By the 1920s, people across the United States had caught the wilderness bug. The generation that introduced the idea of conservation into the American conscience — of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt — had given way to a generation of people eager to get out and explore America’s natural beauty.
For example, from 1910 to 1923, the annual visitors to the National Parks leaped from 173,416 to 1,364,024. During the same time period, the total number of visitors to Yellowstone went up from 19,575 to 138,352 a year.
This phenomenon was happening in Minnesota as well. The pristine lakes and gorgeous wilderness of the northland attracted droves of people in the 1920s. This was a unique place where people could experience a true wilderness, relax, canoe, swim and fish.
Essentially, all the reasons people continue to visit the area.
The 1920s were also the time when Americans were falling in love, and falling hard, with the automobile. Though automobiles allowed people to travel to places of natural beauty, they also conflicted with the idea of a wilderness left in its natural state.
Inevitably, the issue of where to build roads and how to protect the wilderness character of the area led to one of the first big fights in the modern history of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Birth of northern Minnesota tourism
In 1920, if you wanted to go up Minnesota’s north shore, you would most likely take a steamer from Two Harbors. You could drive, but the road was — to put it generously — primitive.
You’d have to be more foolish than adventurous to attempt the drive.
Businesses, whether in logging or tourism, knew that constructing highways was the key to unlocking the economic potential of the Arrowhead. When the scenic highway from Two Harbors to Ely was complete in 1922, it connected the Iron Range with Duluth and with the metropolitan areas to the south.
This road, along with a smart advertising campaign, made Ely into a tourist destination. The town had a reputation — one it still holds today — as the gateway to America’s only exclusive canoe country.
The easiest and most efficient way for the majority of visitors to reach this canoe wilderness was by car.
Roads and conservationists
This increase in visitors and increase in traffic prompted plans to build more roads in the Superior National Forest. This would give visitors greater access to the wilderness, open broad areas up for economic development, attract new landowners to build vacation cabins and make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to administer the area.
Not everyone liked this idea.
Most controversial was the plan to build a road that would connect Ely with the Gunflint trail, and to the north shore.
To many, this was going to far. Roads and automobiles may have allowed people to access the wilderness, but they now threatened to permanently alter the character of the wilderness.
It was one of the first major controversies and ultimately determined the shape of the future BWCAW.
Saving canoe country
A year after it was founded in 1922, the Izaak Walton League was at the head of a coalition of groups and individuals that saw the road as an attempt to turn canoe country into automobile campground.
“Build the roads, and the wilderness is gone,” Will Dilg, president of the Izaak Walton League said at a conference. “The roads, with the others that are bound to follow, will not only defeat the motorist in his efforts to see the wilderness but will spoil it for the great numbers of canoeists who are flocking from all parts of the country and from foreign countries to enjoy this wonderful region.”
For several years the debate continued, and in many ways, it sounded surprisingly simular to the mining debates we hear today.
In 1926, after several years of negotiations, meetings and conferences, a new policy was implemented that would limit the construction of new roads to dead ends and forest-service roads, and set aside 640,000 acres of the Superior national Forest to a primitive, roadless area.
And as you probably know, the Gunflint-Ely road was never constructed.
Ironically, roads introduced more people to the Superior wilderness, but at the same time, threatened the canoe country wilderness.
Those who opposed the road didn’t oppose automobiles or roads, rather, they knew there was something unique about the lake country in northern Minnesota, something worth preserving in its natural and pristine state.
This is something every visitor to the Boundary Waters continues to feel today.
Want to know more? Check out R. Newell Searle’s classic book Saving Quetico-Superior. A Land Set Apart. Searle gives a detailed look at long political history and characters from the early 1900s to the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act in 1972. It’s a fascinating read that is essential to anyone who wishes to know more about the history of the BWCAW.
Climate change’s global impacts have not spared the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Human activities like burning fossil fuels, far from the loon on the lake and the wind in the pines, are transforming the wilderness we love. Already, warming is well underway in northern Minnesota, and impacts are already being observed.
