Last week, Minnesota celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and establishment of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

In the years since, visitor numbers to the boundary waters have risen and, more recently, fallen (though the BWCA is still the nation’s most visited wilderness), and paddlers traveling the wilderness have aged, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Example: In 1969, the average age of a BWCA visitor was 26. In 1991, it was 36, and in 2012, boundary waters paddlers averaged 45 years old.

Other changes also have occurred. In 1969, 49 percent of BWCA visitors had no education beyond high school. In 2012, 93 percent had college degrees.

What is less clear over recent decades is how Americans in general have changed, relative to their consideration of wilderness, particularly the BWCA.

No doubt a significant subset of society cherishes wilderness, or at least the notion thereof. But whether this interest is lifestyle-defining, as it has been for many people over much of the past century, or whether, instead, the interest is shallower and more consumer-driven, in the manner of visitors dabbling in the BWCA as they might any other tourist attraction, is unknown.

The subject interests me because in 1977 I moved to Ely along with some good friends to be near the BWCA, thinking not very specifically whether I would stay a year, a few years or a lifetime. I wasn’t alone. My colleague at the Star Tribune, Doug Smith, moved there as well in the mid-1970s, as did Sam Cook, outdoor writer at the Duluth News Tribune (we didn’t know one another before meeting in Ely).

Other friends of mine, including my brother, also moved to Ely or the surrounding area at the time. We were all in our mid-20s or thereabouts, and though from different backgrounds and with varying interests, our common reason for being in the North Woods was the boundary waters.

Perhaps our migration represented in part the tail end of the back-to-the-land movement that swept the nation beginning in the 1960s. Or maybe it was a belief — commonly held at the time — that living in cities and climbing corporate ladders were fools’ errands; countercultural attitudes that were outcomes of the social and political upheaval of the recent times.

Yet however much these considerations might have driven us to Ely, or more precisely drawn us there, the BWCA and the opportunity to live, paddle, hunt and fish in and near it were the big attractions.

As I recall, every day there was an adventure, in part because most of us were living hand-to-mouth, but more so because the region and its beauty invited a holy-cow! approach to daily living.

Some who migrated to Ely at the time stayed and still live there (more on them in a minute). Others left — comings and goings that reflect the social and economic forces that shape all towns and regions.

Understanding these influences is difficult. But doing so is valuable, perhaps particularly in Ely’s case, because ways in which its residents and visitors change over time might reflect how deeply a changing America views and values wilderness.

Example:

In the mid-1920s, when the late ecologist and writer Sigurd Olson moved to Ely to explore, guide, outfit and teach, he did so because he (and countless others, then and the years thereafter) was consumed by wilderness.

Given changes in BWCA visitors documented by the Forest Service, one wonders how that’s different today, whether, for example, the lack of young visitors to the wilderness reflects in part a broader trend among Americans, perhaps young Americans particularly, to regard as entertainment the value of various tourist destinations and activities.

The issue is important because federal wilderness areas by definition consume a lot of valuable landscape and their protection sprang a half-century ago less from the mouths of casual visitors than from the hearts and souls of true believers, Sig Olson among them, but also many others.

Are there fewer such believers today, their numbers replaced by “drive-by’’ canoeists for whom paddling the boundary waters isn’t that much different from driving an RV to the Black Hills or boarding a paddleboat to cruise the Mississippi?

Maybe, maybe not.

But if so, over time, the factions that traditionally have squared off over BWCA management — wilderness vs. multiple-use advocates — might be overwhelmed by a still more powerful foe: societal indifference.

• • •

A few facts:

In 1970, Ely’s population was about 5,000. Now it’s about 3,500.

In 1970, the median age of men was 37; women, 41.

In 2010, the median age of men was 40; women, 49.

Given that context, here are brief sketches of some people who, like me, moved to Ely in the 1970s.

• Doug Smith (Minneapolis). Reporter at the Ely Echo newspaper. Subsequently moved to International Falls and Duluth newspapers, where he met his reporter wife, Mary Lynn, before both came to the Star Tribune. “It’s not an exaggeration to say the move to Ely changed my life.’’

• Sam Cook (Kansas). Moved to Ely with his wife, Phyllis, to work at a canoe outfitter before joining the Ely Echo. Left Ely for Colorado before returning to Duluth. “I think there are still some young people who will make the leap [to Ely] like we did and trust that things will work out.’’

• Steve Lampman (Rochester). Came to Ely to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. With his wife, Liz (who came to work for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency), he later established Log Cabin Hideaways, which rents BWCA-area log cabins. “To make it up here, I washed windows and mowed lawns. It’s changed. But there are still educated young people who choose to live here.’’

• Steve Piragis (Massachusetts). Came to Ely to work on environmental review of proposed copper-nickel mining. Met his wife, Nancy, in Ely, and they opened Piragis Northwoods Company. (On a canoe trip, he was unavailable.)

• Bob Whitten (Michigan). Originally intending to homestead in the Yukon with Bill Scott (below) and my brother, Dick (below), Bob worked with me at the Ely Miner newspaper. Lives in Ely and with his wife, Dea, owns the Ely Shopper. “Too few people who say they love paddling introduced their kids to the BWCA. Otherwise, more young people would be coming up here.’’

• Bill Scott (Michigan). A dentist, he and his wife, Martha, were married before moving to Ely, where they still live. “When I moved to Ely, with all the fishing, hunting and canoeing available, I was like a kid in a candy store.’’

• Dick Anderson (Michigan). An engineer, he and his wife, Patti, live on a lake outside Virginia, Minn., about an hour from Ely. “Bob [Whitten] and I paddled the BWCA one summer from ice-out to freeze-up. Then I had to get a job, and they were more available in Virginia.’’

 

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com