Faculty member shares findings from Boundary Waters


In the most recent installment of the sabbatical seminar series, geography professor Evan Larson presented his research titled “Weaving together tales of people, fire, and place to examine the concepts of wilderness.” The sabbatical seminar series gives faculty members who went on sabbatical the opportunity to present sabbatical projects and research to their peers.

Larson’s seminar was split into three different segments: What is wilderness, Wilderness and the BWCAW (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) and The Hobbit inspired “There and back again a sabbaticals tale.” The main point of the seminar was to educate the audience on the human influence on wilderness.

The first part of Larson’s seminar was mostly about what wilderness is. For example, he started off by asking all in attendance to close their eyes and think of what wilderness looks like. Most people stated water, trees, rocks, forest like areas, etc. Larson then talked about the similarities between wilderness and wasteland and how they can mean the same thing.

“The goal of the research is to understand why the boundary waters is the way it is” Larson said. He stressed the importance of how the world is going through “incredibly dramatic and tumultuous change in our ecological systems” and how humans have influenced this change. As well as how we as inhabitants of Earth have the responsibility to understand what we’re doing to Earth now and also in the future.

The second part of the seminar was all about the research that was conducted over the course of many years and during the sabbatical. The main portion of this section of the seminar was about “examining tree rings, researchers reconsider the history of human influence in the Boundary Waters” Larson said in his article in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.

The Minnesota Conservation Volunteer is a bimonthly magazine produced by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Larson’s research on the history of human influence in the Boundary Waters was published here. It was “one of my life goals to publish in this magazine” Larson said at the seminar. “Next up is National Geographic, that’s our next goal,” Larson said about his published research article.

Over the course of the sabbatical, Larson stayed at a cabin near Brainerd, Minnesota. He also traveled on seven different trips into the BWCAW to conduct his research. The point of the trips of the BWCAW trips was to conduct research to “help guide the management of the BWCAW—an iconic Minnesota landscape—by considering the role of people in its history.” According to Larson’s article in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, the research suggests that some of the sights and landscapes of the wilderness in the BWCAW are due to the “legacies of the region’s cultural history.” The bulk of the cultural history of the area rests with the fur trade route that went through the area in the 1700s and 1800s.

To aid in his research, Larson worked with University of Minnesota (UMN), Professor Kip Kipfmueller and UMN research specialist Lane Johnson as well as students from both UW-Platteville and UMN. The research was funded by a National Science Foundation grant. Larson also worked extensively with the U.S. Forest Service and the Superior National Forest service wilderness and archeology specialists. The Superior National Forest operates the BWCAW located in Northern Minnesota.

The third part of the seminar was an overview combined with information about Larson’s research.

Larson said that “the point of sabbatical is to give an opportunity to fully immerse into something,” which is exactly what he did over his sabbatical.

“This sabbatical sitting in this cabin in the woods, fully silent just me and the data having a really good conversation. That part of it was really important in not just getting the work done but in really understanding the deeper implications of what it is we were finding,” Larson said of the sabbatical with a big smile across his face.

This summer junior geography major Adam Donaldson will be continuing the research Larson started by working in Cloquet, MN for the summer. Donaldson’s proposal is “Investigating the Relative Importance of Climate and People in the Historical patterns of Fire to Inform Management of Red Pine at the University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry Center (CFC).” Specifically, Donaldson is carrying forward work started by the fall 2016 geography seminar students, who were led by Larson. So far, the data the class has collected suggests that “past Ojibwe tribes used fire to tailor the landscapes to their needs,” Donaldson said. This summer he will be continuing the work at Camp 8 near the Cloquet Forestry Center to “determine what factors drove fire in the past and to provide information for the management so they can best determine the future of fire at the CFC,” Donaldson said.