Paddling Through The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

May 29, 2008
Filed under Camping Destinations, Midwest Camping

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The water and air share the cool clarity of dawn as my canoe glides effortlessly across this huge polished sapphire of a lake. The first fingers of sunlight stretch out from behind the pines on the far shoreline and set the tip of a granite palisade ablaze in a golden glow. As I make my way around a narrow point, boulders mirrored in the shallow water appear as huge rocky globes sitting just off shore. Overhead the upper tips of towering pines are aglow from a wash of radiant gold advancing across the eastern sky. It’s just another day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

A treasure trove of sparkling, pristine and pure lakes and rivers that run for 150 miles along Minnesota’s northeastern border with Canada, the boundary waters, or the BWCAW as it is known by most who have paddled the 1.3 million-acre labyrinth of rivers and lakes, was designated as a wilderness area in 1964.

The boundary waters is a network of over 1200 miles of paddling routes interconnected through waterways and joined by portages. It’s a collection of trade routes used first by the Ojibwa and then by the French trappers who traveled throughout the region by river and foot trail between the shores of Lake Superior and the interior water highways of this northern part of the country.

The beauty of the BWCAW is breathtaking-north woods scenery at its finest. The lakes are either clusters of bays that form bundles of water like beads along a necklace or long, narrow, fjord-like fingers that stretch out through a glacially carved landscape. The forest covers the bedrock like a loosely laid spread of dark-green velvet. Throughout the region, that bedrock-the Canadian Shield-protrudes like rough knuckles rising abruptly above the water in the form of towering palisades or clusters of lichen-covered granite protruding out of the earth.

Rivers appear as satiny blue ribbons laced gracefully through the forests. Occasionally it appears as though the strands have been stretched, their fibers twisted and laid back down creating rock gardens and frothing rapids and waterfalls.

It’s a region of pristine waters, miles of boulder-strewn shoreline, delicate and raging waterfalls, and air so pure it’s still tingling as it works its way deep into your lungs. Campers have 2000 designated sites from which to choose throughout the entire BWCAW. Those who venture into Canada’s adjoining Quetico Provincial Park immediately across the border have endless more choices because camping is open.

The BWCAW lies in the upper-third of the expansive Superior National Forest in upper Minnesota. There are more boundary waters-like rivers, lakes and campgrounds (with some roads) in the national forest yet outside the BWCAW. Access to most boundary waters entry points are off Superior Forest roads and take eager paddlers into the heart of the region to lakes with names such as Kawishiwi, Saganaga, Kekekabic.


Throughout the national forest, aligned along the southern boundary of the BWCAW, are scores of campsites, many of which are on lake systems that rival those within the officially designated boundary waters, sometimes situated right across the forest service road.

There’s a place to camp for everyone. Besides the national forest sites, there are several state parks and forests scattered throughout this north shore region. Tent camping fees vary from free to $12 a night. RV parking with electricity and water hook-ups is available in many sites for about $25 a day.

There are a variety of trip outfitters throughout the region to help you get ready for your canoe camping voyage. Most have sophisticated rental programs to supply a group with nearly everything needed for a trip into the depths of this canoe country. Parties can arrange for a complete inventory of equipment-from lightweight canoes and paddles down to spoons and forks in the group mess kits. Sleeping bags, tents, Duluth packs — you name it and an outfitter can provide. Programs have been set up right down to the number of paddlers in a group for any number of days on the water-they’ll even provide you with all the meals and snacks you’ll need.

Canoes rent for about $40 a day, tents from $13-$20 a day, and sleeping bags with pads for about $10 a day. A complete outfitted package will run about $90 or more per day. The average outfitted party will spend $60-$90 a person on gear, depending on the size of the group and the length of the trek. Other services for hire include a guide for about $125 a day or jumping aboard one of the shuttle vans to reach an entry point for $30-$50.

Outfitters are located where paddlers rendezvous before and after trips. You can stock up on provisions or rent a long-anticipated hot shower after a week of arduous paddling. They attract tourists as well, offering vital camp supplies and accessories such as film, batteries and toiletries.

You can also go full scale and rent cabins or cottages at several lodges along the perimeter of the BWCAW. Rates start as low as $100 per night, but can go over $600 depending on group size and cabin amenities.


You can’t just drive up, park your car and head off to a wilderness campsite in the BWCAW. You’ll need to get a permit and make your reservation in advance. What at first might seem like an excessive amount of bureaucracy is necessary to maintain the BWCAW’s delicate state of wilderness.

