The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) is a wilderness that stretches along northern Minnesota and southern Canada. A Boundary Waters canoe trip means you get to explore an area that covers over one million acres and encompasses over 1100 lakes. Just look at this map – the lakes are everywhere!
The experience of canoeing in the Boundary Waters is rather unique because it has so many lakes so close together in an area that is so remote, wild, and pristine. There aren’t many places in the world with the same extensive network of lakes.
When you do a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters, you aren’t paddling down a river or across one big lake, but paddling across a lake, portaging across rugged trails to the next lake, and then canoeing across that lake. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The US Forest Service goes to great lengths to preserve the pristine character of the wilderness. A permit is required to enter, limiting use each year. Each permit is good for up to nine people. Motor boats are restricted to very limited areas on the edges to preserve the vast lakes region for canoes only.
Practicing “Leave No Trace” principles is required. We saw almost no trash or junk during our trip. This means that the land does not get overrun, animals can still live freely, the water stays incredibly clear and unpolluted, the lakes are quiet, and you rarely see other people. So basically, nature heaven.
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So, What Did We Do On Our Boundary Waters Canoe Trip?
During our 5 day/4 night Boundary Waters canoe trip, we paddled 35 miles, did 11 portages, and crossed 11 lakes. We saw gorgeous, colorful sunrises and sunsets reflected on the lake water.
We saw a variety of animals – including many bald eagles, loons, a crane, an otter, and a beaver. We went fishing and cliff-jumped and swam in the lake.
We hiked to a lookout called Thunder Point and explored a blueberry island. We swamped canoes for fun (after they were unloaded!) and relaxed in hammocks. We climbed a waterfall.
We unloaded and reloaded our canoes many, many, many times. We carried canoes on our shoulder and heavy packs on our backs as we portaged through rugged, rough terrain. We gazed at the night sky filled with stars.
We canoed through glassy, still water glass like I’ve never seen before.
There are almost endless variations of launch points and itineraries (permits are valid for 14 days from launch), but this is the route and itinerary we followed:
Launch Point & Boundary Waters Outfitters
There are many spots you can enter the Boundary Waters, but we started east of Ely, Minnesota at Williams and Hall Outfitters. My dad has been using them for 6 years and they’ve been great to work with. We drove up Monday night and bunked in their bunkhouse that night so that we could have an early start Tuesday morning. The bunkhouses were very clean and tidy, and inexpensive (~$10 per person per night).
It is highly recommended that you do it this way and arrive the night before so you can have an early start the next morning. An early start is important for the distance of the first day. Life on a Boundary Waters trip starts early and the best camps sites are taken by mid-afternoon during the busy season.
Tuesday morning we launched! We rented the canoes and paid to get transported in their motorboat to the drop-off point. You could just start canoeing from the Outfitters, but since it’s not technically the Boundary Waters yet, there are motorboats going by dropping people off and that, plus it being a large lake, makes it not as nice of an experience as just being able to start from the official drop off point.
We started paddling on Birch Lake and canoed on that lake for a few hours until we came to our first portage. It was nice to be able to have several hours of canoeing before we did a portage.
At portage points, you unload your canoe so that everyone is carrying all the gear on their backs (or in the case of the paddles and fishing poles, in our hands). Some people also need to carry the canoes upside down on their shoulders.
Portage length is measured in “rods”, and one rod is the length of the canoe (about 17 feet). Our first portage was only 30 rods and the last portage of the first day was 75 rods. These were relatively short compared to the longer 180 rod and 200 rod portages we did later in the trip.
The portage pack (a very large backpack that held our tents and sleeping bags) and food barrel were very, very heavy, so the boys ended up taking those the first few days. We had chosen aluminum canoes because they are less tippy and harder to damage than the kevlar, but they are also a little heavier – so the boys ended up taking the canoes as well.
Sometimes Matthew carried the bear barrel AND the canoe – crazy! When you are planning out who is going to come on your trips and what packs you are going to have, definitely consider how much weight people are able to carry.
