When David Seaton, owner of Hungry Jack Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail, guesses at how many times he has seen the original entry video, required viewing by all visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), he estimates 5,000.
“Five thousand [multiplied by] nine minutes is a chunk of your life — 31.25 solid days to be exact!” Seaton said.
In 2006, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), which manages the BWCA, hired Pro Video in Duluth to produce a video that would introduce visitors to the requirements of their stay in the wilderness area, focusing on the important concept of “Leave No Trace.” Familiar to thousands of Minnesotans, that video has been shown to more than 1 million visitors in the last dozen years.
This year, the Forest Service has introduced a new series of videos to replace the 2006 version. Filmed last summer and produced by Mark Norquist of GreenHead Strategies, a marketing firm in Minnetonka, the new videos share updated information and reside on YouTube rather than VHS tapes and DVDs.
“The previous video was excellent quality,” said Kristina Reichenbach, Forest Service spokeswoman in Duluth. “I would say it has served us well, and it was just time to do an update.”
In 2015, Norquist pitched the Forest Service on the idea of three shorter videos. While the original video was shown to visitors just as they’re about to enter the wilderness, Norquist thought it would be beneficial to give canoeists information further ahead of time, to help them prepare. After a bidding process, Norquist won the contract in 2017. He partnered with Mastcom, a video production company in Minneapolis, and began a seven-month preproduction schedule that included many meetings and drafts of scripts.
The final product is three videos, each fewer than four minutes long, meant to be viewed in stages by visitors to the BWCA.
The first, sent in an e-mail as soon as a permit reservation is made, covers safety, rules, gear and trip-planning; the second, to be viewed a couple weeks before a trip, emphasizes packing and the Leave No Trace ethic; and the third, required viewing at a Forest Service Ranger Station or a licensed outfitter, reviews information from the previous videos and introduces issues such as safeguarding water quality, portage etiquette and relying on a map and compass rather than a GPS unit or a phone.
“It’s not only about what people see, but when,” Norquist said. Once you’re Up North, he said, “It’s too late to change your gear.”
Because film crews are generally not allowed in the BWCA, the filming took place on East Bear Skin Lake and Loon Lake, just outside of the wilderness, along the Gunflint Trail. All the actors are volunteers, several of them family and friends of Forest Service rangers, and others from Hungry Jack Outfitters and AmeriCorps. The series is narrated by Nancy Moundalexis, a ranger based in Ely, Minn.
“I had worked with Mark before on other projects and the USFS personnel involved are good folks, too,” said Seaton, of Hungry Jack Outfitters. “I knew they would do a good job — do it right. Having been a vocal proponent of making a new video for years, I knew they were on a really tight budget so any way I could help out would make it happen sooner.”
After a week of filming, with beautiful weather and no bugs, the crew had packed everything into their vehicles and was saying their goodbyes when they saw a storm rolling in across the lake. Norquist got everyone to pull the gear back out. Seaton said, “I ended up holding an umbrella over the camera while the waves and rain started rolling in. It was right at my dock. Mark is a really great director. You can just see the wheels spinning in his head as he sets up a scene.”
Changes in the way that visitors use the BWCA are addressed in the videos, Reichenbach said. For example, the increased popularity of hammocks has tempted campers to go beyond maintained campsites, looking for trees from which to hang their hammocks and resulting in damage to vegetation. “People are tromping in areas that are beyond the campsites,” she said.
For Norquist, seeing bark pulled off and branches sawed off standing trees are his biggest frustration. Those topics are addressed in the videos, too.
But longtime visitors to the region may miss one aspect of the original video: The trained bear that wanders into camp looking for food and gets driven away by campers.
Jason Zabokrtsky, founder and head guide at Ely Outfitting Co., might be one. “The bear is hands-down the most memorable and favorite part of that video for all our guests,” he said.
Seaton agreed: “I loved watching peoples’ body language while they watched the bear walk right up to the couple in camp, then they chase it away. Many very nervous reactions to that one, from nervous giggles to jaws dropped. Still, almost no BWCA paddlers will ever see a bear, so it’s really a bit of overkill. People need to protect their food, but mostly it’s from mice and squirrels.”
For his part, Norquist has hopes for the new videos.
“First, that they get more people understanding these amazing resources that we all own as U.S. citizens, and second, I hope that people go into the Boundary Waters better-equipped and better-informed to have an amazing time in the wilderness.”
Tony Jones is a freelance writer from Edina. Find him at ReverendHunter.com.