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Minnesota Travel Guide

A Camping and Canoeing Guide to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, a piece of legislation that has defined how the area is used and managed, was passed in 1968. Here’s a guide to paddling the BWCA during its anniversary season.

Nestled along the border between Minnesota and Canada is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, or the BWCA for short. The more than 1 million acres that compose the BWCA consist of lakes and streams punctuated by islands of wilderness that contain sandy beaches, jagged cliffs and crags, and towering rock formations—a canoeist’s dream.

Visitors come from around the world to experience the secluded nature that adventurers find along this section of the international boundary.

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Deciding on an Entry Point

The first thing BWCA adventurers will have to decide is where to enter the massive expanse. Many of the stateside popular spots to drop into the wilderness area are near Ely, Minnesota. Most of them come with hefty portages (the carrying of a canoe to water), but some (like #31 at Farm Lake) consist of an easy boat landing entry. However, Ely is just one hub of access points—visitors can choose from dozens of entry points across the BWCA’s shores.

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Fishing the BWCA

Anyone 16 years of age or older who wants to fish in the Boundary Waters has to have a license in order to do so. Minnesota residents get a break on the stateside fees (as Ontario residents do on the Canadian side), but everyone else is looking at something around $12 and up (but only $5 if you’re 16 or 17). Fisherpeople with disabilities and members of the military in the U.S., however, can get permits free of charge.

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All Things Permits and Licensing

Both day trips and overnight stays in the BWCA require a permit no matter the time of the year, so travelers need to prepare in advance to hit the waters. Permits are tied to both the date of your trip and specific entry point and can’t be used at any other place or time, so choose wisely. Quota permits are the particular kind required for visitors staying overnight or using motorized boats between May 1 and September 30. Outside of those dates, travelers can simply snatch up a self-issuing permit at any Superior National Forest office. Those looking to catch their dinner will need a fishing permit as well.

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What to Pack and What to Leave Behind

While it’s tempting to pack up everything you’d typically take with on a camping trip, it’s important to keep in mind that portaging is often required, so keeping supplies to a minimum is best. The best solution for food is stocking up on freeze-dried options and catching your dinner if you don’t mind fishing. The BWCA’s Trip Planning Guide suggests bringing rain gear, a first aid kit, a water filter or purifier, a map, a compass, and any necessary emergency equipment like a blanket or signaling mirror. Bug spray is also a pretty good idea. What to leave: Anything you don’t really need (like camping chairs) and anything that might create unnecessary garbage since you’ll be leaving without a trace.

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Experience Saganaga Lake, One of the Largest in the BWCA

Tucked away at the end of the Gunflint Trail is Saganaga Lake—it’s one of the biggest in the BWCA and packed with islands that can be tricky to navigate, so don’t forget your map. This lake is home to over 70 campsites and offers excellent fishing to boot. The only downside is that the lake can get windy at times because of its size.

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Drop a Line in Basswood Lake

You guessed it. Basswood Lake is a great place to snatch up some bass, specifically Smallmouth Bass as well as Northern Pike and Walleye. It’s thanks to a protein-filled forage base and particularly fertile water that the lake is able to produce such large fish, including the almost 46 pound Northern Pike that holds the Minnesota state record.

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Go Island Camping on Brule Lake

If you’re looking for some scenic camping more than anything else, Brule Lake is the place to be. There are over 30 campsites to choose from on this lake alone, which means plenty of options available even for latecomers. Many sites are even located on islands in the middle of the lake. Brule is accessible by entry points #41 and #42 and allows for portage between a handful of other other lakes.

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Find Solitude on Sawbill Lake

Entry point #38 will take you to Sawbill Lake. While it’s a popular entrance spot, the campsites along this lake are shrouded in thick pines which offer plenty of privacy and solitude despite it serving as a base camp for many explorers. Head to Sawbill to find peace and tranquility among the wildflowers that bloom in the warmer months with the calls of loons in the background.

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South Kawishiwi River: The Best for Beginners

Stretching on for about eight miles before entering into some rapids and exiting the BWCA proper, the South Kawishiwi River is an excellent spot for beginning paddlers to cut their teeth. The waters here are still and serene, and wind rarely interrupts their tranquility which can be reached from entry points #29 and #32. Portages to Bruin Lake, Clear Lake, and Little Gabbro Lake are available along this section of the larger Kawishiwi River.

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Paddle the Scenic Granite River Route

This river route is a popular one because of it’s pure scenic beauty (and that’s saying a lot since the whole BWCA is a scenic gem). While the whole thing can be done in a day, it’s best to give it a long weekend if you can to really take it all in. The Granite River is also a reasonable choice for beginners, although there are a few portages to keep in mind and it can be traversed in either direction.

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How to Make the Most of Your Trip

Rather than picking up and setting up camp in a new spot every night, the best way to tackle the BWCA is to find a centralized basecamp that’s near a few spots you want to see and take day trips from there. Because it is a wilderness area and one in which solitude is frequently found, it’s important to keep safety in mind. Always have life jackets with you and use portages—there are rapids and many aren’t suitable for traversing. If storms hit, head to a densely wooded area and stay low to the ground. Remember the essentials like sunscreen and a first aid kit, too.

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Hit Up Local Outfitters for Anything You Need

One of the best things about the BWCA is the abundance of outfitters available for everything from stocking you up with the right supplies and equipment to taking explorers out on a fully guided excursion. Some to choose from are the Boundary Waters Outfitters in Ely, Tuscarora Lodge & Canoe Outfitters, North Country Canoe Outfitters, Wilderness Outfitters, and Echo Trail Outfitters.

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