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Boreal Emergency Preparedness Portal

Boundary Waters and Quetico Park Safety Tips

May 16, 2018 11:01AM ● By Editor

General Tips

The Most Common Ailments
According to the United States Forest Service, the most common injuries (listed in order of frequency) are: dehydration, blisters, sunburn, sprained ankles, cooking burns, hypothermia, constipation, eye injuries from brush scratches, insect bites and stings, and itching and rashes.

Many injuries can be easily avoided by using good common sense and by following safe practices during your trip!

Drinking Water
Although the northern lakes may look clean and pure, there is a problem with giardia lamblia (often called Giardia), a water cyst which can cause unpleasant intestinal illness. All drinking water should be treated by one of the following methods: 

  • Boil your water
    Bring water to a full boil for at least one minute, then let stand until cool enough to drink. 
  • Purify or filter your water
    Use a purifer or filter to that is specifically designed to remove giardia lamblia.
  • Use tablets to purify
    Many outdoor retailers sell tablets to treat your water, follow manufacturers directions for use. Cold or cloudy water will take longer to treat and may require additional tablets.

The Voyageur method
Many outdoor enthusiasts still use the straight out of the lake method. If you use this method you must do it correctly or you may get rather ill. Away from shore and in water that is deeper than you can see bottom. Take your water bottle and gather your drinking water at least an elbows length deep, cap it and return to surface.

Life Jackets
Always wear your life jacket/PFD(personal floatation device) -- it will not work unless you wear it. Minnesota state law requires all watercraft, including canoes, to have one U.S. Coast-Guard approved PFD on board and readily accessible for each person in the watercraft. The U.S. Coast Guard requires that children 13 and under must wear an appropriate sized PFD when ever in a watercraft. If you capsize, stay with your canoe -- take a deep breathe, stay calm, and get to shore and remove wet clothing. Many canoes will not sink! Check with the manufacture's specifications of your watercraft.

Map and compass
Current detailed maps and a compass are essential to finding your way through Canoe Country. Keep your map in front of you and refer to it often. Leave a trip itinerary with someone at home, including the leader's name, entry point and date, exit point and date, car description and license information and any pertinent group information. Searches are not automatically initiated if a group doesn't exit as planned. If someone is concerned because you are overdue, they should contact the County Sheriff's office. If you get lost, don't panic. Sit down, relax and think.

Canoe close to shore. This lessens the chance of being caught by sudden changes in weather. Get off the water if a storm threatens. 

Portages are there in place for a reason -- use them! Many rapids in Canoe Country are not safe to "run". If you choose to run the rapids at least scout them out before taking the chance.

Watch for warning signs of hypothermia, including uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, lack of coordination and poor concentration. Get the victim into a shelter out of wind and remove wet clothes. Give fluids and foods to a conscious victim and have the victim rest until thoroughly warmed.  Hypothermia is especially a concern in the spring and fall seasons, although it's good to be aware of the signs even in the summer months. Cold rain and wind can easily contribute to hypothermia, most cases of hypothermia are in the middle of summer.

First Aid
Always carry a first aid kit with your group, and stick together. Many pre-made kits are available for sale, or you can always make your own. You may also attend a certified Red Cross Community First Aid class; it only takes a few hours of your time and your knowledge may help save a life. For folks who are interested, Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder classes are also available.


Canoeing Safety

Above all:

Always wear an approved PFD
-  Do not overload the canoe
-  Stay low and steady
-  Canoe together as a group on apposing sides
-  Bring one extra paddle along for each boat or canoe

Loading and Unloading
Load the canoe while it is in water, making sure the load is balanced and kept low in the canoe with slightly more weight to the rear. Do not overload! Be sure to keep all gear plus people within the canoe's weight limits. When unloading, put your gear in one pile out of the way of your canoe. You don't want your gear to be an obstacle for other groups who are also landing and unloading. In order to keep track of all the gear when portaging, carry your own gear on each portage. When reloading, keep the same gear in each canoe without mixing gear. Please keep in mind there cannot be more than 9 persons at a portage or campsite at any times in Canoe Country.

Shoving Off
When shoving off, the person in front should get in first. Likewise, when landing, the person in front should get out first, stabilize or brace the canoe and remove the gear. Do not pull the canoe out of the water until the person in back is out. If you do pull the canoe up while the person is still in the back, the canoe can easily tip and the person falls into the water. 

