BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA WILDERNESS, MN
Your guide: Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Outfitters, one of the oldest outfits in Ely.
Day: Stuart River to Stuart Lake
Lose crowds on this off-the-radar route.
A 1.5-mile portage. That’s why people shy away from the Stuart River. Groups carrying gear and food for multiday trips especially loathe this initial hump. Your gain. From entry point #19 on Echo Trail, hike north-northwest, then paddle three miles north through open terrain that Piragis says “looks like a coastal estuary” for its broad meadows of riverside grasses and sedges. Turn right (east) to paddle a short distance up a stream to rarely visited White Feather Lake (no camping); circle the lake, stopping to clamber inside a rock overhang enclosed by boulders at the lake’s southwest corner. Backtrack for a seven-mile day, or double your adventure (adding several short portages on obvious paths) by continuing on the Stuart River to walleye-packed Stuart Lake and its islands of vermilion granite.
Weekend+: Moose River to Lac La Croix
See the best of the Boundary Waters and Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park.
Quiet lakeside camps, meandering rivers, and ancient pictographs await on this 25-mile out-and-back trip to one of the biggest lakes on the park’s Canadian border. From the Moose River entry point #16 on Echo Trail, portage .4 mile through red maple and aspen—late September is primo for colors, low humidity, and lack of blood-sucking insects. Spend night one on the west shore of Nina Moose Lake, where Piragis once watched a pair of rarely seen tundra swans float through low-lying fog. On day two, follow his “favorite river in the Boundary Waters,” the Nina Moose, through rocky ledges and “veritable canyons” of speckled alder. Cross Lake Agnes to reach sprawling Lac La Croix (winds can whip here), where you’ll find Ojibwa pictographs three-quarters of a mile northeast on Warrior Hill, with four stellar campsites within a half-mile. Spend night two there, then backtrack, spreading your final camp on granite slabs beneath tall pines on the northeast shore of Lake Agnes. PRO Map to order a custom topo map of this trip printed on waterproof expedition paper.
Week+: Quetico Loop
Feel like a Voyageur on this 10-day loop.
To see the deepest reaches of this North Country wilderness, Piragis points to a 95-mile, 10-day loop through at least two dozen lakes in Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, which comprises about half of this contiguous, two-million-acre wilderness. Besides better solitude—Quetico places greater limits on permits—this trip checks all of the boxes for Boundary Waters canoeing: idyllic lakeshore campsites, world-class fishing, moose sightings, and sunsets soundtracked by the call of loons (and occasional wolf howls). You’ll also visit some of Piragis’s favorite lakes in the world: “Deep, emerald gems that offer serenity and great fishing every day,” he confides. From the ranger station at Prairie Portage, just over the Canadian border northeast of Ely (reached via road and a motor boat tow), paddle a loop to the west linking up Inlet Bay, Bayley Bay, Burke Lake, North Bay (good trout fishing), and Sarah, McIntyre, Brent, Darky and Argo Lakes. From Lac La Croix, return with the prevailing wind at your back via Iron Lake (visit thunderous Curtain Falls), Crooked Lake (best fishing in the BWCA, with pictographs in granite on the southern shore), and sprawling Basswood Lake. Go mid-July to mid-August for swimming weather.
Maps Stuart River to White Feather Lake and Stuart Lake: McKenzie Map M-12; Moose River to Lac La Croix: Fisher Maps F-16 or McKenzie Map M-114; Quetico Loop: Fisher Maps F-10, F-16, F-17, and F-18 ($7 each, fishhermaps.com; $7 each, bwcamaps.com)
Permit BWCAW: Reserve at least one month prior ($14 plus camping fees); Quetico: $30 CN plus camping fees.