Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

boundary waters canoeing
Canoeing in the Boundary Waters (photo courtesy of Katy Lesiak)

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is over a million acres of forest, lakes and rivers surrounded by Superior National Forest on one side and Quetico Provincial Park (Ontario, Canada) on the other.

You have your pick of more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes and 2,000 campsites in this stunning wilderness area.

I’ve personally been on maybe a dozen BWCA canoe trips, from 3-to-10 days long, plus many day trips. That’s pretty lightweight compared to many. If you love camping and love the wilderness (and I suppose you need to love the water, too), this is definitely a bucket-list destination.

boundary waters
BWCAW campsite on Lake Ogishkemuncie

Fun facts about the Boundary Waters

NO MOTORS! Of the more than 1,100 lakes in the BWCAW, only 19 of them allow motors. Most of those lakes limit the motor size to 25 hp or less.  That’s great news for those of us who love quiet!

LOTS OF LOCAL WILDLIFE. For a better chance of seeing the local wildlife population (especially moose), plan your trip through smaller lakes.

BESIDES MOOSE, YOU MAY ENCOUNTER black bears, wolves, mountain lions, deer, fox and bald eagles. Personally, we’ve seen moose, bears, fox and eagles…and one night we heard wolves across the lake.

AN ISLAND CAMPSITE IS VERY COOL! Although we still put our food packs up (since bears can swim), there’s something about being surrounded by water — the solitude, maybe.

WE’VE MET PEOPLE FROM ALL OVER in the Boundary Waters. If we find fellow paddlers to be talkative we always ask where they’re from. On our last trip we met a group from Chicago and another from the St. Louis, Missouri area. It makes us feel even mover privileged to live within just a half day’s drive of this unique wilderness.

PORTAGES ARE MEASURED IN RODS. A rod is 16.5 feet — about the length of a standard canoe. There are 320 rods in a mile.

fishing boundary waters
Our son, Jason, with a nice northern pike!

THE BWCAW IS OPEN ALL YEAR. While the vast majority of visitors are out there during the summer (especially July and August), many love the quieter seasons.

GREAT DAY TRIP OPTIONS. If you don’t want to do an overnight trip, there are some great day trip options. Our favorite is Stairway Portage, but there are many beautiful and accessible areas off the main entry points for a fun day of exploring and adventuring.

LOTS OF HIDDEN GEMS, like the falls in the pic further down the page, along the portage between Eddy and South Knife Lakes.

GREAT FISHING. Although you may not want to count on them for your meals each day, there are plenty of northern, walleye, perch, bass and more.

What to take seriously

THE BWCAW IS WILDERNESS. There’s no cell phone access out there. In some areas you may not see another person or party for days. Bring a complete first aid kit. Be prepared for emergencies.

boundary waters portage
Our daughter, Jamie, on a portage with her packs that are almost as big as she is!

KNOW HOW TO READ THE MAP. The portages and campsites are on there — but this is a wilderness area, not a manicured campground. It wouldn’t be hard to get lost if you’re not paying attention.

BEARS WANT YOUR FOOD. I’ve personally not experienced bears in my campsite, but I know many who have. While black bears are’t as scary as grizzlies, they can still be dangerous. At the very least, who wants to be stuck out in the middle of the wilderness with your food gone and your tent ripped up?

Read: Canoe Camping: Bear Safety

THE WEATHER. Be prepared! Don’t go in without rain gear, and have it accessible. The weather changes so fast. Our friends were out during the infamous Blowdown storm of 1999, when millions of trees were leveled by straight-line winds. A terrifying experience! Lightning, storms, hail, snow, rain for days — it’s all possible.

ARE YOU IN SHAPE? Of course that’s not a requirement for going out there, but you’ll sure enjoy your trip more if you are. Carrying large packs and canoes up and down portages, through mud and scrambling over rocks is easier if you’re fit.

YOUR GEAR. The lightest canoe you can find. These days all the outfitters rent kevlar canoes, which are between 40 and 55 pounds. Even ours, at 65 pounds, is doable for a woman who’s in shape. Most serious BWCAers use Duluth Packs or something similar. They’re big, roomy and practically indestructible. Pack layers, and pack clothes that dry fast.

DRINKING WATER. You’d think that wouldn’t be an issue surrounded by a million acres of lakes! And we’ve drunk the water out of many of them without dire consequence. But you still want a way to purify your drinking and cooking water — a good filter, tablets or boiling.

YOUR FOOD. Plan well for your party. You have to carry everything you bring. There’s no way to deal with leftovers (and you don’t want to attract bears and other critters). No metal containers or glass allowed.

Read: Pre-Packaged Camp & Trail Food: Should You Buy It or Make Your Own?

eddy falls boundary waters
My outdoors-loving family at Eddy Falls, along the portage between Eddy Lake and Knife Lake

If you love canoeing and camping, you need to come to the Boundary Waters at least once in your life. There’s literally no place like it on earth.

The best way to experience it is to get into it for a several-day trip. But even day trips are wonderful. Many surrounding outfitters offer packages. Their websites also have route suggestions if you’ve got your own gear.

Here are some helpful links:

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