Dorothy Molter + Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness

Contributed by Anthony Myers

Deep in the north woods of Minnesota lies the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).  It has stolen the hearts of many, some even before its official creation.  However, its song has touched the life one individual specifically: a lucky lady named Dorothy Molter.  She was privileged to call this vast expanse of wilderness home for more than 50 years.

The Pennsylvania native’s first visit was to the little Isle of the Pines Resort situated on Knife Lake, south of the Canadian border.  The year was 1930 and she was 23.  In light of the Great Depression, Dorothy was drawn to a world where money and finances were less of a priority.  She returned nearly every summer to assist the owner, Bill Berglund, at the Resort.  It was clear that the serenity and entrancement of the landscape had taken over her life.  At the passing of Bill Berglund in 1948, Dorothy became the official owner of the resort and continued its operation for another 38 years until her death.  During the latter years of her time on Knife Lake, the BWCA became officially protected in 1978. Dorothy endured pressure to leave what had become home at the Isle of Pines.  Thus, she was the last living human resident of the BWCAW.

Her motivation in life could be summed up in one word, Kwitchurbeliakin (Quit-your-belly-aching).  Simply defined, “Deal with your problems. Do what needs to be done. Don’t waste time belly-aching and complaining when you could be working, achieving and making things better for yourself and others.”  Though she lived quite remotely, even through the harsh long winters, Dorothy was visited during the summer months by canoers young and old.  Ironically, Dorothy is quoted to have enjoyed the winter the most. “I like the winter the best, even though the thermometer here has fallen as low as 57 degrees below zero. I never tire of tramping across the frozen lakes or through the deep silence of the forest in winter.”

Her signature mark of hospitality was offering weary travelers a glass of homemade root beer in addition to miscellaneous medical services.  Originally trained as a nurse, she was happy to assist numerous people in the middle of nowhere.  “People get themselves into the darndest scrapes,” she told the Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1952. “You’d think that after … years of North Woods nursing, I’d seen everything. But I’m always finding new ways a human being can hurt himself.”

The song of the Boundary Water continues to influence thousands of canoeists each year and the respect for Minnesota’s wild north only seems to escalate.  In light of recent proposals for new controversial sulfide mining operations (and economic growth) within the Boundary Water watershed, many have taken a stand to protect its precious waters.  One couple even spent an entire year canoeing and snowshoeing in the BWCAW to raise awareness. As of December 2016, the mining proposals have been denied and fresh water will continue to flow untainted for now.  It seems clear that Dorothy Molter was not the only individual, who in a time of financial uncertainty, fled to the north woods only to find an abundance of wealth.

Thanks to the Dorothy Molter Museum, in Ely, Minnesota her spirit of adventure, hard work, and loving kindness lives on in the Boundary Waters.  Even her homemade root beer is still available today to commemorate the unbridled spirit of north woods and those who seek to not necessarily to tame it, but to join it.

Photo courtesy of the Dorothy Molter Museum

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