How to do the Boundary Waters?

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fortfun
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How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by fortfun »

Looking at doing the Boundary Waters with the fam this summer. What should I know? We are experienced canoers that have done many multi-day trips. One of my concerns is the first come first serve camp sites on the water. What happens if they are all full?

Also, what other things should we do/see in the area? We have about 1 month there.

If anyone has done this trip, or can point me to good resources, I'd appreciate. We would prefer to do this without a guide.

Thanks,
Ff
livesoft
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by livesoft »

I have not done Boundary Waters, but have done quite a few similar trips. I would suggest finding a subreddit on the Boundary Waters for a start. And of course books from your library.

We did the Allagash Wilderness Waterway where the campsites were not reservable. Basically what happened / happens is that the early bird gets the best camp sites and the later birds canoe to the next one and if that is filled, then the next one, ... until one finds a suitable empty one that one likes. If you like to sleep late or dawdle, then expect to have to canoe later. We also talked to others we met and would learn where they expected to stop for the day, so after a couple of days, we all pretty much knew which camp sites to head for.

We also did a route in/around Saranac Lake where all campsite had to be reserved in advance, as in months in advance.

But then we also did a route north of Prince George, BC where we saw no one and all the camp sites were empty. :)
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TNWoods
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by TNWoods »

When I and some friends did this years ago in the Quetico Boundary area, the rules were that you can't stay at the same site more than one night, and you have to follow the route that they tell you to follow. ("They" were the Canadians doing border crossing control.)

They would send groups on different routes based on how many days you were going to be paddling, and they distributed the total number of people based on the available sites in that area/route. So you might find the site you want already has some campers, so you go to the next one.

We spent a week paddling, and the portages would always have several canoes/parties, but once you get to the next water, everyone went separate ways and you got the feeling of being the only group out there again.

TNWoods
SmallSaver
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by SmallSaver »

Vague memories from many childhood trips to Quetico. Try to avoid lakes with motor traffic. More portages = less people. Take a light boat and be prepared for bugs.
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lthenderson
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by lthenderson »

It was probably close to 25 years ago when I did a three week trip there but I'm pretty sure you have to purchase permits for a specific entry point so they limit how many people will be in an area and thus ensures that there will be campsites available. Saying that, we found that to get the best campsites, (i.e. that were open enough or on a point to ensure airflow and minimize the horrendous bug problem) was to get started early and try to get to where we wanted by noon or a little before. Once our camp was set up, we would then spend the afternoon swimming, fishing or doing short afternoon trips and returning back to our campsite. If you waited until afternoon, the good campsites were gone and you had to set up in a bug infested bog set back in the trees.

I think if you go to the Superior National Forest website, they have trip planning guides, routes, maps, etc. to help get you started.

There are tons of things to do along the North Shore area of Minnesota along Lake Superior. Dozens of waterfalls, parks, ski slopes (that cater to mountain biking, downhill sledding, ziplining, etc.) during the summer months to keep one busy along with hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails.
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fortfun
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by fortfun »

livesoft wrote: Tue Jan 12, 2021 2:53 pm I have not done Boundary Waters, but have done quite a few similar trips. I would suggest finding a subreddit on the Boundary Waters for a start. And of course books from your library.

We did the Allagash Wilderness Waterway where the campsites were not reservable. Basically what happened / happens is that the early bird gets the best camp sites and the later birds canoe to the next one and if that is filled, then the next one, ... until one finds a suitable empty one that one likes. If you like to sleep late or dawdle, then expect to have to canoe later. We also talked to others we met and would learn where they expected to stop for the day, so after a couple of days, we all pretty much knew which camp sites to head for.

We also did a route in/around Saranac Lake where all campsite had to be reserved in advance, as in months in advance.

But then we also did a route north of Prince George, BC where we saw no one and all the camp sites were empty. :)
Thanks Livesoft! Always a pleasure to get your response to a post :)
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fortfun
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by fortfun »

TNWoods wrote: Tue Jan 12, 2021 2:57 pm When I and some friends did this years ago in the Quetico Boundary area, the rules were that you can't stay at the same site more than one night, and you have to follow the route that they tell you to follow. ("They" were the Canadians doing border crossing control.)

