Boundary Waters' Allocation Free System A Success

An equal Access common-pool or reservation system is the only known permitting process that does not split allocation between types of users. There is no need to artificially classify boaters as "commercial" or "private". This inherently fair system was instituted several years ago in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and is getting rave reviews, according to this article in last Friday's New York Times. River Runners for Wilderness believes a reservation based system similar to this could be instituted for Grand Canyon National Park, with modifications.

In Boundary Waters, the reservation system is accessed online or via telephone through a "campgrounds reservation" contractor. The trip leader secures the permit for the group, then decides which support services are needed and makes separate arrangements for those. These services can be as minimal as shuttle arrangements or lifejacket rental, or all-inclusive completely outfitted trips. Services are provided by Forest Service-approved "cooperators" operating under a permit similar to the Park Services' Incidental Business Permits (used in Grand Canyon backcountry). Cooperators can be guides working out of their homes, or full-blown outfitters offering a wide array of trip and services and retail outlets (outside the wilderness boundary).

Last Exit Before the Wilderness
By Neal Karlen
The New York Times, July 25, 2003

ELY, Minn.- Just before 5 a.m., as seen from a one-man canoe on the still waters of Alice Lake in early July, the sun is nothing more than a tiny dot of auburn light on the horizon. Here in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area - a million acres of wilderness and more than 200 lakes that stretch for 150 or so miles along the border with Canada - night gradually gives way to day as the town of Ely fades into the distance.

For thousands of people each summer, this journey into the Boundary Waters, known as the B.W.C.A., is a rite of passage that can be traced to the 1880's, when Ely (rhymes with steely) was nothing more than an undistinguished ore-mining town. Its streets were so muddy, said one visitor at the time, that they were "not passable, not even jackassable."

Now the terminus of Route 169 as it makes its way through northeastern Minnesota, Ely (population: 3,700) is a bustling center for more than 300,000 summer visitors. But still the beauty of the nearby wilderness retains its magic. Within minutes of leaving town, the cacophony of honking horns is replaced by the cornet call of the loon - the state bird of Minnesota - and the gentle sound of a canoe paddle plunging into the icy, clear water.

As they make their way to Ely, past gas stations and fast-food outlets on the increasingly choked highway, visitors head for one of 30 Boundary Waters entry points. At these entry points, campers push into the water on trips on which they may go days without seeing another soul.

For some, Ely offers the last hot shower, the last decent meal (except for those who excel at campfire cuisine) and perhaps the last cold beer. When they re-enter civilization days later, they do so with a vengeance.

"A lot of people who come in here - men and women both - smell," said a waitress at the Grand Ely Lodge, who, for obvious reasons, did not want to be identified. "They might run up to their rooms to change after getting back from a trip, but they don't shower until they've ordered half the menu."

Despite its vastness, the Boundary Waters wilderness is a tightly controlled environment, most of it off-limits to motorized boats. To prevent crowding, the United States Forest Service issues only 40,000 camping permits a year, for $12 plus $10 a night per adult and $5 for children. Each of the 2,000 secluded campsites includes space for, at most, nine people, a fire pit with a grill and a latrine without walls or a roof. Reservations are taken beginning Jan. 15, and the best campsites sell out quickly.

In town, day breaks with an ant farm of activity as about 20 outfitters begin supplying newcomers before taking them to their entry points, where they pick up the clients they dropped off a week earlier.

"A guy can come in wearing a suit and tie with no equipment, and we can have him in the woods in two hours for $350," said Steve Piragis, 51, a co-owner of Piragis Northwoods Company, an Ely outfitter that rents camping equipment, lightweight synthetic fiber wilderness wear and sleeping bags.

Many who head into the wilderness do not need a thing. Colleen Buckman, 30, a popular Minneapolis singer who was making her seventh trip to the Boundary Waters, arrived with her boyfriend, another couple and two superlight Kevlar canoes strapped to the top of her Subaru. She had sent for a permit in the spring, and the car was stuffed with sleeping bags, tents, maps, rain and fishing gear, and a cooler bearing a four-day supply of sandwiches and beer.

On the other end of the spectrum were 15 women, a group of friends led by Betsy Willey, 57, a high school teacher from Grand Rapids, Mich., who has been coming to the Boundary Waters for 14 years. "It's so much easier if I just leave all my camping gear at home and let the outfitters handle it," she said, surveying the packing of rented gear as if she were counting heads on a school field trip.

