Welcome to the BWCAW blog of Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service!

See our websites at ElyOutfittingCompany.com and BoundaryWatersGuideService.com.

We are a Boundary Waters canoe trip outfitter, Quetico outfitter, and guide service in Ely, Minnesota. In winter, we travel frozen canoe routes while guiding dogsleding trips with Paul and Sue Schurke's Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. This Boundary Waters blog shares photos, stories, humor, skills, and naturalist insights from guiding in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Most entries are from our founder and head guide, Jason Zabokrtsky. He is the Boundary Waters Blogger.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


On heels of local reality show production, Ely develops an entire network

Ely, Minn. — April 1, 2014 — Many have heard that Ely, Minn. — gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area — has been selected as the location for a living off-the-grid-themed reality show. Buoyed by the attention, the city today is announcing it will go big on the small screen — and launch a 24/7 all-Ely, all-the-time network — The Ely Channel.

“The Ely story has legs — as well as fins, antlers and just about everything else,” says newly named Ely Channel network executive Jeremy Williams. Williams, along with several other former locals, is convinced that a televised trip to the town at the end of the road — Ely — might be just what this country needs.

Cable carriers in Kansas City, Kan. and Claremont, Calif. have already signed up. In a several rural markets, The Ely Channel has replaced bigger players such as al Jazeera, and in one case, CNN.

The Ely Channel will unveil a full schedule of programming at the New York City TV upfronts later in April. But the network has already begun production on several shows, including Iron Range Chef, Sauna Wars (heavily pixilated to comply with FCC standards) and a singalong, call-in show, Campfire!

“There is a webcam up on Sheridan (Street) for a few years, and that’s become pretty popular. A lot of folks tune in from all over just to see what’s going on in town. I guess this (station) will be sort of like that, only with sound,” says Linda Fryer, Ely Tourism. “And of course, there’s our Ely cable station that’s already airing local news and happenings, including the popular Snorkeling with Mikey. We’ll be able to bring programs like that to a much wider audience.”

“In Ely, we’ve got the corner on nature — with summer and winter activities galore,” says Williams. “In fact, research shows there’s strong interest in rural and nature-based programming in general, and in Ely and the Boundary Waters specifically.” Special materials are also being developed to help bring The Ely Channel into the classroom for schools throughout the country.

The Ely Chamber has diverted dollars to seed fund the channel, and is asking for the public’s help in making this effort a success. “We need folks who love this area to contact their cable companies to request The Ely Channel,” says Fryer. “Whether they’ve been to Ely before or not, we know that people will travel to experience the magic of Ely in person once they get a dose of our million acres of unspoiled wilderness on their flat screens. If not, we’ve got a whole lot of fancy TV equipment that’ll end up on Craigslist!” The city is considering launching an angel investment round of financing to grow programming on the channel as well.
For more on The Ely Channel, or to book a trip to town to see first-hand America’s Coolest Small Town, visit http://www.ely.org.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Do I need an even number of people for a Boundary Waters canoe trip?


If you have an odd number of people in your group, then you may choose a three-seat canoe.  Our favorite three-seat canoe is the Seneca made by Wenonah.  Made out of Kevlar, it is 19'4" and weighs only 55 pounds.  It includes three "real" seats.  That makes for a comfortable spot for the middle person who is able to paddle as part of the team, or sit back and relax. 

 We also use the Seneca canoe for families with small kids.  It works well to sit two children next to each other in the middle seat.  The boys above are trolling for lunkers.

The Seneca is big enough for three grown men and a week's supply of gear.  When two of my high school buddies visited, the three of us paddled a Seneca.  Also, last summer we had three men with an ivy league crewing background take one of these for a week, and they loved it.

I once paddled this canoe carrying myself, two other large guys, three kids, and two large dogs on a day trip in the BWCA.  We were quite a sight, but it worked really well.

Our guides love this boat.  The guide can carefully position the canoe while two guests fish.

The Seneca is a fun, sociable, efficient, and stable canoe that makes for a great fishing platform and load-hauler.

We rent the Wenonah Seneca Kevlar ultra-light three-person canoe.

Another option for an odd number of people is to use a solo canoe.  A solo canoe is best for an experienced paddler.  It can be tricky and sometimes frustrating to maneuver a solo canoe in windy conditions, and the pace of the solo canoe may be different from the tandem canoes in the party.  We rent the Wenonah Kevlar ultra-light Encounter solo canoe.  It is 17' long and weighs 38 pounds.  You can use either a single or double bladed paddle.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Bushwhacking the Boundary Waters Without a Boat

Jason Zabokrtsky, of Ely, MN, is attempting to cross the BWCAW and Quetico on foot, alone, and off-trail from Atikokan, Ontario, to Ely, Minnesota, from October 11 - 25.

