­­A Perspective on the 100th Anniversary of the Quetico Superior Region

If the entire human history of North America was compressed into one year, a century would be the equivalent of a single day. Geologic time is even more absurd; a century would be just a blink of an eye. Even so, if the rocks of the Quetico Superior Region could talk they would remark that the last hundred years have been a memorable blink.

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the initial formation of what was to become Quetico Provincial Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In 1909, a jagged process of preservation and restoration began that resulted in a huge, roadless and protected forest in the middle of the North American continent. It has become a treasured spot chosen annually by hundreds of thousands of canoeists, fishermen, skiers, hikers and campers as a site to explore, relax and find adventure. It has become a place where many children get their first taste of life away from video images, concrete and wall-to-wall carpeting. Maybe most importantly, it persists as a sanctuary of biodiversity. The year 2009 will be a year for celebration.

It would be reassuring to believe that this area, so loved, exists as it always has and will continue in its present form to a time without end. A naive canoeist of today might believe that 100 years ago a visionary explorer gasped at the beauty of the region and proclaimed, without objection, that this place be set aside from development and preserved for future generations. That same canoeist might even grumble on a crowded August portage wishing he could step in a time machine and go back 100 years.

If he did go back in time he might be unpleasantly surprised. His portage would be choked with second growth timber and his skyline scarred by burned over slash. Almost all of what is now the BWCAW had been clear-cut by the turn of the century. The woods and swamps would be devoid of moose, which were being relentlessly pursued 12 months a year by hunters hired by the timber camps. Beavers were all but exterminated a century earlier, and the time traveler would discover even in the most remote corners of the park evidence of careless prospecting with picks and shovels. He might have wet feet because waterways were dammed to facilitate the floating of logs. If he was north of the international border he might have been standing in the shade of old-growth timber but not because the Canadians were any more gentle on the earth. Rather, moving logs north out of the Quetico region was more bother than it was worth. The flora and fauna of the region, even the unique mosaic of lakes and interconnected waterways was imperiled. Concepts such as “pristine,” “timeless” and “untouched,” although applied to the Quetico Superior region even to this day, have for well over a hundred years been based more on fantasy than reality.

By a stroke of geologic luck, the iron ore deposits had formed just south of the region and the easily accessible lumber was already stripped from the land, so there was little opposition when 77-year old Minnesota Forestry Commissioner Christopher Andrews convinced the United States government to protect and manage the American side. Ontario citizens appalled by the demise of the moose joined the effort in 1909, creating a unique international partnership, forest-focused on one side, wildlife-focused on the other. It was a rickety start to 100 years of gradually increasing protection, contentious debates and an improving environment. Although he experienced Quetico Superior at its worst, Andrews was the first of many to sense the magic of this land and to find the passion to defend and protect it.

But the permit system, the ban on bottles, even the concepts of conservation and wilderness were not formulated in 1909. The first fifty years in this region saw a rapidly growing tourist industry antithetical to our current definition of wilderness. By 1944, the guest capacity of the sixteen resorts on Basswood Lake exceeded a thousand. There was daily mail service, several private cabins, double-decker houseboats and widespread use of outboard motors. Boats clogged portages, green trees were chopped down for tent poles and pine boughs were cut for bedding. Empty cans and bottles were strewn about and into the lakes. Wilderness activist and Basswood Lake cabin owner Frank Hubachek counted 38 flights of pontoon-equipped aircraft flying over his cabin on a single day in 1946. In 1951 people were observed water-skiing on Knife Lake. Indiscriminate fish stocking was the norm. Non-endemic fish were introduced and even heralded by staunch wilderness supporter Sigurd Olson. Twenty million fish were stocked in the Superior National Forest in 1936 alone. But gradually, through acquired knowledge and the persistence of dedicated conservationists like Ernest Oberholtzer and conservation organizations on both sides of the border, laws were passed, in-holdings were bought out, and airplanes and outboard motors were restricted. Despite an ever-increasing number of annual visitors, by many measures the quality of the wilderness environment in the Quetico Superior region continued to improve. Yet even these evolving ethics and actions did not come smoothly. As the years went by, attitudes about wilderness and development polarized, often pitting local residents against outside interests.

The passages of the Wilderness Act in 1964 followed by the contentious BWCA Act in 1978 were major steps but not the culmination of wilderness preservation in the Quetico Superior region. This legislation created a philosophical framework around which regulation and policy has grown to create the special level of protection this area receives today.

In Canada, the Quetico Park management plan has been modified to permit First Nations people motorized and airplane access to certain lakes as part of an economic development scheme and to compensate for past injustices. In an effort to reduce the likelihood of the introduction of exotic species to Quetico lakes, in 2008 a regulation goes into effect that would have been unimaginable fifty years ago, banning the use of live bait for fishing.

One hundred years is an important span of time. Maybe because it is as long as a human can optimistically hope to live. Maybe it’s because 100 of anything, even sit-ups, seems significant. Whatever the reason, a hundredth anniversary is an opportunity to look back and to plan ahead. Protection, natural regeneration, no trace camping and the evolution of environmental regulations combined with gear advancements have resulted in better-than-ever wilderness experiences in the Quetico Superior region. It has become a premier canoeing destination for paddlers from around the world. While it is impossible to predict what will happen in the next 100 years, it is possible to influence the future. New challenges include: the shifting cultural norms on what wilderness preservation means, invasive species, climate change, homeland security, aboriginal land rights, pollution and increasing human demands for energy, water, raw materials and recreational land use. Will the Echo Trail be replaced with a tram and a bikeway? Will loons disappear? Will caribou come back? Will a casino be built on Lac la Croix? Will portions of the wilderness be set aside for “fair-means” travel prohibiting cell phones, gps, and petrochemicals including nylon and Kevlar? Will axes and campfires be banned? Will picnic tables and Wi-Fi be provided?

The biggest threat to the work accomplished to restore and preserve the Quetico Superior wilderness is complacency. As we celebrate we must also activate, because for certain, the next century holds great promise, great challenge and many changes.

By Rob Kesselring, Wilderness News Contributor

Rob Kesselring is the author of two canoeing books: Daughter Father Canoe: Coming of Age in the Sub-Arctic, and the recently released collection: River Stories. Rob’s web site is http://www.robkesselring.com


This article appeared in Wilderness News Summer 2008

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