Boundary Waters Canoe Area: Paddling Into The Wild

Minnesota Boundary Waters
Canoeing the Boundary Waters in Minnesota
Ely, Minnesota

If you’re looking to get away, unwind, and reconnect with nature, you really can’t beat a backcountry canoe trip into Minnesota’s pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

With the wind at my back, I glided effortlessly over the cool lake water with every thrust of my paddle. The calming silence broken only by the lonely wail of a loon swimming close by…

My father & sister were slightly ahead of me, scouting for our first campsite. Our lightweight kevlar canoes loaded with enough food & gear to support us for 10 days in the wilderness.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) is an outdoor lover’s paradise — encompassing over one million acres of North Woods backcountry and 1000+ scenic lakes.

Part of Superior National Forest, it hugs the border of Minnesota in the United States and Ontario in Canada. This is a summary of our first adventure canoeing the lakes of the BWCA, fishing for dinner, and camping in the forest.

I hope it inspires you to embark on your own journey into Minnesota’s Boundary Waters one day!

Minnesota Boundary Waters
Me, my Sister, and Father
Minnesota Boundary Waters
Canoeing the Lakes of BWCA

Boundary Waters History

Canoeing, camping, fishing, and hunting have been practiced in the Boundary Waters area for hundreds of years. The Ojibwe and Sioux indigenous tribes called these woods home, traveling the numerous lakes in birch-bark canoes.

Next came French fur trappers and the English-owned Hudson Bay Company, who made fortunes selling beaver pelts caught in the region. Eventually, in the 1900’s, the area became a popular recreation destination.

Finally in 1978, after many legal battles, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act was passed to protect the region from development.

It’s one of America’s greatest land conservation success stories, and is enjoyed by over 200,000 visitors a year. However because it’s so large, the BWCA doesn’t feel as crowded as more popular National Parks.

Canoeing the BWCA
Paddling a Northstar Magic Solo Canoe
Canoeing Lakes in Minnesota
Navigation Stop to Check the Map
Boundary Waters Map
Boundary Waters Map: Entry #23

Canoeing The BWCA

In July of 2017, I drove up to Ely, Minnesota along with my father and sister to begin our first “epic” Boundary Waters adventure into the North Woods.

We’d been looking forward to it for months! A way to bring back childhood memories of canoeing & camping together in New England… some family bonding time.

It’s also healthy to simply take a break, immerse yourself in nature, and disconnect from the outside world. One of the best ways I’ve found to recharge your senses, de-stress, and gain some perspective on life!

After packing up our gear the night before at a rented cottage in Ely, we awoke before sunrise, strapped two canoes onto the car’s roof-rack, and drove towards Entry Point #23 at Mudro Lake to start our 10 day journey.

Our Boundary Waters Route:

  • Mudro Lake
  • Fourtown Lake
  • Boot Lake
  • Fairy Lake
  • Gun Lake
  • Gull Lake
  • Thunder Lake
  • Beartrap Lake
  • (then back to Mudro the way we came)
Boundary Waters Portaging
Portage Trails in the Boundary Waters
Carrying a Canoe
Carrying the Canoes from Lake to Lake

Portaging Through The Forest

If you think a long-distance canoe trip is easy, I’ve got some news for you. While many of the lakes are next to each other, you still have to cross portions of land to get from one lake to another. This is called a “portage”.

Basically, you get out of your canoe, unload it, then take turns hiking the canoe and your gear through the woods to the next lake. Depending on how many people are in your group, and how much gear you have, it could take a couple trips back and forth to get everything over.

Some Boundary Waters portage trails are only 50 yards long. Others can be up to a mile long. And portage trails aren’t measured in meters or feet, but in “rods”. A rod is about 16.5 feet long, or the approximate length of a canoe.

Portaging can be a nice way to break up the trip — a chance to stretch your legs and give your arms a rest.

However if the trails are overgrown, steep, or muddy — or if you hit a series of small lakes with multiple portages over a short time, it gets tiring too.

Hammock Camping Minnesota
Camping in my Hennessy Hammock
Boundary Waters Lake Sunset
Sunset Over the Boundary Waters
Wilderness Toilet BWCA
The “Biffy”, or Campsite Toilet

Camping In The Wilderness

Each lake has a handful of designated campsites that are snatched up on a first-come, first-serve basis. They’re equipped with a fire-pit, metal cooking grill, and a biffy (open-air camp toilet).

If all the campsites are taken, you must continue on to the next lake and check there. True wild camping is not allowed in the Boundary Waters, unlike on the Canadian side (called Quetico Provincial Park).

Usually we’d pick a good campsite in the early afternoon, set up our tents and tarp, then go fishing nearby. Sometimes we’d stay in the same spot for 2 nights in a row — in order to relax between travel days.

Gathering firewood was a regular task, requiring us to jump into a canoe and seek out dead trees (white pine, cedar, jack pine) along the shoreline. We’d saw some limbs off, load the canoe, return to camp, and cut the wood into smaller pieces.

Walleye Fishing Boundary Waters
Lindsay Catching an 18″ Walleye
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Fishing
Frying Fresh Fish for Dinner

Fresh Water Fishing

Many people take canoe trips into the Boundary Waters for the amazing fishing found there. The fish are plentiful, and large! The most common types are walleye, smallmouth bass, northern pike, lake trout, brook trout, and crappie.

The pristine lakes offer plenty of opportunities for catching fish.

A Minnesota fishing license is required for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Licenses may be purchased online here or in person at many local businesses or canoe outfitters.

We caught a mixture of walleye and smallmouth bass using leeches as bait. My sister hooked a northern pike one afternoon, but unfortunately it snapped the line with its sharp teeth as she attempted to reel it in!

