What makes something great is often a subjective matter, one formed of comparisons and perspectives. Is it the large size? How about the incredible strength, power, or position? Is it the beauty or some other awe-inspiring attribute which draws admiration and respect. Take the Great Lakes as an example of many of these definitions. West into the BWCA, the lakes draw much of the attention, and for good reason. Between each of these thousands of lakes, it’s easy to forget that a great arterial network of streams and rivers plays a vital role in water working its way down the watershed on its pre-ordained reunion with the sea. There are many thousands of miles of rivers and streams in the Boundary Waters. Some are as famous as the wilderness itself and see thousands of paddlers every summer and others are left to the beavers and the moose which call them home. But which of these are the greatest, which of these define the landscape which makes up the BWCA? Some of these are filled with power as tumbling rapids and thundering cascades empty the basin of some lake on the way to another. Others are seemingly still except for the swarms of mosquitos and the slap of a beaver’s tail. Some of these are beautiful in the springtime when fast water makes for an easy crossing while others come into their own as vast acreage of wild rice comes to harvest. Some are filled with rocks, jagged shards of bedrock or glacial debris tumbled through the ages. And still others are filled with muck and mire, daring a person to step out into the seemingly shallow water. These are the twenty I have chosen for the attributes which set them apart. There are other great rivers which start here that are not included as much of their character is displayed elsewhere, but check out our earlier article to read more about the rivers which flow to Superior.
The Basswood River is a short, popular stretch of water that is little more than a prolonged transition from the great expanses of Basswood Lake to the narrow, serpentining courses of Crooked Lake. In the span of six miles though, the Basswood River is filled with majestic falls, each bearing names and lore. From Upper Basswood Falls, down past Wheelbarrow, and culminating at Lower Basswood Falls at the end. Its location along the border all but guarantees that it has a long and storied history of human mis-adventures. The Basswood River has claimed numerous canoes and, more tragically, lives in its history. It’s a beautiful, powerful stretch of water. Some of its mystique lies in its position straddling the border with rapids on the US side and the Canadian side. Some in its character with numerous islands with rapids on either side obscured by bends and topography. Regardless, its position as a centerpiece of canoe trips along the border is well cemented as a place of beauty which demands the upmost respect.
Along the southern border of the BWCA, a river of a totally different character than the Basswood crossed along the southern edge of the 2011 Pagami Creek fire. The Isabella is a wide, flat river interspersed with rapid sets. It flows for 13 miles from Isabella Lake to Bald Eagle, joining with quite the collection of tributaries along the route. It can be a popular area with three canoe entry points feeding directly into it and another two on either end. As the primary drainage route and only paddle route in its region of the BWCA, the Isabella has an important place ecologically and recreationally.
One of the most famous canoe routes on the Gunflint Trail runs along the border from Saganaga to Gunflint. Before the trail was extended, this route was a lifeline for people living on Sag. Both rivers are rocky with shallow rapids and a few waterfalls highlighting the route. A large section of this area burned during the 2007 Ham Lake Fire which changed the character of the shoreline. There are a plethora of campsites catering towards all of the canoe groups passing through.
At the far western end of the BWCA sits the Loon River and for 16 miles it is the only canoe route. It is a stretch of water steeped in history with famous portages along the way. It is also the starting stretch for folks looking to complete the Voyageur Challenge. The Loon River is not a particularly popular route for the average week-to-week canoe groups as it’s not conducive to a loop route, but it is an incredibly important ecological stretch of water with most of the creeks west of Little Indian draining north into its waters.
The Little Indian Sioux
The Little Indian Sioux is an incredible wilderness river flowing from its headwaters at Otter Lake until spilling into Loon Lake to the north. The entire 30-mile stretch of water is a maintained route with BWCA entry points on either side of the Echo Trail where the river crosses. The northern entry heading towards Devil’s Cascade is a much-coveted, beautiful entry while the south is a minimally maintained, rugged, and quiet route. Both are incredibly scenic and capture the wilderness character of this landscape well.
Like a few rivers on this list, there are two entry points on the Moose River on either side of its crossing of the Echo Trail. Before the Echo was built, the paddle route to the border from Ely involved either the Moose River or the Portage River, both of which can be reached via portages from Burntside. Today, with the Echo Trail in place, these two rivers share an entry point, though the Moose is by far the more commonly utilized. The North Moose River in particular is a commonly used route to access lakes like Lac La Croix, Crooked, and the surrounding region. The south Moose is less busy with the common destination being Big Moose Lake for base camping. The Moose River is a narrow, winding river with occasional high topography to add to the intrigue.
Unlike the Moose River, the Portage has not developed into a bustling canoe route since its days as a historically significant point of access. For the most part, though they are both listed on the permit, groups stick to the Moose River. The Portage River, as the name suggests, has a good collection of obstacles along its course from rapids, down trees, and beaver dams. It runs from Big Rice Lake, through Lapond, and serpentines north before crossing the Echo. From there it more or less parallels the Moose on its way to Nina Moose Lake.
The Stuart River is a unique entry point just north of Big Lake. The river begins a couple miles before at Baldpate Lake and flows pretty consistently north from the time it reaches the long entry portage. A variety of creeks flow into it including Swamp, Jerry, and Mule. It has a healthy beaver population as many rivers in this area do as well as a wild rice through the middle. It skirts the Sundial Lake PMA, a wild area to the east with a small handful of routes discussed below. The Stuart River tumbles into its mouth at Stuart Falls at the end of its nearly eight mile course.
