If it is a good place to camp...

Chart 1:  Data presented by ecological setting  Chart 1:  Data presented by ecological setting.

“If it is a good place to camp …”

Josh Krecklau and Matt Stolzman screening soil from a shovel test on a dispersed campsite near LeechThere is an old adage that “if it’s a good place to camp today, then someone probably camped there before.”  This “hypothesis” was recently explored on the Chippewa National Forest (CNF) using Geographic Information System (GIS) tools and CNF databases.

The CNF has been a destination for campers since its inception in 1908. The oldest developed campgrounds on the Forest were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. There are currently 635 campsites distributed between 21 developed campgrounds across the CNF and an additional 113 backcountry campsites located throughout the Forest.

The CNF also includes over 3000 archaeological sites that are also located throughout the Forest. These sites range from over 10,000 years in age through the relatively recent past. Over half (52%) of the 134 camping areas on the CNF include or adjoin an archaeological site.  Conversely, only 4% of a set of 173 random points placed across the Forest include or adjoin an archaeological site. Thus, it seems like there may be something to the old adage.

The Forest Service uses a land classification tool called the Terrestrial Ecological Unit Inventory (TEUI). This is a system to classify ecosystem types and map ecological units at different spatial scales which makes it a more useful tool for examining the potential ecological setting of campsites or any other locations, such as archaeological sites, on the CNF. The range of ecological settings in the TEUI was grouped in the following forest type categories and treated as categorical variables for this study: pine forest; northern hardwood forest and lowland forest.   

The 134 camping areas were grouped according to TEUI categories. The results showed that 62% of the camping areas were in pine forest settings and about 7% were in lowland forest settings. Pine forest TEUIs make up only 24% of the CNF and lowland forest settings comprise more than 31% of the land base (Chart 1). 

The same process was used to classify the 224 Late Woodland (LW) sites located within the CNF boundaries (Chart 1). Late Woodland is a term used by archaeologists to describe Native American cultures in the period just prior to contact with the Europeans. In northern Minnesota this period was between about AD 600 and AD 1600 and is characterized by distinctive pottery styles as well as the development of the bow and arrow and more intensive use of wild rice.  

Given the generalized stability of the northern Minnesota environment over the past two millennia, contemporary ecological models such as the TEUI can serve as reasonable estimations for the vegetative communities likely present in the LW period. The data revealed that 61.1% of LW sites were located within pine settings and about 10% within lowland settings. Comparison of the locations of camping areas and LW sites indicated that there is a statistical similarity between the distribution of these two data sets indicating that people were selecting comparable ecological settings to camp.

A series of 173 random points generated across the CNF were also classified using the same process (Chart 1). The distribution of the random points was not statistically related to either the camp sites or LW sites, but was similar to the distribution of TEUIs across the CNF.  In other words, neither camping areas nor LW sites were distributed evenly across the Forest based on ecological classification, whereas the random points were evenly distributed. This supports the premise that camping areas and LW sites were selected based on their ecological setting and not based on a random pattern.

Another noteworthy point of departure between the random points, LW sites, and camping areas is their proximity to permanent, open water.  Over 90% of the LW sites and camping areas are adjacent to water (within 50 meters), whereas none of the random points are adjacent to water. The CNF includes over 1300 lakes and is crisscrossed by hundreds of rivers and streams, including the Mississippi, so you are never far from water.  

We have learned that both LW sites and camping areas are more likely to be in pine forest ecological settings that are next to water and that the random points do not follow this pattern.  We also know that over half of the camping areas on the CNF include or adjoin an archaeological site. Does this mean that a good place to camp today was a good place to camp in the past? At this point it is fair to say that “if it is a good place to camp today,” is as good a hypothesis for predicting the presence of an archaeological site as any other approach.

The results of this study will be presented at the Midwest Archaeological Conference to be held October 10-12 in Mankato, MN.