Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a vast wilderness area in northern Minnesota, adjoining with Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park, famous for its array of over a thousand small-to-medium-sized lakes, and the wildlife they provide a home for. It is a well-known camping and canoeing destination.
The BWCA is composed of over 1 million acres of untouched boreal forests strewn with dramatic cliffs, rock outcroppings, and unforgettable vistas. While the climate may be the harshest found within the US outside of Alaska, the experience will be one that is simply impossible to have anywhere else on earth. Thousands upon thousands of miles of water routes weaving in and out of one of the most lightly populated places on earth are open for the taking. No motored vehicles or boats are allowed within the parameters of the wilderness area. It features the largest boreal forest east of the Rocky Mountains.
Flora and fauna
Roughly 85 percent of the BWCA is coniferous forest composed of white and red pine, spruce, jack pine, cedar, and hemlock. The other 15 percent of the area is deciduous trees such as paper birch, yellow birch, poplar, upland maple, and tammarack (considered a conifer by some, but actually deciduous). Numerous wild flowers, mushrooms, and other fungi dot the forest floor.
Unpredictable. One constant is the perilously long frigid winters. An important note to the stability of this wilderness's survival is the constant thickness of its lake ice throughout the winters. Four to seven feet of lake ice is common from winter to winter with the number of subzero days (that is days within a 365 day year the temperature dips below 0°F) averaging around 90. Snow can fall at any month of the year and is actually highest around the months of March and April. Minnesota's state record low of -60°F was officially reported in Tower, just south of the BWCA. However many feel that temperatures could be as much as 10 degrees colder within some of the top ridges of the Laurention Highlands which seemingly bisect the BWCA. Without any records taken from within the BWCA this has yet to be proven. Average winter snowfall in the area can be as high as 150 inches atop the ridges of the Superior highlands off the shore of Lake Superior with about 75-90 inches of snowfall being the norm throughout the rest of the BWCA. Summers are short and generally cool with offshore breezes from Lake Superior dramatically cooling areas near the shore. Temperatures can be as much as 25 degrees cooler near the coast opposed to inland areas. Summer temperatures rarely exceed 90 degrees but if they do, consider yourself blessed and swim at every opportunity. Summer weather lasts from mid June to mid August. Generally the first significant snowfall (2 inches or more) occurs in early October. Lakes tend to freeze to a walkable thickness (4 inches) by late October. The average yearly temperature ranges from 29-36 degrees. One reason for this cold climate is that it is centered in the North American continent. The closest ocean inlet is actually the Hudson Bay which is frozen for 70 percent of the time. Due to thin acidic soil and the climate, agriculture would not only be impractical but nearly impossible. Forests cover over 99% of dry land and the rest of the region is composed of 40% water.
Ely is the main western entry point to the BWCA while Grand Marais on the North Shore of Minnesota is the eastern point of entry. Both towns have numerous outfitters where you can reserve canoes/kayaks, often in advance. They often conveniently drop your canoes off at a preferred starting point nearby (e.g. Moose Lake) and arrange to pick them up at the conclusion of your trip, but check to make sure they offer this service before you book. You can drive your car out to the lake where you want to start - there is usually ample parking available.
Camping Permits/Fees [both U.S. and Canadian Trips]: Camping permits, which control your entry date and location must be reserved for your party. The Forest Service fee for each permit issued is $12. You will also be required to pay a USFS User Fee of $16 per adult and $5 per youth per trip. Plan as much in advance as possible as the number of entries is restricted.
With no roads in the area, the only practical form of transportation is by boat or plane. With portages frequently necessary to get from one lake to another, canoes and kayaks are the only watercraft capable of reaching many of the lakes; regulations prohibiting motorboats on most lakes limit their range even further.
The main attraction in the BWCAW is well, the wilderness itself. But you won't be disappointed. Peaceful, beautiful, and serene, the BWCA area is famous and is a great opportunity to experience the unique natural setting of northern Minnesota. You can easily spend 4-5 days canoeing, portaging, and camping throughout the region's numerous lakes and islands. Even during the height of summer travel season, you're unlikely to encounter more than a handful of fellow campers on your trip. It is a true wilderness experience. Occasionally, the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) are visible. And due to the relative geographic isolation, the BWCA is almost always a great place to stargaze. The lakes are amazingly peaceful and clean. The fishing varies from lake to lake but is generally pretty good (be sure to get a permit beforehand), and it's generally safe to swim. There's always something new to discover as you move from lake to lake.
There are no stores to purchase supplies in the BWCA, so get your shopping done before you leave Ely or Grand Marais.
There are no locations to buy food once you leave the shore so all food must be brought in with you; accordingly, all trash must be carried out.
Naturally, water is available in almost all of the boundary waters area, but it should be filtered before drinking as a precaution.
Unreserved campsites are available on most lakes in the BWCA and are usually marked on area maps. They are generally close to the lakes (right on the shore) and provide a convenient place to store your canoes overnight. Rudimentary toilet facilities are usually located a short distance from the campsites and are generally marked by a path.
Mosquito populations are high in this area. The use of insect repellent is (strongly!!!) recommended. (However, dragonfly populations are also high. It is a thing of beauty to watch the feast that ensues when a pack of dragonflies descends on the mosquitos annoying you at your campsite.) Additionally the only way out other than boating is by puddle jumper (i.e. small airplane) which is typically only used in emergency situations. Standard radio frequencies are monitored by park rangers and several other base locations, so it is recommended to carry a radio transmitter. The area is inhabited by bears. They are unlikely to bother you if you stick to the campsites and trails, but a "bear-bag" should be used when you camp as a precaution - having your food stolen in the BWCA is not a good thing!
At the east end of the Boundary Waters lies Lake Superior, which contains Isle Royale, another secluded wilderness area with paddling and hiking opportunities, accessible by ferry from Grand Portage. If you're driving back to the Twin Cities, scenic Duluth is just a short detour from your trip back to civilization and has an interesting lakefront area with plenty of unique shopping and restaurants.