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Ely outfitters ready for people to return to Boundary Waters after 2-week closure

After an "economically devastating" two weeks, outfitters and other businesses in Ely are looking forward to campers and canoers returning to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness this weekend.

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Tim Barton, an outfitting manager at Ely’s Piragis Northwoods Co., prepares to pack a canvas winter camping wall tent near stacks of unused rental canoes Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Normally Barton wouldn’t prepare winter rental gear until November, but he had time after the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness closed temporarily. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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Businesspeople in Ely could breathe a sigh of relief Wednesday evening — in between phone calls with customers — after the Superior National Forest Service announced it was reopening parts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness .

In the last two weeks, many Ely outfitters saw business come to a near-standstill and were anxious to know whether they would lose Labor Day, the last big weekend of summer. Usually, the end of August and beginning of September is peak season for campers and paddlers to rent from Ely outfitters. Instead, most outfitters could count on one hand the number of canoes they had rented out each day.

“We went from 100 miles an hour, down to maybe 5 miles an hour, and now we’re going to be ramping up pretty quickly,” said Ginny Nelson, co-owner of Spirit of the Wilderness outfitter and outdoor store. “It’s almost like starting the season again.”

Outfitters spent most of the beginning of the week waiting for news, unable to tell customers whether their upcoming trips would happen. The Forest Service’s closure and camping ban was implemented Friday, leaving plans for the weekend uncertain.

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Spirit of the Wilderness co-owner Ginny Nelson talks about the Boundary Waters closure’s impact on business Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Only four of the business 90-plus rental canoes were being rented. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Brian Olson, manager of Canoe Country Outfitters, described the BWCAW closure as “economically devastating.” The Olson family has been at Canoe Country since 1950 and experienced the last BWCAW shutdown in 1976. The business offers outfitting, guide services, retail and lodging. Even though camping at designated campgrounds was permitted, Olson said only six of their 25 campsites near Moose Lake were in use Tuesday. Most of Canoe Country’s 200 canoes were still in their racks, and the store was locked up for lack of customers.

Canoe Country's co-owner Mark Olson said Thursday was a happy day, as several customers who’d had to cancel previous trips were calling and arranging to come back.

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Brian Olson, the third generation at the family owned Canoe Country Outfitters in Ely, airs out life jackets near a pile of rental canoes Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. He called the closure of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness “devastating.” Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“We hope that the phone keeps ringing,” he said. “It’s nice for once to get a call saying people are going to come back rather than every time we pick the phone up, it seemed like people were canceling on us. With good reason, obviously.”

Nelson said they began calling customers Wednesday night, after business hours, to start letting people know the Boundary Waters would be open for the weekend if they could still make the trip.

While parts of the BWCAW are still closed for the Greenwood, John Ek and Whelp fires, visitors are able to re-enter Saturday and may again set up camp outside designated campgrounds. Open flames are still banned throughout the Superior National Forest.

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Piragis Northwoods Co. employee Jaymie Stocks repairs rental gear Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. The outfitting area she’s in would normally be bustling with activity this time of year. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

At Piragis Northwoods Co., the mood had completely turned around from the beginning of the week. Staff had transitioned to preparing for winter outfitting, which usually doesn’t happen until at least mid-October, simply because they had the free time. Now, they’re back and busy at work preparing to accommodate customers. Outfitting Manager Drew Brockett said most of Piragis’ customers were able to hold on for the announcement about the upcoming weekend, and are now setting off on trips that have been planned far in advance.

“We’re not talking about just people from close by,” Brockett said. “I mean, there’s people from around the country who are coming.”

While Ely didn’t quite turn into a ghost town during the BWCAW closure, the economic impacts have already been felt by many. Dan Johnson, owner of the Paddle Inn, said normally even during fires, his motel was full of firefighters. This time, since firefighters are tent-camping, the capacity of the 15-room motel dramatically changed in the last two weeks.

“This summer has been extremely busy up to this point,” Johnson said Wednesday. “We’ve had a record summer going on, and now it’s come to, I wouldn’t say a grinding halt, but it feels like it. We were full, full, full, and now we’re running between a third and a half full.”

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Piles of rental gear sit at Piragis Northwoods Co. on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Brittons Cafe has been closed to the public since Aug. 19, and will be until further notice, as the staff prepare food for the firefighters. At Canoe Country, Brian Olson said the only business they saw Tuesday were three people who came to take showers.

But outfitters with retail stores were still seeing a small amount of foot traffic. Nelson said she was supported by residents who stopped by to make a purchase. Elli Piragis, general manager at Piragis Northwoods Co., said they had to temporarily shorten their hours of operation, but they did still see some customers come by the store.

“It’s nice to see people still in town and enjoying some things that maybe they wouldn’t have if they were out on a Boundary Waters trip,” Piragis said.

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Piragis Northwoods Co. employee Joan Sample, left, helps customer Nancy Henderson-Korpi on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. “My friends and I came up here for biking, then some lunch, then some shopping,” she said. “The perfect day.” Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

And at Grand Ely Lodge, General Manager Mary Zupancich said business was booming despite the fires.

“Some people just said, ‘We are taking a vacation and we’re coming up to Ely no matter what,’” Brockett said. “Because there’s things to do, whether it be day-tripping or shopping, the Wolf Center, the Bear Center, hiking — so we’re trying to keep them coming.”

Now that the Boundary Waters are open again, outfitters are hoping to make one last bit of profit before the year ends. Depending on the weather, there could be four to six weeks left of the season.

Mark Olson said after nervousness increased as the weekend loomed with no word from the Forest Service, spirits are higher now that they got the news they were hoping for.

“It’s a happy day,” Olson said.

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Drew Brockett, head outfitting manager at Piragis Northwoods Co., listens as general manager Elli Piragis talks Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, about how the Boundary Waters closure has impacted business. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

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Rental canoes sit unused on racks at Ely’s Spirit of the Wilderness outfitters Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Of the company’s 90-plus canoes, only four were rented. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

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A lone vehicle sits in front of Ely’s Paddle Inn on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Reservations are down, owner Dan Johnson said. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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