The U.S. Forest Service successfully relaunched its reservations system Monday for prime time canoe travel and limited motorboat trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The online reservation system used by the Forest Service failed this season when it first went live on Jan. 30. The crash prompted an outpouring of complaints from resorts, outfitters, wilderness guides and others who rely on BWCA traffic for business. Some had predicted the failure because this year marks the first time that highly sought-after motorized permits are being released on a first-come, first-served basis on recreation.gov.
Danielle Ott, co-owner of Packsack Canoe Trips and Log Cabins near Ely, said she and her husband encountered only a few glitches during the first three hours of permitting Monday.
"Everybody is having OK luck," she said. "But it's still early in the game."
Availability for canoe trips was ample, she said, but quotas for popular canoeing times were filling up. By noon on Monday, day-use and overnight permits for trips by motorboat were extremely scarce, she said.
"There was a level of fear and panic about those permits," Ott said.
Only a few BWCA lakes allow entry by small motorboats. Previously, those permits were distributed by lottery and applicants had a month to submit their preferences.
This year, Ott said, many members of the same groups were all trying to reserve an entry permit at the same time. She said groups who obtained duplicate permits for the same entry points and dates were starting to return them to the system. She said the return function was working.
During the first hour of booking Monday, two Star Tribune reporters were successful obtaining overnight and day-use motor permits for the popular Moose Lake entry point outside Ely. By 10 a.m., motorized permits were still available for the May 11 fishing opener and the weekend after the opener — prime time for BWCA fishing. But by 9:30 a.m., there was no availability for overnight motor permits throughout the first three weeks of September for the Moose Lake entry point.
At Spirit of the Wilderness Outfitters in Ely, booking canoe trips and motorized trips for confirmed customers is an important part of business. By noon Monday, owner Ginny Nelson let her customers know that day-use motor permits and overnight motor permits were "pretty much taken for the summer."
But permits for canoe trips were still in good supply for many dates, she said on her business Facebook page. "Some of the more popular dates are taken."
Now that the online reservations system is working, permits for BWCA travel can be obtained throughout the season. The quota period, when permits are in limited supply to avoid crowding, runs from May 1 through Sept. 30.
The Forest Service issued a news release Sunday night saying it was confident the reservation system would work. Members of Minnesota's congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., had sent formal complaint letters about the earlier failure.