If you’re an avid canoer, you could choose a worse location than the land of 10,000 lakes.
Well, it’s called the land of 10,000 lakes, but the truth is there are 11,842 lakes over ten acres in size.
Minnesota has over ten million acres of protected wilderness. State and National Forests checker the map, connected by thousands of miles of waterways.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota is one of the most visited, yet least known, nature getaways in the country, while also one of the world’s premier canoeing and fishing destinations.
Pristine wilderness, endless destinations and breathtaking scenery abound in Minnesota. Some of the oldest and most sweeping national protections, as well as the states naturally rugged and isolating geography, have left some of the United States last true untouched natural grandeur.
From the sweeping planes in the west to the northern “Big Forest”, there is nowhere better for paddling. Whether you’re looking for a casual day out with the family or an epic whitewater ride, we set out to find the best canoeing experiences the North Star State has to offer.
Before you hit the water, a word of caution.
Very few of Minnesota’s wild animals are dangerous to humans. Though there is a massive array of fauna, including river otters and swans, larger animals like grizzly bears live further west. The list of deadliest animals in the state includes deer and bees.
That is absolutely not to say, however, that setting out into the wilds of Minnesota is 100 percent safe. Quite the contrary. With such a vast amount of protected wilderness there is a very small chance of being found if you wander off the beaten path, and, well, canoes aren’t particularly great for staying on beaten paths.
Especially if you’re traversing a lake between waterways or finding somewhere to pull off and camp for the night, there is always a chance of getting blown off course or getting hit with unexpected weather.
Canoeing Minnesota can be one of the most laid back and enjoyable days or weekends you ever have, but a cold snap or sudden storm can leave you stranded with no supplies and no way home.
The most important areas to consider before you set off are:
Registering with the forest service
If you’re planning a day trip on well regulated and maintained rivers like one of Minnesota’s 35 state water trails or you’re just taking the kids around the lake by your vacation rental, it may be a bit much to go so far as to register with the National Forest Service.
You don’t even need a license for canoes under ten feet and, frankly, if you’re caught without one on a fifteen footer, you’ll probably just get a warning if anything. The license is only ten bucks.
However, if you’re planning on going off-book and charting your own path through one of Minnesota’s state forests…yes. Register with the forest service. It doesn’t cost anything at all to call in a weekend itinerary and set up a check in time.
That way, if you went down the wrong channel or a flash storm sunk your canoe thirty miles from the nearest outpost, the Forest Service will send out a rescue patrol to find you when you don’t check in.
Just make sure to actually check in when you finish. They really don’t like sending out search and rescue for someone that’s already back at the hotel.
Minnesota park guidelines
State Parks and Forests are a wonderful resource for canoeing Minnesota, and a large portion of your options will fall into their jurisdiction. Minnesota has notoriously stringent protocols and guidelines for visiting their protected wildernesses, and the rangers will have no qualms kicking you out of the park or arresting you if you don’t follow them. Actionable offenses include:
Lighting large fires without proper permits
Being destructive or disorderly.
Drinking too much
Fishing without a license.
Poaching. Do not do that. There are plenty of hunting grounds in the state. Go there.
Illegal activity. It’s still illegal in the woods.
For a complete list of rules www.dnr.state.mn.us.
Canoeing Minnesota in the cold season
Minnesota wilderness is absolutely gorgeous year round, but the winter months definitely add an edge to nature outings that the spring and summer don’t have.
Notoriously unpredictable weather and fierce winds can make a sunny november day into a dangerous, freezing ordeal.
So when canoeing between summer and spring, especially someplace isolated, take these measures.
Warm clothes (jacket, gloves, hat, etc.).
Emergency Heat Blankets.
An emergency radio.
A hammer or hatchet in case of freezing waters.
dry clothes in a waterproof container.
If you start a campfire, make sure that you have enough fuel to keep it burning through the night. It sounds scary, yes, but it’s a very unlikely scenario that anything will happen to you if you come prepared.
Minnesota alcohol restrictions
While Minnesota doesn’t have any heavy restrictions on drinking as long as you’re 21 and don’t litter or become a nuisance to other nature lovers, we definitely have to urge against canoeing intoxicated. It’s just dangerous.
The very essence of traveling in unrestricted wilderness is the element of unpredictability and self reliance, and you’re not going to be particularly great at building a fire with wet wood or re-navigating a river too swollen to get through safely if you’re in the bag. Please be responsible.
The Best Canoeing in Minnesota.
We picked some choice locations from all around Minnesota, all of which are worth visiting. The diverse geology and endless choices make it impossible to pick one canoeing experience, but we went out of our way to find what we considered the most memorable.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Located within the Superior National Forest in Northeast Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is over 1,000,000 acres of primitive forests, glacial lakes and rivers. Stretching along the Canadian border and running along Lake Superior, the BWCAW is the largest remaining uncut forest in the eastern United States.
The National Bird Conservancy has named the BWCAW as a globally important bird habitat, and it’s very common to see birds ranging from loons and swans to bald eagles and peregrine falcons, as well as moose, beaver, otters, deer and otter.
