SUBSCRIBE | NEWSLETTERS | MAPS | VIDEOS | BLOGS | MARKETPLACE | CONTESTS
TRY BACKPACKER FREE!
SUBSCRIBE NOW and get
2 Free Issues and 3 Free Gifts!
Full Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
City:
State:
Zip Code:
Email: (required)
If I like it and decide to continue, I'll pay just $12.00, and receive a full one-year subscription (9 issues in all), a 73% savings off the newsstand price! If for any reason I decide not to continue, I'll write "cancel" on the invoice and owe nothing.
Your subscription includes 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Or click here to pay now and get 2 extra issues
Offer valid in US only.

Also on Backpacker.com


Enter Zip Code

Backpacker Magazine – September 2010

Disappearing Act: Paddling the Boundary Waters

Want to vanish into the quietest, wildest corners of the Boundary Waters? Say these magic words: Primitive Management Area.

by: Gustave Axelson

The author and co-hort paddle across Ester Lake. (Layne Kennedy)
The author and co-hort paddle across Ester Lake. (Layne Kennedy)
Crossing 10-foot-deep Nawakwa Lake. (Layne Kennedy)
Crossing 10-foot-deep Nawakwa Lake. (Layne Kennedy)
Catching a four-pound northern pike. (Layne Kennedy)
Catching a four-pound northern pike. (Layne Kennedy)
Bushwacking from Gift Lake to Fish Lake. (Layne Kennedy)
Bushwacking from Gift Lake to Fish Lake. (Layne Kennedy)
Solitude guaranteed.
Solitude guaranteed.

trip iconDOWNLOAD THIS TRIP: Pitfall Lake PMA
Paddle-and-portage 40 miles on a four-night tour with just your companions and a few moose, wolves, and loons
The 1.1-million-acre BWCAW contains 12 PMA units totaling about 125,000 acres. Pull out a canoe country map, however, and you won't immediately see them. The PMAs are the places in between the developed regions; they're the empty spots, off the web of established portage trails and the shotgun blast of red triangles indicating maintained campsites. Since they're unmarked and difficult to access, PMAs see very few paddlers--fewer than 100 groups per year combined.

"We only let one party into a PMA unit at a time, so you're really on your own," explains Steve Schug, assistant district ranger for recreation and wilderness in the Superior National Forest and BWCAW. "The PMAs are set aside to offer the most outstanding opportunity to experience solitude. But there's no management, so it's just you and the land. Risks are higher. It can mean a lot of crawling through brush and hauling canoes over downed trees."

Schug says PMAs are a bit of a secret. "We don't market them. We don't go out and actively tell the public about them, because we don't want them to get busy," he says. "When we get questions about them, we emphasize that they're really only for experienced paddlers. People who know their map and compass skills and Leave No Trace principles. "Most visitors never go 10 feet beyond their campsite's pit toilet. But for those who wonder what's beyond the biffy, you can travel into a PMA and step on land that maybe hasn't seen people in 50 years."

Our party of two canoes--my friend Mike Kooi and I in one, photographer Layne Kennedy and Mike Prom of Voyageur Canoe Outfitters in the other--will travel about 40 hard miles over five days to Pitfall Lake PMA and back. It takes a full day just to reach the unit's doorstep, 12 miles from entry point #55 at Saganaga Lake.

En route, we decide to camp on Ester Lake and enjoy a night of relative luxury before we go primitive. The tents go up easily on cleared and spacious tent pads. There's a bundle of firewood graciously left by the campsite's previous tenants. Prom lights a blaze in the fire ring and places fat steaks (packed frozen and now thawed in the bottom of a portage pack) on the USFS-provided cooking grate.

Wispy gray plumes rise from the other five campsites on our lake. A couple of loons appear on the water, followed by a couple of human onlookers in kayaks, and offer an evening yodel. I go for a swim, thoroughly enjoying our easy entry, like we're putting a toe in before jumping.

Prom calls me back with a plate of food in one hand and a Nalgene growler of India pale ale in the other.

"Steak and ale," he says cheerfully.




Subscribe to Backpacker magazine
Sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter
Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
City:
State:
Zip:
Email (req):

Reader Rating: -

READERS COMMENTS

Barry
Sep 30, 2010

Ijust returned from a short 4 day solo trip into one of most popular areas in the BWCA. The trick to a wilderness experience going in late Sept or early Oct, and try going solo.

Steve Cash
Sep 30, 2010

I want to go where no one has even heard of the place and the maps are left blank....

Matthew Davis
Sep 30, 2010

If you want to have a wilderness experience in the BWCAW, you could also try backpacking since less than 1% of the BWCAW's use is by foot.

The Kekekabic and Border Route Trails offer about 100 miles with world-class scenery along the way. About 70 being inside the BWCAW. For more info, visit kek.org or borderroutetrail.org.

Matthew Davis
Sep 30, 2010

If you want to have a wilderness experience in the BWCAW, you could also try backpacking since less than 1% of the BWCAW's use is by foot.

The Kekekabic and Border Route Trails offer about 100 miles with world-class scenery along the way. About 70 being inside the BWCAW. For more info, visit kek.org or borderroutetrail.org.

Joe H.
Sep 30, 2010

Have been going to BWCAW 1-2 times a year for 20+ years. You DO get "wilderness" experiences without trekking back to "primitive" areas. Just returned from 6-day trip where the 1st portage is 1.25 miles -- that weeds out a lot of people. In 6 days we saw ONE person. You need navigation skills, as there are NO markers and lots of portages and lakes, but a compass & map & away you go. Preparedness is mandatory, as it is wilderness. No cans or bottles, and take out what you bring in. Great.

Richard Beamish
Sep 30, 2010

Been to the Boundary Waters several times. If you really want a wilderness canoe experience then I would recommend either Wakabiki or WCCP Park in Ontario. Took a 14 day trip to Wabakimi into 2008 and did not see a soul for 7 days.

ADD A COMMENT

Your rating:
Your Name:

Comment:

My Profile Join Now

Most recent threads

The Political Arena
The anti-LGBT movement in a nutshell
Posted On: Apr 18, 2014
Submitted By: Three
The Political Arena
Am I missing something here?
Posted On: Apr 18, 2014
Submitted By: hbfa
Go
View all Gear
Find a retailer

Special sections - Expert handbooks for key trails, techniques and gear

Check out Montana in Warren Miller's Ticket to Ride
Warren Miller athletes charge hard and reflect on Big Sky country, their love for this space and the immense energy allotted to the people who reside in Montana.

Boost Your Apps
Add powerful tools and exclusive maps to your BACKPACKER apps through our partnership with Trimble Outdoors.

Carry the Best Maps
With BACKPACKER PRO Maps, get life-list destinations and local trips on adventure-ready waterproof myTopo paper.

FREE Rocky Mountain Trip Planner
Sign up for a free Rocky Mountain National Park trip planning kit from our sister site MyRockyMountainPark.com.

Follow BackpackerMag on Twitter Follow Backpacker on Facebook
Get 2 FREE Trial Issues and 3 FREE GIFTS
Survival Skills 101 • Eat Better
The Best Trails in America
YES! Please send me my FREE trial issues of Backpacker
and my 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Full Name:
City:
Address 1:
Zip Code:
State:
Address 2:
Email (required):
Free trial offer valid for US subscribers only. Canadian subscriptions | International subscriptions