Pandemic-fueled surge in visitation to BWCA expected to continue this year

Canoes on the shore of a lake as the sun rises.
Canoes sit on the shore while the sun rises in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on Sept. 22, 2018. More than 165,000 people visited the Boundary Waters in 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Nearly 166,000 people visited the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last summer — a 16 percent jump from the previous year — and the most in at least a decade, according to a new report from the U.S. Forest Service.

There was an even bigger increase in the number of permits issued for visits between May and September.

The report, released Tuesday, shows what many people saw firsthand last year: a huge surge of campers and paddlers flocking to the remote wilderness of the Boundary Waters, along the Canadian border, after the lockdowns prompted by the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic eased.

After several consecutive years of hovering right around 25,000 permits issued annually, that number jumped to more than 31,000 last year — a 25 percent increase.

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Graph showing number of Boundary Waters visitors per year
The year 2020 saw sharp increases in the number of visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Those numbers do not come as a surprise to Andy McDonnell, who along with Ada Igoe co-owns Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters, located 50 miles down the Gunflint Trail out of Grand Marais, Minn.

“It was just an astonishingly busy year,” he said, noting their business was up slightly more than 25 percent.

The Forest Service saw a surge in visitation across the country last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated shutdowns. With kids’ activities canceled and longer vacations put on hold, people flocked to the Boundary Waters and other public lands for outdoor activities that naturally allowed for social distancing.

But the season didn’t start out that way for McDonnell and other canoe outfitters. The Boundary Waters was closed last year until May 18, when Minnesota’s initial stay-at-home order was lifted.

“As soon as we were able to open, it was as busy as we’ve ever been,” said McDonnell. “It was pretty much like, you flick the light switch, overnight we went from one day we were sitting around here twiddling our thumbs. The next day, the phone was ringing off the hook. And we couldn't keep up.”

It was a similar story for Jason Zabokrtsky, who owns Ely Outfitting Company.

“It was our busiest summer ever,” he said. Zabokrtsky estimates his business outfitted 20 percent more people than his previous busiest summer, “people who just needed to escape the city and get to the safe, rural area of the wilderness.”

And Zabokrtsky said he expects this summer to be even busier: “Everybody I talk to is just seeing dramatically significant increases in bookings.”

Forest Service officials told Zabokrtsky and other outfitters they’ve seen a substantial increase in permits reserved so far this year, compared to the same time last year.

“We're expecting another busy season,” said Superior National Forest spokesperson Joanna Gilkeson. “We don't typically publish our permit report numbers until the end of the season, because things are constantly in flux with people canceling and changing and scheduling and booking permits. But we can tell you that we're expecting a busy year.”

That’s reflected in the federal government’s online reservation system, where many popular entry points to the wilderness are already booked for weeks at a time. The Forest Service restricts the number of parties that can enter the Boundary Waters on any given day to spread out visitors and limit the impact on the wilderness.

“Typically, when May rolls around, we have plenty of quota permits to reserve for people for trips starting in June,” said Zabokrtsky. “This year, it's dramatically different. There are permits available for June for entering the BWCA. But there are far fewer to choose from than in a typical year in the past.”

Outfitters say the heightened demand is likely due in large part to the pandemic: People look for a safe, family-friendly vacation in the outdoors within driving distance.

Another contributing factor is the continued border closure with Canada. Some canoeists and anglers who typically travel into Canada are instead reserving trips in the Boundary Waters, according to Zabokrtsky and others.

There was a downside to the surge in visitation last summer. Forest Service officials say they saw “unprecedented natural resource damage” in the Boundary Waters, such as the cutting of live trees, human waste not being properly disposed, illegal camping, trash left in campfire rings and latrines, and campfires left unattended.

Tree cut down along BWCAW lake
The U.S. Forest Service's Superior National Forest division posted this photo to Facebook on July 20, 2020, as part of a series of photos highlighting what not to do in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service file

There was also more of what Gilkeson calls “social resource degradation,” including increased crowding and noise levels, and disruptive and oversized groups, “that don't really give you the true wilderness experience.”

Officials believe that was partly due to a change last year that allowed visitors to print out their permits at home. Typically, visitors to the Boundary Waters have to pick up permits in person, either at a Forest Service ranger station, of from an outfitter, where they’re required to watch a video and take a quiz on wilderness “Leave No Trace” ethics.

This year, visitors will again be able to print out a permit at home. But this time, they will be required to attend a 20-minute virtual “Leave No Trace/Tread Lightly” education session, which includes an overview of Boundary Waters regulations, before the Forest Service emails them their permit.

“So this year we're really ramping up our efforts,” said Gilkeson.

To avoid congestion, outfitters recommend working a bit harder this year, and paddling farther into the wilderness away from entry points, where many paddlers tend to stop and set up camp for several days.

And, while there are clearly unique circumstances contributing to the recent surge in visitors to the BWCA, outfitters like Zabokrstky wonder whether the trend may continue now that more people have discovered the wilderness.

“I think more people are finding out about it, and how wonderful it is and how special a vacation it can be. And I'm really wondering if if this is going to be a bit of a new normal going forward.”

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