For a boreal outback long on solitude, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was a busy place last year.
Permits to visit the million-acre wilderness surged in 2020 as people fled their four walls and the COVID pandemic, sought solace in nature and discovered — or rekindled — magic in Minnesota's watery labyrinth of lakes and forest.
A total of 165,918 people visited the Boundary Waters last year, up 16% from 2019 and up 10% from the 2016-2019 average, the U.S. Forest Service reported Monday. The total number of permits issued jumped 22% from 2019.
The tally confirmed the obvious boom in Minnesota's outdoor recreation industry Up North as people headed outdoors.
"All of that anecdotal evidence was spot on," said Superior National Forest spokeswoman Joanna Gilkeson.
The current pace of Boundary Waters reservations indicates that this year could surpass 2020, outfitters say. The U.S. Forest Service's Superior National Forest, which manages the Boundary Waters, won't confirm early numbers.
"Everybody I talk to in the industry … says they are up for reservations for summer Boundary Waters trips," said Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Co. "Most people are saying they're up significantly."
Zabokrtsky said he added three new employees this year. He described a "frenzy" of preparation for an influx of tourists who, like last year, were not necessarily skilled outdoors people. It's all good, he said.
"There were people that just needed to escape the city," he said. "We took extra time with them for sure."
Boundary Waters visitors typically hail from around the country. Last summer, he said, a greater percentage were from the Midwest "within one day's drive."
Clare Shirley, owner of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters north of Tofte, reports that many of last year's first-timers are returning this year.
"Do I think it will be this crazy forevermore? Probably not," Shirley said.
Their stories have been heartwarming, she said. She recalled one family that came, three generations together. They told her they would normally never be able to coordinate such a trip with everyone's conflicting summer sports and work schedules, she said.
"People had time," Shirley said.
The surge last year was marred by some resource damage — trash and toilet paper left behind at campsites, for example, and live trees being chopped down. In once case, a group at East Bearskin Lake Campground, on the edge of the Boundary Waters, cut down more than two dozen balsam trees with a chainsaw.
"This is the first time I've ever called up the Forest Service enforcement guy and said, 'I know who these people are,' " said Bob McCloughan, owner of Bearskin Lodge on the Gunflint Trail.
But the good far outweighed the few problems, McCloughan said: "Overall, it was just really nice that so many people got to experience being up here."
The Forest Service is working to help ensure people exercise more care this year, said Gilkeson. With so many permits processed virtually last year instead of in person, many visitors missed seeing the series of three very short Boundary Waters introduction videos that offer valuable advice and cover the "leave no trace" rule, she said.
The agency is working with outfitters to play the videos for guests in person. Visitors won't be able to get their permits online until they watch the three-minute video No. 3, she said.
"You have to join that to get your permit," Gilkeson said.
For Becky Rom, national chairwoman of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which opposes nearby copper mining, the surge in visitors highlights the potential the outdoor recreation industry holds to be "a rural economic engine that sustains wilderness edge communities."
Gilkeson and others say they don't know whether the Boundary Waters numbers will remain so high in coming years.
"We're just waiting for post-COVID backlash when everybody goes to the water park and we're empty," quipped Bearskin Lodge's McCloughan.
They will ride the wave as long as they can. Gilkeson is optimistic that the general increased use of public lands will continue: "We're going to continue to see this trend."