DULUTH — The reopening of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness means a paddling trip Up North this weekend is back on for four 40-something dads craving a much-needed break.
Superior National Forest is opening the wilderness area after spreading wildfires forced a rare closure on Aug. 21.
"It takes a lot of things to fall into place to try and find a week where people with kids and full-time jobs can all get away," said Edgerton, Wis., resident Theran Springstead, among the group taking the paddling trip.
Recent rain helped diminish the multiple wildfires burning within the BWCA and other parts of the national forest, including the 26,000-acre Greenwood fire. The Forest Service said this week that much of the BWCA and national forest would reopen Saturday, including the popular Crooked Lake area. While permits were canceled through Friday, reserved permits for Saturday and beyond are still valid, and new reservations became available starting Thursday.
The Forest Service is "happy to open things up" to visitors who want more time in the wilderness before winter, said Connie Cummins, supervisor of the Superior National Forest. But, she warned in a Thursday video update, "we do still remain in extreme drought," with areas of the forest eight to 16 inches of precipitation below last year at this time.
"The snow will fall before we probably get out of drought," Cummins said.
Officials last closed the wilderness area in 1976, when another record drought gripped that part of the state.
Cooler weather and fire fighting progress also played a part in the decision to reopen, with the region's biggest fires remaining unchanged for days. All but three national forest fires are considered contained, and rain even helped control the Canadian wildfires closest to the BWCA. However, some areas close to those fires remain closed, such as land at the Upper Gunflint Trail, and restrictions on campfires and charcoal grills throughout the forest remain. Nearly half of the 65 fires reported in the Superior National Forest in 2021 were caused by humans, authorities said.
On Friday, visitors can again camp on other Superior National Forest lands, including backcountry sites. The Forest Service also lifted heavy equipment restrictions.
The news was a relief to Ely's Voyageur North Outfitters owner Tanner Spicer.
"This really salvages (the season) quite a bit," he said.
He redirected some customers to routes outside of the national forest during the closure, but many people canceled entirely.
Along with worry for fire crews, he said, "there was a lot of concern for Ely's economy. The Boundary Waters and tourism are the life blood of this city."
Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely is now able to bring back workers for its outfitting operation who were let go during the Boundary Waters closure, said outfitting manager Drew Brockett.
Brockett urged campers and outdoor enthusiasts to be mindful of the fire dangers as they head back into the wilderness area.
"We can get people back out in the woods and hope they do the right thing," he said. "No fires, respect the wilderness and how dry it is."
Springstead and his group will head in on the Crab Lake entry point Sunday, portage their canoes three or four lakes deep and set up a base camp for daylong paddles. They scrapped a hastily-arranged backup trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
"It has great fishing and remote campsites, but it's not anything like the Boundary Waters," Springstead said.
Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450