Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

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Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
IUCN category Ib (wilderness area)
Pose lake Minnesota.jpg
Sunset over Pose Lake, a small lake accessible only by foot.
Map showing the location of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Map showing the location of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Location Cook / Lake / Saint Louis counties, Minnesota, USA
Coordinates 47°49′0″N 91°12′0″W / 47.81667°N 91.20000°W / 47.81667; -91.20000Coordinates: 47°49′0″N 91°12′0″W / 47.81667°N 91.20000°W / 47.81667; -91.20000
Area 1,090,000 acres (4,400 km2)[1]
Established 1964
Visitors 250,000+
Governing body U.S. Forest Service

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW or BWCA), is a 1,090,000-acre (4,400 km2) wilderness area within the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota (USA) under the administration of the U.S. Forest Service. A mixture of north woods forests and glacial lakes and streams, the BWCAW's preservation as a primitive wilderness began in the 1900s and culminated in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978. It is a popular destination for both canoeing and fishing on its many lakes and is the most visited wilderness in the United States.


The BWCAW within the Superior National Forest

The BWCAW extends along 150 miles (240 km) of the U.S.–Canadian border in the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota. The combined region of the BWCAW, the Superior National Forest, the Voyageurs National Park and the Canadian Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Park to the north make up a large area of contiguous wilderness lakes and forests called the "Quetico-Superior country", or simply the Boundary Waters. Lake Superior lies to the east of the Boundary Waters.[2][3]:1–3

190,000 acres (770 km2), nearly 20% of the BWCAW's total area, is water: within its borders are over 1,100 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers and streams. Much of the other 80% is forest. The BWCAW is the largest remaining area of uncut forest in the eastern portion of the United States.[2]

The Laurentian Divide between the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay watersheds runs northeast–southwest through the east side of the BWCAW, following the crest of the Superior Upland and Gunflint Range.[4]:9 The crossing of the divide at Height of Land Portage was the occasion for ceremony and initiation rites for the fur-trading Voyageurs of the 18th and early 19th centuries.[5] The wilderness also includes the highest peak in Minnesota, Eagle Mountain (2,301 feet (701 m)), part of the Misquah Hills.[2]

Located around the perimeter of the BWCAW are six ranger stations: in Cook, Aurora, Ely, Isabella, Tofte and Grand Marais. The two nearby communities with most visitor services are Ely and Grand Marais.[2] Several historic roads such as the Gunflint Trail, Echo Trail (County Road 116) and Fernberg Road (County Road 18) allow access to the many wilderness entry points.[4]

Natural history[edit]

An eastern white pine growing on glacially scoured bedrock, Nina Moose Lake


Main article: Geology of Minnesota

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.[6][7]

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.[8] Igneous rocks of the Duluth Complex comprise the bedrock of the eastern Boundary Waters.[6] Ancient microfossils have been found in the banded iron formations of the Gunflint Chert.[9]

Forest ecology[edit]

The Boundary Waters area is within the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province (commonly called the "North Woods"), a transitional zone between the boreal forest to the north and the temperate hardwood forest to the south that contains characteristics of each. 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 and raspberries can be found in cleared areas. The BWCAW is estimated to contain some 400,000 acres (1,600 km2) of old growth forest, woods that may have burned but have never been logged. Before fire suppression efforts began during the 20th century, Forest fires were a natural part of the Boundary Waters ecosystem, with recurrence intervals of 30 to 300 years in most areas.[7][10]

On July 4, 1999, a powerful wind storm, or derecho, swept across Minnesota and southern Canada. Winds as high as 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) knocked down millions of trees, affecting about 370,000 acres (1,500 km2) within the BWCAW and injuring 60 people. 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 due to the large number of downed trees became a concern. The U.S. Forest Service undertook a schedule of prescribed burns to reduce the forest fuel load in the event of a wildfire.[11]

Smoke from the 2011 Pagami Creek Fire

The first major wildfire within the blowdown area occurred in August 2005, burning 1,335 acres (5.40 km2) between Alpine Lake and Seagull Lake in the northeastern BWCAW.[12] In 2006, two fires at Cavity Lake and Turtle Lake burned more than 30,000 acres (120 km2).[13][14] In May 2007, the Ham Lake Fire started near the location of the Cavity Lake fire, eventually covering 76,000 acres (310 km2) in Minnesota and Ontario and becoming the most extensive wildfire in Minnesota in 90 years.[15] In 2011, the Pagami Creek Fire ultimately grew to over 92,000 acres (370 km2), spreading beyond the wilderness boundary to threaten homes and businesses.[16] Smoke from the Pagami Creek Fire drifted east and south as far as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Ontario, Chicago, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.[17][18][19]


