Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a place to make memories


In the summer of 1987, just before I married my husband, we took a trip to the Boundary Waters, a first time experience for each of us.  Although my husband had hunted, camped, and fished in rugged areas many times, I was a rookie.  But, I was young and in love and ready for the adventure.  

As we were packing gear the day before our scheduled departure, Mark noticed me packing my hairdryer and pillow and gently explained that there were no electrical outlets in the Boundary Waters. OK, I could deal with that, but at least I certainly had to take my pillow, which in my mind was a certifiable medical necessity. I won that battle and stuffed my pillow into the last remaining inch of my Duluth Pack.

We had talked with friends about a route plan and which portages to take. With their help, we designed an itinerary for our 4-day excursion. We drove to Ely and found our entry point into the Boundary Waters.

As we parked and started to unload our gear, we noticed another group at the landing who were just making ready to push off shore. I joked about how funny they looked in their mosquito netting, long pants and long sleeve shirts. As we got closer to the water, we immediately discovered why they looked as if they were going on a safari through the jungle. As the mosquitoes started buzzing our heads, we both reached for the insect repellant. That would become our lifeline to sanity during the following four days.

We later learned the Boundary Waters area near Ely had a record-hatch of mosquitoes that week and we got to meet many of the little critters up close and personal over the next few days.

As we eased out onto the water, the pesky mosquitoes seemed to drift away. We were both immediately awed by the breathtaking beauty all around us. We soon found our way to the first scheduled portage. As we unloaded the gear, I began to question some of the choices I had made when packing clothing and other items which at the time seemed absolutely necessary.

The idea of flipping a 50-pound canoe over our heads and hauling it a mile or more on our shoulders suddenly did not seem like a fun trip. But about halfway into the portage, just when the sound of our own breath echoing inside the canoe became an annoyance, the realization of what surrounded us, began to take hold.

Despite achy shoulders from already paddling quite a distance, the pain faded as the canoe glided across the water and the call of a loon welcomed us to a new lake. We experienced the stillness of paddling the pristine waters with pine and birch trees towering above us. In the morning, we watched the rising sun burn mist off of a mirror-still lake at daybreak. At night, we were treated to a breathtaking view of the northern lights streaking across the sky.

If you plan a trip to the BWCA this summer, mosquito repellent, bug netting, and breathable rain gear should be at the top of your list for clothing and equipment. Make a mental note to maintain a positive attitude and practice patience during your stay in the BWCA (especially with the big guy doing most of the paddling).

In my opinion, a trip to the Boundary Waters before the wedding is a much more worthwhile training ground for couples than any pre-marriage counseling. It teaches you how to work together, problem-solve, and see something of beauty through another person’s eyes.

Our four days in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area were physically challenging but the peace, solitude and beauty surrounding us for that short time allowed us to appreciate this pristine yet rugged wilderness.

And, to make sure you’re just as much in love coming out of the Boundary Waters as when you went in, make sure you’ve packed plenty of insect repellant!


What you need to know before you go

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is renowned as a destination for both canoeing and fishing on its many lakes and is the most visited wilderness in the United States.  The good news for residents in the south-of-the river area, it’s a short 260 mile drive to access this gem vacation site.

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.

The BWCAW 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.  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.

If you are planning well in advance or attempting to plan a trip to an entry point in high demand, then you may want to enter the permit lottery by submitting an application between November 1 and January 15.  Here are a few other nuggets of information you may need:

• All watercraft need to be licensed when used in the BWCA

• Dogs are allowed in the BWCA but must be kept on leash when portaging.

• Glass bottles and cans are not allowed in the BWCA except for non-food items such as insect repellent, medicines, and fuel.

• Fires are only allowed in the steel metal grates at designated campsites.

• Fires should be put out with water before leaving your camp or retiring for the night.

• A latrine is available for each campsite.