Leave No Trace(s) by Steve Piragis

Leave No Trace(s) by Steve Piragis

Hello Canoe Trippers, From Ely Minnesota


We get away most summers, Nancy and I, in August and September to the Quetico. Along with a bunch of day trips to the Boundary Waters from May to July, we get a pretty good feel for what’s going on out on the portages and campsites. This year was different (in a lot of ways). We just completed a 4 night trip to the Little Indian Sioux country on the west end of the Echo Trail. It was enlightening. You could see it was busy from the lack of permits available online. In reality, it is busy out in the woods too. I say, good for us that we’re finding wilderness as a solace to the pandemic and the social upheaval our age.

It’s a time unmatched in history. Wilderness in the big sense and in the neighborhood sense is where people can escape,seeking quiet and contemplation. Thankfully we still have that escape. Thankfully too, we have the infrastructure in place ready to give us a reprieve from all that we have endured over the past months. Now, we have to take good care of it.


Lots of the folks we saw last week were first timers. I’d guess they have had a canoe trip in mind for years and just got up one day during the crazy pandemic and said Let’s Go. These are the groups you see using the bent paddles backwards. They are the ones who you might worry about if the water and weather was cold like October but you know will somehow survive in June or July or August. They are having fun and they are relieved to be away, in the wild, far from the city and the fear of walking into a haze of the breath of an asymptomatic carrier. With the wind blowing even a chance encounter with a group on a portage seems pretty innocuous. They, the green horns, the newbys and along with all the rest of us old timers are at peace this week in a slightly too busy wilderness. There’s a certain bond we sensed this year among the paddlers we encountered this year in canoe country.

Not to place blame, but, we also saw some evidence at our campsites of people not respecting the wilderness or at least not knowing wilderness etiquette. Our camp had a few big red pines hacked up pretty good with an axe. We found a pickle bucket with two cans of food hidden behind a rock where someone just decided to dump the evidence and hit the dusty trail. There was left over ramen noodles in a pile in the woods, too much for dinner and ramen in the lake near shore and toilet paper along the trail to the latrine, a remnant of midnight calling falling short of the destination.


I was under the impression that Leave No Trace was by now genetically en grained in all Americans. Obviously we need to work harder to educate. We, with the experience, have to teach it and set standards and watch out for the uninitiated. I don’t think there’s anything wrong when seeing people in a group of 10 on a portage to remind them of the 9 person limit. There’s nothing wrong with offering advice on great campsites and qualifying it with a strong suggestion to leave it better than when you found it please.

Let’s take the new campers under our wings and offer what the Forest Service video can’t, a kind suggestion on what matters; wilderness manners. It took decades to instill this ethic in all of us from the old days. Now, we start over with a new crop of seekers of the secrets of the wild who are yet to join the club and Leave No Trace. Sig Olson wrote articles about this very topic in the 1940’s when cans and bottles and bough beds and pioneering projects were rampant in the Boundary Waters. We’ve come a long way but the scars of one person with an axe will last for another 100 years so again it’s time for all of us to work harder to protect what was left to us.

Steve Piragis

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