Late Summer Exploring Near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
One old man's coming of age tale told by fat bike and canoe in a treasured Midwest region
Canon 5D Mk III
Mention the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) anywhere in the Midwest and you’re sure to hear a tale delivered with a heavy dose of nostalgia. Seems like every Minnesotan and Wisconsonite male grew up paddling and portaging the crystal clear lakes that border Minnesota and Canada. The place breeds legendary woodsy memories.
I’m not from the Midwest, so I have no such childhood tales. But, I did take a trip to the area earlier this summer to get in on the fun. A buddy of mine had invited me to visit his new cabin (on an island!) near the wilderness to canoe and bike the area on fat bikes. Invite accepted!
Roughly four hours drive north of Minneapolis lies Ely, MN, a rustic northern town perched on the edge of some of the nation’s most pristine wilderness. President Jimmy Carter signed the BWCA Wilderness Act into effect in 1978, effectively banning logging, mining and all motorized vehicles in an area spanning roughly 1 million acres. So yeah, you could say it’s pretty special there.
Mostly known for canoeing and fishing trips, Ely is hardly a hot spot for cycling—in fact, it’s forbidden. Because of this, we surely saw more float planes than bikes. The trails, where you can find them, are either wild and overgrown or basically a dirt road. That said, we had some local intel on an area near the wilderness that word was could be fun for a low impact pedal, so a canoe-powered covert mission was set in motion.
With bikes leaned and bungeed together between each paddler, we shoved off in vintage wooden canoes from said friend’s cabin to certain adventure! A six mile paddle across open lake and up a slow-moving river brought us to our spot.
We gobbled a quick lunch and stood on pedals, excited to finally rest those paddling muscles and feel some speed! But the speed didn’t last long. A sizable windstorm a few weeks prior had knocked over trees down all over the area. The trail—vague as it was already—was also choked with blowdowns. Our ride quickly became a hike-a-bike. But when we rode—man, was it awesome!
Short rocky climbs turned to descents that crossed creeks and passed through swamps of black mud. Deeper in the woods we saw evidence of past forest fires—black trunks lying on the ground, their branches leaving black stripes on our legs as we fought through the choked trail. After snow, this type of riding was what the fat bike was designed for. Constant obstacles of fallen trees, flooded trail, and rocks kept us out of the saddle mashing—ever fighting our way deeper into the woods.
In all, I think we paddled further than we rode, but it was fantastic nonetheless. We had the forest to ourselves. And when we emerged, sweaty, blackened and bruised, the cool lake washed it all away. On the paddle back, we dipped our drinking water right from the lake.
Back at the cabin, we grabbed towels and beers and headed to the nearest jumping rock to goof off and watch the sun set. In the end, I got my personal tale of the BWCA. And though it isn’t that classic coming-of-age teenage adventure, but I’ll retell it fondly to anyone who’ll listen.