Finding Solitude in the BWCAW

Though the Boundary Waters is the most visited wilderness area in the United States, it’s refreshingly empty compared to most national or state parks and seldom feels crowded. For many, the occasional encounter with another group is no big deal.

But all of us dream about wilderness solitude at some point in our outdoor career: the cry of loons at sunset, unbroken vistas of pine trees and shoreline, and a lake unoccupied by anyone but yourself. Peace and quiet, broken only by the occasional wave on the rocks or your canoe partner gathering wood behind you. It’s part of the mesmerization of a canoe trip and what makes the Boundary Waters such a memorable place.

For the truly adventurous soul willing to put forth the effort, spectacular solitude can still be found in the wilderness. Here are a few tips to help you discover it. 

1. Go early or late in the season

The great majority of the BWCAW’s traffic is concentrated in June, July, and August. Consequently, spring and fall offer a great opportunity to find more solitude in the BWCAW. Spring offers some of the highest water levels of the year, making early season a favorable time to explore river routes that see few other paddlers. Besides fishing opener, spring trips are seldom crowded. The same is true for the fall season. By the middle of September, the crowds have diminished significantly, and decrease even further as the season progresses. Of course, part of the solitude is owing to the colder and less-predictable weather, but spring and fall are great times to find peace and quiet in the BWCAW. 

2. Explore Primitive Management Areas in the Boundary Waters

One of the Forest Service’s greatest-kept secrets is the Primitive Management Area. Unadvertised to the general public, a Primitive Management Area is wilderness in its purest form - no portages, no campsites, and little interference with the outside world. The Forest Service requires a special permit to camp in a PMA. Though multiple groups can camp in a PMA at a time, only one group can camp in each subzone. 

However, most PMAs have been set aside for reasons beyond preserving the wilderness: they often have few features that are easy to navigate. Swamps and shallow lakes are frequent, large bodies of water with significant depth are rare, and the woods are thick and unforgiving. Without portages, any travel in a PMA is by creek (often swampy and ridden by beaver dams) or cross-country bushwack. Travelers will have to find their own campsite, on a durable surface, away from the lake, following Leave No Trace practices to their highest degree. PMAs are not for the faint of heart. If you venture into one and find solitude, you’ve certainly earned it. Most will not be jealous of the work you’ve put in. 

For those who appreciate all styles of canoe country landscape and seek true solitude and wilderness immersion, PMAs may be a dream come true. 

[Note: please respect the seriousness of a trip into a PMA. PMAs require significantly more skill, experience, and effort than standard BWCAW routes. Get plenty of experience on the traveled routes, and then venture into the PMAs. And please follow Leave No Trace ethics and camping practices to the highest degree; wilderness is fragile.]

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