March–April 2023

Paddling Into the Past

Three canoeists retrace the path of Arthur Carhart, a key character in the Boundary Waters origin story.

Ryan Rodgers

In May 1921, a young forester took a canoe trip in northeastern Minnesota that would help shape the dimensions and character of the future Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. His name was Arthur Carhart, and at 29 years old he’d recently been named the first recreation engineer of the United States Forest Service. His 100-mile paddling loop, and the subsequent recreation plan that he wrote based on the trip, effectively halted a proposed road-building project that would have bisected the wilderness that’s now known worldwide as a paddling paradise.

“As a canoe country,” he wrote prophetically in his report, the area “would have few, if any, competitors.”

On a spring day a century after Carhart’s trip, my companions and I are pushing off into this labyrinthine lake land, now known as the BWCA, to trace the historic route taken by Carhart and a fellow Forest Service worker, Matt Soderback, back in 1921.

We carry nine days of food, a BWCA permit, and a stack of Carhart’s reprinted photographs, hoping to see the wilderness much as the two men saw it and to find some of the places where Carhart took his nearly 100 photos. I paddle with Tom McCann, the person who turned me on to Carhart’s story. He’s steeped in wilderness lore, having worked as a young adult as a gardener to famed conservationist and author Sigurd Olson before a career with the Superior National Forest. Completing our trio in a sleek solo canoe is Ewart Martens, a German-born Minneapolis carpenter.

We launch at Farm Lake—the closest BWCA entry point to the now privately owned parcel where Carhart and Soderback started—with 100 miles of wilderness paddling and 53 portages ahead of us. Our loop will follow the Kawishiwi River—a series of lakes connected by narrows—east to its headwaters before portaging into and following the Isabella River drainage back to Farm Lake.

Our entry point is off the Fernberg Road, which noses east out of Ely, wilderness to the north and south of it, before it dead-ends at the BWCA boundary. Had Carhart and others not stopped it, the road would have continued on to the east from here.

In 1921, when Arthur Carhart made his trip, it was still 57 years before the BWCA would attain maximum protection as a federally designated, mostly nonmotorized wilderness within the Superior National Forest. Sigurd Olson, who would emerge in coming decades as a major figure in the creation of the BWCA, was a newbie canoe tripper. Theodore Roosevelt had created the Superior National Forest just over a decade before, in 1909.

Northern Minnesota, like much of the country, was mostly roadless and inaccessible, but here, as in many places, pressure was mounting to build roads for the newly affordable automobiles that brought tourists from cities and sent visitor counts to America’s public lands soaring. Tin-canners, as auto tourists were called for their littering habits, demanded roads to drive on, and the government obliged by commencing a road-building binge, much of the effort targeting national forests. For the Superior, a coalition of federal, state, and county governments planned a network of roads to open the region for tourism, including a highway that was to connect Ely with the newly built Gunflint Trail to the east, through some of the most beautiful and remote lake country.

At the same time, a nascent conservation movement was springing to life around the country to challenge such projects and protect fast-disappearing wilderness. A colleague of Carhart’s named Aldo Leopold was conceiving our contemporary idea of wilderness, and new organizations such as the Izaak Walton League were attracting members and influence. In northern Minnesota, roads became an early flashpoint in the proto-BWCA battle, and Carhart and his report were at the center of the debate.

As author R. Newell Searle writes in Saving Quetico-Superior: A Land Set Apart, a definitive history of the wilderness, “Looking back, it is apparent that the road controversy was an early test of the wilderness idea.”

In 1919, when the U.S. Forest Service hired Carhart as their first recreation engineer, a colleague nicknamed him “The Beauty Doctor,” as a slight to his goal of ensuring lovely landscapes awaited tourists. “Planning for public use of [national] forests was unheard of,” Carhart wrote. Hosting visitors was a novelty for the Forest Service, which was focused on managing its lands for logging and cattle grazing. As more Americans traded farm life for urban life and automobiles began to proliferate, Carhart recognized that citizens would seek out nature. Before coming to Minnesota, Carhart finished an assignment in Colorado that halted road and cabin development on a remote lake. “It is essential in the scheme of development of our national life that we retain touch with the outdoors,” he wrote. 

