The Best Adventures in Minnesota Require a Paddle from Outside elessard

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There are a lot of ways to experience the depth of a wild landscape: hiking, horseback riding, biking, off-roading. But none offer the same elegance and simplicity as paddling. Which is fortunate, because paddling also happens to be the best way to indulge in the vast solitude of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). With more than 1,200 miles of routes and 2,000-plus designated wilderness campsites, each trip itinerary is customizable to suit your experience level and outdoor interests.

The bountiful adventure opportunities are part of what Cassidy Ritter of Voyageur Canoe Outfitters loves about the area. She’s an expert on the BWCAW and enjoys facilitating trips for guests so they can make their own special connections with the land (and water). To help us better understand the seemingly mystical draw the BWCAW has on all who experience it and how to plan a trip, Ritter shared her valuable insights.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has 2,000-plus designated wilderness campsites. (Photo: Cassidy Ritter)

Outside: Why is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness such a remarkable place for paddlers and outdoor enthusiasts? 

Cassidy Ritter: There are so many reasons, but I will stick to a couple of my favorites. The first will come as no surprise: the sheer remoteness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It’s a solitude you can only understand once you’re here. Imagine a space so quiet you can hear the wings of a bird flapping overhead all while looking at the pristine untouched lands that surround you. These things are unmatched by any of the traveling I have done.

And for such a remote area, it’s still accessible to beginners. I wholeheartedly believe that this wilderness area has something to offer to everyone regardless of experience level. For master canoeists, there are challenging routes that travel through many lakes—where you are the only person for miles. But there are also peaceful wilderness campsites that are a quick 30-to-40-minute paddle from an entry point. With some basic outdoor knowledge, anyone can experience the BWCAW and build up to more technical routes.

The remoteness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is enchanting. (Photo: Cassidy Ritter)

Do you have any planning tips for first-time visitors?

There are a lot of details to sort through before a BWCAW trip, so start planning early. This will also help you secure your ideal route and launch date, as each entry point has a limited number of permits available per day. Permits become available the last Wednesday of January every year.

Packing Tip: Wool socks, no matter the time of year, are one of my favorite comfort items. There’s nothing quite like putting on a pair of dry wool socks when you get to the campsite after a long day of paddling.

Outfitters make planning a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness trip easy. (Photo: Cassidy Ritter)

How do you recommend paddlers unfamiliar with Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness choose between different route options?

Choosing a route is such a fun part of planning. There are a few initial questions I like to ask people who are planning trips to help identify the best route:

What kind of experience are you looking for? Some groups are looking to catch a million fish, and some are looking for as many waterfall views as possible.
What’s your ideal daily mileage and trip length? Longer routes often involve more portages, but regardless of length, each route is stunning. Think about your group’s level of fitness and how many portages you’re prepared to navigate. Portages involve carrying your boat and gear between bodies of water—a challenging maneuver for some groups.
What lake sizes do you prefer? I like to ask this question because some lakes are very small, which means more portages. Opting for larger lakes will result in more paddling and fewer portages.

A great planning resource is the route page on our website. This will help you visualize routes and look at mileage, campsites, portages, and so much more so you have a better idea of what your days in the wilderness will look like.

Timing can play a huge role in route planning. For example, June is best for fishing; July and August are best for warm weather and swimming; September is best for cool evenings and fewer people.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has over 1,200 miles of routes to choose from. (Photo: Cassidy Ritter)

Camping is great, but canoe camping is even better. What are some of your favorite things about multiday adventures in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness?

Canoe camping is its own category altogether. It is a type of camping that really lets you hone some of your wilderness skills and feel at ease with the simplicity of it all. Plus, when you travel by canoe, you have the cargo space to bring luxury items into the wilderness. Humans are drawn to water, and there is a certain peace that comes from being on and around the water. The BWCAW is the absolute best way to experience that level of peace.

My favorite parts about canoe camping stem from being on the water. It feels like home to me in so many ways. There can be challenging days, but I appreciate those moments because they become some of my favorite stories to tell. I enjoy the freshness of the air, the quality time spent with my favorite people in a place without modern conveniences, the loons swimming past my camp, and waking up in the morning to the sounds of the water pushing up against the shoreline.

One of the best parts of canoe camping is waking up next to the water. (Photo: Cassidy Ritter)

What can surprise first-time visitors about the area?

Something that surprises a lot of our groups is how quiet it truly is in the wilderness. It’s something that can’t be described—you have to experience it for yourself. The ease of accessibility to such vast solitude also leaves a lasting impression on adventurers. The area comprises 1,090,000 acres and includes more than 1,100 lakes to paddle and portage—that’s a lot of room to roam, and there are countless ways to explore.

The Boundary Waters is also an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. Going outside at night will offer you the most amazing night-sky experiences you have ever had.

The best way to visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is to use an outfitter. (Photo: Cassidy Ritter)

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