In this episode, we talk to Steve Piragis, the co-founder of Piragis Northwoods Co about his journey of starting an outfitting business, learning about how the Boundary Waters Wilderness got established and how it’s changed over time, and what he loves about the area. I hope that you enjoy this podcast and find the information below helpful.
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Can you tell us a bit about the BWCA?
The Boundary Waters has been around since the original wilderness act of 1964 as one of the original 10 wildernesses that were designated and a lot more since then. 1.1 million acres were set aside, it’s on the Canadian border, contiguous with the Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, which is another million acres. So, combined over 2 million acres of wilderness that are shared and kind of a very special geographic area and geologic area. The glaciers were nice enough to pass through here and carve out some of this really hard rock into about a thousand lakes and left behind ridges and valleys that were filled with water and we have contiguous lakes that probably one could paddle or ski or snowshoe for the rest of their lives and never see them all. because there are so many. There are people who like to go on trips every year like you do, and mark their maps and show the lake they’d been on, but after 20 years, there’s still lots of lakes you haven’t been on. So it’s unique geographically and geomorphologically. There’s no place really like it on the surface of the earth. I don’t know where there are this many lakes in this small of an area on the edge of a boreal forest.
What are the access points to get to the wilderness and what are the different towns?
Entry points and to get into the Boundary Waters, you need a permit, at any time of the year, but obviously very busy in the summer. And there are just 23 entry points around our little hometown of Ely. There are more, on the other side, we have two sides to this Wilderness, you can kind of look at it as the East and West and we’re the west. To drive around to the other side, the Gunflint side of this, of this beautiful park, it’s takes us about three hours to drive around to a place where you could probably paddle to in about a day and a half. The Gunflint side is the eastern side. It’s accessed off the Gunflint trail and there are another 20 or so access points over there, entry points. So, lots of ways to get into it and Ely is sort of, I think in the center of it all. And we kind of consider ourselves a canoe capital of the world here.
There are over 40 something outfitters in these combined areas. And the number of access points really helps. It never really feels crowded at any one of those places, which is incredible how spread out they’ve put these access points.
How to get to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area?
If you’re traveling from out of state, chances are you probably going to come into Minneapolis, either fly in or now drive in and head up to Duluth, MN area and then you’re going to go either East or West, whether you go to Grand Marais or go West to Ely and get most of the access to the Boundary Waters is through those two towns.
A lot of our customers fly from all over the, all over the country. They either fly to Minneapolis and rent a car or they fly to Duluth and we can arrange shuttles or they rent a car from there.
It’s about two hours from Duluth to the Canadian border where we’re located in Ely.
How busy is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area?
It’s pretty accessible. It’s one of the most popular wilderness areas in the country with around 80,000 permits given out every year and if there are three people in a permit that’s 240,000 people. But, you can easily lose the crowds here.
The forest service administers this because it’s part of the superior national forest. The Boundary Waters is well-regulated and for the last, at least 30 something years that I’ve been here or 40 something years I’ve been here. We haven’t seen a situation where there’s tremendous overcrowding in any one place, the forest services designed the system so that you are, you enter at a designated entry point, that’s based on your permit application. And once you’re in, you’re in, you can go wherever you want and camp, as long as you camp on one of the designated campsites. So it’s not like you have to reserve a campsite. You just reserve an entry point and from there you’re on your own. This was our busiest year ever and because of the pandemic, people were looking, seeking wilderness, and seeking outdoor experiences. So we’ve never had a summer quite this busy in the Boundary Waters. And we managed to take on more customers and more wilderness travelers than we ever have in the past and I think everybody had a great experience.
So if you’ve never been to the BWCA, is it something that anyone can do if you? Do you feel like backpacking experiences required or necessary? Or are there ways to do the BWCA for even a beginner?
I think it’s definitely a great place for beginners to learn about the wilderness for their first trips, whether their first time. As a student or as a boy scout or girl scout or as an elder who’s never done it before because it’s a user-friendly place. I think of it as the easiest wilderness trip you could do and still have that real feeling of being in a remote wild place. We’ve done a lot of backpacking and hiking and day hiking and backpacking in the mountains and spent a lot of time in the deserts. Each place has its unique and wonderful feel about but having a canoe and being able to take comfort items and not have to carry them very much.
