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BWCA visitors are aging: Who will take their place?

The average age of a BWCA visitor has gone from 26 in 1969 to 36 in 1991 to 45 in 2007. Two-thirds of campers in 2007 were 40 or older.

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?

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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 “Is it outdated?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.

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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.