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Boundary Waters

By Stephen Wilbers


This chronology is presented in four versions so that you may choose according to your interests. The long version contains all entries, the short version is a knock-down version of the long one, and the wilderness management and natural history versions contain entries specific to those topics.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a 1.1 million acre wilderness located in northeastern Minnesota. I hope you enjoy browsing through this history as much as I have enjoyed compiling it.

Long          Short          Wilderness Management          Natural History

Please send comments, information, and corrections to me at wilbe004@umn.edu. Thanks. Stephen Wilbers

Three photographs by Craig Blacklock          Principal Sources




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Boundary Waters Chronology: Long

By Stephen Wilbers

4.6 billion-600 million years ago:
The granite bedrock of the Canadian Shield, which underlies northeastern North America and whose dramatic outcroppings characterize the landscape of the boundary waters region, is formed during the Precambrian period.

2.5 million-10,000 years ago:
Earth's climate cools by several degrees during the Pleistocene epoch, creating the most recent Ice Age. Sea levels drop by as much as 330 feet, and snow in the Hudson Bay region no longer melts, creating the fourth glacier to cover the area. Ice up to two miles thick expands southward at the rate of one inch to ten feet per day, scraping and gouging and reshaping the landscape of the boundary waters region under its tremendous weight.

30,000 or more years ago:
According to the Pre-Clovis Hypothesis of archaeology, the first humans to inhabit North America arrive. They arrive earlier than the humans who migrated across Beringia, or the Bering Land Bridge, from Siberia to Alaska.

20,000-12,000 years ago:
According to the Clovis Hypothesis (named after a site in Clovis, New Mexico, containing evidence of human habitation), the first humans to inhabit North America cross the Bering Strait on Beringia, the Bering Land Bridge, and migrate south along the west coast of North America.

15,000 years ago:
The most recent of four glaciers begins to retreat from northern Minnesota and the Hudson Bay area. Two and a half million years earlier when this immense glacier moved across the boundary waters landscape from the northeast, it gouged out easily fractured rock in lowland areas. Now, as the glacier melts, it deposits sand, silt, and gravel within the trough it had excavated. The deposits create barriers enclosing a series of deep basins along drainageways. The result: chains of lakes interconnected by small streams.

13,000-8,000 years ago:
White pine begins to migrate north and west from its glacial refuge in the Appalachian Mountains.

12,000-8,000 years ago:
The first humans migrate into the boundary waters region, including the Clovis people of the Paleoindian Tradition, also called the Big Game Hunters. They hunt woolly mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, muskoxen, camels, horses, giant beavers, giant bison, saber-tooth tigers, and other megafauna or large Ice Age mammals.

Around 11,000 years ago:
Hunting pressure and a warming climate lead to the extinction of many large Ice Age mammals.

6,500 years ago:
White pine, which for the past 7,000 years or so has been migrating northward from its glacial refuge in Appalachia, reaches the boundary waters region.

5,000-3,000 years ago:
Old Copper people inhabit the boundary waters region. They make tools, implements, and weapons from copper mined on Isle Royale and possibly near present-day Minong, Wisconsin, and they establish canoe routes that are still used today.

2,800-300 years ago:
Indians of the Woodland Tradition, so named because they depend on forest products for their survival – hunting, fishing, and gathering food, including wild rice – are the predominant culture in the boundary waters region. The Woodland Tradition includes Indians of the Laurel and the Blackduck Cultures.

1,000-500 years ago:
Birch-bark canoes replace dugout canoes, increasing the mobility of the boundary waters inhabitants.

Dakota Indians migrate into the region from the south. During the 1600s, they become the dominant culture in all of Minnesota except the extreme northern border region. The estimated population of Native Americans in the Great Lakes region is between 60,000 and 117,000.

Some 400 pictographs are painted by Ojibwe artists on granite cliffs and outcroppings across the Canadian Shield, usually located on lake shores a few feet above the high-water line. There are 5 or 6 sites in what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and about 25 sites in Quetico Provincial Park. Some pictographs may have been painted as recently as 1900, but most are probably older. Painted with a mixture of red ochre and rendered sturgeon skeleton and possibly sturgeon oil or bear fat, the images have bonded with the rock on a molecular level and are extremely durable. They have been variously interpreted as hunting stories, legends, or spiritual accounts of coming-of-age dream quests.

Climatic cooling creates a moister weather pattern known as the "Little Ice Age," which favors the growth of boreal spruces and jack pine over white and red pine.

Minnesota is inhabited by the Cree in northeast Minnesota, the Assiniboin (a branch of the Sioux Nation) in northwest Minnesota, the Cheyenne on the Lower Red River, the Santee or Eastern Dakota in east central Minnesota, the Yankton Dakota from Leech Lake to the Minnesota River, the Dakota or Sioux in west central Minnesota, and the Iowa and Oto in south Minnesota. During this time the Northern or Salteaux Ojibwe (one of four groups of Ojibwe) fleeing west from the Iroquois migrate into the boundary waters region and displace the Dakota as the dominant culture.

Médart Chouart (the Sieur des Groseilliers) and Pierre Esprit Radisson explore the North Shore of Lake Superior and perhaps follow an Indian canoe and portage route from Lake Superior west to Rainy Lake and the Winnipeg River.

Hudson's Bay Company is formed and licensed to trade in all of northern North America.

The Lake Superior region, including Minnesota, is annexed by France, which lays claim to all of the interior of North America.

Jacques de Noyon travels the canoe route from Lake Superior and winters over on the Ouchichiq River in the Rainy Lake area, becoming the first white man to explore the entire length of the Minnesota-Ontario boundary waters region.

During "the Voyageurs era," fur traders canoe the lakes and portage routes of the boundary waters region transporting furs for French and British fur companies.

France surrenders many of its North American claims to England, including the Hudson Bay region, under the Treaty of Utrecht.

French-Canadian explorer Pierre Gaultier deVarennes, Sieur de la Vérendrye, begins his explorations beyond Grand Portage. He is the last of the important French explorers in North America.

The war between the British and the French (the French and Indian War, also called the Seven Years War) ends with the signing of Treaty of Paris, ceding control of the region from the French to the British.

The North West Company is organized by British traders with its headquarters in Montreal. For the next two decades the fur trade using the canoe route along the present international border is at its peak.

A smallpox epidemic decimates Indian populations in the lakes region and elsewhere in North America.

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris at the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War, the British surrender control over lands west of the Appalachian mountains, and the United States gains sovereignty over the southern Great Lakes region.

Alexander Mackenzie travels the boundary waters region en route to the far northwest, where he "discovers" the Mackenzie River.

David Thompson, an astronomer and map-maker, joins the North West Company, visits the boundary waters region, and produces the first good maps of the area.

Felt hats made from beaver fur go out of style in Europe and are replaced by silk hats, ending a fashion that lasted 300 years. By this time, the beaver population in the boundary waters region is decimated. It doesn't fully recover for 150 years.

The present international boundary through canoe country is established by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, signed by the United States and Great Britain.

A bounty system for wolves is established in Minnesota, offering $3 per dead animal.

Seven chiefs of the Chippewa Indian Peace Commission travel to Washington, D.C., to sign the Treaty of LaPointe, ceding the entire Arrowhead region to the United States government and opening it to exploration and development by white settlers. In return, small reservations for the Ojibwe of Lake Superior are created at Grand Portage, Fond du Lac, and Nett Lake, and they are promised monetary payments for 20 years, annual food supplies, 80 acres of land to each head of family, fishnets, guns and ammunition, agricultural teachers, and a blacksmith for each reservation.

Extreme drought results in the biggest forest fires in centuries, burning several hundred square miles, or 400,000 acres (an area comparable to the largest of the 1988 Yellowstone fires). Nearly half of the present Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness burns, including 434 square miles of forest between the Isabella River and Saganaga Lake, and 176 square miles of forest south of Lac La Croix. Earlier major fires occurred in 1595, 1681, 1692, 1727, 1755-59, 1796, 1801, 1822, and 1824, creating conditions for natural forest regeneration. Before the unnatural disturbances of logging and fire-suppression management in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this natural cycle of fire-mediated forest renewal or "patch turnover" is estimated to have affected about three-quarters of the landscape of the boundary waters region every 50 to 100 years, resulting in a mosaic of even-age stands.

Late 1870s:
The first part of the Gunflint Trail is laid out from Grand Marais to the eastern end of Rove Lake, where a trading post is established and operated in the 1870s and 1880s by Henry Mayhew. The trail follows an overland footpath that has been used by the native Ojibwe for hundreds of years. Around 1891-93 the trail is further extended from Hungry Jack Lake to Poplar Lake, Gunflint Lake, and the Cross River. Over the decades the trail is improved from a primitive dirt road to a gravel road, and it is widened for horse-drawn wagons and eventually for automobiles. Today the Gunflint Trail is a 63-mile-long paved highway with a 50-mile-an-hour speed limit providing access to numerous resorts and entry points to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It crosses the Laurentian Divide at Birch Lake, with water to the east flowing eastward and southward to Lake Superior, and water to the west flowing northward to Hudson Bay. The Gunflint Trail takes its name from Gunflint Lake, a body of water known to the French fur traders as Lac des Pierres à Fusil, because they used the flint-like rock found along its shore in their flintlock rifles.

Major forest fires, second in size in recent history only to the 1863-64 fires, burn more than 300 square miles of forest in the boundary waters area, affecting an area from Sawbill, Alton, and Kawishiwi lakes in the south to Alice, Ogishkemuncie, Tuscarora, and Cherokee lakes in the north.

February 6, explorer, photographer, and wilderness advocate Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer is born in Davenport, Iowa.

