Boundary Waters Canoe Area Safety Tips

Wilderness travel offers great personal freedom, but also requires self-reliance and good judgment. By using common sense and following these important safety tips, you can have a safe BWCAW experience.

Always wear your life jacket – it won’t work unless you wear it. Minnesota state law requires all watercraft, including canoes, to have one wearable U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (PFD) on board and readily accessible for each person in the watercraft. Additionally, watercraft 16 feet or longer, except canoes and kayaks, need one U.S. Coast Guard approved Type IV throw-able device, such as a seat cushion, in the boat. If you capsize, stay with your canoe – it won’t sink!

Portages are there for a reason – use them. Generally, rapids in the BWCAW are not safe to “run”. Running water has a great deal of power and can be very deceptive. Areas above and below waterfalls may look safer than they actually are. Powerful currents can pull swimmers under the water and trap them there, or sweep them close to or over dangerous waterfalls. Fast moving water can also push swimmers and boats into obstacles that can cause harm such as rocks and logs. Even with lifejackets on, rapids are dangerous. Please swim only in calm water far from rapids and falls. Although some risk is inherent in wilderness travel, risky behaviors can, and have, cost lives in the BWCAW.

Although BWCAW lake water may look clear and pure, drinking it without filtering, boiling, or treating it may cause illness. One parasite in particular – Giardia lambia – can cause an internal illness that will need medical attention. All drinking water should be treated by one of the following methods:

     Bring water to a full boil for 3 to 5 minutes – then let stand until cool enough to drink.
     Purify with a filter specifically designed to remove Giardia lambia.
     Treat water with a chemical specifically designed to kill Giardia lambia.

Chemicals such as mercury, PCBs, and dioxin have been found in some fish from certain waters. The best way to reduce your risk is to eat smaller fish, eat more pan fish and fewer predator fish, and to trim off skin and fat. Check with the Minnesota Department of Public Health for current information on limits on fish consumption at (651) 215-0950.

The lowering of the body temperature can be serious, even fatal. Early warning signs are uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, bluish tinge to lips, lack of coordination, and poor concentration. Prevention is the best medicine; layer clothing and get adequate food and water. To warm a hypothermic person, seek shelter from the wind, replace any wet clothing, and share body heat if necessary. Give warm fluids if the person is conscious and have them rest until thoroughly warmed.

Planes do not routinely patrol the BWCAW except during periods of high fire danger. If a plane comes into view, signal for help by paddling in small circles or waving a brightly colored cloth tied to the canoe paddle. Flashing the plane with a mirror three times can also be effective for summoning help in an emergency.

Carry a first aid kit and know how to use it. Each permitted group should carry a well-stocked first aid kit and have group members that know how to provide first aid. In the case of a serious injury, please note that the campsite number is painted on the latrine of most campsites. Please note this number and the location of the lake, campsite, trail or portage on a map to help emergency people locate any seriously injured party. It is also a good idea to write down the extent of the injury and a basic physical description of the injured person. Send the location and description with someone from your group or another group to take out of the BWCAW and find help. Better yet, if possible, send the message out with two different groups to better assure the message is delivered.

Do not rely on a cell phone to bring help to you in an emergency. Having a cell phone cannot substitute for knowing how to handle an emergency in a wilderness setting. Additionally, many areas of the BWCAW lack cell phone coverage and you may not be able to place a call at all.

Remember that you are on your own without written signs to guide you. A compass and accurate, updated maps are essential. Most visitors prefer using Fisher or McKenzie maps which can be purchased at some Forest Service offices, area outfitters, or directly from the map company. Keep you map in front of you and refer to it often. If you get lost, don’t panic. Sit down, relax, and think. Chances are you will figure out where you went wrong and how to get back on course in a few minutes. If you plan to use a Global Positioning system (GPS) for navigating while in the BWCAW, be sure you also bring a map and a compass. GPS can be an excellent navigation tool if you are experienced with using it. However, it is essential that you also carry a map and a compass as back up in the event that something happens to the GPS unit (i.e. falls in water, drop and break it, batteries die).

Canoe close to shore. It lessens the chance of being endangered by sudden changes of weather. If a storm threatens, get off the water. Dress in layers and be prepared for sunny, cold and wet weather.

Locate yourself properly in a lightning storm. Lightning will tend to hit a tree or other high point, rather than the person near it, if the object is 5 to 10 times or more the height of the person, and the horizontal distance from the person to the object is half the object’s height. If you are among trees of similar height, put yourself an equivalent distance between two trees. Avoid the tallest trees. Avoid being a bridge between an object and the ground. For example, do not lean against tent poles or trees. Avoid potential paths of conduction such as wet, lichen-covered rocks, cracks, and crevices (wet or dry), and areas subject to the “spark gap” such as overhangs, wet ropes, and tree roots. If your skin begins to tingle, or your hair stands on end, squat low to the ground on the balls of your feet. Place your hands on your knees with your head between them. Make yourself the smallest target possible, and minimize your contact with the ground.

The body becomes dehydrated when more fluids are lost than replaced. It is important to drink plenty of water. Bring flavored drink mixes if you are not accustomed to the taste of lake water. Signs of dehydration include headache, cold and flu symptoms, and infrequent urination.

Black bears will seek out and eat anything that smells or looks like food.
Keep a clean campsite. Never eat or store food in your tent. Take all precautions to discourage bears from visiting your site, including hanging your food pack, as well as garbage and anything that has a strong or sweet odor (soap, toothpaste, etc.). Some bears overcome their fear of humans and approach campsites looking for food. This includes islands sites since bears are good swimmers. If you do encounter a bear, most will be scared off if you make noise (shout, bang pots, or throw fist-sized rocks at the bear, etc.). A very persistent bear may be discouraged by spraying Capsaicin (pepper spray) into its eyes. In the rare instance that a bear refuses to leave or becomes aggressive, you may want to move to another site. There are areas in the BWCAW where it is impossible to hang your food pack due to the lack of standing trees. It is strongly recommended that you pack food items in specially designed bear-resistant food storage containers.

There are risks associated with wilderness travel. Remember that you are on your own and help is not close at hand. Your safety is your responsibility.