Wilderness Canoe Base
by Rob Kesselring
When I have encountered other adults while traveling through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness I have sometimes asked them, “Is this your first trip to the BWCA?” Their answers are often the same. “Oh no, I first came here many years ago as a child…I was a camper.” With that disclosure a sparkle brightens their eyes. They might go on and talk about a “Y” camp, scout camp, church camp or a school group, but there is always a recollection of a special moment when they caught the wilderness bug.
The adolescent canoe camp adventure inspires an appreciation for wilderness and a joy for traveling by canoe, and camping out under pine shaded forests and star-studded skies, all the while uninhibited by the trappings of modern civilization. Even more, the challenges of wilderness travel infuse their souls with the values of courage and perseverance. As sticky as balsam sap on their fingers those early formative experiences pull them back again and again. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty and fifty years later.
Wilderness Canoe Base on Seagull Lake is one such formative canoe camp program with a long, storied, and challenging history. Like many great accomplishments, this camp began as a simple idea by a group of courageous newly ordained Lutheran ministers who believed that institutionalized, troubled, and at-risk youth from urban Minneapolis could experience a spiritual awakening and turn their lives around by paddling the wilds of northern Minnesota under trained, capable, Christian leadership.
Supported and encouraged by their Luther Seminary mentors, their parents, volunteers, local land owners and the trustees of the Plymouth Christian Youth Center (PCYC), The Wilderness Canoe Base was hatched in the early 1950’s and a rustic camp on Seagull Lake was built. On June 18, 1957 a group of boys from the Juvenile Correctional Facility in Redwing, Minnesota were the first of many to benefit from the camp’s wilderness canoe trips that commenced and ended at the base.
Through diligence, dreams and drudgery the camp quickly grew. Land was acquired, training protocols were established and traditions emerged. The camp earned a stellar reputation as being a pioneer in “no trace” camping practices. It partnered with the Forest Service to acquire several log cabins that needed to be moved off BWCAW lands. In all, 16 cabins were bought. One of these structures was the Pinecliff Lodge. Built by a crew of skilled Finnish craftsmen in the 1930‘s. This 80-foot long structure was considered the “crown jewel” of historic BWCA buildings. All of the log buildings were meticulously disassembled and moved to the camp across frozen lakes, over portages, and sometimes at temperatures colder than 30 below zero. A major mishap occurred when a truck, pulling the longest logs from Pinecliff Lodge, went through the ice! Only the buoyant logs kept the truck and driver from going to the bottom of the lake. The camp enlisted volunteers far and wide for an arduous rescue. To the disbelief of many, the truck and every log was recovered and pulled to the Wilderness Canoe Base’s Fishhook island site. Each log was stripped of its original finish with a drawknife (drudgery) and the 15 cabins and lodge were reassembled. Staff, campers and volunteers all pitched in. Pinecliff Lodge was reassembled to all its grandeur during the summer of 1959. Unfortunately, before it came into service, Pinecliff burned to the ground. Undaunted, a new lodge, Pinecliff 2, was built on the ashes. Whenever faced with adversity, the staff and supporters of Wilderness Canoe Base responded with undiminished vigor and faith.
PCYC continued to operate the camp until 2002. Always on a shoestring budget, but always putting kids and faith first. Over 40,000 youngsters have benefitted from the camp. Lake Wapogasset Lutheran Bible Camp, Inc. of Amery, Wisconsin agreed to manage the camp’s ministry and programming in 2002 and continues to do so to this day, but not without challenges.
In May of 2007, the infamous Ham Lake wild fire burned 75,000 acres of forest on both sides of the Gunflint Trail. Almost one third of the 138 structures destroyed by this massive burn were part of Wilderness Canoe Base. Of the camp’s 60 structures 40 were consumed by flames, including all but three of the historic buildings acquired and moved to the camp in the late 1950’s. Within a year the camp raised over $300,000 to rebuild. This response to adversity demonstrated to the campers, once again, that perseverance can overcome any obstacle. Just as a calm lake mirrors the visage of a paddler, the stalwart and resilient history of this camp reflects back into the character of those brave campers who accept the challenge and the promise of the paddle and the gospel.
The camp currently offers seven-day wilderness canoe trips and programs that blend canoe trips with service learning. These trips are for youth that have completed at least sixth grade. There are also hiking trips, family trips and structured work-service experiences. An average of 700 campers attend programs every summer. During the shoulder and winter seasons, the camp is available for adult retreats and seminars. Expenses incurred leading youth on wilderness canoe trips continues to rise. The Wilderness Canoe Base has a half-century policy to serve every youth who wishes to attend camp and uses donations to make Camperships available for those with the greatest need.
There is no better guarantee that the special protections of the Quetico-Superior will be maintained and even enhanced than by the introducing the joys of canoe camping to the youth of America. Environmental causes vying for the attention and support from citizenry will only increase in the decades ahead. What causes will stand out? None will have more pop than commitments forged by campfires. Youth camps on the borders of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and Quetico Parks create lifelong devotion to wilderness camping, kindled by childhood memories. The Wilderness Canoe Base on Seagull Lake is one of the finest.
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This article originally published in Wilderness News >