Three Generations of BWCAW Rules Videos – Side by Side

It’s as ubiquitous of an experience as one can find tied to a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters, and the memories of it are deeply rooted in my childhood as they are for many who make the annual pilgrimage north to paddle the border waters of canoe country. Even now, I can close my eyes and think of the Gunflint Ranger station off of 61, my dad turning us into the parking lot, strolling through the doors past taxidermied wildlife into the scent of an old log structure, and sitting down to the Leave No Trace/Rule Video. The music and the words are so etched into my memory that I could nearly say each line along with the video. Each generation of enthusiasts, it seems, has the video they can associate with trips here. Each era of videos has its quirks, its charms, and is an essential part of the Boundary Waters experience. This week, we’ll look back at the last three generations of rules videos, compare and contrast them, and celebrate how they have contributed to thousands of wilderness experiences over 30+ years.

Before strolling through the archives of LNT-rules-based memories, it’s important to outline which versions of the rules videos we’ll be detailing. Even though some rules videos can have decades of tenure, their content may be updated or changed along the way. For example, after the 4th of July 1999 storm, a clip was inserted to explain the storm damage and the fire risk that followed. Or, after the new videos came out, the third segment was overhauled to include more rules-based content than it originally had. For this article, we’ll compare the newest videos to their predecessors: a circa 2008 video and the video before the early ‘90s rule update, circa 1992 for the version we had. As part of the comparison process, we’ll look at the focus of each video. What seems to be the intent? How long is the run time? What issues seem to be most important? From there, we’ll take a dive into content. We utilized typed transcripts of each video to compare which content is included and omitted. This included 71 key phrases I narrowed down from four categories. The first category is rules and regs specifically mentioned on Recreation.gov or on the back of the permit. The second is regulations not on the permit that still apply to visitors. The third is prerequisite skills and knowledge, things all visitors should know for their safety and for the benefit of their experience and the experiences of others. And finally, the fourth category is bonus information that helps the visitor understand and appreciate this wilderness more fully. These four categories sum up the apparent purpose of the videos. They also tie directly into the Forest Service’s directives in managing a high-use recreation site like the BWCAW. I’ll also be trying to present these with as minimum of a bias as I can since, though I have my sentiments and my preferences, this is not meant to be a critique of one version over another. In any case, here are the three candidates.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness - Leave No Trace

Year of Video Compared: 2008
Produced By: Pro Video Productions, Inc. - Duluth, Minnesota
Run Time: 9 minutes and 31 seconds
Phrases Included: 49/72

Though, chronologically, this video comes in the middle of the three, I am highlighting this one first since it's the most familiar for anyone introduced to the Boundary Waters in the last 20 + years. The first few lines of music are tied to so many memories that I would instantly recognize them anywhere. In exploring the content of the video, the focus seems to be "what rules do you have to know before going into the BWCAW?" without much superfluous content besides. This makes perfect sense as it's one of the primary reasons the video exists, but it can mean that some phrases and information are omitted for the sake of direct communication.

Category 1 - Rules and Regs from the Permit: I chose 28 phrases to look for in evaluating the videos. These rules adorn the back of every permit issued, and it would make sense that they would also be included in the mandated video viewing. Of these, 22 are specifically addressed in the video; one more is partially covered. I counted ones as partial if they got midway through the intent of the rule without using the full phrasing. For example, in the 2008 rules video case, the phrase from the permit is "Walk in single file in the middle of the trail, even when it’s muddy." However, the video only went so far as to say: "Whenever possible, stay on established trails and portages and, when you stop, set your gear and watercraft on rock or bare ground because even a little human traffic will damage vegetation." It's not the full intent, of course. The purpose of saying "single file in the middle of the trail, even when it's muddy" is to remind visitors not to expand existing trails. The video does not obviously address this. Other omissions include "keep the campsite small", "never leave a campfire unattended", "no food in your tent", the dog regulations, and the firework regulations. Interestingly, none of the videos included dog regulations or firework regulations.

Category 2 - Bonus Rules and Regs: This category includes twelve rules pertinent to visitors enforced by the USFS or other agencies and not included on the permit. Eight were covered at some point in this video. One omitted phrase "You as a group leader are responsible for all party members to know the rules." This is an important issue especially as LNT issues have flared up the previous few years. It's also an intriguing one when framed in light of the current video format, but I'll address that later. Other omissions include firearm regulations, rules about interacting with the Quetico (and the Canadian border in general), and canoe registrations. These are all unique as they are not specifically USFS rules to enforce. That said, it seems pertinent to tell a group heading on a Boundary Waters trip what they are allowed to do around the international border. It also seems appropriate to briefly remind people to abide by state laws while doing on their BWCAW trip.

