Two Women in the BWCA


Summer 2018 marked my third annual trek through the wilderness with my adventure partner for life: Nora Woodworth.  This March, I reserved our fourth annual adventure for Summer 2019.

Nora and I formed a “later in life friendship”, in my late 20s. I could not be more grateful for the color she has brought to my life as both a friend and role model.

Nora is three-ish years younger than me, and SHE KNOWS HER STUFF when it comes to the great outdoors.  She is the master at getting things DONE.  She is also awesome at identifying and/or pausing for playful curiosity when it comes to random critters such as bugs, spiders, birds….all things animals and animal poo. Yes, she thoroughly enjoys scat identification and finds it highly fascinating.  She and my husband first met as co-workers at an environmental learning center: Deep Portage in Hackensack, MN. The two of them could talk animal poo for hours (or at least that’s how it feels to me). Anyway…

In our first year of friendship, one night at the local Municipal Bar during bingo, the topic of the Boundary Waters came up and Nora mentioned that she had never been.  I was shocked (wilderness lover that she is) and I told her she definitely needed to go. We talked a little further about how both of our husbands are ridiculously busy in the summer season and there’s no way they could get away for a long trip. The BWCA was kind of “out” because of that.

After a pause, Nora looked at me across the table and said, “we should go”.  I considered that for a second. My first thought was: “uhhhh I have no real business being deep in the wilderness without a knowledgeable partner, but I WISH I DID HAVE BUSINESS BEING IN THE WILDERNESS WITHOUT A KNOWLEDGEABLE PARTNER!  Second thought was: oh yeah, Nora knows her stuff.  She’s the knowledgeable partner. Let’s do this.”  So after a split second I said, “YES, we should go”.  

That winter we started hunting down the best entry points and dreamed up our ideal trip.  For some reason one of the longest portages we could find appealed greatly to both us. Go figure!  We wanted to be remote. We wanted a challenge. We wanted to experience the ultimate getaway; where you didn’t see a single human for days, but heard and witnessed plenty of wildlife.  We chose a circular route at the infamous Angleworm entry point out of Ely; a mere 740 rod (2.25 mile) portage to the first lake. Remote we sought, remote we found.  

It was a helluva time getting through that first portage.  We ran into a few issues. I learned A LOT within the first 15 minutes of our trip.  At our first break, I noticed a hole in our pack: I panicked. “Do we have to go all the way back to town and delay this trip to get another pack?  How are we going to be out here for over a week with this hole that will surely grow bigger?!”  Nora did not panic.  Nora calmly suggested, “We have duct-tape and a safety pin, right?” Problem solved. Lesson number one I learned from the wilderness and Nora: just stay calm and come up with creative solutions.  Problem solving with humor and ingenuity is all part of the process and experience. We had a blast the rest of the day.  


It took us nearly 4 hours to get to the lake that day.  That is a story in and of itself, that luckily did not result in any sprained ankles. Thankfully we single portaged. We didn’t see a single person that day, or for the next two for that matter. Once we got to the lake and dropped our canoe in, I remember thinking, “Holy sh$%&! We are alone in the wilderness...can we actually do this?”  Almost immediately a tree fell, plopped right into the lake, and splashed about 200 yards from us.  Hmmmm…...

I, of course, didn’t voice my fear at the time because Nora and I were in our first year of friendship and we didn’t know each other that well.  I didn’t really want her to know how scared I was. I reminded myself that she is a total badass, even if I’m not, and we would be fine. We paddled on to one of the greatest adventures of my life.  Seven days and six nights of disconnection to outside stimuli and reconnection with myself. As the days went on, my confidence and contentment grew. We learned so much about our love for the Boundary Waters, how to work as partners, and we solidified a very important lifelong friendship as well.


Nora and I LOVED being out there in the wilderness without no one around but the two of us and her Australian Shepard Sigmund.  We were giddy. That trip changed our lives forever. I left home a hopeful, wannabe wilderness woman and I emerged from the BWCA a satisfied, proud, and nourished, wilderness adventure woman for life.


The next summer.  We went again. This time into an entry point near Tofte, MN. This time we both brought our dogs; Nora’s then 6 years old Australian Shepherd Sigmund and my 1 year old black lab Sunny. The stories we could tell.  We have two stories in particular that make us laugh so hard we cry. One incident involving me desperately saving a bagel, and the other causing a dog to catapult out of the canoe and into the lake. Both of those stories occurred on the same day. I have such vivid amazing memories of that day. That whole trip, really.

Our second trip was a little less remote until we portaged our way up to middle of nowhere.  We stayed for 9 days and 8 nights that time around. We were more seasoned this go around, and much more familiar with each other’s ways.  We went on fun day trips to ancient pictographs, a sandy beach that looked more like Mexico than the BWCA, and traveled to a cliff to run and jump off like crazy women.  We soaked it all in again.


