Lessons learned by Troop 626, Cypress, Texas
at Northern Tier BSA National High Adventure Base
June 30-July 11, 2000
Crew Advisor, Troop 626:
About the trip:
To arrive near 1:00 PM on July 1st in Bissett (pronounced bis-SET), Manitoba, we flew from Houston to Winnipeg on June 30th. We stayed at the Winnipeg airport Sheraton Hotel, which was within walking distance of the terminal, and each room for four was ~$100 Canadian. Airport cafes had convenient, kid-friendly food, and we had breakfast at the more expensive hotel restaurant. Our charter bus picked us up from the hotel the next morning. On the trip to Bissett, we stopped along the way to buy lunch and fishing licenses, and arrived in rustic Bissett at 1:00 PM sharp. Our "10 day trip" included 8 days of paddling around, 8 nights of camping out in the wild, and about four days of travel and base camp time.
On the morning of July 2nd, we flew on floatplanes from Bissett to Scout Lake, and set out on a half-day canoe trip to our first campsite. On July 9th we returned by canoe to Scout Lake, and camped overnight. Our float plane returned on July 10th to take us back to "civilization", well Bissett anyway, and a hot shower. On our return to Houston, we left Bissett at 9:00 AM on July 11th, using the same bus company, and got to the airport with plenty of time to spare for our 4:00 PM flight home. The bus driver swung a good lunch deal for us all at a buffalo burger joint along the way. The plane arrived in Houston at 11:45 PM, but my wife didn't recognize me immediately, with my new facial hair and Northern Tier toque (hat).
We went to Bissett with 13 scouts and 6 adults, and split into two crews of 12 and 9 when the Interpreters were accounted for. Having multiples of three are an advantage if you ever desire to make a portage (sounds like garage) without having to walk the trail twice. Our two crews did not see each other except at the start and at the finish, and each chose very different itineraries (100 miles vs. 50 miles). Having 3 advisors in the 9-man crew was perhaps one too many, since you'd like no more than one adult per canoe, and with the Interpreter, that crew had 4 adults. However, I wouldn't have wanted to tell any of the fathers on the trip that they couldn't share this adventure with their sons. You should recruit 3 adults per crew, so that if one has to drop out at the last moment for work or health reasons, your trip isn't cancelled.
Make sure that the crew plans an itinerary that matches the physical abilities and desires of the crew members. It would be demoralizing to not meet the goals that they set for themselves, and just as demoralizing to not earn the 50-miler Award. We had 13 year olds and small 14 year olds along with larger teenagers, and adults in their 40's and 50's, so even though Bissett is very challenging, it can be done by just about anyone, as long as you're physically fit and mentally prepared.
Communicating with the parents during pre-trip preparations is very important. I set-up an emailing list to send out information, and I held several parent and boy organizational meetings to cover what to do and what to bring. One mistake learned is to keep close track of who doesn't show up to meetings, since you will wrongly assume that everyone has heard what you said. Copy important parts of the planning book for every family, and then add your additional information and your crew training schedule to it.
The food on the trip was all quite tasty. Even the finicky eaters among us wolfed down the high-carbohydrate, one-pot meals after a hard day of paddling and portaging, and they wondered by Mom never made such good stuff at home. To our chagrin, some of us didn't lose a single pound, but we all gained some good muscles. The fish was excellent, and we preferred the fish baked (steamed), but bring spices.
The wilderness was beautiful and at times breathtaking. My favorite visual and aural memory was camping next to the roaring double falls at the edge of Lake Kawaseecheewonk, watching the bald eagles and beavers, listening to the haunting sound of the loons, smelling the fresh cool air, and enjoying the taste of some of the finest freshwater fish in the world. This was an adventure that we will never forget.
To talk directly with the Bissett base, when you have planning questions, call (204) 277-5261. Other info, billing, and reservations are handled year-round by the Sommers office in Ely, Minnesota. (218) 365-4811.
Our estimated total trip price (no hidden costs) was $1500US each. Per person cost: $350 for the 10-day trek. $550 for the airline. $100 for the tour bus. $100 for the floatplane. $150 for in-transit food, lodging and trading post items. The rest for misc. items and personal gear that I'm sure we all invested heavily in. Northwest Airlines finally gave us the best airfare. Book all of the flights as a group to get the very best deal, and if you want to use frequent flier miles, you had better book it NOW.
