Outside magazine, June 1996
Though the canadalike latitude of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area makes for a relatively short season, more than 200,000 people come to test their J-stroking mettle each year during the temperate window from May to September. But rest assured, in this lakiest part of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, you're still just a hop, skip, and portage from a stretch of shore populated only by you, your campmates, and perhaps a small army of beavers. The jumping-off point is Ely, a backwoodsy burg with nearly as many canoe-gear shops as people--perfect for those who like to travel light and rent it all when they get there.
Outfitters. Despite the abundance of retail and rental operations within an oar's throw of the BWCA, only a handful offer guided trips. Your best bet is Piragis Northwoods Company (800-913-9023), which leads a series of differently themed six-day outings--for example, trips will focus on such activities as wolf-watching or fishing--for $650-$950, including all equipment, meals, and first and last night's lodging at a Holiday Inn resort.
Do it yourself. Each of the BWCA's 80 designated put-ins has its own launch quota, but permits can be reserved in advance by calling 800-745-3399; the permit itself is free, but have your plastic ready for the $9 reservation fee. A good place to rent everything you'll need is Wilderness Outfitters (800-777-8572), a fixture in Ely for 75 years. Canoe rentals start at $15 per day for a 17-foot aluminum model, but near the end of a long portage, you'll wish you had opted for the Kevlar 18-footer, a full 35 pounds lighter, for $30 per day. If you need more than just a boat, Wilderness Outfitters will rent you a complete set-up--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. An upgraded version (Kevlar canoe, dome tent, etc.) goes for $63. For a long weekend in solitude, make a reservation far in advance and put in at Entry Point No. 9, Little Indian Sioux River South, which has a quota of one launch every two days. Follow the river south to Trout Lake and then turn east through a chain of small lakes and streams to Little Crab Lake. From there, head south to your take-out at Entry Point No. 4, Crab Lake. For an adventurous week, put in at Entry Point No. 39, Baker Lake, and paddle north to Cherokee Lake and then west to Frost River. (Keep an eye out for moose, which haven't yet learned to fear humans.) Loop through Hub and Masaba Lakes, south to Sawbill Lake, and finally east back to Baker.
How to get there. From Minneapolis, served daily by all major U.S. carriers and the hub of Northwest Airlines, rent a car and drive 180 miles northeast on I-35 and Minnesota 61 to Two Harbors. Then go north 71 miles on County Road 2, Minnesota 1, and Minnesota 169 to Ely.
Where to bunk. Camping in the BWCA is restricted to designated sites, which fortunately are abundant. For reservations and information, call 800-745-3399. For shelter with walls, try the Burntside Lodge (one-bedroom cabins, $90-$99; 218-365-3894), a historic, family-owned lakeside complex just six miles from Ely.
Guidebooks and maps. The best guide for paddlers is Robert Beymer's two-volume Boundary Waters Canoe Area ($15 each, from Wilderness Press, 501-843-8080). For navigational help, there's no better companion than the 32 "F-series" maps published by W. A. Fisher Co. ($5 each; 218-741-9544).