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The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW or BWCA), is a 1.09 million acre (4,410 km²) wilderness area within the Superior National Forestmarker in northeastern Minnesotamarker (USAmarker) under the administration of the U.S. Forest Service. The BWCAW is renowned as a destination for both canoeing and fishing on its many lakes and is the most visited wilderness in the United Statesmarker.


The BWCAW is located on the U.S.-Canadian border in the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota. Along with Voyageurs National Parkmarker to the west and the Canadianmarker Queticomarker and La Verendryemarker Provincial Parks to the north, they make up a large area of contiguous wilderness lakes and forests called the "Quetico-Superior country", or simply the Boundary Waters. Lake Superiormarker lies to the east of the Boundary Waters.

The continental divide between the Great Lakesmarker and Hudson Baymarker watershed runs northeast-southwest through the east side of the BWCAW, following the crest of the Superior Upland and Gunflint Range. The crossing of the divide at Height of Land Portagemarker was the occasion for ceremony and initiation rites for the fur-trading Voyageurs of the 18th and early 19th centuries. The wilderness also includes the highest peak in Minnesota, Eagle Mountainmarker (2,301 feet / 701 m), part of the Misquah Hillsmarker.

The two main communities with visitor services near the BWCAW are Elymarker and Grand Marais, Minnesotamarker. The smaller town of Toftemarker is another gateway community. Several historic roads, such as the Gunflint Trail, the Echo Trail, and Fernberg Road allow access to the many wilderness entry points.

Natural history


The lakes of the BWCAW are located in depressions formed by differential erosion of the tilted layers of the Canadian Shield. For the past two million years, massive sheets of ice have repeatedly scoured the landscape; the last glacial period ended with the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet from the Boundary Waters about 17,000 years ago. The resulting depressions in the landscape later filled with water, becoming the lakes of today.

Many varieties of Precambrian bedrock are exposed, including granite, basalt, greenstone, gneiss, as well as metamorphic rocks derived from volcanic and sedimentary rocks. Greenstone of the Superior craton located near Ely, Minnesota is up to 2.7 billion years old, some of the oldest exposed rock in the United States. Igneous rocks of the Duluth Complex comprise the bedrock of the eastern Boundary Waters. Ancient microfossils have been found in the banded iron formations of the Gunflint Chert.

Forest ecology

The Boundary Waters area contains both the boreal forest (taiga) and a mixed conifer-hardwood forest known as the North Woods, which is a transition province between the northern boreal forest and deciduous forests to the south. The ranges of the plants and animals continue north into southern Canada and south into the rest of the upper Great Lakesmarker region. Trees found within the wilderness area include conifers such as red pine, eastern white pine, jack pine, balsam fir, white spruce, black spruce, and white-cedar, as well as deciduous birch, aspen, ash, and maple. Blueberries are common in many parts of the BWCAW, as are raspberries. The BWCAW is estimated to contain some 400,000 acres (1,600 km²) of old growth forest, woods which may have burned but which have never been logged. Forest fires were a natural part of the Boundary Waters ecosystem before fire suppression efforts during the 20th century, with recurrence intervals of 30 - 300 years in most areas.

On July 4, 1999, a powerful wind storm, or derecho, swept across Minnesota and southern Canada, knocking down millions of trees and affecting about 370,000 acres (1,500 km²) within the BWCAW. This event became known officially as the Boundary Waters-Canadian Derecho, commonly referred to as "the Boundary Waters blowdown". Although campsites and portages were quickly cleared after the storm, an increased risk of wildfire continues to remain a concern due to the large number of downed trees. The U.S. Forest Service has undertaken a schedule of prescribed burns to reduce the forest fuel load in the event of a wildfire.

The first major wildfire within the blowdown occurred in August 2005, burning approximately 1,400 acres (5.7 km²) north of Seagull Lake in the northeastern BWCAW. In July 2006 the Cavity Lake fire burned over 30,000 acres (120 km²), while the Turtle Lake Fire burned 2,000 acres (8 km²). In May 2007, there was another wildfire that originated around Ham Lake, just to the east of the Cavity Lake fire. The Ham Lake Fire was the most extensive wildfire in Minnesota in 90 years. It burned from May 5 to May 20, and eventually covered in Minnesota and Ontario.


Common loon
Animals native to the region include moose, beaver, bears, bobcats, bald eagles, peregrine falcons and loons. The Boundary Waters is within the range of the largest population of wolves in the contiguous United States, as well as an unknown number of Canada lynx. Woodland caribou once inhabited the region but have disappeared due to loss of habitat, encroachment by deer, and the brainworm parasite carried by deer which is harmful to caribou and moose populations. Increasing deer numbers may also affect the future of vegetation in this region as they favor some species over others, such as white-cedar.