Category 3 - Prerequisite Skills and Knowledge: This category and the one that follows stray from the rules and into the broader purpose of the video. If the intent is to inform the user on what they HAVE to know going into the wilderness, it seems wise to address not only the rules but the skills required. The opposing viewpoint is that someone should be responsible for knowing what they need before heading on a trip, and the last-minute video won't fix that. However, too many utterly unprepared people have been rescued to invalidate the fact that more available information can't hurt! If one more person is aware of the potential dangers on a wilderness trip during the rules video, and this prevents a rescue or worse later on, then I think it is worthwhile! This video included twelve of the possible eighteen phrases from this category plus an additional "partial" again. The partial was "How do you know you have found a campsite?" It mentions that all campsites have a fire grate and a latrine, but doesn't give broader tips for spotting the campsite from the water, a potentially valuable skill for brand-new wilderness travelers. Omissions include "outfitters are a valuable source of information," "how to plan a wilderness trip," "consolidate your gear," "planning a trip for solitude," and "bring a saw, leave your axe at home to minimize risk." These are all valuable pieces of knowledge that range in importance from improving one's experience to preventing injury. Whether they are necessary in a video is up for debate, but I believe that if a person does not carry the knowledge included in this section with them, they are not set up for success on a wilderness trip. Importantly, this was the ONLY video to mention wearing a life jacket and portaging around rapids. I'm stunned these were omitted in the newest video considering how many wilderness accidents are directly tied to these two issues.

Category 4 - Facts and Information: This is the category where this video let down a little bit, only including six of the twelve phrases due, in part, to this video's focus on clearly presenting the rules. Omitted was content such as a brief history of the BWCAW, a note about high visitation levels (a lower concern during this video's time), information as to why maintained campsites exist, packing out live bait, alternative experiences to the BWCAW (such as national forests, state parks, and so on), and alternatives to a canoe trip (such as hiking.) I can see why the video omitted the last two, though they're included in another video (more later.) With this video shown at the time of permit pickup, it seems a strange time to present people with the alternatives. That said, I believe that the alternatives are an essential piece of information that should be driven because the wilderness is not for everyone. Some other experiences give that sense of wilderness without the physical toll, the risks, or the level of consequence of being underprepared.

Leave No Trace - A Wilderness Ethic

Year of Video Compared: 1992
Produced By: Pro Video Productions, Inc. - Duluth, Minnesota
Run Time: 20 minutes
Phrases Included: 56/72

Though dated in its rules and regs, this classic video with heart-wrenching wilderness scenes, obligatory violin accompaniment, and a run-time that makes it more of a documentary than a rules touch-up may struggle to hold up to the rushed attention spans of today's wilderness-goers. That said, this video maintains a marvelous viewpoint seemingly more focused on explaining the the purpose behind the rules rather than simply spilling a list of regulations or offering suggestions to make your trip fun. Due to a run-time longer than all the newer videos COMBINED, it also delves into rich wilderness ethics and a solid history of the place itself. I believe some of these things to be VERY important as they convey the purpose of Leave No Trace and the value of the BWCAW itself rather than just giving visitors a list of the things they should not do. It's also fun to see the variety of gear used versus on newer video: old Mad River kevlars, leather and canvas portage packs, and sawyer paddles are well-featured throughout.

Category 1 - Rules and Regs from the Permit: It's important to note that rules and regs were different in 1992 than today, so I evaluated the list in light of any discrepancies by swapping in equivalent regulations (such as 10-person limits instead of 9.) This video includes a whopping 24/28 rules phrases I was looking for in this category, only omitting "burning trash is illegal," "no other mechanized equipment is allowed" (though they did address motor zones), and the dog and firework regs that none of the videos covered. Overall, it does fantastic job conveying the rules and the purposes behind them. As stated midway through the video, "There are firm, enforceable rules to help us leave no trace. When you agree to follow these rules and adopt other good camping practices, you really are making a pact with future generations."

