Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Wildlife Viewing Overview

Over 52 species of mammals and 150 species of birds inhabit both the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and neighboring Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. Sitting at your campsite you may see a tiny shrew weighing a fraction of an ounce, or a huge bull moose weighing in at over 1,200 pounds.

Traveling and portaging as silently as possible will afford you the best possibility of seeing wildlife up close. If you hear a rustling or crashing in the woods, sit quietly and be patient. Moose, deer, and other mammals frequently lack good eyesight, but they have a keen sense of smell. Usually they will smell your presence; if you remain still they will move into the open, or right by you, after realizing that your smell is not a threat to them.

Going out on an early-morning or late-evening paddle will offer additional opportunities to view wildlife as they move to the water's edge to feed and drink.

Marquee Mammals

On your next BWCAW trip, keep an eye out for these "marquee mammals"—the larger animals every traveler hopes to see on a wilderness excursion.

Black bears: The black bear travels the same BWCAW canoe trails that paddlers will, so keep those food packs in the air and your camp clean! Bears range in weight from 50 to 300 pounds, some reaching 600 on occasion. Colors range from glossy black to cinnamon brown. As omnivores, black bears eat fish, other mammals, a variety of plants—such as pine cones, berries, and roots—and any campsite edibles within reach.

Canines: Members of the dog family found in the Boundary Waters include coyotes, foxes, and timber wolves. They are part of the larger order known as Carnivora, or meat eaters; they have large canine teeth for tearing flesh, although some will also eat berries and fruit.

The coyote resembles a large-eared, medium-size dog. The timber wolf is noticeably larger, with longer legs and nose. Both the coyote and wolf are wary of humans and rarely seen. Listen closely in the late evening hours and you may hear the howling of wolves in your area. Watch the portage trails for wolf scat, often containing deer hair.

The fox is dainty in comparison, with coloration ranging from red to silver in this area. The fox will often investigate your empty fire grate when you leave camp, so watch the campsites as you travel—you may see a fox digging around the ashes checking for food scraps.

Felines: While the raccoon—more common in the central section of Minnesota—is a rare sight, the cat family within the Boundary Waters includes the solitary and nocturnal lynx and bobcat. These cats are rarely seen, because the area sits at the southern limit of the lynx's range and the northern extreme of the bobcat's range.

Moose and deer: This vegetarian group is common to canoe country. The moose is a majestic sight to be had, with bulls weighing in excess of 1,500 pounds. The white-tailed deer is best known for the large white tail that is raised in alarm as a flag as it runs from danger. At one time, the woodland caribou also roamed the Boundary Waters, and plans are underway to reintroduce caribou to the area. Shallow bays and rivers holding underwater vegetation are the places to view moose. In early summer, cow moose will keep their young calves near the water. As you paddle, watch the shoreline for deer as they come to the water's edge for a drink.

Why do Wolves Howl?

The howls of wolves—the original "call of the wild"—are heard more often in Minnesota's boundary country than anywhere else in the Lower 48. Contrary to myth, they're not howling at the moon; a wolfpack howls to let the rest of wolfdom know where they are, to claim and maintain the pack's territory.

Researchers have determined that howling functions as a sort of "early-warning system" of communication among wolfpacks. Wolfpacks will avoid the deadly violence of face-to-face encounters with other packs when they can. When a pack howls out its presence into the stillness of a northwoods winter night, the sounds can travel up to five miles; any other pack within range must decide whether to stand their ground and howl back, to retreat, or simply to stay silent.

A pack in the grips of breeding season, or burdened with young, or with a fresh-killed moose to defend will nearly always answer back to a howl; without these kinds of imperatives, territory isn't as important and packs are unlikely to return a howl.

Winter visitors to the BWCAW's Gunflint Trail area stand an excellent chance of hearing this hair-raising, primeval sound—wolves' breeding season coincides with ski season.

Thanks to Canadian Border Outfitters for sharing this information on Boundary Waters.


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