Canoe the Boundary Waters: Explore Minnesota’s Wilderness Wonderland

By Christopher Ferguson


The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is the pride and joy of Minnesota. We brag about it. We tell stories of how many miles in the BWCA we’ve canoed or the trip we took up there with a youth group. In these few paragraphs, I’d like to help you with your first trip.

“What is the Boundary Waters?” The BWCA is essentially a huge collection of lakes, islands, and rivers. On the U.S. side alone, it’s about 1.1 million acres or just under 3,000 square miles. In neighboring Ontario, Quetico National Park is about the same size. Together, they form a massive 2 million acre wilderness that is unlike like anywhere else in North America.

A Rugged Past

Part of the Ojibwe people’s homeland, evidence of the tribe’s earliest presence still exists with hundreds of prehistoric pictographs on cliffs, a famous one of which is located on Hegman Lake.

Jacques de Noyon, the French explorer, was the first European known to have travelled through what is now the BWCA. Once he proved it could be done, in 1688, the fur trade called upon the voyageurs to transport and trade furs. The two biggest companies, the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, relied on the voyageurs to get their products to and from Lake Superior and Canada through the Boundary Waters. Crews of six to twelve men travelled by Montreal canoes, massive thirty-six feet long by six feet wide vessels weighing over 600 pounds. Typically, four men would carry the canoe over portages, while also helping transport tons of food, equipment, and cargo.

In the 1920s, the area narrowly avoided the construction of several dams, and by 1926 it had been designated as the Superior Roadless Area by the U.S. Forest Service. In 1964, the Wilderness Act made the Boundary Waters a legally protected wilderness area, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Act in 1978 finally made the area into what it is today.

Little Vermillion Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Little Vermillion Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Root Beer and Pine Islands

While many people travel there, only two people have ever truly lived in the Boundary Waters—Dorothy Molter and Benny Ambrose.* In 1948, Dorothy Molter inherited a lodge operating as the Isle of Pines Resort. As the years passed, she no longer rented the lodge but lived in it and cared for it. She made root beer and sold it to passing canoeists in the summer months and passed many long, lonely winters alone without electricity in her house marked by a fence made of broken canoe paddles. In later years Molter was forbidden to sell her root beer, so she declared the root beer was free and that people could make donations. She was nearly forced to leave her home when the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Act came into effect, but she was granted a special exception and was allowed to remain until she passed away in 1986.

Back to your trip. Where will you go? How long will you stay? How hard do you want to work? A popular route starts on a beautiful lake called Lake One.

Trips for All Types

If you’re new to this, a nice introductory trip is Lake One to Insula. Lake One can be a little tricky, but if you pay attention to where you’re going, you’ll make it just fine. There’s a portage on the route that’s 105 rods long, but it’s a simple one. A rod is 16.5 feet, and all portages are measured in them. You’ll paddle up through the numbered chain of lakes to Lake Insula. Once you’re there, spend a night or multiple nights camping, turn around, and go back the way you came. It’s a relaxing trip with just six short portages each way. You can fish to your heart’s content, swim, or just take in the scenery.

For a more advanced route, you can do a five-day Lake One to Snowbank Loop. Start at the same point. You’ll travel through lakes One through Four and camp on Lake Four that first night, which is a great lake for fishing. I’ve caught crayfish out of Lake Four and they tasted like Heaven. The next day, you’ll pass through Lake Hudson and Lake Insula. You’ll have a longer portage, but you’ll take it like a champ. Lake Insula is beautiful, you’ll want your camera. Day three will bring you to Kiana Lake, Thomas Lake, and a campsite on Hatchet Lake where you can swim if you like. On day four, you’ll hit Ima, Jordan, Cattyman, Adventure, and Jitterbug Lakes before coming to rest on Lake Ahsub. Lake Ahsub has some indescribably lovely swimming areas, which will be chock full of crayfish. Eat to your heart’s content. On your final day, you’ll paddle Disappointment Lake (a true misnomer), Parent Lake, and finally Snowbank Lake. Snowbank Lake is nearly a full hour from Ely, but it may be worth it to reward yourself with a steak or two from the Ely Steakhouse downtown.

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