The most popular time
to travel in the Boundary Waters is during the open water seasons from
early May until late October. In a typical year the ice breaks up on large
lakes in early May, and by late October it has already returned to the
smaller lakes. In theory the canoeing season extends from ice-out to ice-in.
In reality most canoeists limit their travel to the middle of May until
the end of September.
There is no "best" time to canoe the Boundary Waters. If you
go in early May you may be the first human visitor many lakes and portages
have seen in at least six months. Portages tend to get plenty of winter
use by deer, wolf, and moose, and you are likely to see signs of their
activities -- everything from abundant wolf droppings to perhaps the sparse
remains of a deer or moose killed by wolves. You will also encounter more
than your share of down trees along portages that obstruct your trail
until you can find a way around, under, or over the downfalls. If spring
comes late you might experience iced over lakes even in the middle of
May, and measurable snow is possible all month.
The second half of
May is also relatively quiet, but attracts people fishing for lake trout,
northern pike, and walleye. Some of the best fishing in the Boundary Waters
is from the mid-May fishing opener through June. This is a particularly
good time to seek lake trout, and waters with established "laker"
populations can be quite popular soon after the opener, even lakes relatively
deep into the interior of the BWCAW. You are also likely to be treated
to the distant drumming sound of ruffed grouse seeking mates.
Although use of motorboats
is limited in the Boundary Waters, the majority of all motor permits are
issued in May and June, no doubt a correlation to fishing activities.
In most years, by August motorboat use is a third of what it was in May.
Many visitors to the Boundary Waters want to avoid lakes where motorized
boats are allowed. Fortunately, even motorized lakes are far quieter than
most Minnesota lakes because no jet skis and ski boats rule these wilderness
waters. If you are one of the many visitors to the BWCAW who wants to
completely avoid motorboats, then you should restrict your travels to
those lakes that do not allow motors. Whether or not a lake allows motorboats
is described throughout this guide.
Memorial Day weekend and June first marks the start of the busiest paddling
season in the Boundary Waters, and the activity continues through the
Labor Day weekend at the beginning of September. These three months account
for over 75 percent of the travelers that enter the Boundary Waters each
year. June provides the best chance to see young loons, moose calves,
and deer fawns. It is also a time during which many wildflowers are in
bloom, including wild iris and the pink lady slipper orchid. If you intend
to go swimming the lake water is still quite cold, and you will have to
be hardy to brave the depths. Air temperatures rise throughout the month,
with average lows in the 40’s and highs in the 60’s.
In early to mid June
black flies come out in droves, typically for a two week period that can
be a bit earlier or later depending upon whether spring came early or
late. These small flies swarm around your head, biting exposed skin and
causing an extreme nuisance when they are at their worst. Having a bug
net to cover your head along is definitely recommended during black fly
season. Most outfitters sell them.
While on the topic of insects, bring along plenty of insect repellent
and dress properly to ensure the best protection. I always bring a repellent
with low levels of DEET in it, which is a very effective ingredient for
keeping mosquitoes at bay. Most efficacy tests I have seen show that you
don't need pure DEET, which should be used somewhat sparingly due to concerns
over safety from overexposure. You should also bring a long sleeve shirt
and paints to wear when the bugs are biting, especially at dawn and dusk.
Light colored clothing is also recommended.
You should also be
aware of lyme disease, which is caused by the corkscrew-shaped bacterium
Borrelia burgdorferi. The bacteria are transmitted through the bite of
deer ticks, which are tiny ticks just a couple millimeters wide, making
them much smaller than the common woodtick that is closer to the size
of a flat match head. Lyme disease can cause serious problems involving
the heart, joints, eyes, and nervous system. According to the CDC, common
symptoms of lyme disease are a "bull's-eye" rash with a dark
red center and lighter exterior, accompanied by nonspecific symptoms such
as fever, malaise, fatigue, headache, muscle aches and joint aches. You
should consult a healthcare professional if these symptoms develop, although
to date the level of lyme disease appears to have been relatively low
in the BWCAW.
By July the lakes have usually warmed and the fishing cooled. Summer is
in full swing, and you might see loons and mergansers fishing with their
newly expanded families. Don’t be surprised to find thick swarms
of mosquitoes ready for your arrival. With a bit of planning you will
be able to avoid most of their annoying bites. The days are long, and
temperatures typically range from the 50’s to 80’s. In both
June and July temperatures can drop to the 40's and 50's, as well as hit
the 90’s, so be prepared for temperature swings.
By August the days have shortened significantly, but are still plenty
long and the lakes reach their warmest temperatures of the year. The first
two weeks of August are historically the most heavily traveled in the
Boundary Waters. Air temperatures are just a tad cooler than July, still
in the range of the 50’s to 80’s. If you are lucky, you will
happen upon a blueberry patch (and won't have to share it with a bear).
The mosquito population drops throughout August, and is usually very manageable
without repellant by Labor Day (but bring some to be safe). August and
September are prime seasons for amateur mycologists seeking edible mushrooms,
as long as there has been adequate rainfall (but don't eat anything you're
not absolutely certain is safe).
In September the number of human visitors drops, and many of the animals
that head south for the winter start their journeys. Loons flock together
to fly to their winter homes on the Gulf Coast. Moose begin a loud and
active dating game, and you might hear their bellowing from up to a mile
away. The forests begin a subtle, yet magnificent, color change: aspen
and tamarack turn golden yellow, while the occasional maple lights up
the shoreline in brilliant red. The time for maximum foliage color can
vary across the Boundary Waters from west to east, but generally the peak
color is observed around the last 10 days of September through the first
week of October.
From October until November's arrival of complete ice-in deciduous trees
lose their leaves, abandoning the pines, spruce, and firs to reign over
the woods. During this time the greatest solitude is found by canoeists,
as well as the shortest days and coldest winds. This is absolutely not
a time for the unprepared or inexperienced to venture into canoe country,
but is a wonderful change of pace for the experienced Boundary Waters
traveler who can handle potentially winter-like conditions.