The Boundary Waters: A Place Apart
Story by Steve Bailey
Photos by Sparky Stensaas
Steve Nelson was waiting for eight women. He planned to outfit them, put them in four canoes, and send them paddling into the wilderness. Nelson runs Spirit of the Wilderness Outfitters in Ely, Minnesota, one of many outfitters that cater to people visiting Superior National Forest (SNF) and its Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). The women would be coming from as far away as Arizona and New England to spend four days paddling and three nights camping. They would paddle to a remote island that one of the women, Linda Keith, had visited as a sixth-grader, where she met the legendary Root Beer Lady.
Canoe trips in the Boundary Waters may be the first thing most Americans think of when they conjure up Superior National Forest, which President Theodore Roosevelt established in 1909. Today, three million acres are within the forest’s boundary, including almost 500,000 acres of lakes and rivers. The forest’s Roadless Primitive Areas were renamed Boundary Waters Canoe Areas in 1958 and officially classified as wilderness in 1978. There are more than 2,000 miles of rivers and streams in the forest, which abuts Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario.
Canoe and camping trips attract thousands of visitors each year and boost the economies of towns such as Grand Marais and Ely, which is home to a museum dedicated to the late Dorothy Molter, the Root Beer Lady of Knife Lake. Kristina Reichenbach, public affairs officer for Superior National Forest, says that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area draws about 250,000 visitors a year and that overall the forest is estimated to have 4.5 million visitors a year. Hiking, not canoeing, she says, is the most frequently cited reason for visiting SNF and experiencing the solitude and grandeur of the North Woods.
That grandeur has come under attack in recent years. In 1999, Superior Forest experienced a “blowdown” when straight-line winds destroyed or damaged trees across 1,000 square miles. More trees were lost in 2007 when a fire that started near Ham Lake, northeast of Ely, burned almost 37,000 acres on the U.S. side of the border and almost as much in Canada. The fire so denuded the landscape that evidence of the Sudbury meteor (a 10-mile-diameter meteor that two billion years ago struck what is now Sudbury, Ontario, 500 miles away) was discovered after the blaze. Designated wilderness areas were left to regrow naturally; other areas got a little help. American Forests has worked with Superior National Forest since 2007 to plant more than 350,000 trees to speed the forest’s recovery.
Many of those trees have been planted along or near the Gunflint Trail, a 57-mile-long paved road that connects Grand Marais with Seagull Lake. In May 2008, on the first anniversary of the Ham Lake Fire, Gunflint Trail Association organized the Gunflint Green Up, in which more than 400 volunteers planted trees. It has since become an annual spring event. Suzanne Weber, a former administrator of the association, says that in 2009 and each year since it has drawn about 200 volunteers. More than 110,000 red and white pine, jack pine, spruce, white cedar, and tamarack seedlings have been planted.
“Seagull Lake, where I own a cabin, was devastated by the Ham Lake Fire,” says Weber, who lives in Grand Marais. “Planting trees with friends, neighbors, and visitors to the area has helped heal both the forest and the emotional wounds from that fire.” The new trees are one to 10 feet tall, she says. “Some visitors don’t notice this as a forest fire area. It’s very green even though there are still many standing burned tree trunks.” Weber says that all the hiking trails are open, including one new trail. An old railway bed, rediscovered after the fire, has been turned into the 3.3-mile Centennial Trail, and named for the 100th anniversary of Superior National Forest.
About 30 miles to the west and closer to the Canadian border, Linda Keith and her friends were paddling in an area untouched by the Ham Lake Fire, although fallen trees can still be seen from the 1999 blowdown. Within Boundary Waters, the U.S. Forest Service did little more than restore campsites after the blowdown. In other parts of Superior, it has worked to restore the environment that visitors expect.
Beth Gauper of Minneapolis is among the many city dwellers who visit the national forest for its outdoor recreational opportunities, especially hiking. She and her husband, Torsten Müller, operate MidwestWeekends.com, a guide to travel in the Upper Midwest. “We specialize in the silent sports,” she says: hiking, paddling, bicycling, snowshoeing, and skiing.
