BWCA Primitive Management Area's (PMA's): What are they about?

What to Expect in a Primitive Management Area

Do you like backpacking? Do you like canoeing? If you like both, combine the two activities and that pretty much sums up the experience of visiting the PMA's in the BWCA; except the hiking trail is non-existent and the waterways are clogged with beaver dams and marsh grass too thick to paddle through much of the time. Then there is the thigh deep mud...

Not all PMA's are created equal. Some are easier than others and have lakes that aren't too hard to get to; the bushwhacks are easier or the lakes are somewhat grouped together. Some PMA lakes are very difficult to reach and likely have not been visited for a decade or more. Many of these lakes used to have maintained portages and campsites, but the U.S. Forest Services stopped managing them and is allowing them to return to their natural state. Therefore, reaching these places will likely get more difficult as the old portage trails slowly fill in; many are almost invisible or completely gone already.

More Information About PMA's

A Primitive Management Area (PMA) is an unmanaged region of the Boundary Water’s Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). While the BWCAW is a relatively remote wilderness area, there are still plenty of people to be found; particularly within a portage or two of an entry point. To mitigate the roughly quarter million visitors that the BWCAW sees each year within its 1.1 million acres, the U.S. Forest Service has a permit system limiting the number of visitors that can enter through each of the roughly 50 designated entry points around the periphery of the park. Once you are in the BWCAW, you are also required to camp at only designated campsites which contain a fire grate and pit latrine with a biffy over it, usually found back in the woods away from the campsite.

While there are no roads or motorized modes of transportation allowed in the BWCAW (except a few larger lakes on the edge of the wilderness), there are enough canoeists to make getting the better campsites a bit of a musical chairs act if you wait until too late in the day to find one. To travel between the lakes in the BWCAW, a system of portage trails, many dating back to the time of the voyageur fur traders are used. There is often a fair amount of traffic on these portages since they form sort of a bottleneck between the busiest lakes on the most heavily traveled routes. These portages are maintained by the U.S. Forest Service so that the wilderness doesn’t slowly reclaim them.

A PMA differs from the regular areas of the BWCAW in several key aspects. There are no portage trails. Travel between lakes is by bushwhacking; you make your own portage trail.  You will want to be experienced in backcountry travel before proceeding into the PMA's. Carry some survival equipment. Make sure you have a GPS and/or compass and know how to use them. It is extremely easy to get turned around and lose your sense of direction in dense forest.

In some cases, remnants of old portages can be found, but don’t count on it. Another difference is that there are no designated campsites. You can camp where you like as long as it conforms to PMA regulations. You are not likely to encounter any other humans while visiting a PMA.  Each of the 12 PMA’s which make up about 124,000 acres of the BWCA’s 1.1 million total acres is broken into several zones (typically two to six zones per PMA). If you look at a BWCAW map that is typically used for navigation, the PMA’s are typically located in the voids between the larger lakes and the red portage lines drawn on the map. All PMA lakes are small to medium in size, and many are swampy.  There are a few PMA lakes that are absolutely beautiful.  There are currently 171 named PMA lakes. The U.S. Forest Service restricts camping in PMA’s by requiring a second rider permit along with your regular BWCAW permit. Only one group per week is allowed into a PMA regions zone. The maximum suggested group size is six people. Typically the U.S. Forest Service only issues about 100 of these PMA permits per year for all of the 12 PMA’s combined. So given that the PMA’s encompass roughly 1/8th the entire area of the BWCAW, they see only about 400 people per year versus 250,000 for the rest of the wilderness park.

Happy bushwhacking and be safe!

P.S.: Here is the brochure handed out by the U.S. Forest Service that explains Primitive Management Areas and displays their official boundaries:CLICK HERE TO OPEN PDF (requires Adobe Reader)

PMA #1: Weeny PMA #4: Tick PMA #7: Pitfall PMA #10: Hairy
PMA #2: Canthook PMA #5: Spider PMA #8: Mugwump PMA #11: Weasel
PMA #3: Sundial PMA #6: Drag PMA #9: Humpback PMA #12: Fungus
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