If you are unfamiliar with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, also referred to as the BWCA, it is simply one of the best camping, canoeing and fishing experiences this world has to offer.
The BWCA is located in northeastern Minnesota within the Superior National Forest and extends over 150 miles along the Minnesota/Canada border. The area covers roughly 1.1 Million acres, has over 1,000 amazingly clear and beautiful lakes and 1,500 miles worth of trails/portages connecting these lakes.
What makes the BWCA so incredibly special is that it’s landscape is truly a remote wilderness.
There are no motors allowed in the majority of the area, most lakes are only accessible by portaging (carrying your boat & supplies across land on trails to the next lake) to them and most of the lakes typically only have 1-5 designated campsites with simply a fire grate and latrine. These campsites are to prevent visitors from creating their own campsites and thus hurting the landscape.
Developing A Love Of Camping
I definitely grew up with a love for exploring. When I was young I would often go to a wooded river area about a mile from our farm and wander around in the woods for hours. I would think of myself as a great explorer or survivalist (not the TV kind of today) and honestly, I probably thought of myself as a ninja in those woods a lot as well.
This love for exploring formed my love for camping as I got older. I still love see as many trails and wilderness areas as possible when out on a camping trip, the more remote the better.
Growing up I knew of the BWCA but never had a chance to visit until I was in my early 20’s and started going with my older brother. My first experience left me in absolute awe of the huge wilderness, primitive camping experience and isolation from other visitors.
I knew I had found a place that I would be returning to for the rest of my life.
Planning Our Trip
For the last 3 years I had been trying to get my wife to the BWCA as she has developed a love for camping (which started as we launched Beyond The Tent). But 5 kids along with committing to an RV sponsor for this website kept us from doing the type of camping that we truly loved.
This was the summer that I would finally be able to show my wife the inspiration behind the stories my son and I would tell her about the BWCA.
We got our permits in January on the first day that permit registration opened up and decided to go into the BWCA at the Clearwater Lake entry point (#62) on July 1st. There are a limited number of permits issued for every BWCA entry point, so it is a good idea to plan your trip far ahead of time and make sure to secure your permit as early as possible.
Planning our Route
After securing our permits, we didn’t start really planning out our exact route until May.
Planning a route is probably my favorite part of planning for the BWCA. Since we were going to be in for 5 days and 4 nights, I felt like we could do quite a bit of canoeing and portaging and ended up planning a pretty large trip of roughly 50 miles of canoeing and over 6 miles worth of portages. Since I was the only one in our group of 4 who had been to the BWCA before, this ended up being too much as the members of our group quickly got exhausted by a few uphill portages!
To plan your route you should start by looking at maps online and figuring out your basic general route of canoeing, portaging and camping. When planning, remember that an average canoeing pace is roughly 3 miles per hour and I typically plan portages to be roughly 1 miler per hour (this includes unpacking and repacking your canoe and the occasional double portage when needed).
When you have your route figured out, this is when you will want to purchase a McKenzie map. These maps are an absolute MUST when in the Boundary Waters to keep yourself from getting lost and putting yourself in danger. They are incredibly detailed, accurate and include all lakes, portage routes, hiking routes, campsites and more.
Packing Our Gear
The first thing we wanted to do was to make sure we had the best canoes possible for this trip. We wanted something that was as lightweight as possible, durable, stable and quick in the water. If you are planning a trip, there is really only one right choice for your canoe, The Minnesota 2 by Wenonah Canoe.
Wenonah Canoe is the number one maker of kevlar canoes in the world. They are a family owned business run out of Winona, Minnesota and have been in business for over 55 years. Literally, no other canoe comes even close when choosing a canoe for the BWCA.
Our MN 2 is a kevlar 2 person canoe that weighs in at a paltry 44 lbs. The canoe is quick, stable and large enough to carry everything we brought and still have a lot of room left over. The kevlar construction gives the canoe it’s incredibly light weight and also makes it the most durable canoe available. A kevlar MN 2 will easily outlast it’s owner.