You will have to arrange the floatplane, and pay for the Interpreter's flight. Bissett, although miles from anywhere, is still a 20 minute floatplane ride from Scout Lake, where the canoe cache is located.
We stayed at the Sheraton airport hotel in Winnipeg the first night. $100 CDN/room. Four per room.
Our charter bus picked us up from the hotel and took us to Bissett the next morning. Nice bus, great driver, good price for a large group. Contact Luxury Motor Coach Transportation at 204-947-0938.
Each crew had 2 adults with Red Cross/BSA Flatwater canoe training. Most boys had Canoeing merit badge, and most boys had done the council's Hamman Pack and Paddle program. Those that did not take canoe training, may have paddled twice as far as the rest of us, since they had not learned the correction strokes and fundamentals to canoe efficiently in a straight line. Get trained!!!!
Read the guidebook, cover to cover. Add items to their checklists. Make a list of things that you need to ask Northern Tier about. Make a calendar of events to make sure that the crew is prepared, your fees are paid on time, and your transportation is available and as cheap as possible. Believe what the guidebook says, since it does not make idle suggestions, but it may lead you to take too much stuff.
Make a list of all of the certifications that are needed by each crew and by each adult and boy, and make sure that adults get trained: Flatwater Canoe, YPT, Safe Swim, Safety Afloat, CPR, etc.
Get your National Tour permit submitted early (6 weeks) and submit your council canoeing permit (if required by your council), even though you aren't using council canoes.
Make up a binder per crew with a plastic sleeve for each participant, where you will collect the health forms, permission slips, copies of health insurance cards, birth certificates, passports, certifications, etc. Plus add sleeves with your National Tour permit, Crew rosters, Swim check, and other crew information that they require (read the guidebook), and use all of the forms that they mail you.
Despite the patch, there are no polar bears at Bissett; not in the summertime, anyway. There are a few black bears, however, and we saw some on both the Bloodvein River and just west of Scout Lake. Speaking of bears, there is no bear-bag system. There are no designated campsites, just suggestions for campsites, and the trees are not big enough to hold up all of the gear that would need to be protected. The Actionpacker® boxes with food, and any other smellable items, are placed under the canoes at night and we placed our pots and pans on top of them to act as a bear warning system, and to scare them off. More problematic are the "mini-bears", since we had chipmunks, squirrels, and minks sneaking around our campsite, and they could chew on the gear without setting off the alarms.
Way before you leave home, choose groups of three that will be sharing the same gear pack. You will have at least one group of two, since the Interpreter has his/her own pack. These packing groups don't have to be in the same canoe. Have them plan to share personal items and pack their gear together. If I had known that I was going to share a pack with my two sons, we could have left a lot of things home, and had fewer zip-lock bags. The air trapped in zip lock bags was our biggest problem in getting our gear to fit into the pack.
Think of some way to reward the crew for meeting the goal that they set for themselves. I awarded everyone with a Northern Tier Bissett hatpin at the closing "campfire". We also had a mid-point party to celebrate, and having something special for event that is a plus. At the closing campfire, I composed a song that told a little something about what each participant had done during the trip.
Try to get the detailed topo maps of the area before you go. Six maps should cover all possible routes.
Packs are provided by Northern Tier: Each canoe will tote one large waterproof personal gear pack and one food pack. Each canoe will have 3 people. The canoe with the Interpreter will also have his/her guidepack, so the personal gear pack in that canoe will have some extra room for others' gear.
First Aid kit: You'll have need for first aid for bug bites, abrasions, burns, fish hooks, knife cuts, etc. Pretty standard fare for a scout outing. We bought a backpacking first aid kit and added a few items, and it was generally adequate. We kept the kit available in a small "dry bag" in our canoe.
Tents: Northern Tier provided expedition quality tents very similar to the 4-man Eureka Timberline tents that my troop uses. The difference being that the expedition quality tents have much better zippers and more rugged bottoms. We patched a few holes with duct tape, but were generally happy with using their fairly new tents. Before going to sleep, we played "kill the mosquitoes" to get rid of all of those bloodsuckers that crawled in with us. We slept 3 or 4 boys per tent. Adults sleep with adults.