They would send groups on different routes based on how many days you were going to be paddling, and they distributed the total number of people based on the available sites in that area/route. So you might find the site you want already has some campers, so you go to the next one.

We spent a week paddling, and the portages would always have several canoes/parties, but once you get to the next water, everyone went separate ways and you got the feeling of being the only group out there again.

TNWoods
Thanks TNwoods!
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fortfun
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by fortfun »

lthenderson wrote: Tue Jan 12, 2021 3:03 pm It was probably close to 25 years ago when I did a three week trip there but I'm pretty sure you have to purchase permits for a specific entry point so they limit how many people will be in an area and thus ensures that there will be campsites available. Saying that, we found that to get the best campsites, (i.e. that were open enough or on a point to ensure airflow and minimize the horrendous bug problem) was to get started early and try to get to where we wanted by noon or a little before. Once our camp was set up, we would then spend the afternoon swimming, fishing or doing short afternoon trips and returning back to our campsite. If you waited until afternoon, the good campsites were gone and you had to set up in a bug infested bog set back in the trees.

I think if you go to the Superior National Forest website, they have trip planning guides, routes, maps, etc. to help get you started.

There are tons of things to do along the North Shore area of Minnesota along Lake Superior. Dozens of waterfalls, parks, ski slopes (that cater to mountain biking, downhill sledding, ziplining, etc.) during the summer months to keep one busy along with hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails.
Thanks lthenderson!
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by T4REngineer »

I went for a 5 (maybe less....details are rusty) day trip about 5 years ago - While I am a bit rusty on the details as I didn't plan it I'll give you my thoughts from a 33year old male, generally outdoorsy but not hardcore type guy, grew up in scouts taking plenty of week long trips and outings with the family.

*There is A TON of entry points but from what I saw my guess is they mostly look the same

*1 month IS A LONG TIME - I assume you mean in the area and not literally in a canoe with the family in the boundary waters for 30 days

*Depending on how far back you go it gets much less crowded - our entry point lake was huge (no longer recall the name) and while not "crowded" I can see how the good sites maybe gone but once you are 3-4 lakes back we barely saw a soul

*The lakes that we were on looked all the same - maybe more "weedy" then others but after setting basecamp we went lake hoping and after a day it felt like it was nothing but the same, paddle, portage, paddle, portage etc. the views were all the same - pretty, remote - isolated. Although fishing seemed very different in each, while I do not fish others in the group did and we relied on that for some of our food-

- side story, the planners/guide (it was a charity auction) were a bit light on food not accounting that 4 young men who are out and about all day will consume vastly more calories then a couple 70 year Olds staying at "base camp" but that just added to our fun - we were never in any "danger" as this was discovered early on the trip and things were rationed appropriately / I think we were only 25ish miles back

*Overall I would go back with my family but I would plan on less portaging and more enjoying one of the bigger lakes and relaxing at camp - as others mentioned bugs can be BAD so be prepared for that - we did not move once from our basecamp which was nice as packing up and offloading (and portaging with all the gear) is much worse than day trips with a small pack and empty canoe.

*We had a decent sized group but I don't think anyone had a Satellite phone/Beacon and if I was going "that far" off the grid again I would make sure to have one - while certainly there was enough in the party had someone broken a leg etc. we could have split and sent folks out for help but that would be at least a 12+hr extension vs a Sat. Phone.

*Our guides were killing it in their 70's but I would say its more of a young mans adventure - you are carrying full packs and a canoe (sometimes at the same time) over portages exceeding a mile (its going to very drastically) up and down rough rocky, root filled terrain that is often wet near the shore etc. - its just asking for a problem so be prepared.