As the sun sets on our second night’s camp on Lake Three, I mosey into the woods pondering Carhart and this place. What is the significance of “retaining touch with the outdoors” in today’s world? Is it an ancient urge driven by genetic memory or a reconnection with a facet of living drowned out in the ceaseless noise of modernity? 

I’d never understood the why, only that I’m more content outdoors than in other places. I burrow through a patch of balsam fir and cedar. Dried needles rain down. Shadows are deepening, except where a gap in the branches emits a splatter of warm light from the drooping sun onto the warty trunk of a fir. The quality of the light is so fine I stop to admire illuminated pitch blisters lining the tree. I camped at this site several years before, and I am suddenly waylaid by a deep sense of gratitude to be back. I place my palm against the tree and lean there until I’m able to move again.

The Ely-Gunflint Highway would have forever fragmented the heart of the Boundary Waters. Initially supported by the U.S. Forest Service, the State of Minnesota, and Lake and Cook counties, the road was to lead east from Ely along the soon-to-be-constructed Fernberg Road and continue until intersecting the Gunflint Trail, via the route of today’s Kekekabic Hiking Trail. In addition to boosting tourism, the road may have facilitated new mining. In 1915, the Superior National Forest supervisor wrote his boss: “There is no mining going on at present within the boundaries of the National Forest although … I believe in the near future there will be considerable of this kind of work done on both private and National Forest lands.” The swath of land the road would traverse was excluded from the Superior National Forest until 1936 “on account primarily of mineral resources,” as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture William Jardine explained in 1926. 

Carhart anticipated the damage the Ely-Gunflint Highway would wreak upon the Boundary Waters and wrote in his recreation plan, “such a road is decidedly against the best interests of this region…. The Superior is, and should always be kept, America’s best canoe country.” 

Carhart took other border-country canoe trips in 1921, including one that brought him to Saganaga Lake, where, in an unscripted early conservationist meetup, he ran across Sigurd Olson, a young high school teacher on his first canoe-country expedition. As Olson recounted in a 1976 interview with former Minnesota Conservation Volunteer editor John McKane, he was practicing shooting a pistol when Carhart approached him and “wondered what in hell was going on.”

Olson would later come to know and celebrate Carhart’s legacy. In the same interview, speaking of Carhart’s storied loop, he said, “Art made a report to the Ely Chamber of Commerce when he got back saying this country is far too important to cut up with roads. It will mean far more to this country, economically and otherwise, to be kept as a wilderness.”

Later in the summer on a different Boundary Waters trip, I venture south from Ogishkemuncie Lake when, on my second portage, I intersect the unmarked Kekekabic Hiking Trail. It’s a faint path, and I am careful not to lose it while walking to a narrow wooden footbridge over Agamok Falls. This is what I’ve come to see, the series of cascades tumbling through a dark-rocked gorge. The water flows north, foaming white in the drops and calming to black in the pools, bound for Hudson Bay. 

The closest roads are the Gunflint Trail, 9 miles to the east, the Fernberg Road, 20 miles west, and the Sawbill Trail, 15 miles south. Canada’s Highway 11 is the nearest to the north at 40 miles. In this nation, particularly east of the Mississippi, in this late year, such an expanse of roadless terrain is invaluable for its ecological functions, and its value only grows as planetary problems compound. Not to mention the freedom this land provides to wander about on one’s own accord among water, wood, and stone. 

Had a road passed through here, steel and concrete would replace the wobbly bridge over the falls, and the whooshing of vehicles occluding the deep silence would be the most apparent in a long and rippling chain of detriments.

The Forest Service hesitated in enacting Carhart’s plan, and Carhart quit his job out of frustration. Eventually, though, the agency would withdraw its support for the Ely-Gunflint Highway.