Common loon

Animals found in the BWCAW include deer, moose, beaver, gray wolves, black bears, bobcats, bald eagles, peregrine falcons and loons. It is within the range of the largest population of wolves in the contiguous United States, as well as an unknown number of Canada lynx. It is also a BirdLife International Important Bird Area.[20]

Woodland caribou once inhabited the region but have disappeared due to predation by wolves, encroachment by deer, and the effects of a brainworm parasite carried by deer which is harmful to both caribou and moose populations. Very rare sightings have been reported in nearby areas.[21]

Human history[edit]

Native peoples[edit]

Pictographs at Hegman Lake, as they looked in 2003

Within the BWCAW are hundreds of prehistoric pictographs 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 migrated westward following the arrival of the Ojibwe. It is thought that the Hegman Lake Pictograph located on a large overlooking rock wall on North Hegman Lake were most likely created by the Ojibwe. The pictograph appears to represent Ojibwe meridian constellations visible in winter during the early evening, knowledge of which may have been useful for navigating in the deep woods during the winter hunting season. The Grand Portage Indian Reservation, just east of the BWCAW at the community of Grand Portage, is home to a number of Ojibwe to this day.[22]

European exploration and development[edit]

A Voyageur canoe during the fur trade era

In 1688 the French explorer Jacques de Noyon became the first European known to have traveled through the BWCAW area. Later, during the 1730s, La Vérendrye 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 Voyageurs working for the competing North West and Hudson's Bay Companies, with a North West Company fort located at the community of Grand Portage on Lake Superior. The final rendezvous was held at Grand Portage in 1803, after which the North West Company moved its operations further north to Fort William (now Thunder Bay). In 1821 the North West Company merged with the Hudson's Bay Company and the center of the fur trade moved even further north to the posts around Hudson Bay.[3]:5–8[23]

During this time, the area's legal and political status was disputed. The Treaty of Paris which ended the American Revolutionary War in 1783 had defined the northern border between the United States and Canada based on the inaccurate Mitchell Map. Ownership of the area between Lake of the Woods and Lake Superior was unclear, with the United States claiming the border was further north at the Kaministiquia River and Canada claiming it was further south beginning at the Saint Louis River. In 1842, the Webster–Ashburton Treaty clarified the border between the United States and Canada using the old trading route running along the Pigeon River and Rainy River (today the BWCAW's northern border).[3]:8–9

The BWCAW area remained largely undeveloped until gold, silver and iron were found in the surrounding area during the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. Logging in the area began around the same time to supply lumber to support the mining industries, with production peaking in the late 1910s and gradually trailing off during the 1920s and 1930s.[3]:9–12


In 1902, Minnesota's Forest Commissioner Christopher C. Andrews persuaded the state to reserve 500,000 acres (2,000 km2) of land near the BWCAW from being sold to loggers. In 1905 he visited the area on a canoe trip and was impressed by the area's natural beauty. He was able to save another 141,000 acres (570 km2) from being sold for development. He soon reached out to the Ontario government to encourage them to preserve some of the area's land on their side of the border, noting that the area could be "an international forest reserve and park of very great beauty and interest". This collaboration led to the creation of the Superior National Forest and the Quetico Provincial Park in 1909.[3]:15–16

The BWCAW itself was formed gradually through a series of actions. By the early 1920s, roads had begun to be built through the Superior National Forest to promote public access to the area for recreation. In 1926 a section of 640,000 acres (2,600 km2) within the Superior National Forest was set aside as a roadless wilderness area by Secretary of Agriculture William Marion Jardine. This area became the nucleus of the BWCAW. In 1930, Congress passed the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act, which prohibited logging and dams within the area to preserve its natural water levels. Through additional land purchases and shifts in boundaries, the amount of protected land owned by the government in the area grew even further. In 1938, the area's borders were expanded and altered (roughly matching those of the present day BWCAW), and it was renamed the Superior Roadless Primitive Area.[24][25]

Additional laws focused on protecting the area's rustic and undeveloped character. In 1948, the Thye-Blatnik Bill authorized the government to purchase the few remaining privately owned homes and resorts within the area. A 1949 act by President Harry Truman prohibited aircraft from flying over the area below 4,000 feet. The area was officially named the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in 1958, and the Wilderness Act of 1964 organized it as a unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act established the Boundary Waters regulations much as they are today, with limitations on motorboats and snowmobiles, a permit-based quota system for use, and restrictions on logging and mining within the area.[24][25]


Some aspects of the BWCAW's management and conservation have been controversial. During the 1970s, a legislative proposal was made to loosen restrictions on motorized vehicles and allow some logging in parts of the BWCAW. It was unsuccessful. During the mid-1990s, a dispute over using trucks to move boats between two portages required mediation. In 1998, it was ultimately allowed. While snowmobiles are not allowed within the BWCAW, a snowmobile trail located 400 feet from the border provoked a lawsuit in 2006. In 2015, a judge ruled the trail did not violate the Wilderness Act.[26][27]

Renewed interest in copper and nickel mining in northern Minnesota has also been a source of tension. While the mines would be situated south and west of the BWCAW, concerns about runoff that would ultimately enter the BWCAW's watershed have caused concerns among environmental and conservationist groups. A 2015 bill proposed by Representative Betty McCollum seeks to block nearby mining.[28][29]


Canoe campers on a trip in the BWCAW

The BWCAW attracts approximately 250,000 visitors per year, making it the most visited wilderness area in the United States. It contains more than 2,000 backcountry campsites, 1,200 miles (1,900 km) of canoe routes, and 12 different hiking trails and is popular for canoeing, canoe touring, fishing, backpacking, dog sledding, and enjoying the area's remote wilderness character.[2]

Permits are required for all overnight visits to the BWCAW. 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. Day use paddle and hiking permits do not require advance reservation and can be filled out at BWCAW entry points. 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. Each permit must specify the trip leader, the specific entry point and the day of entry. The permits are for an indefinite length, although visitors are only allowed one entry into the wilderness and cannot stay in one campsite for more than 14 nights.[2]


A BWCA paddler with her wood-and-canvas canoe

Canoeing or other non-motorized boating is the most popular method of exploring the BWCAW. A 2007 study found more than 94% of overnight visitors used a non-motorized boat to travel through the park.[30] The BWCAW's size and abundance of campsites, lakes, rivers and portage trails allow for almost countless options for different routes. Many online maps and guidebooks offer suggested routes based on entry point, duration and difficulty.[31][32][33][34]


Junction of the Eagle Mountain and Brule Lake Trails

Fishing is a popular activity in the BWCAW. Game species include northern pike, muskellunge, walleye, largemouth and smallmouth bass, and panfish. Trout including brook trout, brown trout, lake trout, rainbow trout and splake are also found. Limited stocking of walleye, brown trout and lake trout is done on some lakes.[2]


The BWCAW contains hiking trails ranging from shorter 1–2 day trails, to longer multi-day loop trails to long-distance backpacking trails. Shorter hikes include the trail to Eagle Mountain (7 miles (11 km)). Loop trails include the Pow Wow Trail, the Snowbank Trail, and the Sioux-Hustler Trail. The Border Route Trail and Kekekabic Trail are the two longest trails running through the BWCAW. The Border Route Trail runs east-west for over 65 miles (105 km) through the eastern BWCAW, beginning at the northern end of the Superior Hiking Trail and following ridges and cliffs west until it connects with the Kekekabic Trail. The Kekekabic Trail continues for another 41 miles (66 km), beginning near the Gunflint Trail and passing through the center of the BWCAW before exiting it near Snowbank Lake. Both the Border Route and the Kekekabic Trail are part of the longer North Country National Scenic Trail.[35][36][37]

Notable people associated with the BWCAW[edit]

  • 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 in the BWCAW for 56 years (alone after 1948) until her death in 1986, and was the last resident of the BWCA.
  • Benny Ambrose lived alone on Ottertrack Lake until his death in 1982, leaving Dorothy Molter as the last remaining full-time resident.
  • Cliff Wold, early canoe outfitter and Ely philanthropist. He has died, but the legacy of his love for the BWCAW exists in the Ely-based outfitting favorite.

