By Kevin Proescholdt
In August, my family and I enjoyed our second canoe trip of the summer in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) of northeastern Minnesota. The 1.1 million-acre BWCAW is a lakeland wilderness with over 1,000 lakes connected by rivers, streams and portage trails. It is part of Superior National Forest and is one of the most visited (if not the most visited) Wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System.
We enjoyed five days of paddling, portaging, camping, swimming, fishing, and laughing. But we did have to contend with strong winds almost the entire trip, including becoming windbound overnight at a point of land where the strong west winds howled unimpeded along many miles of open lake.
There have been many reports this summer about new and inexperienced visitors coming to the BWCAW, anxious to get out of their homes after hunkering down for months because of the coronavirus. While we should welcome new people visiting Wilderness for the first time, we would also hope that these first timers don’t trash the area (as some have done this summer) and come prepared for wilderness challenges. On our last full day of travel in the BWCAW, we encountered part of one such ill-prepared group that had placed its faith almost entirely in technology that didn’t work.
We had finished one portage strewn with the gear of multiple disorganized groups, and headed over to an open campsite for a bite of lunch. In the BWCAW, one can only camp at designated campsites, each of which has a steel fire grate and a latrine back in the woods. Farther down the shore, at a jumble of glaciated bedrock, a group of young men had stopped for a break before heading over to the portage trail. Then a canoe with a father, a 10-year old son, and an eight-year-old daughter paddled straight toward the jumble of rocks the guys had just left. After paddling back and forth along that spot for a while, they realized it was not a campsite and headed over to us. They asked if we were staying there, we said no, and they landed their canoe.
The dad was a classic case of the novice putting his entire faith in technology in the Wilderness, and it wasn’t working so well for him. It seems his group split up to try to find an open campsite after fighting the wind out on the open part of the lake. He had a walkie-talkie to communicate with the rest of his group, but he was too far out of range for that to work. He walked up the rocky knob behind our campsite to try to get clearer reception for his device, but still his walkie-talkie did not work. He complained about no open campsites on the lake, but didn’t have a map in sight (which typically show the designated campsites as red dots). “Thank God for off-line GPS,” he exclaimed as he peered at his cell phone, but his GPS didn’t seem to show the location of any campsites either. He had no idea where the rest of his party was (nor, apparently, exactly where he was, either).
He left a couple of packs and his son at our campsite as we finished our lunch (good thing we weren’t ax murderers!), and headed back out on the lake with his daughter to try to find the rest of his group. The son began fishing from shore. As we left that campsite, we wondered if the dad would ever find the rest of his group or, for that matter, ever find his son back at the campsite we had just left. An over-reliance on technology and not nearly enough preparation or skills for wilderness travel!
“Wilderness Experienced” is a platform to share stories of recent experiences in Wilderness. Stories focus on the virtues of Wilderness and/or challenges facing the National Wilderness Preservation System.
We encourage readers to engage the authors and other commenters through the comment feature. Please be respectful and thoughtful in your response, and focus your comments on the issues/experiences presented. Please refrain from personal attacks and harassment, using rude or disruptive language, providing misinformation, or promoting violence or illegal activities. We reserve the right to reject comments. Thank you for your cooperation and support.
Been on numerous trips decades ago.
I do hope while on your trip you pondered the fact BWCAW was one of the first and still one of the few that protects Wilderness from trammel through carrying capacities and quotas.
I think it high time for WW to once again take this mantle it once defended for all Wilderness Areas.
My grandfather built a retirement house on Fall Lake near Ely (but the reality of winter soon had them renting for 6 months a year in Lincoln).
We visited several times from our Buffalo homestead. On one trip to MN we (Gdad, Dad, me & guide) did a portage fishing trip through the border lakes. Fish, not so much, but the surrounding was paradise. Hope it never changes.
It would be appropriate that people be able to get some education on an area before they go, or at the very least, at the entrance to an area. Leaving inexperienced people to fend for themselves and "just figure things out" in a wilderness area is ridiculous.
Yes, it is ridiculous. But all people entering a wilderness should be prepared for that experience, and in this instance their commercial outfitter should have also better prepared this group for its wilderness trip.
* They were given information when they checked in for their permit.
* Outfitting for profit is corporate wilderness.
* Why is it anyone's responsibility but the permit holder to ensure for both their safety and comfort?
Wilderness should never become 'safe' or easy, otherwise it's just a park.
I understand that the Navy has tumbled to the fact that GPS ship navigation can be disrupted. I'm told they've gone back to teaching the future officers how to do sun shots and celestial navigation. Technology without common sense = big trouble potentials.
We need to take better care of what is left of our environment for people, wildlife, and marine life.
There's no technology you can take in the wilderness that will stop a healthy BWCAW headwind. That'll teach you to be humble quickly.
Hard to imagine! I love the boundary waters, haven't floated them in years, and miss them, hope those folks are ok, and learned a lesson!
I have never been able to canoe or travel to the BWCA. However, even I realize you need to be prepared and not depend on others or technology to be able to travel there. We have been hoping that Survivor (tv show) would try it, but are very doubtful as you need to have skills to travel there and no bikinis.
Finally in my 30’s I decided to find out what a mountain was, what canoeing was, what being in the wilderness was.
To prepare, I went on 3-5 week outdoor trips with both Colorado outward Bound and Minnesota Outward Bound,
I also went mountaineering with Paul Petzoldt in the Wind River range. After that, I knew how to survive and went on more trips with a friend or two. That’s what flatlander, urbanites prepare! Oh yes, don’t go unless, at a minimum, you can run a mile in 15 minutes
Whenever you travel, whether in a wilderness or an urban area, you should always research the area, find out what you need and should know, have the right clothes, maps, and let someone know your plans. If you have no boating or camping experience, get educated and practice.
As a lifelong resident of New York and the Adirondack Mountains I read weekly about the countless persons and groups who must be rescued by Forest Rangers from situations that even a modicum of common sense and preparedness would never have happened. I am 87 years of age and have spent much of my life canoeing, fishing, hunting, etc. in various wildernesses in North and South America, and I feel that the current generation is so far removed from the natural world due to countless factors beyond our control that there may be little hope that things will change. Dependence on technology is just one problem among many we must face, but we must persevere.
Our natural resources are a precious gift to be preserved & protected. Yet man continues to KNOWINGLY poison our land, earth, water & slaughter whatever wildlife stands in the way of his unending greed & profit. Our gifts are being exploited by the big corporations & their indifference to the results of their actions is destroying our world and all creatures, including us! This MUST stop before they are gone and the effects of their seeking profits robs us of our gifts and cause the death of our world.
Every time I read a story like this, and there are many each year, I'm glad my dad trained me for wilderness travel when I was about five. These sad cases give me lots of energy, even at the age of 81, for teaching the Scouts in my troop about the importance of training for the unexpected, to Be Prepared in the outdoors. I often stress that map and compass or celestial navigation is reliable. Any technology is bound to fail when you most need it. Our troop high adventure crews has been to the Boundary Waters many times and always comes back excited about their accomplishments and the thrill of using all the skills they learned, especially map and compass.