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Discover America's Backwoods—From a Canoe

By boat or on foot, outdoor enthusiasts from around the world explore Minnesota’s vast and popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Just south of the American border with Canada lies a wild expanse of land—an area defined by its cliffs and canyons, streams and lakes, and enveloped by the trees of the Superior National Forest. Rugged, serene and breathtaking, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has become the go-to outdoor destination for hundreds of thousands of adventurous visitors each year. 

The Boundary Waters area is located in the northeastern region of Minnesota and is 812,941 acres in size. The area boasts of more than 10 hiking trails, over 2,000 designated campsites and nearly 2,000 kilometers of canoe routes as well. Needless to say, there’s plenty to explore.

“The Boundary Waters is a huge area of lakes and rivers, connected by waterways or trails where the only mode of transportation is human-powered—with a few exceptions for motor boats,” says Michael Ring, a software developer from Minnesota who visits the area every year. “It’s a vast and beautiful wilderness of rock outcrops and forests, of swamps and bogs and lakes, and of silent travel.” 

Ring has grown to love discovering new places within the wilderness and finds that such quiet seclusion is key to the Boundary Waters’ unique magic. “Even backpacking has the constant crunching of boots on the trail, but experienced canoeists can travel almost completely silently,” he says. “The land is beautiful, the wildlife is great to see, but the silence and the solitude are what make the Boundary Waters special.” 

“When you have the only campsite on an off-the-beaten-path lake, you might be the only people for miles around,” he adds.

Whether travelers from overseas choose to explore by boat or on foot, there are many resources to help them plan the sort of memorable exploration that Ring cherishes. Guiding companies provide both novice and experienced paddlers with equipment rentals. They can also help arrange a simple day trip, an extended and fully-guided camping expedition, or anything in between. 

Regardless of how you choose to venture though, Ring recommends that out-of-town visitors first travel to the city of Minneapolis and then leave a full day of travel to get to and from the wilderness area. “Just because there aren’t any impressive mountains or deserts doesn’t mean that the area isn’t plenty rugged and remote,” he says, laughing. 

Protected by the U.S. government as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, the Boundary Waters is governed by a number of rules to which all visitors must adhere. The most important:  leave no trace. Explorers are required to pack out any trash or leftover food from their trip, wash dishes and themselves away from bodies of water using only biodegradable soap, avoid doing anything to damage the landscape, and respect other rules that protect the area for generations of future visitors. To learn more about leaving no trace, check out this video produced by the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness: http://goo.gl/MBWQZa.

“The things that visitors should never do are all outlined by the Forest Service,” says Ring. “Avoid taking more than photographs, and leaving more than footprints, to paraphrase a quotation.”

Thorough advance planning can help visitors have a great, and safe, time paddling and hiking through the wilderness. Besides packing plenty of food, vital equipment include a map and compass, clothing for extreme weather, a water filter, and emergency gear like a whistle and first-aid kit. The National Forest Service bluntly states, “You are responsible for your own safety and that of your group,” so be sure to pack and plan accordingly. 

Permits are always required to explore the Boundary Waters—especially as the Forest Service aims to regulate the flow of visitors and preserve the seclusion and beauty that keep Ring and many others returning to the wilderness. To learn more and reserve your own wilderness permits, visit Recreation.gov’s website or call 518-885-3639. If you’re planning on taking a canoe trip through the Boundary Waters, check out the interactive maps and route calculators on PaddlePlanner’s site. More information can be found on Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness’ website.

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.