Oufitters say it's business as usual in Boundary Waters areaby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Bemidji, Minn. — Heavy rain over the next couple of days is expected to keep the massive Pagami Creek wildfire from spreading in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
That's good news for businesses in the Ely area that worry campers and paddlers will stay away because of the fire. Some outfitters aren't taking any chances. They're using blogs and Facebook to reassure their customers that the Boundary Waters remains open for business.
When the Pagami Creek fire grew into a raging wildfire last week, employees at Piragis Northwoods Company outfitters in Ely kicked their online social networking tools into high gear.
"What I began to do on our Facebook and blog simultaneously, and some on Twitter, was to get that update out there as soon as we got it," said Tim Stouffer, the company's marketing director.
Stouffer, who also writes a blog for Piragis' website, said that at first there was a public misperception that the entire Ely area was on fire. He said the internet was an invaluable tool to put out accurate information, especially for customers who had trips planned into the wilderness.
Stouffer blogged the latest information from the U.S. Forest Service, but he also posted pictures that people took of the fire. He posted maps and videos. Stouffer said many people have a deep connection to the Boundary Waters, and they were hungry for information about how the fire was affecting their favorite vacation spots.
"We got a lot of positive feedback," he said. "I think we kept people informed and it really is, I consider it kind of a lifeline for us to be able to do that and communicate with people that way."
Some outfitter companies in Ely worry about the financial aftermath of the fire. They're concerned the loss of an untold number of popular campsites will deter some campers and paddlers from returning to the wilderness. Stouffer plans to use his blog to show people what the fire damage looks like.
"We aren't going to sugarcoat it for folks," he said. "But it will make things a lot easier because you can show people, and the old adage, 'a picture is worth a thousand words,' it's true. To be able to show them what an actual campsite looks like after the fire went through and what places look like now, I think that's vital, too."
About 40 miles east of Ely, Bill Hansen runs Sawbill Canoe Outfitters on the southern edge of the Boundary Waters area. Last week, the Sawbill was in the direct line of the fire, and for a while things looked bleak, he said.
But the rain is easing his concerns, and today the place is open for business for the first time in eight days.
Hansen said that during the worst of the fire, his newsletter blog was a vital link for his customers. He estimates that well-wishers sent him about 1,000 emails and calls, and the blog on his website had never received so much traffic.
"Our previous record, which was during the Ham Lake fire, was a little over a thousand individuals looking at it a day," he said. "Last Tuesday we got to about 3,500, so [it] definitely set a record for viewership.
Even though some campers might stay away for awhile because of the fire, Hansen expects others will be curious to see the fire damage and the gradual rejuvenation of the forest.
"Our experience from the big Gunflint fires is that the business builds back fairly quickly," he said. "There's definitely a downturn the year or two after a devastating fire, but then everything turns green again. It's a different kind of forest but it has its own beauty and people very quickly adapt."
When that green-up happens, Hansen and other Boundary Waters bloggers will be there to write about it online.