Boundary Waters Teen Essay Contest

We are happy to announce the winner of our first annual Boundary Waters Teen Essay Contest! The winner is Julia Ruelle. Julia (age 16) is a sophomore at Minnetonka High School in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

Thank you to the over 70 high school authors who competed in this contest. The essays are inspiring, well-written, and impressive. In short, it was amazingly stiff competition. We hope this contest inspired young writers to get outdoors, seek adventure, and love the Boundary Waters.

Julia Ruelle's Winning Essay

It’s the start of the school year: everyone is sullen for being forced to sit still all day and teachers try in vain to pull us out of our school-induced slumber with a myriad of get-to-know-you activities. As I fill out yet another form with questions I am tired of answering, I come to the question asking me to list my favorite activities. I pause for a moment, wondering which activities to include this time: running, cross country skiing, downhill skiing, sledding, ice skating, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, camping, gardening, walking, hiking, biking, hammocking, or exploring. As a shortcut and with a melancholy glance at the sun shining through the window, I settle with writing, “being outside”.

Though such get-to-know-you forms are rarely very honest, one fact always holds true to me: I love being outside. In the summer, a typical day usually starts with running with the cross country team as the sun rises, paddling with a friend in the afternoon, and an evening walk with Rio, our faithful seven year old rescue dog, around a small lake of the over 10,000 our state is known for. For the past 5 years, Rio and my family have been lucky to have a change in scenery to the beautiful, pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for about four days each summer. These days are when I feel most connected to my soul and surroundings and most at home, with no social media or material concerns to distract me from the purity of the air in my lungs, dirt beneath my feet, and the sounds of birds, water, and all things natural in my ears. My love for these lands has caused me to be involved with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters movement, regularly donating and wearing the logo on shirts, stickers, and pins as frequently as possible. All my classmates know of this passion of mine, as I take any opportunity to educate my peers about the threat the proposed Twin Metals mine poses to the pristine waters so unique to the Boundary Waters and the many watersheds it affects.

Though Jerry Vandiver, a country singer with an album or two about the Boundary Waters area, sings that “winter is for...pull[ing] out the map” and “plan[ning] a new route” while keeping close to the warmth of the fireplace, to me, the snow and sub-zero temperatures of Minnesota winters make venturing outside even more exciting! I joined the cross country ski team last year and immediately regretted not having tried it earlier. Skiing taught me to love winter and pray for more snow, instead of begrudging it. Though I grew up loving to ice skate at the park across the street, learning to ski ignited a desire to be outside everyday, even when the cold was biting.

Unfortunately, this winter has been a little different. Around Thanksgiving, I started experiencing exhaustion, headaches, and nausea at rates I had never before had to withstand. As doctors didn’t perceive any viruses to be concerned about, we wrote it off as migraines and I continued to participate in life as usual, going to school and ski practices everyday. However, after trying to fight through it for two weeks, I ended up in Urgent Care one night and scheduled an appointment with my doctor three days later. During those three days, I slept pretty much all day and barely ate, thanks to debilitating headaches and nausea. Arriving at the doctor’s appointment, I threw up in the waiting room and the nurses deemed my low body temperature and slow heart rate alarming enough to rush me to the emergency room in an ambulance. At the end of that day, they still didn’t have any answers as to what was causing it all. However, the next day, my doctor suggested getting an MRI and I squeezed into their last slot of the day. Halfway through the MRI, my parents were rushed into a special room and my doctors got in contact with the radiologist and a neurologist. All in all, the verdict was that there was a mass in my brain causing pressure build up, also known as hydrocephalus. I required an endoscopic third ventriculostomy, which is essentially a tube put into my head to allow the fluids to flow, and a biopsy to find out what it was. So there I was, getting brain surgery, which is definitely not the curveball most expect during sophomore year. The biopsy revealed that I had a rare brain tumor called a germinoma, luckily with a high cure rate. Obviously, this has changed my life completely and kept me from doing most normal teen things. But, the worst part was not being allowed to run, ski, skate, or do anything that had the potential of making me fall until the surgeons deemed me ready. Still, I made it my priority to be outside at least once a day, usually taking short walks.  Getting outside even when I felt unable to do most other things has been a type of therapy for me. Breathing fresh air and feeling the cold on my face refreshed me and made me feel better, at least for a little while, every time.

After six weeks of limited activity, the Friday I got the OK to do any activity I wished began the best weekend since the diagnosis. In the afternoon, I went snowshoeing on a trail through the cattails. At night, I ice skated with friends. The next morning, I cross country skied on a frozen creek. On Sunday, I ran for the first time since the diagnosis and though it was incredibly slow-paced, the feeling of fighting through the burn and completing an entire loop of my go-to trail can only be understood by those who have experienced the phenomenon of a runner’s high. Better yet was the soreness that almost kept me from making it down the stairs Monday morning. I had been sore many times due to the chemotherapy, but this pain was something I had caused myself by working hard and, in a weird way, made me very proud of myself.

