Remembering a legendary Minnesota hunting and fishing guide
They say, “only the good die young,” but I say it is the truly great ones who leave us early. News that Bill Slaughter had passed away earlier this month at the age of 59 sadly validates my belief. He was one of the greatest guides the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness region has ever seen.
Slaughter was born and raised on the Piney Ridge Resort on Shagawa Lake in Ely, Minn. He spent his childhood and early teen years exploring the rivers, lakes, and woods of the Canadian/Minnesota border well before it was designated a wilderness area and off-limits to powered watercraft.
He would tell stories around the campfire about strapping square-stern canoes on wheels and running them across portages with all the fishing gear, gasoline, and motors. He and his buddies would run way up into the far reaches of the lakes and camp, explore and fish. When the area was designated a wilderness area, off-limits to motorized watercraft, Slaughter saw an opportunity to guide, and he used his knowledge of the resources to provide some exceptional trips to individuals who appreciated the extra care you get with someone who knows every nuance of the region.
I met Slaughter in 1991 when my son, Jason, moved up to Ely to work at a resort with a high school friend. Slaughter was doing handyman work at the resort and they became friends. I was invited to take a trip up into Crooked Lake with Slaughter, Jason, and a couple other friends. It was an epic journey during which we caught huge smallmouth bass, trophy northern pike, and loads of walleyes. It was the first trip of many.
Back in the 1990s, I was doing media relations that involved taking outdoor communicators on fishing trips to use products that my clients represented. Many of those trips were both summer and winter camping trips to the BWCAW, and I always used Slaughter to guide them. This resulted in some incredible exposure for Slaughter. He was featured in the New York Times and Field and Stream by Ken Schultz. John Husar wrote a glowing piece in the Chicago Tribune highlighting a sled dog trip we took into Basswood Lake.
Countless newspaper and magazine articles described the beauty of the BWCAW as seen through the eyes of those media people. We took them to areas that could only be accessed by someone with insights to the hidden gems because of their many years of exploration. Slaughter just knew all the best spots.
There were many television crews that joined us, too. NBC’s Today Show sent three of its top producers to join Slaughter and me in 1996 for a winter camping excursion. We took them, my sister-in-law, her husband, and son into the BWCAW on sled dogs the day after Minnesota recorded its coldest temperature ever – minus-60 degrees Fahrenheit.
One of my favorite television segments was when Slaughter and I took a cameraman from Ron Schara Productions for a fall trip to fish for big pike and hunt grouse. Instead of fall weather it was like mid-summer, and the final piece captured a moose swimming past the boat and the scenery was incredible.
Sadly, the 2008 economic downturn cut deeply into Slaughter’s business, and in 2012 he moved from Ely to Springfield, Mo., to find work. He never lived in Ely again, although he did get back to Minnesota, moving to the Alexandria region in 2015. Were it not for Bill Slaughter many would never have heard the sound of a loon as it sent its piecing cry over the water and into the woods. They would never have experienced the sight of a moose chest deep in a back bay feeding on submerged vegetation. They would have missed the howl of a wolf as it called at the full moon on a brisk night or watched otters play on the rocky limestone cliffs of a small island in the middle of paradise.
Some of his ashes will be spread on Crooked Lake, his favorite place on earth. I will listen for his voice in the wind as it blows from the BWCAW across the lakes of northern Minnesota to my perch on Lake Superior. I will no doubt hear him say, “This is the land where there are no plans. You let the wilderness take you where it wants you to go and enjoy the ride.”
I’ll miss you, Bill. You were one of the great ones.