Jason Zabokrtsky, of Ely, is trading paddles and Duluth packs for trekking poles and a backpack during a bushwhack across the Boundary Waters without a boat.  Photo by Paul Skorazczewski.

During two weeks on trail, Jason will experience the area he has lived, worked and played in from a totally different perspective.  As a Boundary Waters wilderness canoe trip and dogsled guide and outfitter, he has seen this region extensively, but in the same way virtually everyone who experiences the Boundary Waters sees it:  either from a canoe, on a portage trail, or around a campsite.

This journey flips convention on its head. The Boundary Waters region is an extremely water-rich environment experienced primarily by canoe.  However, this is an unprecedented journey without a boat.  Travel will be primarily on foot and off-trail.  But, it's impossible to cross this region without getting wet.  So how will he manage without a boat?  Jason will don a dry suit and swim the necessary water crossings - his backpack stowed in a dry bag and floating beside him.  He's minimizing this risky part of the trip by only swimming in the narrowest stretches and using extra caution around the frigid water.  The anticipated route has about a dozen significant swims.  The payoff is that he will experience remote wilderness that is virtually never seen.

Jason says this journey will also help him relate to the guests of his Ely Outfitting Company, a Boundary Waters canoe trip outfitter in Ely, MN, and improve his understanding of the region.  Guests of his business challenge themselves mentally and physically as they prepare to experience a new adventure.  While outfitting the information and gear for a canoe trip isn't particularly challenging for Jason these days - he could probably pack out a canoe trip in his sleep - an unconventional trip like this bushwhack means learning new skills, evaluating new travel systems, and preparing for the unknown.  Jason says, "this journey will definitely provide me with a deeper understanding and better appreciation for this exceptional wilderness area that I love dearly."

The approximate route is shown in green and red.  The red designates the bushwhack route within the BWCAW and Quetico.  The green designates the route outside of these wilderness areas.  The yellow line is the international border.
The total trip distance is difficult to predict because the bushwhack route doesn't follow established trails, and the route will need to change based upon the best option found in the woods. With that said, Jason estimates the total trip distance will be around 80 miles.  The total horizontal distance of the anticipated route shown in the satellite map from the northern edge of Quetico to the southern edge of the BWCA is about 50 miles.  The route shown outside of the Wilderness is about 25 miles.

But how does a person stay on course and not get lost during this sort of bushwhack?  After all, Jason tells canoe trip guests that the way people get lost on trips up here is when they walk off-trail into the woods.  Canoeists may get turned around on the lakes, but they don't get lost when in a canoe.  People do get lost on foot in these dense woods.  Jason will stay on course with the help of the old reliable paper map and a navigation compass.  He's also using an iphone gps app (MotionX), satellite imagery (particularly helpful for determining stream widths), and electronic topo maps (good for avoiding particularly rugged topography).

A satellite phone will allow Jason to make occasional updates from the trail.  You'll find those updates at www.facebook.com/ElyOutfittingCompany

Jason thanks those providing planning and logistical support for this attempt, including Max Pittman, Kate Sinner, Paul Schurke, Dave Gossage, Dave Freeman, Amy Freeman, Jerritt Johnston, Chris Hartmann, and Joe Mattson.  Also, he particularly thanks Jerritt Johnston for staffing the outfitting business and communications during the trip, and providing social media updates.

Jason owns Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service (www.ElyOutfittingCompany.com) in Ely, MN. 



Thursday, August 29, 2013

August 29 BWCAW Fires Update and New Campfire Restrictions for Some Areas

CONTACT:  Becca Manlove, Information Officer, West Zone, Superior National Forest, 218-365-2093; 218-343-3026.

Campfire restrictions for the Gunflint and portions of the Tofte Districts will go into effect after midnight tonight. Fires will be allowed only between 7 p.m. and midnight in the restricted area. The restrictions apply only to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and only to the eastern portions listed in the forest order.  Click the link below to access the order and a map.

Current Fire Activity:

Knife Lake Fire: 188 acres.  Fire is north of the South Arm of Knife and south of  Amoeber Lake: Township 65, Range 6 West, Section 18. Fire managers have successfully suppressed a fire that was in an unsafe and inaccessible location by bringing it out to natural barriers. Suppression was implemented in an efficient and effective manner using limited aerial and hand ignition along with other holding resources on the ground. A weather front passed through last night but did not produce any rain. Gusty winds tested control lines and they held well. At 1:00 p.m. today rain was beginning to fall on the fire. Containment is at 60% and rising steadily. The South Arm of Knife closures of campsites, waterways, and portages are still in place.

