I just returned from an invigorating and, at times strenuous, adventure at Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a U.S. Wilderness Area in Minnesota’s North Woods, part of the boreal forest of North America. I was fortunate to be able to participate as part of my grandsons’ Boy Scout Troop’s 50 Miler Award exploit. To understate the experience, it was absolutely life affirming and unforgettable. The trip from origin to destination was eight days and seven nights with six days in canoe. No motors, no cell phones and no computers….and we survived!
Reflections on Independence Lake (J.Compisi)
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), or BWCA as it is commonly known, is part of the Superior National Forest and Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. The name “Boundary Waters” is often used in the U.S. to refer specifically to the U.S. Wilderness Area protecting its southern extent, while the Canadian side includes La Verendrye and Quetico Provincial Parks of Ontario. This 1,090,000-acre (4,400 km2) wilderness area, a blend of forests and glacial lakes and streams is under the administration of the U.S. Forest Service and is a popular destination for both canoeing, trekking and fishing. It is one of the most visited wildernesses in the United States hosting nearly a quarter million visitors each year. Its 1,200 miles of canoe routes and 2,000 campsites as well as hiking trails account for its popularity. BWCA was formally established in 1978 by the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act.
Canoe route planning was key as there are a limited number of designated campsites and, except in an emergency, you are required to overnight in these. They are first come first serve and are limited to nine campers at a time so if someone gets there before you…keep paddling. Also, you have portages between the various lakes that are unavoidable so planning your route includes which portages you will have to traverse with all of your gear and canoes. Portaging can be as simple as one trip but may also be 2-4 round trips if you bring to much gear. Some are short (20 rods which equals 100 meters) and some are longer (over 600 rods). A good outfitter like John, from North Country Canoe Outfitters, can help you pick a route that has good fishing, better camp sites and advise about the portages.
Disappointment Lake (J.Compisi)
Our group of 27 (adults, scouts and a couple non-scout siblings) arrived at the outfitters after along day of traveling (Think trains, planes, buses and automobiles). The outfitter team took us in hand an assigned us bunks in their various bunk houses dividing us by male-female and adults -adolescents/teens). After a nights rest we were up early for briefings and equipment issue. Well organized and efficient. We then broke into our 3 pre-determined groups of 9 to head to our put-in points with our gear and canoes.
The author and grandsons (K.Calzia)
Our group of nine was launched at Moose Lake, about 40 minutes from the Outfitters. We paddled for about 4 miles over 3 lakes (Moose, Newfound and Splash) and executed two minor portages in about 4 hours. It was fabulously serene and unspoiled. The only sound was the delighted chatter of our small group and the splash of our paddles hitting the water. We saw our first bald eagle on this very first day but saw several more over the next 5 days. The first afternoon of setting up camp was a bit rag-tag with tent set up, cooking dinner, dish washing and personal hygiene but we developed a comfortable rhythm over the next several days.
Bald Eagle over Disappointment Lake and in tree (K. Calzia)
The four person tents, air pads and sleeping bags were in excellent condition and offered a bit of welcome comfort in this true wilderness setting. We fished morning, noon and night, from our canoes and from the shore. The food provided was more then adequate and included fresh burgers, steaks, eggs and brats for the first couple of days. The remainder was dried pastas and other reconstituted camp favorites like Chicken a la King and Beef Stroganoff. Of course the salami, cheese and PBJs were nearly always available.
Dinner being reconstituted and Loaded Canoe (J.Compisi)
The next day saw more eagles and another 4+ miles of paddling with a couple of smaller portages as we made our way to Ensign Lake nearing the Canadian border. We found a good campsite and decided to spend two nights there. After our dinner of Brats with mustard, we planned our day trip for day 3. Our first inclement weather occurred with fairly severe thunder storms with lightening and torrential rain. Fortunately it passed rather quickly and only returned while we slept and by morning things were fairly dry as we left for Birch Lake and the Canadian Border. We were traveling light as we only took our food (didn’t want to hang it to keep it away from the bears) and our day packs.
