Most park visitors get around in a motorboat of some kind (personal watercraft are forbidden), though some boaters choose to sail. The most important advice for boaters is to be sure you understand the U.S. Coast Guard buoy system and can read navigation maps, which are sold at the visitors centers.
Use great care if motoring beyond the buoys since many rocks and reefs are unmarked, plus water levels change considerably over the summer.
There are marinas, rentals, and free public boat ramps in each of the four gateways. The average cost of a small fishing boat is around $70 per day, while a pontoon goes for about $150. Several Crane Lake resorts have rentals docked on Mukooda Lake, an inland lake only accessible by a short portage.
That said, you do not have to be a horsepower addict to enjoy the park, and there really is some excellent paddling here—Canoe and Kayak magazine named it one of the top-ten sea kayaking destinations in the country. Plus, some of the BWCAW’s drawbacks don’t come into play here: There are few portages, and with no permits or quotas, you can just show up and go.
Most paddlers start at Ash River because it has the easiest access to quiet back bays, though the north end of Kabetogama Lake, directly accessible from the Woodenfrog Campground , has lots of small islands and relatively few boaters. A 75-mile circumnavigation of the Kabetogama Peninsula—possible with two short portages—takes about a week.
Canoe rentals are available at each of the four gateways, plus outfitters at Kabetogama and Crane Lake can set you up with everything you need for an extended trip: Anderson’s Canoe Outfitters (7255 Crane Lake Rd., 218/993-2287 or 800/777-7186, www.anderson-outfitters.com , 5:30 a.m.–7 p.m. Sun.–Thurs., 5:30 a.m.–8 p.m. Fri.–Sat.) at Crane Lake lets you easily fold the BWCAW into your trip.
One of the best ways to experience the park with a paddle is by taking advantage of the Boats on Interior Lakes program. The Park Service has placed canoes and rowboats on nine Kabetogama Peninsula lakes (Locator, Quill, Ek, Cruiser, Cranberry Creek, Little Shoepack, Shoepack, Brown, and Peary), and the first-come, first-served boats can be used for day trips or overnight journeys.
Reservations (by phone or in person, Kabetogama Lake 218/875-211, Rainy Lake 218/286-5258, Ash River 218/374-3221, $10/party per day) can be made up to a week in advance. You must bring your own life jacket—if you aren’t traveling with one you can rent one for a couple of bucks from area resorts .