The region is the fastest-warming part of Minnesota, a trend which is most dramatic during the winter. Northern Minnesota’s winters have been warming ten times faster than its summers–with the average winter temperature rising one degree Fahrenheit per decade.
In fact, Minnesota’s winters are warming faster than any other region of the country, with average temperatures increasing by up to 7.5 degrees since 1970.
Warmer winters share part of the blame for dwindling numbers of moose, and are also likely why the Arrowhead region is experiencing more severe windstorms and extreme rainfall events.
Future impacts on the boreal forest
In 100 years, visitors to the wilderness will likely paddle through a dramatically different landscape. The Boundary Waters is on the southern edge of North America’s boreal forest. All of the boreal tree species in the wilderness are within 100 to 300 miles of the southwestern edge of their range.
Tallgrass prairie exists only 120 to 200 miles away.
Climate change means both ecosystems will shift north. Oaks and maples will eventually replace much of today’s boreal pine forests and some areas will convert to grasslands.
Dr. Lee Frelich, an ecologist from the University of Minnesota, has monitored plots of land in the wilderness to examine how the forest is changing. Red maples are sprouting in previously pine-dominated forests, and when the existing pines die, they are being replaced by deciduous tree species.
Pine forest to oak savanna
In the next 100 years, the western Boundary Waters is expected to transition slowly to oak savanna, with widely-spaced deciduous trees amid grasslands.
This scenario takes into account how the thin soils of the Boundary Waters dry out easily, leaving forests prone to drought and fire. Oak savanna thrives where summers are hot and relatively dry. In the eastern half of the wilderness, temperate forest dominated by maples and basswood will likely prevail.
Boreal forest may survive on cooler north-facing slopes or other protected areas.
These longer, hotter summers will also contribute to increase water temperature in lakes. This could mean changes in vegetation, water clarity and quality, increased algae blooms, and degradation of fish habitat. As cold-water lakes disappear from much of Minnesota, the Boundary Waters’ deep lakes might remain cold enough to provide refuge for species like cisco and lake trout.
This is what climate models predict
Scientists anticipate two possible scenarios for precipitation in the region.
Climate models predict the same amount of rain and snow with more evaporation due to warm temperatures, or
Increased precipitation, but more concentrated during certain seasons, with other times of the year having drought-like conditions.
If wilderness peatlands dry out due to changes in precipitation, they could rapidly release the carbon they store into the atmosphere, compounding the rate of climate change.
An important role for the Boundary Waters
As the planet gets hotter, we will see how an ecosystem without much on-the-ground management is affected, compared to places with more human manipulation. And, as our cities grow and the world becomes more crowded, the canoe country’s solitude and wildness will be even more important.
On the 40th anniversary of the creation of the BWCAW — and as part of our longtime leadership in protecting, preserving and restoring this national treasure — the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has compiled a State of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness report. Examining the current situation in the Boundary Waters, it provides an overview of the ecological health, human experiences and emerging threats.
Looking for ways to save money or take a budget vacation to the Boundary Waters?
It’s easy to get intimidated by the price tag on some camping gear and canoes. And let’s be honest, long johns are absurdly expensive these days.
Cost shouldn’t prevent anyone from canoeing the Boundary Waters. A canoe trip should be a relatively cheap vacation. As nice as it is to paddle an ultralight canoe, wear a $400 raincoat and check in with the outside world using sophisticated electronics, the truth is, what you really need is a good attitude and a sense of adventure.
For those wondering how to save a few bucks, or scrambling to put together a last minute canoe trip, here are a few tips on how to put together a budget canoe outfit.
Ode to beat-up, used canoes
One of my favorite canoes was a 20-foot, Old Town Tripper XL I bought off Craigslist for $600. It weighed 110 pounds and was ridiculously large. It had spent 20 years at a Boys Scout camp and had the dents and scratches to show it.
This is probably why I have such a soft spot for old, used canoes. It’s why I tell people looking for boats to call outfitters who sell used boats, go to auctions or check online when they’re hunting for a new canoe
If you’re lucky, you might find someone looking to part with an old aluminum canoe. You don’t see as many marks from aluminum canoes on rocks near portages and campsites as you used to, but there is no shortage of people out there with fond memories of these silver ships, and still love to paddle them!
