By Howard Meyerson
Ramsey Dowgiallo was 17 years old and stricken with pneumonia when he first read about Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. His mother bought him a book about it. He’d long been a fisherman and outdoor enthusiast.
But it would be another 13 years, before he would get there, the result of a chance invite by a friend. Dowgiallo had long since forgotten about the book.
His trip to the 1.3 million acre wilderness region, with its boreal forests, Canadian Shield lakes, wolves, wildlife and abundant fishing, seemed to capture his imagination. One might say he heard the call of the wild.
“I fell in love with it,” said Dowgiallo, a Detroit native who lives in Novi and now spends six months a year in Ely Minnesota where he operates Wilderness Journey, an eight year old outfitting and guide service in the BWCA.
“There is a huge history in just the portages. Some are 400 to 500 years old. They were used by the natives and by the fur traders. There are 40 different pictograph sites, major waterfalls and it’s just a gorgeous and very addicting place,” said Dowgiallo, a presenter at the Ultimate Sport Show opening at DeVos Hall in Grand Rapids Thursday. He will give two, hour-long talks about the BWCA at noon and 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
The BWCA is the historic homeland for the Ojibwa people. It has more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes and extends nearly 150 miles along the U.S/Canada border adjacent to Quetico Provincial Park to the north and Voyageurs National Park to the west. The area was set aside in 1926 by the US Forest Service which sought to preserve its wild character. Congress then added it to the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964. It draws approximately 250,000 visitors each year.
Dowgiallo, now 50, makes 10 to 12 trips into the wilderness each season, guiding individuals and groups who want to savor its varied treasures. He may go for as much as 10-days at a time. More typically the trip may be four or five days.
Most, he says, initially come for the fishing. But many of those find something special there too and return in subsequent years with the intention of shooting wildlife and other nature photographs, much as he did.
“The fishing there is incredible,” said Dowgiallo, who grew up fishing with his father and
grandfather. “But as time went on I became a wildlife lover and photographer. I am amazed by some of the things we see. Last year we saw a dozen wolves trying to take down a 10-point buck on the first day of a trip.”
Wolves, loons, moose, beaver, black bear and bobcats are just some of the wildlife found in and among BWCA’s woods, lakes and rivers. The wilderness area has over 1,000 lakes where anglers can also catch northern pike, walleye, perch, whitefish, lake trout and bass.
The late Sigurd Olson wrote extensively about the Boundary Waters and its natural history. He was one of its most ardent supporters and a staunch proponent for wilderness designation. Olson was the noted environmentalist, college dean and BWCA canoe guide who spent much of his life working to protect BWCA along with other federal wilderness areas like Voyageurs National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
Olson died in 1982 but not before becoming president of the Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association. His legacy is carried on today in the work of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College in Ashland Wisc.
“I have found that people go to the wilderness for many things but, the most important of these is perspective. They may think they go for the fishing or the scenery or companionship but, in reality it is something far deeper. They go to the wilderness for the good of their souls,” Olson is quoted as saying.
Olson’s sentiments resonate with many of Dowgiallo’s clients be they doctors or auto-workers. The wilderness has a way of touching some deeply.
It is that experience he hopes eventually to bring to inner city children, the offspring of those, he says, “who know nothing else but city life,” and something special he would like to give to those who are hearing-impaired.
Dowgiallo grew up in a household with deaf parents. He is fluent in American Sign Language. Both are now dead, but he remains beholden to the memory of each.
“I’ve never met a hearing impaired person out hunting and fishing,” Dowgiallo said. “But there is no reason they can’t get out there.”
Dowgiallo’s presentation will focus on the beauty of BWCA and what people will find there. He’ll cover what’s necessary to go into the BWCA wilderness and enjoy it. His outfitting service provides all the necessary equipment along with cooked meals.
If you’ve ever thought to give BWCA a try, Dowgiallo’s presentation will bring it to life. It’s likely to stir your imagination as it did his so many years ago.