In northeast Minnesota, in what's known as the Arrowhead Region (due to its shape), there's a pristine area that beckons to the most hearty outdoors lover. Just over one million vast acres of wilderness dotted with lakes and rivers carved out by glaciers and sculpted over the years by Mother Nature...the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) traverses almost 200 miles along the U.S. and Canada border.
The BWCAW is historically important to our country's beginnings. It was crucial to our country's existence as a trade route and the primary means of transportation was canoe. It’s in this spirit that the area remains today.
Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Area was set aside by Congress in 1978 to be preserved in its natural setting without roads, structures, and most motorized access of any kind. This is what distinguishes its 1200 miles of canoe routes and over 2,000 camp sites from our national parks and forests.
Do you like peace and quiet and a close relationship with nature? Then the rugged wilderness of the Boundary Waters calls to you. Many in the Midwest are already familiar with at least the existence of the Boundary Waters, due to our close proximity, but its popularity as a destination for paddlers, hikers, primitive campers, and fishermen, has spread throughout the country. According to a 2012 USDA Forest Service trends analysis, in 2007 the managers estimated total visitors at more than 250,000.
Peter Maley, Camping Associate at Bass Pro Shops in Altoona, Iowa, is a Boundary Waters devotee. He spent two summers as a canoe guide there in the early 1980s and continues to make several trips each year. He has also been there several times on annual winter camping trips for cross-country skiing, camping, and ice fishing.
"People often think that you have to be an expert outdoorsman or woman to take a Boundary Waters trip. But, that's not true. There are Boundary Waters adventures for all levels – novice through expert. There are plenty of outfitters to supply you with gear and knowledge and trip levels from basic family and group outings to major expeditions."
It's important to note that you don't just "show up" at the Boundary Waters. A permit is required to enter the BWCAW and there are specified points of entry for watercraft or hiking, which helps manage the use of the wilderness for the enjoyment of all. A few allow motor boat entry but the majority are by non-motorized and require portaging. Permits are allocated on a first-come, first served basis, even more of a reason, says Maley, for extensive advanced planning.
"You need to reserve MONTHS in advance for the more popular entry point. You can make reservations and get permits through the U.S. Forest Service, through outfitters, and at www.recreation.gov. The permits needed are snatched up very quickly, so it's really important to jump online at the end of January and get your reservations."
Maley says you want to think ahead about other things, too.
"It also takes advance planning for equipment, gear, and travel time, for example. Be prepared for anything – no phone, radio or other means of communication access. Like any wilderness there are inherent risks, so a well-thought out first aid kit is important, for example. Bring a map and a compass - most people get confused at least once!"
Maley says he has had a multitude of experiences including putting stitches in people, using epipens for stings, and contending with forest fires and controlled burns.
With all his Boundary Waters background and opportunities to visit, Maley says his favorite time is in the fall.
"Crowds drop dramatically after Labor Day. After September 30, only self-issuing permits are required so you don't have to reserve in advance. Bugs almost non-existent. The birch and aspen colors are beginning to change, and the waterfowl migration is beginning and night sky viewing is at a premium!"
Maley notes that it is legal to hunt in the BWCAW because it’s part of Superior National Forest.
"Trapping is also supported, moose and bear hunting, grouse (roughed and spruce), ducks, and geese, not to mention the fall bite for the dedicated fisherman. Deer hunting has become more popular, but wilderness hunting is even harder work because of the portaging."
Make sure to check with the Minnesota state and federal government regarding all hunting regulations and needed permits.
Maley encourages beginners and experts alike to visit www.BWCA.com as a great resource for planning your trip north. There's a message board with several topics related to travelling in the area – food, gear, route, fishing conditions.
"It's the satisfaction of travelling by your own propulsion across lakes and portages to your home for the night – a tent, a fire and warmth, with an unparalleled view of the sky and stories around the campfire. That's what the Boundary Waters are all about."
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