Looking at the water on the glacier scraped rock shore towards an island.Boundary Waters Explained

In the canoe country, you’ll find that there is a vocabulary as unique as the area itself. No, we’re not talking about mega bites or bandwidth; you’ll leave all of that back in the big city. Before you arrive, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with some of the terms that you’ll hear while you’re here. If you want to disguise yourself as a veteran on your maiden trip to the North Country, you’ll want to do your homework…and this page will do a lot to bring you up to speed.

Canoe Navigation

  • Rod – Unit of measure in the canoe country that is equal to 16.5 feet. 320 rods is the equivalent of 1 mile.
  • Portage – The act of carrying canoe and gear over land from one lake or stream to another. Usually the trails are well maintained.
  • Liftover – While leaving your gear in the canoe, you pull your canoe over a short obstacle, for example a rock or a log.
  • Compass – Navigation device that is used in determining the direction of “magnetic” north.
  • Fisher Map – Brand of map used for navigation, route planning and determining where campsites are located in the boundary waters and Quetico. The scale on this map is 1.5 inches per mile. And are yellow in color.
  • McKenzie Map – Another brand of boundary waters and Quetico map used by paddlers for trip planning and navigation. The scale is 2 inches for every mile. Are white in color.
  • Declination – The angle between “magnetic” north and “true” north. In the boundary waters, the angle of declination does not play a big part in navigation because it is so small, only between 0 and 4 degrees depending on which part you’re in.

Everything Else Canoe

  • Kevlar – The lightest material used to build canoes. Durable, but yet fragile if not taken care of properly. Built for speed and efficiency in the water.
  • Royalex – Very durable hard plastic composite material. Roughly the same weight as aluminum, but much quiter and smoother in the water.
  • Aluminum – Most durable and stable canoe material. The standard staple canoe in the boundary waters. Generally built with a keel for stability and tracking.
  • Bentshaft Paddle – Becoming more popular among paddlers to allow for more efficient strokes in the water and helps conserve energy over the long haul.
  • J-Stroke – A type of stroke used primarily by the stern paddler to compensate on each stroke to maintain a straight direction, and also a faster rate of pace. A stoke that must be learned if you plan to steer efficiently as the stern paddler.
  • Sweep Stroke – Another stroke performed by the stern paddler to quickly turn the canoe’s direction.
  • Draw Stroke – A canoe stroke performed at the same time by both bow and stern paddlers to pull the canoe laterally in to shore or around an obstacle.
  • Windward – The side of an island or shore in which the wind is blowing in to.
  • Leeward – The shoreline or side of an island that the wind is blowing away from.
  • PFD – Stands for Personal Floatation Device, also known as a life jacket.

Canoe Anatomycanoeparts

  • Hull – External part of the canoe, often referred to as the shape or material the canoe is made of.
  • Keel – Structural member of a canoe that runs lengthwise down the center of the canoe to provide balance and stability. On aluminum canoes, the keep protrudes from the hull. Most Kevlar canoes do not have a keel, while some canoes have a “V” shape that acts as a modified keel.
  • Bow – Front end of the canoe. The person sitting in the front of the canoe is referred to as the “bow” paddler.
  • Stern – Back end of the canoe. The paddler sitting in the back is the stern paddler and is in charge of the bulk of the sterring and manuvering of the canoe.
  • Yoke – The absolute middle bar that spans from one side of the canoe to the other. Many canoes have pads built on to the yoke for easier carrying comfort.
  • Thwart – Other structural support bars like the yoke that are located closer to the bow and stern ends of the canoe.
  • Gunwale – The upper edge of the canoe’s sides. Each canoe has two of them that span the entire side of the canoe from bow to stern. The thwarts and yoke connect the two gunwales to provide the structural stability. Often the most mispronounced word in the boundary waters. It is pronounced like “gun-nul”, and not “gun-whale” or “gun-wall”.


  • Duluth Pack – Large backpack often with hip straps for support so that you can carry more things at once and stay organized while on portages, packing the canoe and in camp.
  • Tumpline – Strap on a duluth pack that is designed to be placed across your forehead to relieve the pressure off of your shoulders and back while portaging. It redistributes the weight to utilize your neck muscles as well.
  • Latrine – Wilderness bathroom facility that is generally found at the end of a short path leading away from all BWCA campsites. There are no latrines in the Quetico.
  • Chest Pack – Often on portages, people will choose to carry one duluth pack on their back, and one on their front, or chest. This evens the weight on your front and back, but it is also considered dangerous because it blocks your view from spotting your footing as you negotiate the rocky terrain on your way to the next lake.
  • Frame Pack – A pack that is used more for hiking than boundary waters camping. This pack is really a metal fram with shoulder straps and a waistbelt. All of your gear is then strapped to the metal frame for easier carrying. These packs are not canoe friendly because they are often too tall and can actually puncture holes in the Kevlar canoes.
  • Groundcloth – Tarp that is put either on the ground before your tent, or put on the floor inside your tent to protect you from getting wet when it rains.
  • Dining Fly – A nylon tarp that is used to shelter your camp kitchen area. Usually strung between trees at an angle to allow rain water to wash away.
  • Thermarest – A lightweight and compact air sleeping pad that is self-inflatable for easy setup. Provides the 4-star quality to your tenting experience.

