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Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW)
Over 10,000 years ago, continental-sized glaciers scraped their way across much of Ontario and northern Minnesota leaving deep ruts, ravines, and holes in their tracks. Eventually, as the glaciers melted, these ravines filled with water, creating a seemingly endless interconnected web of lakes and rivers.
In 1978, the United States designated over 1-million acres of this Northern Minnesota landscape as a protected wilderness area called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Because no roads, power lines, or motorized craft may enter its borders, the BWCAW has remained relatively unchanged since the glaciers receded. The BWCAW extends nearly 150 miles along the Canadian border and encompasses more than 1,000 lakes and rivers. Over 1,200 miles of navigable routes lead to over 2,200 campsites and provide an unparalleled opportunity to travel by canoe and dogsled.
In the winter, the BWCAW transforms into an even more severe and remote wilderness. While more difficult, winter enthusiasts’ travel over frozen lakes and rivers by dogsled, cross-country ski and snowshoe. Winter in the Boundary Waters is mesmerizing, peaceful, and exhilarating. It is a place of spectacular extremes, trackless snow, bracing cold air, glowing warm embers, and powerful silence.
Solo – Weather and time permitting, an Outward Bound Solo experience provides an important break from the rigors of the expedition and gives students the opportunity to reflect on their Outward Bound experience. The duration of Solo depends on the course length and type as well as the competency and preparedness of the student group. Students on a 3-week course typically spend 2-nights on Solo while students on a 1-week course may spend one night or even just a few hours on Solo. Regardless of Solo length, all students receive sufficient food, water, and shelter to keep them safe and healthy during Solo. Instructors choose Solo sites to offer as much solitude as possible while retaining some proximity to the whole group. While students spend the majority of their Solo time alone, Instructors do check on each student as often as needed, usually 1-4 times per day, to ensure that each student feels safe and comfortable. Instructors work with each student individually to structure a successful, unique Solo experience that meets their specific needs. Solo is purposefully scheduled near the end of the expedition so students have plenty of time to acclimate to their new environments beforehand.
Students often have mixed feelings leading up to Solo. Inevitably, students feel some nervousness and hesitation but are also excited to rest, reflect and test their new skills after spending many days in the wilderness. Students often find that Solo provokes profound and powerful learning in a short period of time and Solo often becomes one of the most memorable parts of their Outward Bound experience.
Final Expedition – Outward Bound believes that an appropriate amount of independence is a powerful educational tool. In order to deliver that benefit, Outward Bound purposefully and gradually transfers certain leadership responsibilities to the students culminating with our “Final Expedition.” Near the end of course, if you and your group have demonstrated the necessary leadership, team problem-solving and wilderness living skills, you may be given the opportunity to travel without your instructors immediately present. Students on courses designed for ages 16 and older may travel without instructors immediately present (although they will be near the group for safety reasons) for one to five days depending on course length, student age, staff assessment of students’ abilities, and terrain. Many of our students feel this phase of the course is the most rewarding as the group learns to work together, problem solve, and accomplish a goal independently while utilizing all the skills they have acquired.
Dogsledding and Skiing - The small town of Ely, Minnesota, where the Voyageur Outward Bound School is located, is known as the dogsledding capitol of the lower 48 states for good reason. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, one of the most historically significant and remote wilderness areas in North America, is located just outside Ely’s back door and as temperatures drop, winter transforms these historic canoe routes into beautiful, snow-covered environments ideal for winter travel. During a Voyageur Outward Bound School Dogsledding and Skiing expedition, students travel over frozen lakes and rivers while learning how to manage teams of huskies, cross-country ski, navigate with a map and compass, check ice-conditions, process firewood, and generally stay comfortable in potentially sub-zero temperatures. The group usually consists of 9 people, 7 students and 2 Instructors, and splits into two smaller groups each day. Half the group travels on cross-country skis and is responsible for breaking trail, navigating, scouting for hazards, and checking for safe ice conditions. The other half of the group follows on dogsleds, transporting most of the equipment, and food. Mushing is not a passenger sport and, depending on the snow conditions, often requires mushers to push the sled or run and walk along with the dogs. If the skiing group encounters particularly rough terrain or steep hills, they wait for the mushers to arrive and help maneuver the heavy dogsleds. Groups travel during the day and look for an appropriate camping spot each evening.