See also[edit]


Cited references[edit]

  1. ^ "Land Area Report". U.S. Forest Service. 2004. Retrieved 28 August 2006. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Trip Planning Guide" (pdf). USDA – Forest Service. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Searle, R. Newell (1977). Saving Quetico-Superior, A Land Set Apart. Minnesota Historical Society Press. ISBN 0-87351-116-6. 
  4. ^ a b Churchill, James (2003). Paddling the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park. Globe Pequot. ISBN 978-0-7627-1148-2. 
  5. ^ Podruchny, Carolyn (June 2002). "Baptizing Novices: Ritual Moments among French Canadian Voyageurs in the Montreal Fur Trade, 1780–1821" (PDF). Canadian Historical Review (University of Toronto Press, Journals Division) 83 (2): 165–95. doi:10.3138/CHR.83.2.165. 
  6. ^ a b Ojakangas, Richard; Matsch, Charles (1982). "Minnesota's Geology". Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-0953-5. 
  7. ^ a b Heinselman, Miron (1996). The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. 
  8. ^ Weiblen, Paul W. (1971). "It's Written in the Rocks: The BWCA History" (PDF). The Conservation Volunteer. 
  9. ^ Barghoorn, Elso S.; Tyler, Stanley A. (1965). "Microorganisms from the Gunflint Chert". Science 147 (3658): 563–577. doi:10.1126/science.147.3658.563. 
  10. ^ "ECS: Border Lakes Subsection". Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 
  11. ^ "10 years after the big blowdown". Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. 
  12. ^ "Alpine Lake Fire". 
  13. ^ "BWCA Cavity Lake Wildfire". 
  14. ^ "Turtle Lake Fire". 
  15. ^ "Gunflint Trail fire anniversary to be marked by tree plantings". 
  16. ^ Etten, Douglas (2011-09-13). "Boundary Waters fire threatening homes, cabins". Lakeland Times. 
  17. ^
  18. ^ "Ont. smells smoke from Minnesota forest fire". CTV Toronto. 2011-09-13. Retrieved 2011-09-13. 
  19. ^ "Smoke from Minnesota forest fire makes its way to Chicago's suburbs". Chicago Tribune. 2011-09-13. Retrieved 2011-09-13. 
  20. ^ "Superior National Forest – About the Forest". USDA – Forest Service. 
  21. ^ Mech, L. David; Nelson, Michael E.; Drabik, Harry F. (1982). "Reoccurrence of Caribou in Minnesota". The American Midland Naturalist 101 (8): 206–208. doi:10.2307/2425312. 
  22. ^ Furtman, Michael (2000). Magic on the Rocks: Canoe Country Pictographs. Duluth, Minn.: Birch Portage Press. ISBN 978-0-916691-02-8. 
  23. ^ Morse, Eric W. (1969). Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada/Then and Now (PDF). Ottawa, Canada: Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery. 
  24. ^ a b "History of the BWCAW". United States Department of Agriculture – Forest Service. 
  25. ^ a b Wilbers, Stephen. "Boundary Waters Chronology". Retrieved 27 September 2009. 
  26. ^ Kelleher, Bob. "The Boundary Waters: 25 years later". Minnesota Public Radio. 
  27. ^ Furst, Randy (14 February 2015). "Judge rules in favor of proposed snowmobile route bordering BWCA". Minneapolis Star-Tribune. 
  28. ^ Hemphill, Stephanie. "At the edge of the Boundary Waters, miners probe for copper, nickel". Minnesota Public Radio. 
  29. ^ Meyers, John (14 April 2015). "St. Paul representative's bill would restrict mining in BWCAW watershed". Duluth News Tribune. 
  30. ^ Dvorak, Robert G.; Watson, Alan E.; Christensen, Neal; Borrie, William T.; Schwaller, Ann. "The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: Examining Changes in Use, Users, and Management Challenges" (pdf). United States Department of Agriculture – Forest Service. p. 11. 
  31. ^ "BWCA & Quetico Map". PaddlePlanner. 
  32. ^ Pauly, Daniel (2005). Exploring the Boundary Waters. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-1-4529-0646-1. 
  33. ^ Beymer, Robert; Dzierzak, Louis (2009). Boundary Waters Canoe Area: Western Region. Wilderness Press. ISBN 978-0-89997-610-5. 
  34. ^ Beymer, Robert; Dzierzak, Louis (2009). Boundary Waters Canoe Area: Eastern Region. Wilderness Press. ISBN 978-0-89997-461-3. 
  35. ^ "BWCA Trails". 
  36. ^ "Border Route Trail Association". North Country Trail Association. 
  37. ^ "Kekekabic Trail Chapter". North Country Trail Association. 

External links[edit]