After two-year spike, Boundary Waters visits drop to pre-pandemic levels

Canoes on the shore of a lake as the sun rises.
Over the past several years many visitors have complained the Boundary Waters was overcrowded and campsites were hard to come by.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Updated 5:45 p.m.

The number of visitors who ventured into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness dropped by about 9 percent last year following a two-year spike during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data released by the U.S. Forest Service.

Nearly 151,000 people visited the million-acre wilderness along the Canadian border in 2022. Most traveled by canoe, but others hiked or took motorboats into lakes that allow them, while others cross-country skied, snowshoed or journeyed by dogsled.

The decline followed a surge in interest in the Boundary Waters the two previous years. Around 166,000 visitors traveled into the wilderness in 2020 and again in 2021 as people increasingly sought outdoor recreation and places to socially distance during the height of the pandemic.

In announcing the new numbers, the Superior National Forest said the drop in use levels is “beneficial for the wilderness restoration efforts and to better preserve wilderness character moving forward.”

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Increased visits during the pandemic introduced many newcomers to the natural splendor of the Boundary Waters and its web of more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes. But it also created a host of problems including litter, improper disposal of human waste, large and disruptive groups, live trees cut down and campfires left unattended.

“It’s good for all designated wilderness areas nationwide to return to pre-COVID visitation due to the complexity of ensuring wilderness values,” said Superior National Forest spokesperson Joy VanDrie.

“A designated wilderness like the BWCAW offers solitude, freedom, primitive recreation, challenge, risk and connection with nature.”

Tree cut down along BWCAW lake
Superior National Forest workers 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. It's illegal to damage living plants and cut live trees.
Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

Reduction in permits

Over the past several years, many visitors have complained that the Boundary Waters was losing some of that solitude and suffering from overcrowding and a lack of available campsites, especially on popular lakes and near entry points into the wilderness. Those complaints increased when visits jumped during the pandemic.

In response, the Forest Service last year slashed the number of available permits to enter the wilderness during the busy summer season from May 1 to Sept. 30 by about 13 percent.

Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Co., said he was surprised the Forest Service didn’t mention that permit reduction when it announced the drop in visitors numbers. He noted there was a 12-percent reduction in the issuance of overnight paddle permits between 2021 and 2022.

“And there’s no reference to the fact that the Forest Service actually reduced permits by 13 percent,” Zabokrtsky said. “And that’s probably a large part of the reason why usage went down in 2022.”

The Forest Service said its data isn’t detailed enough to conclusively know why visits are down. Officials noted that the numbers vary from year to year, influenced by factors such as wildfires, the economy, drought, floods and even the timing of mosquitoes hatching.

Zabokrtsky acknowledged it’s complicated, and that there’s likely been a natural post-pandemic dip. Business is still bustling this summer, but he said he’s definitely noticed a change in clientele from the past two years.

“During the pandemic we saw people who would tell us they were not outdoorsy people. I think we are returning to a culture of somewhat more seasoned outdoor travelers who are probably taking a little better care of the wilderness when they’re out there.”

A man leans on a counter with camping equipment behind him.
Jason Zabokrtsky owns Ely Outfitting Co.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Cancellations and no-shows

While the Forest Service data shows an overall drop in visits, it also shows a stark increase in the number of permit cancellations and no-shows.

About 10,000 groups canceled permits in 2022. Prior to the pandemic, there were fewer than 5,000 cancellations annually.

There were also more than 4,000 no-shows in 2022. That’s nearly double the number the year before the pandemic.

Zabokrtsky attributes the spike to the Forest Service’s decision to reduce the number of permits available. Because of that, he said “some people are reserving more permits than they intend to use,” and they’re making reservations early in the year, soon after permits become available.

“They’re doing that because they fear that if they wait until later, when they actually know what their schedule for the summer looks like, and try to reserve the permit, that there aren’t going to be any permits available.”

Clare Shirley, third-generation owner of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters north of Tofte, Minn., agreed, saying she’s seen a lot of people reserving what she calls “prospective” permits.

“Because they're not sure what weekend they can go, but they want to make sure they get one. So I've seen people book a bunch of permits, and then eventually only use one of them.”

Then, when their plans for the summer firm up later on, they cancel the permits they don’t need, or just fail to show up and claim them, which means those permits don’t become available for other visitors to use.

That’s resulted in a big change this year in which permits for trips a few months away might be totally sold out, but if someone is looking for a permit within the next few days, there are “a shocking number of permits available,” said Zabokrtsky. He predicts the data for 2023 will continue to show a high number of no-shows and cancellations.

Shirley hopes the Forest Service will consider returning the number of permits available to pre-pandemic levels, now that visits have dropped close to what it was before the pandemic.

“Because what's not pre-pandemic numbers right now is that level of cancellations and no- shows,” Shirley said. “And what that's doing is basically taking those permits away from people that would otherwise be able to go on canoe trips. It's making it harder to access the wilderness, especially for folks that want to plan their trips a little bit in advance.”

Forest Service officials echoed outfitters’ concerns about the increase in cancellations and no-shows over the past few years. But they said there will always be cancellations, and that those numbers tend to ebb and flow year to year.

“We need help in messaging how important it is for people to cancel as early as possible so others have the ability to experience the BWCAW,” said VanDrie. “When a cancellation is made, the system puts it back into availability. However, if it’s close to the permit date, it makes it hard for others to utilize it and plan their trip accordingly.”

A rainbow rises over a lake.
A rainbow rises over the south arm of Knife Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in July 2021.
Dan Kraker | MPR News