Fires now out:

• Disappointment Lake Fire: quarter acre, discovered Saturday evening, August 24, 2013. Declared out on  8/27/13.

• Sedative Lake Fire, north of Ima: Township 64, Range 7 West, Section 17. Reported at three tenths of an acre in size. Called out this morning.

Resources: Sixteen fire fighters and four public safety staff on the Knife Lake Fire; two deHavilland Beaver floatplanes at the Ely Seaplane Base; ___staff on initial attack.

For a location map of the three fires, the South Arm of Knife Lake closure order, a closure map, fire restrictions order and map, and daily fire updates please see our website: www.fs.usda.gov/superior.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

BWCAW Fires Update for Aug. 28, 2013

CONTACT:  Becca Manlove, Information Officer, West Zone, Superior National Forest, 218-365-2093; 218-343-3026.

A closure was put in place for the South Arm of Knife Lake yesterday which includes the waterway of the South Arm, twenty four campsites, and nine portages.  All entry points into the BWCAW remain open.

The fire danger remains high. BWCAW visitors are asked to use extreme caution with campfires. Campfires are safest in the evening after 7:00 p.m. when temperatures cool, winds are usually lighter, and relative humidity increases.  Drown fires and embers completely.

Current Fire Activity:

Knife Lake Fire: now at approximately 100 acres, fire is north of the South Arm of Knife and south of  Amoeber Lake: Township 65, Range 6 West, Section 18. Fire fighters are taking full suppression actions and are pleased with the progress. Control lines are being created and are holding well. The smoke column may increase today due to the ignition of unburned fuel between the fire and the control lines. Containment is estimated at 40%.

Sedative Lake Fire, north of Ima: Township 64, Range 7 West, Section 17. Reported at three tenths of an acre in size and 60 % contained yesterday afternoon.  A two person crew camped nearby and will be working it again today.

Contained and Controlled Fires:

Disappointment Lake Fire: quarter acre, discovered Saturday evening, August 24, 2013.
Declared out on  8/27/13.

Resources: Sixteen fire fighters and four public safety staff on the Knife Lake Fire; two staff on Sedative Fire; CL215 air tanker, small helicopter, and an air attack fixed wing stationed at Ely Tanker Base; two deHavilland Beaver floatplanes at the Ely Seaplane Base.

For a location map of the three fires, the South Arm of Knife Lake closure order, a closure map, and updates please see our website: www.fs.usda.gov/superior.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Temporary Closure of South Arm of Knife Lake in the BWCAW Due to Fire

Effective immediately, on August 27, 2013, the USFS has closed the parts of Knife Lake in the BWCAW reflected in the above map due to a fire. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Northwoods Fire Ecology Program August 24

The International Wolf Center still has seats available for its Northwoods Fire Ecology program on Saturday, August 24!

The history of wildfire in the Superior National Forest is long and varied. Learn about this natural disturbance and how it affects the flora and fauna of the northwoods. Meet with wildfire experts in the field and explore the Pagami Creek Fire area by foot and canoe. Discuss how wolves, moose and other species adapt and benefit from fires in their habitat. That evening, enjoy a hearty meal at Listening Point, famed retreat of conservationist Sigurd Olson, and historic fire ecology with Listening Point staff.

Activity Level:

One hike over uneven terrain for one to three miles depending on group abilities. Canoe paddling on a lake with little to no current. Activities will be dependent on weather conditions.

Package Includes:

    Expert instruction by Center staff and guest speakers (LP and USFS)
    Guided canoe excursion in the BWCAW
    Hike in the BWCAW
    Private visit to Listening Point, famed retreat of Sigurd Olson
    Snacks, field lunch and dinner
    Transport during program activities

Wolf Center Member Rate: $112.50
Non-member Rate:    $125

More details and registration: http://www.wolf.org/wolves/experience/programs/fireecology.asp

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Boundary Waters Trip Video

A group of Boundary Waters canoe trip guests canoed, portaged and fished July 22 - 26 and they've already put together this great time lapse video of their trip.  Awesome!

Monday, July 8, 2013

BWCA Chronology

Did you know that in 1969 the maximum group size in the Boundary Waters was 15 people?  Today the maximum group size is nine people with a maximum of four watercraft. 