The railroad reaches the town of Ely, beginning a new era of mining, settlement, and logging in the region.

Ely receives its charter as a city. The city is named after Samuel P. Ely, who played a prominent role in developing mining interests in the area.

Major forest fires burn 203 square miles of forest in the western boundary waters around La Croix Boulder Bay and Crooked Lake, as well as other smaller areas, including the forest around Alton, Sawbill, and Kelly lakes.

1894-97? (birth date unknown):
Long-time boundary waters area resident Benny Ambrose is born.

October 26, conservationist and writer Calvin Rutstrum is born.

Red and white pine are logged in the boundary waters area during "the big-pine logging era," with the first significant logging occurring in the Trout Lake area north of Lake Vermilion. Red pine is taken principally for timbers used in mining, and white pine principally for lumber.

Around this time what is now called the Springdale Road is constructed from Tofte, where settlers arrived in 1893, to a settlement named Springdale, a couple of miles inland from Lake Superior. The first mile of the Springdale Road becomes the first segment of the Sawbill Trail when construction of the trail begins in the 1920s.

April 4, canoe outfitter, educator, conservationist, wilderness advocate, and writer Sigurd Olson is born.

Beaver, fisher, marten, and wolverine have all but vanished from the boundary waters area, probably as a result of trapping. The beaver population begins to recover in the 1920s and does not fully reestablish itself until the 1970s. The fisher population begins to recover in the 1950s, the marten in the 1970s. The wolverine is still absent.

Early 1900s:
The moose population declines. It does not begin to recover significantly until the 1950s.

April 29, canoe guide and wilderness preservationist William "Bill" Magie is born.

June 30, 500,000 acres of public domain in Lake and Cook Counties in northeastern Minnesota, much of which is now part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, are set aside from logging, mining, and homesteading by Minnesota's Forestry Commissioner Christopher Andrews.

At the request of the Minnesota Forestry Board, Congress grants 20,000 acres to the State for the Burntside Forest Reserve. As stated in the 1905 Minnesota Forestry Commissioners Report, "State Forest Reserves should be devoted not alone to the business of raising timber, but to the pleasure of all the people."

May 6, long-time boundary waters resident Dorothy Molter is born.

With financing from Edward Wellington Backus, the dam at Koochiching, now International Falls, is completed to provide waterpower for Backus's Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company. The dam is planned as the first in a series of dams that would affect parts of present-day Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park, Quetico Provincial Park, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Spring, the Quetico Provincial Forest Reserve is created by the government of Ontario, setting aside one million acres as a forest and game preserve. Weeks later the Superior National Forest is created as a reciprocal act when President Theodore Roosevelt signs Proclamation 848, setting aside one million acres on the U.S. side of the border.

Exceptional drought results in major forest fires burning some 80 square miles of forest in a number of areas south of Saganaga Lake and at the western end of the Gunflint Trail, the last time major fires burn virgin forests in the boundary waters area before "the fire-suppression period."

Major fires are suppressed in the boundary waters area during "the fire-suppression period," resulting in unintended consequences. Fire suppression interferes with the natural cycle of fires that create new stands of forests, curtails periodic elimination of the tree-killing spruce budworm, and causes a buildup of dead trees in forest understories. These unnaturally high fuel loads increase the likelihood of super hot fires that scorch the thin topsoil of the boundary waters area, killing organic matter and the seeds of trees such as jack pine, black spruce, and red pine, which normally reestablish themselves rapidly after fires.

June 26-November 5, Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer and Indian guide Billy Magee travel 2,000 miles by canoe from Winnipeg to Hudson Bay and back, exploring an unmapped territory that hasn't been visited by a white man since Samuel Hearne traveled through the area in 1770. At the end of their trip, fighting freezing temperatures and frequent snow, they paddle just ahead of the onset of the sub-Arctic winter, often traveling fourteen hours a day. The extraordinary four-month journey makes Oberholtzer and Magee legendary figures among outdoors people.

"Moose sickness," an ailment causing moose to lose their normal fear of humans, to have a droopy ear, and to walk in circles or show other signs of disorientation, is first observed in Minnesota.

Quetico Provincial Park is established from the forest and game reserve created in 1909. Canada's provincial parks are closed to hunting.

A recreation plan for the boundary waters area is developed by the U.S. Forest Service in response to increasing numbers of people seeking recreation.

Woodland caribou no longer inhabit the boundary waters area.

The road from Ely to Two Harbors opens as part of a larger plan to build roads linking Ely to the Gunflint Trail and to the Canadian cities of Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) and Winnipeg.

A plan for preserving the border lakes region as a canoeing area is proposed by Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect hired by the U.S. Forest Service. Though the plan is not implemented, it is the country's first proposal for managing and protecting a wilderness area. It calls for a fully protected core area and limited, controlled development in outer areas.

April 23, at the first of many conferences to resolve differences regarding management of the Superior National Forest, Will Dilg, first president and founder of the Izaak Walton League of America, makes an impassioned plea opposing a U.S. Forest Service plan to bisect the core of the "roadless area" with a road linking Ely and the Gunflint Trail. The county governments and local chambers of commerce advocate development, adopting as their slogan "A Road to Every Lake."

The Superior National Forest Recreation Association is organized with Paul Riis as its president to oppose construction of roads in the "roadless areas" of the Superior National Forest.

Around this time, the citizens of the Town of Tofte pass a bond issue for $20,000 to build what is called the Temperance River Road, and is now called the Sawbill Trail. For the first mile it follows an earlier road built from Tofte to Springdale around 1898 before it turns north from Carlton Peak toward Sawbill Lake. When the town's money runs out, Cook County continues construction. By June of 1925, approximately five miles has been completed (to a point near where the present 600 road joins the Sawbill Trail today). By 1928, the road has been constructed as far as the railroad grade. By May 1931, the 24-mile road from Tofte to Sawbill Lake is complete. Constructed for the purpose of reaching logging operations, the road is laid out following the path of least resistance, sometimes through low-lying areas that are subject to flooding and washouts, conditions that plague travelers until the road is rebuilt in the 1990s.

Lumber baron and industrialist Edward Wellington Backus proposes building a series of seven dams along the boundary waters lakes to create four main water storage areas to provide hydroelectric power for his papermills. The dams would affect the 14,500-square-mile Rainy Lake watershed by significantly raising water levels above natural levels (Little Vermilion Lake by 80 feet, Loon Lake by 33 feet, Lac La Croix by 16 feet, and Saganaga and Crooked lakes by 15 feet). Conservationist and explorer Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer – with support from attorneys Sewell Tyng, Frank Hubachek, Charles Kelly, Frederick Winston, and many other conservationists – wage a five-year battle to defeat the plan.

September 17, the Little Indian Sioux, the Caribou, and the Superior "roadless areas" of the Superior National Forest are designated as a 640,000-acre roadless wilderness area under a policy issued by the U.S. Forest Service under U.S. Agricultural Secretary William Jardine to "retain as much as possible of the land which has recreational opportunities of this nature as a wilderness," curbing an ambitious road plan to push "a road to every lake." The policy allows construction of the Ely-Buyck road (now the Echo Trail), the Ely to Fernberg road, and the extension of the Gunflint Trail to Sea Gull Lake, but prohibits a connection from Fernberg northeast to Gunflint and spurs from the Ely-Buyck northwest to Lac La Croix and to Trout Lake, roads that would have further segmented the present Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Late 1920s:
Charlie and Petra Boostrom establish a homestead on Moon Lake, southwest of Meeds Lake. A logging camp is built and a logging road is constructed between Moon and Popular Lake. In the early 1980s the logging road becomes part of the Banadad Ski Trail.

January 27, the Quetico-Superior Council holds its first meeting, with Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer as its president, for the purpose of promoting an International Peace Memorial Forest on both sides of the border, encompassing the entire Quetico-Superior region.

Total annual precipitation is below normal, producing "the great drought of the 1930s," a decade-long hot, dry period.

May 16, Minnesota's record northern pike – weighing 45 pounds, 12 ounces – is caught in Basswood Lake by J. V. Schanken.

Major forest fires fueled by slash left from logging burn in the boundary waters area. On July 22, a fire starts on Star Lake and moves north, nearly trapping a fire crew camped on the south shore of Brule Lake near the Juno Lake railroad spur. On July 31, another fire starts north of Brule Lake and east of the Cone lakes. Together the Brule Lake fires burn 25,000 acres of forest, the largest fires in the Sawbill area in the 20th century. (See Mary Alice Hansen's "Forest Fire in the Woods," from her book, Sawbill: History and Tales.)

July 10, 1930, the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act, the first statute in which Congress expressly orders land be protected as "wilderness," is signed into law by President Herbert Hoover at the urging of a group of conservationists led by Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer. The Act withdraws all federal land in the boundary waters region from homesteading or sale, prevents the alteration of natural water levels by dams, prohibits logging within 400 feet of shorelines, and preserves the wilderness nature of shorelines. The regulations apply to a 4,000-square-mile area extending from Lake Superior on the east to Rainy Lake on the west. Passage of the Act represents a defeat for Edward Wellington Backus's plan to build a series of dams in the Rainy Lake watershed to create storage basins for industrial waterpower.

Arnold Eric Sevareid, 17, and Walter Port, 19, complete a 2,250-mile, 60-portage, 14-week canoe trip from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay. They travel up the Minnesota River to Big Stone Lake, down the Red River of the North, up the east shore of Lake Winnipeg to Norway House, and across 500 miles of wilderness to York Factory, a journey described by Sevareid in Canoeing with the Cree.

The General Logging Company ceases its railroad logging operations around Brule and Gunflint lakes, bringing to an end the railroad logging era in the boundary waters area.

