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The jaw bone of a northern pike discovered near shore may be an indication that there are fish at a lake when visiting Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The idea of flipping an 18 1/2-foot, 42-pound canoe over your head and hauling it a mile on your shoulders may not immediately be considered a fun trip.

But about halfway into the portage, just when the sound of your own breath echoing inside the canoe becomes an annoyance, the realization of what awaits you in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) hits. The watercraft seems lighter and your stride widens.

Despite achy shoulders from already paddling several miles that morning, the pain fades as the canoe glides across the water and the call of the common loon welcomes you to a new lake, your fourth of the day.

An angler fishes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota at dusk.
An angler fishes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota at dusk. (Brett Prettyman/The Salt Lake Tribune /)

Although treated unofficially as wild country since the first humans explored its multitude of lakes, plethora of wildlife and heavy vegetation, the area was only officially dubbed a wilderness area in 1978.

The BWCAW includes more than 1 million acres of land, 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 12 hiking trails and more than 2,000 campsites. But it is what is not included -- motors, buildings and groups larger than nine people -- that makes the Boundary Waters special.

"You really can't find a wilderness area anywhere else in the United States where you can basically paddle as far as you want to," said Wade Klingsporn, with Piragis Northwoods Outfitters out of Ely, Minn. "It is a unique experience for people who enjoy paddling and getting out into the woods."


Fishing is also a major draw on the Boundary Waters. In addition to putting up a great fight, feisty northern pike, plump walleye and big smallmouth and largemouth bass all make a great shoreside meal. Lake and brook trout can also be landed at lakes scattered throughout the area.

Don't forget the wildlife above the water. Moose, black bear, wolves, whitetail deer, eagles, geese, loons, otters, owls and songbirds can all be seen or heard during a trip.

The BWCAW, on the Superior National Forest, is managed by the Forest Service and averages about 250,000 visitors annually. Campers in the Boundary Waters are required to stay at designated sites with fire grates and open-air wilderness latrines (a version of a toilet over a deep hole).

Permits are required and can be ordered in advance through The permits are allocated based on the entry point into the wilderness and can also be picked up on a walk-up basis at one of the BWCAW permit issuing stations.

"There are almost always some permits available if you are willing to do longer portages or more into the more challenging areas," said Becca Manlove, an information assistant with the Kawishiwi Ranger Station in Ely.

Manlove said one of the most common mistakes made by people visiting the Boundary Waters is not following permit rules.

"You need to reserve a permit for the exact day you go into the woods. If you are a day late, we can't issue it," she said. "You can't change your entry point, either. We encourage people to put up to four names on the permit. That way if there are any cancellations, other members of the party can still take the trip."

I was lucky enough to have a friend with experience in Boundary Waters to set up my trip. Without that contact, I likely would have hired an outfitter. We did end up renting a tent, cooking supplies, portage bags, one canoe and lifejackets from Piragis. I shipped my sleeping bag to Minnesota so I wouldn't have to sleep in a rented or borrowed bag.

"There are many local guides," Manlove said. "It can be an intimidating trip for people who have never done it before. You may have a better trip if you don't have to worry about all the logistics."

One of the most common mistakes Manlove said people make is bringing multiple bags for the trip. The best way to pack for a paddle and portage is in one large bag with backpack straps. If you can limit your gear to one bag and carry it, along with the canoe on a portage, it will save you from having to backtrack and make three trips along the trail instead of one.

Our group did one portage that was just about a mile; by the time we were done shuttling the canoe and the gear, it had turned into a three-mile jaunt.

Although we had just one short period of light rain in our four days and only one night when mosquitoes were an issue, Klingsporn said rain gear and repellent and/or bug netting should be on the top of every list started for a trip to the Boundary Waters.

"You would be crazy to go without rain gear and some kind of protection from the bugs," he said. "You need something that will keep you dry, but it has to breathe. Otherwise, you may be dry on the outside but soaked on the inside with sweat."

Four days was not enough time in the Boundary Waters for our group. Klingsporn said there are folks who spend several months, from ice-off to the first major snowstorm, in the Boundary Waters and the adjoining Quetico Provincial Park each year.

He suggests traveling with people you are familiar with and "going as long as you can get away from work."

Of course, your tolerance to the potential swarms of hungry bugs, constant rain and poor fishing may not be as great as some.

"You want to go at least four days, and most people seem to really like a five- to seven-day time frame," Klingsporn said. "But seven days of [bad] weather makes for a long trip."