Carhart expressed his discontent with his employer and coworkers in personal correspondence: “Perhaps I do seem aggressively radical to many of them but it is because I have to scrap continually and in a somewhat radical fashion to get any consideration whatsoever … I will not be muzzled.” He would fit more contentedly into his next career as an author of outdoor-themed books.

Carhart prodded a contemporary named Paul Riis to engage the public against the Ely-Gunflint Highway. Riis began publishing articles in local newspapers, which attracted an ally in the influential Izaak Walton League. In the end, after much debate and some compromise from both sides, the Echo Trail and Fernberg Road were built, and the Gunflint Trail extended. The remaining span of wilderness lakes that separate the end of the Fernberg from the Gunflint, however, remained roadless, as it is today.

Over the decades, Carhart has earned conservationist kudos for his role in preserving the wilderness, and he may have been the first to conceptualize wilderness as a designation for public land. But some parts of his 1922 recreation plan would surely raise the hackles of modern conservationists and wilderness canoeists, such as his proposals to dynamite shallow rapids for easier passage and to build a series of chalets along the Kawishiwi-Isabella loop, among other places. And Carhart is sometimes dinged by modern environmental scholars for his rather human-centric view of wilderness, based on providing visitors with gorgeous scenery to revel in. 

Traveling the loop, none of our trio regrets having to navigate rocks that could have been detonated, or sleeping in tents rather than Appalachian Trail–like shelters, yet Carhart’s perceived missteps don’t negate his accomplishments. He deserves recognition as a singular and early conservationist whose contributions kept the Boundary Waters whole.

On our fourth day of travel, fragrant chokecherry flowers bloom and bunchberry leaves push from the thin soil along the portage trails. In awesome morning light, we start the fifth day on sinuous Malberg Lake. The water is a mirror copying sky and shore, and shattering it with my paddle seems crude, but we have miles to travel. We portage out of the Kawishiwi watershed and spend the seventh night on a craggy island on Perent Lake.

Perent Lake is named (and spelled incorrectly) after Tom Parent, who for 20 years starting in 1901 trapped with his partner Bill Pemble. Tame Tom and Wild Bill, as they were known, probably had a shack on these shores, though their base was on a neighboring lake. 

The forest surrounding Perent Lake looks much the same today as it did when Carhart was here; the soil record shows at least 250 years since the last big wildfire. Warblers chant from their leafy veils in the ancient woodland of towering pines and stout cedars that continues as we travel several miles down the Perent River, a series of dark pools separated by many portages where rapids murmur in narrows. We dip into the aftermath of the 2011 Pagami Creek Fire before reaching a campsite and stopping for the blasting wind.

Freshly metamorphized dragonflies muster overhead, hunting the mosquitoes and flies that blitz anyone who strays from the camp’s windblown peninsula. In morning calm, we cross broad Isabella Lake and exit its west end on the Isabella River. The landscape is oddly flat for the Boundary Waters, the remnants of a glacier’s vast debris field. The Pagami fire burned the forest to bare bedrock in places, and sunlight flashing off pale chunks of gabbro gives me a headache. We find a Carhart composition below a spot of whitewater, where a party of harried fathers and young boys excitedly angle for walleye. Here Carhart photographed giant pines. Many of the grove’s crumbling, fire-killed boles still stand, titans reduced to perches for feisty Eastern kingbirds, open-country creatures thriving in the old growth’s demise.

With our loop nearing completion, we strike a final camp back on the Kawishiwi River. I go for a swim. A rock that fringes the river has a small waterline cave that waves splash into and gurgle strangely when the wind blows from the west. I listen to the water tumble inside, warming myself on the granite, legs hanging over the water. I sit transfixed as a river otter swims into the hollow before sticking its head into the air 18 inches from my foot. The otter stares at my face before torpedoing away.

I watch it swim toward the far shore, which is practically glowing in the lime-green flush of new aspen leaves. This is how the land has long looked. I hope it endures the coming century as well as it has the last.