What do you like about the portaging experience of the trip?
There are some entry points where you don’t have to portage at all, but portaging is a beautiful part of the experience really because you get to see the land as well as the water. So that’s an opportunity to see stuff that you don’t see while you’re paddling. We always take two trips on every portage because we take a lot of stuff and we like to be comfortable and we don’t mind walking the portages twice. So if there’s a portage, that’s a half-mile long, you know, and up walking at three times, right over back and back again. So you’ve got a 1.5-mile walk and you get to see what’s growing, what’s in the woods. The plants and birds and mushrooms and all kinds of stuff that you wouldn’t see if you weren’t portaging,
Can the boundary waters be done easily as a “glamping” backpacking trip?
Well, we did that this summer because we took a family trip with some friends who had three daughters and the two of us and, and my wife and I, and we did a tow in.
You can get a motorized tow into some of these more remote places on the edge of the Boundary Waters. One is up the Loon River into a black LaCroix. Black LaCroix this year was much quieter than it’s ever been because the Canadian side of the wilderness was closed and that’s on the Canadian border so we had the whole Lake to ourselves basically, and we took the motor tow. We didn’t portage at all and we brought a Yeti cooler. So we had cold food and cream for our coffee every day, it’s pretty nice. And we saw some beautiful campsites and caught a lot of fish and hiked a few portages just because we wanted to see what you could see off of Black LaCroix. There are so many ways to enjoy the Boundary Waters without any portaging at all, or doing 12 portages a day for six days in a row if you want. If you’re young and hardy and you really want to do a major expedition, you can do it. It’s just a different mindset.
Starting Piragis Northwoods Co
How many years have you been going into the Boundary Waters? When did you start?
Gosh, you know Reet, Nancy and I got here very luckily from New England in 1975, seems like only yesterday to us really, but it’s a long time ago, I guess. And she and I were in grad school out at the University of New Hampshire studying zooplankton of all things and limnology. And we got a job here in Ely for the summer as contractors with the EPA, the environmental protection agency, it was doing a study on Shagawa Lake, which is the Lake here right in town that had been a little polluted by the city of Ely over the century of mining that had gone on. And it was slowly cleaning itself up and we did part of the work that was necessary for a mathematical model of the Lake as it cleaned itself up. And we discovered Ely not knowing anything about Minnesota or the North Woods or the Boundary Waters, and just got so lucky to end up right here on the edge of this great Wilderness. Fell in love with it on our first trip and came back from new England again in 1976 to do more study on Shagawa. And at the end of 1976, we were Ely residents!
Were there Outfitters then, or were you one of the first Outfitters and how did you get started into starting Piragis?
Well, we can’t claim that we were one of the first. There have been Outfitters around, especially in Ely since the 20s. This has been a destination for wilderness travel since the 1920s and probably earlier but it’s evolved to be a major destination since then.
How did you decide to start Piragis Northwoods Co?
We started our outfitting business, our retail, and our outfitting business in 1979. We worked here on a couple of biologic projects for a few years and taught at the community college for a couple of years. And by 1979, we had a nice little house in town and were enjoying and loving the Boundary Waters and loving this little town of Ely and we just didn’t have anything else to do. I was interested in alternative energy and I started selling wood stoves out of my garage. And, along came a fellow who said,
“you know, you guys love the Boundary Waters you ought to sell my, my line of canoes.”
So I said, yeah, you know, canoes are a whole lot lighter than wood stoves. I’d rather sell Canoes! We metamorphosed pretty quickly into a wilderness shop in downtown Ely and over the last 41 years, we’ve kind of grown by accretion. We keep adding on to our store by buying other pieces of property around us.
Are you still in the original location?
It’s not the original location, we moved three times before we got here, but I think that was about 1982 by the time we got here and started buying the stores around us. And now we’re going to build a new one across the street from us this next summer. We’ve kind of outgrown our outfitting division, it’s building. Part of that building was our outlet store and it’s been a good business for us, to have an outlet store. So, we’re going to build a new outlet store across the street from our original store and our original outfitting department and expand that business. We’re not giving up, we’re still growing, I think, and my daughter has taken over a lot of the business. So we’re leaving a legacy.
