Tamaracks in Superior National Forest.
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.