A scrappy home away from home
People get opinionated about their tents. I mean really opinionated.
Ultimately, you want your tent to do two things: keep you dry and keep out the bugs.
For this, you really need only two items: a heavy-duty tarp and a bug bar. Three if you count rope.
Many military surplus stores sell mosquito bars. They are also easy to find online. A heavy-duty tarp (10’ x 12’ works best) can be found at most any hardware store.
Now, should you go into the BWCAW with this simple setup, be sure you know your knots! And be sure to set it up in a park or in your yard before you go. This will help you find what configuration works best.
Beyond how inexpensive this set up it, using your skills to set up a tight, waterproof, bugproof shelter and sleeping under it, is immensely satisfying.
People used to gob wax onto their heavy canvas coats and call that raingear. Before that they just got wet. With this in mind, that $30 rainsuit for sale at the gas station is a luxury!
It’s all a matter of perspective.
Otherwise, the best advice is to fall in love with thrift stores. You may not leave with name-brand clothing, but you can easily find the essentials.
That being said, there are somethings you don’t want to skimp on.
You want to make sure you have clothing that will keep you warm, even if you get wet. Afterall, this is canoe country. It can snow in June and it with all those lakes and moving clouds … it’s easy to get a bit wet.
Make sure you have plenty of woolens and polypro to keep you warm!
Pots and pans and bottles
I have a bunch of friends who used to work for wilderness therapy programs out west. Each night when they were in the field they, and the teenagers they were guiding, cooked a meal over an open fire in a good old fashioned coffee can.
That’s right. No titanium here. The same style container your grandpa used to schoop his Maxwell House out of.
Now, to do this, you need to take certain precautions, such as having a good pair of leather fire gloves and having a healthy respect for fire.
The point is, don’t be afraid to get creative!
And water bottles? Buy liter of Gatorade on your way in, duct tape some parachute cord to it and you’re all set. I did this on a 30+ day canoe trip and was drinking out of the same bottle on the last day.
This is what you really need
Ultimately, whatever kind of gear you use is secondary.
The Boundary Waters is an astonishing area. Whether you enjoy it in a brand new kevlar canoe or on a used paddle board, the most important thing is to get out there. Get dirt under your nails, let your hair get greasy, enjoy a sunset and learn something new about yourself.
Some of the plants and animals that call the Boundary Waters home are found nowhere else in the contiguous UnitedStates. The highlight of many people’s trip to the BWCAW includes seeing some of the 50 mammal species found in this wilderness. Fish of cold, deep lakes swim below anglers’ canoes. Large carnivores – wolves, bear, lynx – still make their homes here. Lethal predators and wary prey dance with life and death. Delicate plants and flowers, fleeting insects, and a diverse chorus of birds find the rare combination of water, climate, and food they require to thrive in the Boundary Waters.
Many of the animals that populated what is now the Boundary Waters before the arrival of Europeans are still found here, but they have not been subjected to such significant environmental changes until now. They are sensitive to everything from contaminated water to warmer temperatures, and the survival of many species is not certain.
Minnesota’s mighty moose
Moose stand six-and-a-half feet tall and weigh around 1,000 pounds. They look cobbled together out of leftover parts, but they are well built to survive the harsh conditions in canoe country.
Moose have a hard time handling heat. In the winter, they eat less when the temperature rises above 23 degrees Fahrenheit, and their nutrition and health suffers. In the summer, moose can start experiencing heat stress at about 63 degrees, and begin breathing hard at about 68 degrees – they begin to pant like dogs.
Moose find safety, food, and cooling in lakes and wetlands. In water, moose reduce their respiration rate by almost 30 percent, and their overall energy expenditure by about 10 percent. A moose’s prominent nose is thought to help it forage from the bottom of lakes without inhaling water.
