Boundary Waters Wilderness? Check. Now back to town

Take my picture, then leave. Sam Cook/The Duluth News-Tribune, via AP

It used to be when people brought up their Boundary Waters trip, they were talking about days in the wilderness. It was perfectly fine to brag about toughing it out, even for just a couple nights.

Primitive camping? Not seeing a soul for days? Casually ripping trout-sized leeches off your body? That’s what the words “Boundary Waters”
conjured up, my friend.

Now, though, it appears we are increasingly willing to drop in on Minnesota’s wilderness, take a picture and then run back to Ely.

While the number of Boundary Waters visitors is up significantly, the number of overnight stays has dropped, says Ron Wirtz with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

In his recent post, “Boundary Waters: Roughing it, for the day,”  Wirtz writes:

Since 2003, the park has seen a steady drop in permits (required for overnight stays and other special uses between May 1 and Sept. 30), but an increase in total visitors, according to information from the Superior National Forest office.

The office believes the annual variation and general decline in permits is likely the result of a combination of factors, including camp fire restrictions, bugs, weather, gas prices and the general health of the economy.

At the same time, based on permits and other monitoring, the office estimates that there has been a slow, steady increase in total park visitation from an estimated 200,000 people in 2000 to an estimated 250,000 people in recent years.

This increase, according to the office, likely reflected shifts in travel patterns and length of stay, with fewer overnight stays and more day use spread more broadly across the seasons.

I’ve done one BWCA trip — four days and three nights. It was really cool. In fact, I’ve leveraged it for more than a decade, tossing it out in various gatherings as a credential of my personal toughness.

Now, we may have to create a new etiquette for Boundary Waters boasting.

You say, “I went to the Boundary Waters.” I say, “Oh, how many nights?”

You say, “Just for the day.” I stare in stony silence.

  • joetron2030

    I’ve done two trips into the BWCA. Both were back in the late-90s. Some of the best camping trips I’ve ever been on. I hope to introduce my two girls to the magic of camping and canoeing in the BWCA some day.

    I have also done a couple one-day in and out trips. Both were hikes up to the top of Eagle Mountain.

    If you haven’t at least camped overnight in the BWCA, then you’re kinda missing out on the entire point of going there.

  • Ralphy

    I have taken at least 50 multi-night trips over the past 30 plus years. It used to take several good portages and a couple of days to find solitude. In a way I’m glad that is no longer the case. There are definitely more day-trippers (often woefully unprepared and talking loudly, as if they are paddling on Lake Harriet), but fewer over-nighters. Those that do camp tend to be there for the solitude – there are definitely fewer party campers than in the past, too.