Wilderness campsite encroachment

The following is an aritcle Sam Cook did in the local newspaper a couple weeks ago, based upon a weird experience he recently had in the BWCA. This hasn’t happened to me, but I wonder if any of you have experienced it. I also consider the campsite that I choose as mine or my groups until camp is broke and that is my choice if I choose to share it with another party. Was this an isolated incident or is there a change in what’s considered accepted etiquette for occupied wilderness campsites?

Campsites are at a premium this summer in Boundary Waters

Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune outdoor writer

It was a lazy July morning on Slim Lake north of Ely. The five of us were just finishing breakfast about 9:30 a.m. when we noticed two canoes headed toward our camp.

Slim Lake is just one portage into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It has three campsites on its shores. From Slim, you can portage and paddle through three other lakes, but it’s a dead-end route, and most paddlers come out the same way they came in.

We had been camped on Slim for three nights and were planning to leave later that day.

The two canoes approached our camp, and eventually a young man climbed out of one and walked into our camp. Ignoring us, he began looking around. We were surprised by this, and stood by, just watching.

Finally, he looked at us and said, “Anyplace to pitch a couple tents around here?”

Understand, in the Boundary Waters, each campsite is for one group. Having other campers barge in is kind of like someone walking into your living room at home and saying, “Mind if I watch TV for a while?”

I explained to our visitor that this was one campsite and that we were occupying it. I thought maybe he did n’t understand how things worked in the Boundary Waters.

“Well, the other campsites are all taken,” he said.

“Then you’ll have to go to another lake,” explained Phyllis, my wife.

The man said they had been to the other lakes, although that seemed unlikely at such an early hour of the day. He eventually decided his group wouldn’t be pitching any tents with us. I told him we’d be leaving later in the day, and he appreciated that information.

When we left, in early afternoon, he and a partner were waiting just off the next point to claim our campsite.

We had never had anything like that happen in almost 30 years of canoe-country travel. I related the story to a friend in Ely. He said it was the third time he’d heard of that happening this summer, although he’d never heard of it before this year.

I don’t think this is a trend or a shift in the general behavior of the 100,000 overnight visitors who use the Boundary Waters each year. Occasionally, groups outnumber campsites in some areas, creating temporary problems.

“On average, there shouldn’t be more than 70 percent of campsites filled even if (permit) quotas are filled day after day, but that counts on people moving through the system,” said Barb Soderberg, spokeswoman for Superior National Forest, which over sees the Boundary Waters.

The agency occasionally hears from campers who experienced overcrowding on part of their trip, she said.

“Certainly, there are occasions where it happens,” Soderberg said. “We encourage people to look for campsites early in the day, and not to base your trip on camping on a specific lake or at a specific campsite.”

Our experience was disconcerting but I imagine our visitors felt even more uncomfortable wondering if they would find a camp that night. Here’s hoping such encounters in the Boundary Waters continue to be infrequent.

The rest of our trip was excellent unless, of course, you want to count the night I baked the banana-blueberry muffins into something resembling kryptonite.

I would be upset if this happened to me. You put up with a quota system, get your permit, and then you fight for sites?

similar experience, sort of…
Check out this link to a post I made last summer, when we had our wilderness campsite encroached upon by a pair of backpackers. Different situation, with us there were lots of campsites along the river, not an issue of overcrowding, just that they liked our campsite. Uncomfortable as it may be, it seems that common courtesy and respect for other’s privacy in the wilderness is dwindling.

Here’s the link:



I’ve wondered about possible campsite crowding problems in the BWCAW.

On our trip in May we camped the last two nights on Lakes Two and One. It was fishing opener week and fairly crowded. We camped by mid morning both days and both days saw numerous canoes on the hunt for a sites later in the day. In fact on our last night, which we spent at the second nearest site to the Lake One takeout, we had people coming by in twilight looking for sites. I’m guessing they may have come through lakes 3 and 2 looking for sites the whole time. Or maybe some were folks that got a very late start from the launch or got lost or somesuch. I really felt for them, most likely having had to navigate on out to Lake One landing and figure out from there where to lay their heads.

We had no trouble with anyone trying to double up with us, though I sure might have let someone do it rather than send them on in the dark.

It is an interesting question. Yes, people should break camp and make camp early, but there could always be some problem that puts people’s schedule amiss and leaves them in a crowded lake with the day running out on them. What does one do in those situations? My own thinking would be to simply try to bivoac in an unauthorized spot if I or members of my party were not capable of safely getting to a designated site or the landing.

I’m really kind of surprised that things work as well as they seem to up there.

