Photograph by Jim Brandenburg
A heron perches on a pine tree in misty surroundings in the Boundary Waters wilderness area. For more about this photo, see Brandenburg's Field Notes.
Boundary Waters: Where Wonders Abound
By Saadia Iqbal
More than a million acres (400,000 hectares) of unbroken forest, and some five thousand lakes, ponds, and streams make up the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), which stretches more than a hundred miles (160 kilometers) along the Minnesota-Ontario border. This pristine wilderness is the perfect spot for adventurers, birdwatchers, photographers, or those simply looking for a relaxing vacation. It is a land of beaver dams, lily ponds, and wild blueberry bushes; of dense foliage and porcupines, gray jays, ravens, snowshoe hares, wolves, moose, white-tailed bucks, and bears. The wilderness is zealously guarded, so much so that motorists are restricted from all but a few specified areas.
Every year the BWCAW attracts thousands of visitors, who enjoy activities ranging from a single day of canoeing to several days of wilderness adventures such as hiking and camping. To prevent crowding in this popular area, the U.S. Forest Service limits access through a permit system. For contact information, see Related Links.
When to Go
The weather is sunny and cool from late May to mid-September, the best time for a Boundary Waters canoe trip. Spring and fall are favorable times for hiking, but be prepared for warm days and cold evenings. In the fall the woods are decked in spectacular colorsbright red maples, canary yellow aspens, and shimmering white birchesand the average daytime temperatures are in the comfortable 50s (around 10°C).
Where to Stay
The town of Ely, Minnesota, is the traditional jumping-off point for the BWCAW. There are a number of lodging choices, including Stony Ridge Resort, Paddle Inn, Westgate Motel, and Northwoods. Motels are often full on summer weekends, so it's a good idea to reserve in advance. In addition, there are several lodges, cabins, and bed and breakfasts in the wilderness area. Ely also has many restaurants, grocery stores, and sporting goods outfitters.
What to Do
Canoe routes cover approximately 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers), with about 60 entry points, providing unlimited combinations of water routes and portages. One of the most interesting short adventures it offers is a half-day canoe trip to the Hegman Lake pictographs. Follow the Canadian Border through Crooked Lane (six day trip) to experience the wonders of the Voyageurs history, and see the famous painted rocks and Basswood Falls. Painted in red ochre on a cliff several feet above the waterline, these ancient pictographs show the figure of a man standing with arms outstretched and fingers spread apart. He is accompanied by a moose and a dog (or wolf) and surrounded by crescent-shaped canoes. It is one of the clearest of the many Indian pictographs scattered throughout the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada.
Another nice trip is a two or three day excursion on Crab Lake, which gives you an overview of the BWCAW.
Motorboating is allowed only along certain routes. All watercraft must be registered. In addition, everyone on the boat must have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal floatation device.Motorboats must also have the standard combination of red and green bow lights and a 32-point white stern light. Lights must be displayed from sunset to sunrise. It's a good idea to stay near the shore so that if a storm threatens, you can get off the water quickly. Swimming is recommended only in calm water, far away from rapids and falls.
The shorelines have many inlets and coves where moose or deer are often spotted. Bald eagles are a common sight too.
Canoeing through Boundary Waters requires specialized equipment, including a fast, light, canoe. Visitors may prefer to work with outfitters, who provide equipment, food, and route-planning services.
A permit is required to fish in the BWCAW. Overnight and motor permits are limited through a quota system and are available at the Forest Service or from area businesses. Day-only visitors coming in on foot or in non-motorized vehicles may fill out a self-issuing permit at the entry point.
Toxins have been found in some fish in the area. Current information on this may be secured from the Minnesota Deparment of Public Health, while specific information on fishing can be obtained at all the district offices throughout the forest.
Hiking opportunities abound in the BWCAW, with 15 entry points designated as hiking-only. Ely, an old iron-mining town, is a popular entry point for campers entering the Boundary Waters from North Shore routes such as the Sawbill Trail (north of Tofte) or Gunflint Trail (northwest from Grand Marais). Among the many noteworthy hiking trails is the Echo Trail that winds northwest from Ely through the wilds of Superior National Forest. Unpaved for much of its length, the EchoTrail provides easy access to several lakes and streams in the Boundary Waters.
Some of the BWCAW hiking trails, such as the 38-mile (60-kilometer) Border Route Trail and the 40-mile (65-kilometer) Kekekabic, are rugged and more suitable for experienced hikers.
Hikers should equip themselves with proper outerwear and boots, bug repellent, maps, compass, raingear, extra warm clothes, plenty of food and water, and a first-aid kit. A global positioning system (GPS) is also an excellent navigational tool.
Although BWCAW lake water may look clear and pure, it needs to be boiled for three to five minutes before it's safe for drinking. Alternatively, it can be purified with a filter or treated with a chemical designed to kill Giardia lambia, a parasite that causes gastrointestinal illness and is common in the water.
Hikers should also be prepared for bear encounters, and check on weather and road conditions before setting out.
Winter trails may cross frozen lakes and streams and hikers should be cautious when venturing onto the ice.
The cold days and deep snows of northern Minnesota make this area ideal for cross-country skiing. The wilderness rules and regulations (www.canoetrip.com/rules.html) apply for skiing in the BWCAW, with maximum group size of nine people.
Even on the coldest days, some frozen lakes and streams are not safe. Water can seep onto the ice, creating slush that may freeze to the bottoms of skis. Be sure to carry a ski scraper. If you are planning to winter camp, familiarize yourself with ways to prevent and treat hypothermia and frostbite.
The Gunflint trail area has several outstanding networks of snowmobile and cross-country-skiing trails. You can also arrange guided ski trips into the wilderness with dogsled support.
International Wolf Center
Exhibits at Ely's acclaimed International Wolf Center illustrate the biology of the gray wolf, its pack structure and behavior, and its struggles to survive. The center arranges for visitors to ski, snowshoe, dogsled, or fly into wolf country to examine a kill site, and observe wolf activities. During warmer weather you may see wild wolves or track radio-collared wolves in the wilderness.
Related Links and Contact Information
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Official website of the BWCAW. Reserve a permit, get contact info, and learn some safety tips.
A useful website with information on different kinds of outdoor activities in the area.
Ely, Minnesota, Chamber of Commerce
Check out this site for information on Ely, and advice on planning your trip to BWCAW. The site is very helpful in finding lodging in Ely.
Minnesota Department of Health
Get fish and water consumption advice from this website.
Trip outfitters can provide help in planning your adventure:
Piragis Northwoods Company
Learn about getting around BWCAW, and rent camping gear and boats.
Sawbill Canoe Outfitters
This site provides advice and information for both beginners and experts.