ALONG THE GUNFLINT TRAIL (AP) -- In the country's most popular wilderness area, people can canoe, hike, fish and camp to their heart's content. This summer, though, one of the most enduring traditions of the great outdoors is missing from much of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Parts of this wild, beautiful stretch of country near the Canadian border have turned into a tinderbox since a ferocious storm last July 4 knocked down millions of trees. The 80 to 100 mph winds cut a swath through the Superior National Forest that ranges about 30 miles long and three to five miles wide.
About 350,000 acres of the 1.1 million-acre BWCA, which lies within the national forest, were reduced to kindling for fires that experts say are inevitable.
The U.S. Forest Service has banned campfires in roughly half of the wilderness area, where over 1,000 lakes and streams draw more than 200,000 adventurers from around the world every year. This summer, those people are doing their cooking on portable campstoves if they're in the fire zone. Similar restrictions affect a relatively small slice of Ontario's 1.2 million-acre Quetico Provincial Park bordering the BWCA to the north.
National Geographic Traveler magazine recently listed the Boundary Waters as one of the 50 ''must-see spots'' that every ''real traveler'' should visit at least once in his or her lifetime. And it was one of the favorite spots of the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt.
''If it is absolute solitude you want, you have only to paddle far enough,'' he wrote in his 1995 book, ''Charles Kuralt's America.'' ''If the vast and glaciated U.S. wilderness isn't big enough for you, a Canadian wilderness of equal size awaits across the border. Without a topographic map and a compass, there's no way to tell which country you're in, anyway. In two or three days of paddling and portaging, you can be reasonably assured of reaching the beautiful lake of your fondest dreams, where you can set up camp for a week or two without hearing another human voice.''
On days when the wind is still, the silence is as stunning as the rugged scenery. People are often few and far between, even though there are about 6,000 to 12,000 visitors within the wilderness on any given summer day. Motorboats are banned on all but a handful of the lakes. There are no roads. The only exceptions to the no-motor rules have been made for storm cleanup and fire-fighting and prevention work.
Given that as many as 80 to 150 tons of fuel per acre litter parts of the blowdown area, federal and state officials have been hard at work in hopes of averting the sort of inferno that burned over 1 million acres of Yellowstone National Park in 1988.
Firefighters and tanker aircraft will be on alert all summer, probably for several summers. Prescribed burns and salvage logging are being done just outside the BWCA. And the Forest Service is planning controlled burns starting next summer in strategic spots within the BWCA to prevent smaller forest fires from becoming catastrophes.
Despite the blowdown, the BWCA remains open and as popular as ever. Many canoeists who trekked through it recently said it's still well worth the trip.
''The power of God was neat to see,'' said Emily Slinger, one of a group of seven young people from the Twin Cities suburbs. Her group said some of the worst destruction they saw was on Moose, Ensign, Ashigan and Gibson lakes.
''There's some areas up there where there's not a tree standing,'' said David Fink, another member of the party.
The spring green-up has covered some of the damage. Even in severely affected areas, trees right along the lakes often managed to withstand the storm. The flattened areas are often patchy, interspersed with intact stands of timber. And it's easy enough to route a trip away from the blowdown area into zones where campfires are allowed.
The blowdown was part of the attraction for Charlie Cole and Cliff Pomeroy, who traveled from Indiana to retrace a route they had covered on a previous trip.
''It wasn't the only reason we came, but it was part of it,'' Pomeroy said.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.