That the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is one of the most spectacular locations in a continent filled with them is not the question. Sharing a 150-mile border with Canada in northern Minnesota, it spans more than a million acres filled with 1,100 lakes and 1,200 miles of canoe and kayak routes. Its abundant wildlife, from moose to dam-building beavers, can be seen in its pristine forests and clear lakes, which themselves teem with fish, while multiple bird species fly overhead.
So, no, the question isn’t whether to add the BWCAW to your bucket list. The question, rather, is how to tackle this immense, and immensely beautiful, place. The good news is that, despite its remote location, Boundary Waters can be enjoyed by even first-time paddlers.
What is Boundary Waters
Part of the Superior National Forest and managed by the National Forest Service, the BWCAW — or B-dub, as locals call it — area contains vast forests of pine, fir, and spruce trees, untouched by development. It’s been shaped over millennia by glaciers that have carved up its landscapes, leaving over a thousand lakes that cover one-fifth of the area.
The BWCAW has been an officially protected wilderness area since 1978 and teems with wildlife, including moose, deer, black bears, bobcats, foxes, otters, and beavers, among them. It is also home to the largest population of Eastern timber wolves in the Lower 48. Pike, perch, walleye, trout, and smallmouth bass are among the fish that draw anglers here.
Tips for first-timers
There are more than 70 entry points into the area and over 2,000 camping spots. It’s essential to get permits ahead of time online, as you’ll need to go in through the entry point for which you got a permit. If you are planning to do any fishing, you’ll need a license for that too, which you can get online through Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources.
Our top tip for anyone new to canoeing and kayaking is to camp in one spot and take day trips from there. That will save you the effort of having to break-down, pack up, and remake camp every day, and will mean that you can paddle without a packed, heavy craft. You also won’t need to portage — that is, take out your canoe and carry it across land between lakes — a heavy canoe quite so often. In fact, first-timers are encouraged to think about a camping spot that involves only two or three portages to get to.
Also, if you are going to need to paddle for a while to get to your base camp, or simply the camp where you’ll spend your first night, you’ll want to leave early in the morning — so consider an entry point that’s close to a hotel. No matter what, make sure you know the basics of reading water conditions and discuss details with the folks you’ll be renting your gear from.
Where to start
The main towns near the B-dub are Ely, Grand Marais, and Tofte. You can rent canoes and kayaks in these towns and, in many cases, they can offer you a complete set-up or, if you’re more experienced and already have the gear, something more basic. Depending on who you rent from, they may be able to help you secure a wilderness permit. And, by all means, take the time to talk to them to get their take on the best routes and places to camp.
The town of Ely has the most options in terms of canoe and kayak rentals, so you can go ahead and research pricing there. Most outfitters will also shuttle you to your entry point. Another option is Grand Marais, on the shore of Lake Superior, and also along the Gunflint Trail entrance into the area. You’ll also find rentals in Tofte, also on Lake Superior south of Grand Marais, but you may not find ones with the option to fully equip your canoe or kayak.
Choosing a route
If you’re planning to base yourselves in one spot and take day trips, good lakes include South Temperance Lake, Mahlberg Lake, or Seagull Lake. Check before you go to make sure the area you want to explore hasn’t had a fire in recent years, as it takes a while for the forest to regrow. Likewise, if having a campfire is important to you, make sure the area you want to explore doesn’t have a fire ban.
If you’ll be moving from campsite to campsite, plan on being able to paddle an average of three miles per day. Also, note that portages are calculated in rods, with each rod measuring 16.5 feet. With that, factor in daylight hours, the time it will take you to break down camp and set up camp, and any time you may want to relax or hike. If you’ll have to portage as well, then six to eight miles is reasonable in a day, while the itineraries of more experienced paddlers may have them paddling ten miles a day.
If a route runs east-west, consider starting on the western end — since you may enjoy the wind at your back that way. Cross Bay Lake to Long Island Lake is a good starter itinerary that you can take from three to five days to complete. There’s good fishing in the area, as well as islands to camp on, which is always a highlight. Alternatively, the 5-7 day Clearwater Route is a good option and those staying at the Clearwater Historic Lodge on either end of their journey may want to opt for this route, which showcases the best of the area, taking you alongside tall cliffs and offering multiple vistas into Canada.
There are literally hundreds of options, and the Friends of the Boundary Waters, a nonprofit set up to protect the area and keep the waters clean, offers plenty of route ideas. They have these listed by the number of days you want to spend, and they also have favored routes suggested by members who’ve plied these waters.
What else to do at Boundary Waters
If your idea of a good time is not spending it setting up camp, you can always enter the Boundary Waters for a day trip. Whether staying at the Clearwater Historic Lodge, the Gunflint Lodge, or other nearby accommodations, it’s possible to do a canoe day trip and still take in the quiet serenity of being out on the water, and seeing the wildlife on the shore.
Or maybe you are okay with camping, but you don’t want to paddle for several hours each day. Well, the good news is that there is spectacular hiking by Boundary Waters. You can do easy two-milers around lakes or overnight treks as well. For bird watchers, the B-dub is heaven, as over 200 bird species have been spotted here. Look out for Canada geese, mallard ducks, multiple types of woodpeckers, loons, herring gulls, red-tailed hawks, chickadees, warblers, robins, jays, bald eagles, and many more feathered fliers.
Best time to go
The canoeing season runs from May to September, and the best fishing is during those bookend months. Wildflower viewing and berry-picking, on the other hand, are best enjoyed in June and July. If mosquitos are a concern, go in August or September. You’ll find the warmest days in June through August, with temperatures reaching the mid-70s. If you want to avoid crowds, September is a great month to go, but come prepared as overnight temperatures can linger below 50 degrees. Just know that in August in September, water levels can be lower, making some routes more challenging. No matter when you go, bring rain jackets, as precipitation is possible any time. The BWCAW gets an average of 8-11 days of rain per month throughout the summer.
Winter at Boundary Waters
While most people visit boundary waters in the warmer months, the area can be especially magical, and quiet, in the long days of winter. Minnesota is one of the best places in the Lower 48 to spot the northern lights, and the BWCAW is officially an International Dark Sky destination. Just check the aurora forecast and park yourself on the southern shore of a lake for the best northward view of the aurora .
In winter, you can also explore the frozen lakes of Boundary Waters on cross-country skis, snowshoes, or on dog sleds. You could spend a couple of days at the Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, but you don’t need to be a guest to take day trips from the lodge. They offer tours where you guide your own sled over the frozen waters of the B-dub, an area that’s simply magical any time of year.
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