A summer’s disappearing act

Visiting a Primitive Management Area is an opportunity to see areas of the wilderness few others will.


ELY— We followed in the footsteps of Outward Bound until their tracks disappeared.
So did the trail.
We were not caught by surprise and continued on, disappearing into the wilderness by intent.
By our own choosing, we paddled and made our way through two Primitive Management Areas as part of a two-weeks long Boundary Waters Area Canoe Wilderness adventure this summer.

There are obstacles on the way, and trails and campsites that once existed are no longer maintained.


The BWCAW is a popular destination for over 200,000 people a year. A quota system for the entry points to this sprawling wilderness distributes the visitors. People who are willing to paddle and portage are still able to find the quiet and wilderness experience they desire.
Those who really want to enjoy a backwoods, wilderness experience also have the opportunity to visit the 12 Primitive Management Areas dispersed throughout the BWCA. Roughly 100 groups per year will attempt it.
The PMA’s are not advertised by the Forest Service, and purposely identified by the oddest named lake within them. Fungus Lake, Weeny Lake, Mugwump Lake and Hairy Lake are among the PMA names.
Trails and campsites are not maintained in them, and as we discovered, many of the old portages are indeed disappearing as windfalls and newer vegetation fills them.
Users need a special permit to camp in PMAs, and must practice a Leave No Trace ethic. Good compass skills are a must, as is a willingness to work hard. It’s hard enough to carry a canoe and packs with two weeks of food on a maintained portage. Harder yet when walking around windfalls and moving through dense brush.

We occasionally encountered local residents on our way.


The rewards are many. We enjoyed a wilderness experience otherwise only found in northern Canada, without the lengthy drive or costly bush plane flight.
It was in a PMA that we saw our only bull moose on this year’s trip. It was also in a PMA one previous year that I had the opportunity to watch a wolf give chase to a deer along a shoreline.
We gave chase to walleyes in a couple of the PMA lakes, and were well rewarded for the hard work it takes to reach these remote areas.

- Tom Cherveny

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