*We saw very little wildlife (you could hear it) but the trees are so dense spotting things on shore is tough

From the bullet points above its likely clear I enjoyed it but would not consider it a "trip of a life time" - I can see if you fished, maybe, but the views out west are far more impressive to me and there are plenty of similar areas in northern Michigan I can get an Isolated experience regardless I hope you and family love it
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by livesoft »

T4REngineer wrote: Tue Jan 12, 2021 4:02 pm- side story, the planners/guide (it was a charity auction) were a bit light on food not accounting that 4 young men who are out and about all day will consume vastly more calories then a couple 70 year Olds staying at "base camp" but that just added to our fun - we were never in any "danger" as this was discovered early on the trip and things were rationed appropriately / I think we were only 25ish miles back
I'm laughing because clearly your guides expected y'all to catch and eat a lot more fish than you did.
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Greentree
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by Greentree »

I have done a BW trip 3 times about 12-15 years ago. Having difficulty finding a camping spot is not an issue. Maybe it'll be different with covid and more people getting outside, but it's more likely that after a day or so that you won't see anyone. They give you this map to follow with tons of lakes on it, and then you look at the big map on the wall and realize how many little maps like the one you have in your hand the big map fits.

We would do 5 days and it did feel like a while. No cell phone, no wallet. You lose touch with the world and it's nice. One year, we were the last to find out that McCain had chosen a woman as his running mate. I do remember seeing someone who had been out for 3 weeks so it is possible.

We spent one day at a camp for 2 nights and just went out on the canoes during the day without packs to explore. It was a nice to explore without all the gear.

We saw a moose one time. I think some eagles and other birds.

It's an amazing place. We would go late August or early September when there weren't many bugs but the water was still warm enough to swim in. The campsites have incredible views. Great memories of making a fire and just looking out over the water. Now that I have kids, I'm waiting for the day when I can take them.
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by bberris »

The park service limits the number of entry permits at the launch. The campsites are first come first serve as you know, but the ones that fill are in the first lake. Portage to a lake without a car launch and you should be ok, unless you go on a popular holiday weekend. We went on memorial day weekend and we found campsites without trouble, but many were occupied. Also the campsites on lakes that don't need a portage (the car launch lakes) can be somewhat trashy. Ask the outfitter for advice on where to camp.
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by Savvy »

I've been about 10 times, it's awesome!

I suggest late Aug to early Sept as best time to go...warm enough to swim, cool temp nights, and few bugs.

I recommend launching at an outfitter, then you can stay in a bunkhouse the night before launching in.

Don't be crazy with how far you want to travel, I recommend at least 2 nights at each site. I usually only stay for 4 nights each trip. Remember you can do day trips without packs (and without having to pack up your stuff) which is nice.

Paddle planner and another bwca site have reviews on every campsite.

Have fun!
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by Havingfun1950 »

Went in very late 80’s and had a fantastic time! Was with a scout group and learned a lot from our 18 yo guide about avoiding mosquitoes. Camp on windswept peninsulas with clear western view. The only night that we did not follow his advice was miserable. Do not be afraid to stop before 1500 when you see a good site.

Take plenty of carbs and seasonings. My fishing skills were no up to the task! Agree with other comments to get away from powerboats ASAP. Backcountry far less crowded. Agree with sat phone suggestion. We were caught at night in a lightning storm which was terrifying. Check up on astronomy guides before you go. Darkest sky of my life with so much to see! Do give the moose lots of space! Saw one wrecked canoe which had belonged to an amateur rapids runner. We came home with some very happy teens!
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by shunkman »

Keep your food safely stored from the bears. We lost our lunch meal duffle bag on the second night out even though we had it hanging in a tree. But we continued our trip in the back country just with less nourishment. Fishing wasn't productive for us so we ended up eating some crayfish and freshwater mussels mixed with our ramen. What a great experience.
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by Horologium »

Boy, times sure have changed.

I spent a week in the Boundary Waters. The only rule we had was to make sure not to litter because the authorities will ask to see your garbage when you come back. We went wherever we wanted, camped wherever we wanted, etc.

