The Boundary Waters Border Route starts on the western side of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) at Crane Lake in Voyageurs National Park. It follows the Minnesota/Ontario border for about 200 miles until the Grand Portage, a 8.5-mile portage to Lake Superior. Most paddlers can complete the trip in two to three weeks.
This fall I joined the Wilderness Classroom to photograph part of their three-year, 12,000-mile trip across North America by canoe, kayak and dog sled. I met them at Crane Lake on the western side of the BWCA and paddled the Boundary Waters Border Route with them. It took us 17 days and included a three-day visit to Ely, Minn. While we followed the border route for the most part, we did leave the route at Ely and at Rose Lake. See the map below for our exact route.
Boundary Waters Border Route Description
Although the route is the longest that you can do in the BWCA without looping or turning back on your route, it isn’t the hardest. The beginning of the trip runs through large lakes, such as Loon Lake, Lac La Croix, Crooked Lake and Basswood. Portages at the start are few and short. We actually double portaged everything until we reached Gunflint Lake. The terrain is mostly flat, but you actual are traveling up river until you reach the Height of Land Portage between North and South Lake.
As you approach the eastern side at Sag and Gunflint, the portages become longer and the scenery more dramatic. Hundred-foot or taller hills parallel the lakes. By the time you reach Rose Lake, 200- to 300-foot cliffs appear, and you start the Long Portage, a two-mile long portage. In the western side, the lakes seem convoluted and twisted with many bays and islands. In the east, the lakes become arrow straight.
You’ll actually leave the BWCA to stay on the Boundary Waters Border Route at North Fowl. After paddling into South Fowl, you portage into the Pigeon River. During high water, it’s a swift journey to the top of the Grand Portage. During low water, expect to line, walk, carry and run shallow rapids. It will take you all day to do the river during low water, and a half day during high.
The Grand Portage connects the Pigeon River to the Grand Portage National Monument fort and it avoids waterfalls and rapids just down river. This was the traditional portage done by the fur-trading voyagers who carried eight packs weighing 90 lbs. each up and down the portage each year. The park service keeps the trail clear of downed trees, and it’s wide. Pace yourself for the trip down. By single portaging and taking a break every 30 minutes, you’ll get to the bottom in about five hours.
Once at Lake Superior, dip the nose of your canoe in the water and take a picture.
Boundary Waters Border Route Permits
To do this route, you need a permit. During the pay-for-permit season, you really need to stay on the Boundary Waters Border Route, because once your leader leaves the BWCA, you need a new permit. If you do it in October, you can self-issue a permit at every entry point. This makes it cheaper (free), and it allows you to vary the route without worrying about leaving the BWCA. For example, on our trip, we went into Ely for three days to meet with Pagami Creek Forest Fire fighters, do the Wilderness Classroom computer work, hang out with friends and check out the town. We also were able to stay at Gunflint Pines campground and eat a burger at the Gunflint Lodge, and we were able to detour into Trail Center for a burger without having to worry about meeting the quota system and getting a new permit. It also allowed us to go from Bearskin to Clearwater via a road portage, which let us visit Pine Lake and the scenic Johnson Falls.
The Boundary Waters Border Route is THE classic route in the BWCA, and I highly recommend that you put it on your paddling bucket list. It’s by far one of the best two-week trips in North America.
Maps and Logistics
If you’ve never been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, check out my Boundary Waters Primer.
For the Boundary Waters Border Route, I highly recommend National Geographic’s BWCA maps (See my National Geographic BWCA Map Review). The one problem with the NG maps is that the border is shaded, which makes it less-than-ideal but adequate for navigation. If you use the NG maps, you only need two maps, which saves you up to 2.2 lbs. in maps! Plus, if you go off route, you have maps that cover the entire BWCA.
Get yours here:
- Trails Illustrated (National Geographic) Map Of The BWCA – Eastern Half
- Trails Illustrated (National Geographic) Map Of The BWCA – Western Half
If you want more detail in maps, get the excellent Voyageur Maps:
View Oct 2011 BWCA in a larger map