The Boundary Waters Wilderness (or Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in full) is best described in terms that end in -est: Home not only to the oldest rock formation (2.7 million years old), but also the highest point in Minnesota (Eagle Mountain, at 2,301 feet), and the host site of the largest remaining contiguous area of uncut forest in the eastern United States.
It also happens to be the quietest: A superlative destination bordering Canada and Minnesota, unmatched in beauty and untouched by progress as we know it, it’s also bereft of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram”¦and motors. Or running water. Or indoor toilets.
That is, when you get away to the Boundary Waters Wilderness, you are really, really, really away.
This land, which was protected through an act of State Congress in 1978 after the avid activism of environmental writer Sigurd Olson””a movement so controversial that some particularly affronted Iron Range residents hung him in effigy in the streets of Ely, a town which is now considered the trailhead for many BWCAW adventures””hosts a quarter of a million visitors annually over its 1.1 million acres, which comprises 2,000-plus campsites, 1,000-plus lakes, and 1,500 miles of canoe routes.
That’s a lot of one-ness with nature, and virtually guarantees you’ll be looking up when you come face-to-face with a bald eagle, deer, or moose (rather than down, surreptitiously checking your email). Focus on uploading it to your own memory rather than your computer’s RAM. Breathe the sharp scent of pine, the crisp breeze coming off the blue lake, the mineral earth. Listen to the slight waves lap the canoe, the leaves rustling in the breeze, the loons ululating.
But how do you get to the Boundary Waters Wilderness?
By driving four to five hours north of Minneapolis/St. Paul to Ely, to Grand Marais, or Tofte. All of these little-big cities are the final point of civilization and are dotted with friendly outfitting companies and resorts that will help you get your lake legs, from obtaining your travel permit (a legal necessity) to rigging your canoe and person with the perfect gear, to meal planning””or even joining you on your trip, guiding you to the best walleye hotspots and D50-worthy vantage points.
There’s an extra advantage if you pair up with an outfitter who also runs a resort, as they often offer a soft landing upon your return, with a night’s stay, a stove-cooked meal, and maybe most importantly, a warm shower or bath””before returning to the noise.
The thing about going to the Boundary Waters Wilderness is that you won’t have to pack a to-do list. Just being there is the to-do. See what you see. The only thing you’re packing in is what you bring with you””one of the tenets of travel here is to leave zero trace by packing out whatever you pack in. Wake with the sun; sleep with the stars””which incidentally, are much brighter here. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot the spectacular aurora borealis while you’re there””the dancing lights more enchanting and dramatic than any old building, white-sand beach, or theme park.
Instead, as you paddle or portage, you’ll be surrounded by the same jack pines, balsam firs, and blueberry bushes that surrounded the Ojibwe, whose presence is still felt through the pictographs they left behind; you’ll be following the Voyageurs as they created a kind of roadmap for trading furs. There aren’t any headphone-driven tours here, so read up beforehand and then exercise your imagination.
You can certainly get a taste of the Boundary Waters Wilderness in a one- to two-day or weekend trip, but pictographs are at least a one- to two-day travel time to catch a glimpse””and most riggers recommend a five- to seven-day stay for the complete experience. And plan early””a finite number of permits are issued for each season and many people make this an annual trip. Groups can’t exceed nine in number (nor would you want them to). Besides the outfitters, there are plenty of websites that will answer your every question before you go and rehash your experiences when you return to tell your tales.
Tents not your thing? Dirty-Dancing-style family lodges more so? Get the best of both worlds by booking a stay at the charming, century-old Burntside Lodge, perched on the edges of the famed Burntside Lake, surrounded by iconic scenery. It’s the Northern Minnesota take on a luxe, but not ostentatious, jumping-off point to dipping your toes in the Boundary Water experience. There are plenty of canoeing options that are within the National Forest confines, but not full-on Boundary Waters if you’re not quite ready to make the full leap into wilderness.
This pristine northern wonderland is a must-see destination. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Except bears. Remember to hang your food in the trees, and you’re set. Get ready to paddle””and yet, be totally quiet and still.
Header photo © Explore Minnesota
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Have you visited the Boundary Waters Wilderness? What did you make of the experience? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Katie Dohman