Category 2 - Bonus Rules and Regs: The 1992 video covered 8 out of the 12 phrases from this category, only missing "don't remove artifacts," firearm regs, "do not build camp furniture," and "don't obstruct the portage." Interestingly, this video included three phrases from this category that no other video did. One was making sure all party members know the rules and know they are responsible for them (the newest videos just graze this topic.) The video sums it up by saying "Group leaders must sign a Forest Service visitors permit and honor the regulations printed on the back. All members of the party should study them closely." I was surprised this hasn't been included more as it seems like a no-brainer. In any case, it's enforced in-person and a reminder is given at the ranger station if a group leader is picking up without their group. This video is also the only one to address canoe regulations: "all canoes must be registered with the state of Minnesota or with your home state." and Quetico regulations "For one thing, you need to know that US canoeists crossing north into Quetico’s provincial park must clear with both Canadian customs and a Canadian ranger." These were omitted in the other two videos as mentioned above. Perhaps this information was written-off as superfluous since it falls outside the USFS enforcement purview, but it still seems valuable information to include.

Category 3 - Prerequisite Skills and Knowledge: Fourteen out of the eighteen possible phrases from this category were included. Omissions included "tell family and friends your plans," "consolidate your gear," "always wear a life jacket," and "portage around rapids." All four of these, interestingly, are sound risk management advice. Once again, this video also included some information that no other video included. One example was the role of Outfitters: "You also can plan your trip in consultation with one of the knowledgeable outfitters in the canoe country. the outfitters know the area and their challenges. They can recommend routes that match your schedule, wilderness know-how, and expectations." and "The outfitters will be able to supply you with the right canoe for your purpose, the right tent, the right sleeping bag, the right pack, the right maps and they will be able to advise you on a thousand other details." Curiously, no other video includes more than a brief mention of cooperators. Perhaps it was decided to be unnecessary, but acknowledging the importance of the outfitters as a valuable source of information seems a nice inclusion. It was also the only video to give clear advice on finding a campsite from the water: "You generally can spot them from the water by a good landing site, a clearing in the trees, and a fire grate." This advice can only help save new groups' time. It also was the only video to suggest bringing a saw and leaving the axe at home. I find the advice solid as far more people get hurt with an axe than a saw in canoe country, and far too much damage has been done to living trees in campsites by idiots with an axe, but I digress. It's probably non-essential and can be covered well in other instructional materials.

Category 4 - Facts and Information: This category is one of the places a video of this length can shine; shorter videos simply do not have the space for it. This video focuses heavily on ethics: why are these rules important, and why is this place so special? Of the twelve phrases included in the category, this video covered ten. This included content far above and beyond what the newer videos do. A section of the video covers the natural and human histories of the region. There is mention about catch-and-release fishing and why maintained campsites and portages exist. These lines of thought strive to cultivate a deeper understanding and respect of wilderness in new visitors beyond just a "you must do this" list. It's also the only video to include alternatives to a BWCAW canoe trip, something I think is valuable for people to be aware of, though maybe earlier than the day of permit pickup. "One of the first decisions you will have made long before you reach this point is whether the BWCAW is really for you. In sites outside the Boundary Waters, there are many forest experiences available that are less demanding, less isolated, have some amenities, but still give you a sense of wilderness. You may want to stay at a resort or a campground and make day trips into the wilderness. If it’s fishing you want, you might find what you are looking for on some of the lakes bordering the Boundary Waters that are stocked by Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources. But if you’ve settled on our canoe country you are in for an adventure of many dimensions. There will be days of water-born magic. On land, there are hiking trails of varying lengths. Here, winter has its charm. you can find seclusion and silence." There has been some push for this information outside of the rules video, and perhaps the video is not the place for it. However, I feel that if there was a broader understanding of the wide array of available recreation resources, then perhaps the pandemic wouldn't have impacted the BWCAW as strongly. This video does an amazing job of investing the viewer in the gravity and the importance of wilderness and leave-no-trace ethics.

BWCAW Visitor Videos - 3 Parts

Year of Video Compared: 2021
Total Run Time: 9 minutes and 10 seconds
Phrases Included: 45.5/72

The newest rule video came out around the time of the pandemic. The original release was met with a great deal of criticism, leading to an overhaul of the third video. The post-edit content is what we are evaluating in this article. Another somewhat controversial decision split the newest video into three segments, two to watch at home (sent via email) and one to watch at permit pickup. This reduces the time spent watching film on permit-pickup day but, as the somewhat realistic cynic might say, increases the chance that much of the content goes entirely unwatched. With this in mind, I have included an * alongside any information shown only in the first two videos as this information is not enforced viewing in the same way and, realistically, some percentage of problem-causing groups have done so because they skipped viewing content. The apparent intent of the newest video seems most focused on providing a positive experience to visitors while shying away from a hard-nosed, rules-enforcement focus that the USFS has at times been. One could argue this step back contributes to groups not taking the rules seriously, but the inverse has also been argued that pushing too hard gets people to go to greater lengths at rules infractions. In any case, the newest videos definitely take on more of a "these are strong suggestions" air.

