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A Trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Deb thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and is a Search & Rescue volunteer and writer living in Flagstaff, AZ.

Canoe-camping in the Boundary Waters

Canoe-camping in the Boundary Waters

Canoe-Camping In The North Woods of Minnesota

While paddling close to shore one evening, looking for wildlife as the setting sun created artwork on the surface of the still lake, my husband commented with a smile, "If it weren't for the mosquitoes, the biting flies, the gnat swarms and the leaches, this place would be overrun with people.

Actually, it wouldn't. That's what the permit system is for -- to limit the number of people in northern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, so solitude is sure to be part of any BWCAW canoe-camping experience.

Solitude, silence and the calls of the loons, the howls of wolves, and other abundant wildlife, pristine waters teeming with fish, thick forests in all shades of green, and time to slow down, breathe the fresh air and get in touch with yourself for a while -- those are just some of the things I love about the land of 10,000 lakes and why I proposed this trip, my second time to the area.

On August 1st, my husband and I and two other couples rendezvoused along the North Shore of Lake Superior then headed west to Gunflint Outfitters, where we'd begin our BWCAW canoe-camping trip the next morning.

Here, I'll share with you some information about our Boundary Waters trip and a handful of the many photos I took along the way. There are also links throughout the page for more information on related subjects.

Canoeing in the Boundary Waters

Canoeing in the Boundary Waters

Have You Been To The Boundary Waters? Whether you've gone to stay at a lodge, done some canoeing, hiking, hunting or fishing, or just passed through...

Some Boundary Waters Guidebooks and Maps to Help you Plan your Trip

The BWCAW isn't a place I'd go canoeing, canoe-camping or hiking without a good guide and maps. There's just nothing out there -- and not many people -- to help you if you get "misplaced." So have a good plan, let someone (like an outfitter) know your itinerary, be prepared to navigate and have a great time in a gem of a wilderness.

Here are some excellent guides, including a BWCAW trip planner, a canoe-camping guide, and a map bundle. The last two guides in this list divide the Boundary Waters into eastern and western regions for more detailed information. We used these ourselves and were glad we did.

Don't Forget Your Maps!

Gearing Up for Canoeing in the Boundary Waters -- at Gunflint Lodge

Gearing Up for Canoeing in the Boundary Waters -- at Gunflint Lodge

Getting Our Gear Together

With the help of Bonnie and Cheryl at Gunflint Outfitters

Six years ago, I met Bonnie and Cheryl at Gunflint, when my hiking partner and I decided to paddle part of our intended route rather than risk getting lost on the remote, unmarked and often obscure Border Route Trail. These two knowledgeable, capable women were very helpful in outfitting us for our canoe trip, obtaining the last-minute permit, providing us with maps for our route, and picking up the canoe (along with a surprise delivery of fresh strawberries) when we left the water a week later to hike the well-maintained Superior Trail. I thoroughly enjoyed the paddling and portaging and knew I'd eventually return for more.

This August 1st, the moment we turned off of Highway 61 at Grand Marais and started up the Gunflint Trail (a remote, scenic road), I smiled. Even the trees seemed familiar. And when we pulled up to the outfitters 46 miles later, nothing appeared to have changed, not even Bonnie and Cheryl, who both remembered my visit six years earlier in amazing detail.

The next morning, after my travel companions and I had a tasty dinner down at the lodge and spent a night in the canoer cabins, we finished organizing our gear, transferring canned foods to reusable plastic containers (because cans aren't allowed in the Boundary Waters--read the BWCAW rules) and watched the Boundary Waters Leave No Trace video. Then Bonnie issued us our permit, fitted us for PFDs and paddles, and we loaded our gear and boats for the shuttle to our entry point on Bearskin Lake.

For more information on Gunflint Outfitters, open year-round, visit their website at GunflintOutfitters.com or call 1-888-CANOEING.

Gunflint Outfitters and Gunflint Lodge on the shores of ... you guessed it: Gunflint Lake. I highly recommend these folks.

Gunflint Outfitters and Gunflint Lodge on the shores of ... you guessed it: Gunflint Lake. I highly recommend these folks.