Learn more fun BWCA facts in the very best online chronology of the history of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness at  http://www.wilbers.com/BoundaryWatersCanoeAreaWildernessChronologyLong.htm.  The chronology is by Stephen Wilbers, the author of several books about the Boundary Waters.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Perfect Boundary Waters experience

There's a chance for some beautiful weather in the Boundary Waters, and this last week was just right. We enjoyed several perfectly still days on a five-day trip recently. This wild rice sunning itself on the surface of the water didn't have the slightest breeze to push all the blades in the same diretion.

This is how our guides celebrate July 4th on the water!

The fishing was worthwhile -- our group got a few walleyes - enough to enjoy a fish fry dinner. This little walleye lived to see another day, but it was a lively subject for a portrait!


We finished the last twenty minutes of our trip while portaging in a bit of rain (well, downpour!), which seemed a fair trade-off for five days of beautiful weather! 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Moose Resting - Drive Carefully

You never know what you may see on the drive Up North.  Nace Hagemann (www.nacehagemann.com) photographed this cow moose and her two calves on the Gunflint Trail just outside of the BWCA recently.  Thanks to Nace for allowing us to share his incredible photo.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

BWCA Ice Out Update

FS Pilot report from flight late Thursday afternoon:

Crooked open.

Horse open.

Knife, Ensign, Thomas, Frazier, One, Two, Three, Four, Hudson, Insula all open

Basswood is pretty much open.

Snowbank – west end open, only about 1/3 of the lake is open, probably couldn’t get to


Kawishiwi Lake open.

Isabella Lake open.

Gunflint area quite a few lake with ice.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Latest BWCA Ice Out Info

We just received this info from the Forest Service:

FS Pilot report—this information is from a flight late Sunday afternoon.

Jackfish- 40% open
Open: Pipestone, Stuart, Agnes, Nina Moose, Ramshead, Upper and Lower Pauness
Frozen: Oyster
Bald Eagle- 60% open
Gabbro- 75% open
Open: Gull, Turtle, Lakes 1 and 2
Clearwater- frozen, but open around edges

This information is from today’s flight:

Moose Lake: southwestern third is open; northeastern two thirds frozen but dark ice.
S. Kawishiwi R. and Gabbro Lake are mostly open.
Turtle is open.
There is ice in the middle of Bald Eagle.
Clearwater and Pietro are frozen (thin ice) but Gull is open.
Quadga and Bog are open.
Isabella and Perent still have a lot of ice in the middle.
Polly and Phoebe are open.
Alton and Sawbill are still frozen.
Generally the smaller lakes in the south east are open or mostly open. Larger lakes are still frozen.
Alice is frozen.
Insula south of The Rock is open, the northern portion is frozen.
Lake 3 is mostly open.
Knife Lake including the South Arm is mostly ice.
Saganaga is still frozen.

Reports from observers:

Snowbank is iced but the bays are opening

Today’s Safety Message:
Grasses are dry and cured. We’ve had a few small fires. Keep fires small and stay nearby.
Winds will be from the south at 5 to 15 mph but with gusts up to 30 mph. Wear PFDs.

BWCA Ice Out Update

We just received this report from the Forest Service:

FS Pilot report—this information is from a flight late Sunday afternoon. There is a flight up now so more
information will be sent later:

Pipestone- open
Jackfish- 40% open
Stuart- open
Agnes- open
Oyster- frozen
Nina Moose- open
Ramshead- open
Upper & Lower Pauness- open
Bald Eagle- 60% open
Gabbro- 75% open
Gull- open
Pietro- open
Clearwater- frozen, but open around edges
Turtle- 25% open
Lakes 1,2,3 open
Moose Lake: southwestern third is open; northeastern portion frozen but dark ice.

Today’s Safety Message:

Grasses are dry and cured. We’ve had a few small fires. Keep fires small and stay nearby.
Winds will be from the south at 5 to 15 mph but with gusts up to 30 mph. Wear PFDs.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Additional BWCA Ice Out Info

This additional information was forwarded to us by the Forest Service today:

