Boundary Waters, MN
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Boundary Waters, MN

Explore this north country wilderness on a family canoe trek.

Rustic Retreat

Canoer's Paradise, copyright
Superior National Forest

International Wolf Center,
copyright Superior National

Tucked away in Minnesota's Superior National Forest, this whopping wetland is a paddler's paradise, featuring more than 1,000 miles of canoe routes along the Canadian border. What's more, no experience is necessary. The calm waters and easy terrain are ideal for tenderfoot travelers.

But be forewarned: It's mighty rustic. You'll have to haul your supplies by boat -- just like Chippewa and French voyagers did hundreds of years ago -- and catch dinner with a fishing pole. Oh, and don't forget to pack a selection of good ghost stories for the campfire. The only alarm clock you'll hear the next morning will be the slap of a beaver's tail on the lake.

Bare Necessities

Rule #1 when planning a trip to Boundary Waters: Be prepared. Your little munchers won't be able to duck into fast-food joints for french fries. And anything you pack must be portaged (carried) from lake to lake. Planning will make the difference between a terrific trip and a forced march.

Here are some basic points to cover before hitting the trail:

  • Choose the right outfitter. It's possible to plan this trip on your own (provided you have a canoe and camping equipment). But we recommend using an experienced local outfitter. They'll tailor a route to suit your gang's ages and abilities, supply all the gear you need, and even help with park permits.
  • Chart your course. If you don't want to set up camp every night in a new spot (a major undertaking with youngsters), choose a base camp and make day trips from there. If you want to move around, be sure to discuss portages with your outfitter.

    The footpaths connecting the lakes are measured in "rods." A rod is about one canoe length (16.5 feet). Portages of 50 rods or under are easy, and considered best for families with young children. Some routes have portages of a mile (360 rods) or more. Waterproof, topographical maps, published by Mackenzie Maps or W.A. Fisher, will tell you if the terrain is flat (important to know when carrying a loaded canoe). Your outfitter will probably provide one of these maps, but it's better to buy and study one in advance.

    Whatever you do, keep this in mind: Most empty canoes weigh less than 40 pounds. The weight of supplies depends on length of stay, style of camping, and size of group. Generally, adults carry the canoes (on their shoulders, mind you!), and kids haul gear.

Getting In

Moose, copyright Superior National Forest

  • Know your limits. Young kids may not be ready for more than a week away from the comforts of home, but you'll need at least three or four nights of camping to really unwind and forget about the world.
  • Get permission. This is the most heavily used Wilderness Area in the country, with about 200,000 visitors each year. Boundary Waters can only be entered with a U.S. Forest Service permit, which specifies the date, point of entry, length of stay and size of group. Apply for the permits via Web, fax, or mail as early as November for the following summer. Your application will be processed by lottery on January 15; starting January 20, you can reserve online with immediate confirmation. Phone reservations start February 1.
  • When to go. The toughest slots to secure are from mid-July to Labor Day, and the most popular entry points fill up early for these dates. If you haven't reserved yet, don't despair. There are 73 entry points, and many openings remain available through the summer. You'll also need a fishing license to snag that rainbow trout or small-mouth bass for dinner.
  • Follow the rules. The Forest Service has heaps of regulations designed to protect the environment. You'll want to know and obey them. An important one: No food is allowed in metal cans or glass bottles. Bring plenty of plastic containers. (Cans of bug spray are permitted, since the rule only applies to food and beverages.) Other rules, such as life-jacket requirements, are designed to protect you.
  • Watch your weight. Remember, whatever you bring, you carry. So keep the load to a minimum. Tip: Ask your outfitter for a canoe made of Kevlar, an especially light and sturdy material.
  • When you get there. Most folks enter the Boundary Waters Wilderness between the towns of Grand Marais, to the east, and Ely, to the west. Spend the first night at one of the many cabins or lodges near these towns, so you can start early the next morning. Many outfitters also offer bunkhouse accommodations the night before your big trip. Before starting out, you'll need to pick up an entry permit at the regional ranger station or an assigned pickup point.
  • Now, about those local critters. You won't find grizzly bears in Minnesota, but the smaller black bears can be a bother if you're not careful with food. This means using airtight containers, hanging all food high in a tree at night, and disposing of scraps and litter. On day trips, take your food supplies along in the canoe.
  • To learn about other four-legged locals, stop in at the International Wolf Center in Ely. Your pups will love visiting with its resident pack of five wolves, playing with the video game-style Wolf Survival exhibit and testing their vocal chords in a howling workshop.

