BWCA visitors are aging: Who will take their place?

MinnPost photo by Mark Neuzil

Visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are getting older, and the next generation isn’t sliding into their seats in the canoes.

Is this a problem?

“I think it can be seen from a couple of perspectives,” said Robert Dvorak, an assistant professor at Central Michigan University. “Management and wilderness advocates feel it is important that we have a strong stakeholder group. Those [younger] people are the people we need to have that experience.”

In other words, who will care for the wilderness in the coming decades?

A recent U.S. Forest Service study by Dvorak and four co-authors suggests that some trends are worrisome.

“Where do we round up our new people?” asked co-author Ann Schwaller, a forest service resource manager in Tofte, Minn. “I don’t want support for wilderness to diminish.”

Kids from farms and small towns made up a significant number of visitors in the past, Dvorak said, but the number of campers from rural backgrounds has dropped by half. “Minnesota is becoming more urbanized,” he noted. “People aren’t living in rural areas as much any more, and maybe that’s a precursor.”

Two-thirds 40 or older

The study covered the years 1969, 1991 and 2007. The average age of a visitor went from 26 in 1969 to 36 in 1991 to 45 in 2007. Fully two-thirds of the campers in 2007 were 40 or older to the million-acre preserve.

“Young people either don’t have the connection to the wilderness or have a lack of willingness to disconnect,” said Dave Seaton, who runs Hungry Jack Outfitters with his wife Nancy on the Gunflint Trail. “We see that, when they find out there is no cell phone service, for example.”

“Trends are toward fewer students in the BWCAW,” the study’s authors said. Nearly half the visitors in 1969 were students; only one in 10 in 2007 was a student.

“It makes me want to look at everything we are doing in our wilderness ed program,” Schwaller said. “Is it outdated? Are we way behind in technology? Are we reaching enough kids?”

Older visitors have more safety concerns. One of the results showed more day trips – which are shorter, safer and more convenient than overnight stays.

Many canoeists are returnees

Nowadays, the same folks are returning every year. More than 9 out of 10 BWCA canoeists have been there before. Compare that to 1969, when one-third of the guests had never been there before.

“When we do see new people, they often come with an experienced visitor,” Seaton said.

Perhaps reflecting national trends in a decline in outdoor sports, fewer visitors reported fishing in the BWCA in 2007 (77 percent) than in 1991 (83 percent). (That question was not asked in 1969.)

The male-to-female ratio of visitors has remained stable over the years (70-75 percent male), although there have been some other studies that indicate that more women are heading outdoors. “Someone needs to take young women out there, and if they don’t they will not take their kids out,” Dvorak said.

Schwaller agreed: “I thought more females would show up. All of us were surprised by that. But yet it doesn’t surprise me when I see the examples that the young girls have … movies and stupid sitcoms.”

Visitors pleased with their experience

The good news for the Forest Service is that the visitors – nearly 250,000 travel to the area each year — are pleased with their experience and problems such as overcrowding or badly maintained portages seem to be lessening.

“People are very satisfied with their experience,” Seaton said. “People’s perceptions were all pretty positive, and that says that the management program works.”

About the only consistent complaint in the survey was visitors not liking large groups – four canoes, nine people is the maximum group size – that get noisy.

Social-media marketing may help drop the average age. Sue Prom, who runs Voyageur Canoe Outfitters with her husband, Mike, saw an influx of young campers last summer when they advertised on Groupon.

“And we are already seeing some of them come back,” she said. Making it affordable and less intimidating – by shortening the trips – was important, she said.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/08/2012 - 07:08 pm.

    The young are just not as interested in the outdoors…

    …recreational opportunities of all types, according to data compiled by a number of good sources. This is across hunting, fishing, park visits, etc. This is so not only in Minnesota, but nationally.


    It seems to me the opportunity to reverse this trend is with young adults BEFORE they start raising their own families.

    It’s disturbing to think a whole generation is in the process of disengaging from their natural environment. If this continues, will there be the future voters to defend it?

  2. Submitted by Shawn Hudson on 03/08/2012 - 08:22 pm.

    Seems like a seize-the-moment opportunity …

    Visitors are decreasing now, but this is the perfect opportunity to get people hooked on the Wilderness at a young age. When the urban environ chokes people out, they’ll need a place to run to.

    For one, in other states, it’s common to have wilderness programs that focus on urban youth and pay trained/professional backpacking instructors to lead four or five-day hikes with groups of 10 or so. Combining this with a canoeing trip to-and-from a remote spot with some survival/LNT training would be (and currently is) a big hit with the teenagers in these programs. Keeps things exciting and meaningful, whereas a short canoe trip would even put me to sleep, and I love the water.

    Also, reach out to scouts (girls and boys). Offer promos. Reduced rate weekends (if fees are charged). What are the rules on fishing in the park, because fishing can open up a whole new demographic – typically one that is very responsible about the way they treat nature. Multi-day pre-designed courses – so visitors can pick a “package” to suit them. Hosting a charitable wildnerness run, if there’s a good area for a 5k through the Woods. Some of these might seem disturbing to the peace-loving nature enthusiast, but big events would be infrequent, yet drum up up a substantial amount of press and word-of-mouth.

    Up the social networking once these things are in place, too … Twitter, Facebook. “We’re doing a random drawing for some sweet new backpack once we reach 500 followers.” Etc. Doesn’t even need to come out-of-pocket. I’m sure an outfitter would be happy to donate something to the cause. I dunno … I hate to see parks in the dumps, but there’s plenty of hope and ways to turn it around.

