With just a few weeks before the spring camping season opens in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the U.S. Forest Service expects as many as 76 campsites on 23 lakes to be unavailable in a hangover from last year's big Pagami Creek fire.
Rangers had hoped to have most back in operation when paddlers returned. But standing scorched trees known as snags and burned latrines raise safety and sanitation issues that still must be addressed, spokeswoman Kris Reichenbach said.
Foresters hope the wind and snow will take down some of the snags before crews get into the area later this month if conditions permit, Reichenbach said. As those crews reopen portages blocked by trees and clear campsites of the dangerous snags, the number of closed campsites could drop quickly, she said.
A few of the sites will need extensive work that may require keeping them closed all season, Reichenbach said.
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As big as the Pagami Creek fire was, it blackened only a small part of the BWCA. The wilderness has more than 2,100 campsites scattered across 1,700 square miles of wilderness dotted by more than 1,000 lakes. So while the fire was a disappointment to people whose favorite campsites and routes were changed forever, vast untouched areas remain to be explored.
One of the biggest outfitters in downtown Ely, Piragis Northwoods Company, isn't seeing any dropoff in customer interest, said marketing director Tim Stouffer. Piragis even plans to offer guided fire ecology tours through the burned area this spring and fall, he said.
Visitors who venture into burned areas will be able to see deeper into the woods than before, which increases their chances for spotting wildlife, he said. Berry picking is usually good in burned areas, he noted. And most of the Ely-area entry points and routes where Piragis sends customers aren't affected at all, he said.
"We're optimistic and looking ahead to the season in a positive way," Stouffer said.
The fire started small with a lightning strike in a bog about 13 miles east of Ely last August. It exploded in mid-September in abnormally dry conditions and high winds and swiftly burned around 145 square miles inside and outside the BWCA before all but stopping in its tracks.
The closures include 13 of the 46 campsites on popular Lake Insula, while only two of 11 campsites are due to be open on Lake Isabella. The Forest Service also has lowered the number of permits it's issuing for six entry points into the BWCA, including the popular Lake One portal, where Frank Udovic owns the Kawishiwi Lodge resort and Lake One-Ely Outfitters.
While Udovic said he's doing well on cabin reservations, maybe even ahead of last year's pace, he expects canoe rentals will be off and he's noticed that entry permits aren't going as fast as they normally do. Visitors to the busy numbered chain of lakes that starts at Lake One stand a much better chance of finding solitude than they have in years, he said.
"But I wouldn't shed a tear for me," Udovic said. Lake One and Lake Two are mostly untouched and the damage is often spotty on other lakes in the chain, which means it's a 2 to 2 ½-hour paddle to the main fire area, he said. That means some of his guests might just opt to stay in a cabin where they can sleep in a bed and enjoy hot showers, he said.
Only a sudden wind shift prevented the fire from reaching Sawbill Outfitters north of Tofte, but co-owner Bill Hansen said he doesn't expect any meaningful impact on his business this season. On the main routes he serves, he said, only two small lakes that nobody camps on sustained much damage. People need to understand that fire is a natural - and inevitable - part of the northern forest ecosystem, he said.
"The first year it's awfully black and white, which is kind of hard to take, but after that all sorts of interesting things happen," Hansen said.
Camper use of the BWCA generally begins picking up in April and May, and entry permit reservations become necessary starting May 1.
Superior National Forest Pagami Creek Wildfire impact information: http://bit.ly/zS9FwP
Entry point closure map:
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)