When he knew that his children’s overnight summer camps were a final no-go — another thing done in by the coronavirus pandemic — Jeff Heftman drew on experiences from his youth. It was time to introduce his family, too, to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“The Boundary Waters came to the forefront,” said the attorney from Glencoe, Ill. “I had always wanted to go back.”
Until earlier this month, it’d been a 20-year hiatus. Heftman recalled his first trip and subsequent ones he took while he was in his teens and early 20s, with his father, Ron, and brother Larry. They’d hit the road from Chicago. Retracing miles and memories, Heftman returned to a familiar launch spot, too, this time — Hungry Jack Outfitters off the Gunflint Trail — with his wife, Michele, and their children Nathan, 13, and Dalia, 9.
Heftman said his family are campers, but he knew this was new terrain. They entered the BWCA at Cross Bay Lake and came out after several days, feeling satisfied and a sense of accomplishment. They’d even hoped to stay in an extra day.
“It was really nice to introduce a place that so meaningful, and I’d had such great experiences,” said Heftman, 45.
Dave Seaton, who with his wife, Nancy, runs Hungry Jack Outfitters, said the Heftmans’ story is commonplace this summer as people look for alternatives outdoors amid the pandemic. People are arriving from all points to paddle into the wilderness for the first time. Or, like the Heftmans, they are returning with their own first-timers after years away. Updating their chapters and writing new ones in the wilderness story.
Seaton acknowledged some of the boorish behavior documented in the BWCA and other long-coveted places. Yet, encountering returning families he hasn’t seen in years, including new generations, and earnest newcomers who haven’t seen the North Woods and water has been restorative. He said the visits are energizing him in a busy, unorthodox season.
“We’ve seen lots and lots of families coming here. I outfitted their parents and them when they were kids, and now they are coming here with their children because they can’t go to Banff and they can’t go to Disneyland and they can’t go to Southern California,” he added. “So this is the year we are going to bring our kids and show them what the wilderness in their own backyards is like. It’s been really great.”
Kevin Murphy of Minneapolis said his family might normally celebrate the birthday of his oldest son, Theo, with pool play at the Wisconsin Dells, but this year they are marking his Sept. 5 milestone at a revered playground. Murphy will take Theo, who’s turning 8, and his brother, Finn, 6, for a long weekend next month. It’ll be new for the boys, but familiar turf for Dad.
Murphy, 44, said he first went to the BWCA on a father-son trip when he was 11 or 12, and it’s been 20 years since his last paddle there. He’s shared stories with his boys in recent years and looked forward to introducing them. Given the grip of the pandemic, the timing was right to swap birthday tradition for a different gift — nature.
“I lobbed it out as an idea, which quickly in his mind turned into reality,” he said, laughing. “I thought, I better get on this and make it happen.”
His son hasn’t stopped talking about the trip.
Murphy said through the years he’s thought about his desire to return. Now, he excited to see the region again, and to see it through the eyes anew through his boys’ experiences.
“It’s important,” said Murphy. “We have this amazing place up there. I just think it is so special. I want to make it part of my life again and part of theirs, and hopefully they appreciate it.”
Seaton, the longtime outfitter, is upbeat about this summer, even while anticipating a September that he said will be far busier than normal. He said his customers have returned visibly healthier, less stressed. The experience has been powerful for all.
“I can be a glass-half-empty kind of guy, and this summer working with all these families and helping people out, it’s just been really positive. I feel great at the end of every day right now.”
He is hoping that in their escape, visitors experience something deeper.
“This is reminding Minnesotans how important the Boundary Waters is,” Seaton said, “and I really hope that this gets them to be more supportive of protecting the Boundary Waters and protecting the watershed. What would happen if this were all gone, if we didn’t have this in our backyard, next summer?”
To be sure, it’s a question that will resonate more deeply with visitors like the Heftmans and Murphys.