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A Trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
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.
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...
Have you visited this area?
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!
This map pack includes Boundary Waters Canoe Area East and Boundary Waters Canoe Area West, printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material. This detailed topographic recreation maps contain trails, campsites, forest service roads, and points-of-interest, with UTM grids for use with your GPS.
Our Canoe-Camping Adventure
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.
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).
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.
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.
The lakes were often calm in the morning and evening, but the wind usually picked up by midday.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When we neared the portage we'd crossed from Duncan into Rose Lake alongside an impressive cascade, the trail opened up and we enjoyed a break at an overlook before descending to the waterfall and portage. From there, we bushwhacked along the shore to our camp, which was much more difficult on that part of the lake than it had been on the other side our campsite.
Illegal border crossers, Chris and Steve, standing on the Candian side of the creek
Looking back towards camp from the end of the Long Portage. Camp is aways around that farthest point.
Steve on the Border Route Trail on our way back to camp. Yes, there's actually a trail under there.
This Photo Won!
A Monthly Boundary Waters Photo Contest
The photo below of the branch pattern made by the yellow-bellied sapsucker won the August photo contest on BWCABoard.com! Comes with some nice prizes too, like free canoe rental in the Boundary Waters. Now we're definitely going back next year. Woo-hooo!
An overlook above Rose Lake. We stopped here before hiking down to the waterfall at Stairway Portage.
The Falls at Stairway Portage between Duncan and Rose Lakes. From here, we headed east along the shore back to camp.
Local Books I Read While On The Trip
I enjoy reading about the places I visit while I'm actually there.
Since we were paddling part of the historic Voyageurs Route used by the fur traders in the 1700s and 1800s, I decided to choose a book about canoeing the entire distance.
In 1958, author and nature photographer J. Arnold Bolz, his wife, Belva, and their friend, Harvi, carried their boat and gear from Lake Superior across the 8.5-mile Grand Portage and then paddled and portaged another 200 miles along the U.S./Canadian border to Rainy Lake near International Falls. Along the way, they read excerpts from old journals written by the fur traders about the places and portages they were passing through two centuries later.
I really enjoyed the book, in part because I was seeing some of the places I was reading about at the same time. It was interesting to read the excerpts from journals written by the voyageurs two or more centuries ago, though the language is often a bit archaic. Still, you can get the gist of even the most archaic passages.
The author, his wife and friend were really interested in the historic nature of their canoe trip along the Voyageur's route, which added an interesting element to this book, not just an account of their own adventure.
Stories About Two Young Men Who Lose Their Way (and almost their lives)
Being in Search & Rescue myself, I'm naturally interested in stories about those who get lost in the backcountry, in the events or decisions that led to their predicaments, and how they survived and were found (or found themselves).
It's crossed my mind a number of times--how easy it would be to get lost in the thick North Woods, often without significant landmarks to aid in navigation, especially if one ventures off the beaten path--not that there are many beaten paths in the Boundary Waters that aren't popular portages--without maps and a compass and solid orienteering skills. In fact, a friend of mine and I got quite confused about our location and our route ahead when we hiked Minnesota's Kekekabic Trail in 2003 and, at one point, backtracked close to ten miles just to get to a point we were sure of.
So I could relate to this book. And though I knew that both young men--who got lost at different times, not together--survived to tell their stories, that didn't lessen the impact of those stories or the suspense. I think this is a well-written book that moves along at a great pace.
An Inspiring, Independent Woman Of The Wilderness
The story of North Woods legend, Dorothy Molter
Nearly everywhere we went in the Boundary Waters area, from Grand Portage, Grand Marais and the Gunflint Trail to Ely and Voyageurs National Park, we saw this book on store and outfitter shelves and the Root Beer Lady image on bottles of the bubbly.
This is the story of legendary woman of the wilderness, Dorothy Molter, also known as the Nightengale of the Wilderness (after Florence Nightingale) for her nursing skills and the help, both medical and otherwise, she gave to those who visited her Boundary Waters "resort," Isle of Pines, on Knife Lake, where she lived since the 1920s.
I'm fascinated by reading about the ways of the past and how people did things the so-called "hard way." To me, though, those ways are inspiring. Like how Dorothy and friends cut blocks of ice from the frozen lake and stocked the ice house for the upcoming summer. Or how Dorothy snowshoed or portaged and paddled 14 miles or more to get to town or visit friends. I loved reading about her life and times and her friends, both human and animal, and her struggles at the Isle of Pines. In fact, I've read this book twice now in less than a month, once to myself and a second time aloud to my husband. (Not that he can't read, but we enjoy sharing a book like that.)
For More Information On The Boundary Waters - And it's Canadian counterpart on the other side of the line
Information on Canada's Quetico Park
Lots of information about wilderness canoe camping in Quetico Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, along with camping recipes, campfire stories, portages and routes, fishing tips and a LOT more.
- Boundary Waters Blog
Keep up with what's going on in the Boundary Waters and the surrounding area. Written by the owners of Voyageur Canoe Outfitters at the end of Minnesota's Gunflint Trail.
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury