Paddle Away From Civilization: 4 Amazing Wilderness Canoe Trips to Take

by Darren Bush on October 30, 2012 · 43 comments

in Travel & Leisure


“What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other. Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.” — Pierre Trudeau, P.M.



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A wilderness trip in a canoe is a privilege few people experience in their lifetimes.  Last year 22,000,000 people reportedly paddled a canoe.  Perhaps only a few thousand took a wilderness trip longer than a few weeks.  It’s pretty easy to see why: we all have too little vacation and too much to do.  The average canoe trip 20 years ago was nine days.  Today it’s three.  Clearly, our priorities are screwed up.

Should you dream of a wilderness canoe trip, here are a few suggestions.  Included is an epic adventure that is well-known to the wilderness paddler, a beautiful and remote yet accessible voyage, and a couple trips suitable for a beginning paddler.  All are awesome; some are just more awesome than others.  I’ve tried to be fair geographically and spread it out a little.

New England: The Northern Forest Canoe Trail

This 740-mile water trail runs from Old Forge, New York in the Adirondacks to Fort Kent, Maine.  It’s a recently completed trail and sets the standard for how things should be done to create such resources.  A coalition of public and private stakeholders worked it out and agreed on how to make this trail work from start to finish.

It started when private land owners collaborated with public entities, power companies, and other interested parties to create a continuous trail.  It passes through numerous little towns, and includes a wide variety of different waters.  Large, clear lakes like Rangeley and Umbagog contain lovely bays and small inlets. Little stretches of mild whitewater run to connect the lakes.  There are large rivers like the Androscoggin that run from Maine and into New Hampshire.  You’ll experience flat water for long stretches, punctuated by Class II (and a few III) rapids.  In other words, a perfect combination.

Bugs can be a problem in wet seasons, but it varies wildly based on your area.  Northern Maine in the spring has an almost palpable hum from the mosquitos.  Here you’ll want headnets and other bug-proofing materials.

Now this is not strictly a wilderness trip.  Because there are some public lands, there are a few old cabins along the shore of some of the lakes, and the rivers have dams that one must carry around.  But for a first-time canoe wilderness trip, it’s one of the best places to start.

Periodically you’ll be reminded that you’re in New England, as you pass under covered bridges and near small towns where the steeples of white churches predominate from river level. Reminders that parts of this route are not truly wilderness, but gorgeous just the same.

Several paddlers have “through-paddled” the entire trail.  If you’re new to paddling expeditions, this is a good place to cut your teeth.

Skill Level Needed:

Alone:  Intermediate

With a Guide or Group: Beginner

Length: 3 to 30 days, depending on the section

Resources: Planning information and maps, a list of outfitters and guides, and other useful information can be found at the official website for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail at http://www.northernforestcanoetrail.org/

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park – Minnesota/Ontario Canada

Located on the boundary (get it?) between the United States and Canada in northern Minnesota, this 1.1 million acre wilderness area is a great resource.  It butts up against Quetico Provincial Park, separated by as little as a few hundred feet of water.  I remember one trip where I told my wife, “I think I’ll swim over to Canada.” And I did.

There are smaller rivers in this classic boreal region, but mostly there are lakes, and lots of them. There are over 600 in Quetico and over 1,000 in the Boundary Waters.  Portaging (carrying your canoe and your gear between lakes) is common.  Portages are measured by an old surveying measurement called rods.  A rod is 16.5 feet, or 320 rods to a mile.  Looking at the Boundary Waters maps you’ll see portages between 10 and 550 (ouch).  The portages range from a nice, smooth path to a bushwhack through mud, rocks, roots, and combinations thereof.

Black bears are fairly common, as well as moose, and if you’re lucky, even a wolf or two.  The Common Loon (the Minnesota state bird) warbles its haunting call at dusk and you know you’ve left civilization behind. During the blueberry season you can pick a full Nalgene bottle in fifteen minutes and eat them just as fast.

Both Quetico and the Boundary Waters are wilderness areas, but that doesn’t mean they’re empty. Thousands of people visit the area every summer, and some brave souls in the spring and autumn.  Personally, I love autumn as there are no bugs, fewer people if any, and spectacular colors as the aspens turn and the pines and spruces remain green.

The biggest issue for travelers is the bugs.  Biting black flies in early season can make your life miserable without netting and DEET.  Same goes for mosquitoes, but as it dries out later in the summer, the bugs diminish.  Once we get a good hard frost, it’s awesome.  Campsites vary as to their bugginess, and staying in a camp with a breeze helps, of course. Then there’s the occasional leech.  They’re harmless but creepy.  I’ve seen grown men cry like a baby when they find a leech sucking away.  Throw salt or bug spray on them or just grab ‘em and yank.