What was Boundary Waters like back then in the 70s when you first started going? Were there still designated campsites? Were you seeing more wildlife, less wildlife? What are some of the big differences then, can you take us back in time?
Well, the major differences, there were more motorized routes back then, the Boundary Waters was a little bit smaller. In 1978, the Boundary Waters wilderness act passed. It was in 1964 was part of the wilderness, a group of wilderness areas in the United States, but it expanded in 1978 with the Boundary Waters wilderness act. It took away some of what had been designated motorized routes and snowmobile routes that were within the wilderness. It was a little bit different than some of the wilderness areas out West, which had banned all motorized use. I think Senator Humphrey and vice-president Humphrey, he was part of the legislation that initially made the Boundary Waters and he was kind of hoping to please everybody, including some of the locals here and the people in Minnesota who liked to use motorboats. So by 1978, a lot of that had been eliminated, the wilderness got a little bit bigger. It was a shift, I think, between seeing a lot of people with motorboats on the main street in Ely to seeing almost everybody with a canoe on their roof. There’s no place in the world, I don’t think, where you can go other than Ely, Minnesota, where you’ll see more cars with canoes than cars without on an August day.
How does the BWCA bring people together and create special memories?
It is, it is a unique culture here where people come out of the woods and talk about what they saw and what their campsites were like and what about the wind on Tuesday? And gosh, did you see that storm that brewed up a Thursday afternoon? It’s exciting to be here when you’re amongst a group of maybe at one time maybe 5,000 people are in the Boundary Waters at one time and this million acres of wilderness and they all have stories to tell. The thing that impresses me is that we’ve been here all these years and there’s people been here longer than us and these folks that are now I’m pushing almost 70, we get some older folks then even old people like me who come in and say, yeah, I was here in 1948 when I was a boy scout.
And they remember what lakes they were on and they remember the route that they took. It’s just such a memorable thing to people who have done it. You don’t remember even where you lived in 1975 or 1965, but you remember the lakes you were on. You were carrying cans back then and Duluth packs and that’s changed since then, but it’s still a beautiful wilderness. One thing I’ve noticed too Reet is that the trees grow bigger, a lot of the Boundary Waters had been logged in the early 1900s and late 1800s. Since 1975, I’ve I think I noticed that these pine trees, especially the big White Pines have gotten bigger, I guess we would expect that wouldn’t we?
So that had to be some of the heaviest packs and canoes you were moving around back then. The stoves, the fuel, the canoes are probably all aluminum. You just had to be a lot stronger back then!
Well, I was actually! My dad was a boat dealer in Athol Massachusetts. He sent me out here with a Grumman canoe. He said, you’re going to Ely, Minnesota, you got to have a canoe. And the summer of 1975, I drove my little Volvo out here Grumman canoe on the roof, not knowing what I was going to find. I took a lot of back roads from Grand Marais to Ely. I thought I was in the middle of nowhere and all of a sudden I pull into Ely, it’s an Oasis. A town bustling with people on canoe trips and I’ve got a canoe! So Nancy and I took off, I think the second or third weekend we were in Ely after we got established with our research. We did our first canoe trip into Hagman Lake where there are some beautiful pictographs and that was it. It was love at first sight.
You remember like it was yesterday too so it must be something about our first canoe trips that really stay with us.
I remember I couldn’t catch any fish! I don’t know why, but it took me a while to figure out how to catch fish out here, that’s kind of a big part of the experience for us anyway, is having a meal of fresh walleyes or Northern pike, or, you know, bluegills or whatever it is you’re catching. We always bring the cast aluminum griddle and enough oil and batter, so that we can always have a fish meal if we’re lucky.
What is some of the new outdoor/canoe gear that you really like?
Kevlar Canoes now weigh 40 pounds my old Grumman weighed 75. So I cut 35 pounds off really quickly.
Carbon Fiber Paddles
The Carbon Fiber paddles are what we always use now, these days instead of 72-inch long wooden paddles that we used to use in the seventies. So a little 52-inch long carbon paddle that weighs, seven or eight ounces, you gotta watch out so it doesn’t blow away.
What a difference, you know, we had what, white entitled white pads back in the seventies that we slept on, they were about half an inch thick and you could feel every rock underneath you if there was any.
