Disappointed outfitters and paddlers adjust to BWCA closure

A man leans on a counter with camping equipment behind him.
Jason Zabokrtsky owns Ely Outfitting Company. He says he’s had dozens of cancellations since the Boundary Waters was closed on Aug. 21, and lost tens of thousands of dollars in refunds to his clients who have canceled trips. Dan Kraker | MPR News

Typically, in August, Ely is swarming with people either beginning, or returning from, canoe trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

On Monday though, the only cars with canoes strapped to their tops were headed out of town.

“Usually, this time of the morning, we’re bustling — getting people on the water, loading canoes, getting them out to their entry points,” said Jason Zabokrtsky, who owns Ely Outfitting Company. “And as you can see, looking around, it’s empty.”

People from all across the United States travel to Ely to experience the Boundary Waters, and for many it has taken a lot of planning and expense to get to northern Minnesota.

“And to have sort of this immediate closure and have to tell somebody who’s traveled from Texas or California, and are standing in front of us ready to go out for a week in the woods, that actually everything’s changed and your Boundary Waters vacation is off, is really difficult,” said Zabokrtsky.

His clients have been understanding. But at this point in the season, there aren’t many options to reschedule them. Some have rebooked trips for next year. But he says he’s had dozens of trips canceled, which has been hard for his business to absorb.

“[Before this] I’ve never had cancellations of like tens of thousands of dollars being returned to our clients because of a complete closure of the BWCA,” he said.

A map with a note that reads "Out of Order"
A giant map of the Boundary Waters at Ely Outfitting Company in Ely now sports an “Out of Order” sign after the Superior National Forest closed the wilderness on Saturday. Dan Kraker | MPR News

On Saturday the Forest Service announced it was closing the entire million acre wilderness because of multiple fires burning within and outside the BWCA, the ongoing extreme drought, and a lack of resources to respond to emergencies.

For the past couple days rangers have paddled the wilderness telling campers to leave, and outfitters have called clients to deliver the disappointing news.

Outfitters say they understand the precautions the Forest Service is taking. But they say it will take a toll on their small businesses.

Ryan Kari runs Ely Outdoors Company. He outfits canoe trips and runs tow boats into the Boundary Waters to drop groups off.

He’s worried that people will cancel trips in September even if the BWCA reopens.

Steve Piragis, who owns Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, said he’s had several cancellations. Other groups have still come and camped outside the wilderness area.

He supports the Forest Service’s decision to close the wilderness, especially after Ontario closed Quetico Provincial Park to canoeists last week. But he thinks there may be a middle ground for the Boundary Waters.

“We’re kind of hoping that the Forest Service will consider reopening for day trips, a few entry points. And they’ve talked about that,” says Piragis. “So if that happens, there’ll be a little more incentive to come to Ely and at least see the Boundary Waters for a day trip.”

But some people are still coming to Ely, even if they can’t travel into the Boundary Waters.

Mary Claire Ryan drove from Brainerd with her two grandsons, a canoe strapped to the roof of her truck.

A woman and two young boys pose for a photo in front of a car.
Mary Claire Ryan and her two grandsons, Patrick, 11, and Thomas, 10, came to Ely for the fifth consecutive year for a canoe trip. Dan Kraker | MPR News

“Since our tradition is to come up and stay the night in Ely and get an early start, we still have a motel room,” said Ryan. “And we figured well, we can go to lakes outside of the Boundary Waters and do some fishing. And if it’s really bad, go home. But we’d rather come up and keep our tradition going than stay home.”

Ryan started coming to the Boundary Waters as a 12-year-old. This is her fifth trip with her grandkids. The plan this year was to make it to Thomas Lake, since her grandson is named Thomas.

“I was a little disappointed that we couldn’t actually stay overnight [in the BWCA]. Or like go to the actual Boundary Waters,” said Thomas, who is 10. “But at least we get to come up here and hang out.”

Allison Droesch of St. Louis had driven all the way to Duluth before she and her friend heard the BWCA was closed. They decided to still come after posting to a social media forum and getting some positive feedback.

Two women pose for a photo together in front of a car.
Allison Droesch and Amanda Weaver of St. Louis still came to Ely for their canoe trip after they learned the Boundary Waters was closed. They’re planning to canoe outside the wilderness area. Dan Kraker | MPR News

“[Posters suggested] ‘maybe you could try this, or I’ve heard this place is great,’” she said. “And so just like the overwhelming amount of support for us, and just like, ‘Oh, you guys can still have a great time, you just have to shift it.’”

That’s what Peta Barrett is advising her clients. She owns Women’s Wilderness Discovery in Ely, and says she had to choke back tears of frustration when she first learned about the closure.

But now she says she’s staying positive. She has a group of six coming Thursday who chose not to cancel. Instead, they’re also planning a trip just outside the wilderness area.

“There are 254 backcountry campsites that go pretty much unused. People don’t realize this is out there,” said Barrett. “And this Superior National Forest is 3 million acres. Boundary Waters is just 1.1 million of that. And the entire Boundary Waters is not on fire.”

That’s a perception outfitters say they continually have to battle, as strong winds and the ongoing drought cause continued extreme fire danger across the region.

A person points to an area on a large map.
Peta Barrett, owner of Women’s Wilderness Discovery in Ely, traces a possible canoe route for clients outside the Boundary Waters, after the wilderness was closed because of extreme fire risk and a lack of resources. Dan Kraker | MPR News