Family paddling the BWCA



United States
47° 54' 17.6148" N, 91° 52' 0.5412" E

“The Boundary Waters is one of the fifty places in the world everyone should visit in their lifetime.” --National Geographic Traveler Magazine

            Back when my camping clothes fit more loosely, I measured the success of a canoe outing in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) by the mileage covered. The more miles paddled in a day somehow added to the value of the trip.

            That was pre-kid thinking.  Canoeing with youngsters in the BWCA is about quality, not quantity.

             My wife reminded me of this before we paddled into the BWCA on a 5-day, 4-night extended family adventure with two moms, one dad (me) and six young people.  Only three members of our group of nine had ever been in the BWCA. The five females and two of the males did not look upon lengthy portages as an accomplishment.

            “We’re here to enjoy ourselves, Jim, not to see how far we can go. If that means that we stay in one site for two days to let the kids play in the lake, then that is more important than covering a set distance,” my wife Margy told me.

            Her sister, Barb (the other mom), agreed. “And we don’t want to kill ourselves on the portages, either. Let’s just double portage our gear and not worry about how fast we do it.”

            It’s always good to be reminded of what is most important. If I wanted my 10-year old son Ben to return with me to the BWCA on future trips, he would have to feel that this trip was mostly fun with some work mixed in, not the other way around.

            So we pushed off from the landing on Fall Lake (off of the Fernberg Trail east of Ely) in three canoes. We rotated paddlers so that everyone had a chance to lounge like a lizard amidst the gear in the middle of the canoe.

            Most of the time, it didn’t matter that a couple of our canoes zig zagged across a lake, powered by inexperienced paddlers. When the sky threatened or the wind howled, we made haste to the shelter of a nearby shore.

              After a first-day storm faded, the broad sky over Pipestone Bay opened into a vault of warm blue. We selected a shady, spacious campsite under the pines by 2:00 p.m. By getting an early paddling start, we reasoned, we’d get the pick of campsites by early afternoon.

             When the kids were hungry, we fired up our gas stove for a meal of chicken, peas and potatoes. My wife, the family recreation director, had devised teams for KP (kitchen patrol) duty for the duration of the trip.

            This meant that when it was your team’s turn, you cooked and cleaned up for all of one day’s meals. Nobody (like the moms) got stuck doing all of the work. Everybody pitched in to strike camp in the morning and to set up the next camp in the afternoon.

            I was the group weatherman. After years of bad weather experiences outdoors, I learned to keep an eye on the sky and maintain a “bomb proof” campsite. That is, a site where clothing, tents, and gear are always secure. In that way, we only had to throw on rain parkas or hunker down in our tents if a storm hit.

              Most of the time, our paddling was easy and we chatted and laughed our way to the next lake.  On gusty days, we regrouped on shore to plan how and when to push on to the nearest campsite

            In the end, time was the essence of our wilderness jaunt. Time made for family and fun in a place where time didn’t matter. Miles didn’t matter, either. When my son Ben asked if we could return to the BWCA again soon, I knew that that was what mattered most.


The BWCA:  The BWCA Wilderness in the Superior National Forest of northeastern Minnesota encompasses over one million acres, hundreds of lakes and rivers, and over 1200 miles of canoe routes.  Major access towns include Crane Lake from the west, Ely from the south and Grand Marais from the east.  We entered the BWCA out of Ely, about 255 miles from the Twin Cities.

 What to know:  As in any wilderness area, help is not close at hand in the BWCA.  Pack in a good first aid kit (and know how to use it), let someone know your itinerary, and use good backcountry sense.  Cell phone coverage is limited in the BWCA.

 Water:  To be safe, filter, boil or chemically treat your drinking water.  Some parasites, like Giardia lambia, can cause severe illness.

 Weather:  Storms can brew quickly in the BWCA.  By canoeing close to shore, you can get off of the water fast if a storm threatens.  Nights can be cool in the summer.

 Wildlife:   Black bears are attracted to food and garbage smells.  Store all food in bear-proof containers or hang food bags 10 feet off the ground from tree braches.

 What to wear:  The trick is to stay warm and dry no matter the weather.  Cotton blue jeans and t-shirts are the worst in the wilderness because they won’t keep you warm or dry.  Stick to fabrics such as fleece, wool, nylon, or polypropylene.  Wear layers to adjust to the temperature.  We wore hats to keep the sun off our heads and necks.  Bring along shoes that can get wet for portaging and loading/unloading canoes.  Be prepared to deal with mosquitoes and flies (keeping your skin covered helps).

 Permits:  A Quota Permit is required if you are taking an overnight trip into the BWCA from May 1 through September 30.  Group sizes are limited to 9 people in the BWCA.  The United States Forest Service (USFS) limits the number of permits available for each entry point into the BWCA, so it’s a good idea to make reservations.  You can get permits from the Forest Service or from private outfitters throughout the region.

 Outfitters:   Some folks like to haul their own gear up to the BWCA:  canoe, tents, sleeping bags, cooking kits, canoe packs, food, camp stove, etc.  Others want to bring some of their gear but rent the rest from an outfitter.  Some prefer to just pack their personal belongings in their vehicle and arrive in Ely (as we did) to be completely outfitted with food and gear.

            We chose to go through Cliff Wold Canoe Trip Outfitting Co. in Ely (218/365-3267) not because we didn’t have our own gear, but because we couldn’t pack it all in our two vehicles and still transport nine people. 

            This was our fourth trip through Cliff and he offers discounts to repeat customers  (cost per person in our group was about $205 for a 4-night trip).  Prices can vary, however.  Tax and permit fees are extra.  Cliff is quick to point out that there are many quality outfitters in the region who also offer special price packages depending on group size and length of visit.

            We brought our own propane cooking stove along, though.  Though it’s nice to cook over a campfire, you can’t always count on dry wood or a fast fire when you’re tired and hungry.  A two-burner stove worked well for our group.

 For more information: 

Superior National Forest Supervisor’s Office:  Duluth;  (218) 626-4300;  Details about permits, BWCA, etc.

 For current information about fire danger and burning restrictions in the BWCA, call:  (888) 422-3505.

 Crane Lake Visitor Bureau:  (800) 362-7405

Ely Chamber of Commerce:  (800) 777-7281

Grand Marais Information:  (888) 922-5000

Gunflint Trail association:  (800) 338-6932


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