A Guide to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

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Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota
By Charles P. Beauzay

There are two main entry points to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) – lately it’s been called BWCAW (the last w standing for Wilderness). The first entry point is Ely, Minnesota and is about a 4 ½ hour drive north of Minneapolis. The second is Grand Marais, Minnesotra and is also about 4 ½ hours away. Once you get to one of these towns and get your permit, you will need to drive to the specific entry point you have chosen. These are often off on some logging road, so have a good map. Don’t leave food in your vehicle, as the bears are pretty hungry up there.

The BWCA is a large expanse of lakes and rivers (mostly all connected) along the border of Canada and northeast Minnesota. The ice doesn’t go off the lakes until mid-May. The area is surrounded in pine forest with huge bedrock outcroppings. The lakes are cold and deep. If you’re quiet, you will see wildlife – bears, moose, and eagles.

Rugged Mountain Men
Rugged Mountain Men

The best times of year to go are (for the hardy) just after ice out to about mid June and again from mid-September to mid-October. These times will have the best fishing and no mosquitoes or blackflies. The weather may be a bit of a challenge, though, as you will encounter below freezing temperatures and cold rain; however, the good fishing and lack of insects is worth it. Most people, however, go in July and August, but bring bug spray and even an insect (mesh) suit or headnet.

Canoe Country will provide all you need to know. The only outfitter I can vouch for is Voyageur North . They have everything you need to fully equip yourself for a BWCA adventure. They even have hot showers for when you return.

You need to apply for a permit and pay a fee ($12 for the permit fee and $10 for each person in your party). Maximum of 9 people to a party!

Here is the procedure:

1. Get a BWCA map – figure out where you want to go and pick an entry point. If you have no idea, contact an outfitter and have them set up the entire trip.

2. Apply for a permit and pay fee.

3. Drive to Ely or Grand Marais and pick up your permit, get bait, and whatever else you may have forgotten.

4. Drive to specific entry location. Park vehicle and go.

The following is a partial list of important items to bring:

1. Good rain gear (even insulated bibs are a good idea for the colder weather, because nothing is colder than sitting in a canoe all day in a cold downpour).

2. An extra paddle.

3. Good tent and sleeping bag w/ mat.

4. Compass and good map (Fisher maps and McKenzie maps are the best).

5. Tarp and ropes (duct tape and a leatherman or swiss army knife).

6. Sven saw and camp axe.

7. Water filter (one that just filters bacteria such as giardia is fine – I’ve drank right out of the lakes before, but you really don’t want giardia when your up there).

8. Good waterproof hiking boots – some people even wear knee high rubber boots as the portages can be hard to launch a canoe from without getting wet.

These are the “survival items”. Obviously you need more stuff, but that depends on if you’re fishing or not, what kind of food you bring, how many trips you want to make at each portage. We bring everything for full meals: a gallon of oil to fry fish, pots, pans, Coleman propane stove, small cooler with meat such as bacon and venison. You can also get by with dehydrated meals and a backpackers stove (such as an MSR whisper lite or something). Hang your food packs at least 12 feet up in a tree and 6 feet out on a limb (away from the trunk of the tree – bears can climb). Do this at night for sure, and even in the day if you leave your camp site.

A Scenic View
A Scenic View
There are designated camp sites (shown on the maps) and camping is restricted to these sites. Each site has a fire grate and a “cone” (toilet). The cones are generally off in the woods behind the campsite (away from the water), and there is usually a well worn trail to it. Firewood is easy to find, so only use dead wood – it’s against the law to cut a live tree. Old beaver dams are a great place to get firewood. After you’re unloaded and camp is set up, venture out with an empty canoe and load it up with firewood from somewhere away from your site, as all the good stuff around the site may already be taken (depending on the time of year). Check with the outfitters or the local fire warden for any fire restrictions if it has been dry.

As for fishing, the best spots are around islands and either above or below portages, where there is current. All I bring are 3/8 oz. or ¼ oz. fireball jigs with a minnow and bounce them off the bottom. Don’t be surprised when a 15 pound northern pike attacks the little 1 pound walleye you have on the end of your line.

The maps show all the portages and are pretty accurate. The distances of the portages are shown in “rods”. One rod is 16.5 feet (the length of an average canoe). Portaging can be very hard work, so be prepared. Other than that, follow the old adage: “Take only pictures, and leave only footprints.” When you’re done, go to Cranberries in Ely for a beer and a burger – it will taste fantastic!

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