Photo: Alex Messenger/TandemStock

Your Adventure Intro to the Boundary Waters

Key in on these four year-round activities to experience the nation’s most popular wilderness area.

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.  

Canoeing

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.” 

Fishing

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.

Photo: Andrew Bydlon/TandemStock

Dogsledding 

Beyond its claim as the canoeing capital of the country, the Boundary Waters also tops the list for winter locomotion involving canines. That’s right: Come winter, the region is also a wonderland for dogsledding, drawing thousands of first-time and seasoned mushers every year. And you don’t have to BYOD. Outfitters like Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge make the activity as user-friendly as possible, outfitting you with sleds and dogs and the instruction to run your own team. The company outfits more than 1,000 beginner and experienced mushers each season, on everything from dogsled day-trips to overnight outings, staying in private, cozy cabins en route. 

“It’s easy to drive your own team,” says owner Paul Schurke, who runs the company with his wife Susan and son Peter. “We use special sleds with large platforms on the back rather than slender runners—that makes it easy to stand on the back against the handlebars and control the speed with a foot brake. Anyone can do it.” 

Of course, it’s Minnesota in the dead of winter. To stay warm, he advises the ‘Three W’s’: a thermal, wicking base layer to transport moisture away from skin; a warmth layer of synthetic fleece or wool to hold body heat; and a wind layer or shell to block the wind and shed precipitation. Follow that and other advice, and you’ll be careening through the winter wilderness, yelling “Gee!” (right) and “Haw!” (left) in no time. “It’s really pretty magical,” Schurke says. “You can’t beat the silent beauty of sledding through snow-covered pine forests with friendly, handsome Arctic sled-dogs doing what they love best: pulling a sled.” 

Cross-country skiing 

Dogs not your thing? The Boundary Waters make a perfect cross-country skiing destination as well, with hundreds of miles of groomed classic and skate-skiing Nordic trails, for day-trips and even overnight excursions. With a season lasting from mid-December into April, trails range from winding routes through wooded wilderness to shoreline trails, groomed Nordic paths, and even the opportunity to break your own trail across the region’s countless Zamboni-smooth lakes.  

The Banadad Ski Trail System, midway along the 200K Gunflint Nordic Trails system and administered by the nonprofit Banadad Trail Association, offers 41 kilometers of groomed trails, including the Boundary Waters’ longest wilderness tracked trail, the Banadad—a 30K singletrack coursing through the BWCA’s eastern edge. Want to break it down into bite-sized chunks? Overnight at a cozy wilderness cabin like the Poplar Creek Guesthouse or a yurt such as the Tall Pines Yurt along the trail. 

With diverse terrain varying from groomed shorelines to rolling trails through towering birch and pine trees, a maze of machine-groomed or user-tracked cross-country ski trails also exist in the Ely, Minn., area, including the 42-kilometer North Arm trail, 25K Bear Island Trail and 13K North Junction Trail. Farther up the Gunflint Trail network lie the Pincushion Ski Trails, offering 25 kilometers of easier trails and some of the state’s best views of Lake Superior and Grand Marais River; the Central Gunflint Trail System, offering 75 kilometers of privately maintained groomed trails, complete with lit trails for night-touring; and 47 kilometers of groomed trails in the Upper Gunflint Trail System, many running atop the ridges towering over Gunflint Lake. Want to overnight? Cozy up to a fire at the Gunflint Lodge.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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