Nowadays now there’s, self-inflating like the Nimo pad that you can pump up with your foot. It’s three inches thick and you feel like you’re sleeping at home and you’re on your Serta. So that’s been a big difference.
The tents have evolved to become a lot lighter. I think we started out with something that probably weighed 12 pounds. Back in the forties, of course, then when boy Scouts were using canvas tents, they weighed 20 pounds. And our first nylon tent that we used was probably a Eureka Timberline, they might’ve been nine or 10 pounds. And now, the tensor, four or five pounds. So things have changed a lot, everything’s lighter, but that means we probably bring a little more fresh food and when we’re not, portaging maybe a cooler and some frozen food and, and some real pleasures, like cream in the coffee.
Picking up a 75-pound canoe was probably not good for anybody’s back or, and before that wood canvas canoes after a week maybe weighed 90 pounds. So, so everybody’s a little healthier now. I think they come out of the woods feeling better and they go a little further with a little less work, but then you see a little more wilderness because things are lighter.
You also reduce the risk of injury as getting into the canoe around the sketchy rocks, putting in and out. That could be tricky with a really heavy canoe.
What do you rent vs needs to be packed prior to the trip?
There is soup to nuts. A lot of people have here have sleeping bags and tents and they bring their own and we supply everything else. A lot of times people just rent canoes from us because they don’t have a $3,000 Kevlar canoe and we have 140 of them to rent. We do a lot of just canoe rentals, but what we call “full outfitting” out here is everything basically from sleeping gear and food and cookware and tents, the canoes and the paddles and all, everything that you would need. A tarp, cause it’s kinda nice on a rainy day to have a place to sit outside and chairs. If you want to take them, we offer everything.
What outdoor equipment do you not rent?
The only thing we don’t provide with a full outfitting party is a water filter because water filters tend to be used up over time. We invite our customers to buy their own, bring a water filter instead of us renting them one and fishing gear.
Fishing gear can be pretty basic. If you’ve never done it before and you want, you want to do a canoe trip, it’s not a bad idea to buy a license and just buy a cheap rod and reel. And we sell those combinations here in the store for $30 and a couple of rappels and that’ll get you going, probably catch a lot of fish. So those are the things that we don’t provide, but everything else, whatever you need, if you want to run a pack or just a sleeping bag, we’ll do that too. A lot of people flying in from New England or if you’re flying in from Florida or California, probably not gonna want to bring too much with you.
I think we, as an outfitter, have absolutely the best, the highest quality of every piece of gear that you can imagine. And we sell it all used at the end of every season. So we start next spring with brand new gear, the first person that rents in May, when you’re the first one here, you’re going to have everything that is brand new. Tents and sleeping bags and a canoe that has no scratches on it. It’s a little intimidating, but most people get over it.
The high-end gear [price] really adds up. If you’re not sure you’re getting into backpacking and you’re not doing it all the time, everything that you guys provide is probably a couple of thousand dollars, even without the canoe.
And backpackers have generally a smaller, lighter, internal frame pack. We use canoe packs, which are bigger, a little bulkier maybe, but easier to pack and easier to put into a canoe. And we have food packs that are lined with foam so that they keep the food from overheating and staying cool. It’s just little things that make the Boundary Waters a little bit different than backpacking and the experience that people have, they learn over a period of time what works and what doesn’t work as well.
What’s the best time to visit the BWCA? How is the BWCA different in different seasons?
The summer season starts here in May when ice out usually happens at the end of April or the first week of May. So the water’s cold, there are no bugs. The fishing season doesn’t open until the middle of May. So that first week there are not many people around that’s for sure. There are people that show up as soon as the ice goes out, they somehow keep track of it and they’re here the day the ice goes out, but a really good season gets underway, gets busy about the 1st of June. And that’s a little bit a buggy season, people especially from Colorado, for some reason, those folks who don’t like bugs try to avoid the month of June, but the month of June is also the most active period of time for birds singing flowers, blooming. It’s a, it’s a beautiful time of the year. And if you choose a campsite on a point out in the breeze, the bugs won’t be as big a problem, as you might imagine.
July, from about the 4th of July until the middle of August, that’s our busiest season. Lots of boy scout groups and girl scout groups and lots of families and church groups and permits are a little harder to get. But, it’s also the warmest time, there is good swimming, there’s still good fishing. Things are mellow cause it’s mid-summer and it’s, and it’s warm. We do occasionally get a 90-degree day here, but a warm day in Northern Minnesota is usually about 80 degrees, 75 to 85, somewhere in there. That’s a great time for, for kids, I think, and bring in families.