It is easy for beginners in the area to get lost.  Once you get into the interior, a lot of branches and peninsulas look exactly the same.  Do not rely on a GPS; batteries die and electronics fail.  The good news is that there is almost no declination adjustment with a compass, meaning true north and magnetic north are within a few degrees of each other.  Learn to use a map and compass.

Skill Level: Beginners are okay with shorter loops and help from an experienced paddler or a reputable paddling shop.

Trip Length: Overnighters, to two or three week trips, are possible.

Resources:  There are numerous outfitters who can set you up from the ground up.  A few with which I am familiar are listed below, and I know all of them personally and can vouch for their character.  They don’t know I’m doing this.

Voyageur Canoe Outfitters
Mike and Sue Prom
www.canoeit.com

Voyageur North
Steve and Lynn O’Kane
www.vnorth.com

Another great resource is www.canoecountry.com.  Here you can find maps and talk to other paddlers who have experience in BWCA/Quetico and love to share their knowledge. But thar be trolls lurking.  Ignore them.

The True North: Nahanni River

This river is a classic canoeing river in one of the most remote areas in Canada in the Northwest Territories, just east of the Yukon.  This wild river flows through the Nahanni River National Park Preserve, proposed and championed by Canada’s then Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau.

The Nahanni is an ancient river, cutting a path even when mountains rose and blocked its way. It features abundant rapids and waterfalls, including the famous (to canoeists) Virginia Falls. It also passes through four long, steep canyons, aptly named Canyon One, Canyon Two, etc.  The walls of these canyons rise to over 1000 feet tall with little access to shore, making it an expert’s river if paddling in a self-guided group.

Due to the unique nature of the geology of the river, the ecosystems surrounding it are a rare and special once in a lifetime treat. The river’s shores are home to abundant wildlife, including many species of threatened and endangered species.  A rare species of orchid lives on the walls near Virginia Falls due to the considerable mist that blankets them.  Surrounding the river are also caribou herds, grizzly bears, various alpine sheep and goats, wolves, and other macrofauna.

It is paddled mostly in covered canoes due to the abundant whitewater.  Because of its remote nature, access is generally by float plane and resupply is impractical (air drop), which means you are self-contained for one to three weeks.  However, traveling by canoe means luxury.  You’re not backpacking here, sonny.  You sleep on thick, futon-like pads, eat fresh food (the fish are plentiful, and not smart to people yet), and sleep in nice, big tents.

Because of its remote nature, it is an expensive trip, costing several thousands of dollars, even if you guide your own trip.  Float planes are expensive, but the payoff is that less than 1,000 people a year visit this gem, so your opportunity for solitude is unparalleled.  And kids really like float planes.

Skill Level:  Expert, though beginners in good physical shape can do this trip with a guide.

Length: One to three weeks, but if you’re going to spend the money to get there and have the time off, go for three if you can.

Guide services are available through Blackfeather Guide Service (www.blackfeather.com).  They have been running trips on the Nahanni, and their owner, Wendy Grater is one of the most experienced guides I know.  And no, she’s not paying me to say this.

Southern Comfort: The Buffalo National River

What’s a National River?  Starting in 1972, the Buffalo River in Northern Arkansas has been protected from development, industrial uses, or any other use that might change or affect the river’s ecosystem.  Managed by the National Park Service, the 132-mile Buffalo changes personalities as it travels its course.  The upper sections are extremely technical and beautiful whitewater, suitable only for expert paddlers.

The topography is unique due to its location in the southern Ozarks.  Hundreds of caves dot the riverway, and waterfalls and springs feed into it.  That’s a good thing, as water levels are important in determining the ability to paddle.  Low water exposes sand bars and high water can flood the river making it dangerous.  This is one place where it’s critical to watch the weather.

Of all the rivers described here, the Buffalo has the most variety in flora and fauna.  An elk herd was introduced in 1981, joining the deer, turkey, feral hogs, and a host of other macrofauna.  Hundreds of species of wildflowers live along the river, bringing an explosion of color in the spring.

Of all the rivers described here, the Buffalo has the most variety in flora and fauna.  An elk herd was introduced in 1981, joining the deer, turkey, feral hogs, and a host of other macrofauna.  Hundreds of species of wildflowers live along the river, bringing an explosion of color in the spring.

Camping is available along the riverway, both in established park service campsites and on sand bars.  If you need a place to paddle in late spring or early fall, the Buffalo is a great place to get away when other northern paddling destinations are frosty.

