Wilderness Food: Lake Trout Over Cedar Coals

Read More BWCA Gillis Lake

It’s a bit niche, I’ll admit. This method of cooking doesn’t lend itself well to universal use. There aren’t many times and places a person will readily be able to throw it together. Still, it’s too good not to share.

Last year, when I haphazardly threw a trout over the campfire for breakfast one day, I had no idea it would turn out so good. This year, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do when I went back to the BWCA. In fact, I didn’t even leave myself any other options. It was this or nothing. Continue reading “Wilderness Food: Lake Trout Over Cedar Coals”

Minnesota Camping Online Resources

Camping on our public lands is not limited to state park campgrounds. Far from it. And that’s a good thing, because those campgrounds can get a lot of traffic. Trying to find information on camping opportunities across all the state and federal lands can be real work. Below are links to online resources I’ve found…so far. The more I look, the more I find. This is good news to those who wish to utilize our public lands to the fullest. But as always, wise and ethical use is crucial for ensuring these opportunities exist for years to come. Now get outside! 

State Agency Resources

Minnesota State Parks offer an incredible diversity of camping experiences, including drive-in sites, backpacking sites, cabins, lodges, yurts, tipis, and more. 

State Parks

MN state statute 6100.1250, Subparts 1 and 3

State Forests have developed campgrounds, and also allow dispersed camping for those who know the rules. 

State Forests

MN state statute 6100.1250, Subparts 2 and 3

Wildlife Management Area camping is not allowed in most cases, but some primitive sites are available on large, more remote WMA lands. Call area wildlife management offices to determine availability and location. 

Wildlife Management Areas   

-MN state statute 6230.0250, Subpart 7: “A person may not camp on or remain in a vehicle overnight in any wildlife management area, except by permit or where posted for this use…”

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is under federal supervision within the Superior National Forest, but the State of Minnesota has, interestingly, passed laws pertaining thereto. 

MN state statute, Chapter 6140 

Federal Agency Resources

Chippewa National Forest has developed campgrounds, backcountry sites, and dispersed camping

Chippewa National Forest camping page

Superior National Forest has cabins, campgrounds (developed and rustic), backcountry, wilderness, and dispersed camping

Superior National Forest camping page

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a unique wilderness experience, open mostly to canoeing and backpacking. Permits are required, and necessary to maintain the wilderness for all visitors. 

BWCA page 

National Wildlife Refuges don’t generally allow camping.  

Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge allows what is essentially dispersed camping, with some restrictions.  

 

 

 

Dispersed Camping in Minnesota

 

 

When you think of camping, do you think of campgrounds? I’m sure most people do. When I’m going somewhere and plan to camp, I usually look to see where the nearest campgrounds are and how close they are to my planned activities. The thing is, if there is state or federal forest land available, you can probably take advantage of a kind of freestyle camping, which offers much more flexibility and is free of charge. It’s called “dispersed” camping, and most people don’t even know about it. 

Dispersed camping, in a nutshell, is camping anywhere you like, so long as you observe a few reasonable rules. I have been taking advantage of this allowance in the last few years, and it has added much value and convenience to my hunting and fishing excursions. 

Now, dispersed camping usually doesn’t get much more than a mention in the lists of rules for users of state and national forests. Unless you dig around a bit, you may not know what is allowed and what is not. Fortunately, there isn’t much to know. The following is a summary of what I believe are the most important considerations; follow links to find information that is most location-specific and most complete. 

Dispersed Camping in Minnesota’s State Forests

Let’s begin with Minnesota’s state forests, because rules and terminology are uniform across the state system. “Dispersed Camping” is defined as “camping overnight outside of established campgrounds or designated campsites.” My summary of the rules is what follows. In the interest of being thorough, read the full state statute and consult the rules for each state forest unit to check for special conditions. 

