Planning A Canoe Camping Trip In The Boundary Waters
A Canoe-Camping Vacation On the US / Canada Border
In August, my husband and I and two other couples traveled to northern Minnesota for a week-long canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) on the U.S./Canadian border. Since this trip was my idea and I'd been to the area once before, I was the one who did the planning and made most of the arrangements.
And as I made those plans, I posted the information here, not only to help myself get organized but also to assist others who might want to do this trip. Or perhaps this might be useful to those planning similar canoe-camping vacations in other areas.
I updated the information both before and after the trip.
About The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness -- or BWCAW -- comprises more than a million acres within the Superior National Forest in Northern Minnesota. It was established as wilderness in 1978, restricting logging, mining, and most motorized use. Within the BWCAW, there are more than 1,000 pristine lakes and streams, with over 1,500 miles of canoe routes and more than 2,000 campsites.
Experience The Beauty Of The Boundary Waters - Here's a glimpse of what a canoe trip in the North Country is like....
Planning Our Boundary Waters Trip
Who, When, What, How, And Where?
Who is going?
The answer to this question changed some since I began making plans. After all, it can be difficult for people to commit too far in advance. Then again, it's hard for me to make plans if I don't know how many people I'm planning for. But it looks like we now have our final number: We'll be three couples -- my husband and me, my in-laws, and another couple I went to school with more than two decades ago and recently reconnected with on Facebook.
We'll all be traveling from different parts of the country. Steve and I are in Flagstaff, Arizona; my in-laws, will be coming from their summer home in Montana; and our friends are in Rhode Island. So our rendezvous in Minnesota will be part of the plan.
When should we go to northern Minnesota?
This decision took some contemplating. We originally thought about June, but that was the best time for a backpacking trip my husband and I wanted to do this year. We don't want to go to Minnesota when it's too cold, but we also hope to avoid the worst of the mosquitoes. (Last time I was in the Boundary Waters, I came home a bumpy, bloody mess from scratching.) We also had to take everyone's schedules and vacation times into account, which means we ended up with the beginning of August. I'm sure there will still be more than enough mosquitoes, but hopefully we'll be past the worst of it. The canoe-camping portion of this trip will be from August 2nd through the 6th.
What are the typical weather conditions for that time of year?
The average daytime high temperature in August is 79.3 degrees Fahrenheit. July and August are said to be the best months, weather-wise, for campers, though nights can still be chilly, with temperatures in the 40s. Average rainfall at this time of year is 3.6 inches for the month. August typically sees a bit more rain than July. As always, we'll go prepared for a wide range of conditions.
How will we travel to and from Minnesota?
For us, it's going to be a plane trip from Phoenix, Arizona, either to Duluth or Minneapolis, with Minneapolis being farther away from our final destination but mostly likely less expensive because it's the larger airport. Flying out of our tiny airport here in Flagstaff is usually very expensive, so that means we'll need a shuttle from Flagstaff to the Phoenix airport or to pay for airport parking for two weeks.
We plan to take a second week of vacation as a road trip around Minnesota before flying back to Arizona.
I'm currently hunting for good prices on airline tickets and a rental car.
Update of 7/2: Round-trip to and from Minneapolis it shall be. Much less expensive than flying in and out of Duluth, MN. And we'll have to go to Phoenix. Flying from Flagstaff would mean plane changes and a lot more money. Even with the airport parking, flying out of Flagstaff is still more expensive.
Where will we stay?
The night before and the night after the canoe-camping trip, we'll be staying in the canoer cabins at Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters. I was there once before, in 2003, when a hiking partner and I spontaneously decided to do part of our backpacking trip with canoes and paddles, rather than continue on the very overgrown Border Route Trail for no less than ten days. The staff was very helpful to us in planning our canoe trip and very nice, and there was no question that I'd visit them again. I'll tell you more about Gunflint below.
How far is it from Duluth, Minnesota to Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters?
It's 110 miles from Duluth to Grand Marais on Highway 61, then another 46 winding miles on County Road 12 (aka Gunflint Trail).
Update of 7/2: Since we'll be flying into Minneapolis, we'll have an extra 154 miles to drive from there to Duluth. Oh well. We'll be in vacation-mode, so it's all good.
Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters
A Full-Service Outfitter on the Gunflint Trail
Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters
This is a place I can see us returning to often. Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters offers everything from lodging in (nice) rustic canoer cabins or bunkhouses and excellent meals to complete outfitting and trip-planning services, boat and equipment rentals, guided trips, naturalist programs, history talks, fishing licenses, and all sorts of special packages and programs, year-round.
Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters
143 South Gunflint Lake
Grand Marais, MN 55604
Toll Free: 888.226.6346
Visit their website at GunflintOutfitters.com.
If rustic cabins and bunkhouses aren't your thing--if you'd prefer a cabin with a hot tub, fireplace, sauna, dishwasher, and even a washer and dryer--Gunflint Lodge is nearby.
A Boundary Waters Permit
Required for any length of stay in the BWCAW
Anyone who wishes to visit the BWCAW will need a permit, whether they're entering the area for a day or for an overnight or multi-day stay. Permits grant access to a certain entry point but don't reserve campsites.
Advanced reservations aren't necessary from October 1st through April 30th. Between those dates, you can pick up a permit at designated issuing stations the day before or even the day of entry. During the summer, day-use permits can be obtained the same way, but reservations are needed for overnight permits.
There is a $12 nonrefundable reservation fee for each permit, then a $16 charge per adult (one-time, not per day) and $8 per child. When you make a reservation for an overnight or multi-day permit, a $32 deposit is collected regardless of your group's size (meaning, a total of $44 for the reservation fee and permit). You can add additional people later on, which is a big help if you aren't sure how many people will go until the last minute.
For more information on BWCAW permits, visit BWCA.cc.
The nice thing about using the services of Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters is that they take care of obtaining the permit for you.
Visit the Gunflint Outfitters website for more information.
BOUNDARY WATERS RULES:
- You're required to enter the BWCAW at the entry point and date shown on your permit.
- You have to camp at the sites designated by a U.S. Forest Service fire grate and latrine, or within the designated Primitive Management Areas approved on your visitor's permit. All members of a permit group have to camp together.
- It's against the law to cut, peel or deface a tree or shrub or to pick flowers.
- If you want to gather firewood, paddle away from camp, walk out of sight of the shoreline and collect only deadwood that is no longer standing. Transporting firewood from out of state is not allowed.
- Campfires may only be built within the provided fire grates or as specifically approved on your visitor's permit. Fires must be out cold at night and whenever you leave the campsite.
- No more than 9 people can be together at any place in the Wilderness, whether they're on the water, on portages, or in camp. Four boats are the maximum allowed per group.
- Cans and glass bottles are not allowed in the Boundary Waters, except for fuel, bug repellent, medication and toiletries. Food and drinks should be carried in reusable plastic containers.
- If you have food leftovers, they should be packed out. Fish remains should be disposed of well away from campsites, trails, portages, and shorelines.
- Trash may not be burned or thrown into latrines. In Minnesota, it's illegal to burn trash of any kind, even paper, because burning trash can release "dangerous chemicals" into the air and soil. If you pack it in, you must pack it out.
- It's not okay to wash yourself or your dishes in the lakes or streams. You have to be at least 150 feet from water sources to wash, even with biodegradable soap, and pack out the food particles.
- Excessive noise isn't permitted.
- Motorized watercraft meeting specific horsepower limitations are allowed only on designated routes. No other motorized or mechanized equipment, including pontoon boats, sailboats, ATVs, and sailboards, is allowed, except for portage wheels on specific routes.
- Dogs are allowed in the Boundary Waters but must be under control at all times. Waste must be disposed of 150 feet from water sources, campsites, and portages, or put in the latrine.
- Firing a gun is prohibited within 150 yards of a campsite or other occupied area, or "in any manner or location that places people or property at risk of injury." State firearm and game laws apply in the BWCAW, and any type of fireworks are illegal.
Logistics Of Our Boundary Waters Trip
Travel, Food, Shuttle, Equipment
How will we travel from the airport to Gunflint Outfitters?
We'll be renting a car, even though we'll be paying for it the whole time it's sitting at Gunflint while we're out paddling. My in-laws are driving from Montana and bringing their own canoe, but I six of us wouldn't fit in their truck. And now they're contemplating bringing their two dogs (which are allowed in the Boundary Waters as long as they're leashed, as well as at Gunflint), so that means we definitely all won't fit.