Flowing north through the Sundial PMA, the Beartrap was a shortcut travel route in the past to access iron or as a through route into Sterling and onto Stuart. With its PMA designation, the route has become a little more rugged, but it remains a semi-travelled stretch of water. It’s fed by Spring Creek flowing from the south and from Beartrap Lake at its headwaters before flowing north on the way to Sunday. The river continues on from there north into Iron. There are a number of deep gorges and rock rapid sets to portage around along the way. Even still, it’s a beautiful stretch of water bisecting the wild reaches of the Sundial Lake PMA.
The Horse River is an important and often used route connecting the Mudro/Fourtown/Horse region to Basswood Falls. There are a number of small rapids along its path, some of which are seasonally lineable, before it pours into the Basswood River just above Lower Basswood Falls. It is a small river, only 3.6 miles long, but the number of groups which use it every summer and its ever variable scenery make this little river worthy of being included on this list.
Most of the Island River flows just outside the reaches of the BWCA. It is a beautiful paddle route with a few small rapid sets, the famous black pictographs, and wide-open scenery due to the 2011 Pagami Creek fire. By the time it crosses under the old trestle near Isabella, it has become a wide, shallow, wind-swept stretch of water. The fire has left it bright and open and the final sections of exposed rock and bright green new aspen trees is a signature section of water to be sure. In the fall, much of this stretch chokes up with wild rice making for a magical crossing as the whole ecosystem makes a turn towards the bitter grip of winter.
The southern border of the BWCA is made up of a series of rivers including the Isabella, Little Isabella, Snake, Perent, and Hog Creek. The Perent River flows west into Isabella lake, the source for the Isabella River. The Perent draws its water from Perent Lake which Hog Creek flows into. . The Perent is not too often travelled as it provides an intimidating obstacle for folks looking to travel beyond Perent Lake. Despite its meager 7.5 mile length, it provides 1.3 miles of portaging spread out over 13 portages. It’s tedious travel as one works past various obstacles on the way through open burned ridgetops.
Rugged, remote quiet defines the Louse whose narrow course and numerous portages make its 7.5 mile course a challenging one. Add on top of that difficult travel miles to even get to the river and the Louse is a unique place. Its a mix of rocky ridges and shallow marshland with a wide variety of small lakes connected to and radiating from it.
One of the most famous challenging maintained routes in the BWCA, the Frost runs through the heart of the eastern BWCA from the sandy shores of Frost Lake to Mora Lake. Along the way, numerous portages and beaver dams mean that the length of the Frost routinely takes 12 hours to travel, and even longer if water levels are low. There are very few campsites along the way which mean there isn’t much opportunity to stop before the ends. Its remoteness and challenge makes for a beautiful trip past wide marshland and stoney waterfalls.
This one may not be familiar to many people because it’s not on this list because of the number of visitors who travel it. Hope and Maniwaki Creeks cross the wildest heart of the BWCA across Fungus Lake PMA. It’s a long, narrow, winding course through heavy brush and burn. As one of the longest stretches of creek in the PMA system though, it has a special place. Parts of the route were once maintained as a canoe route, but a PMA designation, passage of time, and wildfire have changed that and left a pervasive quiet amongst the exposed windswept crags lining this incredibly remote creek.
The Royal River is one of amazing contrasts. The shallow, reed choked waters are dwarfed beneath imposing palisades in this far eastern edge of the BWCA. In the short two mile stretch of river, there is an impressive amount of beauty and unique scenery quite unlike any other spot in canoe country. It provides access from John Lake into the Fowls usually for folks coming or going from the McFarland landing. It is beautiful at any time of the year, but is easier to paddle in the spring before the flora comes in.
The Seagull River is the launching off point for many, many BWCA trips as it connects Seagull and Saganaga. It’s also popular with campground campers at the Trail’s End Campground which sits along a stretch of the river. To folks outside of the BWCA canoe enthusiast circle, the Seagull is known for one thing: big Walleye. The Minnesota state record came out of these waters in 1979.
The Cross connects Cross Bay Lake to Gunflint in a winding route across the trail. It’s a popular entry point during the summer as folks head into the BWCA via Cross Bay Lake or base camp on Ham Lake along its course. Ham is the site of the tragic lighting of the 2007 Ham Lake fire which was started accidently by a camper and took off to do millions in property damages further up the trail. The Cross River is a beautiful, often shallow and rocky, river that weaves through deep, pine-cladded banks along its course.
Rock Creek / Johnson Falls
One of the most famous destinations east of the Gunflint Trail is Johnson Falls. Before cascading steeply down into Pine Lake, the creek above originates in a few places. Water turns through a thick spruce swamp on the way out of Ivory Lake. From Rock, it heads into a wide beaver pond perched high above its eventual destination. The water coming in from Paddle Lake runs through a narrow, steep shoot, moving rapidly down to join the waters from Rocky and Ivory. At Johnson Falls, the water drops in two primary cascades, one on top of the other, before tumbling down cedar-guarded rapids to Pine Lake below. Very few if any people have paddled it. A few folks wander into Paddle Lake from Canoe, though very few visit Rocky or Ivory on any given year. And yet nearly every day of the summer groups flock to Johnson to see this magnificent creek as it follows gravity off the rocky shelf and into the rest of the watershed.
Without question, the most significant river in the BWCA is the Kawishiwi. Nearly every route in the south central BWCA is tide to it from the Isabella River region, Kawishiwi Lake (the headwaters), The remote reaches of Malberg and Fishdance, the maze-like islands of Insula, the ever-popular numbers chain, and the beginner friendly Kawishwi Triangle all converge into the Kawishiwi. Much of its course is made up of lakes and wide stretches of river, but there are also magnificent falls and rapids and a diverse character which defines the large area draining into the Kawishwi River.