If you want to read how canoe’s are made, check out our article on Wenonah Canoe here.
Our next step was to create a packing list for our trip. If you Google BWCA packing list you will find a good number of lists, but honestly these lists are incredibly excessive and will make your packs way too heavy. Mike from Wenonah gave us some great advice when talking to him about our trip. He said “Pack everything you think you’ll need, then take out half of it and you’re ready to go”. This is exactly what we did. Best. Advice. Ever.
You can check out our final BWCA Packing List here. From this list we were able to determine what we already had, what we needed and what we wanted.
Once we had all our gear, we then laid it out in our living room so we could access everything easily. We started with 2 Granite Gear Portage Packs (review), 1 Cabela’s Boundary Waters Backpack and 1 Boreas Sapa Trek Travel Pack (review). The Granite Gear packs were simply the best packs I have ever used in the Boundary Waters. Far superior to the Duluth Packs I have used in the past, far more comfortable and practical than the Cabela’s pack and while the Boreas pack is awesome, it is simply not built for the BWCA.
Inside these packs we packed everything that needed to remain dry, such as our sleeping bags and clothes, into our granite gear dry sacks. Investing in some decent dry sacks instead of going for the standard garbage sack is a great investment, but only if you already have everything else you need.
We decided that we were only going to bring what we could fit into these four packs (along with fishing poles, life jackets, paddles and our Wenonah Canoe). So once we had our gear out, if it didn’t fit into one of these four packs, it didn’t make it on the trip.
Limiting our gear ended up being a fantastic decision. You may find yourself wanting to bring some awesome camping gear when packing, but when you are portaging your third portage of the day and it happens to be a mile long on rough uphill terrain, you will be cursing every extra ounce of weight you decided to pack.
In the end our favorite gear along with the Granite Gear (review) was our Big Agnes tents (review), Big Agnes Sleeping bags & pads, GSI Outdoors cooking gear, our Vapor Water Bottles (review) and obviously our Minnesota 2’s (each link goes to a specific review of this gear). While we had plenty of other gear that we loved on the trip, these were definitely our favorite items.
Note: one item that ended up saving us some serious packing space was the Scrubba Wash Bag. This is basically a dry sack with a built in agitator that allows you to wash you clothes anywhere. We ended up each brining one pair of shorts, one pair of long pants, one short sleeve shirt, one long sleeve shirt, a sweat shirt, one pair of socks and two pairs of underwear. In the evening we would usually wash our clothes from the day to get out any bug spray, sweat and dirt. This easily saved everyone from packing at least one extra outfit.
Canoeing and Camping Through The Boundary Waters
On June 30th we headed out to Grand Marais, MN so we could spend a night in this amazing town on the edge of the Boundary Waters and be able to get up early and get a head start on our first day in the BWCA.
While there, we were lucky enough to stay at the amazing East Bay Suites which overlook Lake Superior. Seriously, if you are planning a trip to the BWCA, a great plan is to head up the day before and take in the town of Grand Marais (or Ely). This will allow you to head out early in the morning and be fresh for your first day of paddling.
Entering On Clearwater Lake
On July 1st we drove up the Gunflint Trail and onto Clearwater Lake so we could enter in entry point #62. We quickly unpacked our canoes and gear, got everything in the water and headed out.
It definitely took everyone a good hour to get a rhythm down in the canoes, but once we were all comfortable we made great progress.
We made it through Clearwater lake in roughly 2 hours and hit our first portage into West Pike Lake. This portage was 211 rods and moderate difficulty. Note 1: Rods are a unit of measurement traditionally used by surveyors. While not still in widespread use, rods are still used in canoeing mainly due to the fact that one rod is roughly equal to the length of the average canoe, 16.5′. Note 2: 320 Rods = 1 Mile. While I may have been prepared, the other members of our group were definitely shocked at the difficulty of their first portage. Carrying a large pack, canoe, paddles, fishing poles and life jackets for a long distance over uneven terrain is very exhausting.
