Take Time for BWCA Camping – don’t just talk about wilderness

The “familied ” world targets the last week in July and first week in August every single year for last minute trips up north, particularly in Minnesota.   It appears that many metro-families have kids who belong to every activity under the sun, be it soccer, underwater basket weaving for 8th graders,  dog psychology for kids, and a whole slew of other activities.  I refer to these activities as distractions for kids and “fill-ins” for keeping the kids otherwise occupied and theoretically out harm’s way while both parents work.   At least that is what said activities used to be for some.  For others, joining every activity under the sun for summer is simply what they do.  These people are highly organized and live life to the schedule and the schedule is tight.  They squeeze in a major-carbon-footprint Disney trips, Euro-adventures or head off to the islands somewhere for a brief bit of running around.   When not scheduling around activities while attending group activities, they run around town like trained seals picking up a fish reward along the way.  They leave no time to do anything else but follow that intense schedule.  To me, it sounds exhausting.  In  conversations with schedulers , some seem to wear it like a badge of honor.  “We’re SO busy…”  Errr….OK….I guess if that is what you like to do….

Finally, when all the programmed kid activities come to an end, they suddenly realize they have only one week left before School Shopping Season and need to go north to the Boundary Waters.  I’ve actually heard metro-dwellers refer to it as the “obligatory trip north”.    Now, for many, it seems that the term “going to the Boundary Waters” no longer means taking an actual canoe trip anymore.  It means going to Ely for a week during the Blueberry Arts Festival to eat something fried on a stick.  There, they wander around and marvel at how busy it now is  (for about 10 days) in Ely and go home in time for two full weeks of “school shopping season”.   How that activity could possibly take two weeks  (instead of a day or two at the most) is beyond me, but school shopping season is now an event akin to Black Friday and it goes on for two whole weeks!   Usually before the second week in August the city folk have completed their summer bucket list with “make it to the Boundary Waters”.    I hope it was all very satisfying.

In what are becoming rarer occurrences, some of these people actually DO make it to the Boundary Waters for a real canoe trip during the BB fest time and it is normally busy then.  However, as of the last three years, we’ve noted a major falling-off in Boundary Waters reservations and canoe trips in general.  Until three years ago, there were people all over the streets of Ely, all summer long for my whole life.  You had to look both ways before crossing the street during non-Blueberry Arts Festival time.  Every other passing car had a canoe rack on it with a canoe tied on for as far as the eye could see and the grocery store parking lots were full of canoes on cars.  You couldn’t be driving on any road for 10 minutes and not have an upside down canoe go past.   It was not unusual for our 6 spaces in front of Red Rock to have 6 cars with canoes on top, almost every day all summer long.

Now, we barely see a canoe a car particularly when away from the roughly 10 days time period surrounding the Blueberry Festival.

If you take a drive to any of the major landings such as Lake One,  Moose Lake,  and Snowbank you should now notice a complete selection of prime places to park.  That never was the case before.   Now, a 150 car lot at Moose Lake has 25 cars in it and two of them are US Forest Service.  You stand at the Moose lake beach off the portage from the parking lot at 8 AM and where there used to be 6 boats heading up the Moose Lake Chain to go fishing for the day, there is silence.  Nothing going by.  And, while you are standing on that beach, there is no one coming down the portage from the parking lot with a canoe on their shoulders.  It used to be that you had to pass three for four canoes heading to or from the water.  Now, many times, you can close your eyes and run with a canoe on your shoulders fearing to hit no one.  There are no kids running back & forth all excited, no middle-aged paddlers huffing and puffing under a pack with way-too-much-junk.  Nobody.  No outfitter trucks lining up to pick up stacked canoes.  Except for the big boy scout base and their participants on the water, the Moose Chain is pretty quiet.

“Quiet” always sounds great I suppose, especially in regards to wilderness, but anybody in business on the edge of said wilderness knows that “quiet” means a slow, dwindling, struggling death.  It becomes very difficult to pay the rising taxes and massive operating costs while enjoying the “quiet”.    From a consumer’s perspective, “quiet” means “businesses of value”, are going away and the wilderness experience becomes a little more wild.  Sounds great until someone needs something and can’t find it anywhere.   Perhaps if we could bathe the wilderness in free WIFI then business would improve.

If you drive through town at anytime not during the Blueberry Arts Festival, the “bar graphs” of the current state of business in Ely are the outfitter canoe racks.  You can do a quick count while driving by.  30 canoes on the racks with 4 open spaces.  That means they’ve rented 4 canoes at a time that they usually rent 30.  Ely’s newest outfitter sat all summer long with one or two canoes off of his racks.   I’m  guessing  he’s a trust-fund baby so perhaps it doesn’t really matter if he rents canoes or not.   Maybe he needs the write off.   For Summer 2014, he succeeded in a big write-off.  You can’t pay the light bill with no canoe rentals except for during the Blueberry Arts Festival  – that is how I conclude he is a trust-fund baby.   Three years of full rental canoe racks does not a sound business make without some alternate money stream coming in.  And he does all this with no discernible, other job.    How do I get some of that, eh?   But, my speculation could be wrong, too.

