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About the area

"A Birch tree grows on the shore of Moose Lake. A canoe lies on the bank beside it. From that Birch tree, you could paddle that canoe up to the end of Moose Lake and camp overnight and put the canoe in another lake the next morning. You could cross that lake, and camp for the night, and paddle across another lake on the third day. You could keep this up, visiting another lake for a hundred years, and you still wouldn't get to all the lakes.1"

We have already provided you with a general introduction to the uniqueness of the Quetico-Superior region. We have told you about the differences between Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park and Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. For many of you this may be enough about this breath-taking area. There are those, however, who may wish to learn more about this unique area. In the following pages you have the opportunity to get a more in-depth look at both the natural and manmade history of this truly amazing land.

1Charles Kuralt, Charles Kuralt's America (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995), 141.


A short brisk hike to the top of Thunder Point, located on Knife Lake, leaves an individual speechless at the view. For as far as the eye can see, sheer rock cliffs and crystal clear lakes fill the horizon. On the short hike back down you begin to notice the large boulders strewn along each side of the trail, and upon reaching the shoreline the multitude of small polished rocks that form the gravel beach. Welcome to the breath-taking wonders of the canoe country.

Envision this area, once entirely covered by a huge sea, suddenly transformed by active underwater volcanoes. Approximately 2.7 billion years ago undersea volcanoes covered this region with pillow basalt. Exposed pillow basalt, also know as Ely greenstone, still exists in this area and is one of the oldest exposed rock formations on earth.

Starting about 30,000 years ago and lasting for about 15,000 years, the northeastern portion of Minnesota was covered by the Laurentian Ice Sheet. During that period The Rainy Lobe of the ice sheet engulfed the area and was filled with hard crystalline rock and sandstone abrasives. These rocks and abrasives, coupled with the wet, slippery base of the glacier, effectively scoured the northwoods landscape. As the glacier slowly moved across the wilderness, weakened areas in the bedrock were stripped clean. Most of the debris from this area was deposited in areas in southern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas. A few glacial deposits, in form of gravel and sand bars, can be found scattered through out the canoe country lakes. Overall very little glacial deposit was left behind.

Areas of geological interest:

  • Pillowed Greenstone - view on the north side cliff in Ottertrack Lake, the South Arm of Knife Lake, the north side of the east arm of Jasper Lake, and as a historical point of interest in Ely.

  • Explosive Volcanogenic Sediments - view the dark green sandy shore and outcrops on the north shore of Kekekabic Lake.

  • Volcanic Rock Flows - Jasper Lake and the west end of Eddy Lake.

  • Cherty Iron-Formation - a combination of magnetic, hematitic, and sulfide-rich layers can be viewed at the Tower-Soudan mine and nearby areas.

  • Graywackes and Slates - can be easily found through out the Knife and Little Knife lake areas. Slate was used by the Native Americans to make spears, knives, and arrow points. This is how Knife and Little Knife received their names.

  • Saganaga Batholith - a pinkish gray granite that can be viewed in lakes running southwest from Saganaga to Ensign Lake.

  • Vermilion Batholith - made up of primarily granite this formation can be viewed from Snowbank Lake northeast through Crooked to LacLaCroix Lake.


The rippling, spiraling light green vapors dance across the black sky - leaping, soaring, disappearing, only to reappear stronger and more vibrant than before. For those who have never experienced the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, the night sky will never be looked upon the same.

The beauty of the northern lights begin as solar flares that move into space creating solar winds. As the winds travel towards the earth, they are caught up in Birkland currents that exist outside the earth's atmosphere. The currents are pulled into the earth's atmosphere and contain highly excited electrons. As the electrons pass through the atmosphere they collide with either oxygen or nitrogen atoms. The varying green, reds and blues that we visibly see are the result of these collisions.

The northern lights are constantly occurring 24 hours a day in what is called the auroral ovals that exist above the north and south poles. Since northern lights are viewed from the ground and not space, the best times to view northern lights are on clear evenings closest to the new moon. They keep no schedule, so patience and vigilance on the part of the viewer is a must. Sometimes the northern lights will appear as little more than a light green haze just above the north shore tree line - other nights be prepared for a show of greens, red and blues that entertain for hours.