Fishing: Our fishing poles were a pain to deal with on portages. The ideal poles would break down to no longer than 18-inch segments, so that they would fit into the gear bags. Regardless of the hassle, though, DO have one pole per boy, so that everyone who wants to fish can take a crack at landing those huge pike and walleye. Everyone over 16 needs a license to fish, and your crew daily limit, even for the boys, is determined by the total limits of all of the adult licenses that you are carrying. Our adults each bought the cheaper 4 fish per day licenses.
Extra stoves: DON'T take any. I almost got mine confiscated by the airline for fumes, even when we didn't use them and they'd been completely aired out for 2 months. You must call ahead to arrange for Northern Tier to provide stoves, although it turned out that our particular Interpreters had their own stoves. Northern Tier only guarantees to provide one stove per crew, IF you reserve them. DO take a funnel to fill the stoves, and DO buy 2 gallons of fuel per crew before you get to Bissett.
Fishing lures: We had luck with spoon lures, with jig-head and grub combinations, and with imitation minnows. You will need metal leaders. Hooks must be barbless or have well-crimped barbs.
Canoes: 16' aluminum keeled canoes are provided. Test them out before you leave the canoe cache. We found cracked yokes and leaky bottoms, and an unbalanced canoe is tough to carry on a portage.
Clothesline: Our Interpreter told us to leave our clotheslines in basecamp, and were sorry that we did.
Water bottles: One wide-mouth Nalgene bottle per person will suffice. Having one back-up bottle per crew would be a good idea. We brought water filter pumps, but they were too slow to handle the group, and the treated water tasted so good, that we stopped using them. The filters were a waste of space and weight. When you get the water out of the middle of the lake, and it only takes ½ cap of Polar Pure to make the water potable, then it has no iodine taste. In fact, it was excellent tasting!!!
Bug spray: We probably should have used more, but one palm-sized pump-spray bottle each of Deep-woods Off would have been more than enough even if we had used it more often.
Boots: We were all very happy that we listened to the guidebook and bought good quality "jungle boots". First, we heard that some cheap jungle boots are manufactured with water-soluble glue. Second, portages are over some very rough, bare granite terrain, where sprained ankles are a very real worry when you haven't got proper boots and you're carrying 80 pounds of gear, plus many of our portages were done by walking the canoes through some but very rocky and slippery rapids, and others were mucking through knee-deep peat bogs or dragging canoes over beaver dams. We all bought Altama boots, and although they were not cheap (~$65 for new boots), they were worth every penny. They drained well and dried out every night. They're also very rugged and very comfortable boots.
Insoles: I recommend buying an insole for the boots. The cheap insoles that come with the Altama boots, fall out or bunch up after they get wet once, and provide no arch support. Some of us bought synthetic insoles that provided some good arch support and didn't soak up water. WARNING: buy the insoles before you buy the boots, since they can affect the size or width of the boot that you need.
Sock liners: Any of the synthetic sock liners will do. Rinse out and hang to dry your wet socks every night. Have a second pair of liners for the days after you totally muck up your socks in a peat bog.
Outer socks: A Merino wool and synthetic blend pair of socks were my favorite. They were thick enough to keep from getting blisters. They were very soft and not scratchy. They even dried well.
Dry socks: Your back-up pair of outer socks, plus a third pair of thick outer socks. I never touched my third pair of outer socks, but if it had been cold or if my "dry socks" got wet, then I'd have still had a dry, thick pair to sleep in.
In-camp dry shoes: Most took Teva sandals, and a few took tennis shoes. Remember, the guidebook says no sandals, and the Interpreter wasn't happy when we showed him our Teva's, but a pair of good Teva sandals with good soles, plus a pair of thick socks is more rugged than most tennis shoes and they pack in little space. Wearing your thick outer socks is a necessity with the Teva sandals, since the socks help prevent the rocks from eating up your toes, and they help keep mosquitoes from putting welts all over your feet. A word to the wise. Once you are in camp and wearing your designated "dry clothes", don't wear them when you go out for an evening canoe ride (oops).
Camera: One decent-quality, lightweight zoom camera per crew is nice, otherwise many great shots will be wasted. The boys are best suited to the disposable waterproof cameras that Kodak sells.
