“Late” is something you don’t want to be when heading out on a wilderness trip, especially in winter. There is much to do, daylight is in short supply, and you never know what kind of surprises wait for you out on the trail. You may find deep snow, downed trees across the trail, or a layer of slush sandwiched between lake ice and snow that slows your progress. You might wind up with busted zippers that need to be repaired, dropped mittens or water bottles that must be retrieved, or make a navigation error or two. You could have to re-route around weak ice and there will certainly be animal tracks or sunsets or snow-laden pines which must be marveled at. Anything can happen and all of it takes time, patience, and humble attention to detail. All of that is the reason I love the winter in the wilderness more than any other season.
As the clock struck noon on a day in late January, we were cinching down the straps of our pulk (sled) and clicking our ski boots into our bindings to start our overnight trip into the Boundary Waters. Twenty four hours was all the time we had in our busy schedules for the trip and we had meant to leave by 9 am. After a series of time-consuming events, including slicing my thumb on a can of dog food and nearly fainting at the sight of my own blood, here we were with a mere five hours left before dark and we were just beginning our journey.
My excitement to sleep on the ground and breathe the cold, clean air all night long soon edged out my annoyance over our tardy start and the first few strides on the frozen lake made my sore thumb a distant memory. My partner, Paul, skied ahead breaking trail and gave our sled dog, Iceman, a target to focus on as he and I followed with the gear and food. I’ll give Iceman most of the credit for pulling the weight. This was Iceman’s second Boundary Waters trip and while it is a little change of pace from the type of running and pulling he did before we adopted him a few months ago, I could tell by his enthusiastic leaps and wild shrieks as we got things moving that he was more than happy to be a part of our team.
We skied hard and took breaks every so often to drink water and have snacks to keep our metabolisms going in the low-20’s temperatures. In typical sled dog fashion, Iceman refused water, choosing instead to eat snow for hydration. We made good time across our entry lake and across the long portage and we paused in mid-afternoon to decide where to camp.
Most of the year, the Boundary Waters rules require you to camp at a designated campsite to minimize impacts, but in the winter you are to camp anywhere but a designated campsite for the same reason.
We had a few good options and chose to cross a small lake into what seemed like a protected little bay on the north side. Paul found our first bit of slush while scouting a route and soaked one of his feet. Because the temperatures were relatively warm and because we were staying warm on the move, he opted to wait until we made camp to change his socks.
Slush, or standing water hiding beneath a layer of snow, is very common on lakes and can be hard to spot. It usually lurks in sheltered bays where the snow is deep but it can often be found out in the middle of lakes too. It forms when lake water seeps up through the many small cracks and fissures in the ice and stays insulated beneath the snow above it. It is typical to find slush after warmer days or a heavy snow when the weight of the snow forces more water up through the cracks, but you can find it on the bitter cold days too. The trouble with slush is, it’s hard to ski through and if the temps are cold enough, it freezes to your skis almost instantly and acts like glue holding you in place until you scrape it off. We hit a big pocket of slush on our way to our camp spot and had to stop to free ourselves. Iceman demonstrated his eagerness to keep moving by tangling himself and me up in his line, requiring a few more minutes and a little more patience before we could continue to camp.
We found a great spot with a slush-free place to build our fire out on the ice where it would have the least impact, a nice spot back among the pines for our shelter, and plenty of good-looking firewood close-by. With about an hour and a half to sunset, our first order of business was to layer up, drink water, eat a ton of cheese and crackers (Iceman got some treats), and change out of our ski boots and into our heavy-duty pac boots for the night. After finishing a Snickers bar each (and a chewy for Iceman), Paul and I divvied up the next set of tasks required for a winter camp.
While Paul found some big, rotten logs to make a base to keep our fire up off the ice and some good, sturdy boughs to make a tripod for cooking, I went in search of firewood. Iceman, having already done his part on the expedition by hauling our gear, curled up and watched us work. Once we were satisfied that we had enough wood for the evening and the following morning, we ate some more snacks, turned on our headlamps, and headed back into the woods to tie up our tarp.