The moose population in northeastern Minnesota, including the Boundary Waters, has been declining rapidly for about 10 years, falling by more than half. While there were 8,840 moose in 2006, there were only 3,710 in 2016. But, the population has stabilized around that level since 2012, and in 2016 the calf survival rate was its third highest since 2005.
The declining population has caused concern with everyone from wildlife managers to moose-loving Minnesotans.
The state of Minnesota, Ojibwe bands, and the federal government have undertaken extensive research projects since 2012 to determine the reason for the moose’s decline. The state’s hunting season was cancelled indefinitely in 2013, while Ojibwe tribes determined that population impacts from harvest by their members would be minimal – and approved a harvest to meet the important cultural and dietary needs of tribal members. Band members continue to harvest the animals based on treaty rights and cultural traditions, providing 400 to 700 lbs of meat from one animal.
How do you feed a half-ton animal?
Feed for eight hours per day
Eat 30 to 40 pounds of aquatic vegetation per day
Have four stomachs (like cows) to extract nutrition from massive amounts of plants
Chew their cud about 8 hours per day
Get one-third the nutrition from winter diet of leaves, twigs, and needles.
Eat about nine thousand twigs each winter day
Due to difficult conditions and inadequate food, they lose weight all winter.
Why are moose populations declining?
Studies show Minnesota’s moose population decline is due to a combination of factors, including parasites, whitetail deer, and predation. Rising temperatures are a key factor in increased moose mortality, as warmer weather in both summer and winter stresses and weakens the animals.
Between 2013 and 2016, scientists determined causes of death for 49 moose. While wolves were the largest single factor, they most often prey on moose that are already weakened by other ailments. Scientists consider wolves to be a minor factor in the population decline, while the key factors are parasites such as brainworm, winter ticks, and liver flukes.
Moose prefer to forage for food on land in recently-disturbed areas of forest. Such habitat can be created by humans with timber harvest, prescribed fire, as well as wildfires and windstorms.
To protect the BWCAW’s iconic moose, Minnesota must address the northeastern region’s deer populations, climate change, and habitat loss.
Canadian Lynx in the Boundary Waters
Canada lynx are medium-sized cats with long legs, large, well-furred paws, long tufts on the ears, and a short, black-tipped tail. They are a federally-listed Threatened Species, and the Arrowhead region of Minnesota, including the Boundary Waters, is designated as critical habitat for the species. Lynx are stealthy and seldom seen, but there is a significant number that call the area home.
Research on the Superior National Forest over the last 15 years shows a strong breeding population. Initial studies led biologists to believe there were few animals living and reproducing in the area. Recent DNA analysis of scat changed that understanding. Analysis reveals at least 92 kittens, 24 breeding females, and 13 breeding males on the Superior National Forest. Researchers call it a “significant reproducing population.”
What does a lynx eat?
Because of the difficulty of access, no surveys have yet been done in the Boundary Waters Wilderness, where scientists anticipate possibly the highest population of the wild cats in the region
Lynx depend on snowshoe hare for food, eating on average one hare every two to three days, especially in winter. They will also eat red squirrels and other animals, but hares are closely connected to the lynx’s life. Adequate hare habitat is essential to healthy lynx populations.
When hare densities are low, female lynx have fewer kittens, fewer young survive to adulthood, and lynx populations decline. Lynx and hares are both adapted to deep snow habitats. Snowshoe hares seek dense forest understories for food, protection from predators, and shelter from harsh weather. Early successional forests with brushy ground cover have the most hares.
Lynx also require forests with plenty of downed logs, wads of roots where trees have fallen over, and windfalls for their dens. Ultimately, the availability of both young and old forests are important for their survival.
There are numerous ways that humans affect lynx in northeastern Minnesota. As winters grow warmer, bobcats and coyotes can more easily compete for territory. Bobcats also interbreed with lynx, diluting the genetic pool. Climate change could also mean less deep snow, causing lynx territory to shift north.
The suppression of forest fires and timber management practices can also destroy habitat, while roads and snowmobile trails fragment lynx habitat and provide access to competitors. Over-trapping is a problem in particular during low points in the snowshoe hare population.
