By Ben Gruber
I would like to be able to say I take a wilderness canoe trip every year. I think I should. Paddling a canoe in a wilderness area might be the most effective preventative medicine ever prescribed. Unfortunately, I am no different than most people, and other things inevitably get in the way.
This year, however, I am determined to return to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in northern Minnesota. The BWCA is a designated wilderness area within the Superior National Forest over a million acres in size.
Designated wilderness means no motors, no roads, no railroads, and, thus, few people. A plethora of cold, clean, crystal clear lakes dominate the landscape in this country, broken up by rocky escarpments covered in thick woods and brush. The easy way to travel is via canoe, portaging your boat from one body of water to the next.
The benefit of paddling a canoe instead of backpacking is twofold: quick, easy travel over fish-filled water and the ability to carry giant packs filled with heavy gear and real food. Most portages are a few hundred feet to a few hundred yards, so it is no big deal to carry a cooler of real food and cast iron skillet for frying up a shore lunch of walleye or lake trout. Occasionally, one can spot the remains of pictographs on rock cliffs, remnants of Native drawings.
There are many great outfitters out of Ely, Minnesota, and Grand Marais, Minnesota. Any of them will assist with obtaining the wilderness entry permits, gear outfitting, and route planning. The cost for this is all very reasonable, but it is also very doable on your own with a little research.
I like to use an outfitter for a place to stay the night before and a ride to our entry point so we do not have to leave a truck at the entry point. In the BWCA, you can really tailor your trip to your style. I like to paddle in hard for a day and then set a basecamp and do more fishing. Some prefer to do a circular route, camping in a new spot every day to see more scenery.
If you are not ready to travel that deep into the wilderness and looking for something a little less remote, there are some great opportunities for paddle-in camping less than three hours away. The St. Croix Scenic Riverway in northwest Wisconsin has beautiful wilderness stretches and offers many great campsites. By utilizing two vehicles, you can put in upriver and then paddle and camp your way downstream to the other.
The Chippewa Flowage in Sawyer County is over 15,000 acres of water and has 18 primitive campsites available on a first-come first-serve basis. The flowage is not a wilderness area, so you will find motorboats here. It is not really popular with recreational boaters, so it still has a remote and wild feel. Most of the users are fishermen, and it is a great fishing lake that rivals lakes found much farther north. Great walleye and muskie fishing is found here. Loons, eagles, and multiple species of waterfowl will give a real wilderness feel.
I am eager to get out, and I have a 3-year-old that has been asking to go. As much as I would like to head into the BWCA with her for 10 days, my better sense suggests to me that we get our toes wet with a shorter trip first. I am leaning towards a long weekend on the Chippewa Flowage. Breaking in a new puppy and a toddler to canoe tripping is a job, no doubt, and we might all be happier with a less strenuous break-in trip. Meanwhile, I am going to talk to a few friends and work on getting back into the BWCA.
Ben Gruber can be reached at email@example.com.