Every traveler to the BWCA has their ideal of what a campsite should look like and what features it should have. Perhaps it has a sprawling camp kitchen or a nice overlook. Perhaps it’s perched on an island or alongside a sprawling beach. But whether the campsite is easy to access or is tucked back upon distant shore, whether offering “5-star” accommodations or whether it’s the site to tell horror stories about, every BWCA campsite is a little unique in its own ways. And in this season of looking back towards canoe season and forward to a winter season ahead, I find myself reflecting on the campsites where nights have been spent. As anyone does, I have my favorites, but I also have begun thinking of them in categories. Of all the campsites in the BWCA, I have found I can categorize most of them into 10 different classifications. Different than your standard 1-5 star reviews and different even than my more complicated Small-Large with 1-5 stars reviews alongside, this article is more about the scope of the whole. If I were to traverse every campsite in the BWCA and try to group them into which ones are alike, how would I do it? This article is how I would group the BWCA campsites. It’s not just good and bad, but what makes these campsites what they are. There is of course, with all of these things, some overlap. Campsites can fall into multiple of these classes. But I believe most every site in canoe country can fall into at least one. So with that, here are the ten types of BWCA campsites:
4) Defining Feature:
These are some of the coolest campsites in the BWCA. Some get used a lot, some are out of the way and get used less, but they are all unique. These are campsites where a lake had such a special feature that the original campsite placers knew there was no other option but to put a site there. These campsites can be sitting at sandy beaches, perched atop rock faces, shaded by enormous trees, overlooking waterfalls, across from pictographs (or even have them in the campsite), or are graced by enormous boulders. The defining trait of these campsites is that they are always special and have a feature which sets them apart from nearby campsites. Often this makes them popular destinations that folks set their sights on if they are traveling through the region. Some examples of these sites would be the big eastern beach site on Frost, the Lower Basswood Falls sites, the site across from the pictographs on Fishdance, the Stonehenge site on the Isabella River, the cliff site on Wasini, or the huge beach and old pines at the site west of American Point on Saganaga.
5) Historic Fill-In:
These are camps which were placed directly in historic sites. Sometimes these were old logging camps or prospecting areas. Other times these are directly at old home or resort sites. Sometimes artifacts can be found at or around the area. Sometimes there are foundations or old roads and trails. And every once and awhile one with a keen eye can spot plants or trees which were cultivated and now seem out of place in the northwoods. To me, though these can be really cool, many of these sites can seem crass as, at least for the old resort sites, the owners didn’t leave willingly. As land was grabbed through eminent domain processes, folks gave up livelihoods and homes. These were often built on some of the best spots on lakes sporting scenic vistas and beaches. To take that and put a campsite there sort of feels off to me. In any case, especially in some of the busiest entry lakes like Basswood or Saganaga, many campsites sit in the sites of old resorts. Other historical sites include the Fourtown “Model-T” site, the Moosecamp logging camp site, the Lake Three 1932 NIRA cabin ruins, or all the well, junk, in the immediate area around Phantom Lake.
7) Room With a View:
These are campsites which rely heavily on the view from the landing. They might not be awesome campsites in their own right: sometimes small, cramped, or with poor landings, but the view makes up for any slight. There are also some really nice campsites that happen to have amazing views. One of my qualifiers for this category is that a photo from the landing is instantly iconic. One familiar with the campsite would have zero issues distinguishing it from the wide variety of other BWCA campsites around. Some classic examples include the far eastern Pine Lake campsite, the Winchell Campsite closest to the Omega portage, the Rose Lake campsite nearest the Stairway Portage, or the Devil’s Cascade campsite to name a few.
The BWCA for better or worse gets a rap as a “not-wild wilderness” because of the high visitation and relative ease of access. Because of that, some campsites may be left feeling like a state park instead of a wilderness site (see category 1.) The irony is though that high use, “nice sites” get progressively more use because of their reputation and bad sites get worse as fewer people use them and keep them open. On the flip side though, a “less-used” site often has a greater wilderness aesthetic and a feeling of being truly remote that can be lost in some of the more popular sites. A few defining characteristics include a greater abundance of firewood, limited signs of human disturbance, a smaller fire grate area, no signs that the BIFF has frequently been replaced, and fewer developed tent pads. These sites can even exist on busy routes due to strategic construction such as set-back campsites or campsites tucked into back bays. Some examples include the Gaskin site straight north of the Winchell portage, a couple of the sites on Mountain Lake, or even some of the back bay sites on Saganaga can feel this way. These can also simply be poor sites which don’t attract the traffic and thus remain smaller. A wild feeling campsite may also be acchieved through actual physical remoteness. Many of the hiking sites, for instance, feel incredibly remote because of the buffer-zone between them and the canoe routes. There are also a wide variety of campsites one portage off a major route which accomplish this since fewer people are willing to take an extra portage twice. Sites on challenging routes have this also. Personally, I seek out these campsites off onto dead-end lakes for this reason of privacy and remoteness. Some examples include Zephyr, Spice, Rabbit, Trillium, Boulder (the western one), or Gogebic. And a final sub-class of this type of campsite include what I call “Ranger-Specials.” These are some of the strangest campsites in the BWCA. Often they sit way off a normal route without an obvious purpose either currently or historically. They leave a person confused about what ranger decided a campsite needed to go way back there, though they often represent past hopeful routes. Sometimes they don’t even have an obvious route to access currently. Some great examples include Barto, Jig/Maxine, Batista, or the awful back bay site on Vista.
10) The Textbook:
And finally, the seemingly straightforward, if not the least exiting, classification of the standard, run-of-the-mill campsites. These are your classic BWCA campsite with a camp kitchen facing the lake, a small landing possibly of stone or along a grassy bank. There might be some pines overhanging the site to provide shade but not so much to prevent the breeze from keeping the bugs away. In many ways, these are the sites we sit at work dreaming of. The special sites are the ideal, but the standard BWCA campsite represent this place to many of us. There’s nothing particularly special about them. They don’t have some iconic features. No one finds themselves heading out of their way in search of them, but they won’t complain if they have to spend the night. The view is beautiful, but could be a snapshot of most BWCA lakes. These are the middle of the road sites found throughout the BWCA.