ArticlesPersonal EssaysTent Bound

Living in the Last Scrap of the Golden Age of Wilderness Paddling

canoeing past pictographs in the wilderness

After reading an article on the potential sale of more than 1,800 hectares and 30 kilometers of undeveloped Lake Superior shoreline potentially to developers who plan to develop the untouched bays, it occurred to me that we, as in the kayakers and canoeist alive right now, might be living in the last scrap of the golden age of wilderness paddling in the Great Lakes basin. And, I wonder if there’s any stopping the development of the remaining undeveloped areas on the Great Lakes. And, I wonder, even with the current protections, if those will remain as more people desire their own little piece of the big lakes.

Wilderness paddling in the Great Lakes basin has a long history dating back potentially to just after the ice age ended and the lakes were formed. Whether or not the first inhabitants of the Great Lakes basin used canoes to explore it, is an unknown, but, at some point in time, the inhabitants began using canoes to ply to waters, to trade from, to hunt and fish from, to harvest rice from and because the forests that grew up in the Great Lakes were so dense, the lakes and the rivers were the easiest way to travel long distances. However, the canoe arrived at its current shape; it remains an elegant and simple way to travel through the wilderness. It was quickly adopted by the Europeans as they invaded North America.

kayaking in undeveloped country
Kayaking in a remote area on Lake Superior that’s protected as Crown Land, but there was an illegally built sauna near here.

When Europeans arrived in the Great Lakes basin, doing whatever it was that Europeans did, such as fur trading, conquering and exploring, they adopted the canoe. For the fur-trading voyagers, the canoe offered a quick, light way to transfer fur and trade goods. Many of the explorers, such as McKenzie and Marquette used canoes to push far into the unknown meeting new peoples and mapping water paths that would eventually form trade routes and give the Europeans even greater access to the riches of North America. As the settlers moved westward with wagons and then trains, a system of paths, railways and roads replaced the waterways as the major form of travel. Eventually, the waterways ceased to function as a way to access wilderness (especially when float planes appeared). Roads circled the Great Lakes, bridges spanned the narrows, and even in the furthest northern reaches of the basin, roads and railways provided access. The North American wilderness had been penetrated by the modern system of transportation and paddling became a recreational pursuit.

Freed from the backbreaking work of carrying trade goods and furs through the waterways and the chores of providing food for families – and blessed with jobs that granted free time – some of the inhabitants started to explore the wilderness via canoe simply for recreation. As more people came to the area, more people wanted a house on a lake, or a lodge in the woods experience. The Great Lake basin with its timber and material wealth proved to be a good place to live for more than one-tenth of the population of the United States and one-quarter of the population of Canada.  And the great wilderness surrounding the Great Lakes disappeared, except in a few places that were protected despite political fights, more so in Canada than the U.S. That wilderness was now easy to access, and the advances in camping gear and techniques and more durable and lightweight canoes and kayaks, made accessing what was left of the wilderness easy. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) became the most used designated wilderness area in the U.S.

Amy hands a portage pack to Dave at the base of Partridge Falls on the Pigeon River. On the traditional voyager route.

And that’s where we, more or less, are today. We have limited wilderness left in the Great Lakes basin and it’s easy to access. On the America shore, it’s rare to kayak for one day on any of the Great Lakes without seeing development, and what is left undeveloped in private hands is being developed. On Lake Huron, as I found out on my Port Huron to Home Expedition, the entire shoreline from south to north is like the suburbs, and I’m not exaggerating. I had one day where I only saw just a few houses. The rest of the time was shoulder to shoulder houses.

Even on the Great Lakes, when you go into a remote area, you’ll see cabins, lighthouses, navigational markers, illegally built saunas. There is literally nowhere on the Great Lakes that you can go for a week without seeing development. Within the basin, we have areas that have fared better, such the BWCA, Quetico, Wabakimi, Lake Nipigon and other areas given protection by the governments. But, even there, you‘ll run into some development. And who knows if these areas will last. For example, a bill passed by U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 would essentially gut the Wilderness Act of 1964 and open the BWCA and other U.S. Wilderness Areas to development. It could pass the Senate in the 2012 lame duck session, and there goes our last bit of protected wilderness paddling in the U.S.

