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A quarter-million people visit the BWCA each year, the highest visitation of any wilderness area in the United States. Because it is managed as a wilderness area, today’s paddler can experience the same northern canoe country as the early explorers, trappers, and guides. Another advantage of double portaging is it lets us really enjoy the surroundings on the empty-handed return trip.
At portages you are most likely to meet other paddlers, offering a chance to catch up on trail news. Nothing wrong with enjoying a late evening around the campfire, but after a full day of travel, we are content to settle in early and awake before daylight, eager to get on with the next day’s travel.
We love paddling early mornings, witnessing a new day dawn with mist rising off the water and fish breaking the surface. The biggest advantage of starting early, however, is the chance to claim the best campsites. These are the places where the early voyageurs, guides, trappers, fishermen and canoeists also stopped.
The BWCA offers excellent fishing for walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass and lake trout. But many of the deeper lakes harbor lake trout, and early spring, when the lakers are in the shallows, is known for great bites.
Seems a lot of paddlers have trouble catching them in summer, but they’re quite catchable with a heavy jig. For walleye, we troll or cast a jig (white, chartreuse, or yellow) tipped with Berkley Powerbait.
On the third day after paddling since daybreak and humping over eight portages to get into Kekekabic Lake, we were looking for a place to camp. If you don’t own a canoe, I have found the local outfitters extremely helpful and accommodating. We especially like clear, island-dotted lakes with rugged shorelines, cliffs and towering pines.
The BWCA, as a wilderness area, doesn’t mark portage trail heads or campsites with signs.
Reservations may be made well ahead of time; just know that the permit allows you to only enter the wilderness on that one date, not the day before or after. Sounds like the place would be crawling with people, but it’s not, as daily permits regulate the number allowed into each entry point.
Here we are isolated from news, politics and the daily hustle and bustle of the road system.
At one portage, as we were heading out with our second load, two fit young men single-portaging all of their gear passed us going the other way. Loons call, and the wildlife watching is at its best with beaver, otter and moose getting in a morning feed.


After paddling and portaging for five to six hours, we are ready to find our next camp right about the time others campers have moved on, opening up those sites.
I’ve also had consistent success slow-trolling lures that get down to 12 or 15 feet where the water is cooler. If you are there to fish, you may want to pack in minnows, leaches or night crawlers and set up a base camp in a good area. They hit about anything, and coming from cold northern water, they make excellent table fare. The map showed a campsite up ahead around a point back in the head of a bay, so that is where we were headed. To top it off, as we rounded the point into the bay we saw a beautiful campsite sitting empty. Nothing that will harm a fit young paddler, but at my age, I figure I’ve already paid those dues. You can rent just a canoe or get everything needed including tents, sleeping bags, packs, tools, utensils and even food. You have to pay attention to where you are in reference to the map, and also look for indications of repeat use. I keep my map in a case attached to the canoe thwart in front of me, where I can see it at all times. I turned 60 before our last visit, and after the first day’s 11 miles and four portages, I was feeling a little sore and worn down.
Reservations may not be needed for lesser-used entry points, especially during the week outside the busy season.
One stroke may start you on a journey to Hudson Bay, more than 1,200 miles away, traveling the same waterways and portages as the voyageurs in the 1700s carrying beaver pelts east and trade goods west. With 70 entry points, 2,200 campsites, more than 1,000 lakes and 1,500 miles of canoe route, there is plenty of room to stretch out.
After researching camp axes, I settled on a Wetterlings Bushman with a length of 22 inches, enough to use both hands but light enough to carry in a daypack. They paused for a quick greeting, an exchange of fishing locations, lures, and an availability update on campsites. We pass camps that are just awaking and others that are still asleep, unaware of our passing.
Then we watch the late-day paddlers pass by, anxiously looking for a site when the best are taken. They show the most use, but not in a littered, disrespected way, more like a yard where kids like to play. It was approaching the noon hour when I tossed a diving shad rap overboard and asked my wife to hold the rod while I slowly paddled us toward the campsite.
The popular portages may be obvious, but lesser-used ones can take a little looking around to find.


I also mount a ball compass (the type designed to pin on a hunting jacket) on a length of Velcro strapped to the thwart in front of me. Authorities recommend that all water be filtered, and we do pack a filter, using it as necessary. Using TMO ALPs Programs has received the.A  The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Put a portage or two behind you, especially a long portage, and the amount of human traffic thins out dramatically.
To make the trip more comfortable, we bring a little bigger four-person tent and lightweight hammocks. Ideal is a tent pad and kitchen elevated 10 to 20 feet above the lake, enhancing the view and also allowing the breeze to keep bugs at bay. It’s critter-proof but would not stop a determined bear, so before retiring for the night, we lash the barrel to a tree and put our cook pot and a pan on top.
Voyageur, McKenzie, and Fisher all offer waterproof maps showing the location of portages and campsites.
It is wise, however, to leave a general plan with someone back home, so that if you don’t come out on time, authorities will have a clue where to start looking.
The shade from towering red and white pines anchored in exposed bedrock keep the heat of the day manageable. So far, the only bear we’ve seen was eating blueberries as we paddled by 40 yards out in the lake.
I wouldn’t do it on smaller lakes, certainly not near beaver activity nor in a lake with algae. Stay warm and dry in cool or wet weather; avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion during the summer.
The skills needed for good leadership are present in all of us, but not all of us are natural leaders. Our ALPs series is designed to identify, embrace and and strengthen our ALPs participants leadership abilities.
TMO Adventures provide an opportunity to realize a group's governing principles, values, ethics and practice core competencies in a safe and supportive environment.
Our challenges are experiential in nature and we encourage continued teamwork, realistic goal setting, honest feedback and shared learning in a experiential process which stimulates our creative thinking and problem solving skill sets. TMO Adventures provide an opportunity to realize a group's governing principles, values, ethics and practice core competencies in a safe and supportive environment.
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