Tuesday, September 17, 2013

BLOG 54. One Shoe Fits all in the BWCA

by Cliff Jacobson

Cliff: solo/BWCA
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 litter 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 government 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!
Yes, the Littlbug (www.littlbug.com) stove is legal in the BWCA.  You must place it next to the fire grate. The split wood here will burn for many hours
Surprisingly, safety on the water is not discussed. There is no stern warning to “wear your life jacket while canoeing”!  Less than half the paddlers I saw on my trip wore 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 my trip. Three people in a Kevlar canoe were paddling directly across Ham Lake. The waves were about 18 inches high and running strong. No one wore life jackets.  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. Really? 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 “carry out your trash—all of it”.  This is idealistically correct.  However, plastic food bags and aluminum foil comprise most trash, and food wastes that cling to the bags WILL attract animals—mice, squirrels and yes, bears!  Best to burn the trash in a good hot fire THEN carry out what didn’t burn.

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

*All permit information is now on line so you no longer need to specify where to pick up your permit.  Any ranger station can access the information.

Cliff Jacobson

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