Minnesota’s Boundary Waters
Carved out by glaciers millions of years ago, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is a unique destination consisting of rugged cliffs and crags, towering rock formations, rocky shores, sandy beaches, canyons, and gentle hills. Differential erosion of the tilted layers of the Canadian Shield created depressions that later filled with water eventually resulting in the 1,175 lakes in the Boundary Waters that range in size from 10 acres to 10,000 acres. These lakes, along with hundreds of miles of streams, attract around 250,000 visitors every year! From hiking and fishing to canoeing and boating, people seeking an amazing outdoor adventure come to the Boundary Waters to experience solitude and the beauty of nature.
Located in the northern third of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota, the Boundary Waters is over 1 million acres in size. It extends almost 150 miles along the International Boundary next to Canada’s Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks. It is bordered on the west by Voyageurs National Park. Featuring over 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 12 hiking trails, and over 2,000 designated campsites, this is one of the most popular wilderness areas in the U.S. for outdoor recreation. The Boundary Waters provides year-round recreational opportunities including canoeing, fishing, boating, hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, and dog sledding.
In 1964, a historic bill called The Wilderness Act was signed into law that set aside 9.1 million acres of wilderness in the U.S. to be used and enjoyed by the American people. A portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was designated as “wilderness” under this law and is therefore protected from misuse. Due to overwhelming support and love of wilderness, Congress has since added over 100 million acres to this land preservation system. Titled the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS), it manages 758 wilderness areas throughout the country and provides a plethora of benefits and activities relating to ecology, geology, scientific, education, recreation, and more. The NWPS is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the Forest Service. In 2014, the NWPS celebrated its 50th year of protecting our nation’s wilderness. To learn more about the NWPS, go to www.wilderness50th.org.
What Lies Within
Within the Boundary Waters there are many types of trees, including a variety of conifers (pines, firs, spruces, and white cedar), as well as deciduous birch, ash, maple, and aspen. It is estimated that there are around 40,000 acres of old growth forest in the BWCAW, wood that has been burned but never logged. In 1999, a huge wind storm called a derecho blew across Minnesota and southern Canada. With 100 mph winds, it blew over and uprooted millions of trees and affected about 370,000 acres within the BWCAW. The “Boundary Waters blowdown,” as it became known, presented an increased risk of wildfires due to the enormous amount of fallen trees. Because of this, the Forest Service scheduled prescribed burns to eliminate the potential pollution if a wildfire happened.
A variety of birds and animals call the Boundary Waters home. These animals include black bear, moose, deer, bobcats, beaver, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and loons. It is also known for having possibly the largest population of wolves in the contiguous United States as well as an unknown number of Canada lynx. The American Bird Conservancy has identified it as a globally important bird habitat. For the animals’ sake, and for countless other reasons, it is vitally important that visitors to the Boundary Waters practice Leave No Trace Principles to help preserve the beauty and wildlife that makes the area so rich.
Protect Our Wilderness
Leave No Trace Principles can be summed up in one simple idea: leave the area as you found it. To ensure that the Boundary Waters will be around for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to enjoy, we have to use smart outdoor techniques to lessen the impact that we have on the area. Practice these responsible recreation practices in wilderness areas:
- Reduce litter by repackaging food from boxes and bags into reusable plastic bags and plastic/glass containers.
- Dispose of all waste in a proper manner. Burning trash is illegal and it pollutes. Pack out all trash and leftover food.
- If you’re in an area that permits fires, make sure you use an established fire grate and keep it small. Burn all the wood down to ashes and make sure it is out.
- Never take rocks, plants, or artifacts that are native to the area. Leave everything as you found it.
- Be considerate of the wildlife. You are in their territory, so respect their space. Do not follow or approach wildlife. And never feed your food to the animals. This is harmful to their health and it could alter their hunting habits.
Things to Do
Recreation options are plentiful in the Boundary Waters. Canoeing and other non-motorized boating is the most popular type of recreation here. With over 1,200 miles of canoe routes, you can head off in any directions and enjoy a fun, peaceful day on the water. The area also offers hiking opportunities that range from short day hikes (7 miles) to multi-day backpacking trips (over 65 miles!). Fishing opportunities abound in the Boundary Waters. Coldwater species include all kinds of trout and whitefish. Warm water species include walleye, bass, pike, musky, and panfish. Both barrier-free fishing and backcountry fishing are available. Motorized boating is permitted on some lakes, however there may be horsepower limitations depending on the lake. This helps preserve the peaceful setting that the BWCAW is known for and reduce the amount of pollution from motorized boats.
Whether you’re heading into the Boundary Waters to go canoeing on the miles of canoe routes or hiking on one of the numerous trails, you should take the necessary precautions to make sure you are equipped to handle your adventure. You should outfit yourself with survival gear, including extra food, a whistle, rain gear, an emergency blanket, a compass, a water filter or purifier, a first aid kit, a fire starter, and a folding knife. Venturing into the wilderness always poses a possible threat of injury or getting lost, so it’s best to be prepared for anything that might come your way.
Permits are required year-round for day and overnight use of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. From May 1-September 30, quota permits are required by anyone using the BWCAW for overnight camping or for daytime motorized boat usage. Quota permits limit the number of people who are able to enter through an entry point each day. Reservations for this type of permit are recommended since the quota fills up fast. These permits are only available at Forest Service permit issuing stations and cooperating businesses. Non-quota self-issuing permits are required year-round for anyone using the area for non-motorized day use, any motorized use on Little Vermilion Lake, and for all overnight visitors between October 1-April 30. This type of permit doesn’t have a quota and no reservations are needed. These permits are available at any Superior National Forest Office and in permit boxes at BWCAW entry points.
Once populated by the Sioux and later by the Ojibwe people, the Boundary Waters is rich in history and abundant natural beauty. By using good judgment and responsible practices, we can help preserve the character and wonder of this remote wilderness so that we can enjoy it for generations to come.