Native Americans inhabited this area as far back as 8000 B.C., and as a protected old growth forest you’ll see the world they lived in almost exactly as they did minus a mammoth cave bear or two.
Permits are required for overnight stays, but the large number of primitive campsites dotted throughout the wilderness give an almost limitless number of possible travel routes.
Though thousands of visitors come to the BWCAW every year, it remains one of the few places in the country so vast that you might be able to paddle in, spend the day exploring and fishing, pull up at a campsite, stay for the night and paddle out without encountering another person. Just you and the echoes of the past.
Voyageurs National Park
To the west of the BWCAW lies another gem or the northern border. Voyageurs National park is named after the trappers and fur traders that traveled through the areas during the french colonization of the area.
It sits on a geographical area known as The Canadian Shield, an ancient petrified lava field with some of the oldest rocks on the plant, between 1 and 3 billion years old. This makes for some of the states most unique natural formations, from high plateaus to cascading river steppes.
The central focus of the park is the Kabetogama Peninsula, essentially and island surrounded by the three major lakes that make up the parks borders. Not having any roads accessing the peninsula, it is only visitable by water and as such has become a de facto nature preserve, as there is no hunting in the park and very few humans take the time to venture through the fifty miles of hiking trails it offers.
This is somewhere to see nature unbothered by civilization and untouched by deforestation and hunting.
The Headwaters at Lake Itasca
In northern central Minnesota there is a small lake, roughly 2 miles in area. It’s quite lovely. Lake Itasca is especially noteworthy for being one of the few places that show examples of the three great North American Habitats:
The Deciduous Forest of the south, the Coniferous Northern Forests, and the Great Western Plains. It truly is a sight to behold, these epic staples of America all brought together around a small isolated lake.
What makes this particular lake good for canoeing, however, has less to do with the land around it than what the water itself leads into. You see, Lake Itasca is the beginning headwaters of the great Mississippi River.
From this humble seat springs the lifeblood of the nation, and it travels 2,300 miles across the continent to the Gulf of Mexico. There is a kinetic feeling to looking down the river leading away from Lake Itasca, a kind of magnetic draw pulling you southward. A little call to adventure in your ear, urging you to take the current as far as it will take you.
Well, we wouldn’t be doing the thrill seekers reading this any justice if we didn’t mention our favorite whitewater experience of Minnesota.
With a name like Devil Track, you can be pretty sure you’re in for some challenging breakers. A five mile run that takes you through multiple hefty drops and into a long, scenic canyon before throwing you out suddenly onto the serene shores of Lake Superior.
Depending on how you take it, Devil Track has been rated from a level 2 difficulty to a level 5, so even less experienced whitewater canoers can give it a shot. A word of warning though- if you don’t have a guide that knows their course already, the level 2 you’re shooting for can turn into a level 5 without you even knowing.
Be prepared and hire a guide, because you really don’t want to go over the final pitch (nicknamed “The Admiral”) without knowing what you’re getting yourself into.
The Minnesota River
We would be remiss in our duties when speaking of canoeing Minnesota without mentioning its namesake: The Minnesota River.
Named “The River of Cloud Tinted Water” by the native Dakota, the Minnesota travels a 318 mile course along a path carved out by a glacier some 11,000 years ago. Bisecting the southwestern quarter of the state, the blue-green river snakes its way through granite cliffs, pine forests and beautiful wetland marshes.
While perhaps not the most exciting trip, you could spend a week or more traveling the river end to end, stopping at the many campsites along the way and replenishing food and water at available rest stops. If you’re looking for a good way to get away from it all and clear your head, nothing beats this all American excursion.
Tips to make trip more fun
Pack Your Canoe Close to Water
If you have a heavy canoe, you can’t carry it to the launching point. That’s why it is crucial to pack it close to the water. Experts recommend putting lighter items in the front and back of the boat. At the same time, you have to pack heavy items at the center of the boat.
Make sure you pack everything securely so that the items do not move or shift while you are canoeing. We recommend you to pack your things tightly under the seat to avoid them from shifting once you are on the water.
Decide a Bowman
A canoe is usually run by two canoers. One is the bowman and the other one is the sternman. The bowman will sit in the front and the sternman will sit in the back of the boat. It is up to you and your partner to decide who will sit in the front and the back. Typically, the bowman is the guide who instructs the sternman to steer the canoe in the right direction.
The bowman performs a kind of surveillance duty and alerts the sternman of any obstacles in the river or stream so that he or she can steer the canoe around them. Otherwise, obstacles such as stones, wood, or any other object will damage the boat. Likewise, if you are a sternman, you will guide your bowman on switching sides with the paddle.
Wear Your PFD
As mentioned earlier, it is essential to wear your personal flotation device. In simple words, it is a lifejacket that you need to wear for safety purposes. Research shows that many canoers have lost their lives wearing an inappropriate life jacket. Therefore, it is crucial to wear a lifejacket approved by the U.S Coastal Guard.
Your lifejacket must fit you properly. When you wear it, it should feel snug and comfortable. If your lifejacket is not comfortable, you will feel irritated and thus won’t enjoy the activity. If you are canoeing with a child, make sure you purchase one specifically designed for kids. In general, we don’t recommend canoe with children.
