Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Lake Superior in Minnesota
Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion National Park—most serious campers have a bucket list that includes at least these three destinations. If you have such a list, you may want to consider adding another entry—if it’s not already on it, that is.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in northeastern Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior,…
is a US Forest Service designated and administered wilderness area consisting of over one-million acres of glacial lakes, streams, rivers, islands, forests and a plethora of amazing wildlife. It is located within Superior National Forest and lines part the US/Canadian international border.
They don’t call it “canoe area” for nothing. While there are a few waters in which small motorized boats are allowed, most of the area is only accessible via canoe or kayak. With the rare exception of an occasional passenger jet far overhead, this is one of the few places left in the US where you can go for a week or more without ever hearing an internal combustion engine. Or even seeing another human being, outside of those in your party.
Of course, you will have to time the trip right. The BWCA is the most frequently visited wilderness area in the country. Holidays and deep summer will bring out the day-trippers but overnight camping requires a permit and they are only available on a limited basis. When I went, it was the third week of May—the week before Memorial Day weekend—so from the time we paddled out of the outfitter’s launch point, until we returned one week later, we never saw another soul.
Make no mistake, this is true primitive camping. No facilities of any kind. Fresh water is what you purify yourself from the lakes or streams, food is whatever you bring in, forage, catch or shoot. No electricity, either—all heat is provided either by body warmth or fires.
While we’re on the subjects of fishing, hunting and fires, please remember that the BWCA is administered by the US Forest Service. There are rules and laws pertaining to game fishing and hunting and the placement of campfires. Be sure you have familiarized yourself with them and obey them. Loafing the BWCA will be a lot lazier if you don’t have to contend with an arrest record or accidental deaths or injuries (especially since medical assistance will require you load the injured person into a canoe and paddle for several hours—likely with a few portages on the way.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get on to the fun stuff…
If you can bring your own canoe and camping equipment, know how to take care of the necessary permits on your own (which, by the way, typically require early reservations so start making your plans in advance) and know how where the designated launch points and campsites are, then more power to you. Most people, though, will want to use one of the many outfitters that cater to visitors. The not only rent canoes, paddles and lifevests, but will also supply any camping gear, food, fishing equipment, etc. you may need. This comes in handy if you have to fly to Minnesota to make the trip. They will also secure the permits and other paperwork and even transport you, your canoe and your gear to and from the launch site.
Believe it or not, one of the essential pieces of equipment on our trip—and one which I would never have thought to bring on my own—was a mosquito net. Having grown up in the swamps of Louisiana and lived in the South Pacific tropics and on Florida bayous, I thought I knew everything there was to know about mosquitos. I was not prepared for this, though.
Minnesota mosquitos are a lot bigger and more aggressive than any I’ve ever come across elsewhere. This is bad enough, but insect repellant will stop them from biting. The problem, though, is it doesn’t stop them from swarming you—especially around your face. Within minutes, I had inhaled a dozen of the pests. Luckily, my camping partner had the foresight to buy two headnets at the outfitters before we departed.. Except when in the tent, we wore them the entire trip.
Like all wildernesses—wildlife abounds in the BWCA. Our first day there, en route to the campsite, we saw a moose, a bear and a bald eagle over three-feet tall. He stood on top of a beaver dam as we paddled past no more than ten-feet away. Keep your camera handy at all times—mine was packed away in a watertight bag when we saw the eagle.
Speaking of bears, be advised that the BWCA is bear country. The good news is that they are black bears, by and large, which are smaller and less aggressive than brown bears or grizzlies. Not that they shouldn’t be treated with any less caution and respect. The outfitters will require you watch a short, educational video on camping in areas where bears live—pay attetion when you do. In general, you will want to make sure all food is hanging out of reach from a tree limb—not stashed in your tent or strewn about the campsite. And, of course, do not approach or try to feed bears—especially cubs.
One of the more interesting animals to me was the loon—a member of the duck family with distinctive black and white plumage. Having never been to that part of the world before, I had never seen a loon. They’re handsome birds, but what really set them apart to my mind was their haunting, mournful cry…almost ghostlike as it echoes over a still lake in the otherwise quiet dusk. Click Here to hear one.
The geology of the BWCA is glacial, which means rugged landscapes and exposed bed rock faces. Most of the lakes were carved by huge sheets of ice that gouged out the area about 17,000 years ago. This means the lakes are deep with rock bottoms and sudden dropoffs, so be careful if you venture in. Be advised, also, that even in the summertime this water is COLD. As can be the air temps as well. Even in May, we experienced some ground ice most mornings and a brief session of snow flurries one evening. As always, remember that cold temperature and water can result in hypothermia so be careful about keeping your clothes dry while canoeing.
Without a doubt, one of the biggest draws of the BWCA is the fishing. The lakes are full of everything you would expect to find in northern waters. Small mouth bass and lake trout are plentiful, but the favorite targets of anglers are the northern pike and walleye. Walleye tend to be a deep-water fish, so specialized gear may be needed, although you can sometimes find them in shallower water around submerged rock piles and similar structure. Northern pike, small mouths and trout tend to prefer the same habitat and foods, so using lures and techniques for one will cover all three of those bases. Live bait is often leeches, but if you have trouble finding or keeping them (or are just squeamish about touching a leech) soft-plastic, curly-tail grubs on a jig head will produce the same results. Minnow-type lures such as Rapalas also work well, as do spoons—especially the Daredevil. In fact, every one of the northern pike on our trip were caught on a red and white Daredevil about two inches long.
You can troll for pike or fish the shoreline. Trolling deep can produce larger ones, but fishing the shore is typically more productive. Northern pike can grow over three feet in length although those we encountered were in the 18- to 24-inch range.
They are tasty when cooked (especially grilled over an open campfire on a cold night) although there are a lot of small bones you’ll need to watch out for. And don’t forget about the teeth. These boys can inflict a nasty bite.
If you really want a fishing adventure try casting a large top water plug around weed beds, working it splashy and aggressive (the “walking the dog” technique). You just might get the interest of a muskellunge. Muskies are similar in appearance to pike but grow much larger—some reaching lengths of six-feet or more. One look at the teeth on a big muskie will definitely get you thinking twice about a midnight swim.
Even if fishing is not your thing, any avid camper will enjoy the BWCA. The scenery and the wildlife alone, along with the solitude and ability to enjoy one of the last, unspoiled pristine pieces of nature left in the US make it worth the trip. Even relative newbies to camping can have a good time—I’d just recommend you bring one experienced person along, use a good outfitter and do everything exactly like they tell you.