The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness images are both vintage and timeless: the islands of Lake Insula in silhouette, falls of the Isabella River, steep granite walls towering above water, paddler and pack.
Vintage because they were snapped 100 years ago.
Timeless because they capture an enduring, otherworldly beauty that appears much the same today.
The photographs were taken by Arthur Carhart, in 1919 and 1921, who as a landscape architect for the U.S. Forest Service was surveying the boundary waters. His job: report back from two weeks-long trips and craft a recreation plan for the canoe country. What Carhart submitted in November 1922 would prove foundational in the creation, management and preservation of the BWCA that exists today.
The U.S. Forest Service was only 13 years old when it gave Carhart his orders. He arrived at a pivotal, transitional period in the history of the nation, the region and the Superior National Forest, said agency archaeologist Lee Johnson.
The end of World War I was reverberating. Automobile travel was increasing, and tourism and recreation were gaining traction. Up North, communities were considering new infrastructure and more roads. Johnson said the Forest Service was mandated to sustainably manage a Superior National Forest teeming with timber and water resources, but it recognized that demand for outdoor recreation was in the offing, too.
"It's a new agency trying to get its hands around these lands," Johnson said.
Enter Carhart, who in today's terms might have been considered a land resource manager. He was hired in 1918 and arrived from Colorado. Coincidentally it was there that Carhart also left a preservation legacy, inspiring the Forest Service to reserve what now is the Flat Tops Wilderness — the second-largest wilderness area in the state.
In Minnesota, he took two weeks-long trips in 1919 and 1921 with forest ranger Matt Soderback into the border waters in considering his plan. Johnson said he and Soderback took as many as 100 photographs, archived at the Iron Range Research Center in Chisholm.
Carhart put his management recommendations into a 53-page plan that he submitted to the agency in 1922. Carhart left the agency that year, but his work was the basis for a federal management policy in 1926 establishing the more than 600,000-acre Superior Roadless Area within the Superior National Forest, according to Newell Searle's book "Saving Quetico-Superior: A Land Set Apart."
Carhart wrote in his Superior plan:
"The dominant recreation objective lies in the reaching of lakes, with wilderness personality, through the individual effort of a canoe trip. Any inadvisable introduction of man dominated developments, such as roads, railroads, or other modern mechanical traffic lines, or of other types of play not dependent on the dominant play found in canoe travel, detracts from this very high recreation use."
Among other areas, Carhart addressed mining, suggested keeping roads and summer homes to a minimum and dove into Native traditions of the Ojibwe and Sioux in crafting his proposal. A human's "inherited longings" for nature also moved Carhart:
"It is essential in the scheme of development of our national life that we retain touch with the outdoors. It is a force in our national life opposing itself to the artificialities of the cities."
On the 100th anniversary of his vision, could Carhart be regarded as an underrated figure in the story of the modern-day BWCA?
Johnson believes so.
"In reading his plan he had a very prescient outlook on the landscape and what it could offer for the American people for recharging [them]," the archaeologist said, "and that well of the human condition that wild escape can offer."
Like the period, Carhart's photos also show a landscape that was "liminal" — and has changed, said Johnson, who recognized areas that in the century since have been cut or burned over. The archaeologist's view of the photos and their timing resonates today.
"We're not sure which way the landscape is going to go yet," Johnson said.
See a collection of Carhart's photos here.