Secure Your Canoe Before You Get in
Before you get into the canoe and start canoeing, tie both ends of the boat to the dock. For this, you have to use a strong rope that can securely hold the canoe. Beginners need to carry out the process carefully because things can go wrong.
If you are about to launch your canoe off the shoreline, ask your partner to hold the boat so that you can get into the canoe safely. Remember, your safety is very important and you have to take steps accordingly.
While getting into the canoe, it is wise to bend your knees so that you can properly grab onto the side of the boat. Make sure your place one of your legs into the center while grabbing the far side of the canoe with your hand.
Once you have grabbed the canoe and properly placed your leg in the center, it is time to bring your other leg into the boat. If you are a sternman, you must sit in the back of the boat. On the other hand, if you are a bowman, you will sit on the bench at the canoe’s front.
Hold the Paddle Properly
Your inside hand should be on top of the paddle. Make sure you position your other hand around 2 to 3 feet down from the top of the paddle. For instance, if you are paddling on the right side of the canoe, your left hand is the inside hand.
It means you will hold the top side of the paddle with your left hand and your right hand will stay on the lower part of the paddle. Holding the paddle properly is essential to canoeing accurately in the water.
Once you have secured the paddle with your hands, put the paddle into the water. Make sure the end of the paddle is in front of you. Otherwise, you would stand up from your seat to adjust the paddle. If you are paddling on the right side of the boat, you would put the paddle into the water and ensure that it stays in front of you.
Move the Paddle Smoothly
Canoeing requires you to move the paddle properly. Experts recommend that beginners should move it in a smooth and sweeping motion. Remember, you must keep the end of the paddle under the water to achieve smooth, sweeping movements. Use your top hand to push the paddle in the water and your bottom hand to pull back the paddle.
Moving your hands properly to push the paddle forward and pull it backward will move your canoe in the water. Keep in mind that you can’t go back further when the paddle is behind you.
In simple words, it is difficult to move the paddle underwater when it is backward. That’s why you have to lift the paddle out of the water and insert it again in the water in a gentle manner. Repeat the push and pull process to move your boat forward.
Remember, the bowman and sternman must paddle on the opposite side of the boat. For example, if your partner is paddling on the right side, you will push and pull your paddle on the left side of the canoe in the water.
The purpose of paddling on the opposite side is to maintain a steady course and avoid your boat from moving in circles. Again, if you are a bowman and your partner is a sternman, you should paddle either to the right side or left side and your partner in the opposite direction respectively.
You must do paddling in synchronization with your partner to balance the boat in the water. Keep in mind that the bowman and sternman’s paddles should go in and out of the water at the same time. Although it requires both of you to get training, you can master these moves by practicing it regularly.
If you are a bowman, it is your responsibility to set the pace. Likewise, if you are a sternman, you are responsible for adjusting the paddle. As a sternman, you must match your paddle movement with that of the bowman’s paddle.
Moreover, steering the canoe requires you to use a “J” stroke. Generally, a “J” stroke refers to a small backward stroke, which is used through the water to steer the canoe. For example, if you want the boat to steer or go right, you (as a sternman) should perform a “J” stroke on the right side of the boat.
In contrast, you are required to do a “J” stroke on the right side of the boat to make it go right. If you want to steer the canoe correctly, it is essential to make a large “J” stroke. Doing it the right way will give you a smooth canoeing experience.
Steer towards the shore for landing
Once you have enjoyed canoeing and want to land, tell your partner that it is time to move towards the shore. In this regard, you should steer the boat and make the front side of the boat pointing at the shoreline.
On the other hand, landing at the dock requires you to turn your boat properly and make it parallel with the side of the dock. As you approach the dock, you must slow down paddling so that you can land safely at the dock.
When you get close to the shore, land the boat gently on the shore. While landing your canoe on the shore, your canoe’s front should go up onto the land. At the same time, the backside of your boat should stay in the water.
In contrast, if you want to land at the dock, steer your canoe in such a manner that you get close to the side of the dock. In this regard, you and your partner should work collaboratively and ensure your canoe lands parallel with the side of the dock.
Don’t get out until have secured your canoe on the shore or at the dock. To do this, use a rope to tie the front and back ends of your canoe to the dock. Moreover, if you are landing on the shore, it is essential to ask your partner (bowman) to hold the boat steady. Remember, both of you should decide who will get out of the canoe first. Don’t get out together because it is unsafe.
Canoeing Minnesota is an adventure
Minnesota is beautiful in ways that we couldn’t begin to describe. The majesty of nature surrounds you at every turn. The Old Growth Forests, the endless languishing rivers, the thousands upon thousands of lakes teeming with life, the unique and ancient rock formations, the valleys and streams carved by glaciers millenia ago.
The very breath of history swirls about in the water with your every paddle.
Very rarely in life do we get to commune with the Earth the way that ancients did, breathing and appreciating the wonders of untouched nature.
Don’t miss out on your chance. Minnesota is waiting for you!