5 days in the wilderness – Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area

Congratulations to our giveaway winner, Allison B.!  Check your email later today for more information. We hope to see you at the Soiree! If you didn’t win tickets, you can still purchase them here. Use the discount code DOSESOIREE2016 for $20 off each ticket! Now on to today’s topic – Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. 

Growing up in Minnesota, I’ve gained an appreciation for the natural beauty and majestic calm that comes with spending time in the wilderness. Over the years, I’ve made several trips to the rugged north woods of Minnesota so I was excited to have Bethany join for a summer camping trip to one of my favorite destinations – the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, known by locals as the ‘Boundary Waters’ or ‘the BWCA’ is a 1.1 million acre wilderness area that hosts over 250,000 annual visitors. Federally protected in 1964, the Boundary Waters offers visitors rugged landscapes of some of the oldest rock on earth – up to 2.7 billion years old. As a federal wilderness area, there are no access roads or permanent residents (with the exception of the incredibly interesting story of the root beer lady). The landscape is best experienced via canoe with paths (known as portages) connecting the vast chain of lakes.

Boundary Waters

Planning your Trip to the Boundary Waters

Picking an Entry Point

The Boundary Waters is located in Northeastern Minnesota, along the Canadian Border. With no close airport, the easiest way to get there is via car from the Minneapolis / Saint Paul area, which takes about 4 hours. When planning your trip, the first step is to decide which of the entry points into the area are best suited to your needs. Entry points begin at designated parking areas and provide access to lakes through portages of various lengths (more information courtesy of the US Forest service, pages 8-9 of their BWCA trip planning guide).

It can be difficult to decide which entry point is best suited for your needs if you’ve never been in the area, but my decision-making comes down to two factors: 1) Distance of portages 2) Number of accessible lakes. Generally speaking, entry points that begin with longer portages allow access to more remote lakes and are lesser-used during peak season. However, the significant effort you’ll need to expend getting to the first lake may limit the number of additional lakes you can visit. When looking at the accessible lakes from the entry point, you’ll need to decide if your group will want to plan your trip in a loop to see many lakes, or just to plan to camp on one lake and take day trips to check out the surrounding lakes. Regardless of which option you choose, permits need to be reserved in advance for many of the entry points as they are allocated via a quota system May 1 – September 30.

Boundary Waters Portage
Heading across our first portage

Andersons Canoe

Finding an Outfitter

Since you’ll need a canoe to navigate the lakes, finding an outfitter in the area is a great way to also get some advice on which entry points are available and suited for the amount of portaging and paddling you want during your trip. Outfitters can also help reserve your entry permits, although the process is pretty easy to do online once you know where you want to enter the wilderness. In my many trips, I have used Wilderness Outfitters and Anderson’s Canoe Outfitters and have been consistently satisfied, although there are many other good outfitters in the area.

We used Anderson’s for this trip, taking advantage of their unique entry location into the BWCA. While most entry points into the Boundary Waters begin with a portage to access a lake, Anderson’s uses a network of international waterways and rail portages to access a body of remote lakes along the Canadian border. This allows visitors to travel in 2 hours via motor boat what would take 2+ days of paddling with a canoe!

Boundary Waters

Boundary Waters

When to go

Timing your Boundary Waters trip presents some great options and tradeoffs. Late May and early June offer great fishing, wildflowers and cool temperatures. July and August offer warm temperatures, but more bugs and mediocre fishing.

In early September, you’ll have warm days, cool nights and generally good fishing. By mid-to-late September, fall colors begin and generally continue well into October. Winter presents a challenge, with bitterly cold temperatures, but a crisp and stunning landscape. With lakes iced over, you’ll need to travel by cross-country ski, snowshoe or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, by dogsled.

Boundary Waters

What to pack

  • Food: The amount of food you’ll need will depend on the length of your trip, how many people you have and how much you plan to fish, but make sure to bring a few ‘backup meals’ in case the fish aren’t biting.
  • Camping Supplies: All your usual camping supplies will be necessities, but make sure to double-check that you have everything since you’ll be in the wilderness. Also, you’re required to put your food in a bear-proof container, so bring either a bear barrel or a rope and pulley system to hang your food pack.
  • Clothing: The clothing you’ll need will be dependent on the weather, but regardless of the forecast bring rain gear and warm clothing. In almost any time of year, nights can get chilly and you’ll appreciate the extra layer.
  • Fishing Gear: A good selection of artificial bait as well as minnows or leaches are important if you want to spend a lot of time fishing. Also consider bringing a backup rod and reel.
  • Map: Make sure you have a map of the lakes you’ll be visiting that lists the campsites and portages in the area. There will be no cell phone service!

Boundary Waters

Boundary Waters

Once you arrive

However you choose to get into the Boundary Waters, once you arrive you can expect some paddling and portaging into the wilderness before you find a place to setup camp. The US Forest Service maintains a handful of primitive camp sites on each lake in the BWCA, which are marked on all maps of the area. Although the amenities are few given the wilderness designation (expect a fire grate and latrine toilet), you’re required to camp in designated sites to minimize the human impact on the area.

After we took our epic boat trip into the BWCA via Lac La Croix, we portaged to Iron Lake and spent most of our time there, with the exception of a day trip to see Crooked Lake. We spent our days fishing and exploring the surrounding lakes while making great camp meals and just relaxing in nature. Photography and birdwatching are also popular activities. Regardless of how you choose to spend your time, it’s incredible to be in nature, miles from modern technology and civilization.

BWCA Camping

Every time I’m in the BWCA, I return more appreciative of modern conveniences. The Boundary Waters is one of a few areas within the country that allows this detachment from the hectic pace of modern life.

If you’re looking for a unique way to experience the great outdoors, the BWCA is an incredibly scenic destination. What are your favorite places to discover the wilderness?

Leave a Comment