Paddling the Boundary Waters of Minnesota

John Leader
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This past April it finally hit me that I was about to graduate college. For my final few months in university, I'd been spending all my time with close friends and hiking in the mountains that surround Boone, North Carolina and had not given my post-college prospects much thought. Becoming frantic to find something that was both productive and would keep me out of an office, I scoured the internet searching for a position that would satisfy my urge to be outdoors and active, a type of restlessness that had been burning inside me ever since my friend Ry and I thought we'd figured it all out while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail the summer prior.

John Leader

It finally set in that it was not the time for me to pursue my romantic goal of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and most of those around me had secured jobs or internships for the summer or following fall. My saving grace was where I immediately began to send out applications for different positions within the National Park Service and Forest Service. Drunk on the idea of being a wilderness ranger in one of America’s natural cathedrals, I stumbled upon an opening in the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness , the BWCAW, located in northern Minnesota along the United States and Canadian border and east of Lake Superior. Admittedly, I had never heard of the Boundary Waters and had never paid much mind to the states that existed between my home state of Tennessee and the Rocky Mountain Range out west. However, the idea of traveling through a completely unknown, one million acre wilderness area via canoe seemed like a perfect way to spend my first summer after college.

John Leader

Within a few days of submitting my application I received a call back, and within the week I accepted a position working with wilderness rangers in Superior National Forest and the BWCAW. Immediately, I began to actually educate myself on the area I had just committed myself to for the upcoming season. I learned that all the lakes that make up the Boundary Waters were formed from glacial retreat, and have been inhabited since prehistoric times by native peoples; throughout the area there are even pictographs along rocks and cliff faces. The Boundary Waters has seen so much human contact throughout history that most of the portages- the trails that create an inter-lake highway- are the result of early use by Native Americans and fur traders.

John Leader

Despite its use during prehistoric times and the designated campsites equipped with a fire grate and latrine, it is very easy to feel isolated and experience true wilderness in the Boundary Waters. Whilst paddling through the maze of lakes surrounded by beautiful boreal forests of pines, birch, balsam, spruce, and cedar trees it is common to see numerous bald eagles, loons, and moose. If you paddle early, quietly through dusk or dawn, you can also see black bears, timber wolves, and the ghostly Canadian lynx.

John Leader

Traveling through the backcountry via canoe, rather than backpacking, allows you to have the ultimate wilderness experience. Having been a backpacker, it has taken a little time for me to become accustomed to the bulky Duluth packs, the ability to have fresh produce with nearly every meal for a week, the more intensive upper body workout of using a paddle, and shoreline based map reading. If you are like me and had never heard of the Boundary Waters, or do not have any experience with canoeing, the BWCAW is a must see wilderness, that despite its hordes of biting mosquitoes and black flies, is a place that is very easy to fall in love with.

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