History of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

A postcard of a lake in the BWCAW made long before there was a BWCAW. (Image: Zenith City Online)

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness takes up roughly the northern one-third of the Superior National Forest. The entire wilderness area contains 1.3 million acres of land, the largest wilderness area in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains and north of the Florida Everglades. About 1,175 lakes ranging in size from 10 to 10,000 acres are found within its borders. The surface area of its lakes and streams alone takes up 190,000 acres (roughly 20 percent of the wilderness) providing 1,200 miles of canoe routes, many of which follow the same routes the voyageurs once travelled. Today about two hundred thousand people visit the B.W.C.A.W. each year, utilizing 2,200 campsites. Motorboats and snowmobiles are allowed (at very limited speeds) to operate on some of the lakes bordering the Wilderness, but for the most part the area has been left in or returned to its natural state.

The land within the B.W.C.A.W. is geologically the lower portion of the Canadian Shield, defined by the Laurentian Divide, a remnant of the ancient Laurentian Mountains (which is why the area is home to the oldest rock in North America). The divide creates two drainage basins in the Wilderness, so its streams and rivers either flow south to Lake Superior or north toward Canada’s Hudson Bay (90 percent of the waterways in the B.W.C.A.W. flow north). The Shield is home to four adjoining wilderness areas—the B.W.C.A.W., Voyageur’s National Park along the Canadian border near International Falls, and Ontario’s Quetico and LaVerendrye provincial parks—creating an ecosystem of more than 2.5 million acres inside 3,859 square miles.

The B.W.C.A.W.’s history is marked with conflict between preservationists and developers. The Superior National Forest was established in 1909, and over the course of the next few decades legislation and battles between the Izaak Walton League (one of the first conservation groups in the U.S., created in Chicago in 1922) and county officials cooperating with resort owners (who in 1923 fought for “a road to every lake”) shaped what would become the B.W.C.A.W. The Thye-Blatnik Bill of 1948 (drafted by the Walton League) authorized the government purchase of private holdings within the Wilderness. A year later President Truman banned planes from flying over or landing in the area much to the chagrin of local resort owners, who often flew in sport fisherman. The Wilderness Act of 1964 officially designated the land inside today’s B.W.C.A.W. as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Boundary Waters Wilderness Act of 1978 officially named and further protected the area. Battles over such issues as motorboat and snowmobile access continue to shape the B.W.C.A.W.

Fishing in the B.W.C.A.W.

Of the over two hundred thousand people who visit the B.W.C.A.W. every year to canoe and camp among its waterways, most of them spend time fishing, a fact the postcards on this page attest to. The Wilderness’s lakes and streams contain a variety of fish, including many species of pan fish, but most anglers come for the smallmouth bass, lake trout, northern pike, and the tasty walleye, Minnesota’s state fish.

Many angling experts argue that the lakes near Ely provide the best smallmouth bass fishing in the world, and lake trout are in abundance throughout the Wilderness because they prefer deep, cold lakes with boulder-strewn bottoms, exactly the kind of lakes left behind by glaciers that scoured the Wilderness ten thousand years ago.

Anglers have set state records for fish pulled out of the Wilderness’s lakes. One landed a nearly forty-six pound northern pike from the waters of Lake County’s Basswood Lake back in 1929. In 1979 a walleye measuring nearly three feet long and weighing over seventeen pounds was pulled from the Seagull River in Cook County.


Among the natural beauty of the B.W.C.A.W. you can find some manmade art: pictographs, images of animals and Ojibwe manitous (spirits) drawn on granite rock faces rising out of the lakes. While theories conflict, most scholars believe most of the pictographs found in the Wilderness were executed by Ojibwe artists, making them no more than a few hundred years old. Many of the drawings represent manitous of the Midewewin, a religion practiced by the Ojibwe, such as Missepishu, the Great Lynx and master of the underworld. Some may be interpretations of dreams, also important in the Midewewin religion. But since similar pictographs have been found further north than the Ojibwe ever reached, more than one culture may have been responsible for them. Some of the images may also be signposts similar to the inuksuit, Inuit rock formations or “men of stone who point the way” left behind for travelers.