The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is one of the coolest parts of the country. It’s about 1 million acres of wilderness along the northern border of Minnesota and home to some of the best canoeing, fishing and winter camping in North America.
It’s also home to Northern Tier, one of the BSA’s four national high-adventure bases. Based out of Ely, Minn., Northern Tier offers wilderness canoe trips, backcountry experiences, winter camping and much, much more.
Sean Ferrier, Northern Tier’s associate director of program, recently sat down with the hosts of Scout Lifemagazine’s #Trekat2 live Facebook show to discuss all the things you can do at the high-adventure base.
You can watch the entire interview here. Below are five things we learned from our conversation.
1. When you go canoeing, you need the right boots.
Northern Tier’s signature program is its summer canoe treks; however, its resident experts strongly discourage waterproof boots.
It seems counterintuitive to say, “Don’t wear waterproof boots on a canoe trek in which your feet could easily get wet!” When Ferrier explains it, though, it sounds like good advice.
“When you’re out here, we do what we call ‘wet foot’ portaging, so every time you get in or out of your canoe, you’re going to be hopping in the water,” he says. “I like to tell people that you should basically plan on being wet from the waist down for the entire time that you’re out here, and so we want boots that have flow and circulation so you’re not just sitting with stagnant water in your boots for a week or two.”
2. Northern Tier is the BSA’s oldest high-adventure program.
Northern Tier has been outfitting Scouting groups for canoe trips since the summer of 1923. While the first trips were sponsored by a local council, the program grew in popularity and eventually was moved under the domain of what was at the time called Region 10. In 1972, Northern Tier was moved under the National Council.
“We have one of the most beautiful, pristine, untouched areas in the country where you can paddle 100 miles in any direction and not see sidewalks, not see buildings, and not see roads,” Ferrier says. “It’s just pure, untouched wilderness.”
Northern Tier is celebrating 100 years of operation with a series of special opportunities during the 2022 and 2023 summer seasons. Registration for summer 2022 is open now.
3. Northern Tier is the cold-weather camping developmental center for the BSA.
The name of the program is Okpik (pronounced “ook-pick”), and it’s the premier winter camping program offered by the BSA.
“People can come up from the end of December through the beginning of March and do all sorts of winter activities,” Ferrier says. “We take three-season campers and turn them into year-round campers.”
Those activities include winter camping, ice fishing and dog sledding.
“The greatest part about our winter program is that we provide most of the gear that you’re going to need to stay comfortable out on trail,” Ferrier says.
4. Wait. Did you say dog sledding?!?
“We have a handful of different dog-sledding programs that we offer,” Ferrier says. “You can come up and stay in a cabin, and then spend the day learning about dog sledding and the history of dog sledding and how it’s all done, and then go on runs throughout the day.
“Or you can sign up for one of our dog treks and actually camp out on the ice with a team of dogs, and learn all about dog sledding and winter camping at the same time.”
5. Safety. Safety. Safety.
It’s not surprising that the BSA has its bases covered when it comes to safety in the Northern Tier backcountry, during summer or winter.
Every crew is required to have at least one adult trained in wilderness first aid and CPR. Every crew is equipped with either a radio or satellite phone so they can contact base camp at any time in case of an emergency.
This year, when possible, all groups will meet outdoors while socially distanced. Everyone must wash their hands and sanitize frequently while visiting base camp.
“In terms of safety in general,” Ferrier says, “we’ve got a really great track record.”
It’s incorrect to say it “moved under the National Council” in 1972.
It started as a council program in 1923, but only three years later became a program owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America (National Office). The leases, permits, deeds, and bills were for the Boy Scouts of America, headquartered at the time in New York City.
Until 1972, Northern Tier (then Charles L. Sommers Wilderness Canoe Base) was governed by the Region Ten Committee, one of 12 BSA regions in the nation. Regions were only a governing and organizational structure of the Boy Scouts of America, not separate corporate entities.
I would recommend reading the Northern Tier history book “A Diamond in the North”, which is available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08BXKBSRQ/
You can also buy the earlier history book “Canoe Base” for 99 cents: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08H5JZNG5/