Great Easy-to-Difficult Boundary Waters Paddling Trips

Want to test the waters before attempting a Primitive Management Area? Get some experience on these traditional Boundary Waters trips first.
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Want to test the waters before attempting a Primitive Management Area? Get some experience on these traditional Boundary Waters trips first.

EASY: Isabella Lake

MODERATE: Otter Track Lake

DIFFICULT: Louse River/Frost River Loop 

EASY: Isabella Lake

1 day, 2 to 5 miles

Just a single 70-rod portage (one rod equals 16 feet, or about the length of a canoe) gets you from the trailhead into this perfectly round lake ringed by evergreens. Island campsites make ideal lunch spots, and frequent wind keeps the bugs at bay. Sandy beaches all around the lake make for good swimming, too. Troll lures along the rocky shoals of the islands at the far north end for pike during the day and walleyes when the sun gets low. Extend your trip with a three-mile paddle up the Perent River, which is a moose haunt with old-growth timber. Isabella Lake is also an easy first trip for families with young children--you can be swimming with your kids within an hour of launching. Info Kawishiwi Ranger District: (218) 365-7600; fs.fed.us/r9/forests/superior Outfitter Piragis Northwoods Outfitters: (800) 223-6565; piragis.com

MODERATE: Otter Track Lake

3 days, 20 miles

The put-in for this long weekend, Saganaga Lake, is a 14,000-acre behemoth notorious for high winds and white caps. Take an outfitter's shuttle across the lake (motorized boats are allowed in this area) if you don't want to risk paddling into the blow, and be sure to make a reservation for a return shuttle. Then, after a paddle down Sag's western arm and a few short portages, you'll launch your canoe onto Otter Track. This is a popular destination (its waters glow a Caribbean turquoise on sunny days), so shoot to get here by early afternoon to pitch your tent on the one American campsite in the lower basin (the other site, in Canada, requires a Remote Area Border Crossing Permit). Or paddle another four miles to a cluster of sites in the upper basin at the far west end. In the upper basin, you'll paddle through a canyon of forest and high cliffs, where murals of lichens decorate the light granite rock faces. Bonus: Just inside the channel to the upper basin, visit the old homestead of Benny Ambrose, one of the last hermits to live in the Boundary Waters. Info Gunflint Ranger District: (218) 387-1750; fs.fed.us/r9/forests/superior Outfitter Voyageur Canoe Outfitters: (888) 226-6348; canoeit.com

DIFFICULT: Louse River/ Frost River Loop

5 days, 50 miles

It's as good as guaranteed you won't see many other paddlers here. Your entry fee: a series of rugged portages that keeps the crowds at bay. Buck up, and you'll have moose sightings and luxurious campsites all to yourself. From Sawbill Lake, at the end of the Sawbill Trail Road near the town of Tofte, paddle four miles to the 480-rod (1.5-mile) Lujenida-to-Zenith portage. Find a poacher's wrecked plane 40 feet into the woods on Zenith Lake's north shore. From Zenith, head west to access the Louse River and a rapid-fire stretch of portages (nine within five miles). From the river's end, you'll paddle lakes with outstanding fishing--Trail, Boze, and Malberg. At Malberg, head north across seven tiny lakes (and eight portages) to Little Saganaga, a quiet lake with a plethora of campsites. Next, paddle east to Frost River. Keep an eye out for moose here as you float and portage to Frost Lake (find beach camping on the west shore). To end the trip, paddle south to link Cherokee Lake, Ada Lake, and Ada Creek back to Sawbill. Target May and June for higher river levels. Info Tofte Ranger District: (218) 663-8060; fs.fed.us/r9/forests/superior Outfitter Sawbill Canoe Outfitters: (218) 663-7150; sawbill.com