The aging of the BWCA visitor


(Photo: U.S. Forest Service)

Is it a problem that the average age of a visitor to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is approaching twice that of the average age in the 1960s?

That’s a question arising from the release of a study of BWCA use today by the U.S. Forest Service.

A 1969 survey found the average age of a visitor to the wilderness was 26. That increased to 36 in 1991 and 45 in the latest survey, based on data obtained in 2007.

More troubling, perhaps, is that people who have only a high school education don’t visit the BWCA much. Ninety-three percent of visitors have some college, have graduated from college, or have advanced degrees. That compares to 49 percent in the 1969 survey.

Nearly three-quarters of surveyed overnight visitors in 2007 were male, the survey says. “While this number is high, it has not increased significantly. The proportion of females appears to have remained stable at the BWCAW over time, with fluctuation over the past 40 years remaining between 25 and 30 percent of the overnight visitors,” it said.

People visiting the BWCA saw, on average, about four other groups per day in the wilderness. In the 1991 survey visitors felt the BWCA was “crowded” in at least a few places “Visitors in 1991 were also more likely to find it unpleasant to meet more than two paddle groups per day and increasing encounters affected them more negatively than 1969 visitors,” the previous survey indicated.

But maybe we’re more tolerant of “crowds” now.

A significant change in response to this question was found, with fewer than 40% saying they did not experience crowded conditions in 2007, decreasing from 44% in 1991 and from 72% in 1969. Over half felt it was crowded in at least a few places in 2007, a big change from 1969 when only 24% reported crowding in at least a few places. Consistently, fewer than 10%

in all three studies reporting crowding in most places they visited on their trips, though it went up from 2% in 1969 to 9% in 2007. Of the individuals who felt it was crowded at least in some places in 2007, 81% were either a little or moderately bothered by the amount of people (compared to 56% in 1991 and 84% in 1969). Only 12% were bothered a lot in 2007. Only 2% reported in 2007 that they changed the length of their trip due to crowding, while 17% changed the route of their trip. Finally, 28% of all overnight visitors in 2007 reported crowding would affect their plans to visit the BWCAW.

The latest survey also shows the changing nature of Minnesota and the U.S. Visitors today are half as likely to have grown up on a farm, “much more likely to have grown up in a major city or metro area and are also more likely to live in a major city or metro area of over 1 million people,” it said.

The most common complaint about the BWCA is litter and the difficulty of obtaining a day use permit.

Here’s the entire report.


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  • John P

    Education Level: People with only a have slipped badly economically since 1969. A BWCA trip can get expensive if you need to rent a lot of equipment.

    Age: The whole population has aged, so it makes sense that BWCA visitors have aged. As I remember the late 60’s and 70’s when I was young there a serious fashion for the outdoors. Lots of hiking boots and Rocky Mountain High. That probably boosted the youngster count back then, and those are old folks now.

    Also, the BWCA was new. It seems like nearly everyone in my age group has been there and taken their kids. I still love the place personally, but there may be some “been there, done that” feelings suppressing attendance.

  • Kassie

    To echo John, also people with only high school educations are less likely to have jobs with vacation benefits. I also assume that many have jobs that are busier in the summer than the winter (construction, landscaping, road crews, etc). That is just my speculation though.

  • kennedy

    Having enough disposble income (paying job) or wealth to afford a trip is going to select a certain group. Also, as Kassie mentioned, taking a trip requires the ability to take time off from work.

    Another thing to consider. Some people may not consider it a vacation to be cut off from electronic communication.

  • Jim Shapiro

    And internet reception in the Boundary Waters is terrible.

  • Jim Shapiro

    kennedy – beat me to it by one minute! How does it go again – “greatly disturbed minds think alike?” (Speaking only for myself, of course 🙂

  • John p.

    I consider the poor cell service to be a benefit, and strangely my son (26) and daughter (23) claim to feel the same.

  • Dan B

    I was just texting with a buddy today about going up there this summer (Both in our mid twenties). I guess my peers don’t know what they’re missing; every time I’ve gone before has been a blast.

  • Doug

    Going into the Boundary Waters used to be an (almost) spontaneous event, with same-day or week permits available over the counter. No longer is this the case.

  • Carol

    It seems to me that people do not talk about the fees,restrictions and controlled entry of the BWCA. If you are on the U.S.and Canadian Border, there are the entry permits to both countries, the passports, fishing licenses both US and Canada, the Outdoors card to be able to buy a license in Canada, the rental of the canoe, the gear the camping restrictions,not being able to bring bait into Canada, finding a outlet that does, checking of the gear and belongings by the officials,the observation by Border Patrol, no communication for emergencies. I read about the person who did not want cell phone access in the BWCA. That is your choice and you do not have to bring it along. But if you have kids in the BWCA and have a true emergency,it is a lifesaving utensil.The blue skies and beautiful scenes are visible long term only if you have a good experience. Our Canadian Ranger wants us to visit Cache Bay and we would love to but although I am in good shape, I would not canoe that far and then have to canoe back.The more restrictions you have the less visitors. And the population is older. How many can afford the expense while on social security.

  • steve

    The danger in visiting the BWCA is you will get hooked on the place and want to come back. At Spirit of the Wilderness, we have noticed more women visiting the BWCA. So good to see the confidence they acquire during their experience. Start with a day trip or ecotour course and enjoy a fantastic adventure.

  • steve

    Day use paddle permits are free and available at all entry points and outfitters. Why are they considered difficult to obtain? Day motor permits are another issue. They can be difficult to obtain.

  • ted

    Hear hear, Steve, I was astonished to read that people think day use permits are difficult to obtain! What could be easier than a free, on-site, self-issued half-page permit?

    As far as education level and expense, 92% of Minnesotans in 2007 had at least a high school diploma, so the stats for BWCA visitors are really not too far off the general population. And although a canoe trip isn’t free, it’s cheaper than almost any other vacation.

    Doug- there are actually “quick permits” available for same- or next-day entry for most entry points outside Ely; even during the busiest weekends of the year, someone usually cancels a trip. As long as you’re not too set on a particular entry point, you can also avoid paying the reservation fee. In the last five years, I haven’t reserved an advance permit for any of my seven trips.

    Carol- with more than a million acres on the U.S. side, there’s no need to mess about with Quetico permits and regulations if they burden you. Most outfitters can supply all your equipment needs; all you really need to do is reserve a permit (if that) and show up!

    As for cell service, most groups such as Boy Scouts that bring children into the BWCA, as well as plenty of private parties, pack a satellite phone or one of many other emergency communication devices that do not require unsightly cell towers.