Close your eyes and take a deep, slow breath. We’ll wait. That feeling of calm and quiet? Pure Boundary Waters. Even if you’ve never held a paddle in your life, this million-acre, roadless labyrinth of 1,000 lakes, rivers, and bogs is guaranteed to seduce you. Think hidden coves, languid afternoons, trips for any ability level, and the silence of sliding across the same glassy waters that lured explorers more than 200 years ago. Add kaleidoscope sunsets, luxe campsites, bountiful fishing, and the chance to spot moose, bears, wolves, and beavers, and we promise: Going home will be the hardest part.
Daniel Pauly, 47, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, wrote a Boundary Waters guidebook and has spent two decades exploring the wilderness’s 1,500 miles of canoe routes and portages. Despite his day job as an intellectual property lawyer, “I’ve covered pretty much all of it,” he says.
Make the most of your outfitter
Chances are you’ll rent canoes from an area shop, but locals know these adventure headquarters provide far more than gear. Many operate bunkhouses near entry points to give paddlers a convenient, affordable crash pad the night before a trip. Outfitters can also print out permits (eliminating an additional drive to the Forest Service office) and issue fishing licenses. And of course they offer guides, shuttles, and even fly-in service to ultra-remote waters. Choose the one closest to your intended put-in.
Best spot for beginners
Entry Point 32, the South Kawishiwi River, is more of a series of lakes than it is a river. “You can meander up through a beautiful twisting waterway without hardly a portage,” Pauly says. “I’ve taken more than one first-timer there.”
Pauly wows visiting friends with the three-night Granite River route, a never-dull medley of (optional) class II and III rapids, intimate lakes, and big water. “You get a great sampling of iconic Boundary Waters scenery, and the portages (boat carries) are wide and clear,” he says. Bunk up, print your permit, and snag a car shuttle at Seagull Outfitters (see right). Put in at Entry Point 57 (Magnetic Lake via Gunflint Lake) and paddle north into Granite, a verdant riverine corridor punctuated by cliffs. Veer west into Larch Lake for secluded camping, and on day two, camp 7 miles north on Granite’s shoreline. Day three enters 280-foot-deep Saganaga Lake, where islands seem to float on the morning mist. After camping on one of them, paddle south to take out at Trail’s End Campground.
Your wildest week
To really appreciate a million acres’ vastness, set out on a loop from Entry Point 38 (Sawbill Lake) for seven days of solitude. “The distance and a few hairy portages keep crowds away, but it’s not too taxing if you pack light enough to carry it all in a single load,” Pauly says. Day one, paddle and portage 1.5 miles to grandstand views on Alton Lake’s northeast shore. (A short first day allows for drive time.) Then circle through Lujenida, Zenith, Mesaba (the peninsula campsite has killer fishing), Dent, Malberg, Polly, Phoebe, and Grace Lakes.
Sleep under the stars
In late August, when the mosquitoes abate, head to Number Lake Chain (Lake One to Lake Four). A 2013 fire raged through the area, exposing the sky. “A cloudless night will give you an unforgettable view of the stars, and you might get an early-season aurora borealis,” Pauly says. “If you’re really lucky, you’ll fall asleep to not-so-distant wolf serenades.”
Eat off the land
Let the backcountry provide. “Blueberries ripen by August,” says Pauly, who scouts for berries from his canoe by looking for clearings (recently burned areas produce the thickest fruit). And pack a midweight rod to hook dinner. “Seek lake trout in deep lakes in May, while summer is great for walleye and pike.”
Go in late May to beat both bugs and crowds or in late August for scarce mosquitoes and warm swimming. Get there From Duluth, take MN 61 to Tofte or Grand Marais. Permit Required, with a quota system May to September; $16/person plus $6 fee; recreation.govGuidebook Exploring the Boundary Waters:A Trip Planner and Guide to the BWCAW ($23; natgeomaps.com) and Fisher F5, F11, F12 ($7; fishermaps.com) Outfitters Seagull: $28/bunk; boats from $35/day; seagulloutfitters.com. Full list at bit.ly/BWoutfitters Contact bit.ly/0814bwcaw; (218) 387-1750
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