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Boundary Waters permits go on sale Wednesday

The number of permits for summer 2023 is unchanged after a reduction last year to reduce overcrowding issues.

BWCAW canoe
An angler lands a fish in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Permits for the 2023 season go on sale Wednesday on a first-come, first-served basis.
Sam Cook / File / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — It's time to make plans for a summer trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, with permits for this summer going up for sale at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

The number of permits available for 2023 is the same as 2022. That stability comes after permits were cut by 5,600 last year from 2021 levels as the Forest Service sought to reduce problems with overcrowding near some of the most popular destinations in the million-acre wilderness.

“There are no changes from last year to this year,” said Joy VanDrie, public information officer for the Duluth-based Superior National Forest that manages the BWCAW.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness reservations open on Jan. 25

Last year’s cuts amounted to 13% of the total permits and cut the number of groups entering the wilderness each day by 37 after many visitors had complained of too many people, heated competition for campsites and unruly behavior in previous years.

The number of BWCAW permits issued jumped from 25,279 in 2019 to 31,548 during 2020, the first year of the pandemic. The number of permits would have increased by another 3,500 in 2021 except that 4,493 permits were canceled and refunded when the BWCAW was shut down for several weeks due to late-summer wildfires. Data from 2022 has not yet been made public.

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While they so far aren’t bending to complaints from local businesses that more permits should be issued, U.S. Forest Service officials continue to work with outfitters and others to maximize use of the permits that are available.

BWCAW canoe portage
A paddler portages a canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Permits for the 2023 open-water season go on sale Wednesday.
Sam Cook / File / Duluth News Tribune

This year, the Forest Service is working harder to encourage any BWCAW permit holders who, for whatever reason, can’t make their trip and can’t use their permit, to formally go through the process of giving them back to the system so someone else can have a chance.

While some people return their permits early and get most of their money back, some people simply do nothing and don’t show up, and the permits never get used.

“You’d be surprised how many people just don’t go on the trip and never cancel, and so those permit openings are wasted,” VanDrie said.

According to Forest Service data, more than 3,000 groups were no-shows in 2021 alone, the most recent year data is available for.

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Meanwhile, officials from the Superior National Forest have been working with outfitters, lodges and other businesses that work with BWCAW visitors in hopes of developing a better system to get more information to more visitors at more points more often, well before they venture into the wilderness.

Some of those new efforts, aimed at encouraging a better wilderness ethic among BWCAW visitors, will be unveiled just before the open water camping season starts this spring, VanDrie noted. It’s aimed at emphasizing the strict federal wilderness rules and the “leave no trace” camping ethic in the wilderness expected of all visitors, VanDrie said.

BWCAW permits are limited for the nation’s most-visited wilderness, and the most popular dates — such as long weekends and peak summer months — will go fast, as will the most-popular entry points.

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Anyone who is thinking about a BWCAW trip between May 1 and Sept. 20, when permits are limited, should figure out their specific dates, where they want to enter and who else will be joining the trip and then make their reservations as soon as possible starting Wednesday.

Reservations can be made at recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777.

canoe
BWCAW canoe camping permits go on sale at Wednesday for this summer.
Sam Cook / File / Duluth News Tribune

Superior National Forest officers' tips

  • Plan ahead by having at least three travel options (dates and entry points) in mind before making a reservation. They note that exploring new destinations can be a fun part of the wilderness experience.
  • Select an issue station near your entry point before reserving a permit to eliminate the necessity for extra driving. The BWCAW is over one million acres in size, and entry points and issue stations are widely dispersed across the area. Click the “Issue Stations” tab to view hours and locations at recreation.gov/permits/233396 .
  • Abide by the “one permit per day, per permit holder” rule, as stockpiling permits is illegal. This ensures everyone has the opportunity to make a reservation. When a permit holder makes multiple reservations on the same entry date or has overlapping reservations, all but one permit will automatically be canceled by the Forest Service.
  • Go to fs.usda.gov/superior for information about reserving permits for a nonprofit organization. 
  • Remember to include the names of alternate group leaders who can pick up a permit if the permit holder cannot go. Select alternates by “checking the box” under a group member’s name. This must be done when the reservation is being created, as alternates cannot be added once a reservation is complete.
  • The BWCAW is a federally regulated area with rules and regulations that you must know prior to your arrival. Permit holders are responsible for sharing the "Leave No Trace" video series with their group prior to arrival.

For more information on planning a BWCAW trip, contact a local outfitter or go to fs.usda.gov/main/superior/passes-permits/recreation.

Shaun and Mercedes Floerke of Duluth paddled the Voyageurs’ route from Crane Lake to South Fowl Lake.

BWCAW visitors by year

  • 2021 – 166,374*
  • 2020 – 165,918
  • 2019 – 143,140
  • 2018 – 150,714
  • 2017 – 152,612

*Most recent year data is available. BWCAW was closed for several weeks due to wildfires.

Quetico Provincial Park

Across the Ontario border from the BWCAW lies Quetico Provincial Park, another paddle-only wilderness. Just like the Boundary Waters, you must secure a permit to enter Quetico Provincial Park. You must enter the wilderness on the date and at the location designated on your permit.

Reservations are available up to five months ahead of your tip at ontarioparks.com/reservations or at 888-668-7275. You must start your trip from the access point you have reserved. While traveling in the park all campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations are recommended to secure your trip dates. Permits must be picked up in person at a designated ranger station prior to entering the park.

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Remember that you are crossing into Canada and will need to cross at a border crossing with a customs station or by using a Canadian Remote Area Border Crossing Permit.

Minnesota State Park reservations

Campsites at Minnesota State Parks can now be reserved for mid-May. Online reservations can be made up to 120 days in advance, 24 hours a day. A nonrefundable reservation fee ($10 for call center/$7 for web) is charged for each advance reservation. Go to reservemn.usedirect.com/MinnesotaWeb or call 866-857-2757.

Voyageurs National Park

Reservations for Voyageurs National Park’s hundreds of boat-to campsites for this summer have been available for several months. Go to recreation.gov and search "Voyageurs National Park."

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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