Coronavirus in canoe country: pandemic precautions affect public lands

Voyageurs National Park in winter
Voyageurs National Park Photo courtesy NPS.gov

Unprecedented measures taken to slow the spread of coronavirus in Minnesota and beyond are affecting how people can experience the woods and waters of northern Minnesota and Ontario. Although outdoor recreation is generally considered a safe way to stay active while maintaining appropriate distance from others, the potential for transmission at public facilities has still caused some policy changes.

While the US public lands are still open, visitors are encouraged to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control to stay healthy: wash your hands frequently, avoid close contact with other people, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and stay home if you are sick.

For now, people should stay close to home to prevent the spread of the virus. Several states including Minnesota currently have travel restrictions, while the province of Ontario has declared a state of emergency and ordered the closure of many establishments.

All Minnesota residents have been ordered by Governor Tim Walz to stay at their homes except to engage in essential activities.

International border closed

The border between the United States and Canada was closed to non-essential travel on March 21. This includes the remote stretch of border which runs between the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park. There have been reports that applications for Remote Area Border Crossing permits, which allow people to cross the international border in the wilderness, are not being processed by Canadian authorities at this time.

Superior National Forest

The agency that manages 3 million acres in northeastern Minnesota, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has not released much information yet.

The Forest Service has announced that its facilities will follow local guidelines: “National Forests remain open however recreation services at our facilities may be changed, suspended or offered through alternate approaches as we manage for the health and safety of our work force and the public. Agency direction tasks local managers to perform risk assessments of our facilities and limit congregations of people and person to person interactions.”

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Is the Boundary Waters Closed? Yes. The Superior National Forest announced April 15 that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is closed to visitors from now until May 4 as part of the coronavirus pandemic response. Anyone with a reservation through May 4 will receive a full refund. BWCAW permits are still available for reservation on Recreation.gov – the site includes information about system-wide policies related to COVID-19:

“If you have a reservation at a location that closes, you’ll receive an email with more information. For individuals who choose to cancel their reservation at a campground that has remained open, the participating agencies of Recreation.gov have decided to temporarily and retroactively waive any fees and provide a full refund for cancellations with start dates from March 10 through April 3 that were canceled after March 1. This timeline will be reviewed and adjusted as the situation evolves.”

Questions about Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness permits? Call the hotline: 218-626-4395

The Forest Service says it remains operational, and ready to respond to wildfires or other incidents.

Quetico Provincial Park Closed

“As COVID-19 continues to quickly evolve, we want to ensure public safety and the well-being of our visitors and staff in Ontario’s provincial parks. In order to assist the province with its efforts to keep Ontarians safe during this time, all provincial parks will be closed to the public from March 19, 2020 until April 30, 2020. This includes car camping, backcountry camping, roofed accommodations, day use opportunities and all public buildings. Any person or group with a reservation for arrival up to April 30, 2020 will automatically be provided a full refund with no penalty.”- via Ontario Parks.

Isle Royale is Closed

The National Park Service says that Isle Royale and its surrounding islands are closed to all visitors through June 14. Lake Superior waters remain open.

Voyageurs National Park

While Voyageurs National Park, comprising several large lakes near the border is still open, some of its facilities have closed.

“As of March 19, 2020, the Rainy Lake Visitor Center and Park Headquarters are closed until further notice,” the National Park Service announced. Visitors are encouraged to enjoy the park, but follow the CDC’s recommendations.

“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners is the priority of the National Park Service,” Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said. “Park superintendents are empowered to modify their operations, including closing facilities and cancelling programs, to address the spread of the coronavirus.”

Meanwhile, the city of International Falls has closed two boat launches, including one near Voyageurs headquarters. The city council voted to close the Ron Hall Memorial Access and the Pat Roche Memorial Access.

“The reality is we’re not doing this to stop locals from being able to fish, locals have other opportunities,” Mayor Harley Droba said, according to the International Falls Journal. “This is to keep people from coming from other areas to our area. Not that we don’t want tourism here, we want it, but this is about health, and stemming the pandemic so the medical facilities are not overwhelmed.”

Voyageurs National Park Association has also cancelled all events through the month of April, and its staff are working from home.

Superior Hiking Trail

The Superior Hiking Trail Association has requested that people visit trails close to home, and not travel to hike the 300-mile trail along the North Shore. The organization also cancelled all its upcoming events and trail work.

“We are adapting our own activities this spring to the new, rapidly evolving realities of COVID-19. We’ve postponed our annual trail clearing weekends indefinitely, and we’re postponing other spring trail projects until we can be certain that our staff, contractors, and volunteers can be as safe as possible when they join us on the Trail.”

State parks

Minnesota’s state parks are still open, but many facilities are closed. Bathrooms are available, but visitor centers, campgrounds, and more are closed at this time.

Some parks have been the scene of considerable crowding, as people seek outdoor spaces to spend time.

Local communities concerned

The counties of northeastern Minnesota have asked people to not visit from elsewhere at this time.

“We’re seeing repeated instances of people who have been traveling within the country, and bringing this virus back with them. We need people to recognize the risk they are taking and the risk they are creating by traveling,” said St. Louis Commissioner Mike Jugovich. “Anyone coming into our county from somewhere else risks bringing the virus with them. That includes people coming to spend time at their cabin or favorite rental getaway spot, and even snowbirds coming home. Please pause and ask if this is really the best time to travel. We all need to do our part to stop the spread of this virus.”

In particular, residents and elected officials in northwoods towns are concerned that their small local hospitals could be overwhelmed by rapid spread of coronavirus.

Wildland fire

There have been concerns raised nationally about how coronavirus could affect wildland fire management. If high numbers of firefighters are sickened, this summer could see short-staffed responders. In addition, the nature of wildland firefighting makes proper social distancing and other precautions very difficult.

The coronavirus legislation that was recently passed into law included some funds for fire preparations in response to the pandemic.

Wildfire publication WildfireToday.com notes that additional resources could help ensure wildfires don’t cause additional destruction due to the virus. For example, by acquiring more large air tankers, agencies could better contain fires without requiring the large numbers of personnel. Meanwhile, some government land managers around the country are cancelling plans for prescribed fire, to preserve resources for possible coronavirus effects.

More Information:

Voyageurs National Park Association Updates

Superior National Forest Covid-19 Updates from the US Forest Service

Recreation.gov Covid-19 FAQs

Superior Hiking Trail Association Covid-19 Updates

MN DNR Updates on State Park closures

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