Boundary Waters Canoe Trips
from your Ely Outfitters



Seven lakes down, 9,993 left to paddle
by Joanna Walters.

The best way to see black bears and bald eagles in the wilds of Minnesota is by canoe, even if you have to carry it between lakes

Imagine hiking with a dining table on your head. That’s a little what carrying a canoe above you feels like on a lake-hopping expedition. The state of Minnesota’s motto is “land of 10,000 lakes”, and when you take a glance at a map of its northeastern wilderness area it looks as if it has been hit with paint guns spattering only two colours across thousands of square miles — blue and green.

The last town up there before you hit Canada is a lovely, rustic old lumberjack and outdoorsman place called Ely. It has become a real draw for canoeists heading off into the untamed yonder with nothing but a canoe on their shoulders and a tent on their back.

The road literally stops in Ely. After that there is nothing but lakes and forests abundant with moose, bear, wolves, beavers, otters and eagles, stretching way up into Ontario. We had flown into Minneapolis, driven to the shores of Lake Superior and turned left until the roads became smaller and smaller, the woods ever thicker, and five hours later we reached Ely.

From here the unique, oddly-named Boundary Waters region stretches north, with no roads, buildings or motor boats allowed in the 3,000 square miles that straddle the US and Canadian borders and feature 2,000 lakes scraped out by ancient glaciers. The only way to navigate is by paddling a canoe and lugging it on narrow paths between the lakes — known as portages. And the only signs of humankind are primitive rock paintings and a strictly controlled number of canoeists.

My fellow paddler, Lisa, and I walked up Ely’s main street, past bakeries and fishing shops (Babe’s Bait — leeches by the pound!) to the canoe outfitters. They had everything we needed to rent for our four-day backwoods adventure, including a six-metre canoe and, equally as important, our guide, Aaron. It was reassuring that he is built like a barn door with hands that could crush a coconut, but with a twinkly smile behind his gargantuan ginger beard.

Our first day out had its little triumphs and tragedies. The big thrill was finding that I could carry the two-seater canoe by myself if I had a hand to hoist it up. Fortunately, they are made of Kevlar these days, not tree trunks.

My test was an infamous half-mile path connecting the first two lakes we crossed, bypassing treacherous rapids and twisting its way over steep, slippery rock that Aaron nicknamed the Ankle Buster. When I reached the end of that — muddy and gasping, but ankles and canoe intact — and Lisa arrived carrying not one but two of our four packs of gear in one go, Aaron declared us ready for what the locals simply call Canoe Country. We went back for the other packs and he followed with his single canoe.

It was raining stair rods, which made the first sheltered little lake poignantly beautiful with its spruce, pine, fir and birch trees all around. But the second, huge lake was windswept and choppy, and as Lisa and I paddled hard to make headway, the canoe felt unstable and it became clear that we hadn’t packed our gear very evenly between the seats. Sure enough, we rounded a point and were struck broadside by a strong gust and capsized, dumped right into the water with barely time to yelp. Thank goodness for our lifejackets and gear packs designed to float.

There ensued much frantic swimming to the rocky point, pushing the upturned canoe, relaunching it with Aaron’s help and demon-paddling through the tempest to the camping spot marked on our map, where we dragged ourselves ashore like sopping wet, shivering dogs.

Aaron was a hero, erecting tents in the squall with bionic speed and scouting enough dry wood and moss from thick undergrowth to get a fire and brew going. I then discovered that I hadn’t closed my waterproof pack liner properly and all my clothes for four days were soaked. That day was quite a learning curve. This may be some people’s last idea of a holiday.

But fortunes turn on a dime in the great outdoors. When the storm suddenly passed and the sun came out to warm our bones and start drying my stuff, we sat with cups of tea, watching the now-calm, blue lake and were simply ecstatic. Aaron stoked the fire, got some steaks on and we cracked open some beers (plastic bottles - a specialty in Ely as they don't allow cans or glass in the BWCAW). As darkness fell, the native loon diving birds wailed their eerie cry across the miles of still water.

Morning dawned bright and a bald eagle hovered near our camp. We paddled the canoes past wooded islands worthy of Swallows and Amazons, then hopped over to the next lake, where Aaron went fishing for supper. Lisa and I canoed up a sparkling creek called Horse River, bypassing more rapids by lugging the canoe until we reached a beaver dam.

Thrillingly, the resident pair of beavers were both swimming near their home, carrying branches in their bucked teeth. The moose and otters remained elusive, but turtles and kingfishers were frequent companions.

