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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


I recently returned from my annual fall solo canoe trip into the Boundary Waters. My experience began at the Tofte ranger station where for the nth time, I was asked to watch the seven minute ethics video that is required of all visitors. I politely told the ranger that I had seen the video at least 100 times, and when I taught school, I owned a copy and showed it to all my classes when I taught the unit on wilderness ethics. No matter; I’d have to watch it again. Besides, said the clerk, “It will take me seven minutes to process your permit.” Really?

On a positive note, I see the feds have abandoned the dangerous advice to “throw rocks at a bear that comes into your camp—and try to hit it!” We did that once on a canoe trip in northern Saskatchewan and the bear nearly had us for lunch! I would throw rocks only as a last resort, when human life is in danger!

More goofy things: Firewood should be thumb-thick sticks, breakable by hand, not sawn and split logs. Really? I’ve never seen anyone rely solely on twig fires in the BWCA. Indeed, there’s plenty of good sized, dead, down wood (well away from campsites). The major cause of wildfires in the Boundary Waters is that decomposition can’t keep pace with annual leaf fall, so dead wood builds over time and creates a fire hazard. A big roaring fire in every campsite every night would not measurably reduce the amount of dead, downed wood in the forest, so why this silly rule? Because the govlernment wants one shoe to fit all—what applies to Zion national park must apply to the Boundary Waters, deserts, mountains and swamps—no matter that there ARE important ecological differences. I once paddled by a campsite occupied by Forest Service workers. They had a BIG roaring fire going—there wasn’t a twig in sight!

Surprisingly, safety on the water is not discussed. There is no stern warning to “wear your life jacket at all times while canoeing”! About half the paddlers I saw on my recent trip were wearing life jackets, this despite the fact that almost every year someone drowns in the Boundary Waters. Shouldn’t the film address this concern? Capsize in running waves and the wind may quickly blow your canoe out of reach (more so with today’s ultralight Kevlar boats), leaving you with a long swim to shore. I saw an example of this on a Piragis NWC-sponsored trip in August, 2019. Three people in a Kevlar canoe were paddling across Lake One. The waves were about 18 inches high and running strong. No one was wearing a life jacket. The paddlers didn’t have a clue that a capsize could be serious. Why? Because if you’ve never tipped over in waves while wearing field clothes and boots, you can’t appreciate the danger. The saying: “Canoeists always wear their life vests; ‘canoers’ never wear them! Tells all.

Instead of life-saving or practical advice, visitors are told to filter their dish water through a mesh towel. This makes sense for eco-delicate alpine areas but it’s over-kill for the northern coniferous forest where decomposition occurs more rapidly. Really now, does anyone really strain their dish water in the BW?

You are also told to “pack out your trash—all of it! This is idealistically correct but sometimes not wise. For example, after you pour out the contents of a freeze-dried/dehydrated meal, a small amount of food material will adhere to the inside of the bag. The odor from those food particles may attract animals—mice, squirrels and yes, bears! If you're traveling where bears are a serous concern, you’d be wise to burn the bag. Or, wash it out (soapy water) and pack it out.

Yes, but isn’t burning plastic bad for the environment? Sure, but which is worse for the environment, burning half-a-dozen Zip-lock bags in your campfire, or driving 1200 miles round trip from Chicago to the BWCA?

By comparison: One gallon of gas weighs about seven pounds. If your car gets 20 miles per gallon, you’ll need about 60 gallons of gas (which converts to 420 pounds of hydrocarbons!) to get to the Boundary Waters and back.

Selective environmentalism? You betcha!

Wouldn’t our beloved Boundary Waters would be better served with common sense regulations and a view towards reality?

My book, CAMPING'S TOP SECRETS, 25Th Anniversary Edition, contains a wealth of practical camping tips and procedures.

Check out my new teen book, Justin Cody's Race to Survival! It's a riveting wilderness survival story AND a camping and canoeing skills book in one--a first for this type of book.

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