Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
With 1.3 million acres and nearly 1,200 lakes, the Superior National Forest’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is an unrivalled dreamscape for outdoor lovers. Stretching 150 miles along the Canadian border, it is the largest wilderness east of the Rockies and one of the most beautiful spots in North America.
National Geographic Traveler included the Boundary Waters, along with the Taj Mahal, Grand Canyon, and Venice, in its “50 Places of a Lifetime” issue.
Streams and portages connect the myriad lakes, allowing unlimited canoe travel, and not surprisingly 99 percent of visitors journey on the water; however, the wilderness surrounds some of Minnesota’s best hiking trails too. Motorboats are allowed on 19 periphery lakes, but that was a necessary part of the compromise to get the wilderness protection in the first place, and they won’t impede on your experience if you are here to paddle.
For the ultimate in isolation, plan part of your trip through one of the Primitive Management Areas. Previously established portages and campsites are no longer maintained on these 299,760 acres, so reaching the lakes they surround requires a bit of bushwhacking. There is no limit on day use, but only one group can camp in each zone each night.
With over 200,000 visitors each year, this paddlers’ paradise is also the most heavily used wilderness area in the country; however, a strict permit system protects the beauty, solitude, and wildlife and ensures a quality wilderness experience.
Though you can just show up and head right out into the wilderness, there are numerous factors—not the least of which is the quota system—that make advanced planning for an overnight journey a good idea. A night under the stars is the ultimate Boundary Waters experience, though day trips can still be pretty amazing too, and they require much less advance thought.
When to Visit
There is no best time to experience the Boundary Waters, but three-quarters of visitors set out during June, July, and August, leaving the beautiful-weather months of May and September crowd free. September also gets you fall colors. The peak tourist season runs mid-July though mid-August, though even then you can find solitude.
Ice-out usually comes at the end of April, while the first snow falls and the lakes refreeze around the end of October, and there are always some who paddle right up against these limits.
Blackflies are at their worst the first two weeks of June, while mosquito swarms are gone by the end of July. Late May to early June, as well as September, tend to offer the best fishing. Winter visitors are a hardier bunch, but skis, snowshoes, and dogsleds are an excellent way to experience the Boundary Waters.
Between May 1 and September 30 the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness operates under a quota system, and all overnight visitors, plus daytime motorboaters, must get a permit before entering. The cost is $16 per adult per trip (children as well as Golden Age and Golden Access card holders are $8), plus a nonrefundable $12 reservation fee. A $44 deposit will be collected regardless of the group size, and the rest must be paid (or the difference will be refunded if you are traveling solo) when picking up the permit. A seasonal fee card ($40 adults, $20 youth) covers permit costs for the whole year, but does not eliminate the reservation fee or deposit.
While not required, reservations are a very good idea since you cannot count on just showing up and finding a route that suits your desires. Reservations are handled by the BWCAW Permit Reservation Center (877/550-6777 or 877/833-6777 TDD, www.bwcaw.org). Reservations for the coming year may be submitted beginning November 1, and those received before January 15 will join a lottery. Following the lottery, reservations are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Permits can be picked up at all Superior National Forest ranger stations, the forest headquarters in Duluth, and 66 other locations, including resorts and outfitters. These cooperating permit stations only accept credit cards for payment, and some charge a small service fee. If an outfitter is arranging your trip they will probably secure your permit for you.
Overnight visitors between October 1 and April 30, plus non-motorized day-trippers throughout the year, must fill out a self-issuing permit form, which is available at the ranger stations and most entry points. No reservations are required, and there are no limits on the number of visitors. An overnight in a Primitive Management Area, regardless of the season, requires first-come, first-served authorization in person from a Forest Service office.
Rules and Etiquette
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness’s strict regulations, which will be detailed when you get your permit, are meant to maximize people’s wilderness experiences while minimizing their impact. First and foremost, everyone must observe Leave No Trace (www.lnt.org) principals. Maximum group size is nine people and four watercraft. One rule that catches some people off guard is the ban on cans and glass bottles, though fuel, insect repellant, medicine, and personal hygiene products in their original containers are allowed. Food and drink may be stored in plastic containers, but these must be packed out.
For those traveling by water, camping is restricted to designated sites, except for people with Primitive Management Area authorization forms. Those following hiking trails are strongly encouraged to use the designated sites, but it is not a requirement. Winter visitors should set up camp out on the ice and make only one trail connecting camp with the shoreline. If you build a fire, burn only dead and down wood collected well away from your campsite—it is, of course, illegal to cut live vegetation. Tree vandalism is a serious problem in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and even minor damage adds up over time. Canoes must be licensed in Minnesota or your home state. Motorboats are only allowed on 19 lakes, and your wilderness permit must specifically designate motorized use. Portage wheels are only permitted over a handful of portages.
One final thing to remember is to be quiet. Voices carry surprisingly far across the lakes, especially on still evenings, and loud noises not only disturb other visitors but scare off wildlife. Barking dogs do the same thing, so they are best left at home. If you must bring Fido, keep him on leash at landings and portages.
Naturally, with the labyrinth of lakes you’ll be traveling, a good map is essential. USGS topographic maps are excellent for detailing the lay of the land, though they do not show portages and campsites, so it is best to buy BWCAW-specific maps. The most popular maps are the Fisher F-Series, which use a scale of 1.5 inches per mile, while others prefer MacKenzie Maps with their larger 2 inches to 1-mile scale. Both are excellent, waterproof, and readily available; you may want to make your map decision based on the number of maps needed since a single map by one company may cover your entire route as opposed to two or three maps from the other. Also, keep in mind that no maps are perfect and will show portages and campsites that no longer exist, which is one more reason to discuss your trip with the Forest Service or an outfitter.
Exploring the Boundary Waters by Daniel Pauly is an invaluable resource for route planning. First-time paddlers should also look at Boundary Waters Canoe Camping by Cliff Jacobson. This comprehensive book covers everything from paddling, camping, and orienteering basics to how to follow a moose trail.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition