BWCA vs. Northeast Destinations

Apologize in advance, as I’m sure this must have been covered on p-net before. But you know how “search” works here…

My friend wants to take a trip to the Boundary Waters next year. I started looking into it, and it sounds like a neat place. But every picture I see, I think it looks like the Adirondacks or northern Maine’s “water world” (my name for the lakes and rivers that seem to stretch everywhere across northern Maine). Except there seems to be less geography (no mountains) in the BWCA.

BWCA is a lot further away.

So, I would appreciate opinions from those who have paddled the BWCA and the northeast. Is the BWCA worth the extra day or more of driving?


BWCA or Maine
I’ve never been to BWCA but I’ve done the Allagash and several other trips in Maine. The Allagash is a fantastic trip and is surely a Canoe tripping classic. The Allagash also has plenty of easy white water and only a few short portages.

How long is your trip going to be? The full 90 mile trip starting at Chamberlain Bridge and ending in Allagash Village took my 10 year old son and me 5 nights and six days, you might want to plan for a wind/weather day. It’s a pretty long drive from anywhere.

BWCA depends on when you want to go
Personally the last time I set foot in it was 1989 enroute quickly to Quetico. Prior to that we had a 1973 and a 1988 trip that I found overcrowded.

I gather its still busy in July and August. Since then I have been a Quetico visitor.

BWCA vs Maine…well there are usually lots less portages on Maine trips but a review of the NFCT map will show you that where there are portages they are rather long or sometimes unpleasant. The Allagash portages along the usual route are quite short and cartable.

Carts are a no no in the BWCA. There are other routes surrounding the Allagash that are more strenuous. I am doing a back door route through Johnson Pond Allagash Lake, Chamberlain Mud Pond Umbazooksus and Chesuncook that will be a test.

The typical main line trip between Chamberlain Bridge and Allagash Village takes some 7-10 days. As there are several hiking opportunits as well as a potential side trip to Allagash Lake (if you can do upstream travel) planning for ten days is better. Some of the lakes are quite large (seventeen miles long for Chamberlain).

You do not have to reserve for the Allagash. For the BWCA you have to plan ahead and reserve your entry point. There is a quota.

There is one positive for the BWCA. Its cheap once you are there. The shuttle cost for the Allagash is not unreasonable but with a small group may be a consideration.

Allagash visitation is falling off in recent years. People seem not to have the time for such a trip. If you have five days only or so you can do a trip starting at Churchill Dam.

I haven’t paddled at BWCA or northern Maine. Just wish to say that if you are used to having “relief” around, it gets freaking WEIRD to be someplace really flat for more than a few days.

It can be disorienting, so bone up on your navigation skills.

Neither are really flat
I get your point but neither are like paddling on Hudson Bay where the border between wet and not wet is really fuzzy.

Been to both and its hard to get lost. Sure I know that neither is the Rockies but you can see Ktaadn on the Allagash. And that is a mile up . The vertical is actually more than in some of the Rockies.

Mangrove land
Actually, I was thinking more of FL’s very flat coast. I’ve been all over NE (just haven’t paddled all over it) and know they have some mountains as well as hills.

yep. My GPS is a big help
triangulation to find position is a futile exercise in the Everglades.

Plus the scale is off. I am used to scaling distances visually with tall pines on the shore line. Usually they are 100 feet high.

And I go to Florida and look at mangroves and my mind thinks " that is a lot of water to cross" . Its not used to scaling mangroves at 15-20 feet high.

Greenville…West/East/North of…
That’s what I like about ~80%+ of the time on either ponds or lakes pikabike, there’s usually a breeze… That’s when one knows it’s time to do some stream or river…

You forgot south!
Topping Indian Hill two years ago in May in search of paddling at Lobster Stream and lake I was faced with a view of …ice…ice…as far as the eye could see. And that was a few miles.

Ice out at home was two weeks prior and I made assumptions…duh.dope slap.

Water worlds
From the lookout tower on Kineo, you look around, and there are lakes and rivers as far as the eye can see. That’s when I started calling BigSpencer’s neighborhood “Water World”. I gather from the maps that BWCA is at least as water worldish, and isn’t Quetico just the other side of the border? Is it much different?