Our First Night Camping
We decided to camp our first night in West Pike Lake. We set up our camp site, cooked a simple meal and enjoyed our first night camping the woods.
For me, there is something that is amazingly peaceful about camping in the wilderness away from everything. Some people find the strange noises at night to be spooky and scary and constantly imagine that a bear is there to get them. But if you can get over this, you realize that there is an amazing amount of things happening in nature around you and they are simply beautiful. From mice & chipmunks running around, frogs & toads croaking, beavers slapping the water, fish jumping and every cricket and bug imaginable, it can almost be a lullaby singing you to a peaceful sleep.
On our second day we started off with a short canoe paddle followed by a 311 rod hike into Pine Lake. This portage wouldn’t have been so bad, but this is also when we discovered one item that I will definitely be brining in the future, rechargeable walkie talkies. Since there were four people and two canoes, one group could often get far enough ahead of the other where you couldn’t hear them or see them. This happened on this particular portage and the second group took a wrong turn on the portage and went about 150 rods before they realized they had taken a wrong turn.
We had made sure that everyone knew the route before starting the portage, but the second group did not realize the importance of paying attention to these routes. Getting lost in the BWCA is a very real possibility and can easily put a group in danger if they are unprepared.
After the portage we paddled about 5 miles through Pine Lake where we found a trail leading to Johnson Falls. This was about a 1 mile hike that lead to an amazing falls that felt as though the world didn’t know of it’s existence.
We spent a few hours checking out the three different falls at Johnson Falls and followed the trail beyond the falls to a small un-named pond. To me, this presented the most naturally beautiful moment of our trip. This pond was simply amazing. We decided not to stay long as we found multiple instances of bear dung. I’m guessing this was a popular feeding area for the bears. Although I would have loved to see a bear, I would definitely prefer it being from across a long, not at his kitchen table.
After a long day of portaging, paddling and hiking, everyone was ready to find a campground. Though little to our knowledge did we know that our toughest portage of our trip was ahead of us.
The Portage That Tested Our Willpower
It was getting to be late afternoon when we got back from Johnson Falls and our portage into Canoe Lake was about 100 yards from us. We quickly paddled over and got ready for a portage that I had only glanced at, and glanced wrong for that matter.
I had thought the portage was flat and 200 rods. It turned out that this portage was a solid 461 rods with a steep incline. You can read other campers comments on this portage here, it’s considered by many to be one of the toughest portages in this area. For us, we had already had a long portage, hike and afternoon of paddling, we got absolutely beat up on this portage.
The portage tested our patience with one another, what we could put our bodies through when we were tired and even our fears as the skies started to darken from evening and we could hear thunder off in the distance (which Kelly kept imagining was a bear).
No pictures were taken during this portage! We couldn’t have cared less about photos at the time 🙂
Looking back, this moment is one of the proudest moments I’ve had for my wife. She stayed right with me during the entire portage, took breaks and we encouraged one another as well as vented. I knew she was tough, but had no idea she was this tough!
Once we completed this portage and found ourselves thoroughly exhausted, we quickly found a campsite on Canoe Lake and decided that we would take a day off to recover on Canoe Lake.
Falling In Love With The BWCA at Canoe Lake
That evening we set up a basic camp and ate a feast of spaghetti and a desert of a Jello No-Bake Oreo Cheese Cake (these are stinking amazing when camping!).
The next day we decided to keep our campsite and have an easy day of fishing, exploring, photo taking and relaxing. This ended up being just what everyone needed. We built a nice campsite with two tarps to rest in the shade, set up our Hummingbird Hammocks and canoed around Canoe Lake, Alder Lake and Paddle Lake (Paddle Lake is simply amazing!).
During the day we were lucky enough to see a moose swimming just 100 yards from our campsite. We ended up getting to watch the moose swim to the other side of the lake, climb out, take a look at us and walk off into the woods.