By the middle of August, things start to slow down a little bit, and towards labor day, we have a very busy weekend on labor day weekend, but right after Labor Day, it’s relatively low key. Fewer people, cooler water obviously, and nice sleeping weather, nights would get cool and a beautiful time to be out. Things start to change. As the leaves change at the end of September and into the middle of October and basically, it’s lights out about the 15th of October things start to freeze up here this year. Especially, but yeah, that’s the seasons.
When does the winter season that start in the BWCA? Is there a date that gets announced that the lakes are frozen?
We had people ice fishing here last week, but then we had 70 degrees this weekend so that all ended. We don’t get snow that sticks around until the end of November early December and lakes. Big lakes don’t freeze until sometimes the middle of December. So if you want to be safe and do a winter trip, I think it’s really from Christmas on until the middle of April and cold, short days when you talk about December and January, we’re pretty far North.
When do the BWCA permits open? How to get a BWCA permit?
The forest service has a website, recreation.gov and the Boundary Waters is part of that system for getting permits. The permit system opens up at the end of January. We certainly keep track of it and with our website Piragis, we keep everybody informed of what’s going on. You don’t really need to get a permit on the first day. The system opens, a lot of people do get a permit, but really there’s plenty of permits available and lots of entry points available until into the summer.
But if you decide last minute, it’s July 10th and you think maybe we’ll go next weekend and you look online. There’s still probably going to be a few permits left. They might be the entry points where you have to take a Portage right away to get into a lake.
Start early, plan your trip, call us, call an outfitter to help with what you need. You gotta stick to that entry date, so if you chose July 12th, that’s the date you gotta be here, July 11th, early on the 12th, because that’s the only day that you’re allowed to enter. After that, once you have that permit, you can stay as long as you want, go wherever you want from that entry point and then have fun.
What are the different areas and entry points for the BWCA? How are they different?
We like to work with our customers and find out what they have in mind. Waterfalls? Lots of portages? Lots of lakes? A round trip? Where you enter and spend six days traveling and coming back. Wildlife is basically ubiquitous. There’s probably not a lot of places where there’s any more or less wildlife, there’s a chance of hearing wolves, maybe even seeing one or two, there’s a chance of seeing bears, hopefully not in your camp, but you keep your camp clean and avoid bears. There’s always the opportunity to see a Moose, mostly while you’re paddling on a quiet stream somewhere is a good opportunity to see Moose because they’re in the water a lot in the summertime.
Geomorphologically, there’s not a lot of difference between the East and the West. There are just different routes, different amounts of time, different amounts of portages. Some people like our family group, we just, one or two families, we just go into a big lake and just set up one or two campsites over the course of a week and travel and do day trips and really relax and fish a little bit and enjoy the campsite and the conversation and do some hiking into other lakes or portaging into other lakes, but coming back to our campsite every night. So that’s a different kind of trip. Rather than day in and day out foraging and finding new campsites and resetting up camp, which we also do. It just depends on the individuals and what they had in mind and what they find enjoyable.
What is something that you love about the Boundary Waters? That’s different from other wilderness areas? I know we’ve talked a lot about wildlife and different things, but what do you get out of it personally? Every time you go in, come back out.
I always think about that and it’s almost subconscious, but when you’re, at least in this wilderness area, and probably true in others as well, but what I see is my mind changes. I focus on what I’m doing at the time and forget about all the superfluous chatter that goes on in your head. And you kind of focus on the present and this wilderness area and more than others has a subtle beauty. It’s not the Grand Canyon, for instance, it’s not Yosemite and El Capitan. It’s a subtle beauty of lakes and sunsets and skies full of stars and, and loons calling and campfire activities and being with friends and taking time to just lay back, relax, and, sit on a rock and you’re in your little comfortable chair watching, a family of Loons swim by. And so many things that attract your attention that keeps your mind occupied. That’s what I find is so enticing about wilderness in general, but especially the Boundary Waters. I hope other people feel that too. I think they do, most people, it takes them a day or two to relax, to get into that mindset.