Canoeing on the Edge

Trips in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area, over one million pristine acres of lakes, rivers, and forests in northeastern Minnesota, is no less than paradise for the wilderness canoeist. Stretching nearly 200 miles along the Canadian border, this magnificent wilderness offers over 1200 miles of canoe routes through the beautiful Superior National Forest. Within its domain, you will find the timber wolf and the black bear, the Canadian lynx and the wolverine, bald eagles and great blue heron, a dense population of moose and beaver, and a panoply of fish, including walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass, and lake trout.

Compelled by the overuse of certain portions of the Boundary Waters, the U.S. Forest Service initiated a User Distribution Program in 1976, establishing quota limitations on the number of entries into the Boundary Waters through each of 73 designated entry points. Among the most scenic gateways in the eastern half of the BWCA are Seagull Lake and Saganaga Lake. Trips starting here range from gentle three-day sojourns to multi-week treks into the heart of the Boundary Waters wilderness.

A note on maps: When canoeing in the BWCA, it is recommended that you bring with you the waterproof-parchment maps published by the W.A. Fisher Company. Twenty-eight"F series" maps combine to cover all the BWCA, as well as Canada's Quetico Provincial Park. Campsites are updated annually on these maps, which are designed specifically for the canoeist and the fisherman.

In the introduction to each canoe route are listed the numbers of the travel zones through which that route passes. In order to acquire statistical data about the travel patterns of canoeists, the Forest Service designated 49 zones in the BWCA. For several years, information was compiled at year's end to statistically summarize the visitation patterns of the previous summer. Checking with the Forest Service to see how heavily used a particular zone is will give you a good idea of how busy your proposed route will be.

The Far Western Area

The western part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area contains the majority of the entry points to the region. Thirteen entry points are easily accessible from the Echo Trail. Another entry point (Trout Lake) is most easily accessible from State Highway 1-169, but because of its proximity to the other entry points in the western region, it fits much better in this category than with the other entry points accessible from State Highway 1, which are southeast of Ely.

Ely is the largest of the small northern Minnesota towns that serve visiting canoeists in the BWCA's Western Region. Originally a commercial center for iron mining and logging operations, Ely has evolved gradually—sometimes reluctantly—into the Canoe Capital of America. It's a modern, bustling community with supermarkets, motels, restaurants, bars, laundromats, service stations, and surely, the most canoe-trip outfitters per capita of any town in the world. Located near the east edge of town, at the intersection of Highways 1 and 169, is the Ely Chamber of Commerce. It occupies an attractive log building and is staffed by friendly folks who can supply you with up-to-date information about Ely and surrounding attractions, including nearby resorts and campgrounds.

The place to pick up permits for most of the entry points in the Western Region of the BWCA Wilderness is one-half mile east of the Chamber of Commerce. The Voyageur Visitor Center shares a new multimillion-dollar complex with the International Wolf Center at the outskirts of town. Opened in June of 1993, the extraordinary "Wolves and Humans" exhibit found its home in Ely after entertaining more than 2.5 million people during a tour across North America. You'll surely want to allow time either before or after your canoe trip to see this informative display, located right next to the USFS office where BWCA permits are issued. While picking up your permit, even if you've been on a particular route before and intend to follow it again, be sure to get the latest information about water levels, pesky bears, campsite closings, and new regulations.

The Echo Trail is a winding, hilly, scenic drive that most people find delightful, if they don't have to drive it every day. To get to it from the Voyageur Visitors Center, drive a half mile east on State Highway 169 to its junction with County Road 88 (Grant McMahan Blvd.). Turn left here and follow this good highway for 2= miles to its junction with County Road 116, which is commonly called the Echo Trail.

The Echo Trail winds its way north and west for about 50 miles to County Road 24, near Echo Lake and south of Little Vermilion Lake, the westernmost entry point for the Boundary Waters. The road surface is blacktop for the first 10 miles, but it is gravel the rest of the way. It does straighten out, however, near the Moose River entry point, and from there on it is not a bad gravel road. Most of the "trail" is treacherous, though, so drive with care.


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