Trees of Northern Minnesota

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  • Birch – A deciduous tree that grows in “groves”. You’ll be able to spot them by their white bark. The wood is very hard and heavy and makes for great firewood.
  • White Cedar – A conifer that has a very hard wood. It grows right next to the water and you’ll see that they grow with a curved trunk. Almost always, they will curve toward the water, and often found growing in the swamps. The tree does not have needles, but instead, fan-like leaves.
  • Spruce – Evergreen tree that is conical in shape. There are two kinds of spruce, white and black. The white grows almost three times as tall as the black spruce, which only reaches about 35 feet. Needles are short and grow straight off of the twig in all directions. Spruce wood is good for fires, but beware of the sparks that the wood throws out.
  • Balsam Fir – Can be confused with a spruce, but you’ll tell the difference by looking at the needles. The needles grow flatter off of the twig, and also have two white stripes on the under side of each needle. The wood is soft and worthless for fires. Cones grow upward off of the upper branches.
  • White Pine – Very tall evergreen tree. Needles grow in clusters of 5 and are longer than the spruce and balsams. The wood makes a very hot fire and also used commonly for lumber.
  • Red Rine – Looks a lot like the white pine, but has reddish bark. The foolproof way to determine the difference between the red and white pine is by the needles. The red pine needles grow in clusters of only 2. Doesn’t burn as well as the white pine.
  • Jack Pine – Tall thin trunk that has scaly bark. The needles are shorter than other pines and grow in clusters of 2. This pine only reproduces during forest fires. The cones don’t open to allow the seeds out unless the temperature reaches a certain degree that only a fire can produce.
  • Aspens – Three types: large-toothed, trembling and balsam poplar. Deciduous tree that grows very fast and often found in burned over and logged areas. The wood is very soft and preferred by beavers. The wood burns fast and hot. The bark is whiteish-green.
  • Maple – Not as common in the canoe country because it requires a decent soil that is dryer. The rocky terrain isn’t the best for the maple, but will be found growing in groups. The maple leaf is commonly known because it is the leaf featured on the Canadian flag. The leaves grow red in the fall providing a beautiful contrast.
  • Tamarack– Evergreen tree that grows only in bogs and wet areas. The only evergreen tree in the canoe country to lose its needles every fall. They turn yellow in the fall and fall off just like decidous trees. The wood is very durable.

Historical Figures of the Canoe Country

  • Voyageurs – Fur Traders who trapped in Northern Minnesota and Western Ontario between 1740 and 1870. Very strong and skilled woodsmen known for their paddling and portaging prowess. Delivered their furs to Montreal via the Voyageurs route for trade with the French and British. Voyageurs who worked the boundary waters area down to Grand Portage were referred to as the “hievernants”.
  • Ojibway Indians – Indian tribes located in Northern Minnesota and Western Ontario. Canadian tribes are referred to as Ojibway, but the Minnesota tribes go by the Chippewa name. Worked the land now known as the Boundary Waters and Quetico by canoe and on foot.
  • Dorothy Molter – Known more commonly in the BWCA as the “Root Beer Lady”. Passed away in 1986, but lived the majority of her life serving cold root beer to thirsty canoeists on a small island on the Canadian side of Knife Lake halfway between Ely and the Gunflint Trail.
  • Benny Ambrose – Lived in the BWCA even after it was declared a “wilderness area” in 1978. Benny was originally from Iowa, and would transport and portage Iowa topsoil across the Monument Portage into Ottertrack Lake where his homestead was located in a small southern Bay on the US side. Benny lived off the land, trapped and fished for food and was the last individual allowed to live inside the BWCA until his death in 1982.
  • Betsy Powell – A name that is synonymous with Saganaga Lake. Betsy made the north arm of Saganaga Lake her summer home for many years. She and her husband built log cabins and ran a resort on the Canadian side of Saganaga for 50 plus years. Betsy has since passed away.