Canoeing in Minnesota's Boundary Waters

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of May 28-June 3, 1998
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Canoeing in Minnesota's Boundary Waters

Canoeing in Minnesota's Boundary Waters
Question: I understand there are some great places to canoe north of Duluth, Minnesota, but I haven't been able to find them. Also, is there any rafting available for beginners? I am a 50-year-old single mom with two kids ages 12 and 13. We are headed that way this summer.

Diane Newton
Onancock, Virginia

Adventure Adviser: Don't tell your friends, but the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is one of the best places in the world. My fondness for it probably has something to do with the fact that I've been canoeing there with my father and brothers and sisters since I was 6 years old, so it has a lot of nostalgic appeal, but it's also just plain gorgeous, especially if you can stand a few mosquito bites and a cool, rainy day or two.

For starters, the BWCA is approximately one million acres of the most lake-intense land you'll see anywhere — all of them linked together by a system of portages. The BWCA is accessible from a number of places, but my favorite entry points are Ely and the Gunflint Trail, north of Grand Marais. From Duluth, Ely is approximately three hours northwest on U.S. 53 to east Minnesota 169, and Grand Marais is approximately three hours straight north of Duluth on Minnesota 61. The Gunflint Trail heads northwest out of Grand Marais. Since you've never been to northern Minnesota before, I recommend you start your trip out of Grand Marais. That way you'll be able to drive the shore of Lake Superior and stop at the spectacular waterfalls and cliffs of Gooseberry Falls, Temperance River, and Tettagouche State Parks as you make your way up the north shore of Lake Superior. Plus, Grand Marais itself is developing quite a reputation as a small enclave of artists and wilderness bohemians. You'll definitely want to stop in Grand Marais at Sven & Ole's Pizza for a wild rice-topped Vild Vun pizza before you go into the woods.

The BWCA works like this: each lake has a finite number of campsites that have outdoor toilets, fire grates, and tent pads. You must stay at these campsites. Obviously, there are certain parts of the BWCA that are much more popular than others as a result of their accessibility and beauty, so sometimes it's difficult to obtain a permit for the location you want to go. To obtain a permit, you need to call 800-745-3399. When you buy your permit, state the name of the lake you wish to enter, the number of people in your party, the ages of all participants, and a rough estimate of the number of days you plan to spend in the BWCA. This system allows the forest service to monitor the traffic flow and make sure that there aren't too many people for the number of campsites. The permits cost $9, plus an additional $10 for people over 18. The number of people in your group is limited to eight. The route you choose will largely depend on the number of days you want to paddle and your skill level. I recommend at least three days, but more likely five so that you can see some of the gorgeous, high-cliffed interior lakes. A few of my favorite lakes are Jap, Little Saganaga, Gabimichigami, Kekekabic, South Arm Knife, and Saganaga. You should call an outfitter in Grand Marais who will help design a route that fits your skills: Gunflint Outfitters (800-362-5251), Tuscarora Canoe Outfitters (800-544-3843), Nor'Wester Outfitters (800-992-4386), and Clearwater Outfitters (800-527-0554).

Last but certainly not least, you'll need gear. You can rent it all at the above-named outfitters, but the list is rather long. It includes: a canoe or two, paddles, life jackets, Duluth Packs (specially made for canoeing), tents, bear rope, first aid kits, Fisher maps, camp stove, sleeping bags, at least one tarp, food, rain gear, and personal gear.

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