May, the final segment of the 24-mile Sawbill Trail is completed. The first segment was constructed as a road to the Springdale settlement around 1898.

April 19, despite vigorous opposition by Minnesota Power and Light, legislation applying the protections of the Shipstead-Nolan Act to state lands is passed by the Minnesota Legislature. The bill is titled "An Act To Protect Certain Public Lands and Waters Adjacent Thereto Owned by the State of Minnesota."

The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), one of the first acts signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on taking office, creates work camps directed by the U.S. Forest Service in the boundary waters area to put people back to work. In the fall of 1933 two permanent camps are built at Lake Three and Alice Lake. During the brutal winter that follows, several workers become ill, and the foreman dies at the Lake Three camp, apparently the result of sewage seeping into the water supply. The program ends a short time later, and workers are transferred to the newly formed Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enlists thousands of unemployed men to plant trees, rebuild and improve portages, build canoe rests, install landing docks, post direction signs, build four lookout towers, fight forest fires, and do other conservation projects in the boundary waters area. Fourteen major camps, each housing approximately 200 young men and dozens of highly skilled outdoorsmen, are constructed in and around the wilderness areas of the Superior National Forest. The docks, signs, and rests are later removed to comply with the 1964 Wilderness Act, but still evident today are the raised walkways, the rocks placed to reinforce trails, the canoe landings (now mostly submerged), and other signs of trail improvements.

June 30, the President's five-member Quetico-Superior Committee is established by executive order by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer as its chair. The other members are Charles Kelly, Robert Marshall, Sigurd Olson, and Sewell Tyng. The Committee's purpose is to consult with and advise the State of Minnesota and the several federal departments and agencies operating in the Superior National Forest area.

October 29, Edward Wellington Backus, lumberman and industrialist, dies of a heart attack in his hotel room in New York City, ending a nine-year struggle with Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer and other conservationists for control of the Quetico-Superior region.

January, The Wilderness Society is founded by Robert Marshall, Harvey Broome, Bernard Frank, Benton MacKaye, Harold Anderson, Robert Sterling Yard, Aldo Leopold, and Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer "to ensure that future generations enjoy the clean air and water, beauty, wildlife, and opportunities for recreation and spiritual renewal provided by America's Wilderness."

Jack pine, black and white spruce, balsam fir, northern white cedar, aspen, and paper birch are logged during "the pulpwood logging era," the second major logging era to affect the boundary waters area. The first era was the taking of red and white pine during "the big-pine logging era" of 1895-1930.

July 6, a state record-tying high temperature of 114 degrees, first established in 1917, is recorded in Moorhead, Minnesota. Prolonged record-breaking hot summer weather combined with a seven-year drought results in widespread forest fires, including 30 small fires in the eastern Superior National Forest. A lightning-ignited fire starts on July 12 and burns 3,200 acres of forest around Cherokee Lake and 3,500 acres around Frost Lake. (See Mary Alice Hansen's "Forest Fire in the Woods," from her book, Sawbill: History and Tales.)

A tollgate is erected on private property on Four Mile Portage by Henry Chosa, who charges canoeists, resort owners, and anglers a fee to pass through.

May 1, Ojibwe trapper and guide Billy Magee dies. In 1912, Magee accompanied Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer on a 2,000 mile canoe trip from Winnipeg to Hudson Bay and back.

Superior National Forest's three wilderness areas are renamed the Superior Roadless Primitive Areas under a plan formulated with the help of Robert Marshall, then in charge of recreation in the Washington office of the U.S. Forest Service. The designation protects the areas from development but allows timber cutting and motorboats.

Late 1930s:
Smallmouth bass are introduced to boundary waters lakes.

Rails from the General Logging Company's Brule and Gunflint railroad logging operations are removed.

Improved and less costly outboard motors, including small, easily portaged models that are usable on canoes, are now available.

Crooked, Lac La Croix, and Basswood lakes are stocked with smallmouth bass fingerlings shipped in by train from Wisconsin by Bill Zupancich Sr. and several other Ely outfitters.

The Izaak Walton League of America establishes a fund to purchase private lands and resorts in the boundary waters area to be turned over to the government. From 1945 to 1965, the League purchases nearly 7,000 acres.

Populations of spruce budworm, native to the boundary waters area, increase to epidemic proportions, perhaps as a result of fire suppression. In the latter half of the twentieth century the budworm, a defoliator that eats the new needles growing from buds each spring, kills vast areas of spruce, jack pine, and balsam fir (which despite its name is the spruce budworm's prime host), creating high fuel loads that can result in high-intensity, seed-killing fires.

December 19, a vast area of federal timber within the roadless area, north, east, and west of Lake Isabella is sold to the Tomahawk Timber Company, which represents several Wisconsin firms. The area includes about 130 square miles of land and water, with a net land area of some 73,000 acres in federal ownership. Logging of this area continues for two decades.

Calvin Rutstrum's The Way of the Wilderness is published.

Nearly 20 resorts serviced by pontoon-equipped planes are operating on Basswood, Crooked, Knife, La Croix, Saganaga, and Seagull lakes. Some offer amenities such as bars, slot machines, and motorboats, with Ely now serving as the largest inland seaplane base in North America.

The Thye-Blatnick Act, Public Law 733, is passed by Congress, directing the Secretary of Agriculture to acquire resorts, cabins, and private lands within the boundary waters area and prohibiting any permanent residents after 1974. The Act provides for in-lieu-of-tax payments to Cook, Lake, and St. Louis Counties for federal wilderness land. It is extended and funded with an additional $2 million for acquisition of private property in 1956 and an additional $2 million in 1961. The amendments are denounced by the commissioners of Cook, Lake, and St. Louis counties and by the Ely Chamber of Commerce as "another ruthless inroad on the economy of affected counties."

Railroad tracks are laid to Lake Isabella and construction begins on Forest Center, a logging town carved out of the southern edge of the roadless area, in preparation for logging by the Tomahawk Kraft Timber Company. A large turnaround and sawmill are built by the lake, and eventually more than 50 homes – as well as a church, restaurant, school, store, and recreation hall – are built, along with five smaller camps in the area. Logging by Tomahawk ends in 1964, when loggers reach a buffer zone created by the Shipstead-Nolan Act. By 1965 the town is gone, though the alteration in the southern boundary of the present Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness remains.

June, a forest fire burns 1,200 acres at Plouff Creek, crossing the Sawbill Trail and stranding guests at Sawbill Lodge for several days. Until the late 1980s a gap in vegetation is noticeable to people driving along the Sawbill Trail. (See Mary Alice Hansen's "Forest Fire in the Woods," from her book, Sawbill: History and Tales.)

March 27, the Ely Rod and Gun Club reconfirms its support for an airspace reservation over the boundary waters at a meeting in which Forest Ranger Bill Trygg faces down angry opponents. Later that night a homemade bomb explodes outside the house of Bill Rom, an outfitter who supports the ban, but it causes little damage.

April, Friends of the Wilderness is founded by William "Bill" Magie, Frank Robertson, and other conservationists, to represent organizations supporting a ban on airplanes over the boundary waters area.

December 17, Executive Order 10092 is signed by President Truman creating an "airspace reservation" that bans private flights below the altitude of 4,000 feet above sea level, in part as a result of the work of activists Sigurd Olson, Charles Kelly, Frank Hubachek, William "Bill" Magie, and others.

Around 1950:
Truck portages into Basswood Lake, Lac La Croix, and Big Trout Lake are established, providing easy access to these lakes and their connecting waters by large, high-speed motorboats.

Aluminum canoes and boats are now widely available, making travel easier and resulting in dramatic increases in the number of canoeists accessing remote lakes.

The white-tailed deer population, dependent on new-growth forest, collapses from a loss of prime deer habitat with maturing forests in the early logging areas and in the extensive burn areas of 1863-64, 1875, 1894, and 1910. The moose population begins to recover from a decline that began in the early 1900s.

The beaver population is significantly reduced by a dieoff caused by tularemia.

Spruce budworm population increases to epidemic proportions throughout the boundary waters area and Quetico. In localized areas the population remains continuously epidemic from 1956 to the present.

The Powells, contemporaries of Benny Ambrose and Dorothy Molter and the last family to live year-round in what is now Quetico Park, move to Saganaga Lake from their homestead on the east end of Saganagons Lake, which becomes home for half a century to three generations of Powells, beginning with Jack Powell, of Irish and English descent, and Aquayweasheik (Mary Ottertail), an Ojibwe from the Lac La Croix Reserve. Life at the homestead is described by third-generation Betty Powell Skoog and Justine Kerfoot in A Life in Two Worlds, 1996.

Sigurd Olson's The Singing Wilderness is published.

Under protection from trapping, the fisher regains its former population levels. As a result, the number of porcupines, which are preyed on by the fisher, declines dramatically.

The wolf population in the lower 48 states is at an all-time low. Minnesota's wolf population is estimated to be around 400 animals. Other estimates place the population at 350-700 in northeastern Minnesota and about 20 on Isle Royale.

Snowmobile use in the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs, and Quetico grows, resulting in increased stress on lake trout populations from winter fishing.

Early 1960s-early 1990s:
Despite regulations designed to control both the amount and type of recreational activities in the Boundary Waters, visitor use increases nearly threefold.

In 1962, Dr. Roy Anderson and graduate student Murray Lankester demonstrate that a parasite, a brainworm known as Parelaphostrongylus tenis, normally found in white-tailed deer, causes "moose sickness," an ailment first observed in Minnesota in 1912.

The estimated moose population of about 3,000 doubles to about 6,000 in northeastern Minnesota and to about 2,000 in the Boundary Waters.

