Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – Border of Minnesota and Ontario

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – Border of Minnesota and Ontario
Minnesota, USA

About the BWCA

Although well known in Minnesota and Ontario, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is virtually unheard of outside of the midwest. For the uninitiated, the Boundary Waters (BWCA or BWCAW, if you’re picky) is a national park on the border of Minnesota and Canada. This area is approximately one million acres and services more than 200,000 visitors each year. BWCA refers to the U.S. side of things; those heading in from the north enter Quatico. Quatico encompasses 1.2 million acres and is less trafficked than its American counterpart. Those who wish to visit both the U.S. and Canada must apply for passes or go through one of two border stations, located on key portages and main lakes.

Lake and Canoe View
Lake and Canoe View
National Geographic called the BWCA one of the “50 Destinations of a lifetime” and with more than 1,000 lakes and rivers and 1,200 miles of canoe routing, it’s easy to see why. Motorboats are only allowed on a few large lakes, so a majority of the area is accessible only by canoes and portaging (carrying canoes and gear on trails from one lake to the next). During the winter, snowshoes and cross-country skis will get you where you want to go.

Overnight BWCA trips generally last anywhere from four days to six weeks, although you can stay in for as long as your permit allows. Permits must be applied for through the National Recreation Reservation Service. Fees are reasonable: only $10 for adults and $5 for children, and those who frequent the area usually purchase annual passes. In order to protect the sanctity of the BWCA and its wildlife, permits are limited and their use is strictly enforced: just because you’re off a motorboat lake doesn’t mean a ranger won’t paddle up and ask to see your paperwork. Permits require that you enter at a certain access point in the BWCA, on a certain day, and leave the area no later than the date specified. However, once you have entered the BWCA, you can go – and exit – anywhere in the park.

Permits can be picked up at a number of locations: tourist centers outside of the BWCA, outfitters and national park stations. You may be required to watch a short informational video and answer a few questions on safety before you get your permit, so pay attention! Note that permit reservations are not needed from October 1 – May 1. However, summer permits become available in late January and popular points fill up fast, so a lottery system is in affect. Self-issuing day-use permits are also available at trail heads, and mandatory. Go to the website of the National Recreation Reservation Service for more information.

The most popular way to get to the BWCA is to fly into Minneapolis/St. Paul International airport and then the drive to Ely, the outfitting town on the edge of the Boundary Waters.


Once you have a permit, the next step is to think about your gear. There are a number of outfitters in the BWCA who can do everything from renting you a canoe and selling you a few maps to packing your bags and taking you on a guided trip. The outfitter you decide to go with usually depends on where in the Boundary Waters you are entering and exiting – the further away the outfitter, the more they have to drive to drop off the canoes, the more expensive it is going to be for you. Prices are pretty much the same across the board, although regulars tend to favor one outfitter or another, and can get a better deal.

Trips to the BWCA can add up quickly; watch out! There are fees for parking your car, renting packs, gear and canoes, permits, lodging before your trip and food. In order to save money, borrow as much stuff as you can, and be realistic when you are thinking about your trip. There is no reason to rent a super small, lightweight sleeping bag that goes to -50 degrees if yours fits into a pack, you’re going in the summer and you plan on doing short portages. You will probably have to rent canoes (with life vests and paddles) and usually a few extra packs, called Duluth Packs. Duluth packs are larger, shorter packs, and made of heavy canvas, and usually lined with a garbage bag for waterproofing. The canoe you decide to rent depends on your trip – if you’re a novice, taking a short trip, a heavy aluminium canoe is probably best for steering, balance and rock-scraping purposes. If you’re an old pro heading into the woods for weeks, a lighter kevlar canoe will suit you better. Two person canoes are most common, although three-person aluminiums are also easy to find. Regardless of the type of canoe you decide to rent, you should NEVER skip a portage and run rapids in a canoe, as they can rip or twist and you can be seriously hurt or even die.

It is NOT necessary to use a guide in the BWCA. As long as you have decent map-reading skills and a bit of patience in case you get lost, you’ll be fine. Outfitters can, however, offer great advice about supreme campsites and areas where the fish are biting – don’t be afraid to ask!


If you don’t like dirt, hard work and roughing it, the BWCA may not be the place for you. In order to protect and preserve as much of the wilderness as possible, there are only certain, designated rustic campgrounds. These campgrounds were generally chosen due to natural clearings, and are distinguished by a steel grate for a cook- and camp-fire and a latrine. Now these are not the types of latrines you see at the State Fair – these are raised seats, set above a deep hole. If you want toilet paper, you better bring it with you.

Campsites cannot be reserved. Although visitor numbers are controlled through permits at entry points, campers can go wherever they want once inside of the park. As a result, it can be difficult to find a campsite, especially on popular lakes in the summertime. If it is nearing dark and you are without a campsite, look for a natural clearing or a portage and attempt to be as minimalist as possible. Always pay attention to fire restrictions, especially in the summer. A large 4th of July storm blew down 600 square miles in 1999 and as a result, some areas are particularly susceptible to fire.

While in the BWCA, campers should adhere to a strict “pack in, pack out” and “without a trace” policies, in order to minimize impact.


Mama and Baby Moose
Mama and Baby Moose
In the Boundary Waters, remember that you are in the woods and chances are you will see a number of animals including deer, moose, black bears, beavers, eagles, otters, loons, timberwolves, raccoons and squirrels. Bear sightings are not uncommon, but the old adage holds true – “they are more scared of you than you are of them.” Still, do not bring any food inside your tent, and make sure you hoist your food pack off the ground and away from tree trunks, using a rope and pulley system. If an animal does come into your campground, loud noises such as banging pots and pans will generally scare them away. Chances are, the closest you’ll get to wolves is hearing their eerie howls at night. Moose are best spotted at marshy rivers, at dawn or dusk, and can charge, so do not threaten them. Ask about recent bear and moose spottings on your route at your outfitter.

Fishing is a popular Boundary Waters pasttime. Fishing licenses are available at most outfitters and many gas stations. Popular fish include walleye, northern, large and small mouth bass, bluegills, crappies and other panfish. Leeches and worms make relatively hardy bait.

Winter in the BWCA

There is plenty to do in the Boundary Waters during the winter! Although canoeing is out, ice fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling (on lakes that have motorboat access) and dogsledding are all popular activities. Camping is still an option, but if you go, make sure you have proper gear, as the Minnesota winters can be brutally cold.

Additional Resources
Canoe Country
Planning Guide
What to do in the BWCA