Michael Furtman, first published Summer 1999, Boundary Waters Journal Magazine -- contents updated February 2009 to reflect changes in reservation/permit prices and procedures. No reposting or reprinting without the author's consent.


Portaging The Permit Path

By Michael Furtman



It used to be that if you were going to get confused on a canoe trip, it happened while charting a course through the maze of aptly named Crooked Lake, or while seeking some seldom-used portage in Quetico Provincial Park. 

While those things still may lead to confusion, many visitors to the Canoe Country now find the trip through the permit maze just as confounding. There are also other rules, such as bait restrictions, watercraft and fishing licensing, and border crossing issues to be aware of. 

Here’s what you need to know about these rules and procedures before venturing out on your next visit to the Boundary Waters or Quetico. 


The first step in securing the correct permits is to determine your destination. Are you going to the Quetico? To the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW)? Both on the same trip? Will the trip be overnight, or are you taking a day trip? The answers to those questions will begin the process of figuring out just which permits you’ll need. 

First and foremost, each party needs a permit whenever they enter either wilderness, and permits for the Boundary Waters can not be used in the Quetico, or the reverse. Visitors to the Quetico require a permit from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and visitors to the Boundary Waters require a different permit from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). While the procedures for acquiring these permits from each source are much the same, they are distinctly separate permits. Each wilderness also requires a permit to enter each time you visit, whether or not your party is making a day trip or staying overnight. Keep in mind, however, that day-use permits and overnight permits are not the same thing.  


 What if your trip takes you to both wilderness areas on a single canoe trip? The answer is, as you might suspect, that your party needs a permit from each source, but you don’t need an overnight camping permit if you’ll not be camping.

For instance, if the bulk of your trip will be in the Quetico, and you’re just paddling or motoring through the Boundary Waters to your Quetico entry point (and not staying overnight in the BWCAW) you’ll need a Boundary Waters day-use paddle or motor permit in addition to your Quetico Provincial Park overnight permit. However, if your route requires that you’ll be staying overnight in each wilderness, then you’ll need two separate overnight permits – one each for the BWCAW and Quetico.

In the case where your party will just be passing through the BWCAW on its way to the Quetico with no overnight stops on the U.S. side, you’ll need two separate day-use permits – one for your trip in, and one on the way back out. 

However, it is allowable for you to use  your BWCAW overnight permit both before entering and after exiting the Quetico, even though you are technically entering the BWCAW twice. As an example, take the famous “Hunters Island” canoe route, which lies half within Quetico, and half along the international boundary shared by the BWCAW and Quetico. If you begin your canoe trip at Moose Lake (which is in the U.S.) with a BWCAW permit, then paddle northeast up the border, camping on the U.S. side before picking up your Quetico permit at Quetico’s Cache Bay Ranger Station on Saganaga Lake, you’d still be able to use your BWCAW overnight permit for the last leg back down the international boundary (from Lac La Croix to Basswood Lake), and be able to legally camp within the Boundary Waters. 

Finally, there is one other exception to the rule of “one permit per wilderness” and that’s when you’re traveling down the international border. When on this border route – for instance, while traveling the Basswood River – thanks to an international treaty, visitors can use portages on either the U.S. (BWCAW) or Canadian (Quetico) side. You also can fudge a little while paddling down a shared lake, since the boundary hasn’t been painted on the water. Both the Quetico authorities and the USFS do, however, frown upon straying too far from the boundary. How far? Who knows. But you may get into trouble if you only possess a BWCAW permit and Quetico wardens find you well into Crooked Lake’s Gardner Bay or other similar obvious transgression. And you must camp only on the side of the border for which your permit is applicable – i.e., if you have a BWCAW permit only, then you must camp on the U.S. side of border lakes. 


OK. This concept is pretty simple – your party needs a permit each time you enter the BWCAW, whether for overnight or day trips, regardless if you travel on foot, by paddle, or by motor. In addition to overnight and day-use paddle permits, the BWCAW has two other permit categories that Quetico does not – overnight and day-use motor permits. In all cases, permits should be carried on your person so that they are available for inspection by Forest Service rangers. If it all seems a little confusing, remember that the system was set up by the Forest Service to remain as flexible as possible, while still protecting the resource and your experience. A “one-size” fits all solution may be simpler, but it also would restrict your options. 