Reading the announcement of this essay contest in the paper this Thursday, I could hardly withhold my excitement! I danced around the house, imagining the essay I would write and how much fun it would be to share my favorite place with my friends. Though I am such a lover of the BWCA, most of my friends have never experienced its hypnotic serenity and I’ve always wanted to share it with them, but not wanted to have to bring my parents along. This contest has the potential of granting me this wish. In addition, I am lucky to have a short treatment plan of chemotherapy and radiation that will be wrapped up in early May with no physical restrictions. This enables me to be perfectly ready for a summer trip to the greatest place on Earth with my closest friends.

As I reviewed the details of the contest, I found something additional that links me to this mission: Joseph [one of the contest judges]. Hi! I read that you were diagnosed with leukemia at 13 years old and I imagine you and I share many similar experiences. Other than just the typical cancer similarities, I wonder if you share the experience of growing a little sick of your parents. I know, it might seem impossible to them, but after being surrounded and worried about almost exclusively by my parents for the last couple months, I’m very ready to escape their concern for a little while. Of course, I have always and will always love and appreciate them for their constant love and support, but distance makes the heart grow fonder, right? My desire to spend a couple days deep in the wilderness, sharing unique experiences with my closest friends, has increased greatly in the last couple months.

As a long-time lover of the outdoors and the Boundary Waters and a recent parent-escape hopeful, I would cherish this opportunity to navigate the lakes and portages I’m so fond of with my friends. I know my dreams will soon be filled with mornings looking out over the water, long days of paddling, dinners laughing beside the campfire, and nights sleeping with only a tent between me and a sky full of stars. I pray these dreams will be made a reality.

Thanks for your interest in Ely Outfitting Company’s Boundary Waters Teen Essay Contest! The deadline for the 2018 contest has passed. Please check back here for details of the 2019 essay contest.


The contest is for high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors interested in the chance to win a fully outfitted five-day canoe-camping adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with two or three of their friends - and no parents allowed.

Please carefully read all the information on this page before submitting an essay, and consider talking about the idea with your parents to ensure they’ll give you and your friends the thumbs up to do this trip if you win.

Essay Prompt

In 1,000 to 1,500 words, answer this question: Why do you want to go on a parent-free BWCA Wilderness canoe-camping adventure with your friends?

Grand Prize is a Completely Outfitted BWCA Wilderness Canoe-Camping Adventure

Ely Outfitting Company will outfit the winning writer’s group with our complete outfitting package. This means you’ll explore the Wilderness with the best gear used by the most savvy Wilderness travelers. The package includes ultralight Kevlar canoes, backcountry tents, sleeping bags, specialized trail meals, navigation maps and much more! We are also providing an emergency communication device for this self-guided trip.

Why We’re Hosting this Contest

The Boundary Waters Teen Essay Contest is a celebration of unstructured time outside. It’s a chance to prove that young people can safely challenge themselves in the outdoors and return more confident leaders and self-reliant individuals.

Recent studies show that young people today spend as little as four to seven minutes outside each day - less time outside than prison inmates. A culture of fear and bubble-wrapped experiences is infringing on young people’s abilities to have free ranging outdoor experiences. Time in front of a screen is replacing time around a stream and this new reality is leading to health issues including increased anxiety, obesity, and attention deficit disorder. This is our response and attempt to buck the trend.

We want this country’s next generation to take the reins of schools, businesses, and branches of government with a developed connection and appreciation for public lands and, in particular, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

essay-contest1All Entrants Receive Cool Stuff

In addition to one grand prize winner, Ely Outfitting Company is randomly giving away assorted prizes like water bottles, stickers, shirts, and hats throughout the duration of the contest. Enter early to increase your chances of winning some prizes! Winning something through one of our random prize giveaways won’t affect your chance of winning the free trip.

Everyone who enters will also receive a coupon good for $50 off a complete outfitting package during the 2018 season. We hope that, if you don’t win a free trip, this coupon will help make it easier to still get out and explore the BWCA.

Safety is Our Top Priority

The Boundary Waters is a uniquely accessible Wilderness with routing options appropriate for people of all abilities and skill levels.

We want to ensure the winning trip is set for success. Ely Outfitting Company will help the group prepare for the adventure. We’ll help select an appropriate route based on previous experiences, abilities, and interests. Once in Ely, we’ll review your outfitting package in detail, and go over canoeing, portaging, navigating and camping skills. To ensure adequate time to provide a full pre-trip orientation, we require all trip participants to arrive at our shop the afternoon before launching their trip. We strongly recommend all trip participants spend at least one day canoeing together before arriving in Ely.

Judging Criteria

A panel of judges will select the contest winner. The winning essay will be selected based on the following criteria:

10% - Spelling, grammar, and overall flow. Essays should not have spelling errors, sloppy grammar, or incomplete/incoherent sentences.

35% - Originality of idea and content. Essays should be rooted in an original idea that reflects the writer’s personality and ambition. If, for example, a writer is excited about making this a fishing trip consider expanding on how a fishing trip shapes/defines a friendship or what differentiates a wilderness fishing trip from one in the city or on a populated lake.

35% - Individual voice. Essays should reflect a writer’s personal style and voice. Essays should give the judging panel a sense of who the writer is in a fun to read and well thought out essay.  Write from the heart with open and honest prose.

20% - Tone and thoughtfulness. An essay’s tone and thoughtfulness should reinforce the notion that the writer is responsible enough to venture safely into the Wilderness without adult supervision.

*BWCA experience and canoeing experience are not required, and are not a judging criteria.

Judging Panel

  • Joseph Goldstein
    16-year-old who has explored the BWCA every summer (and several winters!) since age 7. When diagnosed with Leukemia at age 13, he made it his goal to protect the Boundary Waters from the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining.
  • Jason Zabokrtsky
    Founder, Ely Outfitting Company. Wilderness guide, outfitter, and mega-BWCA enthusiast.
  • Amy Freeman
    2014 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year; author of the newly released book, “A Year in the Wilderness,” about spending 366 consecutive days in the BWCA; Wilderness guide.
  • Kemia Sarraf, M.D., M.P.H.
    Founder of Generation Healthy Kids; advocate for youth engaging the outdoors.
  • Wendy Lindsay
    Successful northwoods entrepreneur; owner of the Pebble Spa in Ely, MN; celebrated her high school graduation with a 2-week BWCA trip with 7 of her friends.

essay-contest2What to do if Your Parents Aren’t Game

We realize not all parents may think their teen kids are ready for a wilderness canoe trip without adults along. When discussing this opportunity with your parents, you may want to discuss the following:

  1. The BWCA has over a thousand lakes and about 70 entry points to choose from. We can help ensure the winning group has a route that matches their previous experiences and skill level. This may mean a relatively short route with travel on smaller lakes that are not as wind prone or a route that doesn’t require moving to a different campsite every night. We will go over the planned route in detail with the group and provide information about our favorite campsites, as well as any rapids, waterfalls, or especially difficult portages. Note that this is a flatwater trip. All rapids and waterfalls have portages around them, and portages must always be used.
  2. We will provide an orientation that covers important information about safety, campsite selection, paddling technique, and wilderness navigation. We will also discuss how to properly store your food to minimize bear encounters and what to do in the event of extreme weather.
  3. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is America’s most popular Wilderness area with Forest Service rangers paddling through the region to check permits and offer assistance if needed. Rangers and fellow travelers offer an additional safety net to your own common sense and know-how.
  4. The winning group’s outfitting will include an emergency communication device. In the extremely unlikely event that an emergency should occur, the device can be used to notify interested parties and receive assistance.
  5. Ensure your parents that you will wear your lifejacket whenever canoeing and swimming. It’s a safety requirement of this contest, and always a wise idea.

If your parents still aren’t willing to sign off on this trip, consider other ways of doing a wilderness trip. We can provide you and your family with expert trip planning assistance, outfitting, and guide services.

Contest Rules

  1. Contest is open to current sophomores, juniors, and seniors in high school.
  2. Essays must include the entrant’s name, grade in school, phone number, mailing address, and email address.
  3. Submit your contact info and essay using our online form. Note that bold, underline, and italics text will be converted to plain text.
  4. Deadline for receipt of entries is 11:59pm on February 11.
  5. The writer of the winning essay will be contacted by phone and then publicly announced on March 6, 2018.
  6. Limit of one essay per person. All essays must be original work by entrant.
  7. All essays become the property of Ely Outfitting Company which reserves the right to print and display essays.
  8. Any essay entered in this contest cannot be entered in future contests.
  9. The determination of the judges is final.

Grand Prize Requirements

  1. No parents are allowed to be on-trail with the winning author’s BWCA canoe-camping trip. All trip participants must be 15, 16, 17, or 18 years old at the start of the trip.
  2. Trip participation is limited to a maximum of three or four people, including the winning author. We have chosen a minimum group size of three people (including the winning author) for safety reasons.
  3. All trip participants must submit a completed and signed liability waiver within two weeks of the winner being notified. Trip participants under 18 years old will need a parent or legal guardian to complete a liability waiver. If this deadline is not met, the second place essay will be awarded the trip and have ten days for all trip participants to sign the liability waiver.
  4. The winning group must submit their desired launch date at the same time that they submit their release of liability waiver.
  5. Trip participants agree to provide photos from their trip to Ely Outfitting Company.
  6. All trip participants, regardless of their age, must agree to wear a lifejacket whenever they are canoeing or swimming while on their trip; and all portage trails must be used.
  7. Winning trip participants are responsible for their own transportation between their home and Ely, MN, before and after their wilderness canoe trip