The U.S. Forest Service prohibits the storage of boats on national lands within the BWCA, a common practice by Cook County and Lake County resorts.

Peregrine falcons are extirpated from all of Minnesota and adjacent regions as a result of DDT poisoning. The last nesting pair in the Boundary Waters is reported this year. In the mid-1970s, only 35 nesting pairs are reported in the entire U.S.

May, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, a former Minnesota governor, appoints George Selke to head a special Boundary Waters Canoe Area Review Committee to recommend changes in BWCA management.

September 3, the Wilderness Act, U.S. Public Law 88-577, is signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, establishing the U.S. wilderness preservation system and prohibiting the use of motorboats and snowmobiles within wilderness areas except for areas where use is well established within the Boundary Waters, defining wilderness as an area "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man . . . an area of undeveloped . . . land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements." This date is considered by many to be the birth of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Many of the Selke Committee's recommendations for restrictions on visitor permits, motor use, and logging are implemented by Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman in a new management plan for the Boundary Waters. One recommendation is that permits be required for entrance. In addition, the plan divides the BWCA into an Interior Zone of 600,000 acres, which is closed to logging, and a Portal Zone of 400,000 acres, which is open to logging. The plan also calls for the immediate addition of 150,000 acres to the no-cut zone, with another 100,000 acres to be added by 1975 as existing logging contracts are completed. This would bring the total no-cut area to 612,000 acres by 1975.

The last bounty ($35) is paid on a wolf in Minnesota before Minnesota's bounty program on wolves and the Minnesota Department of Conservation's control program are ended. Together the two programs resulted in the killing of more than 300 wolves annually.

White-tailed deer population further declines in the Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest as a result of a series of severe winters, a loss of prime deer habitat caused by maturing forests, and increased predation by wolves. By 1972-73, deer no longer winter in the Boundary Waters.

A mandatory permit system for visitors (with no fee) is instituted by the U.S. Forest Service following the Selke committee hearings, the Wilderness Act of 1964, and the Freeman Directive of 1965.

June 21, the Superior National Forest Advisory Committee is formed to advise the U.S. Forest Supervisor on policies, programs, and management of the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

The gray wolf in the lower 48 states is listed as "endangered" under the 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act.

A maximum group size limit of 15 persons for visitors is instituted by the U.S. Forest Service.

The whitetail deer population in the Boundary Waters further declines and wolves switch from killing deer to moose, a more challenging prey.

As a result of DDT poisoning, the American bald eagle population declines to its lowest level, with only about 10 active eagle nests remaining in the Superior National Forest. A ban on the use of DDT is implemented on January 1, 1973. By 1989, the number of active nests increases to 74.

Voyageurs National Park is established by Public Law 91-661, as amended by Public Law 97-405, enacted by Congress on January 8 and signed by President Richard Nixon, to "preserve, for the inspiration and enjoyment of present and future generations, the outstanding scenery, geological conditions, and waterway system which constituted a part of the historic route of the Voyageurs who contributed significantly to the opening of the Northwestern United States." The park is officially established under these laws by the Secretary of the Interior on April 8, 1975.

A rule limiting visitors to "designated campsites" on heavy-use routes is instituted by the U.S. Forest Service. Cans and glass bottles are prohibited from the Boundary Waters. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the measure is expected to reduce refuse by 360,000 pounds, saving $90,000 per year on cleanup.

May 14-16, the Little Sioux fire, the largest forest fire in northern Minnesota since 1910, a crown fire, spreads from a slash fire and burns 14,000 acres or 24 square miles in the western Boundary Waters, killing the world record jack pine.

A limited moose hunt is authorized for the first time since 1922.

Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, a student group at the University of Minnesota, files a lawsuit to prohibit logging of old growth forest in the BWCAW until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Endangered Species Act is passed by Congress, declaring timber wolves an endangered species and affording federal protection. Since 1965, when the last bounty was paid on a wolf in Minnesota, approximately 200 animals were killed annually.

Quetico Provincial Park is given full wilderness protection. All logging is permanently banned, snowmobiles are banned, and a motorboat phaseout is begun.

A year of exceptional drought results in 516 forest fires burning 1,079,000 acres of forest in northwestern Ontario. On July 27, a camper-caused fire burns 1,006 acres around Prayer Lake.

The rule limiting visitors to "designated campsites" that was instituted by the U.S. Forest Service on heavy-use routes in 1966 is extended to the entire Boundary Waters.

The maximum group size limit for visitors is lowered from 15 to 10 persons by the U.S. Forest Service.

Logging of old growth forests is banned in a ruling by Federal District Judge Miles Lord. The ruling is reversed on appeal in 1976.

October, Eighth District Representative James Oberstar (D-MN) introduces a bill that if passed would have established a Boundary Waters Wilderness Area of 625,000 acres and a Boundary Waters National Recreation Area (NRA) of 527,000 acres, permitting logging and mechanized travel in the latter area and removing from wilderness designation a number of large scenic lakes such as La Croix, Basswood, Saganaga, and Seagull. The bill is strongly opposed by environmentalists.

A severe drought, with only .58 inches of rainfall recorded for the normally wet period of April 26 through June 6, makes this summer one of the driest on record, resulting in a travel ban in the Boundary Waters and widespread forest fires, including an August 21 fire that burns 3,380 acres of forest around Roy Lake, and an August 30 fire that burns 1,190 acres of forest around Rice Lake, and a September 7 fire that burns 1,025 acres of forest around Fraser Lake.

May 7, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness is formed with Miron "Bud" Heinselman as chair, in opposition to Representative James Oberstar's 1975 bill, which would remove land from a designated wilderness for the purpose of creating a recreational area that would allow logging and mechanized travel. Its purpose is advocating greater protection of the Boundary Waters and "promoting the biological, intrinsic, aesthetic, economic, scientific, and spiritual values of wilderness." Other founding members include Fern Arpi, Chuck Dayton, Dan Engstrom, Dick Flint, Jan Green, Herb Johnson, Jack Mauritz, Steve Payne, Chuck Stoddard, Paul Toren, Herb Wright, and Dick Wyman.

Summer, a sophisticated visitor distribution system, using entry-point quotas on visitor numbers as a mechanism to redistribute visitor use and impacts throughout the wilderness, is instituted by the U.S. Forest Service.

Cans and glass bottles are prohibited from Quetico Provincial Park.

The last section of the 63-mile Gunflint Trail, which goes from Grand Marais through the Sawtooth Mountains to Saganaga Lake, is paved.

May 17, the Boundary Waters Conservation Alliance is formed with $20,000 in start-up funds from the timber industry to support Representative James Oberstar's multiple use approach to managing the Boundary Waters and to counter the newly formed Friends of the Boundary Waters.

June 6, Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer (born February 6, 1884) dies at age 93. Explorer, photographer, student of Ojibwe legend and oral tradition, authority on the Minnesota-Ontario boundary lakes region, lifetime President of the Quetico-Superior Council, and one of eight founders of the Wilderness Society, Ober devoted his life to preserving wilderness and protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

July 8, an effigy identified as Sigurd Olson and Miron "Bud" Heinselman is hung outside the Ely High School, where approximately 1,000 people gather to participate in a Congressional hearing. Amid boos and catcalls, Olson speaks in favor of Congressman Don Fraser's bill that becomes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978. "This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent," Olson declares. "We can afford to cherish and protect it. Some places should be preserved from development of exploitation for they satisfy a human need for solace, belonging, and perspective. In the end we turn to nature in a frenzied chaotic world, there to find silence – oneness – wholeness – spiritual release."

The Eastern timber wolf is reclassified from "endangered" to "threatened" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that administers the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The law still prohibits the killing of wolves with the exception of problem animals causing agricultural damage. The Fish and Wildlife Service also adopts a recovery plan (revised in 1992) for the purpose of increasing the number and range of timber wolves to ensure the animal's survival in the eastern half of the U.S. The recovery plan sets a population goal for Minnesota of 1,251 to 1,400 wolves by the year 2000, a goal that is achieved in the early 1980s. In 1989 a wolf population survey estimates the statewide population at between 1,550 and 1,750 animals.

October 21, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, U.S. Public Law 95-495, is signed by President Jimmy Carter. The act adds 50,000 acres to the Boundary Waters, which now encompasses 1,098,057 acres, and extends greater wilderness protection to the area. The name is changed from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Act bans logging, mineral prospecting, and mining; all but bans snowmobile use; limits motorboat use to about two dozen lakes; limits the size of motors; and regulates the number of motorboats and motorized portages. It calls for limiting the number of motorized lakes to 16 in 1984, and 14 in 1999, totaling about 24% of the area's water acreage.

All logging in the wilderness ceases under the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness Act, U.S. Public Law 95-495, ending some 85 years of logging in the Boundary Waters.

A $5 reservation fee for entry into the Boundary Waters is implemented.

January, acidification of Boundary Waters lakes is detected, with 1,218 of 1,338 lakes identified as "sensitive" and 308 identified as "extremely sensitive," after a one-year investigation by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Department of Health.

January 13, Sigurd Olson dies at age 82 after suffering a heart attack while snowshoeing with his wife Elizabeth near his home in Ely. Canoe outfitter, guide, educator, conservationist, wilderness advocate, and elder statesman of the Minnesota environmental movement, one-time president of the National Parks Association and of the Wilderness Society, eloquent and outspoken advocate of wilderness values, Sig published 9 books and more than 100 articles.

February 5, Calvin Rutstrum dies at age 86. A conservationist who worked with his friend Sigurd Olson in the successful campaign to restrict airplane travel above the Boundary Waters, Calvin published 15 books on wilderness, nature, and canoeing.

