The push of more people into the outdoors as COVID-19 restrictions have eased across the Northland has been jaw-dropping, and that includes a rush on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and other remote areas of the Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park and Minnesota parks and forests.
Canoes are selling out. Outfitters are booked. Permits are gobbled up.
Not only are seasoned veterans itching to get back outdoors, and do so where it’s easier to social distance, but experts are seeing a rush of newcomers into wild areas as well.
That’s both encouraging and concerning, said Prof. Ken Gilbertson, founder of the Environmental and Outdoor Education Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth and an expert in wilderness travel.
“More people are going out who have less experience in what remote really means,’’ Gilbertson said.
It can be simple things like learning how to read maps and purify drinking water. And it can mean big things like dealing with medical emergencies without the aid of 911 or any contact with immediate help.
Spending time in nature is a proven method to relieve the stress that comes with the pandemic, Gilbertson notes, and it gets people away from their phones and the 24/7 bombardment of anxiety-causing news. But heading into the wilderness for the first time can be daunting, both for the campers and the wilderness. Simple trash has become a nagging issue this summer, and in some areas both natural resources like trees and man-made resources at campgrounds have been damaged.
“For the uninitiated, it's important to follow some basic rules to keep the experience positive and safe. A misstep in the wilderness can easily turn a remote camping experience from a soul-filling time to one of misery or even tragedy,’’ said Gilbertson, who also serves as head of the Department of Applied Human Sciences at UMD. “Yes, we need nature. But know your own limitations… Know what you are getting into before you go.”
Ann Schwaller, forest program manager for the BWCAW, told the Quetico Superior Foundation that wilderness rangers have noticed a lot of visitors this summer who are new to traveling and camping in designated wilderness and who are not following basic rules. That’s in part due to the Forest Service temporarily modifying the BWCAW permit issuance process to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by allowing permits to be printed at home. That means new visitors aren’t getting the usual in-person wilderness camping education at ranger stations or local outfitters. They are supposed to be watching videos from home.
“This may be leading to resource damage such as washing dishes or themselves in the lake with soap, cutting green trees, enlarging sites by removing vegetation, using harsh chemicals (such as foggers) for insects at the site, packing too much/too heavy for their trip causing injuries, and burning or throwing trash into the latrines,’’ Schwaller said. “These quick actions cause long-term negative physical and social effects to the very resource they’ve come to enjoy. We ask that visitors plan ahead, and respect the wilderness and experiences of visitors that come tomorrow.”
Trent Wickman, acting public affairs officer for the Superior National Forest, said some of the people visiting are not following the usual "leave no trace'' ethic of the wilderness, including littering and tree cutting.
"There seem to be some bad actors out there who are causing damage, too,'' he said. "We want people to enjoy the outdoors but also respect it."
Gilbertson offers these guidelines for anyone heading into remote areas:
Find a partner who is experienced in remote camping. The wilderness environment can be unforgiving. It's important to know how to travel, navigate and be able to set up a safe camp. If you can’t find a friend who knows the ropes, consider using an outfitter to plan your trip and even adding a guide who comes along.
Tell someone where you are going and when you intend to return. Make sure that person knows who to contact if you don’t show up on time. In the event of trouble, this could save your life.
Always wear a life jacket—even if it's hot outside.
Prepare for mosquitoes, deer flies, black flies and ticks. If you use insect repellent and wear a long-sleeved shirt and pants, you will be fine. Distraction from pests can often lead to careless behavior and even injury.
Take care of nature. Fighting nature more often leads to injury. Novice camping behavior also damages the land, which is one of the key reasons we camp in remote settings in the first place—to enjoy the beauty of nature. Use a camp stove instead of having a fire. Never strip bark from a tree. If there is no latrine, be sure to bury your waste away from camp and in a hole 8 inches deep to allow for ideal decomposition) Take out what you take in, don't leave any garbage behind.
Additional help for campers
The BWCAW has been allowing overnight camping since May 18. Permits and resources for planning trips are available at recreation.gov/permits/233396. The Department of Natural Resources began a phased reopening of Minnesota state campgrounds on June 1, and some feature hike-in and paddle-in sites. Go to dnr.state.mn.us. Dispersed and backcountry camping is an option at Minnesota state forests and in the Superior National Forest outside the BWCAW. Go to www.fs.usda.gov/activity/superior/recreation/camping-cabins/.