On the most epic day, we navigated four lakes and crossed the Canadian border next to a thundering waterfall with rainbows dancing in its sunlit spray, following Aaron’s instructions to paddle wide and fast to avoid being sucked over the falls. Our mission was to reach a set of rock paintings, or pictographs, and they were worth the nine-hour paddling trip when we found them on sheer granite cliffs visible only from the water.

Half a century old or more — no one knows exactly — these red-ochre shapes of people in canoes, hunters, birds and moose were enchantingly evocative of the wilderness spirit. We arrived at camp by moonlight, exhausted, the smoky mist curling silently over the water.

Those with time and stamina explore the backwoods like this for weeks, even in winter, skiing or snowshoeing across the frozen lakes while wolf-spotting. We had to return to the madding crowd all too soon, but at least let ourselves down gently with a few days in Ely.

This tiny town was built on the fur, iron and timber trades and now mixes old homesteader families, miners, adventurers, downshifters, artists and canoe fanatics in a funky blend. Most of them run across each other in the main-street restaurant that doubles as grub and gossip central, the Chocolate Moose.

Its wild rice-crusted fish steaks and home-made fresh fruit pies were exactly what two tired paddlers needed. Followed, naturally, by a trip to neat little Pebble Spa across the road, where they have even designed The Portage Massage for weary canoeists. I apologised for the scrapes, bruises and mosquito bites decorating my limbs, but the masseusse — who turned out to be Aaron’s wife, Kelly — said: “Oh, that’s nothing, we often end up picking wood ticks out of people’s backs.”

We enjoyed final doses of wildlife by staying in a cabin on a quiet lake where ospreys were feeding their young in the nest and a loon swam by with her babies on her back. A black bear even ambled across the road nearby.

We had explored seven wonderful lakes by the time we had to leave, but that’s another reason to go back. Not only have I yet to glimpse a moose, but there are 9,993 lakes left to explore.

Need to know
Getting there 
Delta Air Lines (0845 600 0950, flies between Heathrow and Minneapolis from £459 return.

Where to stay 
Tofte Lake Centre (001 218 365 7769, at Norm’s Fish Camp has lakeside cabins for rent from £263 a week and rustic cabins from £360. A Stay Inn Ely B&B (001 218 365 6010, has rooms from £65 a night.

More information 
Enterprise Rent-A-Car (0800 800227, has one-week economy car rental from Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport from £135. Piragis Northwoods Company rents canoes, paddles and lifejackets from £26; full outfitting (canoe plus all camping gear and food) from £65pp; guide service £130.

Our Outfitting Staff is on hand to answer any questions about the Boundary Waters (BWCA) that you may have. We can reserve your permit for you and help you plan your trip. Please feel free to call us toll free at 1-800-223-6565 at your convenience.

  • Customer Service and Gear that Cannot be Matched (Scroll down to see Testimonials Below)
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  • One-Stop-Shop -- We can supply everything you need: From advice to a canoe and permit for one day to a fully outfitted 2 week canoe trip with excellent food.
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    Call Drew Brockett or Adam Macht 1-800-223-6565 today and they can begin planning your Canoe Country Adventure. Click here for our online Outfitting Brochure.

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Testimonials from Canoe Trip Clients:

I have used Piragis on both of my BWCAW trips in the past and was absolutely treated marvelously by Bert Heep and all of your crew there, in Ely. Piragis has always treated me better than any other outfitter that I have ever used, in the United States.  I just wish you had a store down here.  If Bert Heep still works there, please tell him that Jody Miller said hello.  He may not remember me but he has always been very helpful.
Thanks, Jody Miller

