Canoeing in the wilderness of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters

  • Jun. 11, 2018 11:30 a.m.

BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA WILDERNESS, Minn. — Every paddle stroke sprinkled water drops, reflecting the setting sun like sparklers across the black, glacier-carved lake.

Just a few hours earlier, I had been portaging on an ankle-deep muddy trail with that 55-pound (25-kilo) canoe balanced over my head, shielding me from a chilly downpour.

That contrast is the essence of the wilderness experience in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. The physical effort required to explore its off-the-grid remoteness — including carrying a canoe solo on slippery, rocky trails — makes every worry evaporate like steam off woolen socks strung over a campfire.

And once your only concerns become basic — keeping chipmunks away from the breakfast oatmeal or securing tarps against the wind whooshing through the woods — you have nothing to do but soak in the beauty.

BOLDLY NORTH

Covering over one million acres along the Minnesota-Canada border, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness protects more than a thousand lakes, rocky islets, and towering evergreen forests that are usually ice-free from May into October.

There are plenty of walleyes, pikes and loons along its 1,200 miles (1,930 kilometres) of lily pad-lined canoe trails — but no electricity, no motors (except on a few big entry lakes), and no cellphone or Wi-Fi signals in the vast majority of the wilderness.

If you want those, or a shower, bed and restaurant meals, there are plenty of nearby spartan-to-five-star lakeside cabins and lodges.

Deep inside the wilderness, the luxury is the silence, quieting everything to the same stillness of the glossy lake surfaces that mirror the bursts of stars or the spindly pine trees. Even planes cannot fly below 4,000 feet (1,219 metres) here.

INTO THE WILDERNESS

My first canoeing and camping four-day trip in the Boundary Waters came as I was interviewing for jobs after finishing my Ph.D. I don’t believe that I ever looked at any object with as much loathing as I did the payphone outside the outfitters’ office when we got back to civilization.

Sure, bathing with soap and shampoo would be nice — but couldn’t we just turn the canoe around for a few more disconnected days?

I have since returned for half a dozen trips, either in late May or mid-to-late September, enjoying everything from sunbathing on the rocks to paddling through snow flurries, often on the same trip.

My favourite route is the demanding loop from Sawbill Lake up several creeks and bogs to vast, islet-studded Cherokee Lake, and back down the Temperance River. The 23-mile (37-kilometre) route crosses 12 lakes, which means 14 portages with sturdy Duluth packs (nearly square in shape, designed to fit in the bottom of a canoe) and 16.5-foot (5-meter) canoes on forest trails connecting lakes and bypassing rapids.

The longest portage on this route is 240 rods, or about three-quarters of a mile (1.2 kilometres) at one rod per canoe length. Try hiking that carrying a pack bulging with food for eight people for a long weekend. I’d rather carry the canoe, even though that requires some fancy limbo dancing under branches.

PREP TIME

Sawbill is also one of the most popular of the Boundary Waters’ dozens of entry points, so reserve a permit in advance if you’re travelling overnight from May through September. Only a few are granted per day, to groups of nine people or four canoes maximum.

You must pick up the permit at the designated U.S. Forest Service station or outfitter, first watching a wilderness instruction video that includes how to chase away black bears by banging pots. (I’ve seen moose in the wilderness, but bears only en route from the car.)

Topographic maps are essential to navigate. They indicate the otherwise unmarked portages and the more than 2,000 primitive lakeshore campsites, which provide a clearing for tents, a fire grate and, hidden away, a latrine.

You can’t reserve them, but once you reach one, nobody else can stay there other than you and your group.

Aside from the glimpse of a yellow or red canoe in the distance, a quick hello at a portage, or a plume of campfire smoke in the evening, it’s hard to notice any human presence.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE

Yet people have shaped this area’s history, from the Native Americans and fur traders who first carved out its portages hundreds of years ago to the legislators who designated its federal wilderness status. Earlier this spring, mining leases nearby were renewed, stirring heated controversy.

That fragility makes the Boundary Waters’ soothing moments all the more precious, like watching the moon rise from a rocky outcrop amid the throbbing of the loons’ haunting call — and that of paddle-sore muscles.

The grub of summer sausage, Hamburger Helper and gorp isn’t gourmet, and sleeping bags don’t come with thread counts.

But to really get away might just be the ultimate splurge.

___

If You Go…

GETTING THERE: Minneapolis-St. Paul international airport is about 250 miles (400 kilometres) from most entry points to the Boundary Waters. Duluth International Airport is about 100 miles (160 kilometres).

BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA WILDERNESS: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/superior/specialplaces/?cid=fseprd555184 . Trip planning guide: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd541129.pdf

PERMITS: Adults, $16, https://www.recreation.gov/wildernessAreaDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=72600 . Pick up before or day of entry.

SAWBILL CANOE OUTFITTERS: https://sawbill.com/ . Two-person canoe rentals run $30-$42 a day. Sawbill also rents camping equipment and sells supplies, and can provide ground transport from Duluth airport.

Giovanna Dell’Orto, The Associated Press

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