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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.

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.

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