We are talking about making the trip in September. P-net archives make it clear that is a good month to pick and at least avoids peak summer traffic.

I have some familiarity with the Greenville area, including Chesuncook, the Alligash, and elsewhere. I am less familiar with the Adirondacks (Bog River/Lowes Lake, the Au Sable River, and other ponds).

It is always wonderful to paddle in different places. However, for me, living in Maryland, going to the BWCA carries the extra cost of being hard to access–it’s a long way. Not that Northern Maine is a hop-skip, but its about 20 hours to the BWCA (vs 7 hrs to the Adks, 12 to Millinocket or to Algonquin). My friend Steve and I have spoken for years about going to the Boundary Waters, but I’d never looked into it until now. And, now that I am looking into it, I think it looks a lot like what we paddle in the northeast and am asking myself, why go the extra distance?

So, I’m hoping to receive advice from people like kayamedic who have paddled in both areas. Kayamedic didn’t come out and say it, but it doesn’t seem like she is in a hurry to get back to the BWCA, and I know she is a repeat customer on the Allagash.

Other opinions?


too far for me
with so many great places to paddle up and down the East coast I just can’t see committing to the long road trip to the BWCA… heck there are places in the Eastern part of Canada that are closer.

I had a wonderful time in the Adks this summer, and there’s so much more to see and do there… will be back.

If you like classic river trips like the Allagash, the other Au Sable river (thru the Huron NF in Michigan) is a great one! much more doable drive. The S. Branch is the stuff of legends.

I’ve Been Thinking the Same, Only…

– Last Updated: Dec-20-11 5:38 AM EST –

...the other way around. I've been wondering if I need to forgo a BWCAW trip and head EAST sometime? But for me, the BWCAW is closer (16 hrs). Been going to the BWCAW since '84 and used to go 2-3 times a year, EVERY year for 20 years. The last 7 years, I've not been with as much frequency, though. Just like any destination, it can be crowded in certain spots.

Also, "Crowd" is something defined by the individual. I've heard people bitch about it being "Crowded" when they see 3 or 4 groups a day? I live at the end of a dead-end road, so I get plenty of privacy. Seeing a few like-minded individuals isn't a hassle to me. While it may be a little easier on the Canadian side to do so, I know of areas on the U.S. side where I CAN go and be completely alone.

As for "Flat," the place aint "Flat!" There's plenty of hills and terrain changes. There are some portages that are real boogers, and akin to mountain climbing. Heck, I saw a lot more "Flat" areas when I lived in Colorado than much of the BWCAW. Eagle Mountain, about 2,300' is close to one of my favorite paddling areas. No, it aint Pikes Peak or Summit County Colorado but it aint "Flat!"

I can't tell you about how it differs from the northeast, but I CAN tell you why it has me under it's spell. The absolute absence of all but "Natural" sounds. The Loons, the timber wolves, slap of a beaver tail, the gurgle of my paddle, the white throated sparrows giving me calls of encouragement on the portage while I smell the heady scent of balsam. The fact that I can hang my old Sierra cup on the gunnel and dip in and and drink my water au natural, without messing with a filter or other gadgets (yeah, I know, you just don't drink from beaver ponds, from shore, streams, etc).

Plus, for me, I have friends who live there, so I have the added bonus of visiting old friends. So, if you already HAVE this where you paddle, maybe you DON'T need to make the trek. For me, it's pretty special, and less than a day away! Sorry I can't compare the two, but maybe this helps a little?

Ice in Me

Here’s the webcam from the Chesuncook house. looks like the ice has formed on the lake.

I would go back to the BWCA

– Last Updated: Dec-20-11 4:24 PM EST –

but time it differently. Fall and June would be great. But I have trouble with all the regs and the permit process. They are there for a reason. The pros who frequent BWCA are more adept than I at negotiating those logistical hurdles.

I do prefer closer to me Quetico. But it is more expensive than BWCA.

