Benny Ambrose and the Boundary Waters

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John Tuma’s Capitol Update – The Summer Version

Lobbyist John Tuma tells the story of Benny Ambrose, a lover and defender of the Boundary Waters who just wouldn’t be overpowered by government and forced to abandon his wilderness home.

“What in hell are they going to do with those gol’ damn snow machines? Are the politicians going to sell the country down the river or what? Well, jeeminy jumped-up Christmas. If …. they got to have a place, don’t have them go through here.”

Benny Ambrose
Legendary BWCA woodsman
September 1, 1977*

In the 1960s and 1970s during the height of the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness conflict, Benny Ambrose was the cause celebre for those that supported relaxed motorized access. Ambrose was one of the last permanent residents within the remote wilderness residing on Ottertrack Lake along the old Voyagers route just west of Saganaga Lake. His homestead was over a dozen miles from the nearest road, the end of the Gunflint Trail. Local interest opposing efforts to expand the wilderness protections often pointed to the way the U.S. Forest Service treated Ambrose, trying to forcibly remove the World War I veteran from his residence which was his home since the 1920s.

In a curious irony, it was clear from the quote above that Ambrose detested “those gol’ damn snow machines.” As snowmobiles started to expand into a recreational activity in the 1960s, the numbers exploded within border country. Areas that would take hard work and strenuous portaging in the summertime became easily accessible in the winter on the machines that easily glided across the blanket of winter snow. The old Voyagers highway became a popular snowmobile destination, quickly turning Benny’s once tranquil Ottertrack Lake into a superhighway of snowmobiles. The ear-piercing screams of their engines passed by his cabin at all hours.

Simply pointing out the contradiction in a pro-motorized use movement would be a great disservice to the legend of the great border country woodsman. As the conservation movement presses further into the 21st century it is examining Ambrose’s life and his desire for simplicity as he chose to forsake the comforts of modern life to connect with the wilderness.

In 1910, 14-year-old Benny ran away from his farm home in northeastern Iowa due to a difficult situation arising from the remarriage of his father. The young lad had dreams of panning for gold on the Alaskan frontier. After seven years he only made it as far as Sioux City, Iowa, working odd jobs. It was then 1917 and he enlisted in the United States Army to serve with distinction in World War I. Benny was a member of the renowned Rainbow Division. The 42nd division of the United States Army was given the distinction as a rainbow division by its Commander Douglas MacArthur. He called it the Rainbow Division because its members were made up of 26 different state National Guard units. The tradition prior to this was that each unit was made up exclusively of soldiers from your own state, but the Rainbow Division intentionally intermixed soldiers in its units from different states with the goal of making one cohesive American fighting force.

Ambrose’s Rainbow Division was one of the first to reach the front in France. This highly decorated division saw some of the most intense fighting during the brutal combat that marked World War I. Of the 28,000 men who served in the Rainbow Division, over 12,000 suffered serious injury or death during their two years of combat duty, the largest casualty count of any U.S. division in the first Great War.

The mixing of the different state units actually turned into a blessing for the young GI from Iowa. He became good friends with an Ojibwe Indian from Grand Portage, Minnesota. Surely during the long cold nights in the trenches of the French countryside he heard stories of a glorious expanse of interconnected lakes weaving their way through pristine forests in a land that was waiting to be explored. Of course, there was a possibility the land was filled with opportunities to prospect for gold. Upon his honorable discharge in 1919 he headed north. In Duluth he boarded the steamer The America on his way up the north shore. He took odd jobs in Hovland for a year before he eventually worked his way up the Gunflint Trail. The famous trail was then only a simple dirt path used by loggers and a few early adventurers heading to the remote fishing and hunting camps on Gunflint Lake.

He was absolutely taken by the beauty of the land he learned about in the trenches of France. The resourceful Ambrose quickly learned from longtime trappers and indigenous Ojibwe people how to eke out a living on this unforgiving expanse of the Canadian Shield where the rivers flowed north to the Hudson Bay. He was a woodsman’s woodsman. He trapped, prospected, and soon gained a reputation as one of the best fishing guides in the north woods.

In the 1930s he met his wife Val at a local resort. She was a medical student on a breather from the intensity of her schooling, working at a lodge on Saganaga Lake. She fell in love with the romance of the North country and the rugged woodsman. Val bore him two daughters in the wilderness, but sadly the strain of the wilderness life and the often wandering husband took their toll. They had a peaceable divorce and Benny’s girls would spend much of their summers with their father on Ottertrack Lake.

By the mid-1960s the Forest Service was intensifying its efforts to acquire all private land still within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Benny’s property was one of the last and he had no intentions of selling. His confidence in staying was bolstered by the fact that he served as fishing guide to some of the most powerful men in America. Presidential Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, senators and wealthy businessmen made up his clientele. He was no backwoods recluse. He loved people and his clients loved making camp with him. He was a legendary storyteller and was always quick to give you his opinion on politics. A strong Republican, he never missed an election or a chance to tell you his views on current events.

As the tension with the Forest Service escalated, a confrontation appeared inevitable. Old Jackpine Bob Cary, a Chicago newspaper man who frequented the border country often and later retired there, relates the story of when the U.S. Forest Service paid Benny a visit in the 1960s to serve condemnation papers on him. “He glanced at them, but didn’t read them entirely. He knew what they said because it had been explained to him. He turned the papers over, looked out the window thoughtfully, sighed, then looked back at the man. ‘You go tell your boss,’ he said evenly, ‘that I’ve got a loaded .30-.30 Winchester sitting in the corner of this cabin, and the next person in a uniform who steps on my dock is going to get blown into the lake.’” **

Eventually the U.S. Forest Service recognized it would be a public relations disaster and simply stupid to forcibly remove these last few committed wilderness residences. They allowed a handful, including Ambrose, to live out their last years in their small homes they diligently hued out in the wilderness. Ambrose lived well into his 80s. He was a resourceful resident, carefully cultivating his own garden on the rocky soil by hauling gunny sacks of beaver pond muck when the water was low or rich Iowa farm dirt after making his annual visits to his relatives in Iowa. After the Forest Service realized his removal was not an option they wisely enlisted him as a volunteer to help monitor forest conditions and assist distressed campers.

Even though he himself used a snowmobile and small motorboats in his later years, he strongly believed in the protection of this one refuge for wilderness travel. He even testified in support of the initial creation of the no-fly zone in the late 1940s, despite the fact that it hurt his successful guiding business. He did this because he believed, “Canoeists got to have an area of their own.”*

Because Ambrose was made to appear a martyr by the pro-motorized use movement opposing the wilderness designation, it may be easy for wilderness advocates to dismiss his place in wilderness history. What you see in the life of Benny Ambrose is one of solid consistency. He is a great American hero who escaped to the freedom of the American wilderness and he simply wanted to live out his last years in peace and harmony with that wilderness home. Fortunately, the U.S. Forest Service also recognized the reality that he was no more than any other camper who falls in love with our great north woods. He was just a little bit more resourceful in surviving his long trip of nearly 60 years.

What you might find more interesting than his opposition to motorized use in the BWCA is what he had to say about mining in northeast Minnesota. Check in next week for Ambrose’s views on nonferrous mining in the wilderness.

*”Benny Ambrose: Life in the Boundary Waters,” Ralph Wright-Peterson, Minnesota History 54 (Fall 1994): p135.

**”Rootbeer Lady,” Bob Cary, page 157

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