Category 1 - Rules and Regs from the Permit: The newest video included 22 out of the 28 phrases from category one plus four partials.* The partial inclusions were addressing the "9 person, 4 watercraft rule," "burning trash is illegal," "drown fires until they are cold to the touch," and "walk in a single file line on portages even when it's muddy." As mentioned above, these partials were counted as such because, though they addressed some of the purpose of the rule, they didn't seem to expound as fully as the permit. One of the most essential rules in the BWCAW permit system is that nowhere in the wilderness area is a gathering of more than nine people or four watercraft allowed. It doesn't matter if you have more than one permit, it doesn't matter if it's at a waterfall, campsite, or portage, and it certainly doesn't matter if you're "just traveling together, not camping." This has been a serious and consistent issue for the past few years. The rule exists because larger groups exceed the size of existing durable surfaces and thus expand portages, trails, and campsites. The newest video included the phrase "Each permitted group in the Boundary Waters is limited to nine people and four watercraft. That includes paddleboards and kayaks."* and later "The nine-person four watercraft rule applies at all times." Interestingly, they never expound on how that rule applies regardless of whether you have different permits or any of the scenarios above, something both old videos take time to do. Saying burning trash is illegal gets mentioned in a less stern way "Burning trash, including food, paper products, cigarette butts in tinfoil harms, air and water quality." more as a "so you know" and less as a rule. Drowning fires until cold to the touch became "Always douse the fire with plenty of water. Stir the water into the ground to make sure there are no embers." And "Walk in a single-file line on portages, even through mud puddles." became "stay on established paths to help prevent erosion." The only rules completely omitted are the dog and firework rules, which the other videos also lack.

Category 2 - Bonus Rules and Regs: Interestingly, the newest video only has five of these phrases in their entirety including "stay on established paths," a brief note on firearm regulations (the only video that includes this), not taking artifacts: "Please don’t remove natural, cultural or historic artifacts," "pack it in, pack it out," and a note about congestion at high-use areas and portagesThis video sort of skirted the issue of making sure all group members know the rules "Share this video with the other members of your group using the link below, so that everyone knows what to expect."* Some of the omissions seem pretty important, and it is fascinating they are not part of the new video. It's never stated that the rules presented are law, enforceable with consequences, something both previous videos do. Instead, the rules are presented more as guidelines, a potentially dangerous precedent considering the past few years. Some leave-no-trace issues were also not addressed such as not burning driftwood or beaver wood, not building camp furniture, and not trenching your tent (though, arguably, tent trenching has fallen far enough out of favor to be unnecessary.)

Category 3 - Prerequisite Skills and Knowledge: The new video includes nine out of eighteen phrases, with one partial about going to outfitters for information. Interesting omissions include "what to do if a bear comes into camp?", "Wear your life jacket," "Portage around rapids," "specific measurements for hanging a bear bag," "filter your water," "how do you know you have found a campsite?", "planning a trip for quiet," and "saw instead of an axe." Uniquely, it was the only video without information about what to do if a bear comes into camp, a reminder to filter your water, and specific measurements for hanging a bear bag (old videos provided guidelines on distance from branches, trunk, and ground.) It is the only video to mention consolidating gear ahead of time. It also emphasises wilderness emergency management with more information about planning and communication than the other videos.

Category 4 - Facts and Information: Finally, the newest video includes six out of twelve phrases in the fourth category with the only mention of packing out live bait made in any of the videos (a big deal in controlling invasive species in the wilderness.) A brief note about BWCAW history was made (something the 2008 video omitted.) However, there was no mention of future generations (a perspective-generating language the previous videos included) or any of the BWCAW alternatives.

The BWCAW Leave-No-Trace video is invaluable in helping maintain a wilderness character in such a heavily-used wilderness area. It helps educate and inform groups before they take to the water, hopefully sticking with them throughout their adventure. This equipts well-educated and rule-abiding groups to stay safe and treasure this incredible place in the most responsible ways possible. The video has changed much over the years. Each iteration is integral to thousands of first, second, or 50th permit days. For that, I treasure them. Each has their strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and unique qualities. Each, I hope, helps make for a better, cleaner, more wild wilderness. Even in busy years where rule-breaking seems an all-too-common norm, hopefully they can continue to be a vital tool in educating future canoe groups whose joy it is to travel the age old trails. Which video is your favorite?

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.

1 Comment

  1. Tom on December 27, 2023 at 4:24 pm

    This is excellent. Like you, the permit pickup process and watching the video is part of my BWCAW memories. Thank you for taking the time to research and compare these videos and the regulations.

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