FS Pilot report—Information added from flight late Thursday afternoon:
  • Fall Lake is mostly open.
  • Newton is open.
  • There was a very wide band of dark ice from west shore to east shore in the middle of Pipestone Bay of Basswood blocking passage north of Caribou Point.
  • Ella Hall, Mud, Muskeg, Hula, and Wood are all open.
  • Back Bay is mostly open.
  • Wind Bay of Basswood is open but Wind Lake is 75% frozen.
  • Moose Lake is mostly frozen but the ice is dark
  • Sucker and Newfound are covered with mostly dark ice. These lakes have some open water around the edges.
  • Little Gabbro is open. Gabbro is 80% frozen.
  • The Kawishiwi River is open from Birch Lake to White Iron. From River Point the river is open up to
  • Three Mile Lake but Three Mile Lake is frozen.
  • North Kawishiwi River is mostly open. Lake One is open from the public access to Kawishiwi Lodge.
  • There is a big chunk of ice in the northern half of the lake blocking passage. Insula, Alice, Fraser, and Thomas are frozen.
  • Ensign is frozen but dark. Knife and Kek are frozen.
  • Garden is 75% open. South Farm is 30% open and dark ice.
  • Big Lake is frozen but may open in a day or two.
  • The Nina Moose River (aka Moose/Portage River North) is open and Nina Moose Lake is about 80% open. 
  • Ramshead is only 40 % open. 
  • Stuart, Agnes, and Oyster are frozen.
  • The Little Indian Sioux River is open but the Pauness Lakes are only 50% open.
  • Dumbell, Sawbill, Isabella, Sawbill, and Kawishiwi Lakes and most lakes of any size on the east half of the forest are still frozen.

Boundary Waters Ice Out Update for May 10

 I snapped this photo at our shop in Ely a few minutes ago.  Yep, it's snowing.

Following is the most recent info we received from the Forest Service at 5:30 PM on May 10:

Today’s Safety Message: 
  • Predictions for winds today include gusts up to 38 miles per hour. 
  • Please wear a PFD if you venture out on the water.
  • Be careful with fire. Spring fuels dry out quickly.
  • Ice packs may shift dramatically.
  • Rivers may be dangerous.
  • High volumes of water are causing some dangerous landings at portages.
  • Currents are swift and unpredictable.
FS Pilot report (limited fire patrol flight this afternoon):
  • Fall Lake is mostly open. Newton is open. Pipestone is open up the middle almost to Caribou Point. The rest may open in a couple of days. Jackfish still has white ice.
  • The Nina Moose (Moose/Portage River North) is open and Nina Moose Lake is about 80% open. Agnes is only 40 % open.
  • Dumbell, Sawbill, and most lakes of any size on the east side are still frozen.
  • Moose Lake is mostly frozen.
Reports from people on the ground:
  • Farm Lake is frozen.
  • Sawbill still at 13 inches of ice.
  • Lake One appears to be open from the landing past Kawishiwi Lodge—how much farther is not known.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Boundary Waters Ice Out Update for May 9

We received the following info from the USFS today.

Reports from observers at landings:

•    In general, smaller, shallow lakes and rivers on the western half of the Superior National Forest are opening up.
•    Rivers on the east side of the forest are opening. Lakes are almost all still frozen.
•    There are no reports of any lakes associated with river entry points being open. The Little Indian Sioux and Moose/Portage (aka Nina Moose) River water levels are high.
•    Fall Lake is open from the Fall Lake Campground landing to the falls. Newton is open. Pipestone is iced in well south of Caribou Point.
•    Tofte, Moose, and Snowbank Lakes are still frozen.
•    Ojibway Lake has 8 feet of open water out from the public landing.
•    The Kawishiwi River leaving east from the Lake One landing is open.
•    Burntside is frozen.
•     Little Long and Fenske Lakes are almost completely full of ice.
•    Johnson (south of Ely off Hwy 21) is open.
•    Robinson Lake (west of Ely on 169) is open.
•    Birch Lake is still solid with white ice.
•    There is open water at the South Kawishiwi River Campground landing.
•    Sawbill Lake’s ice—from 23 inches down to 14 inches today.

Today’s Safety Message:

•    Please remember large masses of ice may shift. Even if there is a narrow channel open along the edge of a lake the opening may be pinched off suddenly.
•    Winds up to 30 mph are predicted for this weekend.
•    The water is dangerously cold. Wear your life preserver if you go out.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Boundary Waters Ice Out Updates

The US Forest Service is providing the following current ice information.

Superior National Forest Ice Update - May 8, 2013

From FS pilots: They flew a west patrol yesterday from Jackfish west and south to Birch and Vermilion Lakes.
  • Everything was still frozen. Many lakes were still frozen right to the shoreline.
  • Fall Lake had the most open water around the edges but was still 80% ice covered.
  • Birch, Vermilion, Burntside, western Basswood including Pipestone and Jackfish Bays, S. Farm, and White Iron were frozen.
  • There was a little open water near the bridge on the northern end of White Iron and a little open water on the southeast end.
Reports from others:
  • Rivers are running hard but the lakes are not open.
  • Some people are venturing out over the ice (very dangerous!) only to find themselves confronting more ice.
  • A few smaller lakes are very black and may open with rain or wind.
  • Sawbill Lake had 23 inches of ice on it yesterday.