Across the BWCAW there are campsites big and small. Some have shallow water and sandy beaches, others sit perched high upon rocky outcroppings. Some sit close to shore while others are tucked back into the forest. Some are perfectly suited for a single tent while others could easily accommodate the maximum 9-person group and then some, but every campsite in the Boundary Waters, no matter where it’s found or what the size, has a few things in common. One of those is the lowly fire grate. These too, just like the campsites in which they are the centerpiece, vary tremendously. In checking my notes for this piece, I found that I have personally visited some 350 campsites in the BWCAW and paddled past countless more. There are familiar aspects of course to each of them from the common log benches, the stone piled around the grate, and the trails emanating out from the camp kitchen, and there are some themes seemingly weaving through the sites (see our article from last year.) There is also astounding variety and in the wonderful individualism of campsites we can learn something about the wilderness itself and the marvelous history to be found here. In this article, we’ll dive into the fire grates of the BWCAW, explore some of their history, and celebrate the fascinating variety that can be found across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
As part of the BWCAW regulations, all groups must camp at established campsites outside of special circumstances (PMA permits, winter on-lake camping, and so on.) Across the wilderness, there are some 2000 campsites with hundreds more spread across the surrounding non-wilderness national forest. As the managers of the National Forest land, the USFS oversees the management of these campsites including the initial establishment of fire grates and latrines and their occasional replacement. With this in mind, there are a staggering number of fire grates in the wilderness, not only the 2000 currently in campsites, but also the hundreds scattered either sitting as replacements in USFS stores, broken grates waiting near portages for the next equipt ranger to haul out, a few “forgotten” grates in PMA’s and off-route sites, a few leftovers in sites closed by fires, and an unfortunate few cast aside by destructive campers (intoxicated or otherwise) sitting on the bottom of wilderness lakes and ravines. Since grates and latrines are only replaced when absolutely necessary (it’s a ton of work to haul such materials through a wilderness area), the grates found in the BWCAW are each a snapshot of the era in which they were installed, the rangers who installed them, and the hundreds of campers who’ve shared stories, dinners, smores, and countless memories around them. Here are some of their stories:
To understand wilderness fire grates, it must be explained why they exist in the first place. Per the USFS regulations, “Fires are allowed only within a USFS fire grate. Don’t build a fire on a windy day and keep fires small.” In a heavily used area like the BWCAW, campsites and fire grates exist in order to concentrate use to minimize landscape-wide impact. Since the vast majority of wildfires are human-caused, fire grates help contain campfires to a set place usually isolated from quickly combustible materials and often contained with stone to prevent runaways. Their set heights help discourage oversized bonfires that are more likely to spread. These grates also help to minimize soil damage in much the same way portage trails seek to. If people use the same spot over and over again, they will create a higher level of impact in that space but a smaller amount across the landscape. Campfires are capable of sterilizing the soil beneath them. Having established fire grates helps to contain this impact.
From my earliest BWCAW trips, I became fascinated with the rich variety of everything: the forests, the fish, the rocks, the lakes, and the campsites. My very first BWCAW campsite was one on Daniels Lake, a small site bisected by the Daniels Spur Trail of the BWCA. It was small and cramped and the occasional hiking group would walk right through the camp kitchen, but there was magic in it. In the many campsites since, I have come to appreciate the diversity of sites. In fire grates specifically, there are grates up against huge boulders, some with half a canoe behind them or an old logging pully, some right down by the water and some perched on an overlook, and everything in between. I found it pretty fascinating to pull up to a site that I had never visited before and see how things were built. I began to notice though that there were a few different styles of grates to be found in the BWCAW and this fascinated me. What was their story?
The oldest fire grates commonly encountered in the BWCAW are the “even rung grates” with 11 spaces in between. These grates were often installed with a portable rock drill and set directly into the bedrock. If you look at the tops of these grates, they were installed with a flat-head screw. Many are visibly old and rusty now, but there’s something about their visual symmetry that’s appealing to me. Their installation is described in the Routine Maintenance and Projects in the BWCAW Handbook as follows “At one time air hammers were flown in and used to drill holes to set grates on shelf rock. Now, many grate legs from that era are rusted through, or soon will be. We no longer drill rock in wilderness, but in many locations, the old drilled holes can be used as anchor points. The grate can be chained to pitons set in the old holes or in cracks in the rock.”
It’s incredible how much these grates can put up with year in and year out of getting used for countless campfires, spending decades out in the freezing snow and spring melt-water, and all the unforeseen hazards. I am always amazed to stop by a site where a wildfire has come through, utterly erasing thousands of acres of forest in every direction, and the old fire grate is sitting there on the rock seemingly untouched. Since a willfully destructive or ignorant camper is just as likely to break a grate as any force of nature, many of the best examples of the even-rung grates are now found on hiking sites or in the more remote stretches of the wilderness where they have seen less use or where their corrosion is less likely to warrant a replacement.
When one of the old grates requires replacing, there are a few courses of action the USFS may take. In my experience, if a grate is going to rust away, it’ll often first fail at the base of the legs. If the legs fail, the rangers will likely cut off the old legs and replace the entire setup with a brand-new grate. The newer grates in canoe country are the “varied spacing” ones with a wider set of rungs on the outside narrowing down to the middle. They are oftentimes installed with some form of Allen-wrench head and will not be drilled into the bedrock the same way as the old grates.
