Brilliant splashes of color–and water–in Minnesota


Fall Color Guide

Brilliant splashes of color–and water–in Minnesota
By Tony Kennedy
Outside Online correspondent

n the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota, most of the greenery never fades.

The shorelines in this 1-million-acre protected paddling sanctuary are blanketed with various species of pine, the most majestic of which is the raptor-friendly white pine. Bald eagles perch on the summits of these towering trees, overlooking a web of freshwater lakes that straddle a vast stretch of border territory between Minnesota and Ontario.

But in early fall, the evergreens of the Boundary Waters become a canvas for brilliant splashes of color produced by the occasional birch, poplar, and maple trees. Fishing and camping amid these random works of gold and red has become an annual rite for me and longtime Boundary Waters junkie Willie Spohn.

Our itinerary called for a Friday afternoon launch on Lake Isabella, about 50 miles north of the Lake Superior town of Two Harbors. I met Willie about 11:30 a.m. and strapped the 18-foot Wenonah canoe atop his ’88 Celebrity wagon.

The Wenonah is a dream machine compared to the heavy, less-responsive aluminum standards popular with Boundary Waters outfitters. If you’re renting, spend the extra money on a fiberglass model if you can find one. Wenonah canoes, made in Minnesota, are ideal.

The best color we saw all weekend was along Minnesota Highway 2, between Two Harbors and Isabella. The roadside poplars were still green and the birches were just turning gold, but the maples were a startling blood red. The tea-colored Lake Isabella on this damp and blustery
weekend was draped in muted gold and green. In a minimalist way, it was pleasing and therapeutic. And in crisp sunshine, the gold, green, and red of the Boundary Waters is often vivid enough to bring on a rush of adrenaline.

Toting our food and gear in bulky Duluth and Granite Gear packs, we quickly reached the lake and were delighted to find it deserted. The only other fishing parties in sight were a flock of about 20 hooded mergansers and a family of four common loons, the Minnesota state bird. Motorized vehicles are prohibited throughout most of the wilderness area and planes are restricted
from flying overhead.

Perhaps too quickly, we loaded the canoe. Brian, the third member of our group, seated himself on the middle floor and Willie took the stern. Loaded heavy and with a high center of gravity, the canoe was tippy and we were cutting across whitecaps in heavy wind. Behind me, Willie and Brian were silently watching waves splash over the gunnels and into the canoe. Too many
incoming waves and we’d all be swimming in some fairly cold water with nightfall looming and the air temps falling.

To Willie’s surprise, we avoided a spill. He and Brian talked about the hairy crossing all weekend, and I could only shrug. I had a smooth ride up front, oblivious to the danger.

We fished all day Saturday, but had to brave whitecaps and take frequent refuge behind islands, where the fish weren’t biting. Our catch: three small northern pike and one walleye pike. But the day was highlighted by repeated sightings of a bald eagle, its black and white feathers painting a smart contrast against the fall colors.

If you go to the Boundary Waters for color, go early. By late October, the show will be over and the encore is snow. That said, however, autumn is arguably the best time of the year to explore the area. The bugs are gone, the fishing usually is good, the crowds are down, and the portages are less likely to be mucky.

Outfitters are plentiful in Ely and Grand Marais. Call the chamber of commerce in those towns for listings. Reservations are required through the Forest Service permitting system. The quickest way to get a permit is to call 800-745-3399, but a credit card is required for the minimal fee.

Tony Kennedy is a Minneapolis-based journalist.

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