BWCAW Day-Use Permits


Any party entering the BWCAW, whether by foot, paddle, or motor, but not staying overnight, needs a day-use permit of some kind year round. 

Day-use permits for paddlers, hikers, dogsledders and skiers are a relatively new thing. Unlike overnight permits which are finite in number, self-issued day-use permits are unlimited in number. Entry points have a permits available for self-registration, although the Forest Service reports that some locations are sometimes vandalized (permits all destroyed), so it is a good idea to stop at a Forest Service office or a cooperating business to obtain one. If you’re a frequent visitor, you can even grab a handful and keep them for future use, or you can call the Forest Service, and they’ll mail you a stack to use when you need them. 

Day use motor permits, where motor use is allowed by law, are a horse of another color. Required from May 1 through September 30, they are limited in number, specific to a particular entry point, and thus are harder to obtain. Although technically, day-use motor permits are available on a first-come, first-served basis, at popular motorized entry points, they are frequently spoken for well months ahead. Like any overnight permit, day use permits should be reserved in advance to insure one is available for the date you plan to use it. 

Day-use motor permits differ from other limited number permits in that they are established by a weekly quota. That is, if you know you want to enter at Moose Lake sometime during a particular week in July, but want the flexibility of choosing a nice day, you can reserve a permit for that particular week. That permit is still good for only one day, but once you know when you’ll be going, you can choose that day, and it will be time-stamped on the permit when you pick it up to insure it is only used on that day. If you’re using a motor before May 1, or after September 30, you can enter using the self-issued day-use permit.  

BWCAW Overnight Quota Permits 

All overnight visits to the BWCAW between May 1 and September 30 (the “ice-free season”) require an overnight permit – one permit per party – and the procedure is the same whether or not you’ll be traveling on a motorized lake, in the paddle-only zones, or backpacking. Overnight quota permits of all types are limited in number, and the number available varies from entry point to entry point. Overnight visits from October through April still require an overnight permit, but visitors can use the same self-issuing permit used for non-motorized day trips. The “ice-free” overnight permits are limited in number as prescribed by entry point quotas. There are no limits on the “winter” overnight, self-issued permits. 

Again, although technically available on a first-come, first-served basis, (available at any USFS office or from cooperating businesses) in order to obtain an “ice-free” season overnight permit, it is wise to reserve them in advance, especially if you’ve chosen a popular entry point, or are entering at a peak period (opening of fishing season, times near holiday weekends, or anytime in July and August).  

A permit allows you to enter only at the specified entry point, and only on the specified date. A maximum of nine people in up to four watercraft may travel on one permit. Members of your party that need to depart earlier than the rest, and that can get out in a day without camping, can do so without the need of another permit. However, if some members that are joining your party are entering the BWCAW later – and can reach you in one day without camping – they need to obtain either a motorized or paddle day-use permit. In other words, if you’ll be camped out overnight, you need an overnight permit. Holders of two permits may not travel or camp together unless they don’t exceed the nine person limit – you can not exceed the nine person limit at anytime no matter how many permits you hold. And a group all on one permit must camp together – you can’t take two campsites, and you must be camped with the holder of the permit (party leader). 

Once you have your permit, and have entered the wilderness at your designated entry point, you are free to travel wherever you want, and stay at any designated campsite (denoted by fireplace and latrine). A permit does not guarantee you a campsite on any particular lake, nor does it restrict you to any location. You can also stay in the BWCAW as long as you wish, provided you don’t camp in any one site for more than 14 days, or exit the wilderness. With the exception of using your overnight permit both before and after a trip through the Quetico, once you exit the BWCAW, that permit is no longer valid. 

BWCAW – Reserving And Picking Up Quota Permits

Visitors to the BWCAW have four options for reserving the quota-based overnight (paddle, hiking, or motorized) permit, or day-use motor permits needed between May 1 and September 30. Applications for each season may be submitted by website, fax, or mail beginning December 1. All applications will be processed by lottery (regardless of method or order received) until mid-January. After that, they’ll be process on a first come, first served basis. Phone reservations will be accepted beginning the first business day in February. At the time of this writing, a $12 non-refundable reservation fee is required for each permit. If reserving an overnight permit, a $32 deposit will be collected regardless of group size. Example: A total of $44 will be collected for an overnight reservation or $12 for a day use motor. These fees may increase over time, so please double check when making a permit reservation. Reservations require the use of a credit card. Fees are paid up front, at the time of reserving.