March 4, William "Bill" Magie dies at age 79. Bill was a canoe guide in the waters around Ely from 1962 to 1978, a co-founder of Friends of the Wilderness, and a lifelong advocate of wilderness protection.

March 8, the 1978 BWCA Act is upheld when the Supreme Court decides in an 8-1 decision (with Sandra Day O'Connor casting the dissenting vote) not to review lower court rulings in a three-year legal battle by the State of Minnesota and others challenging the constitutionality of the 1978 law.

August, Benny Ambrose dies at age 86, 84, or 83 (birth date uncertain), probably of a heart attack. His body is found by Forest Service rangers next to the burned remains of his summer kitchen. Benny came north from Iowa after World War I to prospect for gold and lived for more than 60 years alone in his one-room cabin on Ottertrack Lake, becoming the second to the last permanent resident of the Boundary Waters.

The peregrine falcon is placed on the federal endangered species list. After a 20-year absence, peregrine falcons are reintroduced into the wild in Minnesota, including in Cook County. In 1999 the falcon is removed from the endangered species list. By 2004 its population in Minnesota reaches 36 nesting pairs. The peregrine falcon is the world's fastest bird. When it goes into a dive (called a "stoop"), it can reach 175 miles per hour.

May 29-June 24, a small island on Lake Two is set on fire by a careless camper, resulting in a major forest fire. For the first time in 76 years, a significant fire in the Boundary Waters is allowed to burn without intervention by the U.S. Forest Service.

Motors are banned from Brule Lake. In response to strong opposition to a motor ban on Brule, an exception was written into the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act providing that motors could be used on Brule until January 1994, or until businesses already in operation in 1977 were terminated. With the closing of the last business on Brule, the Sky Blue Water Resort, the motor ban goes into effect. In subsequent years, use by canoeists increases significantly.

Summer, an administrative appeal is filed by four groups – the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and Defenders of Wildlife – on 12 issues in U.S. Forest Service's new land and Resource management Plan for Superior National Forest, including an appeal for the Forest Service to close three truck portages in compliance with the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act.

Canada lynxes are no longer permanent residents in Minnesota but only occasional wanderers from Ontario searching for food, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

December, Dorothy Molter dies of natural causes at age 79 while living alone in her cabin on Knife Lake. Dorothy was the last permanent resident of the Boundary Waters. Because of her homemade brew, she was known to many as the "Root Beer Lady."

March 20, following the 1986 Lake Two fire, a new prescribed natural-fire-management program is adopted by the U.S. Forest Service and implemented in the Boundary Waters. The policy allows lightning-ignited fires that pose no threat to people or property to burn themselves out naturally. This departure from the policy of suppressing all fires ends the "fire-suppression period" of management that began in 1911.

Summer, Michelle and Stuart Osthoff of Ely publish the first issue of the quarterly The Boundary Waters Journal: The Magazine of America's Favorite Wilderness Area.

September 14 and 15, an emaciated female black bear mauls two campers in a rare attack of a human by a black bear. On September 14, Tyson Crowder, 19, from Maryville, Tennessee, and enrolled as a student at the University of Tennessee, is mauled at Wabang Lake, south of Lac La Croix. He is hospitalized in stable condition with multiple lacerations, including a large head laceration and a fractured bone in his shoulder. The next day Jeremy Cleaveland, a 52-year-old real estate agent from Minnetonka, is attacked at Lady Boot Bay, an arm of Lac La Croix, a mile northwest from Wabang Lake. Cleaveland's injuries include bites and claw marks on his thigh, forearm, shoulder, head, and neck, and a badly twisted knee. In both cases the bear is driven off by other campers hitting it with a canoe paddle. On September 16, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources game wardens shoot the bear as it is ransacking a campsite near the scene of the attacks. The bear, an eight-year-old female weighing only 117 pounds, may have been suffering from digestive problems. Normal weight for a bear of this age and gender is 150 to 200 pounds. These attacks are two of only four recorded incidents of bears attacking humans in Minnesota. The other two, also non-fatal, occur in September 2002, while 24-year-old researcher Miles Becker is studying woodcock in the Four Brooks Wildlife Management Area 10 miles north of Milaca (Becker suffers broken facial bones, puncture wounds to his head and left leg, and a broken fibula; after the attack he radios his partner, who locates him partly by following his directions and partly by homing in on the radio transmitters Becker has with him to attach to woodcocks), and in September 2003, when 37-year-old Kim Heil-Smith surprises a sow with her cub in her garage in rural Grand Marais (Heil-Smith suffers scratches and bites on her head, shoulder and thighs, some of which require stitches; she escapes when she grabs the bear's nose and yells, "Get out of my house!").

July 1, peregrine falcons produce young in the Superior National Forest for the first time in 28 years.

July 15, a great regional downburst storm causes vast blowdowns in the Boundary Waters and Quetico.

April, the Izaak Walton League, with four other groups, goes to court to stop the National Guard from conducting training flights as low as 2,500 feet over the Boundary Waters by F-4 Phantom Jet Fighters, which create sonic booms.

August, a 611-foot radio tower, proposed by Connecticut developer Timothy Martz to be constructed on a ridge near Esther Lake in Cook, is blocked by temporary injunction granted by County Ramsey County District Judge Donald Gross. The judge accepts the argument of environmentalist Harry Drabik, who sued on behalf of the state, arguing that the tower would ruin the scenic quality of an unspoiled wilderness.

Nearly half of Minnesota's 6,700 moose die over a two-year period as a result of a "winter tick" infestation, leaving a population of about 3,700 moose.

October 15, a compromise regarding rebuilding of the Sawbill Trail is developed by the Sawbill Trail Consensus Committee, facilitated by Forest Service Tofte District Ranger Larry Dawson. The original plan calls for widening the trail's clearance for construction of a 55-mile-an-hour two-lane paved highway. When the bulldozers start clearing the first segment from Tofte in 1990, there is an uproar of protest. Many people believe the rebuilding will alter the trail's primitive character. The compromise results in special variances being sought from state and federal highway administrations, so that after the first 3 miles from Tofte the road is left unpaved and calcium chloride is applied for dust abatement. Road clearance is widened from 45 to 56 feet (rather than the 64 feet originally proposed) for a 45-mile-an-hour, 9-ton road with 12-foot driving lanes, 2-foot shoulders, and 3-foot ditches, with trees cleared an additional 10 feet on the ditch slopes on both sides of the road. The road is rerouted near Plouff Creek, known as Dead Man's Curve because of its many accidents, reducing the overall length of the Trail from 24 to 23 miles. Clearance for the last six miles is not altered, so that the Sawbill Trail now has an increasingly rustic feel as it approaches Sawbill Lake.

September 18, a windstorm causes major damage in the Superior National Forest, especially in the Gunflint Trail area.

November 6, as a result of a 15-year effort on the part of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area truck portages that were to have been phased out as stipulated by the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act are closed when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth District reverses the decision of a lower court to allow them to continue operation.

November 17, a BWCAW draft management plan is released to the public via a news conference. Many people object to some of the provisions, especially the proposal to reduce the group size limit from 10 to 6 persons.

The population of the Eastern timber wolf is estimated at 1,500-1,750 in Minnesota, 45 in Wisconsin, and 20 in Michigan.

A new BWCAW management plan is implemented by the Superior National Forest, reducing visitor-group size limit from 10 to 9 persons, limiting the number of watercraft per group to 4, and operating the visitor distribution program at 67 percent rather than 85 percent campsite occupancy.

The moose and white-tailed deer populations in the Boundary Waters decline, with severe winter losses in 1995 and 1996.

Major forest fire, in later years referred to as the "Sag Corridor wildfire," starts near Romance Lake, burns around Saganaga Lake, and spreads across 9 miles or 12,600 acres in the U.S. and Canada, threatening 40 structures on the Gunflint Trail. Fire 141, the largest fire, burns the areas around Kawnipi, Falls Chain, and Saganagons lakes. About 8% of Quetico is affected, an area larger than the combined area burned in the previous 60 years.

Miron "Bud" Heinselman's The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem is published posthumously.

After a series of cuts in the Boundary Waters wilderness management budget, a $10 per-person user fee, in addition to the $12 registration fee, is authorized under the User Fee Demonstration Project, a three-year pilot program passed by Congress. In 1997, the first year the fee takes effect, about $1 million is generated to help fund portage and canoe landing maintenance, campsite rehabilitation, and law enforcement. The funds make up for the shortfall in the $2.5 million called for by the U.S. Forest Service plan to properly manage the Boundary Waters wilderness.

June 14, a forest fire burns 4,450 acres around South Temperance Lake. The fire is fought by more than 260 personnel at a cost of $1.5 million.

A federal mediation process is initiated by U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone to resolve issues relating to three motorized portages. The process, which lasts nearly nine months, is concluded on April 28, 1997, with recommendations for reducing airborne mercury pollution but without consensus on the core issues, losing an opportunity, in the words of Bill Hansen, for "the healing effect of a broad community consensus on wilderness policy."

Legislation allowing three motorized portages to resume operation is introduced by Eighth District Representative James Oberstar (D-MN) and Senator Rod Grams (R-MN) but does not pass. In part as a result of the debates surround the issue, membership in the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness peaks at 2,783 members.

Motorized vehicles are permitted to continue transporting motorboats across two portages, Trout and Prairie, by a rider on an unrelated transportation bill passed by Congress.