There is a shuttle from Duluth to Gunflint -- Quarles Transportation at (218)387-1801 -- but I think it costs more than $300 one-way in their 15-passenger van. So a rental car will be much more cost effective.
Update of May 23rd: Gunflint Outfitters has arranged with National Car Rental for a discounted rental price for all classes of vehicles. Rates are available by the day or for the week. Reservations must be made in advance by calling National at (218)727-7426 and asking for the Gunflint discount code of #2200088.
What are we going to do about food? Will everyone buy and bring their own, or will we do group cooking?
I think it will be a lot simpler (I hope) to buy group food and cook together for dinner. Everyone can buy whatever they'll want for breakfast, lunch and snacks. I'll come up with ideas for dinner, then e-mail it to the group for feedback. I want to have a shopping list ready for the grocery store before we head to Gunflint Lodge.
Dinner ideas so far:
- Beanies & weanies (franks & beans) with hotdog buns, corn bread
- Pasta & pesto with salad
- "Hippie burritos" filled w/ beans, rice, veggies, cheese, avocado, salsa ... etc., fruit cobbler
- Beef stew, dinner rolls
- Sauteed shrimp and vegetables over cous cous
When and where should we buy food for the trip?
The last stop before the final, remote 46 miles to Gunflint Outfitters will be the small town of Grand Marais, where there's a full-sized grocery store. I'll have a pre-planned list--taking into account everyone's ideas, likes and dislikes--to hopefully expedite the shopping. I'll pay for the group food, and then the others can pay me back (1/3 per couple).
How will get to the start of the canoe trip?
The route we're taking doesn't start right at Gunflint, so we'll need a shuttle for both ourselves and our boats and gear. No problem. Gunflint takes care of that for just $15 to $35 per group (one way) plus tax, and that includes transporting the boats also. I know we'll have my in-laws' truck and the rental car to get everything and everyone to the put-in, but that would require multiple trips and leaving one of the two vehicles there, which means we'd have to retrieve it after the canoe trip. And I don't even know if there's much or any parking at the put-in. The Gunflint shuttle is the simplest option.
What equipment do we need to rent?
Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters can provide you with just about anything and everything you need for a canoe-camping trip, including all the food, cook stoves, dishes, etc. But we'll need to rent just two canoes, 4 PFD's and 4 paddles. (My in-laws have all their own stuff, and, since they're driving, they can bring coolers, a stove and fuel, and all the stuff those of us flying can't bring.) We'll be renting 2 Royalex canoes for $28 each, per day (the lighter-weight Kevlars would be $45/day), including the PFDs and paddles. Gunflint will also provide us with the maps we'll need for the trip.
If we find last-minute that we do need to rent or buy something else, I'm sure Gunflint will have it. You can see their list of rental rates for all sorts of equipment on their website. They also have a well-stocked store.
From Duluth, Minnesota, To Gunflint Outfitters
A Scenic Drive Along The North Shore
The North Shore of Lake SuperiorAlong Highway 61 from Duluth to Grand Marais are a number of little towns, some made up of little more than a grocery store and an outfitter, not to mention the endless view of Lake Superior. These 110 miles are part of 646-mile stretch along the western and northern shores this Great Lake up to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, referred to as the North Shore. In fact, one can easily make a great vacation out a North Shore trip itself, which is popular throughout the year.
Our plan for our trip will be to fly into Minneapolis on Friday, July 31st, then drive up and spend the night either in Duluth or somewhere along Highway 61, then proceed to Grand Marais on August 1st, where we'll do our grocery shopping and head to Gunflint Outfitters, where we'll spend the night before our canoe trip. Since the North Shore is so popular year-round, we'll need to make reservations even if we want to camp. It's on my to-do list. (I'll add that information here once I've taken care of that detail.)
From Duluth to Grand Marais
Grand Marais to Gunflint Lodge
Looks pretty remote, huh? It is, and it's awesome! You can't see the road -- Gunflint Trail -- on this map, but it's there. If you zoom in far enough, you'll see it.