Winter Camping - Winter weather in Minnesota varies dramatically from harsh, cold wind to bright, less-cold sunshine, but in general it’s always cold. Temperatures range from -40 to 20 degrees in the heart of the winter (December through February) and -20 to 50 degrees as spring approaches in March. Living outside during a northern winter requires the right equipment, skills, and teamwork, but it can be done comfortably. Instructors teach students how to mitigate cold weather risks, dress appropriately, and manage body temperature with food and exercise.
In order to minimize environmental impact, groups cook and sleep directly on frozen lakes. For this reason, groups always look for a sheltered bay out of the wind each evening. Upon reaching camp, groups divide camp chores to set up camp efficiently. Students learn to take care of sled dogs, set up sleeping shelters, cook meals over a fire, and saw and split firewood. If the weather is particularly cold or wet groups might setup the wall-tent, a large canvas tent with a woodstove. The wall-tent gets very warm and is large enough to fit the entire group inside.
Course End – All courses end with a sauna and polar plunge, shower, graduation ceremony, and celebration dinner. Shower facilities are available at the basecamp.
The following is an example of what your course itinerary may look like. Your actual itinerary will vary according to weather, student skills and abilities, and instructor preferences.
Day 1: The course begins at the Duluth Airport before transporting to the Voyageur Outward Bound School basecamp near Ely, MN. Meet your Outward Bound Instructors, organize your equipment, eat dinner and sleep outside on the very first night of the course.
Day 2: Learn about cold injuries and how to prevent them. Participate in cross country skiing and dogsledding lessons. Pack the dogsleds, depart from basecamp and enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Travel until it’s time to set-up camp for the night.
Days 3-5: Travel during the day and camp in the evenings. Half the group travels by ski and half by dogsled, switching from day to day. Learn to ski, dogsled, care for huskies, check ice conditions, navigate with a map and compass, process firewood and stay warm in sub-zero temperatures.
Day 6: Spend the day and overnight alone in your own quiet, bay for the Solo phase of the expedition. Test new skills by building a fire, cooking a hot meal and constructing a sleeping shelter.
Day 7: Execute the final phase of the expedition with less guidance from your Outward Bound Instructors. Return to the basecamp and clean equipment before taking a sauna and polar plunge in the frozen river (through a hole cut in the ice). Take a hot shower, eat a celebratory dinner and participate in an Outward Bound graduation ceremony before falling asleep in a wood-stove heated cabin.
Day 8: Eat an early indoor breakfast before departing for the airport and traveling home.
In addition to the expedition itself and all of the skills and learning associated with it, Outward Bound’s time-tested curriculum includes education on the many aspects of personal growth and learning that can be found in each activity you undertake. You will learn four important Outward Bound Core Values:
You may find that the most important lessons you take home are learning about yourself and your community while acquiring backcountry skills and having an adventure.You’ll learn to protect and appreciate the unique, unspoiled environments through which you travel.
Successful completion of your course demands mastery of skills, trust, fitness, confidence, tenacity, leadership, initiative and compassion. The promotion of these qualities and the discovery of what’s in you is the purpose of Outward Bound.
Weather is always a factor when traveling in the wilderness and it adds an exciting element of challenge to each course. Learning to handle varying weather conditions is essential to a successful wilderness course.
Minnesota’s weather can be unpredictable with a wide range of temperatures. During March, Minnesota temperatures can range from -40 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but -10 to 30 degree nights and days are the most common. Averages are highs of 31 and lows of 11 degrees. Days are typically very sunny with bright blue skies. Wind and snow are common.