Receive PaddlingLight updates straight to your inbox every time I publish a new article. Your email address will never be shared

All of this is why I react in alarm when I hear about more undeveloped property on the Great Lakes being sold to developers. Right now, we have the time, the money, the access and the right gear to take advantage of the joy of wilderness canoeing and kayaking, more so than any other time in human history. You could say that we’re in the golden age of recreational paddling. The only thing we don’t have is the vast untouched and undeveloped land in the post-ice age Great Lakes basin to explore just like McKenzie and Marquette had. Instead, just a table scrap of that wilderness remains, and what does remain remains only because of laws that could go away or because the land remained held until the price of sale was right.

The development on Lake Huron. The American shoreline is almost completely shoulder-to-shoulder houses.

Something that we’ve seen in northern Minnesota on the edge of the BWCA and along the shore of Lake Superior  is that smaller family-owned resorts are being sold off, and, erected in their place are larger resorts or second and third homes for the wealthy. While, you might have been able to land at a small family-owned resort, when you show up at a private house, you’re likely to get kicked off. And these homes and resorts take a toll on the visual appeal of the shoreline. On the inland lakes, the areas that aren’t protected are developed. Without protection, the inland lakes of the BWCA will end up looking like the Twin Lakes Canoe Route near Grand Marais, and any semblance of wilderness will disappear.

Wilderness disappearing from the Great Lake would be heartbreaking for paddlers like me. One of the main reasons that I got into paddling was to be able explore the areas that I live in and venture into the preserved wilderness areas of the Midwest and central Canada. The wilderness, to me, provides a place for reflection, not only on one’s life, but to the past, to the history of the area, the history of the nation and that reflection allows for mapping a way forward. The wilderness recharges a person’s energy, because it allows one to get away from the workaday life. The wilderness also allows us to satisfy the inner curiosity that launched the explorations and great population movements of the past. It’s a way to satisfy the need and desire to see the great unknown that’s around the corner. When any of that unknown around the corner becomes a half a million dollar house, the illusion of the once great wilderness of the Great Lakes disappears and robs one of all the benefits of visiting wilderness.

Now, I know that not everyone values wilderness, otherwise we wouldn’t have attempts to gut its protection, but enough people do that it’s worth protecting it for them and for the future generations as Teddy Roosevelt said,

Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying the ‘the game belongs to the people.’ So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.

So, even if you’re one of those paddlers that doesn’t value wilderness, perhaps, you can find it in your heart to protect it for those of us that need it, for those of us that would wither away without it. For the future.

Taking an afternoon nap in Whitefish Bay on an undeveloped beach. A dirt ATV road was in the woods just a short distance from here.

I fear that that’s never enough though. Humanity on a whole has no desire to preserve and conserve our open spaces, our wildlife and as the global warming debate has shown, even our planet and our future. Even when we decide to protect something, such as the animals of the African plains, someone somewhere will pay enough that the poaching of the animals happens. And, someone that doesn’t value the protection, will hunt them. We see this in the Great Lakes basin with wolves. After a successful campaign to protect and restore wolves, once they lost the protection, they were immediately hunted in ways to permanently reduce their population. Like wolves being killed off after they lose protection, the last pieces of untouched land are constantly being picked at and developed.

Even though I lack the confidence that humanity has the will in the long run to protect the remaining wilderness, I still feel it’s worth fighting for, because I personally can still enjoy it, my family can enjoy it and our descendants can enjoy it while it’s still there. But, I say to you, get out there now and enjoy the last remaining wilderness paddling in the Great Lakes basin, because if you don’t do it now, when they take it away with development, that opportunity will be gone.


  • Awesome write up Bryan. I couldn’t agree more. We have a little more “wiggle room” up here in the North; however I’m seeing the same development here. Being a somewhat long commute from St. \johns we have been spared over the years; however as people retire we are watching a land grab here.