  3. Submitted by Herbert Davis on 03/09/2012 - 08:09 am.

    Stages of Moral Development?

    Maybe the greedy have so shorted the future generations that they are working on some lower level aspects of their needs.

    Would be interesting to find out if the old-timers are socially conscious and willing to pay taxes for schools etc. or if they are part of the “I want tax cuts’ so I can keep it for myself crowd.

    If I were king I’d provide a voucher to each American child….part A is one trip to the BWCA and part B is an opportunity to try college for free and if academically qualified, to continue at societies expense…another trip could be earned for each successful year of college course work.

    You guessed it; I’d tax the rich and start with people like me and the other duffers I see in the BWCA!

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/09/2012 - 09:29 am.

      Both A and B are fine ideas, but…

      …a tough sell these days.

      I’m old enough to have been a college student when there was SCADS of grant and scholarship money to pay college expenses, much of it funded by the federal government (e.g., NDEA).

      At that time, funding education was thought to be a great investment for society as a whole. It wasn’t just Sputnik that triggered it, because since WWII, numerous vets had contributed to economic growth through their education, funded by the fed government.

      At some point since those days, financiers realized that there was plenty of money to be made on college loans at the expense of the hapless student. Now, the college student is seen as little more than a mark who can’t defend himself against this college loan system. They modified the bankruptcy code so these loans can’t be discharged. The costs of tuition etc. rise beyond all reason – in part because these increases cost no loss of students – they simply borrow more to pay the additional costs. Commercial diploma mills cash in alongside more legitimate, traditional schools.

      When student loan debt grew to exceed all credit card debt in the U.S., I’m not sure how many people even cared that a whole generation is leaving college with a crushing load on their backs. This is a completely new phenomenon.

      I really like your idea of linking the funding of these 2 key life experiences together.

  4. Submitted by Douglas Owens-Pike on 03/09/2012 - 08:12 am.

    getting younger people into BWCAW

    During her high school years, our daughter was a camper for three years at YMCA Camp Menogyn. It is based on Bearskin Lake off Gunflint Trail. You must canoe to get to base camp. She went on to become a group leader guiding small groups of early teenaged girls into all corners of BWCA. Menogyn has a priority of reaching into communities that have lower income and would be less likely to experience BWCA with their family. See
    for more information.

  5. Submitted by Daniel Olson on 03/09/2012 - 02:31 pm.

    Nobody goes to the Boundary Waters anymore, it’s too crowded.

    I was fortunate enough to first visit the boundary waters as a baby only six months old. Both my parents had been making annual visits to the wilderness with their respective families since they were children, long before it was a federally protected wilderness area. Despite my deep experience canoing and backpacking in the wilderness, the first trip with friends as a young adult was still a daunting experience. How do you tie the canoe to the car? I had to ask my father how he was able to make all those great meals, like a pizza on the campfire. How many young people are comfortable finding a campsite after the sun has set with a compass and a map? How do you hang a food pack in a forest that has burnt down? This is one trip where you cannot stop at Walgreens to pick up forgotten supplies once you set out. One must think through contingencies ahead of time, which is really only possible with experience. Only after years of visiting the Boundary Waters as an adult, do I finally have all the equipment needed without raiding my father’s basement first. How many young people without access to equipment can afford to go through an outfitter?

    Despite the aging of Boundary Waters visitors, I would bet overall numbers have been increasing for many years. My concern has been more about overcrowding than a lack of interest. Too many people on the lakes has led me away from canoeing and toward backpacking — where I can find solitude.

    But I agree that increased opportunity for northwoods recreation creates more advocates for wilderness protection. Of the hundreds of middle school kids my father led on trips to the boundary waters in decades past, perhaps a handful have become regular visitors, but the rest have likely never forgotten the beauty and magnificence of the vast unspoiled wilderness with lakes they have drank unfiltered water from, and may now resist attempts to spoil the lakes with acid mine drainage from proposed sulfide mines.

    As backpacker, canoer, kayaker, rock climber, biker, snowboarder, snowshoer, and xc skier, it’s hard to reconcile statistics showing young people turning away from the outdoors with my anecdotal experience. From Lake Calhoun to the end of the Gunflint Trail, young people reconnecting with the outdoors are everywhere. Taking it farther than recreation, we are learning to grow our own food in the garden and even grow hops for our home-crafted brew.

    I suppose, in light of all this, I’ll just keep putting my extra gear to work by continuing to bring friends with me to experience a few days in the woods. This spring, I’ll have the joy of sharing the wilderness with my son, who will still be a baby just several months old, keeping one of our finest family traditions alive.

  6. Submitted by Nat Hintz on 03/16/2012 - 10:32 am.

    The Younger Generation

    My father used to go up often with his friends while he was in college. He and one of his buddies who has an oldest son my age (20 years old now) have been taking us since we were 6. Every single year. Later they brought our younger brothers up and now it has combined to the 6 of us. It will never stop. I would not miss this week of nature with my dad, brother and some best friends for anything in the entire world. I am 100% sure that when I have kids, I will bring them up, no matter where I live. We moved from Minnesota to PA about seven years ago and still find the time to make our trip work. I would be devastated if I couldn’t go up with them. So heres to the BWCA! I cross my fingers that it will continue to be a place I can go and get out of society for a bit and just relax.

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