Of course, that was a while ago. In fact, I did the math and it was 45 years ago -- in 1975! :shock:

Except for a few too-close-for-comfort encounters with bears, I absolutely loved it. It was an incredible experience for a teenager from suburban Chicago.
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fortfun
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by fortfun »

Great suggestions everyone. Thanks!
packerguy
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by packerguy »

For specific questions try this forum: https://bwca.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=f ... e&confid=1

For your other time in Northern Minnesota, I highly recommend the North Shore of Lake Superior; great scenery, hiking (the Superior Hiking Trail), waterfalls.
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by forgeblast »

Go to the forum bushcraftusa (.com) a lot of people have done that trip and have listed everything you might need. From what i understand its an awesome trip.
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by Tamarind »

BWCA forum linked above is great. Spend some time there and especially read trip reports to find out what folks did who had good trips of the kind you would like. There is not one "BWCA trip" there are many!

My wife and I went before we were married. Did a 10-day trip in late August in our own sea kayaks. Yes, I know, it's a canoe area but we had a shoestring budget and already had the boats. We opted to stay at the same camp site for several nights so we could leave most gear behind and do "day trips" in nearly empty boats to make the portages easier. We saw few people but did run into a crew doing a 100-mile run on inflatable SUPs (!). They were having a great time too. Don't worry too much about the "right" way, f.ex how deep in you can get or how much of your own food you catch, instead find a way that works for you incl your stamina, your interests, and the gear you already have.

Choose ground-based bear solutions like barrels. The bears are wise to the hanging goodies and many areas have few or no suitable trees for hanging, especially where there have been fires in recent decades.

Prepare for potential awful weather in any season, as with any higher altitude camping trip. During our trip we had nearly perfect weather. The non perfect days included one with navigation-hindering fog, drizzle, and temps in the 40s, as well as a night thunderstorm with lightning within a couple hundred feet of camp. I don't just mean clothing or gear, here, but also what you'll do if you get stuck in camp or have to change your route.

The thing we brought that was most helpful was laminated enlargements of the maps for our route, as we were not using digital navigation tools. Most "pocket" maps cover too large an area to be convenient and the seam is always on your next portage. We had enlargements zoomed in on just a handful of lakes at a time and could mark them up with notes.
livesoft
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by livesoft »

Tamarind wrote: Thu Jan 14, 2021 9:11 am... and the seam is always on your next portage.
Ain't that the truth. :)
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Nowizard
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by Nowizard »

Though many years ago, the two things I would consider are: 1. To check on the best times to go. There is an interaction between your acceptance of cooler weather at night and the presence of mosquitoes that can pretty much ruin a trip; 2. Camp on islands to avoid bears getting into food or other things. Also, We enjoyed taking fishing rods and trolling as we paddled through lakes. Agnes is long, and I suspect many do not paddle out as far as they initially plan. Some of the portages are significant, and supplies can be heavy depending on the length of stay. Though it may have changed, there were no issues with finding camping grounds that already had available wood for fires.

Tim
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by livesoft »

Nowizard wrote: Thu Jan 14, 2021 9:26 am2. Camp on islands to avoid bears getting into food or other things.
Bears are great swimmers. Island campsites where previous campers have been messy are prime places for bears to hang around. I've seen many bear tracks on small islands.
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30west
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by 30west »

We traveled the gunflint trail this past summer and couldn't believe how many people there were. Ely, MN has several outfitters and a few good restaurants. Check out the Sudan mine SP when you pass through the area. The best safety advice i can give is "dont bring a hatchet".

My favorite book about the BWCA:

Lost in the Wild: Danger and Survival in the North Woods by Cary J. Griffith
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by sailaway »

30west wrote: Thu Jan 14, 2021 9:58 am We traveled the gunflint trail this past summer and couldn't believe how many people there were. Ely, MN has several outfitters and a few good restaurants. Check out the Sudan mine SP when you pass through the area. The best safety advice i can give is "dont bring a hatchet".