Skill Level:  Whitewater over Class II requires specific equipment and the skills to use it.  The lower sections are suitable for beginning paddlers.

Length:  You can do different sections in short runs, but the entire river can take six to ten days depending on water levels.

Resources:

Here are the outfitters I would recommend:

Buffalo River Canoes, Inc.
HC 73 Box 39
Marble Falls, AR 72648

Silver Hill Canoe
9826 Highway 65 South
St. Joe, AR 72675

Buffalo River Float Service
11637 Suite1, Highway 14 South
Yellville, AR 72687

You can also email my friend Richard at rmmcfadden@yahoo.com.  Seriously.  He loves the Buffalo River.

Any of these rivers are within a man’s reach.  All that is required is an honest appraisal of your skills, your equipment, and the patience to do your homework.  The journey starts with a dream; the important thing is what you do after you wake up.

After all, happiness is a loaded down canoe.

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Claude October 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Im still trying to master basic canoeing skills in the local lake, but this article really got me craving some river canoeing. Great stuff.

2 Trevor October 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm

I think your advice about leeches needs to be revised, I have been told if you put salt on them then pull them off they can bring up there stomach contents into/onto you (same with putting a lighter to them), this highly increases the chance of infection. You are instead supposed to slide your thumbnail along the skin and against the head of the leach detaching it and do the same for the sucker part. Wash with soap and water to prevent infection.

3 Adam October 30, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Ah the Minnesota Boundary Waters. I went there as a boy scout several years ago and I still have fond memories despite my boots falling apart and being cold every night because I underestimated the early August weather of Northern Minnesota. The loons are probably the best part.

4 Eric Granata October 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm

My dad and I did the boundary waters when I was 18. One of the best and most memorable trips of my life. We didn’t see anybody else for a week. No planes. No motor craft.

Did see some bears that stole some important packs. Good stories from that trip;-)

5 Jeff Patrick October 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm

I’m surprised you didn’t mention the Bowron Lakes up in British Columbia.
A perfect square canoeing trip around a mountain range.
Epic.
http://www.bowronlakes.com/

6 Allan October 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Great article, I always enjoy your canoe articles. I love to canoe the upper Missouri. The river can be crowded but offers some great scenery and history along the way.

7 Jason October 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Nice article. As a canoeist I always love reading about trips I’ve taken and those on my bucket list. And I was surprised to see the Buffy listed – I grew up on this gem. It’s a true conservation victory story indeed.

8 Darren October 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Jeff, I only had room for four! The next iteration I’ll try to cover Bowron. the Bloodvein River, the Niobrara, the Snake through the Tetons, the Owyhee,..and it goes on and on… :-)

As far as leeches go, I pick ‘em off too but if I have bug spray handy I nuke ‘em.

9 minuteman October 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm

I have been on a couple of three day canoe trips. Its hard to find the time and resources to go on a longer trip. My Dream trip is to do some part of the route of the Voyagers. They would go along the St Lawrence River from Montreal up the Ottawa river to Mattawa, along the Mattawa to North Bay/Lake Nippissing, then into the French River into Georgan Bay, past Manitoulin Island to Sault St Marie, Into Lake Superior and up to Thunder Bay. From there they went to to the NWT, Stayed for the winter then made the return trip. hard to do that trip but the Mattawa River/French River would be doable and awesome. I have two young sons and when they are old enough to do it, we will.

10 JTBA October 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm

The Yukon River is a good trip. Eagle to Circle is the most common but Circle to the Haul Road is quite remote, you’ll likely only see natives at their fish camps.

11 Michael Justanotherguy October 30, 2012 at 7:38 pm

My entire aim in life is to get to a position where I can get paid to travel. I went canoeing in Algonquin Park, ON, to see the fall colours in late September!

http://www.michaelchahleyphotography.com/Groups/Fall-Colours/25856507_8RCbRH

Never look at the time, eat when your hungry, nap when your tired, and smile when you are relaxed. Camping is a must for everyone

12 Dave October 30, 2012 at 8:10 pm

The Nahanni river was the best paddling experience i’ve ever had. Paddling past lynxs and wood bison in a truly remote part of the world, while knowing that there are probably at max 40 people in a park the size of Sweden. Unbelievable.

13 Greg October 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm

I live in Austin. Are there any good canoeing places near me?

14 Ro Eisner October 31, 2012 at 12:02 am

Bingo! What I’m going to do very September. One pice of advice please? What’s best on your feet? I’m a tough 67 if that matters.

