The Boundary Waters is one of America’s most popular wilderness areas for canoeing and camping, drawing 250,000 nature lovers to the Superior National Forest every year. It covers more than one million acres of lakes, streams, forest, rugged cliffs, and rocky beaches, extending almost 150 miles along the International Boundary — just adjacent to Canada’s Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks. There are 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 12 hiking trails, and 254 backcountry campsites with nothing more than a fire grate and a latrine.
And yet, the Northwoods feel as peaceful now as they did 100 years ago, when Congress first began passing bills to protect it. That’s because overnight wilderness permits are required to enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (or BWCAW if you’re feeling nasty), with quotas enforced between May 1 and September 30. (You’re on your own the rest of the year because, uh, winter.) Permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis, with no more than nine people or four watercraft allowed to gather at any time, including at portages and campsites.
We had the privilege of visiting the Boundary Waters over Labor Day weekend. Our buddy Aaron Shaffer is a BWCAW vet, having visited more than a dozen times; he graciously invited us and three other newbies to join him on a three-day trip. We rented two three-seater Kevlar canoes from Voyageur North Outfitters in Ely, a family-owned company that Aaron has used nine times to date.
We broke up the four-hour drive from Minneapolis to Ely with pit stops at Tobies in Hinckley (for glazed fried rolls and buttermilk fudge donuts) and Bent Paddle in Duluth (for a round of beers). We had a casual dinner at Insula in Ely and spent a woefully uncomfortable night at Voyageur North’s bunkhouse. If you’re traveling with a group of three or more, do yourself a favor and rent a proper cabin instead. You’ll want to get a good night’s sleep before embarking on a long day of paddling.
As for the trip itself – it was terrific. We encountered other paddlers along the way (it was Labor Day weekend, after all), but it mostly felt like we had the place to ourselves. And that’s exactly why people come to the Boundary Waters — to escape humanity, or at least their cell phone signal. They come for the crazy sunrises reflected in water as still as glass. For the towering evergreens and the haunting loon calls. For the chance to see bald eagles and otters and slowpoke turtles and hopefully not black bears. They come for the Northern freakin’ Lights.
And see the lights we did! The Aurora Borealis revealed itself on our first night, along with the galactic center of the Milky Way. Canoe leader cum astrophotographer Aaron captured both brilliantly with his Canon 6D and Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 manual focus lens.
All told, we paddled about 30 miles in 72 hours. We spent the first night on Lake Insula and the second on the western side of Lake Three, where we had a late-night visitor (50/50 toss-up between a bear and a raccoon). And though we expected our 12 portages to be back-breaking, they weren’t that bad — maxing out at 95 rods. (Aaron went easy on us, we’re sure.)
The trip was a great success thanks to Aaron’s careful planning, as well as his ability to read a map, use a compass, start a fire, and hang a bear bag. (The rule: 12 feet up, 6 feet out.) We also feasted like kings on grilled salmon and makeshift charcuterie boards because he and his wife, the fabulous Morgan Halaska, handled all the meal planning. Thank you, Aaron, for being a patient teacher and showing us this pristine corner of Minnesota. And thank you to our friend Meredith Stroedel, a.k.a. Hammock Living, for putting together this awesome guide to the Boundary Waters, including a detailed itinerary and route, portaging tips, and the best gear to pack.