Boundary Waters 101

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 27, 2010 - 9:52 PM

Do your homework before venturing north to enjoy a million acres of untouched land, water.

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Moonlight sky, fire, quiet: The Boundary Waters Canoe Area can provide many simple pleasures.

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Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a million-acre jewel of pristine waters, tall pines and picturesque campsites that straddles the Canadian border. It's one of the most popular wilderness areas in the nation, attracting 250,000 visitors annually -- more than half from Minnesota. The allures are many -- the haunting call of loons echoing across a still lake, the campfire crackling in the darkness, falling asleep to the rhythmic slap of waves against rocks. If you haven't already planned your trip there, it's not too late. Here are 10 tips:

1 GET A PERMIT

A quota system restricts access to avoid overcrowding and ensure people will find a campsite. Reservations open in December for the next year, so some of the most popular entry points could be filled for some prime dates. But if you're flexible, you should be able to get a permit. Call 1-877-550-6777 or go online at www.recreation.gov. There's a $12 reservation fee and a $16 per adult user fee.

2 WHERE TO GO?

Plan ahead; study maps and select a route. If you're a novice or traveling with kids, don't try to go too far. The U.S. Forest Service's 16-page trip-planning guide is a great place to start. You can find it and other information at www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/superior/bwcaw/. Remember, less-popular entry points usually mean you'll see fewer people and have an easier time finding a campsite. When choosing a route, consider your ability, length of time you'll be out and how long the portages are.

3 QUENCHING YOUR THIRST

You're paddling in a 1 million-acre waterway, so there's plenty of water to drink, right? That depends. The Forest Service recommends you filter, boil or chemically treat water before drinking. Many veteran paddlers drink water straight from lakes, dipping their water containers well away from shore. The risk: consuming giardia, a parasite that causes severe diarrhea requiring medical treatment. The decision is yours.

4 TRAVELING LIGHT

You're headed to a wilderness area, not a four-star resort, and you've got to carry everything you bring, so pack light. Amateur BWCA travelers often are easy to spot: They have their arms full of extraneous gear on portages, like fishing rods, paddles, lifejackets and tackle boxes. Strap what you can into your canoe and get everything else into your packs.

5 CLOTHING: COTTON KILLS

A pair of bluejeans may be comfortable in the backyard, but in the BWCA, they can be trouble. Get them wet, and they may be damp for days. Use mostly synthetic clothing such as nylon and polypropylene that dries quickly. I was caught in the middle of a lake when a rainstorm struck last summer, drenching me. But my pants and shirt were bone-dry in a matter of minutes after the rogue cloud departed. Leave cotton at home. Fleece jackets retain warmth even when wet. And don't forget good rain gear.

6 FISHING: EASY PICKINGS?

These are wilderness waters with no cabins or resorts that don't get heavily fished, so the fishing will be fantastic, right? Superb fishing can be found, and plenty of anglers find it. But catching fish isn't a slam dunk. For walleyes, use twister tails or Rapalas, floating and countdown. For bass, try twister tails or toss crankbaits or Mepp's spinners. If you're really serious, crawlers, minnows and leeches are deadly, though it's tough to keep minnows alive if you're traveling the backcountry.

7CANOES/PADDLES

Aluminum long was king among BWCA canoes. I've got a 60-some pounder I bought in 1977 when I lived in Ely. But I rarely use it. Kevlar canoes are the way to go now. A typical one weighs about 46 pounds, making it easy to carry across the longest portage. Many are built more like a dart than a bathtub, making them fast. And ultra-light composite bent-shaft paddles have replaced the oar-like heavy wooden behemoths of yesterday.

8 FOOD: EATING WELL

When it comes to food, there's a major difference between wilderness paddling and backpacking. You're forced to go as light as possible when backpacking, which usually means freeze-dried chow. Yes, you have to carry your food on your back in the BWCA, but generally only short distances, meaning you can bring real food. We tote in fresh vegetables for a meal or two and frozen chicken or steaks for our first meal. Our basics, pasta or rice mixes, come from a grocery store. Tuna (from foil packets) on pita bread has become a lunch favorite.

9 BE CAREFUL OUT THERE

At home, help is nearby. But in the BWCA wilderness, help is a long way away. A fish hook in your finger or a fall on slippery rocks while carrying a canoe or heavy pack can be a trip-ending event -- or worse. Remember, you can't depend on cell phone coverage. Bring a good first-aid kit and know how to use it. Wear your life jacket. And know that cold water during early- and late-season trips can be deadly.

10 BEARS AND BUGS

Each summer, bears will raid some campsites. But in almost 40 years of paddling the Boundary Waters wilderness, I've had just one bear in camp. Keep your campsite clean and don't clean your fish there. The Forest Service suggests hanging your food pack from a tree limb at least 8 to 10 feet from the ground and at least 6 feet out from the trunk. Never keep food in your tent. Bugs are a different problem: In June, they can be a nightmare. Late July and August can be almost bug-free. Bring headnets, gloves and bug dope as cheap insurance.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com

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