The first and most important rule is probably that dispersed camping is not allowed “within one mile of a fee campground,” nor is it allowed where “posted or designated to prohibit camping.”  This is not usually a problem, because state forest campgrounds are typically few and far between. Digging, constructing “permanent camping structures,” and placing “wood, nails, screws, or other fasteners in a living tree at a campsite” are also forbidden. Human waste must be buried “at least 150 feet from a water body, in a manner that does not endanger a water supply.”

Gathering firewood is allowed, as long as it is dead and on the ground, and used while camping in that location. Campers may also stay in one location for up to 14 days “from the first Saturday in May to the second Sunday in September,” and 21 days during the rest of the year. When you leave, however, you must move to a new location “at least 15 miles from the previous camp.”

Dispersed Camping in Minnesota’s National Forests

When it comes to gathering and assessing information from the Forest Service’s website(s), terminology can stand in the way of the user. Minnesota has two National Forests: Chippewa and Superior. Their uses of the term “dispersed camping” and others differ, however, dispersed camping is still available. 

Superior National Forest’s website is informative and well-organized when it comes to camping information, stating, “Types of camping include Campground Camping, Dispersed Camping, RV camping, and Wilderness Camping.” Each type is given a separate web page, and information is laid out logically. They also offer a “Camping Recreational Opportunity Guide,” a 4-page document that displays camping opportunities with helpful maps and charts. At the bottom of the document is the section on dispersed camping. 

It defines Dispersed Camping as “camping outside of designated sites,” which is the simplest and most widely accepted definition of dispersed camping. The relatively few rules pertaining to dispersed camping are also spelled out plainly: be aware of fire restrictions, do not park in a way that will impede traffic or damage vegetation or soil, no digging or cutting live trees, and generally follow the Leave No Trace principles. 

Chippewa National Forest’s website, on the other hand, can leave you guessing with regard to terminology. This is puzzling to me, because in my experience national forests and grasslands have all used camping terms in ways that align with Superior N.F. Why “the Chip” should be any different is still unknown to me. I have made the following table to compare terms. 

National Forest Camping terminology

What Superior calls “Fee Campgrounds,” Chippewa calls “Developed Campgrounds.” No big deal, really. But what Superior calls “Backcountry Campsites,” (single designated sites without facility beyond fire ring and pit toilet), Chippewa seems to call “Backcountry,” “Dispersed,” and even “Primitive” campsites. Yes, all three terms are used interchangeably. Not only does it use “dispersed” for some designated sites— which in itself is a departure from the accepted meaning of the term— it doesn’t seem to even acknowledge the possibility of camping apart from designated areas. 

I called Ken at the Forest Service office in Blackduck for some clarification. I explained the problems with terminology on Chippewa’s website, and its failure to even mention camping outside designated sites (with any term attached). He assured me that “…any place you decide to camp that’s not in a designated campground” is allowed, except in any location where posted signs prohibit. That is the rule basically anywhere else, so it was good to hear even though finding it in print/digital is presently difficult to impossible. When he added, “You can camp anywhere on this forest,” I was satisfied. 

Conclusions

Dispersed camping is a useful recreational tool that every outdoor-oriented person should be aware of. As I’ve stated before, it can add convenience and cost savings to outings, especially when pursuits take us far from cities or campgrounds. With millions and millions of acres of state and federal lands available in Minnesota for hunting, fishing, foraging, camping, trail riding, and more, the opportunities for dispersed camping can influence and improve the way we plan our outdoor adventures. 

Minnesota State Forests and our two National Forest Service entities allow dispersed camping with relatively few restrictions. As always, the onus is on the user to find and understand information and applicable rules, whether they be system wide, location specific, or temporary. Dispersed camping may be an under-utilized resource, but it is conceivable that misuse, especially by large numbers of users, could decrease or eliminate dispersed camping on our public lands. 

