The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), and Quetico Provincial Park, are truly special places. Combined, they're a massive 2,000,000 acres of undeveloped, protected, wilderness woods and lakes, connected by portage trails and backcountry campsites. You could spend a lifetime paddling this area, constantly seeking new routes and adventures.
The BWCAW-Quetico is so incredible that in Minnesota, I've noticed the phenomena of the "B-Dubber," someone who travels to the Boundary Waters for an annual trip, has a wonderful experience, and then hangs up their paddles and spends the rest of the year dreaming of their return trip to the BWCA-Quetico.
This doesn't have to be the case. There are so many other excellent opportunities for canoe camping in the upper Great Lakes region! Don't get me wrong, if I could make a BWCAW trip every year for the rest of my life, I'd be a very happy guy! But I like to fill my paddling calendar throughout the year—especially during our short paddling season here in Minnesota—and even if it's just an hour after work in the evening on a local creek or lake, a few hours during a busy weekend, or a long weekend campout (one of my favorites is the Thursday night to Monday morning trip; it's long enough to give you a real taste and the timing lets you miss the heavy cabin country traffic).
Below are six of my favorite paddling and canoe camping destinations other than the BWCAW-Quetico areas. Each area is within a day's drive for anyone in the upper Midwest, each area has "front country" access, which allows for an afternoon of paddling, and each area is large or long enough to support a week-long canoe camping trip. In fact, it might take some serious portaging, but a true voyager could paddle through all of these waterways, lake country, and rivers in one long trip!
Now, oil up that paddle, load the wanigan, and get out on the water!
Lake Country Paddling
There's a trio of great lake country canoe camping opportunities located near each other in northeast Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Sylvania Wilderness Area
Sylvania is a lake and portage trail wilderness area in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, similar to the BWCAW. With 34 lakes and a bit more than 18,000 acres, this area is much smaller than the BWCAW, but still big enough for a week-long cruise. Sylvania is famous for it's old growth forest, clear lakes, and it's beautiful, wild, unique feel.
Northern Highlands-American Legion State Forest
The Northern Highlands-American Legion State Forest (NH-AL) is a huge state forest in northeast Wisconsin with a high concentration of lakes, many with connecting portage trails, and paddle-in campgrounds. There are more than 80 canoe campsites in the forest, including routes on lakes designated as "wild" and "wilderness." The Boy Scouts used to have a national High Adventure Canoe Base in NH-AL, and YMCA Camp Manitowish still runs a canoe tripping program in the area. We really enjoyed our paddle through NH-AL.
Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters (Formerly, Turtle-Flambeau Flowage)
A large, wild, reservoir at the headwaters of the Flambeau River in northeast Wisconsin and next door to NH-AL State Forest, the Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters has hundreds of islands, many with boat campsites, offering paddlers a great opportunity to explore, camp on their own island, and enjoy the renowned fishing! There is a section of the Turtle-Flambeau reserved as a "quiet zone" for anyone who wants to really get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Similar options mentioned by BMP readers include the Willow Flowage, which is about an hour closer for those heading up from the Milwaukee or Chicago area, and the Chippewa Flowage, which is closer to Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Namekagon-St. Croix National Scenic Waterway
Starting in northwest Wisconsin and flowing down to become the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, the Namekagon River was one of the first to obtain "National Scenic Waterway" status. Largely protected land on either side for the length of the waterway, this river system offers more than 200 miles of paddling with on-river campsites. I've paddled and camped on many sections of this river way many times, and I never tire of this area!
Lower Wisconsin State Riverway
Some of my first canoe camping experiences were with Boy Scout Troop 170 on the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway as we barged along sun burned in a motley fleet of mismatched, dented, begged, and borrowed canoes and gear wrapped in black trash bags, while camping on sand bars——it was a great time! The lower 92 miles of the Wisconsin River are protected, undeveloped riverway, offering a great paddle through Wisconsin's "Driftless Region." A fun, signature feature of a Wisconsin River trip is the sandbar camping. Simply pull up on an unoccupied sandbar, set up camp, and enjoy the western sunset in the river valley.
An old northwoods favorite, and one with a special place in my heart! As a boy, I did several trips on the Flambeau River to camp and run the whitewater sections with my dad and uncle Tom. This river offers on-river camping most of its length, many obstacle-free sections with good current, and several sections of challenging whitewater, including the optional, wild, south fork of the Flambeau!
The Ozarks! I haven't paddled the Ozarks yet, but I've got it in my sights for the very near future. The Jack's Fork, Current, Eleven Point, Buffalo River, and many more offer long floats with on-river camping, through densely-wooded, hilly, wild areas. The rivers are clear, stream-fed, and rocky-bottomed, which will make for a great canoe poling trip! With its farther south location, the Ozarks have an extended paddling season and many rivers actually run year round. My dad canoed many of these rivers when he was in the Air Force and stationed near St. Louis and Dallas. His comments echo what I read today: these are beautiful rivers, but stay off of them during Summer weekends, unless you're looking for the drunken party float scene; instead, for a quiet wilderness experience, go mid-week or before or after the Summer crowd embarks. For a Minnesotan, it sounds like a perfect early Spring or late Fall trip!