Our Boundary Waters Canoe Route
Not Quite A Full Loop
I used Gunflint Outfitters' Route Suggestions to decide on a route for our group. We chose to do the moderate Rose Lake Loop (which isn't exactly a full loop) which goes like this:
The trip begins on West Bearskin Lake, where we'll head north through Duncan Lake. Leaving Duncan Lake, we'll cross Stairway Portage, where there's a view of the entire Canadian valley at the top of a cliff, with Rose Lake in the foreground. On another happy note, we'll be going down the 108 log steps that make up Stairway Portage. We'll then be at Rose Lake, which is known for outstanding bass fishing, which my father-in-law is very excited about. We'll then head west through Mud, Rat, South, North and Gunflint Lakes, crossing the Laurentian Divide between South and North Lakes. That means we'll leave the Atlantic watershed and enter the headwaters of the Arctic watershed, just as the voyageurs did. Our trip will end when we paddle up to the dock back at Gunflint.
We plan to take five days and four nights to do this canoe trip.
Portaging the Canoe
A Common Part of Most Boundary Waters Canoe-Camping Adventures
Portaging means carrying your boat and the rest of your gear over land from one body of water to another, or to avoid an obstacle such as a waterfall or difficult rapid. Our route for this trip will include at least seven portages, though none more than about 1/3 of a mile. Other routes involve portages of a mile or more, with Grand Portage being 9 miles long. The longer and more numerous the portages, the more the weight of one's gear and boat really makes a difference.
For a great explanation of how to portage a canoe, as well as tips on portaging etiquette and how to make the process less painful, I recommend reading The Pain of Portaging by Kevin Callan on Paddling.net.
Our BWCAW Trip Expenses
I'll add to and refine this accounting as I go. All costs are plus tax unless otherwise noted (and don't include the road trip Steve and I are taking after the canoe-camping trip):
- Canoe rental: $28 per day per Royalex Canoe totaling $140 per canoe for the trip (including PFDs and paddles).
- Permit: $12 reservation fee (one-time, for the group) plus $16 per person for the whole trip (includes camping and the maps supplied by Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters)
- Canoer Cabins: $29 per person per night. We'll be staying one night before canoeing and one night afterward, so that's $58 per person. (A nice shower house with bathrooms is near the rustic cabins.)
- Shuttle from Gunflint to the start of our canoe trip: $25 (including boat, gear, people and dog transport)
- Plane tickets and Rental car: The lowest price I could find was a package deal through Orbitz.com for two (2) round-trip plan tickets from Phoenix to/from Minneapolis and the rental car from 7/31 thru 8/15: $960, including all taxes and fees
- Shuttle to/from Phoenix airport (or airport parking): $76 per person round-trip shuttle w/ Open Road Tours (or $117 for 2 weeks of parking our vehicle at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix) -- We ended up parking at the airport, which was $105 with an online, printable coupon.
- Groceries: $75 (per couple)
What to Pack for the Boundary Waters Canoe-Camping
Not Quite Everything But The Kitchen Sink
Packing our canoes
There is definitely -- or can be -- a difference between packing for backpacking and packing for canoe-camping. While we'll have limited space in the boats and have to carry all of our gear over the portages, we can certainly take more gear and goodies than if we were carrying all of it on our backs for the duration. Also, the portages on this route won't be all that long, so we can make multiple trips back and forth if we need to. (On the route I did in 2003, there were some lengthy portages, one of which was 2 miles long, so the amount of gear was more of an issue. The two of us tried to carry everything at once, including the boat, on that 2-miler but ended up having to go back for some of it. That meant we actually hiked six miles on that portage instead--out, back, out.)
So here's what I've got for a packing list so far. This list is for my husband and me, along with general "group gear." I can help them with suggestions, but the others will have to decide on their own personal gear. We'll have time to weed out unnecessary items right before we shove off in the canoes, in case we just have too much stuff to handle.
- For my husband, an Osprey Helix that he's had since he was a teenager
- For me, a Kelty Gofer Hole (I know, funny name) that's who knows how old
- 55-gallon, super heavy-duty trash bags for keeping our backpacks dry (One could substitute large drybags instead of backpacks and trash bags, or put backpacks inside dry bags.)
