A thousand sun-kissed lakes. Hundreds of miles of rivers and streams. One million acres of boreal forest. Moose, wolves, ospreys and loons. Superb fishing. And arguably the best flatwater paddling in the United States.
With all this going for it, it is easy to see why so many OWAA conference attendees have already asked me about Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and why it is the most popular wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Each year, some 200,000 visitors sample this canoeing Mecca’s maze of waters, angle for fish, paddle until tired and sleep beneath the soughing boughs of pines.
Located about two hours north of the 2017 conference site in Duluth, Minnesota, the Boundary Waters is on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, a vast sweeping exposure of Precambrian stone that runs from eastern Manitoba to the shore of the Atlantic. With the frigid waters of Lake Superior just to the south generating a chilly microclimate, the forest and plants are more typical of those found farther north with vast stretches of black spruce, balsam fir and jack pine. But owing to its position on the edge of several ecotypes, the southern part of the wilderness area also displays trees of the northern hardwood forest such as birch, aspens, maples, and Norway and white pines.
There are hundreds of possible routes to canoe with 74 access points scattered around the periphery of the area. Where the water runs out, paddlers use paths known as portages to carry their gear overland. Locally measured in rods (16.5 feet – about the length of a canoe), a long portage is one that approaches a mile in length, but the majority rarely exceed 40 rods.
Where to go
With so many entry points to choose from, visitors might well be confused as to where to begin. Where you’ll start depends largely upon exactly what you’ll want to do or see when you get there.
Do you want to travel daily and see lots of wilderness? Is your desire to spend a lot of time fishing? Is solitude your most important criterion?
Take some time to consider your wishes. I strongly advise that all in your party have similar expectations as well. And if traveling far and hard is in the cards, remember that you can only travel as far and hard as the weakest member of your party can manage.
The entry points on the east end of the Boundary Waters lead paddlers into areas of dramatic topographic relief, where ridges rise hundreds of feet on each side of this region’s long, narrow lakes. It is also at this far eastern terminus that many begin their journey along the famous Border Route, which ends nearly 150 miles to the west at Crane Lake, and follows the U.S.- Canadian boundary.
On the Border Route, many lakes like Saganaga, Basswood, Crooked and La Croix, are huge (Crooked Lake alone is 26 miles long). This is the route of scenic waterfalls and stunning vistas. It is also a challenging paddle, since these large lakes can be whipped to a frenzy by the prevailing west winds. Portages, however, are infrequent, which is why the fur traders loved this route.
For those who want to wander and enjoy the tranquillity of small to medium-size lakes, the central part of the wilderness area — bounded on the east by the Gunflint Trail and on the west by the town of Ely, Minnesota — offers untold opportunities for exploration, albeit with more portaging. About midway between these two landmarks is the Sawbill Trail, a gravel highway that pokes north to the Boundary Waters’ southern edge. Dozens of entry points provide paddlers with many choices of both loop routes and linear trips to hundreds of lakes. Those who are seeking solitude can find remote areas off the well-traveled routes in this region.
The western end of the Boundary Waters offers exceptional routes as well. West of Ely and north of the Echo Trail are routes to the large border lakes of Crooked Lake or Lac La Croix. South of the Echo Trail is a portion of the wilderness area separated from the remainder by a good gravel road. A lovely route here begins and ends at Crab Lake, and takes one through Cummings, Buck, Schlamm and other small lakes.
Base camping can offer an alternative to loop trips, and will give you more time for fishing. By venturing in a full day’s journey, then setting up a base camp, one is free to explore unencumbered by heavy packs to nearby areas on subsequent day trips.
As a general rule, the nearer you stay to a road, entry point or major route, the more people you’ll likely see. Also, several large wildfires have recently denuded some areas of the Boundary Waters. Consult with an outfitter, or give me a shout, if you want to avoid these places.
Know before you go
The Boundary Waters is administered by the U.S. Forest Service and is part of the Superior National Forest. In order to keep some semblance of solitude, visitor quotas for each entry point have been established, and in order to enter, you must have a travel permit for overnight trips. Although you can stop and pick one up at any Forest Service office and most outfitters, I strongly recommend reserving one as soon as you know the date of your trip. Permits for popular entry points can vanish quickly.
Permits become available in late January. The number of permits available per entry point varies dramatically depending upon the ability of the area beyond to absorb visitors. There is a $6.00 online fee to reserve one, and each adult is charged $16.00 per trip. Full information and online ordering can be had at www.recreation.gov.
You must enter on the date and at the location specified on your permit, but once in the wilderness you are free to roam and remain as long as you wish. Campers must stay at one of the 2,000 designated campsites, which are available first come, first served. On busier routes, choose one by midafternoon. Maximum party size is nine, but you’ll see more wildlife and have less impact on the campsites’ fragile soils if you keep your party smaller.
If you plan on fishing, don’t forget a Minnesota angling license.
If you’d like to see the Boundary Waters, but have limited time or no desire to camp, many lakes are easily accessed on a day trip. While day-trippers will still need a permit, they are free and unlimited. Self-issuing kiosks are at each entry point. You can rent canoes by the day at many places.
The Boundary Waters is served by exceptional outfitters who will supply you with as little or as much gear – including meals – as you need. Major hubs for outfitting are Ely, Gunflint Trail and Sawbill Trail. Outfitters in these areas are already preparing for OWAA members. For more information on pre- and post-conference Boundary Waters trips visit https://owaa.org/2017conference-preview/.
Tips for a Better Trip
- Pack as if backpacking. Choose lightweight tents, sleeping bags and stoves. Rent a lightweight canoe.
- Kayaks are nuisance to carry on portages, and require elaborate packing and unpacking each time. If going alone, rent a solo canoe and canoe packs.
- Good raingear is a blessing.
- Wear sturdy boots on portages. Rafting sandals and neoprene paddler boots offer no support on these rugged portages. Ankle injuries will ruin your trip.
- “Hopscotch” your gear across longer portages — carry a load part way, set it down, and rest as you return for the next load.
- Pick campsites with potential for a good breeze to minimize annoyance by insects.
- Dusk is peak mosquito time. Eat dinner earlier. Slip into the tent or go for a paddle when the bugs get bad. An hour later, they’ll diminish. Build a fire and enjoy the night sky.
- Expect daytime temperatures in the high 70s, dipping to low 50s at night.
- Yes, you can drink directly from the lakes. That said, there is always the risk (although very low) of giardia. Never take water from a moving source, or near shore, to minimize that risk. Filter water if you’re uneasy.
Suggested Reading and Information
- “The New Boundary Waters and Quetico Fishing Guide” and “Canoe Country Camping” by Michael Furtman
- Superior National Forest BWCAW information: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/superior/specialplaces/?cid=stelprdb5202169
- Permit info and Reservations: http://www.recreation.gov/wildernessAreaDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=72600
- MN Fishing License information: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/licenses/fishing/index.html?type=fishing. ♦
— Michael Furtman, 2017 conference local chair, Mmfurtman@michaelfurtman.com