Later, we found a beaver that decided he was frightened by our canoe. He would dive under the water, surface next to the canoe and give his tail a good hard slap next to us to warn his fellow beavers that we were near.
That evening everyone was feeling refreshed and thrilled about our stay on Canoe Lake. Kelly, my wife, ended up winning the Bad Ass award as she walked the 100 yard latrine trail by herself at roughly midnight to use the bathroom in the dark (which is literally surrounded by nothing but dark woods). Any fears of the woods had definitely dissolved.
We retreated to our Big Agnes tents and had a great nights sleep.
Alder, East Bear Skin, Moon and Deer
On our fourth day we woke up ready to see some new lakes, portages and hopefully some cool wildlife. We paddled 7.5 miles through Alder Lake, East Bearskin Lake, Moon Lake and ended up camping on Deer Lake.
Each of our portages this day were short but still had some rough terrain. It was a relaxing day of canoeing, portaging and photo taking.
During our trip through East Bear Skin, I realized I had not practiced my Karate in quite a while…
After initially looking for a campsite on Moon Lake (all three campsites on this lake were full), we ended up finding a campsite on Deer Lake, which only had one campsite on the entire lake.
Two interesting things happened at our Deer Lake campsite, one being rather cool while the other was quite frustrating.
First, we must have been camping on a popular snapping turtle spot because the large snappers were coming to visit the campsite constantly. During the night I even unzipped my tent door to see two snappers roughly 3 feet from the entrance. Our fellow campers had a snapper trying to climb up their tent during the night (who knows why).
There was one thing we ran into during our trip that was a bit frustrating. On our portage into Moon Lake we must have been a day or so behind a group doing a lot of fishing. These campers had taken their fish and filleted them directly on the portage trail and left all of their fish guts directly on the side of the trail.
Anyone with common sense should be able to figure out that this is a terrible idea, not to mention warned against on every BWCA website, DNR station and anywhere you can imagine. By leaving the fish guts you are essentially putting some un-expecting travel in danger of running into an animal (bear) eating the fish directly on the path.
As luck would have it, I was walking around our final campsite in the evening as the sun was going down and found the exact same thing, a big pile of fish guts directly in our campsite. At this time I was rather upset. It was too late to find a new campsite and now I felt like there was bear bait sitting in my campsite.
I decided not to tell my wife or fellow campers as I knew we couldn’t leave the campsite that late. I ended up picking up all the fish and getting them as far away from our campsite as possible and cleaning the area to the best of my ability. I didn’t tell the other campers until morning since I didn’t want them to be nervous about a bear visit during the night.
Our Final Departure
The next morning we woke up at 5:30 am ready to pack up camp, finish our last portage, canoe to our truck and head home.
The peacefulness of the BWCA is something that is rarely experienced anywhere else. Being on a beautiful lake, fully surrounded by forest and wildlife without a single cabin, boat or even fellow canoeist (usually we ran into 1-3 other canoes per day) is an experience unlike any other.
The beauty of this magnificent place really struck us as we made our final paddle out.
Our trip was one I won’t forget. I absolutely loved every second and cannot wait for my next visit.
Gear Used In The BWCA
If you are curious about some of the gear we used in the Boundary Waters below is a list of our gear, each linking to a complete review right here on Beyond The Tent.
- Wenonah Minnesota 2 Kevlar Canoe
- Granite Gear: Quitico & Superior One Portage Packs (Backpacks built for portaging).
- Big Agnes Blacktail 2 Tent
- Big Agnes Sleeping Bag & Pad System
- GSI Outdoors: Pinnacle Dualist Cooking & Eating Set
- Sunjack Solar Charger
- Vapor Microfilter Water Bottles
- Katadyn Gravity Water Filter
- Timberland Hiking Boots
- Keen Sandles
- Thermacell Mosquito Protection
- Boreas Backpack
- Sunbell Solar Lantern
- Scrubba Wash Bag (for washing clothes)
- Sea To Summit Pocket Shower
- Hummingbird Hammocks