Boating the Boundary Waters

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of July 18-25, 1996
Rock art in the Valley of Fire
Inexpensive outdoor trip packages
Boating the Boundary Waters
Winter snow action in the Rockies
River paddling in northern B.C.

Boating the Boundary Waters
Question: I am interested in paddling the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota next summer and know nothing about permits, outfitters, places to put in, preparation, etc. I'd appreciate info on all aspects of the area. Thanks.

Mark Gross
Piedmont, CA
[email protected]

A visitor paddles one of the
Boundary Waters lakes

Adventure Adviser: The good news is that the 100-million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area can more than comfortably accommodate the 200,000-plus beaver-seeking paddlers who throng there every summer. And with such a well-established base of visitors, the BWCA has plenty of reliable outfitters and resources that make designing your own trip or finding a trusty outfitter a breeze (well, practically).

If you plan on going solo, or at least sans guide, your first thought should be equipment rental. For one-stop shopping, go straight to Wilderness Outfitters (800-777-8572), an Ely-based company that's been around for 75 years--they know their stuff. Canoe rentals start at $15 per day for a 17-foot aluminum model, but factor in the reality of occasionally long, frustrating portages, and you may want to opt for a $30 per day Kevlar 18-footer. It's so light--at least 15 pounds less than the aluminum--that you'll be tempted to carry it the whole way. Well, maybe not.

They also provide complete, no-brainer gear packages--two-person tent, sleeping bags, pads, food, cooking gear, water filter, lanterns, compass, and maps--for $55 per person per day, including an aluminum canoe. Upgrade to the Kevlar package and it'll set you back $63 per day.

The next step is securing the necessary permits. Each of the BWCA's 80 designated put-ins has its own quota, so you'll need to reserve your spot in advance by calling 800-745-3399. You'll pay nothing for the permit itself but the reservation fee will run you $9. As for where to launch, if you can only spare a long weekend, put in at Entry Point No. 9 at Little Indian Sioux River South, which has a quota of one launch every two days--so call as far in advance as possible--and follow the river south to Trout Lake, turning east there through a chain of small lakes and streams to Little Crab Lake. From there, paddle south to your take-out at Entry Point No. 4 at Crab Lake.

If you're looking for a more adventurous, week-long jaunt, put in at Entry Point No. 39 at Baker Lake and paddle north to Cherokee Lake and then west to Frost River. Loop through Hub and Masaba Lakes, south to Sawbill Lake, and finally east to Baker, keeping your eyes open for curious, as-yet-fearless moose. Keep in mind that camping is restricted to designated sites--no big deal, since there are more of them than you can shake a paddle at.

The best resource for planning your trip, other than a phone call to the friendly folks at the BWCA (800-745-3399) is Robert Beymer's two-volume Boundary Waters Canoe Area Guide ($15 each, Wilderness Press, 501-843-8080). For navigational help, you can't go wrong with the 32 "F-Series" maps, published by W.A. Fisher Co. ($5 each, 218-741-9544).

To get to Ely, the backwoodsy jumping-off point for the BWCA, take I-35 north out of Minneapolis to Minnesota 61 to Two Harbors. Then head 71 miles north on County Road 2, Minnesota 1, and Minnesota 169 to Ely. If you need a place to bunk before setting that J-stroke in motion, try the Burntside Lodge (one-bedroom cabins, $90-$99; 218-365-3894), a historic lakeside complex just six miles from bustling downtown Ely.

Oh, and before you go, check out "In Search of the Beaver Within" in our June 1996 issue.

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