With its 1,100 lakes and rivers to paddle and portage through, northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, part of the 4.3-million-acre Quetico-Superior ecosystem, is one of the best summertime canoeing and kayaking locations in the country. But while it attracts more than 160,000 visitors each year—the most visited wilderness area in the country—it’s also a hub for winter recreation, be it cross-country skiing, dog-sledding or ice fishing. Follow the pointers below for both your typical summertime canoe trip as well as a few not-so-run-of-the-mill wintertime activities.
Paddling and Fishing
The two mainstay summertime activities to do in the Boundary Waters are fishing and canoeing—both for good reason, given the area’s network of 1,000-plus interconnected lakes and waterways. But what makes this freshwater fun even more popular is the access. There are more than 70 different entry points, ranging from sandy braces that launch your canoe directly at campsites to paddling trails that start with rugged, 2-mile portages. So, getting on the water is an option for anglers and paddlers of all abilities and interests—from families with kids to hard-core adventurers heading out for a 10-day challenge.
On the canoe side, while it’s relatively simple to plan and launch a trip on your own, seasoned outfitters like the Ely Outfitting Co., make it even easier by offering everything from route-planning and packing advice to shuttles and equipment rentals (boats and camping gear), trip outfitting (including pre-prepared menus and/or food packages) plus fully guided trips. Take their flannel-clad advice; they know the area better than anyone.
“The Boundary Waters are truly an amazing place to paddle,” says Ely Outfitting Co.’s Jason Zabokrtsky. “Travelers here find adventure, immense solitude, tranquil water, dark skies, world-class fishing, and more, all creating an unforgettable outdoor experience.”
Known for its diversity of both species and waters, the Boundary Waters is one of the country’s top freshwater fishing destinations. Species include the Big Four: the tasty but elusive walleye, best fished from June to July, after they spawn in May; the put-up-a-great-fight northern pike, best from April through May; the uber-popular and yummy smallmouth bass, best fished every month except July, when it’s too hot; and not to be forgotten, the delicious lake trout, which spawns in the fall and loves colder water temps. Fun fact: The biggest walleye ever caught in Minnesota weighed 17 pounds, 9 ounces. Other notable species include crappie, largemouth bass, perch and catfish. And while the smaller fish often roam shallow waters to hide from larger fish, sometimes trophies can be found chasing them.
While rivers and lakes abound in the Boundary Waters, hotspots include Pipestone Bay and Jackson Bay on 14-mile Basswood Lake, famed for its smallmouth bass; and Sea Gull Lake, one of the biggest lakes in the Boundary Waters, known for holding trophy lake trout as well as harboring the Big Four. Want to go guided? A slew of outfitters such as River Point Outfitting Co., operate in the region, offering everything from fishing basecamps to fully guided boat trips. And it’s not over when Old Man Winter comes knocking. When the freeze begins, ice fishing springs to life, with outfitters such as Gunflint Lodge providing everything you need, including insulated/heated shelters, augers, chairs, rods, tackle, bait and more. Note: For summer or winter fishing, you’ll need both a Boundary Waters permit as well as a Minnesota fishing license.