You technically could double portage (make two trips each portage to carry gear not able to be carried in one trip), but that is a huge pain and you really don’t want to have to do that.
Lakes vary substantially in size. Portage points also vary dramatically in length. We paddled on lakes that took us a few hours to cross and lakes that took 10 minutes to cross. Portage points were anywhere from 5 rods to 200 rods – so anywhere from ~100 feet to ¾ mile).
Congregating with other groups is not allowed. So, if there happens to be another group at portage points you are supposed to wait for them to clear out before you pull in.
This is partially a matter of practicality – portage landing spots are not very large – but they also want to lessen the impact larger groups tend to cause. Specifically, nine people and four canoes are maximum for one group (or combination of groups in one spot). If you combine and exceed the limit, large fines can result.
We stopped at an island for lunch and then continued on for a few hours until we found a campsite on Thunder Point Island. The campsite we wanted was taken, so we went to the other side of the island and happily got that one. Our site had a good rock nearby for jumping into the lake (always a nice perk).
Camping anywhere near Thunder Point is fun because the island has one of the few hikes in the Boundary Waters. We hiked to the lookout point (short but does have a bit of an incline) to watch the sunset and then canoed back in the dusk. The water was super calm and glassy and the light was casting beautiful shadows. All told, the first day we did 11 miles, 6 portages, and it took 7 hours.
Tip: There is a planning guide for how many miles you can expect to go depending on your experience and fitness level (and weather conditions!):
Beginner: 4-6 miles a day
Intermediate: 6-10 miles/day
Experienced: 10+ miles
Now, I will say, we were able to do more miles per day than what this guide recommends. We were able to go 11 miles on Day 1 aided by the slight breeze at our back. There’s also a certain advantage to having Day 1 be the longer day and the remaining days be less. Canoeing experience in our group varied from beginner to intermediate, and everyone had very average fitness levels.
We also were lucky in that we had low winds almost all the time. Stronger head winds would have made it much harder. As it was, each day we were tired when we got to our campsite, but not completely exhausted.
General Info on Boundary Waters Campsites
Campsites are first come, first serve, and you can only camp at the specified campsites on the map (both for forest conservation reasons, but also you really couldn’t camp at other spots – there’s too much forest and vegetation). If a campsite you want is taken, you just have to keep paddling until you find another one that is open.
For this reason it’s recommended to get up and get going right away in the morning. Most groups move each day and movement in the Boundary Waters starts early. So, campsites are occupied by early to mid-afternoon. Read more about what to know before you go here.
A lot of setting up is what you’ll be familiar with in traditional camping. This would include pitching tents and getting gear inside, gathering firewood and setting up how you’ll cook, and setting up camp equipment like chairs and hammocks. (Btw, I never realized how nice hammocks are on campouts before this trip, but they are sooooo nice to have.) Read more about what gear to pack for the Boundary Waters here.
But, there are also some things that are specific to the more primitive camping you’ll be doing in the Boundary Waters. The big one is water set up. You won’t bring hardly any water with you on the trip. Instead you’ll rely on filtering. Individual filtered bottles will serve you well while canoeing.
These water bottles are awesome because they filter water 99.999% of germs, and you can drink from the bottle immediately. We filled these up with lake water continually while canoeing.
At the campsite, though it’s extremely helpful to have a larger container and in-line filtration system set up.
To start getting the water station set up, a 2 gallon collapsible water jug is filled from the lake. It helps to do this a bit away from the landing point to avoid water with particles stirred up by your recent arrival. This jug is hung from a tree, or otherwise elevated, so that gravity forces the water through a high quality in-line water filter and into a second 2 gallon collapsible water jug. This second jug of now filtered water is great for general campsite use like cooking and cleaning.
Finally, as a point of general maintenance, you really need to keep food stored at all times you aren’t actively eating. You should have a good bear barrel that stays latched by default and has straps for portaging. And you always want to do a double-check at bedtime to make sure no smellables are out around camp. All that good stuff should be locked away in the barrel overnight. Read more about menu and meal planning for the Boundary Waters here.
