Forest Service reports 2020 Boundary Waters visitor numbers, signs point to another busy season

Leaving a portage and preparing to paddle. (Photo credit: C.C. Chapman/Flickr)

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, like many other natural places and parks, saw high levels of visitors last year. Superior National Forest has crunched the numbers, and quantified just how many people came to canoe country.

Overall, about 15,000 more people visited the BWCAW in 2020 than the average for the previous four years, or about a 10 percent increase. Annual Boundary Waters visitor numbers have been hovering around 150,000 people since 2016. Last year saw over 165,000 visitors. About 5,000 more groups reserved permits compared to the year before.

Data: U.S. Forest Service

Additionally, the BWCAW was closed to overnight visits until May 18 last year, cutting out the first couple weeks of the normal paddling season, including the Minnesota walleye fishing opener weekend. It was closed to all visitors until May 4, due to stay-at-home orders related to the pandemic.

Starting in late May, though, the wilderness became a popular destination for people looking for safe places to vacation within driving distance of home. Andy McDonnell of Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail told MPR News that last year “was just an astonishingly busy year.” He reported business was up about 25 percent.

The Boundary Waters visitor numbers boom might be a positive for the future of the BWCAW, as many people were visiting for the first time and discovering the value of the wilderness. But, with changes in permitting and Leave No Trace education, some first-timers missed essential information about responsible behavior.

As the season wore on, the Forest Service reported increased violations of wilderness rules and ethics. Live trees were cut, campsites were damaged, garbage was left in fire pits, and more. The Forest Service has mandated Leave No Trace training this year, with a hybrid of in-person or online options. The education will be important as outfitters report high demand again.

“We’re expecting another busy season,” said Joanna Gilkeson, Superior National Forest reported MPR News. “We don’t typically publish our permit report numbers until the end of the season, because things are constantly in flux with people canceling and changing and scheduling and booking permits. But we can tell you that we’re expecting a busy year.”

A wilderness visitor portages their rented canoe to the landing at Sawbill Outfitters. (Photo credit: Robert Engberg/Flickr)

Outfitters are offering anecdotal evidence that their bookings have been very high again this spring. Business is brisk, and permits are getting harder to obtain.

“Typically, when May rolls around, we have plenty of quota permits to reserve for people for trips starting in June,” Jason Zabokrtsky of Ely Outfitting Co. told MPR News. “This year, it’s dramatically different. There are permits available for June for entering the BWCA. But there are far fewer to choose from than in a typical year in the past.” Clare Shirley, of Sawbill Outfitters, says they are seeing many of the first-timers of last year planning trips again this summer. She told the Star Tribune that many customers said they were finally able to take a trip because there were not the normal busy schedules of sports and camps and other activities.

With the summer still uncertain in many ways, the Boundary Waters continues to draw new visitors, and there are now thousands more people who have experienced its power.

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