15 Luke October 31, 2012 at 3:06 am

Just don’t watch “Deliverance” before a canoe trip.. ;)

16 Joe October 31, 2012 at 3:41 am

Got to agree with Trevor, but to be honest the best thing to do once leeches latch on is just leave them to it, trying to get them off is a pain and they really do less damage if you just let them fall off when they’re done, then just wash and cover with a plaster (Band-Aid)

17 Clay G October 31, 2012 at 5:20 am

Trevor is correct!

Removing leeches with salt or lighters or in any way that causes harm to the leech will make them throw up into your wound! This can cause problems like infection and also has a risk of disease. The leech also prevents clotting while its attached so after that it’ll still bleed freely for a bit so keeping an eye on it never hurts. The best method I’ve heard is using a flat object, such as a finger nail or bark to slide under the head (which is the smaller end) to detach it, and then do the same with the larger end. The problem is making sure that the head doesnt attach again before you can detach the other end, this works best with someone else’s help!

18 Jan October 31, 2012 at 6:37 am

Yes! :)
Come, Join us in the wild places …
And — “Leave No Trace”.

19 Rich Raleigh October 31, 2012 at 9:58 am

Check out the Okefenokee Swamp, in South Georgia near the Georgia-Florida line.
http://www.fws.gov/okefenokee/WildernessCanoeing.html
Been a while since I’ve done it, but it is a great experience.

20 Al October 31, 2012 at 11:32 am

I am disappointed that the outer banks weren’t included. I know you cannot include everything, but nothing beats canoing in salt flats and island hopping.

21 Dan C. October 31, 2012 at 11:54 am

I still remember things that happened on a Conoeing Camping Trip, from back when I was in the Boy Scouts.

We did a week-long trip, along the Saco River in Maine and New Hampshire.

There are many good memories to be had, along the side of a river!

22 Adam October 31, 2012 at 12:50 pm

If I ever won the lottery, I’d canoe from Green Bay, Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico. This would require a portage in the aptly named Portage, WI.

I suppose I should start playing the lottery…

23 Graham October 31, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Excellent article! I spent some time, but too little, on the boundary waters with my father when I was a kid. I hope to take my grandson up there sometime before I die. We will probably l be in kayaks although.

Living in Texas, I’ll have to try the Buffalo River area sometime. This is the first I’ve read about it. I bet the smallies (smallmouth bass) are great there.

24 Katina October 31, 2012 at 3:17 pm

I’m from Wisconsin, but through-paddled the NFCT in 2011 and it was everything reported and more! Traveling at the speed of a canoe from town to town and across several states is amazing. While I mostly camped along the way, it was equally as fun to stop at the occasional B & B and restaurant, something not possible on most typical canoe trips. Highly recommend (in addition to the BWCA.)

25 Heather October 31, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Let me add another to the list for next time: Everglades Wilderness Waterway. It’s a 99 mile trail in SW Florida through the remotest part of the Everglades. Goes from the tip of Florida up to Naples. Takes about 7-10 days.

26 Jules November 1, 2012 at 2:45 am

Great article. If i win that damn lottery this weekend – I’m on the next flight over to do one of these.

27 Mark Mc November 1, 2012 at 8:52 am

Thanks for the reminder of summers well spent canoeing Quetico. Lake water clean enough to dip and drink (+30 years ago), bogs fragile enough to see friends disappear under the weight of their canoes, donating blood to the local bird/mosquitoes during the portages, fresh fish and blueberries and turtles for chow. I still remember the relaxing sauna we took after a week on the trail. Loved the Sommers canoe base in Ely, MN!

28 JohnnyT November 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm

For those living out west and want a true wilderness adventure, Utah’s Green River can’t be beat. Put in at Mineral Bottom and take out at Spanish Bottom on the Colorado River, just a couple of miles past the confluence of the Green and Colorado. Plan on at least 5 days, but 7 or 8 days is better for side hikes. It’s a red rock wonderland of buttes, mesas, petroglyphs and ancient ruins. Outfitters in Moab can help you out with the arrangements.

29 Brian Wolf November 1, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Thanks for another great article.

The Nahanni River trip looks amazing and is definitely now our on bucket list.

I would echo the opinion that a canoe/kayak trip in Algonquin, ON is a must.

30 mark heslop November 1, 2012 at 9:19 pm

These are all very nice trips. I would not trade them though for the experiences I have had the past two summers paddling in Northern Saskatchewan. Where I have paddled has all the beauty of the Boundary Water without the people. I have spent nine days without seeing another person and with little evidence of human passage.

