See more of the story

Users and outfitters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are reading between the lines this spring to estimate when the nation's most-visited federal wilderness will open to paddling, fishing, hiking and sleeping under the stars.

When the U.S. Forest Service this week closed the BWCA through May 4 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the agency gave no assurance it will immediately reopen the area May 5. Indications are that the keys to canoe country rest in the hands of Gov. Tim Walz, who's expected Friday to make a statement about outdoor recreation.

"We are following the state's lead in closing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness,'' Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. "This is based on Governor Walz's Stay at Home order, as well as conversations we have had with local community leaders.''

She declined to be interviewed.

Steve Piragis of Piragis Northwoods Co. in Ely said he's operating on the premise that the BWCA will be closed as long as Walz extends his stay-at-home order. Other public lands, such as Isle Royale National Park, already have been closed by the Forest Service until mid-June.

"Missing May won't kill us,'' Piragis said. "But missing June, July and August … that would kill us.''

He noted that storefronts associated with BWCA outfitting are closed right now as nonessential businesses. Canoe and gear rentals would have to move outside.

Steve Nelson, founder of Spirit of the Wilderness in Ely, said the big question is when will the governor reopen the state.

"We're all waiting on the edge of our seats,'' Nelson said. "It's going to get precarious for some operators'' if the closure lasts for months.

He said outfitters all around the million-acre wilderness have been sharing ideas on how to hand out equipment, sanitize and operate shuttle buses, or open bunkhouses and showers for arriving and departing paddlers. COVID-19 precautions will be needed regardless of when entry points are reopened, he said.

For Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Co., the temporary shutdown of the vast BWCA is understandable but ironic.

"It's sort of the original social distancing vacation,'' he said.

Ely Outfitting's business revolves entirely around outfitting and guiding BWCA visitors. Zabokrtsky's clients last year arrived from 48 states and 13 foreign countries. Only half of those visitors lived within driving distance, he said.

"It's going to be difficult for people to travel long distances,'' Zabokrtsky said. "If we are no longer under a stay-at-home order it could look a lot different.''

The uncertainty and dreadfully slow bookings have prompted a number of BWCA outfitters to apply for the government's paycheck protection program. The loan money — forgivable when hiring goals are met — will allow the small businesses to cover payroll, rent and utilities for a couple of months.

One hopeful sign from the Forest Service is a new policy for BWCA visitors to effectively draw permits online without having to enter ranger stations or outfitters' storefronts to obtain the paperwork. Zabokrtsky said the change is consistent with getting paddlers into the BWCA with less human interaction.

"We're absolutely planning on having the BWCA open at some point,'' Zabokrtsky said. "We've got to do everything in a way that's safe for guests, staff and the community.''

Clare Shirley, co-owner of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters near Tofte, said she's optimistic that entry points will open in time to salvage a good portion of the paddling season. But she said the situation is tricky and businesses that cooperate with the Forest Service don't know for sure what will unfold. Hiring the right number of workers for the season is one of the complications. It's also unclear when the Forest Service will reopen campgrounds on the outskirts of the BWCA.

Shirley said a normal day at Sawbill in April includes four to six phone calls from paddlers wanting to plan a BWCA trip. Those inquiries have slowed to about one every three days, she said.

Joe Friedrichs,host of "Boundary Waters Podcast" on WTIP radio in Grand Marais, said visitors this season must plan their trips like never before to abide by health recommendations. The Forest Service hasn't said anything about reducing the maximum BWCA group size of nine people, but Friedrichs said parties may want to draw more than one permit to distance themselves at nearby campsites.

He said paddlers may want to forgo bunkhouse stays and minimize entry into stores.

"The amount of planning needs to increase ten-fold,'' Friedrichs said. "You have to think about what you are bringing to the table way more than in years past.''

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213