Bonnie sizes us up for canoe paddles.

Bonnie sizes us up for canoe paddles.

Our Boundary Waters Canoe Route

The "Rose Lake Loop"

Bearskin Lake --> Duncan Lake --> Rose Lake --> Rat Lake --> South Lake --> North Lake --> Little Gunflint Lake --> Gunflint Lake

Well, it wasn't really a full loop, so the trip required a shuttle from Gunflint Outfitters to our put-in at Bearskin Lake, about a half-hour drive. The shuttle, including transporting our boats and gear was provided by Gunflint Outfitters for $25 (total, that is, not per person).

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Our canoe route was roughly 23 miles long, including the six portages but not including additional paddling we did in the various lakes to and from campsites and while fishing and sightseeing. We finished the trip when we paddled up to the beach back at Gunflint Lodge.

We planned five days for our trip, which allowed us ample time to explore the lakes by boat, relax in camp, do some hiking and fishing, and spend two nights on Rose Lake. The day we spent there was very windy, so we were glad not to have to paddle. That evening, the wind died down, and we enjoyed a sunset canoe.

On Rose Lake, moving on towards the short portage to Rat Lake

On Rose Lake, moving on towards the short portage to Rat Lake

Which Route to Take?

There are countless routes to choose from in the Boundary Waters, so you can really tailor your trip to suit your goals, abilities and time frame.

Routes might include no portages at all or perhaps many portages, short and/or long. You might simply stay on one lake and explore it to your heart's content. If fishing is your thing, you might want a low-mileage route with plenty of time in each spot. Or maybe you're more the voyageur type who likes to cover a lot of distance.

Whatever your preferences are, there will be a route out there to satisfy you. (Our next one will be more in the adventure-travel category, when we plan to paddle and portage more than 200 miles from International Falls to Grand Portage along the historic Voyageurs Route.) The local outfitters and guide services can help you select a route that's right for you.

I recommend using Fisher maps for Boundary Waters canoeing and camping.

We had three boats and six people in our group. The maximum allowed per group is nine people and four boats.

We had three boats and six people in our group. The maximum allowed per group is nine people and four boats.

The lakes were often calm in the morning and evening, but the wind usually picked up by midday.

The lakes were often calm in the morning and evening, but the wind usually picked up by midday.

Canoeing in the Boundary Waters

Canoeing in the Boundary Waters

Portaging

Carrying boats and gear overland between lakes and rivers

The portages, measured in rods with 1 rod equaling 16.5 feet, ranged from 4 to 80 rods on this trip. The challenging "Stairway Portage" between Duncan and Rose Lake literally included more than 100 wooden steps as you descend alongside a beautiful cascade.

We brought quite a lot of gear, including coolers with ice for perishable food, making the portages challenging and usually requiring two trips by each of us. You can certainly make portaging easier by packing much as you would for backpacking. This would be a good idea if doing a canoe route with longer portages, such as the 660-rod (two-mile) "Long Portage" at the east end of Rose Lake.

The etiquette on portages is that you allow anyone already on the portage or approaching it ahead of you to complete the portage before landing your watercraft and unloading. According to the permit rules, there can be no more than nine people at any one place in the Boundary Waters, including campsites, on the water and on portage trails.

Here's a good article on portaging, including portaging techniques, etiquette, tips to make it hurt less, and even a record-breaking portage: The Pain of Portaging by Kevin Callan

Unloading the boats for our first portage

Unloading the boats for our first portage

A bit of a bottleneck at a portage. This doesn't happen often and sometimes never on the more remote lakes.

A bit of a bottleneck at a portage. This doesn't happen often and sometimes never on the more remote lakes.

Camping In The Boundary Waters

Camp at designated sites and practice "Leave No Trace"

In the BWCAW, you have to camp either at one of the sites designated by a U.S. Forest Service fire grate and latrine or within "designated Primitive Management Areas" specifically approved on your permit.

The Fisher Maps have the designated campsites indicated with red dots. Camping is on a first-come, first-served basis, so it's advisable to get on the the water early in the morning if you're moving on and set up camp fairly early in the afternoon.