Each campsite also has a latrine set 150 feet minimum away from shore. As far as latrines go, these weren’t too bad – there was a “toilet” stool set over an open pit. For safety reasons, always take a buddy to use the bathroom. And don’t forget to bring toilet paper with you!
In fact, never go anywhere in the Boundary Waters alone, not even a short walk down a trail. This is the real untamed, wilderness. It’s just not safe, as you could run into unexpected animals or get lost.
This was our first morning of our Boundary Waters trip waking up in the wilderness! We broke camp and got on the water early. The outfitters showed us on a map an island where wild blueberries grow. Apparently, bears will swim across the lake to the island to eat the blueberries, but the guy thought there may still be some left at this time in the year. We decided to find and explore that island for blueberries on the way to our intended destination.
We canoed for 4 hours, did 1 partial portage (we didn’t have to unload everything as it was so short), and went 5 miles. During our paddle we did get to stop at Blueberry Island and did indeed find blueberries, much to Matthew’s delight. (They were much smaller than cultivated ones but so sweet!) We also saw several bald eagles!
Our aim was to get a campsite near Edy Waterfall so we could explore the waterfall area. We got an awesome site nearby and went over and checked out the waterfall that night – which was beautiful and we saw some people climbing it. It was getting dusky, so we delayed climbing it ourselves until the next day.
We decided to take a rest day and stay at our same location. We really liked the spot and its proximity to the waterfall and wanted a day to relax a bit. After some morning fishing, we climbed the waterfall, jumped off of rocks into the lake, hammocked and relaxed, and measured the visibility depth of the lake (you could see down 27 feet!).
Edy Waterfall has a lot of ledges and flat spots, as well as rocks well-proportioned for climbing, so it was really safe to climb as long as you watch your footing. If you are in the area, it’s a really fun activity to do.
The tradeoff for staying in one spot on Thursday was that we had a long way to paddle on Friday. We got incredibly lucky and had the calmest water (that my dad has ever seen) the entire morning – even well after the sun was up. We started paddling at 6am and finished at about 3pm. The goal was to get to the far end of Ensign Lake, because it was not far from the pickup spot and also right across from a fantastic cliff jumping spot.
The cliff jumping spot is right by the portage point between Splash Lake and Ensign Lake, and its worth a stop to jump in, even if you’re just passing through. Ensign Lake is fairly popular because it is close to dropoff/pickup spots and there are a lot of campsites on the lake, so we wanted to make good time in order to get the spot we wanted.
We ended up doing 13 miles that day and 2 (crazy, crazy long) portages, in 9 hours. We were tired at the end, but since the wind was so low it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. That morning paddle was actually one of my top favorite parts of the entire trip because the water was so incredibly glassy and reflective.
Saturday morning we woke up early to do some sunrise fishing and were rewarded with a closeup encounter with a beaver! Truly very exciting. We followed the beaver around the lake at a distance for a good half hour, watching him swim on the surface, slap his tail as he dove, and then resurface a few minutes later.
Saturday mid-morning we had our only real rainstorm of the trip. We were still at our campsite when the rain came, but we still saw several people canoeing past in the rain (that particular campsite was fairly close to a popular portage point, so we saw people going past every hour or two).
If there’s not lightning or really high winds, you can still canoe! Around lunch time we left our campsite to head to the pickup point, which was only 30 minutes away. You arrange your pickup time beforehand with the Outfitters, and if you are late, they don’t wait around, so don’t be late!
Final Thoughts on our Boundary Waters Canoe Trip
I’ve done several canoe trips of varying length in my life, but nothing like this! Despite the long days and the roughing it experiences, the week was full of gorgeous landscapes and interesting places to explore.
A Boundary Waters canoe trip is amazing and it’s worth all the preparation, training, and planning it takes to have this unique experience! I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a Boundary Waters canoe trip to anyone who loves outdoor adventures and experiencing peaceful and secluded locations.