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The Boundary Waters

Back in 1991, I received an assignment from the editor of a magazine whose focus was the islands of the world. “Take your canoe to the Boundary Waters,” she said. “Go for a week or more. And every night, camp out on an island.” 

It seemed an odd assignment, for a magazine that usually devoted its pages to tropical paradises. And the “camp on islands” angle struck me as just a bit gimmicky. But I took the job, took along a friend, and took nine days to do it right. Along the way, I came to understand the editor’s idea: The Boundary Waters are themselves an island, a world of their own, moated off from the rest of the planet as surely and securely as any speck of land in a tropical sea. More securely, in fact: You can’t jet in for a getaway, you can’t book a suite with a water view, and there’s no one serving drinks on the beach.

The Boundary Waters – officially, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – are the pristine heart of Superior National Forest. Their million-plus acres and 1,100 lakes (more than one-tenth of Minnesota’s alleged 10,000) define what I’ve always felt is the signature landscape of North America. Africa has its Serengeti, Australia its vast Outback, South America its Amazon rainforest. North America, for all its bayous and prairies, its deserts and mountains, is best represented by the North Woods, the great boreal forest of conifer and birch dappled with the cold blue lakes of the two-billion-year-old granite of the Canadian Shield. To traverse the North Woods by paddle and portage is to breathe the spirit of our continent, and to hear its loons is to listen to the ancient beating of its heart.

Paddling and portaging are what you’ll do in the Boundary Waters: the “Canoe” in “Canoe Area Wilderness” means just that, as it does in Ontario’s adjoining Quetico Provincial Park. Here, where motors are prohibited on all but a few lakes, the loons are louder than the boats. And portages? On our ’91 trip, we lost count of how many times we hefted the canoe and our Duluth packs for overland treks – some short, one about a mile – and on our last day out, we tallied eight portages linking a skein of as many lakes. True, we’d chosen a particularly arduous loop, which began and ended at the entry point where we’d parked our car. But there’s no such thing as a snooze of a trip through the Boundary Waters. 

But that doesn’t mean you can’t snooze along the way, either literally, or in a metaphoric dream state, suspended outside your daily obligations (don’t bother to bring your phone, as there are few places it’ll work). You can remain at a designated site for up to two weeks, and take a break from progressing on your route by fishing for bass, walleye, and lake trout; drifting about near camp with only an occasional dip of your paddle; or doing nothing at all. I well remember, after just such a morning, lying half awake in the cool green shade of our tent, listening to the wind rushing through the trees. The sides of the tent puffed softly in and out with the breeze, like sails. Being on our island was like being on a great, silent ship, sailing gently and aimlessly with all the other island-ships across a bright blue world made of lake and sky. And at night, especially on a clear night when there are as many stars on the water as there are in the sky, there’s the chance of seeing the Northern Lights.

The fact that there are prescribed entry points, along with registration requirements, camping permit fees, and maximum group sizes (nine people, four canoes or kayaks) might seem to undermine the idea of the Boundary Waters as a place detached from civilization. But, ironically, the rules are what keep things wild. A limited number of people are permitted at each entry, each day, and campsites aren’t on top of each other. Along some of the more rigorous routes, even in peak season (July and August, although my preference is either early autumn or that magic spring window between ice-out and black flies) you might be able to count paddlers you meet on one hand, even on a multi-day excursion. 

I recalled that solitude in my magazine story after our trip. “We felt.” I wrote, “like we owned Minnesota in the 18th century.” The Boundary Waters, then and today, are an island in time, as well as an island on the map.