But it really depends on the season and the lake. When I was in the Boundary Waters in early June, 2003, my travel companion and I saw only 2 other boats and always had our choice of campsites. This time around, in August, 2009, we saw other people every day and sometimes the first sites we looked at were occupied.

Nonetheless, the permit system helps ensure you'll find a site without too much trouble, though you sometimes might have to paddle (and maybe even portage) further than you'd anticipated to find one that's open, especially during the more popular mid- to late summer season and on the less remote lakes.

One thing's for sure, though: you'll always have a lake view! Even sometimes from the potty.

Canoe-camping in the Boundary Waters

Canoe-camping in the Boundary Waters

Steve plays us a tune around the campfire. You can collect wood as long as it's away from shore, dead and no longer standing.

Steve plays us a tune around the campfire. You can collect wood as long as it's away from shore, dead and no longer standing.

Each campsite has an open-air, pit potty, complete with backside biting mosquitoes in the summer.

Each campsite has an open-air, pit potty, complete with backside biting mosquitoes in the summer.

Chillin' on the sun-baked rocks

Chillin' on the sun-baked rocks

Campfire Cooking At Its Best

There's something about food cooked over a campfire or on a camp stove that makes it taste so much better than it does at home, no matter how basic (and sometimes flawed) the recipe might be.

On our trip, though it meant a heavier load than if were eating backpacking-type food and more to carry on the portages, we decided to bring some fresh and perishable food in coolers and go "gourmet," at least for dinners.

For breakfasts, some of us had cold cereal/granola with rehydrated milk and fresh fruit, while others had oatmeal.

Lunches were various types of sandwiches, some on sliced bread and some on bagels, with various fruits and snacks.

Our dinner menu included:

  • Shrimp and seasoned vegetables over cous cous

    Dessert: Cherry cobbler (made in an aluminum dutch oven)

  • Whole wheat pasta with sundried tomato pesto and salad

    Desert: Cornbread (dutch oven)

  • "Hippie" burritos (rice, black beans, avocado, shredded cabbage, salsa and cheese in tortillas warmed in the dutch oven)

    Dessert: Peach cobbler (dutch oven)

  • Beanies and weenies

    Dessert: Cornbread (dutch oven)

We had a treat one day, when my father-in-law caught some small-mouth Bass, which were fried up with a coating a potato buds.

Again, our food could have been much more compact and a lot lighter if we'd gone with more traditional backpackers meals--dehydrated stuff like Ramen, Knorr pasta and rice dishes, and Mountain House meals--but we opted to go with the two-burner Coleman stove, coolers, and the Dutch oven and make multiple portage trips.

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Shrimp and veggies over cous cous--bon appetit!

Shrimp and veggies over cous cous--bon appetit!

We had to have a beanies and weanies night. I never eat this meal at home, but it sure tasted good in the Boundary Waters.

We had to have a beanies and weanies night. I never eat this meal at home, but it sure tasted good in the Boundary Waters.

A Hike Across The Border

Some bushwhacking and some Border Route Trail (also mostly bushwhacking)

During the full day we spent at Rose Lake, where we camped for two nights at the same great site, the six of us decided to do some hiking and set foot in Canada. (We couldn't camp on the Canadian side of the border lakes, because we didn't have the necessary international permit.)

So we started out from camp, bushwhacking east along the shore towards the two-mile Long Portage (not on our canoe route), where there's a creek that separates the United States from Canada. But the bushwhacking wasn't all that difficult, since it appeared we were following what may have been the old path of the Border Route Trail though that area.

When we reached the Long Portage and the creek next to it, we all waded through and crossed the border. So we were basically illegal immigrants for about five minutes in the middle of the wilderness.

Then Steve and I decided to take the longer way back to camp, along the current Border Route Trail, looping around above our campsite and coming out along the portage we'd done the day before to the west of camp, while the others returned the way we'd come. At times, the BRT was pretty easy to follow. And then it closed in, becoming more like swimming through thick brush rather than hiking, with just a faint footpath barely visible at best beneath the green mass.