Is it possible to visit EVERY lake in the BWCA?

This is one of those funny questions. I don’t know if other major BWCA trip enthusiasts have had to encounter it, but I certainly have. It usually comes from someone that isn’t that familiar with the Boundary Waters who, upon hearing of your adventures and how much time you’ve spent, wonders if you’ve been to every lake yet. Little do they know just how many lakes there are or how many lakes don’t even have portages or trails to get to them. Just take a look at our article from a few weeks back about some of the hardest lakes to visit to get a perspective. Beyond that question built on limited knowledge, the dreamer in me wants to believe it’s possible to visit every named lake in the BWCA. I want the stories, the timeless understanding gained through countless adventures to say that I have been to every one. The realest, however, knows what that means. That means countless days marching through blowdown, burned-out ridges, and bottomless muskeg-laden beaver ponds in search of the unvisited. That means countless trips to repeat areas I have been before to “mop-up” all those moments I was too tired at day’s end to take one more portage for the fun of it. And if everything goes well and through dogged determination I can stay focused on the goal, is it possible to sit in a rocking chair one day and say that I have truly seen every lake that the Boundary Waters has to offer?

The first step in determining the feasibility of such a thing is to determine how many lakes there are to be visited. The number is a fluid one as every source, past and present, classifies the lakes differently. I choose to define it base on lakes which are named which doesn’t include those dubbed “Unnamed Lake.” For my records, I have been using the number 1069 lakes. I do not know that this number is precisely right, but it’s a number to work from. It is a daunting number and seems a little unfathomable when one sits and thinks of the days and weeks spent up until this point to become acquainted with some meager portion. Now, if Verlen Kruger can paddle 100,000 miles in the second half of his life, then undoubtedly a smaller goal like all of the BW is achievable, but what about the “normal” ones of us? What about those of us with steady jobs, families, and lives that don’t allow us a nearly constant existence in the seat of a canoe? Can it be done?

I do not have anyone’s statistics to process except for my own, but some calculations based on my nearly 70 overnight trips and dozens of day trips give some numbers to work on. Adjust these accordingly to your own statistics. In my trip history, I have found that I have visited 5.5 lakes for every night spent in the BWCA (not counting day trips because they skew the numbers.) Of those 5.5, approximately 53 percent are new lakes on any given day or about 2.93 new lakes per day. One would assume that number to decrease over time as fewer and fewer fully “brand new” areas become available. I have not seemingly passed that threshold yet as my annual percentage of new lakes per day has been fluctuating year-to-year, but not dropping yet. It remains to be seen what happens once there are no new entry points to visit. The other working assumption is that there will eventually be no new on-route lakes to visit; thus, all that remains is bushwhacking. At that point, the difficulty per lake goes up substantially. So where does that leave us with the main question? Well, if a person is to spend just one precious night a year in the BWCA, they won’t be visiting every lake. Based on my numbers, that would then take 364 years to complete. Likewise, three nights a year is out of reach at 121 years. Five nights a year does make it possible, albeit improbable, to visit every lake. If one’s parents start them out as soon as they can travel, and they continue visiting for five nights every year, they may eventually visit every lake in 72 years. Hopefully, they do not leave the PMA lakes for the home stretch! 7 nights a year boils it down to 52 years, 10 nights to 36, 14 nights to 26, and 21 nights to 17 years. If a person spent every day searching out new lakes until they accomplished the goal they could, in theory, knock it out in about 13 months of constant travel. As for me, I am fortunate to have an in-my-adult-life average of 21 days per year spent in the BWCA. This boils down to 15.8 excluding a marvelous 49 nights year with a full guide season. At 15.8 nights per year, accounting against the 412 lakes already visited, on a simple statistical analysis it should be possible to polish off the remainder by 2046 at a rate of about 46 new lakes visited a year. But that is simply numbers and figures. As anyone knows, life will only make achieving that number harder, not easier, and eventually only the toughest lakes to get to will be left.

Beyond the statistics, what does actually, practically, visiting every lake look like? For starters, it would mean moving slowly. It would mean being intentional on trips to stop mid-lake to check out the lake just over the ridge. It would mean taking trips into the PMAs and intentionally crossing off every lake in reach while you’re there. It would mean heading out for day trips after making camp to bushwhack a half-mile out of the way to pick up a new lake. It would mean taking quick weekend trips to clean up some of the out-of-the-way lakes along the edges through forest roads and backways. And, most painfully, it’ll inevitably mean a few miles-long marches through some of the toughest terrain this state can offer in search of speck-sized lakes without much redeeming quality beyond their very existence. The person who is truly trying to accomplish this goal would have to be stubborn. They would have to find joy in seeing something “just because it’s there.” Mileage-wise, every lake isn’t THAT bad, but there’s quite a bit of strategy involved. Unless someone is so disciplined enough to not miss opportunities to check off new lakes, there would be an incredible amount of wasted time and miles.

What do you think? Is it possible to visit every lake in the BWCA?

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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