Some campers wanted a better view of the lake from their public campground in the Superior National Forest. So they cut down some trees.
“You think something as basic as that wouldn’t happen,” said Trent Wickman of the U.S. Forest Service, but many travelers are forgetting to pack their wilderness etiquette.
North Shore locals are losing patience with careless visitors trashing trails and campsites, with one resident saying: “We and Cook County are not here for you to beat us up.”
Tourism-dependent communities like Grand Marais were already torn between encouraging visitors or keeping them — and the spread of COVID-19 — at bay. In the height of the pandemic, it has been busier than ever.
“We’ve seen holiday weekend levels nearly every day,” Wickman said.
Ely outfitter Steve Piragis said it’s a “paradox.”
“It’s the only pandemic of our lifetime and we’re having the busiest summer of our lifetime,” he said, and while that’s great for business, some visitors are showing “a lack of regard for authority and for regulation.”
It could be more first-time campers who would normally be playing baseball over the summer, he hypothesized, or maybe those heading into the Boundary Waters aren’t watching the required videos.
Whatever the cause, some of those heading north are not packing out what they pack in.
“There’s a different psychology this year — the world is in a disruptive mode, people are maybe caring less,” Piragis said. “ ‘The world is coming to an end so we’ll do whatever the hell we want to do.’ ”
The majority of visitors have been following the rules, but those taking axes to pines or leaving food tins in latrines are more numerous than in recent years.
“Ultimately we need to manage use so we have a sustainable situation here,” Wickman said. “We’d like to put an end to this.”
The carelessness hasn’t been contained to the woods.
On a residential road outside Grand Marais on a recent June morning, local residents came upon a sight most foul: An RV septic tank had been emptied off the side of the road rather than disposed of properly less than 3 miles away.
Nina Simonowicz, who runs the popular North Shore Visitor site and Facebook page, decided to speak out after the dump discovery.
“It’s a little bit like parenting a toddler,” she said. “If you don’t say something chances are they’re going to keep acting this way.”
Simonowicz has for decades been urging visitors to come up the North Shore. For the first time, because of the stresses of the pandemic and continued business closures and restrictions, she’s telling folks to think twice, or at least think harder, before driving up.
“People are leaving trash, even in the Boundary Waters, not digging trenches to go to the bathroom, going into closed campgrounds, and in my mind, you just didn’t plan,” she said.
Grand Marais photographer Bryan Hansel said bad apples need to be called out, turned in and educated.
“This year there has been an abnormally high level of disrespect shown to the land and people who live here,” he wrote in a Facebook post last week that has been shared more than 1,600 times. “With so much pain, anger and hate out there right now because of this pandemic, everyone needs to find a piece of joy. And if people continue to show a lack of respect, destroy the land here and act terribly, the little piece of joy that can be found here might disappear.”
On Monday he said by phone that he’s heard from friends in tourist-heavy areas around the country that it’s much the same — visitors are showing up without knowing what to expect or what is expected of them.
Visit Cook County, the area’s tourism bureau, said “there is no janitor in the wilderness” and that folks need to follow the principles of Leave No Trace more than ever.
“This philosophy is not just for backcountry campers,” the group said. “It is critical that we do what we can to mitigate damage to our environment.”