31 Steve C November 2, 2012 at 1:14 pm

A few years ago our Boy Scout troop had a crew paddle the Boundary Waters in Quetico. This was the fourth or fifth time our troop had sent crews to Quetico. A beautiful wilderness experience. When we went, It was so windy and chilly (early July) that we never had to worry about the bugs (except during portages). It was quite a trip. The water was clean enough to drink from the lakes (away from shore) and you saw very few others along the way.

If you go in from the Canadian side (Atikokan), I highly recommend Canoe Canada. Excellent outfitters who know every inch the of the waters there. See their website. http://www.canoecanada.com/

32 DJ November 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Great article Darren. I paddled 80+ miles of the Seward Penninsula over the summer, but it was in a kayak. 5 days without seeing another human being besides my partner on the trip. Great solitude! I still haven’t paddled a big trip in my canoe yet, my native Arizona doesn’t have huge stretches of canoe-able waters. I’m inspired for a quick weekend trip with the canoe though…

33 Ian November 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm

Darren,
This is a really great article! This (along with a great episode of the Last of the Summer Wine) has inspired me and some buddies to take the trip from Old Forge to Fort Kent this summer. We’re all musicians and are wondering about the towns we’d be passing through. Would busking be a possibility? As incoming freshmen in college, we would like to try to pay for part of the trip by busking from town to town if possible. Feel free to e-mail me at ianschaefer1995@gmail.com if you feel more comfortable with that.
Thanks in advance,
Ian

34 Tom November 3, 2012 at 6:50 pm

The BWCA is beautiful, I highly recommend it if you get a chance.

Three years ago I canoed down the length of the Mississippi River. It was an adventure/challenge, but the BWCA is pure nature at its best. :)

35 Travis November 4, 2012 at 9:13 pm

I’ll echo Heather’s comment above – the Wilderness Waterway in ENP is the ultimate getaway from civilization. The last true wilderness in the Eastern United States.

36 True November 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Great post!

Though awfully far from where I live I definitely have my eye on a Boundary Waters trip someday.

I’d like to offer the Green River in Utah as an option for those in the Western US. I took a solo trip there in 2010 chronicled here:
http://thedamntrueexperiment.blogspot.com/2010/12/blog-post.html

When I wrote the piece I stated that I didn’t think I’d do something like that solo again. Since the time of that writing, I have acquired a “SPOT” Emergency Locator Device and have used it on a few subsequent trips. Now that I have become comfortable with this device I would definitely consider a long solo trip on the Green again.

37 Marcus November 10, 2012 at 12:04 am

My friends and I, about 8 – 12, have done an annual trip down the Buffalo River for 5 years now. We don’t do the full trip as the water is usually to low but we do a 3 – 4 day 40 mile trip. Good times are always had and I’ll have memories of those trips to last a lifetime.

38 J.Fischer November 12, 2012 at 6:17 am

You forgot Algonquin Park. It is one of the largest providential parks in Canada. You can take trips for a few days to a few weeks. In hundreds of Canada’s beautiful lakes. The water is so pure up there that in the deep lakes it is safe to drink. I have heard some from Minnesota say that it is like the outer banks with out the traffic. I have done trips there once a summer for a week for the last 10 years. And have not been every where in the park.

39 Jake January 21, 2013 at 10:42 pm

I suppose this could also apply to “packrafting” as well, which is something I’ve wanted to get into. AoM should do a piece on packrafting!

40 Eric Melanson April 1, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Great stuff. I myself went for a phenomenal camping trip 2 days north of Whitehorse. We started on the Tsichu River in the Macmillan Pass and continued down it to the Keel. We went up the Natla, and another unnamed river to get to our portage to the Ravensthroat. We canoed from the Upper Ravensthroat all the way down to the Redstone and from there down into the Mackenzie River

41 Jim Stacey June 28, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Do not mention Bowron. Do not promote it. Save it for the “real men and women” of the world. You did not hear that. Shhhh.

42 Patricia Johnson August 21, 2013 at 2:18 am

Whoa! Now this is an adventure of a lifetime. I haven’t tried canoe trips yet but from the images in this blog, I can truly say that it is quite an experience. I have to try it soon especially that I am a nature lover.

43 Heidi Maynard February 22, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Me and my husband have 3 years of experience kayaking in 9′ dagger boats this summer we would like to do a paddling trip up North, we live in Ct. Were thinking a 3 night 4 full day padding trip. We also love to camp. We both have small blow up rafts that we tow, that hold all our gear & cooler. I’m leaning towards Saco river, but I heard that can get pretty crowded, with the party scene. Were more into peace and quite and nature. Any thoughts?? Suggestions??? Anyone??? Thanks in advance and happy & safe padding all….and always Leave No Trace!!!!

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