The Routine Maintenance and Projects in the BWCAW Handbook provides some insight into the replacing of fire grates: “A fire grate should be replaced when its feet (crosspieces) have rusted off so it can be pulled out, when legs are rusted through or broken, or when enough tines are broken or it is so warped as to make cooking difficult. To replace a damaged fire grate take an unassembled one out, making sure before you head out that the hardware fits it, that the feet are included, and that you have the right tools. The easiest way to carry fire grates is to tie them to a hard pack board. The method for installing the grate will be determined by its location on either rock or soil.”
Anyways, if you poke around a campsite, specifically one on a major thoroughfare with a new style of grate, you are bound to come upon evidence of the previous one. You’re looking for four perfectly circular holes created by the rock drill often with four nubs of rusted metal inside of them. This is what’s left of the legs. Some of the rangers installing grates “back in the day” were not super focused on how their grate placements impacted LNT standards (or just camp kitchen practicality) and so you’ll often find these old grates in the “photo-perfect spots” either right next to the water or right next to the cliff edge. One or two of these still exist out on hiking sites where the grate is within feet of the water.
Other times, if the legs haven’t quite rusted out yet and it’s just the grill service that’s broken, the rangers may opt for a top replacement. There’s an occasional grate out there with a new top and old legs or some mixture of new and old bolts. Remember, these incredible rangers are performing campsite maintenance while hauling grates by canoe and by hand. Replacing bolts instead of carrying in a new grate is a much more efficient solution for everyone involved!
There is some variety from grate to grate in how they were built and when. Some grates have the welded triangle inside the legs, some outside. Some rangers chose to install the grate top with the USFS on the left side others on the right.
Some campsites sit on State-Owned Land within the BWCAW (something many trippers are completely unaware of) and thus have a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources grate instead (though the USFS often performs maintenance for these campsites also. State-owned land found in the BWCAW predates the forming of the wilderness area but can be found spread across the landscape. An easy way to tell if a campsite is on state land is the fire grates themselves will say “MN Department of Natural Resources” where they usually say “U.S. Forest Service.”
When installing a new fire grate, there are a few methods recommended described in the Routine Maintenance and Projects in the BWCAW Handbook. The Dig-In method is the best practice in the handbook because it’s easier to replace and less time-consuming to install. “Assemble the new grate. Place in the hole, so that the top is about 10” from ground level. Use a water bottle as a level, and check from at least two vantage points to make sure it’s level. The biggest, heaviest, rocks possible should be laid across the feet as anchors. Flat-bottomed rocks are most stable. Sometimes a windbreak rock can be set in place at this stage so it will be partially buried. Add rocks around and on the anchors by fitting them together like a jigsaw puzzle. Make sure the grate stays level while you do this. Pounding smaller wedge-shaped rocks between a leg and big rock will help anchor it. All the rocks, with the exception of windbreak rocks, should be below ground level. When the process is completed, the grate should be as though set in cement when you yank on it. Mineral soil should be filled in around the rocks up to ground level.”
Throughout the arrowhead region of Minnesota, the bedrock is very close to the surface. In the BWCAW, this means many campsites are set on open rock shelves where the Dig-In method is simply not possible. It makes sense why old-time rangers just brought a rock drill! In modern times, if the Dig-In method is not possible, the handbook recommends the “Alter” method. “If the grate must be on bare rock, the ‘altar’ method may be the only choice. An assembled fire grate with cross pieces should be leveled on the desired spot. Place large, very heavy rocks on the cross pieces, and set others around them until the grate is immovable. Enough rocks should be used so the legs and cross pieces are hidden, but not so many that it takes on the aspect of a massive monument. Set flat rocks about 10” below top for fire to be laid on. Don’t expect this installation to be as quick as a dig-in. It takes time to find the perfect rocks and set them artfully in place. When well done, people are less apt to mess with it.”
The fire grates of the BWCAW are part of the wilderness story. They stand testament to the rangers who work hard to maintain this place for the future. They enchant us with the memories of trips come and gone and evenings spent around the campfire. And they remind us of this wilderness itself, its fragility, and just how many people visit this special place every summer. Some tell the story of fifty summers and winters and old rangers of the past who set them into the very bedrock itself. Some remind us that all things are temporary and fade away, as their legs rust apart and tops begin to warp. The next time you find yourself sitting in a Boundary Waters campsite, look for the stories it tells. Who has used this site before? What was this place before it was a BWCAW campsite? Which ranger designed the placement of a fire grate, camp kitchen, and tent pads? Perhaps you can find evidence of old buildings or logging camps. Maybe there’s a segment of chain nearby or the legs of a long rusted firegrate still buried in the rock. As the smoke from your campfire rises up through the rungs of the old grate and the smell of an evening meal wafts through the pines, dwell on the thought of the hundreds of fires this grate has seen in its days in canoe country. Yours is not the first and hopefully not the last in the long history of this humble Boundary Waters fire grate.