By Paul Strubell of Dirt Orcas – 8/11/17

This past weekend I took my first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota. A vast canoe’rs paradise of sprawling lakes and undeveloped country. The Boundary Waters offer a great deal of solitude and serenity with the sense of well organized back-country exploration.

We had prepped our gear and planned out our meals for trip. The Boundary Waters appeal is in its naturalness. With that comes your need to be able to filter your own water and prepare your own food. Fortunately for me, canoe camping has a lot of overlap when it comes to the necessary gear for back-country adventure motorcycling trips. I had everything we would need from a camping gear perspective and we just needed to pick up a few key items for the rest of the group.

We began out trip with the 9 hour drive from my home in SE Iowa up to Ely, MN and had reserved a campsite at the Fenski Campground in the Lake Superior National Forest.  We stopped off at the in Ely for an early dinner and a house made craft brew before setting up camp for the night. The fish and chips were solid, but the tarter sauce left a bit to be desired. However, the Imperial IPA I had was excellent.

The campsite was great and firewood was abundant. Fenski Lake’s shoreline is a little crowded compared to the rest of the Boundary Waters, but the area still immediately gives you that feeling of being the Northwoods. I like this place and most of the people around us were very quiet and respectful with the exception of the bro-tards from Missouri who camped next to us.

In the morning we were up early to pack and get over to Ely Outfitting Company to pick up our canoes, maps, permits, and do our orientation. I do have my own canoe, but given that we would be doing at least six portages and paddling around in open water, I thought it was wise to rent the modern lightweight We-no-nah Kevlar canoes from the outfitter. At just $42/day I was able to easily haul this bad-boy over the portages that connected the lakes and also avoid the reduction in gas mileage when hauling my own canoe for 18 hours at Interstate speeds. Plus, it moves across the water with much less effort that my own canoe which is designed for rugged river trips. It was the right choice.

The other reason to work with an outfitter like Ely (pronounced E-LEE) Outfitting Company, is that planning a multi-day trip in the Boundary Waters can be confusing if you have never been there. The Forest Service issues permits to limit the number of people in certain areas. This assures that you will be able to find a campsite once you enter the lakes and also that the imprint on the environment is minimized. The outfitters do this all day and can easily help organize your trip by the number of days you have, how much you want to see, and your experience level.

What ever they are doing it’s working. The place is about as natural as any National Park of Forest I have been to. People are genuinely respectful of the “leave no trace” mentality and we didn’t see any trash or human destruction beyond lightly worn footpaths and the Forest Service fire grates in the campsites. There are also pit toilets at each site well away from the main part of the campsite or the water.

Because it was our first trip to the BWCAW (we had some novice canoe camping members in our group as well) and we only had a short amount of time we opted for an easier type of trip. We launched at Slim Lake. From Slim Lake entry point, we had access to four lakes (Slim, Rice, Hook, and Keneu) and the portages were all relatively short. Once you enter the first lake, there are six campsites total and you need to find the vacant ones to establish your own site. In theory, the permits are issued so that everybody in your area has a place to stay.

Once we launched into Slim Lake we were away from amenities for a few days. We left the cooler in the car, opting for the benefit of lightweight travel over creature comforts like cold beer and refrigerated foods. We all had periodic but unreliable cell service. We explored the area briefly before setting up our novice canoe campers at the first available site we found. Then we proceeded to search for the next available site.  We quickly found one we were very happy with. Some of the sites are better than others, but there really aren’t any bad sites. Each is private and well away from the others. Some sites offer you your own lake entirely, but even the ones like we stay at on Slim Lake were so far from each other there is abundant privacy.

We were very happy with our spot and decided it would be best to leave our camp where it was, rather than relocating the second night to another lake. Not knowing what is available until you paddle there, we might have had to return to our original camp spot anyway. Plus, by minimizing the gear we were carrying with us, all of the exploration and portaging we did became easier and you are at less risk of losing something or getting it wet in the event of an unexpected rain shower or tip over.

We visited all four lakes and had lunch on a nice rock outcropping.  We did some hiking into the forest that boarders all the lakes. We saw an abundance of mid-sized wildlife on the trip. Not lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a moose or black bear, but we did see deer, beaver, snapping and painted turtles, pileated woodpeckers, loons, osprey, and a number of other fun critters.

In the late afternoon we made our way back to camp and had a nice fire and dinner. The sunsets are gorgeous but the mosquitoes didn’t earn their reputation without considerable merit.

The following morning we packed up and began our way back to Ely Outfitting Company to return our canoes. We were on the road home by 10am and arrived back in SE Iowa before 8pm that night. Not a bad little 4 day adventure.

I will certainly be back to the Boundary Waters. It was a fantastic experience and I want to explore a great deal more.

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