A per person user fee is charged for your group when reserving an Overnight Permit for entries from 1st of May to 30th September each year. Those fees, as of 2009, are $16.00 per adult, and $8.00 for youth or seniors. This is not a "per night" fee like the Quetico, but a "per trip" fee. 

When making a telephone reservation, you will be asked for the following information:

Entry point
Arrival date Estimated exit date
Trip Leader's name, address, postal code and telephone number
Estimated number of people and watercraft
Permit issuing station
Method of payment (i.e. credit card number and expiry date) 

You can call the BWCAW Reservation Center toll free at 877-550-6777 or make reservations on line at Recreation.gov. You must contact the sources above to reserve or cancel a permit. However, you can always stop at a USFS office or cooperating business and obtain a permit without reserving one, if any are still available. 

However you reserve the quota permit, if one is available for your chosen entry point and date, the party leader will receive a confirmation letter or email. That confirmation reply is not your permit. The party leader (named in the permit) must pick up the permit at a Forest Service office, or from a cooperator. When you reserve the permit, you will be asked where you want to pick it up. The permit will be issued only to the party leader or a designated alternate (information you must provide when you reserve the permit). A photo ID is required to pick up the permit. You can pick the permit up only on the day of entry, or on the day before.  

Bring the confirmation letter (print out the email reply) with you when you pick up the permit. If your party size has changed since the time you reserved your permit, that’s fine (up to the maximum party size of nine, of course). Adjustments will be made when you pick up your permit. Allow time to view a short video on minimum impact camping practices and take a quiz on BWCAW rules and regulations. To cancel your permit, call the BWCAW Reservation Center. 

Minnesota Hunting, Fishing, and Watercraft Licenses 

These aren’t really Boundary Waters (USFS) regulations, but you still need to take note of them. Both hunting and fishing are allowed, subject to season and bag limits, in the BWCAW, and you’ll need the appropriate valid Minnesota license and trout stamps to do them. These licenses are available at just about any bait shop or outfitter. Minnesota also requires boats, canoes, and kayaks to be licensed. If your watercraft is licensed in another state, that license will suffice. If your state does not require a canoe or kayak to be registered, you must either register it in your state as a motorized craft or license it in Minnesota. They  can be registered at the DNR License Center, 500 Lafayette Road, Box 26, St. Paul, MN 55155-4026, phone: 651-296-2316, or at any county registrar’s office. 


Procedures for obtaining a Quetico Provincial Park permit are very similar to those for the BWCAW, although obviously, you must go to a different source. There are two major differences. While BWCAW permits are picked up outside the area, at USFS offices or cooperators, Quetico permits are picked up at the entry point Ranger Stations, which are located in or on the edge of the park. Additionally, motor use is not allowed within Quetico, except for guides of the First Nation People of Lac La Croix, and so there are no public motor permits of any type. 

Quetico Day-Use Permits 

Day-use permits aren’t as frequently used for the Quetico, for it is much more of a destination park than is the BWCAW. However, they are required if entering by canoe or dogsled, and they are the same as the Daily Vehicle permit. If you are entering by foot (hiking in the summer, showshoes or skis in the winter) no day-use permit is required. They are available at all entry point ranger stations and Quetico Park headquarters during the ice-free season. During the fall, winter and spring, you can self-register (and pay) at any of the ranger stations. 

Quetico Overnight Permits 

Like the BWCAW, if you’re staying overnight in Quetico at any time of the year, you need an overnight permit. Permits for the ice-free season are based on quotas, and should be reserved. In the “off season” you can self register at rangers stations. 

Although these quota permits are available on a first come, first served basis, they are even harder to obtain than BWCAW permits, since Quetico allows even fewer people to enter. Anyone planning a trip to the Quetico should reserve a permit well in advance.  

An overnight permit allows up to nine people to enter on the date and at the entry point specified. Larger groups must have additional permits and must travel and camp separately. Ranger station operation hours during the summer season are from 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Permits must be carried on you at all times. Since some of the southern ranger stations are rather remote, and require water travel to get there, park authorities will make reasonable allowances for delays caused by high winds or other dangerous weather. Permits for entry points controlled by Beaverhouse (also water-based), Atikokan or Dawson Trail ranger stations can be picked up at any one of these stations. 

The “ice free” operating season is generally mid-May to mid-September, but can change. Contact Quetico Park to make sure the current dates.