Head nets: These made the mosquitoes bearable, and allowed us to use a lot less bug spray. Don't go without one! Make sure that the one that you choose is compatible with your hat. Bring one extra per crew, just in case. Campmor has a good selection.
Underwear: Like all other clothing you take on the trip, NO COTTON is allowed. Campmor and REI sell some nice, very comfortable 100% synthetic underwear in brief or boxer styles. Take 2 pairs. They will quickly drip dry whenever you hang them up. Sleep in dry underwear or your dry shorts.
Pants: Take a thin synthetic zip-off-leg pair of pants. Only zip-off the legs when you plan to swim in them. While canoeing and wading, tuck your pant legs into your socks and you will never have to worry about leeches or any other varmint getting on the skin of your legs.
Shorts: Take a swimsuit or soccer shorts as your back-up pants. I never got my "swim suit" wet, preferring to swim in my already wet zip-off-leg pants, and wore my dry shorts while pants drip-dried.
Shirts: Take two synthetic short-sleeved t-shirts. Don't expect a white shirt to come back that color. You may be able to get Duofold Coolmax® shirts on sale for $8 each from Campmor, out of season.
Long underwear: Make sure that it has NO COTTON in it, and is not bulky. I used my long underwear top during the one cold, wet night that we had, and was glad that I had it.
Rain gear: It did rain a couple of times, and protection from the rain is very important, since we met one unprepared crew that had hypothermia problems from the rain. We used rain gear more often as a means of putting an extra layer of material between our skin and the mosquitoes that came out at dusk. They made great windbreakers too. A rain jacket and rain pants are a necessity. NO PONCHOS.
Fleece jacket/vest: I took a thin fleece vest, which packed very small and kept my core body temperature warm on the few cold days that we had. Combined with a rain jacket, and/or the long underwear, I was very warm when I needed to be. Fleece jackets are nice too, but they did take up extra, precious space versus a vest. You will need one or the other.
Hat: A wide-brimmed hat is preferred, and a hat with a brim that shades face, ears, and neck is a necessity. Make sure that it has a chinstrap too, since we did experience high winds. I had no sunburn problems with my wide-brimmed had. No baseball caps allowed!
Sunglasses: I was happy to have sunglasses on a few of the bright days, but make sure that they aren't so dark that you can't enjoy the natural colors and the scenery. Do have a strap on any glasses, otherwise they will get lost in lakes or broken along portage trails.
Fanny pack: This was a nice thing to have. I carried my good waterproof camera, my sunglasses case, and my knife in my fanny pack. Any small thing that would be helpful while canoeing and portaging. You don't have ready access to your other gear that is stuffed into the large personal gear pack.
PFD's: Northern Tier provides them. Many of us took more comfortable PFDs with us, but you risk not being allowed to use your own if they are not brightly colored. We were allowed to use our blue and black PFDs, BUT I got the distinct impression that we got away with something. They want the PFDs to be approved by the Canadian Coast Guard, and ours were only US Coast Guard approved.
Ground pad: Bring a good self-inflating ground pad. A 2/3rds-length pad doesn't take up as much pack space. We slept right on top of granite, so a ground pad is not optional.
Sleeping bag: Make sure that your bag is small and compressible. We had good success with compression sacks that have straps to squeeze every bit of air out of the bags. A few extra of those compression sacks would have been good for reducing the size of other personal gear too.
Journal: Whether a personal journal or a crew journal, have at least one person document the trip.
Paddling gloves: Nice to have, even with the comfortable nylon grips that the paddles have. If you plan to buy or bring a wooden paddle, or canoe 100 miles, then gloves may be a requirement.
Kneepads: For control, balance and the most efficient paddling, canoeing should be done on your knees, especially when you get into the swifts (small rapids).
The Interpreter will do a little too much until just after the first supper on the trail, and then let you fall on your faces. They're not your mama. It's their job to let the boys build teamwork, and they're there to quietly suggest and to keep you out of trouble. One of our Interpreters was very quiet, while the other was very talkative and friendly. We learned a lot about Canadian culture from our Interpreters.
To avoid visa problems, all BSA employees in Bissett are Canadians affiliated with Scouts Canada.
Co-ed crews are very likely to have a female Interpreter.
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