 

Dispersed camping in the BWCA in winter

 

 

Harriet Lake Rustic Campground

Harriet Lake Rustic Campground

Most campgrounds way up in Minnesota’s northwoods offer a forest camping experience; it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that there will be plenty of trees, shade, and mosquitoes. Conversely, there are few opportunities to camp in places that offer meadow views or plants and birds that flourish in forest openings. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any mosquitoes, but I will tell you that if sunny open spaces are your cup of tea, Harriet Lake Rustic Campground (R.C.) should be on your list of destinations. What’s more, it’s one of several campgrounds in the Superior National Forest that are free of charge. 

Harriet Lake R.C. is on the site of a former farm. Some remnants of its farming era can still be seen, including what looks like the foundation for a barn. While many such farms in the area have long since grown over and been absorbed by the boreal forest, this one has been maintained as a forest opening for decades now, for the benefit of campers and wildlife alike. When I visited in the spring of 2019, it had recently been blessed by a controlled burn.

Somewhat anecdotally, I was told at the boat landing by someone who identified himself as a Lake County employee that the campground is a well-known place to pick blueberries. I also noticed there were plenty of raspberry and blackberry canes growing on the fringes of the campground. 

The Campsites

To the uninitiated, it might be hard to find where to camp at Harriet Lake R.C. There are, according to my count, only about 11 campsites (The official Superior N.F. brochure says 6), identifiable by fire ring and picnic table, and only 2 have typical parking spurs off the road. They are mostly approached via a dusty 2-track trail off the main campground drive; exercise caution, as they may be muddy or otherwise hazardous to ordinary passenger cars. Aside from the few near the toilet facility (in the boat ramp area), they are fairly spread out and inconspicuous if unoccupied. 

You may spot the first couple on your left as you drive in off County Road 7. The next cluster will be at the northern end of the opening, on your left as the road curves to the right. One- which has a spectacular view of the lake- is more easily found, but is completely exposed to the sun, wind, and rain. Beyond it to the north are 2 more sites, 1 of which offers much privacy and shade in the small group of trees. You will soon pass another campsite on the left, which, I’m told, has its own carry-in access down to Harriet Lake (it was occupied during my visit). 

The last 5 campsites are in the southeastern end of the campground, closest to the vault toilet. The 2 nearest the boat ramp area have the parking spurs, and may receive some shade early and late in the day. My wife and I set up camp not far away, in what is probably the most shaded and spacious of all the sites in the campground. A short distance across the field from us was another site with some late-day tree cover. The last site I found was to the southwest, tucked back in the woods; it was private and well-shaded, and would probably be the recipient of the least wind and most mosquitoes of all the campsites. 

What You Need to Know

The campground at Harriet Lake is designated as a “rustic” campground because it does not offer electricity or water. This means you need to bring your own water or be prepared to collect and filter it from the lake. On the upside, there is still a toilet facility (not too shabby), and camping is free of charge. It was moderately busy in the middle of the week in May; I believe that was due in part to being a free campground. As a result, I imagine it would fill up on the weekends throughout the summer. Since it is a developed area, dispersed camping is not allowed, so you must camp where there is a site with fire ring. 

There are several good fishing lakes in the area, especially for walleyes. Some of them have great boat ramps, including the one at Harriet Lake, which is right in the campground. Another good lake just up the road is Silver Island Lake, where another rustic campground with 8 sites might offer a place to stay if Harriet Lake R.C. is full. 

This part of Minnesota can be a foraging paradise throughout the season. The entire region is productive for berries, mushrooms, and more, and most land is either owned by the state or the feds, so access is easy. With millions of acres in Superior N.F. alone, nobody can say there isn’t enough room to roam. All you need to do is drive another half an hour to leave the crowds behind you. 

 

To read more firsthand descriptions of other state and national forest campgrounds in Minnesota, visit the Minnesota Public Land Camping page. 