- For my husband, a synthetic Kelty 0-degree bag (about 12 yrs. old)
- For me, a synthetic Kelty 15-degree bag bag (same age)
- My husband will bring a Thermarest inflatable pad he's had for more than 10 years
- For me, my new Thermarest inflatable pad
- Sierra Designs Sirius III: We're two people but prefer the extra space in a 3-man tent. This tent and rain fly weighs 5lbs, 4oz and has a zippered door on either side, so we don't have to crawl over each other's head to get out.
Clothing: (each person, some of it on the person)
- (2) Pair of convertible pants/shorts
- (2) Synthetic t-shirts
- Synethic long-sleeved shirt
- Synthetic tights or long-underwear
- (3) pr. synthetic or wool socks
- Gortex jacket
- Rain/wind pants
- Fleece pullover
- Fleece or wool hat
- Sun hat
- Water shoes/sandals
- Hiking boots
Cooking and Food Storage:
- Coolers or soft cooler bags (how many, to be determined)
- 2-burner Coleman propane stove
- Propane bottles, the small ones (how many, to be determined)
- (6) Plates
- (6) Bowls
- (6) Forks and (6) Spoons
- (2) Knives
- Large fry pan
- Large cooking pot
- Medium saucepan
- Cooking spoon
- Dish soap
- Foldable camp sink
- (4) Breakfasts
- (5) Lunches
- (4) Dinners
- Drinks (no glass containers are allowed in the BWCAW)
- Waterproof matches
- (2) Headlamps (1 each)
- (2) Flashlights (1 each)
- Topo map/s
- Map case
- (2) Compasses w/ sighting mirrors that can double as signal mirrors (1 each)
- Garmin Legend GPS
First aid kit
- We'll bring an Atwater Carey Personal First Aid Kit. Contents include splinter grabber forceps, iodine ointment, antibiotic ointment, 2 sterile butterfly wound closures, sting relief pad, tincture of benzoin, adhesive tape, conforming gauze, 5 adhesive strips, 4 sterile gauze pads, 2 telfa non-adherent pads, Acetaminophen tablets, Antihistamine tablets, Ibuprofen tablets. We'll also add moleskin, safety pins and 2pr of nitrite gloves.
- A Leatherman Blast for my husband
- A Leatherman Squirt for me
- (2) 48-oz. Water bottles apiece
- (1) PUR Hiker water filter
- (1) 12-pack of Aquamira purification tablets
- Nylon water tote (for carrying extra water back to camp)
- Cat hole trowel (shared)
- Biodegradable TP
- 2-oz. Hand sanitizer
- Toothbrush (each person ... duh!)
- Toothpaste (shared)
- Wet wipes
- Dental floss (long section, each person; has other uses besides teeth cleaning)
- Liquid camp soap
Miscellaneous & Emergency Gear:
- Camp towels (1 each)
- Extra batteries (6 each person)
- Small hatchet (for splitting dead, dry wood for campfires)
- Windstorm whistles (1 each)
- All Weather space blanket with grommets
- Nylon cord, 50 ft. (for hanging our food, etc.)
- Stuff sacks (for clothing, etc.)
- Head net (mosquito net)
- (2) small carabiners
- Hothands (2 each)
- Pen, pencil
- Heavy-duty trash bags
- Duct tape
- (2) Glow sticks (because I always have a couple for emergency use/signaling)
- Cell phone (1 each, turned off! and fully charged before the trip)
I've probably forgotten something. Once I get to packing, or if I think of something before then, I'll stop by here and add it.
Read About Canoe-Camping In The Boundary Waters
In this book, experienced guide Cliff Jacobson explains the best and safest ways of planning and enjoying a BWCA canoe adventure. The text includes maps, illustrations, information on obtaining permits, supplies you'll need, how to practice low-impact camping techniques, paddling skills, traveling with children, and dealing with hazards on land and water.
Boundary Waters Resources
This website has information on permits, outfitters, lodging and maps, and there's a bulletin board where you can post questions.
Another fairly extensive website with all sorts of Boundary Waters information, forums and BWCA trip reports.
- The BWCA on Recreation.gov
This site offers permit information, a trip planning guide, and information on the Superior National Forest. You can make permit reservations on this website.
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury