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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.

An officious permit keeper in a green U.S. Forest Service sweater stands between me and paradise. She peers down her nose and looks me up and down. "Not a lot of people go back there," she huffs. "It’s just too hard." I wonder if she’s measuring my ability by some inscrutable means, but then she scribbles on the authorization sheet, granting entry to the Pitfall Lake Primitive Management Area, deep within Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

By definition, the BWCAW is "an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man." But the reality is, much of it is plenty trammeled. Established portage trails run between the lakes, and the Forest Service routinely clears them. Camping is restricted to designated sites with a fire ring, a biffy (outhouse), and tent pads. Given that 250,000 people visit the BWCAW annually (it’s the nation’s most popular federal wilderness area), the impact-mitigating infrastructure makes sense. But it doesn’t deliver the experience of true wilderness–going where it looks and feels like no human has ever gone. That’s where the Primitive Management Areas (PMAs) come in. Pitfall Lake is a six-square-mile restricted entry zone–no campsites, no portage trails–and now my party of four has the sole permit for the next five days.

"Good luck," the marm says with a faint smile. Then a parting shot: "Some people say it’s Shangri-la, but you’ll have to go through hell to get there."

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