Summer 2018 was our third year.  We went for 10 days and 9 nights:  June 5 - June 14, 2018. We almost didn’t go.  Catastrophe struck a week and a half before our date to enter the wilderness.   First, Nora’s beloved fur-baby tragically died, and then her father-in-law passed away from the long and devastating Lewy Body Dementia.  The pain was unreal. The thought of a trip to the BWCA without our Sigmund was unbelievably heart-wrenching. Leaving home during such a difficult time was impossible to fathom.

Somehow we made it. I told Nora to get herself up north somehow and I would take care of the rest. Just the two of us and my then 2 year old black lab Sunny went.  We brought our loving memories of Sigmund with us as well. That was perhaps the most important part of this trip. Siggy absolutely loved the Boundary Waters.


Three years in, and we had somewhat of a system:  getting more and more refined each time. Thank goodness for that, because we were NOT on our “packing A-game” this time around.  It was more of a late-night scramble than a our typical nicely planned out packing session. Somehow we have it down just good enough and we didn’t forget anything too terribly important.  


As expected, we had an amazing time.  The BWCA is healing. Nora and I had more than a few good cries about Sigmund and general life-suckiness. It was needed.

We marveled at the sunsets.  We swam in the cool waters. We fought the wind with our paddling fierceness in our light-as-air Wenonah canoe. We lounged in our hammocks.  We both twisted an ankle in knee-deep mud on a portage (thankfully I didn’t break the canoe that was on my shoulders at the time). We heard rumors of bears. We enjoyed two days mid-trip of not seeing a single human. We felt that unique rising thrill upon discovering a gem of a campsite more than a few times. We thoroughly enjoyed and relished in the simple life.


More than that, we again felt that beautiful weight of the world slip off of our shoulders as we paddled further and further into the wilderness.  

We slipped into old habits.  We became more comfortable with “our thing”.  Nora and I complement each other ridiculously well in the wilderness.  She likes to portage with the big canoe pack and day packs. I prefer to portage the canoe and our smaller pack.  She is stronger at paddling on her left side and I’m stronger paddling right. She enjoys maps and navigation. I feel useful, and now more confident, steering the canoe.  We both really dig finding the perfect campsite, hammocking, journaling, reading, and setting up camp. I enjoy swimming and she enjoys neurotically drying everything out. Nora enjoys going for little hikes around camp to try to find a bear, or at a minimum, some bear poo.  I prefer sitting in meditation near the water or practicing yoga. Nora loves strategizing and executing the perfect bear hang. I love cooking outside. Nora loves reading Sigurd Olson books in the BWCA. I love falling asleep to Nora reading aloud.


Have you ever read a Sigurd Olson book in the Boundary Waters?  It’s insanely perfect. Go there just to do that. If you can find someone else to read you Sigurd Olson while you fall asleep, I also highly highly recommend that. (Thanks Nora!!)

I have learned a lot about myself, what I am capable of, what is important to me, what kind of life I want to live, and who I want to be while in the boundary waters.   


I attribute a lot of my decisions and direction in life to my BWCA trips.  I suppose you don’t have to go to the boundary waters specifically to experience this kind of self-study, self-understanding, and self-connection, but I do believe the important key elements are:

  • Complete disconnection from the outside/day-to-day world

  • Unification with nature

  • Writing in a journal; reflecting on the day and the important things in life

  • Practicing meditation

  • Engaging in mindfulness of all the senses

  • Immersing into the wilderness for an extended period of time

  • Taking on a challenge

  • Hammocking

  • Cooking outside

  • Keeping it simple

  • Problem-solving with ingenuity and calm curiosity

  • Keeping a sense of humor

  • Wearing the same clothes for a week

  • Getting dirty

  • Swimming

  • Gratitude

Perhaps these important “life reset” elements can be achieved elsewhere.  For me, there is absolutely nothing quite like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  I feel alive, whole, peaceful, vibrant, strong, challenged, and at ease when I’m near that clean, crisp water. Perspective on life authentically comes together for me in the Boundary Waters.  


This year, Nora’s 1-year-old Aussie pup Stryder gets to experience his first BWCA trip.  Hopefully my now 3-year-old lab Sunny shows him the ropes, and good habits (fingers crossed). We think the canoe aspect could get very interesting this year.  

We also have the added element of my being pregnant.  I will be 26 weeks along when we enter the wilderness this year.  There was a period of time when we took the idea of a trip off the table completely for this year.  It took us some time to talk through potential issues to ultimately decide that yes we could go, although for a much shorter amount of time.  We chose an entry point that allows for very little portaging throughout. My husband enthusiastically agreed that we absolutely should keep to our important tradition. Nora quickly volunteered that she would double portage any and all heavy gear.  Basically, I have the best people in my life. I hope to repay the favor in the future.


This trip will certainly be different than years past.  I’m so happy we are going. No matter the variables, I cherish our annual trip with all of my heart.  

Bryana Cook