My favorite book about the BWCA:

Lost in the Wild: Danger and Survival in the North Woods by Cary J. Griffith
I feel like this has a story we should all hear...
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fortfun
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by fortfun »

:( Saw that... We are very responsible and will not contribute to that problem. I usually haul out a bag of found trash on most of my trips...
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by Valuethinker »

fortfun wrote: Tue Jan 12, 2021 2:44 pm Looking at doing the Boundary Waters with the fam this summer. What should I know? We are experienced canoers that have done many multi-day trips. One of my concerns is the first come first serve camp sites on the water. What happens if they are all full?

Also, what other things should we do/see in the area? We have about 1 month there.

If anyone has done this trip, or can point me to good resources, I'd appreciate. We would prefer to do this without a guide.

Thanks,
Ff
Are you planning to travel into Canada?

At the current moment, as I understand it, people from USA are banned from travelling in Canada unless travelling through to the USA (I assume that would only be Alaska) or on essential business (diplomats etc) or a "compassionate purpose". You must also have a quarantine plan.

https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-re ... tions.html

There is literally no way of knowing what the travel restrictions will be in the summer. With mass vaccination, things should be better, but they might not be -- new strains might have emerged which are resistant to the vaccinations available, just as an example. Rollout could proceed more slowly than planned. Ontario is currently in a pretty tight lockdown, I understand.

This simply to put a marker down to find out what restrictions, if any, would apply to you if you crossed the Canadian border.

On mosquitoes, mosquitoes in Canada are not as bad as they say - they are much worse. If you can, aim for August or even early September (not sure about the weather that far up the Great Lakes).
shuchong
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by shuchong »

Went last summer for five nights. Had a blast! Did not have any trouble finding campsights (though it's possible fewer people were traveling due to COVID) -- the biggest thing to look out for is the length of the portages on your route. Those suckers are rough, but the longer the portage the more likely that you get an entire lake to yourself. We had intermittent cell service, but I would plan on having none.

Stayed in Ely, MN to get in and out. Cute little town, but not one with a lot going on other than boundary waters trips and outfitters. In terms of other things to do in MN for a month, if you're flying in to and out of Minneapolis, it's a lovely city and worth a few days on either end of your trip. (I particularly like going from camping to a higher end hotel with unlimited hot water). Duluth is not that far out of the way either, traveling from Minneapolis to Ely, so you could do a few days there and enjoy Lake Superior.
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by yosh99 »

Horologium wrote: Tue Jan 12, 2021 9:31 pm Boy, times sure have changed.

I spent a week in the Boundary Waters. The only rule we had was to make sure not to litter because the authorities will ask to see your garbage when you come back. We went wherever we wanted, camped wherever we wanted, etc.

Of course, that was a while ago. In fact, I did the math and it was 45 years ago -- in 1975! :shock:

Except for a few too-close-for-comfort encounters with bears, I absolutely loved it. It was an incredible experience for a teenager from suburban Chicago.
Like you, my one trip to the Boundary Waters was a long time ago. Two weeks in 1965 when I went on a 120 mile trip with some in my scout troop. We saw no people from day one, there were no camp sites, and few marked trails. In some of the portages we pushed our canoes in knee deep marshes. In another we climbed rocky bluffs and handed our canoes up to people at the top. The gear was crude and the packs and canoes heavy. It was grueling and we hated the whole time, but afterward looking back, it was the adventure of a life time. I still have my canoe paddle.
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fortfun
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Re: How to do the Boundary Waters?

Post by fortfun »

30west wrote: Thu Jan 14, 2021 9:58 am We traveled the gunflint trail this past summer and couldn't believe how many people there were. Ely, MN has several outfitters and a few good restaurants. Check out the Sudan mine SP when you pass through the area. The best safety advice i can give is "dont bring a hatchet".

My favorite book about the BWCA:

Lost in the Wild: Danger and Survival in the North Woods by Cary J. Griffith
Bought the book, read it, and enjoyed! Thanks for the recommendation. I hope we don't end up like either of those two people.
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