Roughing It

Once inside the wilderness area, you'll make camp at one of 2,200 designated sites offering basic "box latrines" and fire grates but no plumbing or electrical hook-ups. The lake water is sparkling and unpolluted, but don't drink it straight from the source. Your outfitter can provide filters or chemical tablets to kill naturally-occurring bacteria.


Type of trip: Outdoor adventure, camping, boating

Best for ages: 7 and up

Length of trip: 3-7 days

Distance: St. Paul/Minneapolis (240 miles); Madison, WI (440 miles), Chicago (575 miles)

Best time to go: July and August for best camping, June for best fishing (but watch out for mosquitoes). In late summer, make sure the water's deep enough for a loaded canoe.

Weather: 72/48 degrees in June, 78/53 in July, 76/51 in August

Squirm factor: None, if you plan your route wisely, with short paddles and even shorter portages.

If You Go...

Fishing, copyright
Superior National

Superior National Forest 8901 Grand Ave. Place, Duluth, MN Phone: 218-365-7561


Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Reservation Center PO Box 462, Ballston Spa, NY, 12020 Phone: 877-550-6777


Ranger Stations (for pre-arranged permit pick-up):

  • Gunflint Ranger Station
    2020 Hwy 61 W., Grand Marais
    Phone: 218-387-1750
  • Isabella Work Station
    9420 Hwy. 1, Isabella
    Phone: 218-323-7722
  • Kawashiwi Ranger Station
    118 S. 4th Ave E., Ely
    Phone: 218-365-7561
  • LaCroix Ranger Station
    320 N. Hwy 53, Cook
    Phone: 218-666-0020
  • Laurentian Ranger Station
    318 Forestry Rd., Aurora
    Phone: 218-229-8800
  • Tofte Ranger Station
    Hwy 61, Tofte
    Phone: 218-663-7280

Saw-Whet Owl, copyright
Superior National Forest

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (Fishing licenses) Phone: 888-665-4236 Note: Licenses are also sold in most bait and tackle shops.


Outfitters. Find outfitters at the following Web sites: Boundary Waters Magazine


Boundary Waters Canoe Area


McKenzie Maps Phone: 800-749-2113


Fisher Maps W.A. Fisher Company, Box 1107, Virginia, MN 55792 Phone: 218-741-9544

International Wolf Center 1396 Hwy. 169, Ely Phone: 800-ELY-WOLF


Boundary Water Rules and Regulations


Leave No Trace Outdoor Ethics (camping principles)


Boundary Waters and Quetico Park Safety Tips


The Inside Scoop

Brats and Brew

Favorite local spot: Trestle Inn Restaurant & Saloon County Rd.7, Finland Phone; 218-830-0523 Note: After a few days of eating trail mix, your gang will be ready for the hefty portions at this secluded North Woods eatery, built from real railroad trestles. The "Locomotive," a bratwurst burger with sauerkraut, mushrooms, onions, and Swiss cheese, should satisfy the most wolfish appetite.

Annual event:

Minnesota Shakespeare Festival at Grand Marais Arrowhead Center for the Arts, County Rd. 7, Grand Marais Last week of June Phone: 218-387-1284 Note: Annual, 10-day celebration of the Bard, with performances of comedies and tragedies, strolling Elizabethan minstrels, lectures, and workshops.

Side Trips

Underground Mine

Minors become miners at the old Soudan Iron Mine, about 22 miles west of Ely. Once your little ones don hardhats, they'll be lowered 2,400 feet underground to a rail car that takes them into the deepest part of the mine.

Tour guides explain the geology and tell stories of mining days on the 1.5-hour tour. Tip: The mine stays a cool 50 degrees F year-round, so bring sweaters. Aboveground, an easy 1/4-mile hike leads to the Soudan Iron Formation, a 30-foot exposed rock, marbled with veins of hematite and jasper.

Don't miss the gift shop with light-up miner's helmets for kids, and lots of cool rocks and fossils to take home. 1379 Stuntz Bay Rd., Soudan, 218-753-2245. Open Memorial Day through October.

Reviewed May 2004.