience. But it can also be a negative if you get into an emergency situation and there’s no one around to help.

I haven’t seen research on this so it’s just a hunch, but there may be more bear and moose encounters in the fall:

  • We know people who’ve been chased by rutting bull moose, especially when they had dogs with them. That could easily produce an emergency situation.
  • Fall is when the bears gorge themselves for their long winter nap, so they’re eating, eating, eating. We found out on this trip there had been more bear activity than usual where we were, due to a bad berry season. (I’m glad we didn’t know that until after our trip! Incidentally, we didn’t have any bear issues.)

fall wilderness canoe trip morningDoes it get any better than this?

Safety Precautions You Can Take

The best precaution to take is to simply have a safety mindset. There are risks anytime we go into the wilderness, so know what they are and prepare as best you can.

Here are 11 practical safety tips:

  1. Know the weather forecast before you go and plan your clothing and shelter accordingly.
  2. Speaking of weather forecast, know your limits and your group’s limits. If high winds (and therefore waves) are expected and you don’t have a solid group of paddlers, consider postponing or canceling.
  3. Use dry bags to keep a warm change of clothes for every person in your group.
  4. Dress in layers, with the top layer being waterproof and windproof. Leave cotton clothes at home and opt for quick-dry material.
  5. Be sure your rain jackets are easily accessible. The weather can change very quickly and this isn’t the time of year to get drenched from a sudden shower.
  6. Paddle close to shore as much as possible. In the event of a capsize it’ll be a short swim. Your body won’t be able to handle the cold water very long.
  7. Remember sundown and darkness come much sooner this time of year than in the summer. Your life will be easier if you find your campsite, set up camp, cook and hitch up your food pack before dark.
  8. The ground will be cold, so be sure everyone has a quality sleeping pad to help insulate for warmth. And a quality sleeping bag rated for the expected temps.
  9. Have a couple sets of fire starting kits with you, including at least one that’s zipped into a group member’s PFD. Windproof matches or lighters are wonderful, along with some kind of long-burning fire starter. We used cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly and stored in a Ziplock bag—they’re cheap, ultra-light and work great.
  10. Bring at least one mylar emergency blanket per person. They’re cheap and light.
  11. Bring knit hats for warmth, and water-resistant/proof gloves for paddling.

fall canoe trip campsiteThe No-Bugs Factor is one big reason fall canoe tripping in the north is wonderful. No bugs in the tents…no bugs in the campsites…no bugs on the portages. Life is good!

Autumn is a grand time to be on a wilderness canoe trip. We ended up with fabulous weather—in fact, the girls went swimming. Then a few days later it was raining and even snowing, so we knew how blessed we were.

So, like the Boy Scouts say, “Be prepared” and you’ll be good to go!

(Thanks to Ontario Parks Blog “Fall Paddling Safety” and Wilderness Society: "Foolproof Fall Camping" for their insights, too. All photos courtesy of Sharon Brodin.)

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