“We love the North Woods. I go there for the wildflowers in spring, the lakes in summer, the hiking in fall, and the skiing and snowshoeing in winter.”
Hikers often have the trails to themselves, occasionally spotting wildlife if they’re lucky. “Hardly anyone sees a wolf,” she says. “Bears are quite the deal around Ely, but hikers don’t generally see them. There are lots of deer, and people are most likely to see moose around the Gunflint Trail.” She says there are short, flat trails for people looking for easy strolls, but the shorter trails along the North Shore are likely to have a lot of people, especially on summer and autumn weekends.
She mentions three trails as favorites: the Cascade River Loop for hiking, the Split Rock River Loop for snowshoeing, and the North Flour Lake Loop for cross-country skiing.
“The mouth of the Cascade River is one of the best places to find wildflowers at the end of May and early June,” she says. “There are fiddlehead ferns, some stretched up and some with their heads still tightly coiled like a shepherd’s crook. Big patches of northern bluebells grow in sunnier spots.” The Cascade River Loop is an eight-mile trail accessed from Minnesota Route 61 between Lutsen and Grand Marais. The Split Rock River Loop is a five-mile section of the Superior Hiking Trail, near Beaver Bay and off Minnesota Route 61. “One January, I snowshoed the loop in minus-10-degree temperatures,” Gauper says. “Plump little cedar waxwings flitted around like Cinderella’s helpers as I followed the packed trail high above the mouth of the Split Rock River.” There was plenty to see: a frozen waterfall, chewed-up pinecones left by a squirrel, deer tracks, coyote scat, and eventually the tracks of other snowshoers.
The North Flour Lake Loop is one of many trails that are accessed from the Gunflint Trail. Starting from the Golden Eagle Lodge, a year-round resort on Flour Lake, the loop is a little less than four-and-a-half miles long. Another mile and a half takes you to Bearskin Lodge, another year-round resort off the Gunflint Trail. The resorts groom trails and even offer lighted loops for nighttime excursions.
The Gunflint Trail area is “really good” for birding, says Jan Green of Duluth, a conservationist, ornithologist, and the author of, among other books, Birds and Forests: A Management and Conservation Guide, published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 1995. With pine and spruce reforestation, she says, “You’ve got the chance of seeing more boreal northern birds, like the bay-breasted warbler, the Cape May warbler, the gray jay, the boreal chickadee, and the northern hawk owl.”
Green, who has 565 species of birds on her life list, says that Superior — with 225 species that can be seen each year and another 45 species that occasionally show up — has advantages over other birding destinations. “I have birdwatched in the White Mountain National Forest in New England and other forests in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, but Superior is larger and wilder. It has fewer people, too.”
Another avid birder is Sparky Stensaas of Wrenshall, Minnesota, and he agrees that Superior is, well, a superior place for birding. “The Chippewa National Forest is just to the west of Superior, but it doesn’t have all the boreal
species like the owls that we get in Superior,” he says. “Superior is a neat mix of lowland bog and rocky pine uplands. It’s the North Woods on steroids. Horseflies are gigantic and mosquitoes are fierce, but the birds and beauty make up for that.” The bug season is late May to late July. Stensaas has 640 species on his life list, and his company, Kollath+Stensaas, publishes natural history field guides for the North Woods. He says Superior is in the right spot for birding. “The biggest number of breeding species are in a belt from Wisconsin through eastern Minnesota and up to Manitoba. Superior is right in the middle.”
Stensaas says his favorite places for birding are Stony River Forest Road (“good for boreal chickadees, maybe a great gray owl”) and Lake County Road 2 in the Sand Lake area (“You can sometimes find spruce grouse there.”). He adds that black-throated blue warblers can be found in the eastern part of the forest near Lima Mountain Road, an area with “big old quaking aspen with an understory of mountain maple or moose maple.”
Birding is almost entirely a land-based activity, though Green says that she and a friend once walked on water to make the only confirmed Minnesota sighting of an American dipper, a stocky but small bird usually found much closer to the Pacific. “We were on the frozen ice of the river in a canyon, so there was no walking on the shore,” she says. “My friend almost fell into the river, which would have been life threatening.”