1.Typical Campsite 2.Drying out after the rain 3. Every designated campsite has one (J.Compisi)
Our restful day trip turned into our longest and most arduous. We transited 6 portages, two of them being nearly .5 mile in length, quite steep, muddy and rocky. Did I say muddy? Despite that, the weather held and we passed through Trident Lake and reached Birch Lake around noon in pleasant weather and enjoyed lunch looking at Canada. When we left we took the opportunity to cross the ‘water border’ which is legal as long as you don’t fish or land and move inland.
Two of four canoes paddling to Canada (K.Calzia)
On day 4 we broke camp and headed south through five lakes and three portages but the weather was threatening and we had heard that the campsites at Disappointment Lake were full so we made a u-turn at Jitterbug Lake, a creepy little lake with thousands of lily pads, and crossed back over two portages. Morale was a bit low to say the least. Things looked up when our scout team radioed back that they had found a Club Med campsite on Jordan Lake so we stayed there.
Lily from Jitterbug Lake (K.Calzia)
Tandem portage although solos did occur (J.Compisi)
We decamped early on day 5 to make sure we got to Disappointment Lake early to find a campsite. What an especially beautiful large lake this is. Another Bald Eagle sighting offered more excitement before a stunning sunset encouraged us to get some sleep.
Fabulous sunset over Disappointment Lake (J.Compisi)
Our final day on the water was quite short as we exited Disappointment Lake heading south and portaged a fairly long portage to Parent Lake, and, after a brief paddle, on to Snowbank Lake, one of the biggest we paddled and our take-out point. The outfitter was there to haul us back to their bunk houses and hot showers. Morale was soaring as we reunited with our two other small groups and began to swap wilderness stories.
Outfitters pier on White Iron Lake (K.Calzia)
Planning – The key to any successful adventure is planning and preparedness and BWCA is no exception. The troop started planning about a year out by contacting one of the many outfitters in the area who can offer expertise, advice, permits, equipment, supplies and everything else one needs to go into the wilderness for a week. We used North Country Canoe Outfitters (NCCO) and they were exceptional. Owners John and Cathy have been at is for 34 years and there isn’t anything they haven’t seen or heard. They and their team are focused on your safety and a successful outcomes. They got it right for us.
Permits – Permits are required for groups to enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) during all seasons. Between May 1st and September 30th, permits need to be reserved and are limited by day and by entry point. This is done to reduce the impact on the wilderness. It is essential to plan your trip early. After September 30th through April 30th, reservations for a permit are not required. Day use permits do not require reservation and are free.
Getting there – We flew from the west coast to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), the closest major U.S. airport. It is located a little more than 4 hours south of BWCA and there are transportation service providers who offer ‘chartered’ service from the airport to Ely, Minnesota, the closest city to the various ‘put-in’ points in the area. We employed Voight Bus Services for our group of 27 but there are many other options. Our driver Rick was great and the bus was very comfortable with an on-board restroom, important for the extended ride.
Equipment and gear tips – Our outfitter provided our permits, food, cooking gear, dishes and utensils, tents, sleeping bags, air mattresses, wet (Duluth) bags, personal flotation device and canoes. You should bring: dry bags for your personal gear, a multi-tool (Leatherman), insect repellent, sun-block, insect net for you head, sunglasses, water shoes and camp shoes, couple pair of dry socks, camp clothes, flannel shirt or light jacket for evenings, 1-2 towels for showers in camp (throw away), fast drying active wear shorts and/or pants, a broad brimmed hat and a water proof day bag for easy access while paddling.
Local Side Trip – The Soudan Iron Ore Mine, close to Ely, takes visitors a half a mile down below the Earth’s surface for a fascinating and a bit shocking view of what life was like for iron miners from 1882 through 1962 when it closed. It is now a very popular State Park hosting 43,000 visitors in 2016 for this interesting 90 minute excursion toward the center of the Earth.