The Superior National Forest identifies these goals for lynx:
Identify habitat connections and potential highway crossing areas.
Use wildlife fencing, underpasses and overpasses.
Reduce incidental take of lynx related to trapping.
Prevent barriers to movement in connection areas.
Maintain or enhance habitat in connection areas.
Pursue opportunities for cooperative management.
Conduct landscape-level ecosystem management.
Maintain important connectivity with habitat and lynx in Canada.
Identify connection areas in land ownership changes.
Evaluate land use and exchanges for effects on lynx
The timber wolf — A BWCAW legend
About 2,200 wolves make Minnesota their home, many of them in the Boundary Waters and surrounding region. Wolves in the region are currently listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Gray wolves or timberwolves (Canus lupus) play an essential role in the wilderness ecosystem, hunting whitetail deer, moose, and other herbivores. Hearing their howls is a truly wild experience, and the hope of many people who visit the wilderness.
The BWCAW is one of only two places in the lower 48 states where wolves were never entirely extirpated.
Prior to their federal classification as an endangered species in 1974, wolf hunting was allowed in Minnesota. Their protected status has fluctuated since that time. Wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List in January 2012, and Minnesota allowed hunting and trapping for two years. In December 2014, a federal judge reinstated federal protection for the wolf, and hunting was once again prohibited.
During the controversial wolf hunting seasons, long-time researcher Dr. L. David Mech suggested the Boundary Waters could serve as a “wolf sanctuary,” prohibiting hunting because the wolves are far from livestock, which they prey on and is the cause of a most human-wolf conflict.
These little creatures living in the Boundary Waters and the surrounding area are almost invisible to human eyes. They are all listed by the state of Minnesota as “Species of Special Concern” because of their rarity and sensitivity to change.
Northern Bog Lemming (Synaptomys borealis)
Found in only 10 peatlands in Minnesota, including in the Boundary Waters region. They prefer acidic bogs dominated by sphagnum moss, shrubs, and peat.
Smoky Shrew (Sorex fumeus) Prefer cool, damp forest floor with a thick litter layer, moss-covered rocks, and decaying debris. Found in Minnesota in glacial boulder streams; second-growth black spruce, fir, paper birch forests; mossy talus slopes; and sphagnum bogs.
Eastern Heather Vole (Phenacomys ungava) Live in coniferous forests with a heathy understory, wet meadows, rocky hillsides, forest edge, or deciduous shrubby habitats. Needs to be near water, boulders, coarse woody debris, and plants of the heather family.
Northern Long-eared Bat (Myotis septentrionalis) Designated as a federally-threatened species in 2015 due to white nose syndrome. In summer, bats leave caves for forested habitats where they roost in trees near water sources, and have been documented near the Boundary Waters. A $1.25 million study of their summer habitat is currently underway on the Superior National Forest.
Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) Live in mature upland deciduous or mixed deciduous-coniferous forests interspersed with sphagnum seepages, vernal ponds, or other fish-free habitats that serve as nesting sites.
The Boundary Waters is a refuge to a unique array of life, including plants and animals found nowhere else in Minnesota. Even on longer trips, say seven to 10 days, you can only see a small part of the one-million-plus acres contained in this wilderness.
It’s why so many people come back year after year, and a few have a lifetime goal of visiting every lake or every entry point.
A legacy of conservation
October 21st will mark the 40th anniversary of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act being signed into law. To celebrate the piece of legislation that did so much to preserve the Boundary Waters as we know it today, the Friends has prepared a visually stunning State of the Boundary Waters report, which is now available to the public.
We put together this report to make people aware that though the BWCAW is protected and overall healthy, it faces big issues. In recent years, the proposed sulfide mines have been the big story, and the Friends has taken the federal government to court over this issue, but other threats from climate change, invasive species, air pollution and more could cause long-lasting and irreversible damage to the Wilderness.
Preserving the BWCAW for future generations
Those of us who love the BWCAW share a responsibility to ensure this unique wilderness, protected by those who came before us, can be passed on to future generations as healthy and as whole as we found it.