I made my first trip
to the BWCA during the first week of August this year and learned some valuable lessons. First, I will either avoid going during such a busy period or I will make sure to pick a less popular area. The first day was fine, but after that the number of people really started to increase. We were easily able to find unoccupied campsites the first two nights and then really struggled after that. On Pine Lake we were convinced that we would be unable to find a site and were preparing to portage on to the next lake when we found a campsite that was not marked on the map we had. It did have a grill and latrine, so I am sure it was a designated camping spot. And we started searching for campsites before 11 AM! We stayed at the campsite for 2 nights. On the 2nd evening at that site (around 6 PM), a family of backpackers came walking along the nearby trail, clearly looking for a campsite. They were extremely courteous and stayed away from our occupied campsite while they took a break a short way down the trail. It was obvious that they were disconcerted that it was getting so late in the day, but were planning to move on. I however, knew that there were no campsites available on the entire lake. After conferring with others in my group, we decided to offer them space in our site since it was still within the specifications of the permit (did not exceed 9 people). They were very grateful and did a good job of treading lightly around the site. It was actually fun to get to know them…

The next day, we set off early as we had planned and started looking for sites after the next portage. However, there was not a single free site available through the next 5 lakes. It was starting to get late and, given the choice of a clandestine bivouac, asking at other campsites if there was room for us, or leaving, we decided to portage on out and leave a couple of days earlier than planned. We were not the only ones who couldn’t find a campsite, either. I know of at least 3 other groups that we ran into during the day who said they had been unable to find campsites and those 2 groups just made camp at non-designated spots.

I am guessing that 1) all the permits in this area had been assigned 2) all the people with permits had showed up (the weather was fabulous!), and 3) there were a lot of groups making extended stays at campsites instead of moving along in the system. In my book, this means that the number of permits being given out for the entry points in this areas was too high, but maybe only during this really busy season. Not sure what the solution is, but it was dissapointing to feel forced into taking off earlier than planned!

i’ve been approached…
…but never had anyone that brazen! i’ve had people stop just offshore and ask, all were very nice, and not pushy. now, in '89, when we had a bear raid our campsite and refuse to leave. it was dark, no available campsites, so paddled accross the lake and stopped just offshore and two gentleman from houston graciously envited us to stay the night, saving us from a night spent in a canoe. big thing i’ve noticed about changes in the BWCAW last several years is lack of courtesy wood, and trashy campsites. used to be a given, just something you did automatically; you cleaned up your site, and left a pile of wood with some kindling and birch bark underneath. nowadays, few people give any thought to the next person to arrive at the campsite. ww

In Killarney Provincial Park, you are
assigned to a lake where there SHOULD be enough campsites for every expected party. This might sound good at first, because you can almost always expect to find a campsite on the lake where you are expected to be. However, it takes the spontaneity out of traveling as much or as little as you plan to in a day, or in changing route plans once within the park. Also, if you are delayed more than you expect by long, steep portages, or by adverse winds, or just misadventures, you may not get to the lake where you are supposed to be, and may have to use an emergency site in an unfavorable place.

The BWCA system is better IF the USFS does the planning and allocating properly. Maybe they need to cut down a little on permits, or make use of the plans and experience of planners to anticipate who can get well into the wilderness area and away from the more crowded circumstances. Anyone experiencing similar problems in Quetico?

Must be nice to have the 20 year frame of reference,WW. I bet you do have a solid feel for trends both good and not so good.

You know we only had one site that was kind of trashy this spring, maybe because it was so early in the season. It really stood out. Had the wind not chased us to it, we would have moved on. The wood supply was slim, though at least two sites had some courtesy wood. One site actually had some cedar cut and stacked. That was a treat. We only had a few fires, but that was by choice. Had the weather been wetter and colder we might have “needed” fires more.

I’ve canoe traveled in Quetico for years and my style of travel is to move on 8 days out of a 9 day trip. It is different than the BWCA since you can camp anywhere in the Quetico; you aren’t confined to a firegrate and a latrine. Entry permits are very limited, so there are a lot fewer people in the park, than what you see in the BWCA. I see most groups within two travel days of an entry point. I’ve had to move on to the next lake on occasion in this more crowded perimeter zone to find a decent open campsite, but generally I plan to stay in a lake and manage to do that even on the first night. I’ve been in a few races to an open campsite (haven’t lost yet), and I’ve taken a few portages that lead into someone’s campsite since they chose to camp on the portage - and that’s OK. But I have never witnessed the brazen behavior that Sam experienced. Behavior that I witness as the norm in the Quetico is friendliness, respect for property and privacy, and if in need helpfulness.

sharing a site if its late
Its only happened once but the weather was bad and it was getting late, the site was large and its one way to meet new people. They were nice enough to ask