  • Wow! You are way too optimistic. But your conclusion is correct – get out there now because it isn’t going to be there long.
    Yes, dollars rule today – but that’s nothing new. Yes, opportunities for wilderness experiences – particularly along the Great Lakes shorelines – are few and shrinking. But that also is nothing new. My father was born in 1909 in Stambaugh, a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (It no longer exists, merged into another community.) In the late 1920’s, he was already bemoaning the loss of Michigan’s wilderness; to him, it was already gone. The forests had hardly begun regenerating after the massive lumbering of pine and hardwoods in the late 1800’s and the farming failures that followed as the lumber companies dumped lands they didn’t want to hold. As a young man, one summer he “hitchhiked” around Lake Superior on all manner of boats – to experience an adventure that he figured would not long be available. He did stop in Grand Marais on his way to Ft. William; he probably wouldn’t recognize it today, with a full doubling of population since 1930. OK, a little sarcastic given Grand Marais’ population still barely reaches the size of a Chicago high school – but given the mining and lumbering booms in Minnesota, also followed by failed homesteading, I suspect there is more “undeveloped semi-wilderness” shoreline (that is, where the major visual impacts of earlier human activity have greatly faded) in your part of Minnesota now than there was in 1900.
    My point is that most of what paddling wilderness is still available today has not been the result of lobbying efforts for preservation. It has been luck – the economic downturns occurring after various “busts.” We have a little more time because of the U.S. (and somewhat worldwide) “Great Recession” and slow recovery of the last few years. But time, and development, march on.
    The threat today is real. And the threat does involve dollars – but the threat is deeper than your suspect. It’s not just developers and well-to-do retirees gobbling up those properties. It also has to do with human behavior – it’s also nothing new that people with dollars to spend tend to demand what they are familiar with. (E.g., people who have never experienced good urban mass transit will continue to buy cars – and thus “demand” that government spend more money on roadways.) Our major problem is that it is a very, very, VERY small part of the population that is familiar with wilderness paddling. So very few people are spending their own money on getting it or will spend any effort to push government to spend tax dollars to preserve existing wild shoreline or convert existing development by pushing the poor off their land, as for the Smoky Mountain National Park in the 1930’s.
    As you pointed out in a March 2012 post, paddlers looking for a wilderness experience are also a subculture that may be aging rapidly. I belong to one paddling club, and I don’t see any new influx of young paddlers. As the old farts like me die off, the lack of new paddlers somehow introduced to the joys of the wilderness means no demand for preservation.
    Your article does make me recognize that I am part of the problem. I only participate in group outings a handful of times a year — I prefer paddling alone, hiking alone, camping alone. But I think this year I will lend a hand in our club on-the-water teaching activities on open-water kayaking and kayak camping. The trick, I guess, is to get them to want to put dollars into the potential availability of such travel for themselves, without actually making many or any such trips – I want them to put up their money – including their tax dollars, but I don’t actually want to see them when I’m out there – I remain a selfish old codger! What do I mean? “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” There too few of us and we are too wrapped up in our own interests to be effective in any political arena.
    So a couple of years hence, look for me as I follow my father’s trip around Lake Superior of 80 years ago, although I’ll be in a kayak. Gotta see it before it’s gone.

    • Thanks for the comment. Nice points. I have just a few nit picks:

      I suspect there is more “undeveloped semi-wilderness” shoreline (that is, where the major visual impacts of earlier human activity have greatly faded) in your part of Minnesota now than there was in 1900.

      Pretty much the entire Minnesota shoreline of Lake Superior is developed with houses that are visible from the water. There are a few exceptions, but in those areas, it’s about a two hour paddle (if that) until you see houses. The only area that might have less visible development is in the Susie’s. The mine there is now abandoned, but I’m not sure it operated past the 1800s.

      My point is that most of what paddling wilderness is still available today has not been the result of lobbying efforts for preservation. It has been luck – the economic downturns occurring after various “busts.” We have a little more time because of the U.S. (and somewhat worldwide) “Great Recession” and slow recovery of the last few years. But time, and development, march on.

      I can think of a couple of specific exceptions to this, mainly the Wilderness Act of 1964. Specifically, in my neck of the woods, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Isle Royale. Both preserve through hard fought preservation efforts. There’s Round Island on Lake Huron and in Canada Pukaskwa National Park. You could easily name others that have been preserved through political battles.

      The slow recovery has done nothing to help preserve land, IMHO, this U.S. congress has preserved ZERO new lands in the U.S. It’s the only recent congress to have done this.

      As you pointed out in a March 2012 post, paddlers looking for a wilderness experience are also a subculture that may be aging rapidly.

      The good news according to the Outdoor Foundations Top Line Participation 2011 study is that youth participation over the 2008-10 in sea kayaking is growing by 21.4%, rec kayaking 15.6% and in canoeing 4.9%. We still see overall outdoor participation in youth either dropping or holding steady. “For example, 63 percent of youth ages 6 to 12 participated in outdoor recreation in 2011, compared to 78 percent in 2006.” I suspect that paddlesport participation and the reason that many clubs trend older has more to do with wealth. A full 57% of kayaking participates make over $75,000. Most kids right out of college don’t make nearly that, so I suspect that the price of entry is too high. Kids just can’t spend 10%+ of the annual income to get into one sport. Unfortunately, full crosstabs aren’t available for the OF’s reports, so I can only suspect by looking at the data they released instead of make any substantive conclusion. And wilderness paddling is still a subset of this data.

