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The BWCA's Comeback
By Eric Jansen
September 7, 1999
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The traditional last long weekend of the summer brought a throng of visitors to outdoor recreation areas. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was no exception, despite a severe storm July 4th that downed millions of trees over more than 300,000 acres. But the area is already showing signs of recovery.

Many visitors won't notice the destruction from the water because the storm left most trees along lake shores untouched.
AS A RELATIVE NEWCOMER to Minnesota, this was my first trip to the Boundary Waters - an area I'd heard about before moving here a year and a half ago. I went with a group of friends, some of whom have been to the Boundary Waters many times.

We put in at Moose Lake, renting canoes from Canadian Border Outfitters, which packs out about 700 groups a year. Manager Dave Sebesta told us the storm has affected business only slightly.
Sebesta: Very few have actually canceled because of the effects of the storm. There are a certain amount of people who are going in to see it. Just like with any disaster, theres a certain amount of interest in seeing the effects of a storm of that magnitude.
We had planned our trip before the July 4th storm, whose 100-mile-per-hour-plus winds smashed through the area. We were worried about whether the snarling of chainsaws would disturb our peace as the forest service cut the thousands of trees fallen across canoe portages. Luckily, we found crews had finished their portage and cleared campsites within two weeks of the storm.

So among the loudest sounds we heard were chipmunks and squirrels scrambling around our campsite, gobbling cedar nuts or crumbs from our fresh, breaded and fried wall-eye dinners.

But the devastation we saw while traversing some of our higher portages was a sight to behold. Vast areas with virtually no trees left standing. Some were snapped off ten or twenty feet above ground, others uprooted. Randy Wagner, a BWCA regular over the past decade, said the area didn't look as bad overall, as he'd feared. But in some spots...
Wagner: It was amazing in the sense that all the trees that were down were huge. And they were one right after another. Just the clearing of that particular portage I can imagine was tremendous. Because it was all big trees, and just all of them. They were all down.
Troy Bermel, another frequent BWCA visitor, was also astounded.
Bermel: And to think that, if you were in here when that happened, it would be a nightmare to climb over all those portages, or even find it. I mean, you might be able to see them along the shoreline, but where the trees are down, I dont know how you'd ever find your way back through it.
Still, both agree their camping experience was largely unaffected, except for having a few less trees to hang hammocks and clotheslines. And Troy, a landscape architect by trade, even says he's eager to return to see how the forest recovers.
Bermel: Because all the light now getting down into the forest floor, which once was shaded, you know, now there'll be lots of berries, so all the birds, and squirrels and bears will have a lot more food, I would think, with the light. So it'd be interesting to see what this area will look like in a couple years.
On our way out, I stopped at the U.S. Forest Service office in Ely and spoke with fire management officer Jim Hinds. He said our group saw some of the hardest hit areas, but there are worse areas he's seen from aerial fly-overs.
Hinds: If you go to a Scuda Lake, or Dick's Lake, that's a pretty barren landscape in there nowadays. You just came from Ensign Lake, and from what you saw, there are a lot of trees still standing on the landscapes, and it really doesn't look all that bad from those places.
Hinds says many visitors won't notice the destruction from the water, because for reasons he can't explain, the storm left most trees along lake shores untouched. So those who canoe in and camp without doing many portages wont see most damage.

What he's worried about is fire danger next year. He says with so many trees down over an area 10-miles wide by 30-miles long, the amount of fuel on the forest floor has grown substantially from about 20 tons per acre normal to about 200 tons per acre.

Hinds says it's quite possible nothing could happen. He doesn't want to be a Chicken Little. Next year's weather conditions may never get hot and dry enough for widespread fires to start. But he says he's got to plan for what could happen when all the downed trees turn dry and brown next year.
Hinds: Fires can be expected to travel at anywhere from two to four times faster and with more intensity than what they had in the past, and their behaviors going to be much more significant. And when you don't have an overstory, things dry out a lot quicker.
But Hinds says new growth is already underway.
Hinds: If you walk out in the blow-down area right now, you'll already see young aspen suckers coming up. It happens really quick.
Of course, the Boundary Waters has experienced huge storms, fires and other natural disasters before. Foresters say its all part of the natural cycle that began long before there were human tourists to fret about it.