Planning for simplicity

Emily Stone

Once you’ve done all of the planning at home, a canoe trip becomes an exercise in simplicity, especially on mirror-calm mornings. Photo by Emily Stone.

“Joys come from simple and natural things: mists over meadows, sunlight on leaves, the path of the moon over water.” – Sigurd F. Olson

 The gentle slope of glacially polished rock beckoned to us with a sense of solidity and welcome. Its flat, stair-like ledges near water level provided steady footing for our muck boots as we swung legs over the gunwales of my canoe. In a soil-filled crack, a chest-high tamarack tree twinkled with green and gold. Across the narrow lake, scraggly black spruce trees inked funny patterns on the blue sky.

Soon the food pack was hoisted out onto the rock and our simple lunch of cinnamon raisin bagels (long ago I discovered that this flavor molds last because of the antimicrobial properties of cinnamon) with mustard and cheese. Hunger is the best spice, they say. And I agree. We’d just completed a 320-rod portage. For a whole mile, we shouldered a full food pack, 40-pound canoe, and huge gear pack along a rocky path. So when that gentle slope of glacially polished rock beckoned, we were glad to rest on its shoulders instead.

After a few minutes — with bellies sated — we loaded the pack, held the canoe steady for each other’s entry, and were soon dipping our paddles in the perfect synchrony and easy rhythm born from years of practice.

Only two hours had passed since we’d left the car at the public boat landing. But that long portage put such a distance between us and civilization that we felt transported directly into the middle of our trip. The “real” world had fallen away and the peace of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness had filled that space.

As we all know too well, peace isn’t always easy to come by. Earlier that morning, after I had steadily checked off every item on my pre-trip to-do list and started asking my pajama-pants clad paddling partner what he still needed to accomplish on his, he responded, “You’re feeling kind of edgy.” This is typical for me in pre-trip excitement. I backed off and looked around for other tasks to keep me busy until departure would settle me down.

I always plan and organize and fine-tune and tie up loose ends restlessly until at last we drive away. My gear has been packed for two days, and my clothes for the day—right down to belt, hat, and hankie—were sorted out during that process. Last week I had measured out our dinner food, weighing out four ounces of pea soup mix for each of us, and pouring exactly two cups of macaroni noodles into a baggie. I had mixed my own trail mix, and rationed out a serving for each day. This is all part of my careful packing system; tested and refined over hundreds of nights on canoeing and backpacking trips.

By packing all our gear into one pack, and food into a smaller one, we were able to make just one trip across each portage. With the beautiful fall colors, I occasionally wished for a longer hike! Photo by Emily Stone.

Are you exhausted by these preparations yet? I’m not. I love the process of packing for a Boundary Waters canoe trip. The systems and routines I’ve honed for years free me from endless decision-making and bring me confidence that we’ll have what we need for a safe and satisfying trip. It’s often easier than planning for a normal day. What might I want for lunch? Should I bring my rain jacket or not? Which item on my extensive to-do list should I tackle first? All those decisions are draining.

But careful planning for a canoe trip allows me to relax once we hit the water. Those decisions have all been made. The goals for each day are clear. The extras—like stress—have been left at home. Especially at portages, I find satisfaction in our streamlined packs with not even a hand-carried water bottle that might be dropped and require finding. By the end of the trip, our packs didn’t even touch the shore. From the canoe to our backs, across the portage, and back into the canoe they went, with an economy of movement.

This doesn’t mean we felt hurried or perfectionist. It simply meant that less of our time was spent hoisting around or weighed down by heavy loads, or rounding up stuff. More of our time could be spent admiring golden hillsides of young aspens, watching eagles soar, spotting a moose, stretching our strengthening shoulders, and paddling joyfully through my favorite place on Earth.

“Simplicity in all things is the secret of the wilderness and one of its most valuable lessons. It is what we leave behind that is important. I think the matter of simplicity goes further than just food, equipment, and unnecessary gadgets; it goes into the matter of thoughts and objectives as well. When in the wilds, we must not carry our problems with us or the joy is lost.”

-- Sigurd F. Olson

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our brand-new Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.