Your assistance with the permit and outfitting was exactly what I had hoped for – Phil Bradbury
We want to thank you for the fabulous service we received.  Your staff was knowledgeable, courteous, and extremely helpful.  We will definitely recommend Piragis to our friends. – Grant Martell
The Autumn Colors trip was great! – Casey Scullin
We had a great time and enjoyed the route and experience a ton. – Matt Ewig
You have a great organization, anytime I’m in your area, you will be the go-to-guys. – Haynes Johnson
I just wanted to express my sincere gratitude to you and the rest of the Piragis family for having a large part in this very refreshing time in the wilderness. – Jim Stotser
Thanks for a wonderful trip! – Sandy Darlington
We are really pleased with how everyone enjoys helping us at Piragis. – Dave Roberts
Piragis did a great job outfitting us for our canoe trip.  I wouldn’t change anything. Thanks for a great job.  We like everyone and everything about Piragis. – Janet and Bob Whitmore
The guidance through the booking process you provided and the complete outfitting were absolutely the tops. – Betsy Harris
The equipment was in excellent condition.  The food was great.  The route you sent us on and the campsites you suggested were excellent.  As important as all other factors, the friendly, willing and can do attitude of you and your staff always pleases me to no end.  This factor puts all the other necessities together and over the top.  It is this positive attitude, I believe, that results in a very thorough attention to the small details which results in the camper having a nice time. – Jack Greene
We rented one of your Bell Rob Roy’s.  What a wonderful boat!  The service we received on the phone and in person was pleasant and welcoming. – Mike Elling
Everything went super well.  The food was great, the guide the best, and the equipment was much better than I had expected. – Jean Folsom
I would like to thank everyone at Piragis and let you know that your service was OUTSTANDING!  Your attention to detail, your customer service, and your overall helpfulness made the trip a complete success. – Greg Phillips
We had a terrific time and the equipment from Piragis was in great shape. – Adair Weeks
The equipment was awesome!  We appreciated all your advice and guidance about routes.  Everyone really had a great time. – Jennifer Stewart
The Beaver float plane into Beaverhouse Lake was really an unforgettable ride!  Thank you for your help. – Debbie Mullins
Thanks for helping us experience a wonderful adventure in the Northwoods.  You and your company were exceptional for advice, organization, and moral support.  The quality of your equipment was priceless making the trip easier. – Eric Nelson
You were both informative and courteous at every turn.  Your assistance ensured that my trip was a joy with no unpleasant surprises.  Piragis has met or exceeded all my expectations. – Rusty White
I just wanted to say thank you for help and guidance in planning our first visit to the Boundary Waters.  I find it very pleasing to talk to someone that “really” knows what they’re talking about and shared their knowledge with a stranger without hesitating. – Don Garrett.

Anyway, the new boat is everything that we had expected. Lots of room, extremely stable, tracks very well and really quite maneuverable to be such a large craft. Pat and I were treated like royalty by all of you there at Piragis. Your kindness, assistance, and courtesy will not be forgotten. I appreciated the time that you spent talking with us. Thanks again. I recommend Piragis and you fellows in particular to all that ask me where to go to start a perfect trip.
God Bless you........see you next season.
Paul and Pat

Our guide, Steve Eisenmenger, was incredible. From explaining the history of the BWCA and its people; to teaching us about plant, trees, and animal life; to fishing tips and canoe technique; to teaching how to conduct low impact camping; to instilling in my twelve year old nephew that he "can do this," he made memories for each and every one of us. This trip with Steve reminded me once again the added cost of a guided trip evaporates when compared with the enhancement to the experience.

My nephew Eric...first time to the BWCA, and loved the experience. Age 25--been working out, and lifting weights...Steve nicknamed him the "mule." Steve said everyone should have at least one trip in their lifetime with a "mule." This was mine. Never before seen anyone carry two packs, one front, one back...Oh, to be twenty five again!

We had unbelievable wolf howling on Lac La Croix on Wens. morning...they were right across the bay from our camp. Across the bay. Think of that! I could see the big Alpha Male in my mind as I listened to those howls....I won't ever forget that morning.

And the night before, Steve had us lay on the rocks along the waters edge as he put out the camp fire...we watched satellites race across the sky....satellites crossing above us in the clearest sky I have ever seen.....don't see that where I live, to many city lights!

Cameron caught a fish...Steve cleaned the fish for dinner....few minutes later, a Bald Eagle swooped down in front of us with his talons extended and picked it up, off the rock.....we all stood there with our mouths open! Could not believe what we had just seen, and the camera was sitting on a rock twenty feet away. In hindsight, its more important that we each have it in our memories, rather then on a film card.

Cameron, age 12....was so excited for the entire trip we could hardly hold him back...including when he ran into the mud on a portage. If Cameron thought he could walk on mud, he learned NOT! Steve then taught us how to make a "bridge" with the canoes to get our packs, and each of us, out into open water. Without Steve, we would have surely turned around, looking for another route.

Equipment provide by Piragis was excellent, as usual....everything was new, and worked flawlessly...the staff that assisted us were equally superior....We were in and out in no time at all.

Can't thank you enough for a quality trip. I have done a fair amount of traveling, and thus have some experience in grading performance...Piragis Outfitting is the best. Please advise your entire staff that all of their hard work does not go unnoticed....or unappreciated. Piragis put together a top shelf experience.

See you next year! Mark D. O'Leary

Piragis Northwoods Company
105 North Central Avenue
Ely, Minnesota 55731

Piragis Northwoods Company Outfitting Staff
© copyright2006 Piragis Northwoods Company