Like others in the East there is alot of canoe country to drive through enroute to Thunder Bay..(going south around Chitown adds a LOT of time..almost a whole day). Its really hard to go to the BWCA when Woodland Caribou is a similar distance and I have driven by lots of other area that are really wild and I seldom see anyone a day.. Just my personal preference.

As others mentioned flat is relative but I do like the hiking up on small mountains that can be done in Maine. Or larger mountains ( though the Allagash has no big ones...just about 800 feet vertical)

I think what everyone is looking for in a canoe trip is something different from what they see and experience everyday, so its bound that opinions differ. WW loves to hear loons. I have em at home so that is not the attraction for me. We don't have many moose so that is an attraction. And the Allagash has always produced several moose a day everyday and sometimes a bear too. I love seeing bear in the wild. There are no wolves in Maine though as there are in the BWCA.

Also there are much fewer loop canoe routes. Shuttles can get expensive. Whereas in the BWCA you have a lot of loop possibilities..and hence more territory if you are planning a lifetime of exploration. I am amazed though at the number of Mainers who have never paddled outside of Maine..

Relatively nearby(nine hour drive) La Verendrye Reserve is about the size of the Boundary Waters and has similar scenery and no campsite competition. So I would be apt to go there.

The canoe destinations available to us in the East and Midwest really make us blessed.

do you have blackflies at allagash?

If you don’t it might be well worth the drive. June in BWCA might give you bears and moose, but you’re also bound to see some blackflies. OTOH the northern great lakes region is paradise in fall.

Silence is golden
Some nights of our St John River, ME trip in 2000, we heard no human sounds. Often actually, but usually sometime during the day I’d hear a truck in the distance. But that was the part of wilderness tripping I didn’t expect, the lack of human sounds. I’ve done more trips now, and still, I think it takes a few days just to be able to realize the impact. The first few days, my brain manufactures human sounds. Leaves rustle and I turn my head thinking someone is talking or a vehicle is approaching. But I acclimate.

Went back to the St. John in 2002 and regularly heard high flying jets. Not loud, but there. We theorized either flight patterns or military patrols had changed, perhaps due to 9-11. I felt like something had been taken from me–a rare quiet place.

I hear a place on the Olympic Peninsula claims to be quietest.


One memorable night

– Last Updated: Dec-20-11 11:49 PM EST –

I haven't been to semi-wilderness places as often as many of you, but I remember one fall night camping by myself in northern Wisconsin I was unable to hear any sound at all. No wind, no birds, ... nothing. I think I remember it so well because it seemed like there SHOULD have been sound. After all, it wasn't the dead of winter; the trees even still had their leaves. The absence of ALL sound made me much more aware that there was no human-made sound. Total silence eliminated the subconscious notion that I'd probably hear a car on the highway somewhere if only the wind were to die-down completely.

Mainers will tell you some pretty sick black fly stories. I think I have been in Maine in every month except June, and managed to avoid the fierce season. It got hot and they were hatching on the 2002 St. John trip, but only on the last day and only a few.

I’ll also tell you one of my lifetime best mosquito attacks was in Maine, in late summer and mid-day, no less. We were set upon at Penobscot Farm so fiercely that the pests were like a layer of hair. I’d pick up my hand to brush off my arm and there were so many on the back of my hand it made me scream in fear. The other was on Md’s eastern shore, a different story.

Thanks for the clarification, kayamedic.


mosquito hair
you just gave me a goosebumpy flashback of the Green Run campsite on Assateague… we abandoned land and continued south all the way to Chincoteague.

One vs other
I have NOT paddled in the east so cannot comment. I have done BWCAW since 1999 (except for the first time last year) and can say that the BDub is a worthwhile destination, even with the drive.

The number of trips available to you will be unlimited. From just a single entry point in the middle of the park you could probably paddle every day for 2 weeks and wind up at the entry without ever paddling the same water twice.

Portages can be numerous and long, or non-existant. And if you push hard you can make it 15 miles in during a single travel day, basecamp and day trip to your hearts content.

One of our good travel buddies lives within striking distance of the 'Daks, and he still hasn’t presented a successful argument to have us travel there instead of the BDub.