When fishing the BWCA, it’s important to only keep what you can reasonably eat. That said, we ate plenty of fresh fish for dinner during our journey. Often breaded & fried up with onion, lemon, beans and rice! Yum.

Boundary Waters Wildlife
Early Morning Moose Sighting
Boundary Waters Snakes
Swimming Garter Snake!

Wildlife Spotting!

One morning, on Gull Lake, we watched from camp as a large female moose came crashing out of the forest and swam across the bay to disappear on the opposite side.

After days of tranquil silence, it was a bit startling! I imagine that’s what Big Foot would sound like if he was coming to get you…

Other animals we came across included partridges thumping the ground to attract a mate, garter snakes, rabbits, loons, bald eagles, and angry beavers slapping the water with their tails as we approached.

Timber wolves, black bears, and bobcats also call the Boundary Waters home — but are a bit more difficult to spot.

Boundary Waters Campsites
Camping on Gull Lake
Boundary Waters Canoe Gear
Loaded Up For our Adventure!

Boundary Waters Tips

Most BWCA visitors “base camp” for a night or two near the entry points. So if you want to find less crowded lakes, you simply need to travel further out into the backcountry.

Even though we were there during the busy mid-July high season, we rarely saw anyone beyond Fourtown Lake.

Beware the mosquitos! After the sun sets, they’re the worst I’ve ever seen. You definitely want to pack, at a minimum, strong bug spray and a mosquito head net. However a full bug shirt works wonders.

Boundary Waters Weather
Rainy Day in the BWCA
BWCA Camping
One of Our Campsites

BWCA Permits

To visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, you need to buy a permit online. The BWCA is made up of different “entry points” near roads. You buy your permit based on which entry point you want to begin from.

Each entry point only allows a certain number of permits per day, so you’ll want to try and book a BWCA permit at least a few months before your trip — because they can sell out fast.

We began our adventure from Entry Point #23, Mudro Lake. It’s a popular one, so we booked our July permit in March. You pick up the permit in person from the closest ranger station to your entry point.

Boundary Waters Outfitters
Voyager North Outfitters in Ely, MN

Boundary Waters Outfitters

If you don’t have all the gear necessary to canoe the Boundary Waters, it’s possible to rent gear from local canoe outfitters. Or even hire a guide to help you with navigation, camp setup, cooking, etc.

While we had most of our own gear, we chose to rent two Northstar kevlar canoes with paddles from Voyager North Outfitters. Highly recommend them!

Kevlar canoes are incredibly lightweight, which makes carrying them on your shoulders during a portage MUCH easier than aluminum ones.

Packing For The Boundary Waters?

I’ll be publishing a packing guide for the BWCA shortly! Make sure to join my mailing list if you want to get notified when it’s complete. ★

Bonus Video! Boundary Waters Canoe Trip


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Travel Planning Resources For Boundary Waters

Packing Guide

Check out my travel gear guide to help you start packing for your trip. Pick up a travel backpack, camera gear, and other useful travel accessories.

Book Your Flight

Find cheap flights on Skyscanner. This is my favorite search engine to find deals on airlines. Also make sure to read how I find the cheapest flights.

Rent A Car

Discover Car Hire is a great site for comparing car prices to find the best deal.

Book Accommodation

Booking.com is my favorite hotel search engine. Or rent apartments from locals on Airbnb. Read more about how I book cheap hotels online.

Protect Your Trip

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance.

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Canoeing the Boundary Waters. More at ExpertVagabond.com
Canoeing the Boundary Waters. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any questions about my Boundary Waters trip? What about other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!

THANKS FOR READING

Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 9 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel more with crazy stories, photography, and useful tips from my journey.
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15 thoughts on “Boundary Waters Canoe Area: Paddling Into The Wild”

  1. WOW ! This is my kind of trip. I can’t wait to be there next week. Is it possible to rent paddle boards there? Please let me know

    Thanks for sharing with us.

  2. We are planning a road trip to Minnesota this summer for a wedding and this looks a must stop. What gorgeous photos. Thanks for the ideas!

  3. Grew up not far from there (NW WI), and loved going even farther up north into MN and WI, as well as along the shores of Lake Superior. Definitely a hidden gem! You should go to Isle Royal National Park next, or go to the Apostle Island caves near Bayfield, WI, especially when they turn into ice caves each winter!

  4. Hi Matt,
    Thanks for the great post! I have traveled around the USA and never seen or heard of this area. I definitely want to do a trip here when I return to the US. Did you rent your canoes or already own them?

  5. This is a definite bucket list adventure for me. I love canoeing, but North Carolina waters are better suited for overnighters than expeditions.

  6. Having been there, I believe the BWCA is a natural gem for all to enjoy. I was also impressed by the people of Ely, MN. All were friendly and the food was great. It’s the best way to realize that our natural resources can be used to full advantage without having to manipulate them to suit our short term goals.

    • Unfortunately this whole beautiful area is threatened by nearby sulfide mining. I hope officials eventually manage to kick them out and prevent others from trying to do the same. The last thing this recreation area needs is to have the water poisoned by mining companies…

  7. Hey Matt! Amazing article emphasizing two things I really miss: Nature and spending time with family. As a full-time nomad, I really try and get in family time as much as I possibly can so this is a really great idea for a family trip.

    You’re absolutely right about nature as well, it’s definitely a great way to disconnect and enjoy the peace and quiet when compared to the craziness of everyday life. I’ve added this to my list of things to do! Thanks so much!

    Ron

    PS: You ran away too fast in Ireland! Hopefully, we’ll meet somewhere else in the word!

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