July 4, a severe windstorm described as a "storm of a century" blows down and damages trees in a 30-mile swath across the Boundary Waters, severely affecting approximately 367,000 acres or 32% of the Boundary Waters, 477,000 acres in northeastern Minnesota, and 108,000 acres in Canada. The storm also damages 1,500 of the 2,000 campsites in the Boundary Waters and completely or partially blocks 550 portages. About 25 people are injured, but there are no fatalities. About 25 million trees are downed. With trees stacked up as high as 20 feet, the fuel load for fire is 5 to 10 times higher than it was before the blowdown, and the U.S. Forest Service begins planning a series of prescribed, controlled burns to reduce the risk of large, intense, uncontrollable fires in the years ahead.

March, the Canada lynx is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, giving it federal protection.

July 26, Art Madsen, the last of Quetico's 16 original rangers, dies at age 95. Madsen worked as a ranger from 1934 to 1940, sometimes traveling 1,500 miles a winter on snowshoes. For 70 years he lived at his home and wilderness resort on Saganaga Lake.

February 2001, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources develops a wolf management plan. The plan seeks to demonstrate that Minnesota is prepared to assume responsibility for the Eastern timber wolf when delisting occurs and that Minnesota will ensure the long-term survival of the wolf as required by the federal recovery plan.

The moose population in the Arrowhead Region of Northeastern Minnesota declines from 5,000 to 4,000 from the previous year.

After 30 years of only occasional sightings, more than two dozen Canada lynxes inhabit the Boundary Waters, according to estimates based on DNA analysis of animal hair and feces.

For the first time ever reported outside captivity, three wildcat hybrids – mixes between male bobcats and female Canada lynxes – are confirmed by federal researchers, who analyzed DNA from hair and tissue samples from 19 cats in Superior National Forest. There is concern that, if the hybrids can reproduce, they might dilute the genetic purity of Canada lynx populations.

25,000-30,000 black bears inhabit Minnesota, up from 10,000 in the 1980s.

12,000 loons spend the summer in Minnesota, the most of any state except Alaska.

October 19, Mardy Murie dies at age 101. Mardy was known as the "grandmother" and the "matriarch" of the modern conservation movement for her work on garnering support for the 1964 Wilderness Act and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In her 1980 testimony before Congress in support of expanding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) she said, "I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by, or so poor she cannot afford to keep them."

The estimated gray wolf population in northern Minnesota is just more than 3,000 animals, compared with an estimated 2,450 wolves in 1998. Because the DNR survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 700 wolves, the population appears to be holding steady. Completed in the winter of 2003-04, the survey uses field observations, habitat models, and data from radio telemetry studies. In comparison, 400 wolves inhabit Wisconsin, and about 360 inhabit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Also this year a lone wolf is found in Michigan's Lower Peninsula, the first sighting since 1910.

The estimated gray wolf population in the state of Minnesota is approximately 3,020 animals (or somewhere between 2,301 and 3,708 animals), a 23% increase since the last major survey in the winter of 1997-98, according to John Erb, wolf biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Most of these wolves live in about 485 packs averaging between 5 and 6 wolves each. The wolf population in Wisconsin is approximately 425 animals living in about 109 packs. In Michigan's Upper Peninsula the population is about 408 animals in about 86 packs. The main reason for the increased populations seems to be the abundance of white-tailed deer, the wolf’s principal prey.

June 4, Lloyd Skelton, an experienced 58-year-old outdoor adventurer, buys a day permit to hike the 14-mile Angleworm Trail, deciding to delay his solo kayak trip until the weather improves. On June 17 his daughter reports him missing. When searchers find only his clothing and wallet, they assume he has succumbed to hypothermia and "paradoxical undressing," an irrational behavior that sometimes occurs when a person's core body temperature drops into the low 80s. As reported by Larry Oakes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, despite "a thorough search of the surrounding area with the help of dogs," no sign of Skelton's remains are found. "It's tough to talk about," says Lake County Sheriff Steve Peterson, a veteran of many searches, "but it's a reality that things don't last long out there. There is decomposition. There are wolves, bears, ravens. The longer it's been, the less the chance you'll find something."

August 6, after more than a month of drought, lightning ignites a fire that sweeps across nearly 1,400 acres near the Canadian border between Alpine and Seagull Lakes, an area with dead trees downed by the 1999 blowdown. The fire is the largest in 10 years and threatens 70 homes, cabins, and businesses on the Gunflint Trail, a few miles to the east. Firefighters set up containment lines with 35 miles of hose, 44 water pumps, and more than 100 sprinklers. With the assistance of three Bombardier CL-215 aircraft capable of scooping 1,400 gallons of water in 11 seconds, they contain the fire on August 19.

The 33 emergency incidents in 2005 are nearly double the number of search-and-rescue missions in each of the three previous years: In 2005 there were 21 medical evacuations, 12 search-and-rescue missions, and 1 fatality, for a total of 33; in 2004 there were 0 medical, 14 search-and-rescue, and 3 fatalities, for a total of 17; in 2003 there were 14 medical, 3 search-and-rescue, and 2 fatalities, for a total of 19; and in 2002 there were 11 medical, 2 search-and-rescue, and 4 fatalities, for a total of 17. According to Kris Reichenbach, a Forest Service spokesperson, one possible reason for the increase in evacuations is that more people are carrying cell phones and relying on them to call for help. Most deaths in the Boundary Waters are from drowning, and the majority of reported injuries are from falls.

July 14, a lightning strike starts a fire near Cavity Lake and expands north to Sea Gull Lake near the end of the Gunflint Trail, a 60-mile road that leads northward from Grand Marais on Lake Superior into the wilderness area. The fire is one of at least eight burning in the Boundary Waters and Quetico Park that week, all started by lightning. Fueled by dry winds and timber blown down in the 1999 storm, the Cavity Lake fire
burns about 50 square miles (about 39 square miles excluding lake surfaces), an area that makes it the largest fire in the Boundary Waters since 1894. About 60 campsites in the fire area are damaged or destroyed, but no one is injured and there is no damage to private property. Smoke blowing east from fire is so thick that motorists on the North Shore turn on their headlights to drive during the day. A series of prescribed burns since the 1999 storm that reduced the amount of downed timber on more that 37,000 acres prevents the fire from consuming an even larger area. "It's a good thing this fire happened when it did," says Jim Sanders, supervisor of the Superior National Forest, "instead of two years after the blowdown." Although no evacuation of the Gunflint Trail is ordered, the fire's eastern flank comes within a mile of the trail, close to the "trigger-point" for an evacuation. As the fire continues to expand, an elite team of firefighters known as the Pacific Northwest National Incident Team No. 2, one of 17 such teams in the country, arrives to fight the blaze. By August 4, the fire is reduced to hot spots and is declared 85 percent contained. By August 12, the fire is declared 95 percent contained, and according to Warren Wolfe writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune there are signs the forest is rejuvenating: "Small sprigs of grass, ferns, and geraniums already are pushing through blackened soil, and tiny shoots of aspen and birch are emerging from charred stumps and roots." The cost of fighting the fire to that point is estimated to be more than $10.6 million.

September 15, about 200 people evacuate a 10-mile stretch of the Gunflint Trail at the "strong suggestion" of Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk because a long, narrow finger of a fire is moving northward toward the dead-end trail. About 14 people decide to remain on their properties. The fire was started by a lightning strike near Famine Lake, north of Brule Lake, on September 7 or 8. A smaller fire at Redeye Lake started around the same time. It is the fire's location rather than its 3.9-square-mile size that prompts the voluntary evacuation, the first evacuation since the mid-1990s. The Famine Lake fire eventually consumes more than 6.5 square miles.


January 29, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett announces that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is "de-listing" or removing the western Great Lakes population of gray wolves from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. The Service is also proposing removal of the northern Rocky Mountain population of gray wolves from the list. Both actions are taken in recognition of the success of gray wolf recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act. Gray wolves were previously listed as endangered in the lower 48 states, except in Minnesota, where they were listed as threatened.


May 5, following a prolonged drought, a fire starts near Ham Lake, apparently from an unattended campfire. Before it is extinguished, it becomes Minnesota's largest and costliest forest fire since the 1918 Cloquet fire. On May 6, a mandatory evacuation order is issued to about 100 people on the last seven miles of the Gunflint Trail as the rapidly spreading fire is fueled by strong winds. As with the Alpine Lake fire in 2005 and the Cavity Lake fire in 2006, the fire's intensity is at first limited because the fuel load of downed trees on its eastern flank had been reduced from prescribed burns, but four structures near Sea Gull Lake are destroyed. Many buildings in the fire's path, however, are spared, probably because of propane-powered outdoor sprinkler systems installed since the 1999 blowdown. On May 9, firefighters conduct an intentional "burnout" in the fire's path to rob it of fuel. On May 10, Twin Cities residents can smell smoke carried by northeastern winds. By May 11, the fire has grown to 55,000 acres, or nearly 86 square miles, and it has moved 13 miles into Canada and 12 miles down the Gunflint Trail, destroying 138 structures worth $3.7 million, including the Seagull Outpost Lodge, Superior North Canoe Outfitters, 44 structures in the 51-year-old Wilderness Canoe Base on Sea Gull Lake, and 62 cabins and homes. According to Matt McKinney, writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, residents who saw the blaze described it as "a roiling black monster throwing off green clouds, white thunderheads, and a noise like a a freight train." By May 15, the fire has consumed 93 square miles or 59,611 acres of forest and is only 15 percent contained. On the U.S. side of the border, 700 firefighters battle the blaze, some climbing atop buildings and dousing them with fire hoses as their own cabins burn. Finally, on May 22, after consuming nearly 119 square miles in Minnesota and Canada, the fire is contained, and the last seven miles of the Gunflint Trail are reopened.