A unique website located at http://www.spaceweather.com/ offers detailed information on solar flares, and when the "flares" will most likely reach the earth for peak viewing. The site also hosts spectacular photos of northern lights and other northern light information.

For additional reading or video footage on northern lights, check out Candace Savage's book or video entitled Aurora: The Mysterious Northern Lights.


  • Travel Permits: A travel permit is required to enter either the BWCAW or Quetico Provincial Park. The travel permit locks the group into starting on a specific date and entering through a specific entry point.

  • Group Size: Up to a group of nine people can travel together on a permit. In the BWCAW there is an additional restriction allowing only four watercraft per permit. At no time can more than nine people camp, canoe or portage together. The group size restriction is in place to protect the fragile ecosystem and enhance the visitors wilderness experience.

  • Containers: Any food or beverage items packaged in a can or bottle is prohibited in either wilderness area. Food and beverages must be contained within a paper, plastic or foil pouch or carried in a plastic container. Empty plastic food or beverage containers must be packed back out with you. Non-food and beverage items, such as; insect repellant, fuel containers, and toiletry items can be contained with cans or bottles, but must be packed back out of the wilderness area.

  • Campsites: Canadian campsites are clearings in the woods and require the traveler to carry a fire grate and latrine shovel with them as they travel. BWCAW campsites will have a cemented in fire grate and wilderness box latrine located at each USFS approved campsite. The BWCAW approved campsites are the only sites that visitors can legally camp at overnight. Visitors can camp up to 14 consecutive days at one site before they must move on to another site. Leave the campsite cleaner than you found it. Pack out all garbage, fishing line and twist ties.

  • Campfires: There are no restrictions regarding campfires on the Canadian side other than they need to be supervised and under control at all times. The BWCAW requires that campfires occur only within the steel fire grates. In the blow down area that affects several entry points, there can be additional campfire restrictions. During imposed firebans, campfires can be partially or completely prohibited. Cooking during those times must be done over a camp stove using propane or liquid fuel. Campfires can only be made from dead and downed trees. Do not strip birch bark from live trees - this kills the tree. Collect firewood away from the campsite. Drown your campfire with plenty of water when you leave, go to bed, or plan to be away from the site. The coals should be cold to the touch when handled. Do not burn trash in the fire. Pack all garbage out.

  • Toilet Facilities and Water Quality: Each legal US campsite will have wilderness box latrine. This should be used as the only toilet facilities at BWCAW campsites. Canadian campsites will not have latrines, so the visitor should dig a small hole 6 to 8 inches deep and at least 150 feet from the shoreline. This method of burying human waste should also be used when hiking or portaging through the BWCAW (when campsite latrines are unavailable). Do not use soap products in or near the waters edge. Wash dishes and bathe at least 150 feet from the shoreline using biodegradable soaps whenever possible. Fish entrails must be buried in at least 6 inches of soil well away from the campsite. It is illegal to dump fish remains in the water.

  • Storing Watercraft: Watercraft and equipment cannot be stored in the wilderness area unattended or between canoe trips. All boats, canoes and equipment must actively be in use and carried out after the end of each trip.

  • Motors: Motor boat use is allowed in certain areas of the wilderness. A special motor use permit is required to enter the wilderness in these limited areas.

Fishing & Watercraft Regulations

  • Fishing Licenses and Possession of Fish: Fishing licenses are required within either wilderness area. Any one 16 or older, who chooses to fish in the BWCA, is required to have a license. Individuals 17 years or older choosing to fish are required to purchase a fishing license for the Quetico Park.

  • Limits and Possession of Fish: Daily and possession limits do apply within either wilderness. Fish eaten as shore lunch do count towards the total daily possession limits.

  • Canoe and Boat Registrations: All watercraft entering either wilderness must be licensed either in the owner's home state or in the state of Minnesota.

  • Life Jackets: Those traveling by either boat or canoe must have a US Coast Guard approved life jacket in the watercraft. There must be one life jacket for each person in the watercraft. The life jacket must be readily accessible for use.

PO Box 358 Ely, MN 55731
(800) 322-5837

Canoe Trip Specialists
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness / Quetico Park Outfitter
Williams and Hall Wilderness Guides and Outfitters
Located on Moose Lake in Ely, Minnesota

© 2011 Williams & Hall