Hitchhiking in the BWCA – but for how long?

IN THE WILD BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA — Two men in a canoe ferociously paddled their way out of the swollen headwaters of a dangerous set of rapids flowing from Splash Lake.

With panic on their faces, they slammed into the shore – perpendicular to the rapids. Unable to hold the bank, the stern of the canoe rocked in the current. Within seconds, the ship astern capsized on its way into large rocks. As the camping gear washed into the waves, one of the men sank. He popped up, took a breath of air, and rushed to the canoe. Somehow he grabbed him and pulled him to shore.

“Are you okay?” I shouted. “How are you ?”

One of the two paddlers gave a thumbs up. They were both cold and wet, but four other canoeists were in their party to help them recover and – presumably – resume their journey.

This was the scene at the start of our own BWCA trek late last month to Lake Ensign, about 25 miles northeast of Ely. Our group consisted of my 15 year old son, Joe; my brother Patrick; nephew Colin Burris; and his brother-in-law Greg Powers, who was alone in a mahogany plywood canoe he had built in his home years ago.

We chose Ensign Lake for our four day trip due to its reputation as a good early season fishing spot with plenty of campgrounds. More importantly, I wanted Joe to hitchhike in the wilderness on a tugboat. In an ongoing lawsuit by an environmental group that alleges overuse of jon motorized boats, the US Forest Service is deciding their future.

Engines and desert

“We’re looking at pretty tough motorized use,” Superior National Forest supervisor Connie Cummins said. “We know that with the tugs there’s a lot of interest in how we handle them and where we go from here.”

The timing of the review and final decision is uncertain. But next spring, the Forest Service plans to launch a “pre-scoping” exercise to gather feedback from stakeholders and the public. From there, the agency will produce a draft proposal on the future towing service. After receiving feedback on the draft, the Forest Service will agree to a formal proposal that could potentially reduce tug availability.

“From a wilderness perspective, we don’t think they’re necessary,” said Kevin Proescholdt, conservation director of Wilderness Watch, the nonprofit group that filed the lawsuit.

His organization strives to maintain wilderness characteristics throughout the national wilderness preservation system.

In the BWCA, he said, tugboat use was capped under the 1978 federal law that extended the wilderness area beyond its original borders, which were established in 1964. The intention in 1978, said Proescholdt, was to phase out tugboats after five years. The lawsuit seeks to reign in their use, alleging that the Forest Service allowed the tugs to expand beyond legal limits.

The court case has already produced a settlement agreement under which the Forest Service conducted a needs assessment on all kinds of commercial services in the BWCA and the rest of the Upper National Forest. The assessment aimed to determine whether commercial services are needed and, if so, to what extent. The need for towing services was listed as “moderate”.

“The trial is not over,” Proescholdt said. “He’s only waiting.”

Hit registration

Superior National Forest Utilities Staff Officer Susan Catton said tug use is on the rise inside the BWCA. In 2012, before record keeping was rigorous, outfitters reported 2,550 annual trips. The number rose to 3,643 in 2015 when reports became more specific. Five years later, in the first year of COVID-19, tug trips increased by 6% to 3,865.

The service is offered by 18 specially authorized outfitters on two rivers and 14 lakes. Prominent among these waters are Saganaga Lake, Seagull Lake, Lake La Croix, Crane Lake, Snowbank Lake, Clearwater Lake, South Farm Lake, Basswood Lake, and the Moose Lake Range leading to Basswood. , Birch and Ensign.

For the purposes of our own trip to Ensign, we eliminated about five hours of paddling through the Moose Lake Range by booking trips to and from the backcountry of Willy Vosburgh, a native of Ely, owner of a Moose Lake complex and BWCA outfitter who operated tugs. inside the wilderness for 17 years.

With an 8 am departure from Willy’s Wharf, we figured towing would give us a better chance of finding an open campsite and give us more time to fish on Day 1 – the Thursday before Memorial Day. After a 20-minute ride at a cost of $28 per paddler, we arrived at the portage trail to Splash.

The five of us, our bags and three canoes filled two tugboats. High water at the entrance landed us on the trail. In less than 10 minutes, we were carrying our gear to the boat launch at the other end of the portage. Joe and I were the last to take off, skirting the north shore to avoid the rapids. We watched the canoe accident from a distance of less than 100 meters – sighing with relief that both paddlers had escaped serious injury.

Once on Ensign, we took Willy’s advice to look for a campsite along the south shore. The best ones were taken, but we found a site nearby, high and dry on the large peninsula of the lake. In accordance with our urgent plan, we were fishing in the middle of the afternoon.

Help or hurt?

The problem of overcrowding is inherent in the Forest Service’s analysis of BWCA tugs. Cummins said use currently exceeds the wilderness norm for solitude or isolation — an experience measured by group encounters. To address the problem, the agency last year reduced the availability of entry permits by 13%.

In deciding the fate of tugs, the agency will assess whether motorized aids add to encounters. Cummins said that’s a complicated question because tugboats also help reduce encounters by taking visitors deeper into boundary waters than they might otherwise manage on a short trip.

“I don’t see how it could do anything other than help,” Vosburgh said of the tug rides.

If tugs were banned on the Moose Lake Range, he said, campsites on the road would be regularly crowded with paddlers traveling to and from lakes like Basswood, Knife, Birch and Ensign, he said. he says.

“The tugs do a hell of a job dispersing people,” he said.

Deb Mark and Dave Truehart of Seagull Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail agree. They operate three tugboat routes, helping people safely navigate the mighty waters of Saganaga Lake, a 25,000-acre waterway. Truehart said eliminating tows to remote entry points would effectively close those entry points and add to congestion on the BWCA perimeter.

Shorter trips are the norm these days and most people don’t have time to paddle all day in one direction, Mark said.

“It’s just common sense,” she said. “The desert is still the desert.”

But Wilderness Watch’s Proescholdt said the tugs have turned the Moose Lake Range, Saganaga and other BWCA travel routes into “wildlife sacrifice zones.”

“Moose Lake and Sag alone can provide great wilderness experiences,” he said.

The walleyes were biting

Once we were fishing Ensign Lake, other groups were still arriving or crossing the lake to other destinations. With the water high, Joe and I headed out to a choke point between two islands to fish for walleye in the current. Three kayakers were already there, tagging fish on their sonar screens.

“I got one,” Joe said, just minutes after sinking his lure to the bottom.

To the surprise of the friendly kayakers, the walleye was heavy by our own boundary waters standards: 17 inches. They had enjoyed a bite of hot walleye, but most were smaller fish, around 10 to 12 inches.

We started a stringer and drifted here and there between the two banks. No matter where we were floating, the fish were tugging at our minnows. For several hours we enjoyed a catch rate quite different from the mediocre standard or non-existent bite of BWCA trips in the recent past.

Joined by Colin and Patrick and staffed with enough keepers to fry for dinner the following evening, we caught and released walleye in calm, fishable conditions until 9 p.m. The banter and a good (not good) bite continued throughout the next day. Rain and high winds kept us stranded at camp on Saturday, but Sunday’s weather bounced back and we enjoyed the luxury of fishing on the way back knowing our tow wouldn’t arrive until 1pm.

“I haven’t fished like this in boundary waters in a very long time,” I told Joe.

The consensus in our group was to return to the same area in 2023, with canoes mounted on the racks of a Willy Vosburgh tug.

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