Separate reservations and permits are required if your party plans to split up for the purpose of camping, or if someone in your group is entering after or leaving before the rest of your party.  

Quetico park permits reservations, cancellations, and changes are handled via phone, toll free, at 888-668-7275. This service is available 16 hours a day, seven days a week, 363 days a year. They have also instituted a new park information phone number, where a recorded message will provide you with up to date information on fire conditions, water levels and other details you should know before your trip: 807-597-4602. This is not a toll free number. Quetico permits, except for campground reservations (on the periphery of the park) can not, at the time of this writing, be made via the internet. For general information on the park, call 807-597-2735.

 When calling, you need to know your entry point, departure date, and will be asked for a group leader’s name and a credit card for the confirmation and a deposit. Unlike the BWCAW which charges a flat-rate per-trip, per-person user fee, Quetico charges a per-person, per-night user fee, and the fees vary by entry point.

If you are a U.S. citizen and entering from the U.S. side – Cache Bay and Prairie Portage – the current rate (as of February 2008) is $19.80 per adult, per night, while those under 17 get by for $7.90 per night. If you are entering from Lac La Croix, the rates are $15.85 and $5.90. Non-Canadians entering from the north – Beaverhouse, Nym, etc. – the rates are $13.85 per night for adults, $5.90 for youth. The variety of rates reflects the additional cost of maintaining ranger stations on the U.S. – Canadian border. Quetico collects $100 of this fee up front at the time you reserve the permit. Penalties for cancellation increase the nearer you get to the date of permit issuance. Penalties for “no shows” can be substantial. As noted with the BWCAW permits, these fee amount tend to change over time, so please double check before making a reservation.

The remainder of your overnight camping fees are paid when you pick up your permit at your entry point ranger station. It is strongly advised that you use a credit card to pay these fees to avoid problems with currency rates. Personal checks are not accepted. You can also purchase a fishing license at the ranger station. 

Canada Customs and Ontario Regulations 

Another big difference between the BWCAW and Quetico is that – to state the obvious – Quetico is in Canada. That means you’ll be entering a foreign country, and that you’ll need to go through Canada Customs station or obtain a CANPASS Remote Area Border Crossing (RABC) permit. Even in this post-9-11 era, we are still able to obtain this permits. 

If you’re driving to one of the northern entry points, you will clear Canada Customs at the highway border crossing, so won’t need this permit. You must, however, have identification proving your citizenship, plus a second piece of ID. You should also have vaccination certificates for any animals with you (tags do not suffice). There no longer is any duty charged for bringing in foods. Beginning n 2009, visitors to Canada will need to have a passport. 

If you’re entering from the U.S. via Prairie Portage, Lac La Croix,  or Cache Bay ranger stations, you must obtain a RABC permit from Canada Customs. 

A CANPASS RABC permit allows the holder, and his or her spouse and dependant children, to enter on one permit. That means a family can all get by with one RABC permit, but if you have a party of four adults, you will need four separate permits. These permits are available to U.S. citizens or registered U.S. aliens. The cost is $30.00 Canadian, and it takes up to six weeks to process by mail, so plan to obtain this well in advance of departure. Use a VISA or Mastercard – checks are not accepted. You must provide proof of U.S. citizenship (a driver’s license will not suffice), such as a copy of your birth certificate.   

To obtain a RABC application form, contact the Canada Border Services Agency at CANPASS RABC Processing Center, 201 N. May Street, 1st Floor, Thunder Bay, Ontario P7C 3P4, or call them at (807) 642-2162. You can also visit their website and download a permit application HERE.

Ontario does not require canoe registration, so you’ll not have to worry about whether you canoe is licensed. You will, however, need to have a fishing license (hunting is not allowed in Quetico) and these can be obtained at any ranger station at the time you pick up your permit. Credit cards are accepted. For those of you who are only going to keep a few fish for meals, Ontario offers a conservation license at a reduced fee. Bag limits are smaller than the regular license, but still adequate to provide for a meal.  

No live, preserved, or organic baits are allowed in Quetico Provincial Park. Barbless hooks are now required. It is OK to mash down the barbs on barbed hooks.


There you have it. It isn’t as easy as it used to be, that’s for sure. The good news is, though, that all of these steps are taken before you depart, and once in the wilderness, you are free to enjoy its magnificence. The rules are there to protect your experience and the canoe country itself.

Many would argue that they are a small price to pay.



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