Talk to Ely residents about the six people charged with going on a rampage against campers in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and you'll hear ringing condemnation -- and sometimes a hint of sympathy.
"It's the two different aspects of the Ely mentality," said Steve Piragis, co-owner of Piragis Northwoods Co., an Ely outfitter. "These kids got this from somewhere."
Many people in Ely were saddened and embarrassed when they heard that five adults and one juvenile were charged with terrorizing campers in the BWCAW on Aug. 7, firing multiple weapons into the night sky and calm waters. People from all walks of life in this small town on the edge of a popular wilderness have denounced the behavior, saying it doesn't reflect the attitudes of most people who live here.
But many acknowledged they weren't all that surprised.
An undercurrent of tension has flowed for years between those who pushed for creation of the BWCAW in 1978 and those who opposed it, and the August incident has its roots partly in that lingering resentment, some say. Basswood Lake, where the incident occurred, is known for great fishing, but is only partly open to motorized boats. That's been a sore spot among locals since 1978, Piragis said.
"This is a reflection of some attitudes that have existed since that time," Piragis said. "It's an issue that needs to be brought out and talked about."
Others, however, said the incident had nothing to do with the wilderness dispute but was simply a case of young people acting badly.
"They really crossed the line, big time," said Jim Maki, a lifelong Ely resident who owns The Great Outdoors bait shop. "It was a harmless prank that went out of control."
No one in Ely suggests such a thing is likely to happen again. But in a city that is so dependent on tourism -- Ely would not exist as it does today if not for the tourist trade, said Anne Swenson, publisher of the Ely Echo -- it was distressing to see tales of the rampage spread around the country.
Many Ely residents last week declined to talk about the incident. Some said they were related to or knew the families of the men involved, and others said they were tired of hearing about the whole thing.
Formal charges were filed in Lake County on Sept. 14, including 79 criminal charges against the five adults. According to the criminal complaints against them, they're accused of vandalizing government equipment, firing guns and fireworks toward campers, and threatening to kill or rape some of them.
In his statement to police, Zachary Ross Barton, 19, said that he and his companions "were just going to go up there and have some fun," the complaint said. The men repeatedly called the campers "enox," the complaint said, a derogatory local term of vague origin that means "tourists."
Federal charges may yet be filed against the defendants, and Canadian officials also may bring charges. The men are scheduled to make their first appearance in Lake County Court on Oct. 1.
'Got caught up in it'
The six local residents charged with roaming around Basswood Lake that nightare well-known and well-connected in Ely. Several have family ties to local outfitters, the schools and even the U.S. Forest Service.
Barney Lakner's father was a teacher in the school district and owned an outfitting business. For years Lakner, 37, has delivered bread to local grocery stores and outfitters. He is married and has two young sons.
Local perception of the young men is mixed. Some described them as hard-working, decent kids snared in a mix of alcohol and late-night carousing who got carried away.
"The young kids got caught up in it and did a stupid thing on the spur of the moment," said Ely resident Art Richter.
Richter said older Ely residents felt they lost some of their freedom to move about in motorboats when the BWCAW was created.
"Local people took care of the campsites and respected the wilderness," Richter said. "Some of these young fellows, their fathers remember when it was open to motor routes."
"They are hard-working people who had too much to drink," said Ely resident Anna Deadrick. "I am totally sympathetic with the folks [camping on Basswood Lake that night]; it must have been horrible. I hope the judicial system is fair to all parties. ... I just hope it doesn't turn into a railroad operation."
Others said the young men were part of a loose group that disrespected laws governing the wilderness.
On his MySpace page, Travis John Erzar describes himself as a "motor boatin son of a [expletive]."
"I wasn't amazed" to hear about the Aug. 7 incident, said Steven Ivancich, 15, of Ely. "People had done stupid stuff like this before. There are lots of people [around Ely] who think they are rednecks."
Suspects Jay Andrew Olson, Casey James Fenske, Erzar and Barton all have been charged with multiple minor law infractions in recent years. The charges include speeding on a snowmobile, underage drinking and operating an unregistered all-terrain vehicle.