The rules aren’t as restrictive as they may seem. Day use permits are simple, direct and merely a way to monitor the area and determine trends and popular use areas. They are free and available at all trailhead access points. The rules are simple: no overnight stays allowed, maximum of 9 people in a party and no more than four canoes per group. This ratio holds true throughout the area so popular destinations such as interior waterfalls are not overcrowded in a single afternoon.

To camp out in the boundary waters requires a reservation, in advance, for access via one of dozens of entry points throughout the southern perimeter of the BWCAW. An overnight reservation costs a non-refundable $12; add another $10 per paddler (17 and younger is $5) on the trip.

Regardless of how you arrive and what you bring, once you’ve entered the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, you are truly in another world. You can spend hours exploring the shorelines of remote lakes, tucking into lily-clogged coves or creating your own watery slalom course through protruding boulders.


There are a host of other activities that are especially suited for a boundary water adventure. Photographers have long captured the moods of the area throughout the day as changing light creates an endless world of colors and shapes. Birch, aspen and maples scattered throughout the evergreens offer splashes of oranges, yellows and reds in the fall while clusters of wild flowers along portage trails dot the understory in a vivid spectrum of blooms throughout the summer.

The wildlife within the boundary waters is part of this treasure chest as well. Whitetail deer, moose, beaver, porcupine, fox, black bear and the king himself-the timber wolf-all call the BWCA home. There is no more mystical and alluring sound than the harmonic howling of a nearby pack of wolves. It is a great reminder, upon hearing such haunting sounds, as to who is the guest in this pristine setting.

Birders, too, will find the boundary waters a haven for a wide variety of winged critters. Hawks, loons, ospreys and owls, songbirds and peepers can be found throughout the region. Besides the rarely heard wolf, the equally haunting yodel of the loon is probably the more definitive sound of the wilderness throughout canoe country. Like a barnyard rooster, the trilling call of a loon echoing out across a lake introduces each new morning throughout the boundary waters.

Serious anglers or lazy afternoon line-wetters will find plenty of action in the lakes and rivers of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Walleyes average 10 pounds, and 17 pounders have been recorded. Giant northern pike, humongous rainbow trout, large lake trout, plentiful 2-pound crappies and countless small-mouth bass can all fill a stringer in the boundary waters. Many of the interior lakes are several miles of river and portage trails away from the entry points so fishing is steady and productive throughout the summer.

If you are a serious paddler who just needs to get out and stretch the leg muscles occasionally, there are many short hikes in the 1- to 8-mile range. Several waterfalls and scenic overlooks are off spurs on the portage trails that connect the entire water network together. There are also major trails that have been worn into the ground over the centuries: The Gunflint Lake Trail (26 miles), Kekekabic Trail (37 miles) and Border Route (70 miles). The Superior Hiking Trail is over 200 miles of wilderness trail that weaves through the Sawtooth Mountain range along the north shore and Lake Superior.

Paddling in the boundary waters is truly an individual experience, from spiritual to sublime. The color of the water mimics the sky throughout the day, turning into a reflecting pool of stars by night. Northern lights will sometimes twirl and wave overhead for hours while full-moon nights are so bright you can almost read a book. And what’s a northern lake experience without a skinny dip off a warm rocky outcropping? A plunge into the chilled waters of a campsite lake invigorates the body, kindles the spirit and raises a field of goose bumps.


The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness offers paddlers of all skill levels a pristine environment in which to enjoy paddling at its purest. Waterways abound for those who choose to venture beyond the calm waters of the protected bays or slow-flowing streams. Lengthy and steep portages connecting long, wind-swept and wave-torn lakes provide constant challenges to seasoned paddlers. Yet, there are also the tranquil boundary waters, the passively quiet and serene north woods setting that invites one to paddle out into the middle of lake and just take it all in.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined wilderness as “an area where earth and community are untrammeled by Man, where Man himself is a visitor who does not remain; and has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive type of education.” Glide along just one lake anywhere in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and you will quickly discover that it’s all that – and so much more.

(sidebar 1)

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Information

BWCAW Permit Reservation Center

877/550-6777; /bwcaw.org/

Gunflint Trail Information Center

218/387-3191; /gunflint-trail.com/

Gunflint Trail Association


Grand Marais Area Tourism Association


U.S. Forest Service



Minnesota Department of Natural Resources


Birding Hotline (Birding Routes)

218/728-5030 for North Shore

Distance from Major Metro Areas:

260 miles from Minneapolis-St. Paul

500 miles from Des Moines

600 miles from Chicago

800 miles from St. Louis

Nearby Attractions and Events:

International Wolf Center/Ely

Soudan Mine State Park

Boundary Waters Blues Festival/late August

Blueberry Arts Festival/late June

Harvest Moon Festival/early September

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