Endless Water: A Journey Into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Longtime Midwest Living photographer Kevin J. Miyazaki shares an intimate, first-person look at Minnesota’s wild Boundary Waters.
Once a year, photographer Kevin J. Miyazaki, a longtime contributor to Midwest Living, trades his big-city gigs for a paddle and a tent. He heads to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where 1,175 interlocking lakes weave through 1 million acres along the Minnesota-Canada border.
What began in 2002 as a guys' trip with childhood buddies has turned into an annual pilgrimage to disconnect from society and reconnect with nature. Through the lens of his smartphone (no professional gear!), Kevin documented last summer's escape, sharing an intimate glimpse into one of the Midwest's most untouched landscapes.
Only 19 of the 1,175 lakes in the Boundary Waters are motorized, making it easy to avoid congestion and the clamor of boat engines. On early mornings, when the mist rises in spirals off the water and it's just you and your paddle, nature remains undisturbed in its tranquility.
Shorelines are made up of huge, smooth rocks. There are no mountains. The landscape is familiar, but not overly dramatic. There's a subtlety to it. But most of it is just endless water.
We usually visit in late September or early October, but this time we went in summer. (And my friend Andy's family came along.) In fall, everything is less green, less alive. But this time it was more vibrant. One of the most memorable moments was paddling through even, smooth waves with ribbons of bright green weeds. I'd never seen that before, and it was gorgeous.
Once we're in the wilderness, we see maybe eight people total during a week in the fall. That's one of the Boundary Waters' greatest appeals—encounters with others are minimal. There are certain lakes and swimming holes where people gather, but for the most part it's just you and your group.
When we're not on the water, we're just sitting around and chatting. It's a very stripped-down vacation with a lot of good conversation. It's a totally different feeling from when you're visiting a big city as a tourist and you feel like you need to see everything.
In the Boundary Waters, I'm able to fully disconnect. It's as unplugged as you can be, physically impossible to get text messages or phone calls. The drive to where we put in our canoes is a long gravel road out of Ely, Minnesota, and you feel like you're leaving everything behind.
Maps are important in the Boundary Waters because the landscape is hard to differentiate. The geography all blends together, and it's difficult to know what's around the bend. And maps are crucial to find campsites. By design, the sites are not easy to spot from the water; you have to know where to look. We'll either camp in a new site each night or stay put for a few nights. We call days we don't move Duff Days. (And we have more of them each year, as we get older.)
Once each trip, we'll all go fishing. In our group, Andy fishes often (most others don't). He tries to catch walleye but normally brings in a mix of walleye, smallmouth bass and northern pike. He does a light batter and panfries them, with some kind of rice on the side. I don't fish much, but my dad loved to in Minnesota, so a couple of times over the years, I've fished out of memory of him.
We paddled to Basswood Falls one day this year, 8 miles each way. Over a few days, we typically navigate about a dozen lakes, and then portage in between, which means carrying our canoes on trails between bodies of water. The trails can all be very different, from wet and muddy to boulder rocks.
Shot on iPhone
I always leave my camera equipment behind on these trips. Taking pictures is all-or-nothing for me. You're limited on how much gear to bring, and If I was going to bring a camera into the Boundary Waters, it would be frustrating to not have all the lenses. All these beautiful things happen in front of us, and I want to either capture them directly or not capture them at all. In the last couple of years, I have loved using my phone as a tool; my personal Instagram feed (@kevinmiyazaki) is all phone pictures. I take a lot of detail shots in the Boundary Waters. Since I'm so familiar with the landscape up there, I'm always looking closer at it and finding new aspects to capture.
I've seen a few black bears, and we've heard wolves or coyotes at nighttime; every once in a while you can hear howling. Sound carries farther over water, so when you hear that, it sounds like it's 50 feet away, but it's probably across a big lake. Loons provide ambient sound, which is really nice, especially at dusk. There's no light pollution up there, so it's good stargazing. One year, we saw a dramatic showing of the northern lights. It was in the middle of the night; one of the guys got up and then woke us all up. They had less color and were less green than you sometimes see, but they were directly overhead and really wild and wavy.
I used to do a lot more backpacking and camping in my 20s and early 30s. To me, this represents my last bit of that. That's why this week every year is so important. It's my one chance to be outside. It's part of my past. And I'm glad to be able to do it with Andy, my oldest friend in the world. He's the happiest he ever is during the week of this trip.
Unless you're familiar with the Boundary Waters or a veteran paddler, the easiest way to tackle the trip is with an outfitter. Kevin and his friends usually work with Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely. It's kind of a choose-your-own-adventure when it comes to Piragis' services. They can help you with your trip plan, permits, gear rental, route planning (there are 1,200 miles of canoe routes) and maps. Just let them know your experience level and familiarity with the area. Piragis also offers guided trips, ideal if you're new to paddling or camping.
Be aware you won't be glamping in the Boundary Waters. All of the 2,000 campsites are primitive (latrine bathrooms, no electricity or trash disposal). You'll have to pack in and pack out, which means bringing everything you need—and leaving with it too. And it's important to know you don't book a specific campsite; rather, you reserve a permit for a specific entry point into the Boundary Waters. So if you arrive in the evening, you may have to paddle the shore a bit, looking for an empty site—all part of the adventure.