Boundary Waters outfitters report high demand, take precautions to protect health

Boundary Waters Canoe Outfitters operate and adapt to social distancing and Covid-19 safety measures
Nick Bailles (in red) reviewing outfitting preparations for a Boundary Waters trip. (Photo courtesy Jason Zabokrtsky)

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a popular place right now, say local outfitters. The 1.1 million acres of lakes and forests has been very busy in the few weeks since May 18, when Governor Tim Walz lifted Minnesota’s stay-at-home order and the Forest Service reopened the wilderness for overnight visits.

With people feeling cooped up after months of mandated lockdowns, and many other travel destinations still closed, the solitude, scenery, mental health benefits, and adventure of the Boundary Waters has proven highly appealing.

Three outfitting businesses located at the edge of the wilderness recently told Quetico-Superior Wilderness News that they are busier than ever.

“In a nutshell, it’s been insanely busy,” said Ada Igoe and Andy McDonnell of Tuscarora Lodge and Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail. “We went from being unsure of when we could open to being slammed with business in just over 48 hours.”

Jason Zabokrtsky of Ely Outfitting Company echoed this experience, saying business boomed as soon as the reopening was announced. “We’ve seen what seems like six weeks worth of inquiries and trip registrations in the last six days,” Zabortsky said shortly after business resumed.

There appears to be several reasons for the intense interest. At Sawbill Outfitters on the southeast side of the wilderness, owners reported one unexpected aspect. “One surprise has been the number of families booking trips,” owners Clare and Dan Shirley said. “With the absence of organized sports and summer camps for kids, lots of families are taking advantage of their open schedules and coming to the BWCA Wilderness, many for the first time.”

Ultimately, Igoe and McDonnell at Tuscarora said the demand is because the Boundary Waters is now one of the few tourist industries in the state that is able to be fully operational. As summer starts and America emerges from the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic, the BWCAW offers a great escape, and has little competition.

The outfitters say helping people experience the benefits of the Boundary Waters is great, but they are being careful it doesn’t increase the risks of COVID-19.

Protecting public health

At the same time outfitters are trying to manage the high demand, they are also adapting their business practices to slow the spread of coronavirus in accordance with state and federal rules and guidance. They have put in place new policies and measures to reduce the risk of transmission.

“We are taking the health and safety of our customers, staff, and community very seriously,” Zabokrtsky said. “Our staff wear masks, we ask our customers to wear masks, we practice social distancing, hand sanitizer is stationed throughout the business, and we have instituted rigorous sanitation and disinfecting protocols.”

Igoe and McDonnell at Tuscarora echoed Zabortsky’s words, and implored guests to take the issue seriously.

“Due to our rural location with extremely limited medical care, we’ve implemented a number of safety precautions to keep our staff, community, and business safe,” Tuscarora says on its COVID-19 policies page. “An outbreak of COVID-19 on the Gunflint Trail or in Cook County could mean the cancellation of yours and many others’ vacation plans and loss of our staff’s jobs.”

Tuscarora asks customers to take several precautions to reduce the risks of traveling from far away to the small, isolated communities near the Boundary Waters. Requests include doing all shopping at home to avoid visiting northern Minnesota stores; purchasing a fishing license online; and wearing a face mask whenever in contact with outfitter staff.

Other precautions include delivering breakfasts directly to bunkhouses on request, rather than being served in a common room, contactless check-in and check-out for cabins, and more. And they say, “Above all, we ask you to be patient, be kind and wash your hands!”

Sawbill has also taken numerous steps to protect the health of their staff, customers, and community. Their store selling bait, maps, souvenirs, and other items is open with two walk-up windows from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. All rental activity is conducted outdoors, which they note isn’t much different than usual.

“We are very lucky to have lots of space up here and we are using it to orient visitors with the gear while maintaining appropriate spacing,” the Shirleys said. The entire Sawbill staff wears masks, and customers who ride in its shuttle vans are also asked to wear masks. When rental gear is returned, it is sanitized, cleaned, and left to dry completely for at least 72 hours.

Cook County in the northeastern tip of the state, including Grand Marais and the Gunflint and Sawbill Trails, issued an updated travel advisory on May 26. The county board unanimously urged visitors to exercise caution.

“Cook County is home to a very large population of people who are at high risk of complications of COVID-19, including elders and those with compromised immune systems,” the advisory says. “Visitors are asked to help us protect the health of our community by rigorous adherence to social distancing, wearing face coverings and washing hands. Visitors who are feeling sick before they arrive should stay home.”

There are still Boundary Waters permits available this summer, but only a few remain for many popular entry points on popular dates.

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