Splitting into two groups for a six-day trek, the women went to Dan Waters, 64, owner of Canadian Waters, for their equipment. "We provided them everything," Mr. Waters said. "For $450 per person, they got canoes, help getting whatever slim pickings remain of unclaimed permits, tents and proper clothing. For food, we like to give customers a fresh steak or chicken breast for the first night, and fresh bacon and eggs for along the way. But we also give them a full supply of freeze-dried food, from beef stew to lasagna."

Minutes after Mr. Waters drove the women to an entry point on a body of water known simply as Lake One, Gary Gotchnik, owner of Wilderness Outfitters, was at nearby Horse Lake, fetching a group of half a dozen 20-something men who had met in South Carolina on a rowing crew for Clemson University. Every year, they take a weeklong trip, responding to the call of the wild. Last year, it was to Glacier National Park.

This was their first trip to Ely, and they returned from the Boundary Waters unshaven, exhausted and exuberant after paddling 50 miles in a week over half a dozen lakes.

"Next year we're coming back here," Chris Mesigian said as he gathered his equipment outside Mr. Gotchnik's store. "The first time we've ever returned anyplace." A 27-year-old marketing manager in Philadelphia, Mr. Mesigian - who still has the Popeye-like forearms of a varsity rower - didn't mind if he smelled a bit ripe.

"First," he said, "food."

On their trip, the former Clemson rowers subsisted largely on pita bread, humus and bagels. Now they were off en masse to the Chocolate Moose, a restaurant that is equal parts Alice Waters and "Alice's Restaurant."

The Mayberry-like town of Ely covers only three square miles, laid out in a grid of roughly 20 named streets and 17 numbered avenues. The best cafes are on Sheridan Street, the main tourist drag, where two stores sell custom-designed mukluks. On the quieter Chapman Street, where the locals hang out, there is a hardware store, the local radio station, and a series of down-home diners, inside of which you are bound to encounter people like 91-year-old Joe Seliga, who has been building wooden boats in Ely ever since he was a child.

The mood difference between the two streets symbolizes a sometimes bitter dispute that was waged from the 1960's to the 1980's as the federal government remade the Boundary Waters, forbidding motors on the lakes, buying out homes and resorts that had been built in the wilderness and sharply curtailing the industry that Ely had built up.

Many of the locals blamed liberal, environment-minded newcomers who had moved to Ely to canoe through the unspoiled vistas. Now, since everybody seems to be making money again, flare-ups are rare.

What fame Ely has is due in part to Charles Kuralt, the CBS News reporter who discovered the town in the 1960's for his "On the Road" series. He fell in love with Ely and returned often. As his retirement loomed, he bought the local radio station. Before he died in 1997, he taped 14 whimsical spots for the station, which still plays them daily.

What would he do if he saw how popular the town he had helped make famous had become? "Charles would probably just get into his canoe and go off by himself, like a lot of us do if we feel stressed," said Mr. Piragis, the lanky, mustachioed outfitter, who with his wife, Nancy, 51, first saw Ely in 1975 when they were biology students at the University of New Hampshire doing summer work on an Environmental Protection Agency study. (They moved here in 1976 and Mr. Piragis started his store in 1979; Mrs. Piragis opened the Chocolate Moose in 1984.) Mr. Piragis added, "Charlie would be out there paddling a canoe, wearing leather shoes, business pants and a sports shirt."

A block away, Mr. Gotchnik, 49, an Ely native who has been a guide since he was 12 and who handles about 1,000 clients a year, said he couldn't help but laugh sometimes at the changes he has seen over the years. "You can always tell the Easterners," he said. "They walk in and say, `I need this and this and this,' like they're ordering a burger and French fries at McDonald's. We try and slow them down, explain that if it will take them 45 minutes to portage a canoe a quarter mile that's O.K."

On Sheridan Street, Ms. Buckman, the singer, was making sure the canoes for her group were tied securely to the car. She looked up and regarded the Chocolate Moose, the mukluk stores and the old-fashioned but refurbished State Theater.

"Ely isn't Aspen," she said approvingly. "And it's still as beautiful as it was seven years ago." She noted the movie billing on the theater marquee. "And anyway, after four days in the B.W.C.A., maybe I'll want to see `Legally Blonde 2.'"