Although Superior National Forest is a destination for many birders, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area generally is not. “You can’t get anywhere but the portages or the lakes,” Stensaas says. “The birding there is incidental. The things people see are common loons, American black ducks, common mergansers, common goldeneyes, and ring-necked ducks. The sexy ones are the osprey and the bald eagles.”
The attraction may be limited for birders, but paddlers of all stripes flock to the Boundary Waters to spend days in a wilderness with few, if any, signs of civilization or encounters with other humans.
Steve Nelson outfits groups for both Superior National Forest and Quetico. Linda Keith and her friends would be on a self-guided trip in BWCA. They would be paddling 45-pound, two-person Kevlar canoes; the weight is important because the canoes have to be carried on trails as long as a quarter-mile to get around waterfalls and rapids or to go from one lake to another. The canoes would also be carrying enough food for three meals a day plus snacks, cooking equipment, sleeping bags, tents, and other gear. The paddlers would be spending three nights at established but primitive campsites with permanent fire grates and, short walks away, pit toilets.
Nelson doesn’t just outfit the canoe crowd; he’s part of it. He says one of his favorite paddles in the Boundary Waters has a series of rapids and waterfalls. He begins in Fall Lake, then carries the canoe or portages around Newton Falls to reach Newton Lake. Next is another portage around Pipestone Falls and into Pipestone Bay, a finger of Basswood Lake that leads to Basswood Falls and the start of the Basswood River.
“By the time you get there, you’re 12 miles away from your entry point, so it’s a long walk home if you wreck your canoe,” he say. “We encourage people not to shoot the rapids.” Just a one-way trip takes a day or a day and a half.
The forest along the Basswood River is boreal. “The reasons I like that area include lots of bald eagles and really good fishing,” he says. “Walleyes, northern pike, smallmouth bass — those are the primary fish in this area.”
Keith, a professional photographer who lives in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, had asked her friends to accompany her to the Boundary Waters to celebrate her 50th birthday. They put into Moose Lake on a Tuesday morning, went through to Birch Lake, and found a campsite. “We picked a site where we could get beautiful sunsets,” Keith says. “We had the kind of sunsets where you say ‘Thank you, God.’”
The next day they paddled and portaged along the Canadian border from Birch Lake to Carp Lake to Seed Lake to Knife Lake. Knife Lake is home to the Isle of Pines, the island where Dorothy Molter lived from 1934 until her death in 1986. When the area was declared a wilderness in the 1970s, most residents were forced to move out, but she was given a life tenancy. She’s remembered as the Root Beer Lady because she brewed thousands of bottles of homemade root beer each year, chilled it with ice cut from the lake in winter, and sold it to paddlers who visited her island home or rented her cabins. Among those paddlers, almost 40 years ago, were a young Linda Keith and other Girl Scouts from Wisconsin.
After visiting the island where Molter lived (her house, now the Dorothy Molter Museum, was moved to Ely), the women paddled back to the campsite for their second night in tents. “We saw some people at the portages,” Keith says, but they felt like they had the North Woods to themselves.
The next day they spent quietly on Birch Lake, using their campfire to cook two angel food cakes and two walleyes they’d caught. “We also caught a northern pike, which we were afraid to touch,” she says. “We screamed like girls.” The pike was successfully returned to the lake.
After their third night in tents, the women paddled back to Moose Lake, where Nelson picked them up. Everything they had taken into the wilderness had to come back with them, including trash.
Speaking at the Spirit of the Wilderness office upon their return, Keith said they were still “processing the experience. Just being out in the wilderness is sacred. There’s something special about the Boundary Waters; my friends will go home different people. We’re walking away full.”
Steve Bailey, a former New York Times editor, teaches journalism at Salisbury University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read More: After Steve Bailey completed this story, a massive fire broke out within these renowned woods. In an American Forests web exclusive, we take a look at where the fire erupted and how it has impacted the region.