 

 

Silver Island Lake Rustic Campground

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Silver Island Lake is a beautiful sprawling 1,200 acre lake close to the BWCA, known locally as a good fishing lake. Black crappies and northern pike are present in average numbers, and walleyes are historically abundant; sizes for game fish tend to be small to average in this fairly bog-stained lake. The boat ramp is a nicely protected concrete ramp of moderate steepness, however, boaters should use extreme caution in this lake due to the many rock hazards scattered throughout the lake. In other words, you could get a heavy fishing boat into Silver Island, but it would be unwise to cruise around with abandon. 

The boat ramp is in the middle of this no-fee campground, which features three (out of eight) lakeside campsites. Two of those (#3 and #5) feature lake accesses with short docks, which could offer boat mooring possibilities. There is no swimming beach, but one could take a quick swim in the vicinity of the boat ramp if desired.

Most campsites here will be best for a tent or small-to-medium size campers like a pop-up or shorter travel trailer. Longer trailers, fifth wheels, and motorhomes will be hard pressed to find enough level ground to set up on, with the exception of perhaps site #5, and even then it may be difficult to impossible. The Forest Service indicates on its website that all eight sites have “a parking spur of more than 21 ft. suitable for RV or trailer.” I would disagree, but my recommendations are based on the amount of level ground available, and not based on what’s within the realm of possible.

Amenities

The restroom is a two-hole (men/women) vault toilet building which is modern and clean, and each site has a fire ring and picnic table. The bad news is there is neither electricity nor a potable water source in this campground. Therefore, one must bring water and/or a generator if desired. The good news is it’s probably less busy than other campgrounds that offer such amenities (and remember- it’s FREE!).

Site 1 

There is little privacy available in this fairly wide-open campsite without much overhead tree cover, but is high and dry compared to most of the rest. It is probably one of the easier sites to back a trailer into, but is probably best for tents or a smaller pull-behind trailer. Users will probably incur headlights as cars enter and exit the campground, unless protected by artful tent placement and car parking. 

Site 2

Site number 2 is an attractive site with a bit of an uphill approach, allowing for good drainage. It is a bit more private than Site 1, with the fire ring tucked into the back. There is room for a small to medium trailer, or a tent or maybe even two. This site is probably the one whose entrance is closest to the restroom. 

Site 3

This campsite is probably the premier campsite in this campground, with nice tree cover, one of two fishing docks, and lots of level ground. The majority of this level ground is not available for parking a trailer, as it is apart from the driving/parking surfaces, and would be suitable for a small to medium trailer. The good news is, it could accommodate two or more tents as well as a dining canopy. 

Site 4

Site number 4 offers the least privacy of all the campsites in this campground, and is situated right next to the boat landing. That could be good news for anyone who would be utilizing the boat landing, as it would only be about a 50-foot distance to carry any gear. This site offers room for a tent or small pull-behind trailer. Since it is a lakeside campsite, it may receive a fair amount of wind from the lake when the wind is right; the fire ring is nicely sheltered from such a wind by a well-placed boulder. 

Site 5

Along with Site 3, this campsite may share the title for the most desirable spot in this campground. With a longer driveway and a significant portion screened by trees, it is probably the most private site available. The fact that it features the second short dock and good overhead tree cover only adds to its appeal. Two tents could easily be placed at the back of this site, and it could also accommodate many sizes of camper trailers. Its only drawback- if it has one- is its proximity to site #6. 

Site 6/Site 7

Sites 6 and 7 are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Silver Island Lake campground, nearly identical in specifications, and without much separation. If camping in a party that required two sites, these two would offer the best inter-site connection. They are probably good for a tent apiece, or a small to medium trailer. 

Site 8

This campsite is more secluded, but also seems to get much less traffic than the others with its downhill approach, small tent area, limited level ground, and proximity to the swamp. It is probably not suitable for anything but a tent. But in the event that one would desire to use a trailer, it would probably have to be a small one and it would probably need to be parked up near the road instead of at the rear of the site. 

 

Click on site pictures below to see larger versions, and toggle between photo and site description (please note there are 2 photos for site 3). 

 

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