Human history

Native peoples

Within the BWCAW are hundreds of prehistoric pictograph and petroglyphs on rock ledges and cliffs. The BWCAW is part of the historic homeland of the Ojibwe people, who traveled the waterways in canoes made of birch bark. Prior to Ojibwe settlement, the area was sparsely populated by the Sioux who dispersed westward following the arrival of the Ojibwe. The Grand Portage Indian Reservation, just east of the BWCAW at the settlement of Grand Portagemarker, is home to a number of Ojibwe to this day.

The fur trade

In 1688, the Frenchmarker explorer Jacques de Noyon became the first European known to have traveled through the Boundary Waters. Later during the 1730s, La Verendrye and others opened the region to trade, mainly in beaver pelts. By the end of the 18th century, the fur trade had been organized into groups of canoe-paddling voyageur working for the competing North West and Hudson's Bay Companies, with a North West Company fort located at Grand Portagemarker on Lake Superior.

Development and protection

In the 1920s Edward Backus, a local industrialist, proposed building several dams in the region, which was successfully opposed by Ernest Oberholtzer. By 1926, the Superior Roadless Area had been designated by the U.S. Forest Service, offering some protection from mining, logging, and hydroelectric projects, although logging would not cease completely until 1979. The Wilderness Act of 1964 made the BWCAW legal wilderness as a unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System, while the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act established the Boundary Waters regulations much as they are today with motors allowed only on a few large entry point lakes.

Several aspects of the management of the BWCAW remain controversial today, including the use of motorboats, snowmobiles, motorized portages, permit availability and allocation, as well as suggestions to expand the wilderness area.

Many groups, such as the Boy Scouts and other service organizations, volunteer in the area to maintain the portage trails.


The BWCAW contains over a thousand lakes and attracts visitors with its reputation for canoeing, canoe touring, fishing, backpacking, dog sledding, and remote wilderness character. The BWCAW has nearly 2,200 backcountry campsites. The BWCAW is one of Minnesota's top tourist attractions, drawing visitors from all over the United States as well as abroad. Permits are required for all overnight visits to the wilderness area. Quota permits are required for groups taking an overnight paddle, motor, or hiking trip, or a motorized day-use trip into the BWCAW from May 1 through September 30. These permits must be reserved in advance. From October 1 through April 30, permit reservations are not necessary, but a permit must be filled out at the permit stations located at each entry point.


Canoe campers on a trip in the BWCAW
Although there are numerous drive-in campgrounds surrounding the wilderness, most campsites in the BWCAW are accessible only by water. As of 1999, about 75% of the BWCAW's water area was reserved for non-motorized boat travel. Most lakes and rivers are interconnected by portage trails, resulting in over of canoe routes. Chains of lakes and portages of various lengths and difficulties can be combined to create either linear or circular routes. Some of the most popular entry points include Lake One, Trout Lake, Mudro Lake, Moose Lake, and Snowbank Lake near Ely, Saganaga Lakemarker and Seagull Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail, and Sawbill Lakemarker near Tofte.

Canoe campers often use Duluth packs, designed for easy portaging and loading in canoes, to carry their gear.


Fishing is a popular activity in the BWCAW. Game species include northern pike, walleye, largemouth and smallmouth bass, yellow perch, whitefish, and lake trout, among others. A small number of lakes are stocked with brook trout as well. Popular lure include rapalas, jig, and spoon, while live bait such as leeches are also used. Multi-sectioned or collapsible fishing rods are often used for ease in carrying while portaging.


Sunset over Pose Lake, a small lake accessible only by foot.
In addition to shorter trails to Eagle Mountainmarker, Magnetic Rock, and Angleworm Lake, the Boundary Waters has several long-distance trails. The Border Route Trail runs east-west for over through the eastern BWCAW, following the ridges between the long border lakes such as Loon, South, and Rose. Eventually, a connection is planned from the eastern end of the Border Route Trail to the northern end of the Superior Hiking Trail. The Kekekabic Trail traverses the Boundary Waters from the Gunflint Trail on the east to Snowbank Lake on the west and is the only footpath through the center of the wilderness. There are also three longer loop trails in the Boundary Waters: the Pow Wow Trail, the Snowbank Trail, and the Sioux-Hustler Trailmarker. These longer trails see a variable amount of maintenance; current conditions should be determined locally before use.

Notable people associated with the BWCAW

  • Sigurd Olson, Minnesota author and conservationist, wrote extensively about the Boundary Waters and worked to ensure preservation of the wilderness.
  • Dorothy Molter, known as the "Rootbeer Lady," lived alone in the BWCAW for 56 years until her death in 1986.


Cited references

General references

  • Heinselman, Miron. The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem, University of Minnesota Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8166-2804-1
  • Pauly, Daniel. Exploring the Boundary Waters: A Trip Planner and Guide to the BWCAW, University of Minnesota Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8166-4216-8
  • Searle, R. Newell. Saving Quetico-Superior, A Land Set Apart, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1977. ISBN 0-87351-116-6

See also

External links

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