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Finding so much more than walleye in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

This author's trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was focused on catching walleyes, but we found so much more as we delved into the history of those who knew this as home.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness never ceases to inspire. Those who take the time to learn about the first people who called it home can appreciate this place all the more.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune
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DULUTH — We found more than the walleyes we sought on a recent trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

We found reason to rethink our concept of this place as an uninhabited wilderness to enjoy. We came to more fully appreciate the fact that this has also been home for many since the retreat of the glaciers. The importance of that history to this place deserves more attention.

Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny, outdoors reporter and columnist
Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

Our reflection on all of this came about by sheer chance. We landed on a campsite we believe to be the site where researchers have found evidence shedding some light on the first people who thrived in these lands.

There were news reports earlier this year about the radiocarbon dating of pottery sherds, or fragments from a cooking vessel that had been discovered at the site in 2003.

Just this year, the sherds were radiocarbon dated at the University of California, Irvine, and found to be 1,600 to 1,750 years old, or from the time 272 to 422 A.D.


This was when people of the Laurel Cultural Tradition called the area home. They were among the first northern people to use pottery. They lived in an area including portions of Ontario and Manitoba, Canada, as well as northern Minnesota, according to the published accounts.

Where we camped, the people of the Laurel Culture are believed to have kept a summer camp. Looking around, it was easy to understand why. It had all the attributes that modern campers seek.

“The really good spots to camp today were really good spots 2,000 years ago,” said Lee Johnson, Superior National Forest archaeologist in Duluth. We contacted Johnson after our trip, our curiosity and interest piqued about this history of the area.

There is abundant literature about the fur trade era and, of course, there are the writings of authors such as Sigurd Olson on the beauty of this wilderness. Finding information and learning the story of the first people who had made this home can be difficult and yet so important.

As author Greg Breining writes in his book "Paddle North, Canoeing the Boundary Waters — Quetico Wilderness," our romanticized concept of the wilderness "collides with reality." It overlooks the "inconvenient facts, especially the existence of people on nearly every habitable acre of the continent," the author stated.

Pottery sherds 509f1e-20220228-archaeology02-1446.jpg
These pottery sherds from a cooking vessel found at a campsite in what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness were dated earlier this year to be 1,600 to 1,750 years ago, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

So what was it like in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness all of those years ago when it was home to many? Johnson said the forest would have looked different 2,000 years ago, although the species of trees were mostly the same.

Before logging, there would have been more tall, white pines and open areas. Before modern fire suppression, the forest was more of a mosaic with areas of forest in different succession stages after fires, he explained

We were surprised to learn that corn had a place here too, as part of the diet of the people.


Researcher Matthew Boyer with Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, examined this and other sites of the Laurel Culture. The pottery sherds at this site had residue that showed the cooking vessel had been used to prepare maize (corn) and manoomin (wild rice).

A paper published by Boyer and Clarence Surette reported evidence of widespread use of maize in this subboreal forest area long before European contact.

Obsidian Flake 1e42a6-20220228-archaeology01-1400.jpg
A flake of obsidian found at a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness campsite was traced to Idaho, evidence of a continental trade network that the people of the Laurel Culture participated in around 2,000 years ago.

Whether maize was raised in the area, or arrived by trade, or both, is not known. Johnson said the Ojibwe’s oral history tells of corn being raised on locations such as islands.

Johnson said evidence in the region shows that the people of the Laurel Culture had an extensive trade network. At the campsite examined by the researchers, a flake of obsidian was found in 2008. It can be crafted into sharp edges. Its source was traced to Gulch Bend, Idaho.

Lac la Croix PictographDSCN9114.JPG
Pictographs found in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and adjoining Quetico Provincial Park in Canada are believed to have been created by Ojibwe artists. This image is among those found on Lac la Croix in the the Boundary Waters.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

Knife River flint from a specific location in North Dakota and copper from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are among the materials archaeologists have identified throughout the area, evidence of a defined trade network.

Those interested in learning more about the history of the first people in the area can visit the Bois Forte Heritage Center and Cultural Museum on Lake Vermillion. The information there includes a map showing known village sites of the Ojibwe throughout the area.

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There is much the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness can tell us too. It is really an archaeological preserve in that limited development has occurred, Johnson pointed out.

He noted that the challenge today is to tell its human history so that we can respect and understand it, and yet not encourage those who would illegally disrupt the landscape in search of artifacts. It is illegal to remove any artifacts from the BWCAW, and that is defined as any human-made item 50 or more years old.


There is much yet to learn about the first people in this area, but what we do know is easy to understand. This was both home and loved by those who made it so.

The waterways and footpaths we explore in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness today were well-trodden and traveled by the first people who made this area home after the glaciers receded.

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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