I’ve worked in Northern Minnesota and Northwestern Ontario for several summers as a canoe guide and, whenever I’m somewhere else, I like to take a boat out and see what I can find. These are my notes and route recommendations. Take them as you will: they’re designed for the fairly serious wilderness trekker and, since I’ve always taken out larger groups (9-12 people), they’re often tailored to these sorts of excursions (thus the constant use of the word ‘crew’). Translate accordingly.
I’ve attempted to include the most famous and commonly paddled routes of the various regions I have some expertise in. However, remember that these routes are only guidelines; I certainly have no monopoly of knowledge on interesting places to canoe. The waterways of the Crown Lands and Quetico Provincial Park, for example, are so intricate and complex as to offer a virtually infinite selection of trips to the adventurous canoeist. I offer these routes to highlight the many prominent features of these various wilderness areas. I urge you to customize each of these routes, in consideration of your own personal tastes, in order to create the best possible trip for your crew.
Most people in this world are unfamiliar with wilderness canoe trips. The two most common route planning questions that new canoeists have are: how far will I be able to paddle in a day? And how hard are the portages (portages are the trails between two lakes that crews must traverse as they complete their route)? A good rule of thumb for distance is that the average crew can cover around ten miles in a day. Some crews will want to paddle more and some will want to paddle less; oftentimes favorable weather can make twenty-mile days possible and other times bad wind or storms make paddling impossible. Crews should adjust the ten-mile a day estimate to suit their desires, tastes, and ability level.
Portages are a generally inevitable, and often extremely satisfying, part of the canoeing experience. Some areas of the Crown Land and Quetico have very easy portage trails; other parts have extremely difficult portage trails. As you plan your route, remember that portages discourage traffic. For those intrepid enough to huff and heave over the harder trails, there awaits better fishing, greater isolation, and purer wilderness. A difficult portage trail is always a fulfilling adventure—and it almost always takes you somewhere interesting.
And remember: have fun! Paddling a boat in the North Midwest is just about the best thing you could be doing with your life. Celebrate that.