Lakner also has a history of tangles with law enforcement; he has been charged with obstructing the legal process, reckless operation of a snowmobile and failure to comply with snowmobile training. The current charges are by far the most serious for all the men.
Several of those facing charges and their families declined to comment when contacted by the Duluth News Tribune. Erzar and Fenske's parents, however, were an exception.
"Not all apples in a bunch are bad, said Peggy Erzar, Travis' mother. "Some kids are in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Peggy and Dean Erzar say they feel some of the young men are being tried in the public before they are in the court system.
"We love our son, Casey, very much," Ruthanne Fenske read from a statement. "We'd also like to say that he, Zach and Travis are good boys who are loved by their families and many people in the community. We'd like to ask people touched by this story to wait and consider the facts, rather than sensationalized media reports and exaggerated accounts by individuals."
"We know he did something wrong," said Casey Fenske's great-grandmother, lifelong Ely resident Ruth Markovich. "He was there. But it doesn't fit the picture of what he was like around me."
"Casey is understanding the serious nature of the situation, and he is cooperating and will do whatever it takes to us through this OK," Ruthanne Fenske said.
It's impossible to say what motivated the vandalism, said Superior National Forest Kawishiwi District Ranger Mark Van Every. As for those who took part in the Aug. 7 incident, "they made an unfortunate choice in dealing with whatever feelings they might have about the wilderness," he said.
Maki said people sometimes violate laws banning motors from the BWCAW, particularly with snowmobiles in the winter. If they get caught, people just pay the fine and no harm is done, Maki said. In 2004, Lakner and a small group of men were caught riding snowmobiles within the BWCAW.
The U.S. Forest Service and local law enforcement officers have been aware of occasional vandalism to cars left at BWCAW entry points, including gas siphoning, and damage to information kiosks, Van Every said. This year, for the first time, the agency has offered a reward for information about damage to at least 10 information kiosks.
"I think the majority of Ely people have been reconciled to the fact that the Boundary Waters is what it is today," said Nancy McReady, a lifelong Ely resident. "Where some of the animosity comes from is every 10 years or so, various preservation groups go back to the  law and challenge something in that law to further restrict it."
McReady is the president of Conservationists with Common Sense, a group that promotes allowing some motorized access to the BWCAW. She cited disputes in the 1990s over whether trucks could be used on certain long portages, one into Basswood Lake, and a current dispute over a snowmobile trail near the Boundary Waters.
Ely's economy was boosted by tourism long before the Boundary Waters was designated a wilderness. People flocked to the resorts and camps that dotted the lakes, and summer homes were sprinkled throughout what is now wilderness. Logging and mining operations rounded out the community.
But as logging and mining jobs have dwindled, tourism has been thrust into a much more important role, and Ely has grown dependent on its image of a welcoming launching point to the wilderness -- and a place to do a little shopping on the way home.
Many shop windows along Sheridan and Chapman streets are papered with a new campaign to "think positive," where Ely residents are pictured holding signs about the all the good things Ely offers: beautiful woods; friendly, innovative people; safety.
As news of the Aug. 7 rampage spreads across the country, local business owners are hoping people see it as an isolated incident.
The Ely Chamber of Commerce has heard no reports of people canceling trips to Ely, administrative director Linda Fryer said. But several outfitters say that visitors are certainly aware of what has happened.
"Between 60 and 70 percent of our customers mention it," said Brian Cook, an employee at Voyageur North Outfitters. " 'Are there guys with guns out there?', they ask. We try to laugh it off; it was just one incident."
Marcy Gotchnik, who co-owns Wilderness Outfitters in Ely with her husband, Gary, thinks that people who have been visiting the Boundary Waters for a long time will understand. But newcomers might stay away. "We want everyone to come back and feel safe," she said.
Soon after people learned about the Aug. 7 rampage, "people were disappointed and surprised and shocked," Van Every said. "But memories tend to fade quickly."
Some worry that may not be the case with the Boundary Waters, where disputes over portages and trails tend to drag out over years.
"I hope there are no repercussions from any 'green' groups, because this is a wide-open door," Marcy Gotchnik said.