This all briefly changes during the Blueberry Festival at the end of July.   But that’s it.  The car lots at the canoe landing will be 75% full then.  It used to be that they’d have to stack the Subarus and Priuses on top of larger vehicles just to fit in the lot.   Even during the Festival, there are now ample places to park at the busiest canoe entry points.  And this is not only true for Ely as the same holds true for the Gunflint trail.  I don’t get my information from visitors to the area because, they see their week in time and extrapolate the entire summer’s business activity from that.  I get my data from US Forest Service field personnel, MN conservation officers, DNR Fisheries workers, the county deputy sheriffs,  highway workers, and my own physical observations.  In relative terms, there is nobody here anymore.

Standing at the Lake One landing on a Monday morning is like standing in a Steven King novel.   No vans arriving, no logos going by, and in downtown Ely, no canoe outfitting customers schlepping packs & canoes back and forth to vehicles on the sidewalks.  Heck, there are hardly any cars in the middle of July.   We also no longer see small teams of Boyscouts in uniform walking up and down the streets of Ely and you can pretty much park your car anywhere.  Ely used to have a parking problem.   We bonafide locals notice things like this, visitors and newbies do not.  It may look busy to visitors going to Disappointment Lake for their 7 day “wilderness” base camp next to the parking lot at Snowbank, but if they took two portages in, they’d see no one for days.  It is also the same way in the Quetico Provincial Park of Canada across the border.  The Canadians are alarmed by the 35% reduction in visitors.  On the US side, it appears to me that our federal government in charge doesn’t even care.  A sign of ample tax dollars and printed money, perhaps?  They have an inordinate number of new white vehicles, it seems, with only one person driving each one.  Car-pooling and all that carbon-footprint silliness doesn’t seem to apply in the federal US Forest Service.

Early Season

So, when is a good time to take a Boundary Waters canoe trip these days?  Well, if you want to see absolutely nobody, the last week in May and the first two week of June are great times if you like to fish. Kids are still in school.   Historically, there is nobody here during those times, and depending on the water levels, the bugs may not be bad at all.   The thought of bugs scares so many people these days it is absolutely ridiculous.  Years ago, bugs never stopped anybody.  They were in God’s Country and a few bugs wasn’t going to detract from that.  In observing shoppers and the quantities of bug dope that they now buy for a few days, I wonder if they are planning on adding it to their mixed drinks?  And that’s in July when blackflies are completely gone and mosquitoes are on their way out.

Black flies can be out in pockets and areas in June which is unpredictable, but we usually don’t see them until the third week (if at all, some summers), right when the big bass are spawning.  They come and go.  They also don’t bite inside of rooms, cars, or tents.  When they discover that they can’t get out, they head to the window screens and beg for their lives.  (A fitting end, I say, hopefully with a slow death.)   Plus, blackflies generally don’t follow you out on the water and we have some great bug dope just for them.  But that’s the third week.  Come before that for nice days, cool nights and the smell of a wood fire crackling in the evenings next to a wilderness lake with the loons singing across the bay.   Will you hit 7 days of rain?   You could.  It sucks but that is why you also pack an 8 x 10 tarp and several packets of hot chocolate.  That is also why you go get a lot of wood after setting up camp and BEFORE everybody goes fishing.

Upon reading this, instead of reminiscing, call us up and reserve your canoes, today.  1-800-280-1078  If that doesn’t do it for you anymore, come stay at our resort, Northwind Lodge where we now have free WIFI in the cabins (you’ll probably need that to lure them out of the house before you can tie them to the car seats and head to Northwind).    Take day canoe trips and come back to the cabin to sleep in a bed.  Baby steps –  Get those kids out of team activities and drag them kicking and screaming if you must.   Let them learn the introspection that balances one’s sanity later as an adult by going in the real woods – and not some a state campground with drunks and fruitcakes running amok.   People need to know that it’s OK to feel all alone and what it’s like to be really close to the water, ground and sky.  It’s OK to be away from the digital master who now controls those kids and most of today’s adults.  It’s OK to be cold and wet and then feel that fire and smell that smoke.   You can’t learn this by attending a summer camp with 50 other kids.  You also can’t learn this on Youtube.  You can watch a bunch of narcissists filming their BWCA trip, but it isn’t remotely the same as doing it yourself.  Be your own narcissist.  Make your own videos with selfies of your actually being there.

Going to the Boundary Waters means via canoe, not just the Blueberry Arts Festival where you buy something fried on a stick.  You can buy that crap anywhere.  There is only one real Boundary Waters  and only one place that you can visit it as far as I’m concerned.   Get your vacation life in order and give us a call.  You’ve been missing out on a lot!

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