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Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota

Trip Overview

Portage? Thats the guy in the funny suit at the train station, right? This was my first trip into the BWCAW and my first non-river canoe trip. And more importantly, it was the first time I ever had to carry my boat further than from the car to the water. The trip was organized and presided over by some family friends who know the area inside and out, making this more of a vacation and less of a survival expedition.

Eight of us left from Entry Point #14, heading down the Little Indian Sioux River. The yellow and white lilies were blooming all along the route. We got to the Upper Pawness and made a sharp right towards the 8-rod portage to the Lower Pawness, but there was enough water flowing over the intervening rapids that we just walked the canoes through the rocks. The water was moving just fast enough to make it interesting. There would be plenty of portaging later to make up for this shortcut.

North we went through Lower Pawness to our first real portage. Neither my wife nor I had ever carried a canoe on our heads before, so, per a suggestion on this website, we tried to carry it together over this first, relatively short portage. Up until this point I thought we had a pretty solid marriage. Apparently the two-person canoe-carry takes more coordination than we have collectively, though we disagreed strongly as to which of us was responsible for the deficiency. To save money on future counseling, we agreed not to try that again, and I decided I would learn to carry the thing on my head.

We were headed for Shell Lake and the first test of my resolve was the 220-rod portage leading into the lake. I made it about one-quarter of the distance before putting down the canoe and leaving it for someone else in my group to carry. To make up for it, I went back to pick up the biggest, most uncomfortable pack that still needed to go, but all the Spray-n-Wash in the world cant remove that stain of failure.

I am told that those 220-rod portages will quickly thin out the number of people that you encounter. While I found that to be true eventually, Shell Lake seemed relatively popular. There is an island in that lake with three campsites; we took the one on the north end. We passed three other occupied campsites in and around the lake on the way there. After we staked our claim, two groups of canoes went paddling by later that day looking for unsettled land, so I think Shell Lake is on a lot of peoples short list

Ours was a fine campsite. It had several tiers to it, allowing us to spread out a little. There was small inlet next to the site that was full of reeds and other water plants. Each of the two nights we were there, a huge beaver swam in around 8p and started munching on the greenery.

For our interim day, we paddled back to the portage we came from, but left the canoes and walked over to Devils Cascade. The hiking and portage routes on my McKenzie map are generally correct, but some of the details are off. The campsite there is on the east side of the river, not the west. If you are heading north on the hiking trail, when you think you are getting close, you will pass a trail to a toilet on your left. Take your next left after that. Follow that trail for just 100-200 meters and you will begin to find little spur trails on the right leading to the water. Devils Cascade is great: lots of pools to play in, boulders to climb over, rapids to take a picture of. Its well worth leaving the canoe behind for a couple hours.

At this point we paddled off the right side of my map and someone else was doing our navigating, so all I can tell you is that we found a campsite on Hustler Lake for the next night. Another great multi-tiered campsite with a spectacular view. We had a secluded little bay to one side and the wide-open lake to the other. Theres a huge northern pike swimming around in that secluded bay using a couple of my lures as lip-piercings.

The next day we had a short hop across Oyster Lake to our new campsite, another stunner. Are there any bad campsites in the BWCAW? This one had a huge flat rock about 8 feet off the water we used to take in the incredible view, then converted to a dining room later on. There were animal trails leading away from the campsite to the north that led to some great views of rock-formations on the water.

Our day out had us on a long paddle up the Nina Moose river to our second car. There are lots of beaver dams to hop over along that stretch. I find hauling the canoe over them a fun diversion, but the beavers probably feel otherwise.

One of my BWCAW-veteran companions had taught me a new steering technique earlier in the trip. I was practicing this new move while heading up the Nina Moose. Consequently, I think I added another mile or two to the trip careening from one side of the river to the other.

The mosquitoes and flies were rough the whole trip, but on the flip side, the water was warm enough to swim in comfortably. The loons yodeled all night, every night. We didnt see a whole lot of wildlife, but thats probably to be expected with an 8-person group. We did, however, see lots of the next best thing: the moose in the area, looking to provide us with an authentic wilderness experience, courteously carpeted parts of our campsites and adjoining trails (Oyster Lake especially) with their droppings.


I did apply for the permits myself, but there is a reservation process to go through ( Our first night out some rangers did ask to see our permit.


McKenzie Maps - M14
  • Duration: Extended Trip
  • Skill Level: Advanced
  • Water Type: Flat/Sheltered Water
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip