Canoeists Getting Older and Introducing Fewer New People to the Wilderness

canoeing in the BWCA

Lots of news in the paddling world today, but the scariest is a report just released by the U.S. Forest Service about the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area:

In it, we found out that the average user age in 1969 was 26 and in 2007 it was 45. We also found out that first time visitors have dropped from 30% of visitors to 6%. This means that fewer people are being introduced to the BWCA. I’d guess that also means that the age of the average visitor will continue to rise and current users grow older. As a point of reference, the average age in Minnesota is 36. The study suggests that one way to explain this is: “While it is important to recognize that younger individuals and first time overnight visitors continue to use the BWCAW, trend data suggest that a strong and substantial cohort of aging, repeat visitors to the BWCAW exists.”

camping in the BWCAOne interesting observation from the study is “Just less than half of the visitors in 1969 had visited other wildernesses besides the BWCAW at that time, but this rose to 57% by 1991 and 75% by 2007.” To me that seems to suggest that once people experience how magical wilderness areas are, they want to visit more of them. There’s something special about wilderness areas, and we need more. It probably has something to do with what Aldo Leopold called “split-rail” values (see A Sand County Almanac). As an American, when in a wilderness area, you connect with the frontier spirit and it helps you feel complete. Also, Leopold argued that outdoor recreation is valuable directly proportional to the experience’s intensity, and “to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life.” Wilderness areas, especially remote areas such as the BWCA which doesn’t really have cell service, removes visitors from their workaday life. That getting-away feeling is addictive, so it makes sense to me that people would visit more wilderness areas. Plus, there are more than in 1969 which was only five years into the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Other stats: People are staying longer (4 days vs. 4.4 days), group sizes are dropping (5.2 vs. 4.4), organized groups as a percentage of users dropped (11.1 vs. 5.1), solo paddlers as a percentage of users rose (0.5 vs. 2.3) and family trips as a percentage of users rose (43.3 vs. 68.7).

wood canoe in BWCAInteresting select quotes:

Overall education of overnight visitors has increased and membership in outdoor recreation and conservation organizations has increased. This may indicate a visitor population in which the strength of wilderness attitudes and values has increased over time. Such an argument is important to managers because it suggests an invested constituency exists for the BWCAW. Thus, understanding any shifts and changes in this constituency’s attitudes and values should remain a priority to BWCAW managers.


It reveals that BWCAW overnight visitors are predominantly white, male, well educated, and no longer full or part time students. Visitors have a great deal of wilderness trip experience in the BWCAW and in other wilderness areas as well, with relatively few visitors being first time visitors to the area. Visitors also report seeing significantly more groups while on their trip compared to previous years and visits. However, these inter-group encounter rates are well within the expectations visitors have for the area.


In addition to profiling trends and changes in use and users, this study also starts to address questions about future wilderness users. Potts (2007) has recently challenged managers and researchers to consider the implications of changing human relationships with wilderness. He argues that the meaning of wilderness for today’s user is not necessarily that of the individuals championing wilderness in the 1960s and 1970s. All users are a product of their experiences and conditions that surround their interactions with wilderness….

Potts (2007) cautions that as relationships change, there is also a potential for the wilderness constituency to change or even disappear. He questions what will happen if apathy and irrelevance toward wilderness begins to prevail in the public’s eyes.

A few quick thoughts about what this means:

  • In the future, fewer people will feel connected to the BWCA, which may mean that fewer folks will be passionate about fighting the pressures of further development that we’re currently facing (mining and cell towers). It’s only going to get harder to fight this in the future.
  • Wilderness participation increases the desire to protect wilderness. If fewer new people are introduced to the wilderness, that could mean fewer people will want to protect the wilderness. We could see less designated wilderness areas in the U.S. and some currently designated wilderness areas could go away. We could even lose the Wilderness Act of 1964 if we don’t have people that stand up to protect it. Imagine an U.S. congress and Presidency controlled by anti-environmental interests. We need future politicians of all parties to love the wilderness, and if we’re not introducing new people and users are getting older, then there’s no chance of introducing new politicians to the wilderness in their formative years.
  • I personally believe that wilderness experience improves character and connects us with the spirit of what it means to be an American. If fewer new people are experiencing the wilderness, then we move further away from our roots. Our culture changes. I don’t know how, but my gut tells me it can’t be good.
  • When you combine this report with the growing number of reports showing that outdoor participation among the kids is down, you get a look at a scary future where participation rates in outdoor sports drops like a stone, and that means a coming nightmare for the outdoor industry, and I think it will make our culture less rich and more evil.
Canoe in BWCASo, what can you do?
  • The U.S. has two federally recognized Wilderness Canoe Areas. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Canoe Trail System in Alaska. Vow to visit one in the next year if you haven’t gone before. Here’s a BWCA Primer.
  • Get your kids involved in the outdoors. Take them camping. Pass on consuming team sports such as soccer that take up lots of your kid’s time in favor of outdoor sports. Send them to summer camps that specialize in wilderness travel and camping.
  • Teach someone new how to paddle, especially someone young.
  • Join a club and get other people to join a paddling club.
If we don’t do something now, I fear that it’s only going to get worse for people who love wilderness.

Full Report: The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: Examining Changes in Use, Users, and Management Challenges

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  • Glad you wrote this Brian. I took each of my daughters out kayak camping last summer. I reserved a place where we’d be completely out of touch with humanity. Well, as much as is possible, we were out of cell range.

    They both loved it and it restored me.

    We were driving in Vermont last weekend, and as we passed Mount Mansfield, I mentioned how great the hiking is there. The my 10-year old said,”let’s do an overnight there this summer!”

    Voila. Oh, by the way, they don’t play soccer!

    • Sweet. I guess I didn’t mean to dig at soccer, because it’s a fine sport, but it is very time consuming especially in competitive districts.

  • I thank God that my father taught me to love and respect the wild places (especially the Selway Bitteroot Wilderness Area in Idaho). I also thank the LORD that I successfully passed it on to my three adult daughters & I am working on the seven grandkids! B)

    • That kind of attitude and passion is exactly what we need! Thanks for sharing the success story.

  • […] wilderness protection so I have to stick my toes into it now and then. Recently, we had some alarming numbers on wilderness participation rates, and with an increasingly anti-environmental U.S. congress, which […]

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