August 7, traveling in two motorboats, five local men Barney J. Lakner, 37, Jay A. Olson, 19, Zachary R. Barton, 19, Travis J. Erzar, 20, and Casey J. Fenske, 19 and one 16-year-old juvenile, who come to be known as the "Ely Six," go on a rampage on Basswood Lake. During a night of drinking beer and discharging firearms, they terrorize and harass dozens of campers, including families with children. They use foul language, shoot a flare that explodes in the air, on two occasions release gasoline onto the lake and set it on fire, and occupy one campsite for 45 minutes, threatening to rape and kill the three traumatized campers a retired schoolteacher from suburban Chicago, his 26-year-old daughter, and his 11-year-old son, who hide deep in the brush during the ordeal. During the spree the men are reported to have shouted, "Fucking tourists . . . get the hell off our fucking property," and using local slang for "environmentally obnoxious" people "go home, fucking enox tree-huggers." After some of the campers report the disturbance by calling 911, the five men and the teenager are arrested within the hour not far from Basswood Lake. From the two boats authorities recover a high-powered, semi-automatic assault-style rifle with three 30-round clips, a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, a .22 caliber rifle, a .22 caliber pistol, ammunition, spent shell casings, fireworks residue, beer, and items stolen from one campsite. Lake County authorities file 79 charges against the six including terroristic threats, aggravated harassment, criminal damage to property, reckless discharge of firearms, underage possession of firearms, and underage alcohol consumption. The group also faces felony counts and charges from federal and Canadian authorities because they crossed into Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park, where they continued their rampage. Newsweek and other publications link the night of terror to deep-seeded resentment on the part of local people who oppose the 1978 restrictions limiting their access to the area. Some of these people were forced to sell their resorts and cabins when the area was set aside as protected wilderness. As reported by Larry Oakes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "Lakner, a bread-truck driver, husband, and father, paid a $275 fine in 2004 for driving a snowmobile in the BWCA and [in July] Olson and Fenske were fined $225 each for driving ATVs in the BWCA in May." Perplexingly, five of the six members of the group were not yet born when the area was set aside. Newsweek asks if the behavior was "just youthful indiscretion or a troubling community character flaw?" Local outfitter Nancy Piragis says, "They learned these attitudes." Mayor chuck Novak says, "If what's in those complaints is proven true, I don't see any public support for this around here." The Timberjay, the community newspaper, says in an editorial, "While there has long been a tendency in our area to paint youthful rebels who run afoul of the Boundary Waters regulations as folk heroes, this is a different situation entirely . . . This wasn't . . . like motoring in a paddle-only lake, or a late-night border run on a snowmobile . . . This isn't folk hero material. Such actions should horrify everyone."


September and October, near-record rainfall ends a nearly two-year drought in the boundary waters area, but fire danger remains. As reported by the Associated Press, "The Forest Service is more than halfway toward its goal of purposely burning 109 square miles to create a strategic series of firebrakes across the [1999] blowdown area." But the danger may remain elevated through 2017 or longer, according to Jim Sanders, supervisor of the Superior National Forest, because of all the dead timber that remains, especially in western parts of the forest closer to Ely, an area that has been mostly spared by fires. According to Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk, "The Ham Lake fire wasn't the big blowdown fire we've been talking about for so many years. That's still out there, still a possibility."

Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer

"The gift of language"

Copyright by Stephen Wilbers

First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: December 19, 2003

When Ernest Oberholtzer was 17, he suffered a severe bout of rheumatic fever that weakened his heart. His doctors told him he wouldn't survive the year.

On June 6, 1977, after a lifetime dedicated to preserving the Minnesota-Ontario lakes region as wilderness, his damaged heart gave out, and he died at the age of 93.

Ober was a man of many passions. At 28 he paddled with Ojibwe trapper and guide Billy Magee across the Canadian Barrens to Hudson Bay and back, completing the 2,000-mile, four-month exploration in freezing temperatures and blowing snow just before the onset of the sub-Arctic winter.

He fought to protect an area he considered "one of the rarest of all regions of the continent, if not the world," spearheading the 1930 defeat of a plan to convert the boundary waters lakes into a four great storage basins for the production of industrial hydroelectric power.

He photographed Native Americans and wildlife. He gathered Indian stories and legends. He studied the Ojibwe language at a time when our national policy was to suppress native culture and languages among Indian children. He played classical violin, collected books, and entertained friends by the dozen on his small Rainy Lake island.

More than anything Ober wanted to write. He wrote dozens of articles, thousands of letters to friends, and thousands more in support of his plan for wilderness preservation, but he never achieved his lifelong ambition: He never wrote a book about his travels with Billy Magee or about Native American legends. This failure haunted him as one of the great frustrations and disappointments of his life.

In his final years Ober was robbed of his ability to speak by a series of minor strokes. As reported by Joe Paddock in Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer, however, he still had good days.

Once, the late Ted Hall, a former correspondent and deputy New York bureau chief for Time-Life and publisher of the Rainy Lake Chronicle, was pushing Ober in his wheelchair down a sidewalk in International Falls.

According to Hall, "The whole morning there hadn't been a word you could understand. He just communicated by signs. And as we were crossing the street, an Indian woman called out to him and started a conversation.

Not until Ober's friend had gone did Hall realize that, in Ojibwe, Ober had been "completely, absolutely articulate." After the conversation Ober once again "couldn't get a word out."


Back to 1884 birth

Back to 1912 trip

Back to 1977 death


Ernest Oberholtzer webpage

The 1929 Brule Lake Fire

"Forest Fire in the Woods"

from Sawbill: History and Tales

Copyright by Mary Alice Hansen

In 1929 there were no automobile roads in the forest area. However, the General Logging Railroad stretched across Cook County from Four Mile Lake (just over the Lake County line) all the way up to Rose Lake near the Gunflint Trail. Sparks from the stacks of the locomotives which were pulling carloads of logs through the woods were a serious fire hazard. This was especially true on uphill grades where they poured on the coal to build up power causing fire to pop right out of the stack. Although there were rules about screening the stacks, the practice was not always observed. The General Logging Company, a branch of Weyerhauser, was cutting the last of the big white pine stands, with hundreds of lumberjacks working. The area was littered with white pine slash. Frank Kelly, the General Logging Company's superintendent in charge of the operation, had formerly been with the Forest Service and was very much aware of the fire danger and totally cooperative in trying to prevent fire. He had a speeder patrol follow each logging train to watch for stray sparks and he had arranged to have slash removed from the right of way and from other hazardous areas. Slash removal was also the subject of a Minnesota state law but it was not being consistently followed by all loggers.

In spite of all precautions, it was at 11 a.m. on July 22, 1929, when the Cascade ranger station received a call that there was smoke along the railroad spur near Star Lake, just south of Brule Lake. Five minutes later, the Pine Mountain Lookout also called in to report the smoke. The ranger and two other men immediately left by speeder, arriving at 11:30 a.m. They found a camp foreman and 30 lumberjacks fighting to control the blaze, which, fanned by west winds, had already jumped to the east side of Star Lake. The ranger, recognizing how serious the situation was, made his way up to the lumber camp and called back to Cascade for more help. He was able to get the message through just before the camp's telephone line burned out. The Grand Marais ranger got the message and immediately ordered a substantial fire-fighting crew to be sent to Brule.

Transportation difficulties prevented a speedy response. Firefighters from Duluth and Ely had to drive long distances to the intersection of the railroad and the Sawbill Trail. There a logging train was waiting to take the first 70 men another 16 miles to the scene of the conflagration. Meanwhile, 186 more firefighters from the logging company's camps at Swan and Flour Lakes in the Gunflint area came south by railroad. By evening, a substantial fire control force was assembled. On the fire lines, though, things were going badly. About 4 p.m., the wind shifted to the northwest, threatening another logging camp and the company's main base at Cascade Lake. At 5:30 p.m., the clerk at Camp One called headquarters in great alarm asking that an engine be sent immediately to pump water. The superintendent who was at dinner did not feel the situation could be all that serious and failed to take action. At 6:10 p.m., 40 minutes later, a second desperate call came through saying that the whole camp was in flames. Fortunately, all personnel escaped before the camp burned.

The attack on the fire began in earnest at 3 a.m. the next morning with more than 200 men on the fire lines. Although the crews worked eighteen hours a day, the fire continued to spread west and north during the next three days, jumping Homer Lake. On July 26, 70 more firefighters were sent from Duluth. A seaplane, which arrived from Ely with supplies, was used to scout the fire. Nevertheless, it burned over two more square miles to the north, approaching Juno Lake. On the night of July 27, the wind shifted again, threatening the town of Cascade. Superintendent Kelly directed a dramatic fight to save the village, but elsewhere the fire raged out of control. Two small logging camps on the south shore of Brule were destroyed. Lumberjacks from one of these camps were being evacuated by barge when the barge caught fire out on Brule Lake. They were rescued by an alligator boat and death was averted. By July 31, the fire was completely in Forest Service territory and they assumed full charge. The situation was complicated by a spot fire two miles north of Brule Lake which necessitated shifting crews back and forth across the lake. Seventy more firefighters arrived from Duluth on August 1. In response to pleas for help, other US Forest Service personnel arrived along with equipment from the State of Minnesota and other agencies.

Still the fire raged on and was only brought under control when a substantial rain fell on August 7. Workers spent four more days grubbing out fire lines around the area to prevent further spreading. Over 25,000 acres burned and the cost to the government was estimated at well over $50,000 in 1929 dollars.