      Good luck on your circumnavigation!

  • (I promise this is my last post – I try to reduce all kinds of pollution, including cyber-pollution.)

    Groan!!! If I wasn’t a bit depressed before, I think I’m now heading for a major psychotic episode! I didn’t realize the shoreline up there is in the first stages of what we have in the “wonderful” Lake Huron subdivision you observed on your trip home from Port Huron.

    Yes, I own one of the houses you passed, perhaps a day’s paddle north of where you crossed Saginaw Bay from Michigan’s thumb. Yes, I plead guilty to buying it as a place to retire – and where I can spend year-round on Lake Huron to develop the skills I will need for my planned Lake Superior trip. And yes, there is so much shoreline development that my local trips always involve some level of stealth camping – much easier now through early May because the subdivision empties out as the temperature drops. At least the houses help block some of the highway noise from U.S. 23 which for the most part runs within 400 feet of the shoreline from Au Gres all the way to Mackinaw. But the WATER! The water is as wild, beautiful, and dangerous as it was when the first Europeans came to the Great Lakes basin. Too bad we can’t say the same for the lake biota.

    But I do I live less than four miles from a full-service acute care hospital – a major concern for those of us entering the last act of our lives. That was a major factor in our purchase decision. It is puzzling to me that retirees would be gobbling up shoreline for homes in areas that I suspect are relatively far from full service hospitals. (The hospital in Grand Marais is a “critical access hospital,” meaning serious medical situations are handled by a “stabilize and transport” process – the nearest “full” hospitals would be in Ely, Duluth, or Thunder Bay.) I guess we all have weak spots in our logic – after all, I paddle alone on Lake Huron in deep winter, not exactly the safest or sanest thing one can choose to do — but how much of the development pressure up there can really be traced to retirees??

    Anyway, where my home is on Lake Huron is a warning about what you face. The wilderness shoreline disappeared here long, long ago – and it isn’t coming back. Looking at an 1842 survey for the area where I live, the shoreline was already divided up into ownership pieces that for the most part were less than 40 acres. By 1870, there were almost no pieces that large left anywhere in my county or the two adjacent ones. By 1900, most of the larger shoreline pieces were owned by what today would be called “homeowner associations” or resource extraction companies (like U.S. Gypsum) and the Lake Huron subdivision was really taking shape. Before WWII, U.S. 23 was already pretty much finished in its present form, running very close to the shoreline, pushing traffic noise miles out over the lake. Now a nice day paddle would be going ten miles north along a shore with absolutely wall-to-wall houses, small resorts, and condos, to the mouth of the Au Sable River, up the river a mile or so to a nice full service restaurant for lunch, and then paddle home. The wilderness? The wilderness was gone, gone, gone before I was born.

    (OK, so some of the above paragraph is a rationalization for my own land grab, my own piece of the lake. We all have to have our own delusions – and mine are rather pleasant.)

    I do hope that Cook County doesn’t become another such subdivision. I get pleasure from knowing that you and other like-minded people can make a living up there while enjoying an outdoor environment that has disappeared from much of the rest of the Great Lakes – and I don’t mind my tax dollars going to support preserving such shoreline even if I may only see it briefly once in my lifetime. Best of luck!

    • I do hope that Cook County doesn’t become another such subdivision.

      Unfortunately, except for shore protected by a few parks and the Susie Islands. It already is.

  • Your post really struck a chord with me, as growing up in the late 80’s to mid 90’s, I had unlimited access to a mile of undeveloped Lake Superior shoreline, right out my back door. The hours I spent wandering the woods, beach and creeks are forever with me. The giant ice hills the Lake made in the winter were my Himalayas, the winter snowmelt creeks were my Amazon, and the big driftwood tree trunk on the beach made a perfect chair to bemoan my teenage woes(and smoke a cig).
    Now the faint 2 track road is paved and summer people guard their little slice of beach. The tree trunk is still there, the creeks still have their gulleys up into the hills, and the ice hills don’t seem so big anymore, but the Lake is still there.

Comments are closed.