On the Water
Always remain with the group when canoeing. It is also much safer to stick to the sides of a lake rather than paddling through the middle. The person in the rear of the canoe does most of the steering, so, if you are not an experienced canoer, take the front seat. It is important that the two paddlers act as a unit. Not only will you travel faster when paddling in sync with each other but you will be able to steer better and keep your energy levels higher. In order to paddle in sync, the two paddlers must find a paddling speed and rhythm that works well for them both. Often, the person in the stern (the rear of the canoe) takes longer to execute each stroke than the front person. This is because the person in back is steering with each stroke and compensating for the strength of the front stroke. 
Find a speed which works well for both of you. Also, when the person steering instructs the other paddler to execute a stroke, do so without hesitation. The person in front should also promptly notify the steerer of upcoming obstacles. Usually, the paddlers are paddling on opposite sides of the canoe. If you get tired of paddling on one side of the canoe or want a change, ask your partner if you can switch sides. Under most circumstances, everyone should agree to switch. In fact, it is a good idea to switch sides every so often in order to reduce muscle tension and stress. You should be able to paddle well on both sides of the canoe. 

Do not stand in the canoe, suddenly turn around or suddenly reach out or lean. All movement in the canoe must be low, steady and slow to prevent tipping and capsizing.

In Rough Water
In rough water with waves, never paddle parallel to the wind or waves. This is a very vulnerable position and you can easily capsize. On the other hand, you do not want to paddle directly into the waves either. The ideal position is to cut into the waves at an slight angle. If you must zigzag to your destination, so be it. You will arrive safely. If you are going downwind, it is OK to ride perpendicular to the waves. 
In really rough water, lower your center of gravity by kneeling down in the canoe for more stability. If the water is extremely rough, you can lash two canoes together, at 4 feet apart, with two 10 - 12 foot poles. This is a catamaran style. It may sometimes be possible to canoe on the calm side of the lake or to canoe within the protection of an island. Always check for those possibilities along your route. If a storm with lightning is approaching, immediately get off of the water.

Please wear appropriate sturdy footwear when portaging...sandals are not appropriate footwear...

To portage a canoe, you can either: 1) lift the canoe from just behind the center point and move forward to place the yoke on your shoulders, or 2) lift the front of the canoe with a partner and while your partner is holding up the front of the canoe, walk under the canoe and place the yoke on your shoulders. 3) Carry the canoe with another person, most canoes have handles at each end. This is best done with none or little gear inside the watercraft.

Hiking Safety

Hike Together
Always hike together in your group. The lead and tail should always be within sight or hearing distance of each other. No one should ever go off by themselves - or not very far (if they have to go to the bathroom.) The maximum group size is 9 people.  When on the trail, designate a lead and a tail. Groups should have more than one map which they check frequently to know where they are at and what to expect next. You always want to know where water and camp are and how far you are from them.

On the Trail
Bring along 2 quarts of water per person and drink as much of it as you can. Bring snack food to eat during the day for continual energy replenishment. Preferably NON-DEHYDRATED foods. Hike at a steady pace and do not over exert. Take the longest strides that are comfortable for you. The longer the stride, the less energy is used. Take several shorter breaks rather than one longer break. 
Your body gets its most rest and rids itself of waste buildup within the first part of a rest; a longer rest isn't necessarily more beneficial for your body. When breaking, take off your pack or sit on a log or rock and take the pack weight off of your shoulders. Also, check your feet and keep them dry. Your feet should be dry at least 8 hours a day. If you are developing blisters, treat them with moleskin or tape. Loose the cotton socks. Wear a wicker and a wool sock to avoid blisters.

Layering your clothes is important. After hiking for awhile, you will be generating a lot of body heat and you may need to unzip or take off a layer to prevent sweating. You do not want to sweat if you can avoid it as it will get your clothing wet. When you are breaking and cooling off, put on an extra layer before you get cool. Consider putting on a hat as you begin your break to prevent too much heat loss.  

Always keep your rain gear close by and easily accessible. Use a day pack for your small items, flashlight, rain gear, snacks, water bottles, etc...

Rough Terrain
When crossing a beaver dam or stream, loosen your pack so that if you fall, you can get your pack off without delay. Use a hiking stick. If the water is deep, look straight ahead and not down at the water; this will give you better balance. If the water is swift, lock arms in a group of two or three when crossing. 

During lightning storms, be as low as possible in the dense woods and stay away from isolated trees, rock outcroppings or penninsulas. If the lightning strikes are close, try to insulate yourself from the ground with something containing no metal, such as insulated sleeping pads or sleeping bags with plastic zippers. Stay clear of any metal including your pack, belts, knives, tools, etc. You may also want to get out of your tent if winds are dropping trees. 

The safety tips listed here are for your information only. If you need more information, 
you could contact the US Forest Service, the American Red Cross or the Wilderness Medical 
Society. cannot be held liable for any mishaps resulting from the use, or misuse, of
this information. Remember, if it doesn't look safe it probably isn't!  Don't take that chance.
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