The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is Kevlar, cook kits and PFDs.
These days it’s also disinfectant, hand sanitizer and face masks.
Trips into the BWCA are taking new levels of planning owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, but outfitters from Ely to the Gunflint Trail seem determined to adapt after the Forest Service opened the wilderness to overnight trips May 18. Since then it’s been nearly a month of adjusted operation, trips and expectations — and with more change looming in and around the wilderness.
“It’s really touching everything,” said Jason Zabokrtsky, who runs Ely Outfitting Co. in Ely, Minn.
Still to play out in the coming weeks is access to the boundary waters just over the border in Canada, where the million-acre Quetico Provincial Park has been off limits to U.S. travelers. Business that affects not just paddlers but Minnesotans who make fishing Ontario a summer rite could resume soon. The border is closed until at least June 21.
Zabokrtsky said a telltale sign that the world is different is his long-term parking lot. Normally jammed with cars, there now are few. Customers are encouraged to drive themselves to entry points, to be met by Ely Outfitting staff, keeping contact between everyone to a minimum. When a shuttle van is needed, travelers sit to the back, masked like the driver. Afterward the van’s “touchable spaces,” as Zabokrstsky called them, are disinfected. So, too, is much of the gear. Paddles, life jackets, canoe packs and more all go into a three-day quarantine after they’re treated by staff.
“The less time [customers] are on site, the less time we have COVID-19 issues with them, right? Going both directions,” Zabokrtsky said.
Voyageur Canoe Outfitters off the Gunflint Trail is using special antimicrobial mattresses in its bunkhouses that are easier to keep clean; serving breakfast in a safer way; limiting visits to its office to single groups; and dotting the grounds with hand sanitizer stations.
This is all new terrain for Sue Prom and her husband, Mike, who have been in business since 1993.
Still, Prom said the sanctuary found in Minnesota’s wild north has eclipsed any hang-ups about new procedures.
“Overall, everyone is just super happy to be out and about, and having some resemblance of normal.
“Especially when they are out there, they are so happy not to have to worry about masks and sanitizing. It’s just like back to normal out there,” Prom said.
‘People were craving it’
Zabokrtsky said phone and e-mail inquiries about preplanned trips and new trips came in a wave when the ban on overnight trips was lifted. There were dozens a day.
“Six days felt like six weeks,” he added. “People were craving it.”
That meant getting his staff of about 12 in place, too — more adjustments on the fly — to accommodate a surge when days earlier he wondered if he’d outfit a single canoe all summer.
Most of the interest has been regional: visitors in the Midwest and within reasonable driving distance. He’s lost some far-flung paddlers, like a family from the Pacific Northwest that has returned the past 10 years, and had cancellations for late summer as the pandemic deepened and schedules upended.
Steve Piragis,who owns Piragis Northwoods Co. in Ely, said he’s also seen an uptick in regional customers. Still, reservations are down about 15%, and most cancellations have been the bigger trips planned by customers out of state who don’t want to fly.
“The good news is canoe sales are way up,” he added. “People are investing money in outdoor toys.”
Prom said any wariness among travelers she sees is abating.
“The last-minute bookings have seemed to come in,” Prom said. “Or people get in their cars and come up without a reservation, which we usually don’t see at the end of the Gunflint Trail especially.”
There is agreement that the season is too young to speculate about economic fallout. Ely Outfitting would get as many as 2,300 people into the BWCA in a routine summer, but Zabokrtsky has a financial mantra: Hold his breath, and get through June. He said there is too much uncertainty with the coronavirus. Could there be a spike in the state? In Ely? Among his staff?
“If we get through the month of June, then we’ll be able to eat Ramen noodles for the next year and get through to next summer,” he quipped.
In addition to launching families and friends each summer, the Proms also could count on outfitting upward of 20 big trips by Boy Scout, church and school groups. The trips are canceled.
Another revenue stream is service for visitors into the Quetico Provincial Park. That’s in limbo, too, while the border remains closed.
Voyageur Canoe Outfitters does substantial tow boat service for Quetico visitors. Ten to 15 groups per week get towed from the outfitter’s spot on the Seagull River to Hook Island, on their way to entry at nearby Cache Bay.
“It all adds up,” Prom said.
The Canadian government began phasing in reopenings June 5, and that order included outdoors-related businesses such as fishing lodges, outfitters and guide services. Still, challenges remain whether the border opens or not June 21, said Laurie Marcil, who runs Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario, representing nearly 300 member businesses. There are staff hirings to make and safety protocols to set up, and government agencies need to process border crossing permits and consider quarantine measures.
“Everyone is hopeful no matter what side of the border,” said Marcil.
And rightly so. Already set back, the fishing season generates as much as $400 million in revenue in a typical year in northern Ontario. Marcil said operators are guessing at how much income to expect domestically and from the U.S. in a limited season.
“Opening camp costs money,” she said. “They are all trying to assess, ‘What am I going to do [for business]?’ ”
Back on the U.S. side in International Falls, Bob Neuenschwander is taking his hits and his expectations are low, too. His iconic store, Border Bob’s, is reliant on border traffic: upward of 40,000 anglers and other customers in a typical season, going and coming on their annual trips, snapping up T-shirts and frozen walleye fillets and dry ice.
“We couldn’t really open until there is a season,” Neuenshwander said. “Ninety-eight percent of our traffic is people crossing borders.”
Neuenschwander said his small business has lost about $300,000 in revenue. A friend has set up a GoFundMe account that has raised a few thousand dollars to date. Neuenschwander is appreciative. He knows his longtime friends to the north are hurting, too. He receives regular calls from inquisitive anglers hoping to continue their summer tradition. And if the border doesn’t open June 21?
“If they go beyond that,” he said, “the whole season is lost for everybody.”