I remember when I first heard about the Boundary Waters. I was tediously painting, yes painting, the visitor side football stadium bleachers while working my summer college job with the athletic department. As 3 of us rolled our rollers over and over and over each bench, Emily told us about her upcoming trip to the Boundary Waters. All I took away was a place where you canoe everywhere and then camp. You fish a lot and you paddle a lot. That’s it. In some ways she was right. Fishing and paddling are a big part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Access Wilderness (BWCA) but there’s so much more to it. When Scott and I first ventured in to the waters, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves in to. We like to camp. We love going on adventures. A challenge always sounds like fun to us. Fishing, yes please. Canoeing, sure. Let’s do this.
But of course, like any place I’ve traveled, I went in with certain expectations and left with completely different ones. The Boundary Waters left more of an impression on me than I was expecting. There’s something about it that really hits the soul. Check it out.
1 You get a map and then you just…..go.
I don’t know what else to add. I mean, that’s about it. No GPS. No guide. No signs saying “HEY! OVER HERE, YOU WANT TO GO THIS WAY!”. Nope. You buy a map for the area and route you’re planning on taking and then you follow that. Like one of those abstract, elevation is listed, contours are shown, islands are sometimes there but not always, giant, needs to be folded, outdoorsy maps. Portage lines are faintly labeled and not marked in real life connecting one lake to another. Campsites are just red dots along the coast. Everything else is up for interpretation.
As simple as it is, using only the map to get around makes you feel like you can do just about anything. It’s not rocket science but it does take some understanding. A simple map is your entire guide to your stay at the Boundary Waters.
Tip: You're going to need something to keep your map dry. We bought a $.50 baggie at the Outfitter and it worked great.
2 Campsites are up for grabs
All you Type A, let’s plan everything out people out there, this one’s for you. There’s no reserving your campsite in the Boundary Waters. It’s come and go as the flow of people in and out allows. If you come up to your “planned” spot and it’s taken, you move on….or go back….or find a new plan. Life is about the big F word anyway right? Flexibility.
Tip: Make sure to keep this in mind if it's getting dark and you still haven't found a spot. You never really know where you’ll actually end up staying in the Boundary Waters and it’s part of the fun.
3 Portaging….say what?!?
I didn’t understand what we were getting ourselves in to until I saw a little painting on the wall featuring a man with a focused face carrying a pack AND canoe on his shoulders up a steep hill followed by someone carrying EVERYTHING ELSE in the background. I tapped Scott and said, “Wait, that’s how we do this thing!?” For some reason I must have assumed it was all connected and you got everywhere in your canoe and it was easy. Wrong. Slight rapids? Lakes not connected? Beaver dam? You have to use those stronger than you think legs and carry EVERY SINGLE THING YOU BROUGHT IN! 2 days or 2 weeks. Whatever you bring in you carry. Often times more than once. You’ll feel like a Crossfit champ after a few of those. As you plan your route and what you’re bringing, less is always more and portaging just might be the deal breaker.
You can find our complete packing list for 5 days and 4 nights in my other blog post.
4 Being a BWCA-er is a thing.
Anyone who has been to the Boundary Waters knows this: it’s rarely a one and done trip. People seem to make an annual thing out of it. We met a 70 year old who hasn’t missed a year since he was 17. A group of 3 canoes with 7 older ladies came paddling by. We were definitely not close to an entry point. You just know this wasn’t their first trip to the Waters. Anyone we mention it to that has been there before brightens right up and starts talking about routes, and fishing stories, and everything else they love about the Boundary Waters. Which is almost everything. Scott and I are excited to be new members of this more rugged than most Club.
5 Anyone can do it but it’s hard work
It was a constant, this isn’t so bad, followed by an hour spent just trying to hang the dang bear rope. The Boundary Waters are for anyone but not for everyone. It’s definitely next level backpacking but not the hardest thing you’ve ever done. You won’t have a hard time surviving but you have to take steps to make sure you survive. It’s a constant anyone can do it, just know what you’re getting in to. Remember this though: You are ALWAYS capable of more than you think!
6 Canada is right there!
They arrreeee named the Boundary Waters after all. When we took our trip through Ely, we were constantly toeing the US/Canadian border. Canada, the US, Canada, the US. Every half hour or so I’d ask Scott if that was Canada over there jjjuuuusssttt to make sure. And every time it was.
PS: They say Quetico Provincial Park (the Canadian version of the Boundary Waters) is even more rugged. Oofta. I can't even imagine but I'd like to visit sometime!
7 It’s a totally different kind of getaway.
There is nothing in the Boundary Waters. I mean NOTHING. It is 1.1 million acres of wilderness and lakes and moose and eagles and loons and bears and bees and fish and otters and phew, it’s so great. It has over 1,175 lakes and 1,500 canoe routes. What makes it different for me is the canoeing factor. If someone gets hurt, or something should happen, you can’t just run down a path to civilization and have someone come rescue you. You have to paddle your way to the next person or place or portage or lake before connecting with anyone who can help you. It’s wild out there. It’s fun.
8 The permit system
The permit system is so interesting. There’s tracking of who goes in, but not necessarily who goes out. It’s kind of complicated, so try to stay with me. Each entry point has an allotted number of daily permits. Permits can have up to 9 people in a group. You designate a leader and each person has to pay to enter but you pay once and then you can stay as long as you like. So it's the same price for a one night trip as a two week trip. You HAVE to put in on your said day, but you can be flexible when you leave. And then, you just go.
You can reserve permits online by visiting this website.
9 The Boundary Waters are magical
This place, man oh man. It’s hard to explain. It’s perfect. It’s wild. You’ll make memories. Go see it for yourself.