Back to Chronology    Sawbill History and Tales

The 1936 Cherokee Lake Fire

"Forest Fire in the Woods"

from Sawbill: History and Tales

Copyright by Mary Alice Hansen

In 1936, there were three serious fires in the Sawbill area, devastating nearly ten thousand acres. The afternoon of Saturday, July 11, was exceptionally hot with large thunderheads in the sky. Shortly after noon, a light shower began, preceded by heavy flashes of lightning somewhere north of Sawbill Lake. The tower man at Kelso Lookout reported several lightning strikes a few miles northeast of his post, but no smoke was visible. At 3:45 p.m. the next day, he sighted a gray-white plume rising to the northeast and notified Sawbill camp of his discovery. Simultaneously, the Brule Lake Lookout reported the smoke. A cross-reading placed the fire near the portage between Gordon and Cherokee Lakes. D. M. Williams was the Tofte ranger who immediately requested help from Grand Marais, Ely and Duluth. Reaching the fire was a difficult matter as all those canoeists who have made the trip to Cherokee and Gordon Lakes can attest. Two principal routes were used. The shorter one involved a truck trip to Sawbill Lake then a canoe trip up Sawbill, through Ada and Scoop Lakes, and then through the Cherokee River and Cherokee Lake to the scene of the blaze. This entailed making three or four portages as well as paddling miles across the lakes. The second route was by truck and logging railroad from Grand Marais to Brule Lake. From there motor boats, barges and canoes were used to transport people and equipment through North Temperance and Sitka Lakes to Cherokee. This trip, including two difficult portages, took about eleven hours compared to four or five hours from Sawbill. Ranger Williams was the first to reach the fire, arriving by seaplane about three hours after receiving the first report of smoke. The blaze already covered about 60 acres and was threatening the Cherokee ranger cabin. Williams immediately sent the plane to Seagull Lake for a fire pump and by 8 p.m., he and a mechanic had it in operation. They saved the Cherokee cabin and a few virgin white pines. Fire crews came in from Sawbill and worked all through the night to build fire lines. Progress was good until Monday morning when a 20 mph wind arose from the northwest. As the day proceeded, the temperature soared into the nineties. With little warning, the fire roared out of control, jumped across the east bay of Cherokee and went racing down the eastern shore of the lake. The 295 fire fighters who had arrived by this time were forced to take refuge on the islands. By late afternoon, the magnificent white pines of North Temperance lake were engulfed and the fire was rolling toward Brule Lake. By 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the firefighters were back in action building fire lines around the lake. Once again, heavy rain which arrived on Tuesday night was the deciding force in stopping the spreading fire. It took four more days and a total of 619 men before the fire was completely trenched and under control.

The Cherokee fire burned 3,200 acres of forest and was responsible for one death. G. H. "Jerry" McDonald, superintendent of the Sawbill CCC camp disappeared on Friday night, July 27, during the final stages of the battle. His body and his overturned canoe were found on Sitka Lake on Sunday. Apparently his canoe swamped and he was too exhausted from a solid week of fire fighting to save himself. Roger McKeever now of Schroeder was an enlistee of the CCC, Sawbill Camp. He ran the speeder between Cascade Lake and the Sawbill CCC camp where someone else usually took over and took it on to Wanless Lake. Sometimes Roger made the whole trip.

When fire broke out on Cherokee Lake in 1936, the CCC men were enlisted to fight it along with other recruits from Duluth and elsewhere. Roger remembers that they walked all the way from Sawbill to Cherokee on a rugged path through the woods. This was known to locals as the Hudson Bay Trail because it supposedly went all the way to Hudson Bay. It had been cleared by CCC crews and was used by local trappers. Roger's job on the fire scene was to make sure the pumps were running. When the fire was out, everyone was expected to hike out and each one was expected to carry a tool, perhaps an axe or a pulaski. The plane which had been used to dump water on the fire was about ready to take off when Roger asked the pilot if he could ride back. The pilot said he wasn't allowed to carry any passengers but that if someone stowed away behind coils of rope in the back of the plane he wouldn't be likely to see that person. The pilot walked away and Roger climbed in. Back at camp, Roger received a tongue lashing from the ranger. As punishment, he was told to report immediately to the Gunflint Trail area where another fire was in progress on an island. When he got over there, he found they had a big boat capable of carrying 25 men but no one could get the brand new motor to start. Roger offered to try. He was able to turn it over in short order. As a reward, he got to be the skipper of the boat which delivered the fire fighters to the island. After it was all over, someone asked Roger how it was that he always got these good driving jobs.

The exceptionally hot summer of 1936 contributed to a record number of fires all over the forest. On July 18, there were thirty small fires in the eastern part of the Superior National Forest. On August 6, another large fire broke out north of Timber Lake. Reinforcements of men and equipment were brought in from Duluth and by August 11, that fire was under control. Further trouble developed the next day. On August 12, a smoke was reported at Frost Lake. Three Forest Service workers who were already nearby were dispatched to take initial action with reinforcements promised. Everything went wrong. The first three decided to wait for the reinforcements but these fellows got lost in the dark on unmarked, difficult portages. By the following evening, the fire had already burned 250 acres. Troubles increased as strong winds kept changing direction. On August 18, a fire camp on Long Island narrowly escaped destruction when the wind suddenly shifted, and flames surrounded the camp. In the end, 3400 acres burned leaving only charred rubble between Gordon and Long Island Lakes. Eight hundred men helped to fight the fire at a cost of $25,000 plus a timber loss of $46,000. Equipment transported into this remote area included thirteen pumps, 41 canoes, four boats, two radios and a portable telephone.

Back to Chronology     Sawbill History and Tales

The 1948 Plouff Creek Fire

"Forest Fire in the Woods"

from Sawbill: History and Tales

Copyright by Mary Alice Hansen

The Plouff Creek fire in 1948 crossed the Sawbill Trail, stranding guests at Sawbill Lodge for several days. The Forest Service placed a marker on the Sawbill Trail telling a bit about this fire. For the next 40 years, the gap in the vegetation was very noticeable to anyone driving on the Sawbill Trail. Ten years after the fire, there was still a mostly bare swath. Then the jackpines which had reseeded as a result of the fire began to be evident. It looked like a big plantation. By 2000, the trees are mature enough to blend in with the rest of the forest and the site is not so obvious.

Like most wildfires, the Plouff Creek fire burned in a mosaic pattern. In some places, the fire burned so hot that it consumed the forest floor duff and the organic material in the soil. In other places, it moved through the forest understory and left the big trees untouched. A stand of red pine next to a swampy area survived the fire. Bruce Giersdorf, USFS fire officer, measured some of the trees in 1998 and found them to be 85 to 90 years old. The pattern of growth which can be read in the rings of the wood showed that the trees had experienced a growth spurt after the fire.

This is because the fire released a burst of nutrients into the soil. This all started on June 11, 1948, when careless smoking ignited a blaze two miles northeast of the former CCC camp located at the intersection of the Sawbill Trail and the Grade Road. The blaze was quickly attacked and brought under control but it led indirectly to the main disastrous fire. A logger on Plouff Creek, who had sent his regular bulldozer to fight the first fire, continued to haul logs with a spare tractor. This extra machine, which had no exhaust pipe, apparently dropped sparks into the dry undergrowth, quickly resulting in flames. Fire was soon racing south along the Sawbill Trail. The efforts of 200 fire fighters with five bulldozers and a dozen pumpers were ineffective in stopping the fire. Urgent appeals for help were answered by the Duluth office of the Forest Service and by neighboring forest installations who sent 852 men, 21 bulldozers and 29 pumper units. In two days, twenty miles of fire line had been built and the flames had been checked. Even so, 1200 hundred acres were burned.

This fire was notable for the developments in fire fighting. Large scale resources were quickly brought to the scene and damage to the forest was limited. The ability to control fire was well demonstrated, but this type of fire fighting was becoming increasingly expensive, with costs to the Forest Service on this occasion topping $100,000. Since the Fourth of July, 1999 blowdown, fire has become a more serious threat to the BWCA because of the abundance of fuel now lying on the ground. Lightning strikes are more likely to cause significant fire and the fire will burn with much more intensity. Studies predict that fire will now be much more difficult to control. The Forest has alerted people who own property near the BWCA, urging them to be vigilant and to take additional steps to prevent fire damage such as installing metal roofs on buildings. They are encouraging campers to use stoves instead of building campfires. They have hired loggers to clean out the blowdown outside the BWCA in order to decrease the fuel available in case of a fire. They have increased their own vigilance and have brought in extra personnel for the times when fire danger is usually highest. The fire seasons of 2000 to 2003 passed without major fires occurring, much to everyone's relief.

Back to Chronology     Sawbill History and Tales




Wilderness Management

Natural History





Principal Sources

Michael Furtman, Magic on the Rocks: Canoe Country Pictographs (Birch Portage Press, Duluth, 2000)

Mary Alice Hansen, Sawbill: History and Tales (Sawbill Press, 2005).

Miron "Bud" Heinselman, The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem (University of Minnesota Press, 1996)

Duane Lund, Our Historic Boundary Waters (Adventure Publications, 1980)

Joe Paddock, Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001)

Kevin Proescholdt, Rip Rapson, and Miron L. Heinselman, Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 1995)

Newell Searle, Saving Quetico-Superior, A Land Set Apart (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1977)

Jerry Stebbins & Greg Breining, Boundary Waters (Nodin Press, 1983)

Boundary Waters Journal articles by Larry Ahlman, Michael Furtman, Mary King Hoff, Patrick Karns, Helen Sue Manzo, and Jon Nelson

Friends of the Boundary Waters Timeline for Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest at http://www.friends_bwca.org/aboutus/timeline.html

W. J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America at http://pws.chartermi.net/~duluthikes/bw_ikes.htm

Superior National Forest History at http://www.superiornationalforest.org/history

Please send comments, information, and corrections to me at wilbe004@umn.edu. Thanks. Stephen Wilbers



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