I’ve typically just used a tarp over-head for winter shelter with another tarp underneath for protection from the snow and I’ve found I prefer it to being enclosed in a tent (nylon or canvas) where condensation tends to build and zippers tend to freeze more. I also prefer to sleep without any sort of external heat source, aside from a Nalgene full of hot water I throw in the bottom of my sleeping bag to keep my feet extra warm. With the right sleeping bags, I find this system to be simple, minimal work, and overall more comfortable for me than trying to keep a wood stove going in a canvas tent all night or, worse, falling asleep in a warm tent and waking up in a cold one. This isn’t to knock the way others like to sleep in the winter, there are benefits and drawbacks to any system, this is just the style I like best.
Paul and I each bring two sleeping pads (for me one inflatable, one foam, and two foam pads for Paul) plus two sleeping bags each. I use a 0° down sleeping bag nested inside a bigger 0° synthetic bag. Paul uses two synthetic bags, one rated at 0° and one at 30°. He will often bring a silk or fleece sleeping bag liner as well to have more options. There are lots of ways to make a successful sleeping bag combination that can get you through even the coldest Boundary Waters nights.
Iceman, like all sled dogs, relies on his double-layer fur coat and his instincts to tuck his nose under his tail on the really cold nights. Because he is an Alaskan Husky with a shorter coat and is now acclimated to indoor life with us as opposed to living outside in a big dog yard, we bring a fleece jacket and a wool blanket for him to lay on as extra insulation. If the temps get really, really cold, he’ll be offered a place in one of our sleeping bags. Seeing as the forecasted low was about 11°, that wouldn’t be necessary for this trip.
With the shelter set up, it was finally time to get the fire going and make dinner. Paul worked on splitting a good, dead red pine I found and I got the kindling broken up into some piles to make feeding the fire while cooking dinner easier. I filled our biggest pot to the brim with snow and added some water from my Hydroflask to keep the snow from charring while it heated up. With the pot hung on the tripod Paul made, ready to catch the first heat of the fire and start its process toward becoming our cooking and drinking water, I heaped a pile of birch bark onto our homemade fire pan, added a bunch of dry kindling on top, and fished out the lighter I keep on a string around my neck. Cold lighters won’t ignite, frozen sunscreen and toothpaste won’t squeeze out of a tube, and ice-cold contact solution is not that fun to work with, I’ve been told. For this reason, it’s good to keep those types of things in the warmth close to your body so you can use them when you want or need to.
While I got the fire roaring and kept adding more snow to the pot as it melted down, Paul worked on our Pizza Roll appetizer, my favorite. We filled all of our water bottles (two each) with freshly boiled snow-water and used the rest to boil up the vegetables we had copped back at home where such things are easier. A benefit of winter camping: you can chop vegetables ahead of time (it’s very hard to chop an onion once it’s frozen solid) and bring lots of meat and butter and since you’re camping in a big freezer, none of it will go bad like it might in the summer. I stirred in some ramen noodles and fried up brats as Paul got a hungry Iceman squared away with his kibble, some extra fat, and water. With dinner prepared, water ready, and a fed sled dog, it was now, well after dark, that we were finally able to take a good, long look around and enjoy some peace, some chow, and some good company.
The stars were bright, the moon was nearing full, and the wilderness was still. This is my absolute favorite time to be in the Boundary Waters. It is stunningly beautiful, the chance of running into other visitors is low, the chance of bug bites is zero, and the stakes are high for decision making, problem solving, and survival in general. I love to see the record of who else we’re sharing the trail with in the tracks left in the snow, I love to camp and cook out on the ice, and to admire the way the snow reflects back even a sliver of moonlight. If the moon is full, you don’t even need a headlamp to illuminate your path. I love the sounds you hear in the winter too – the squeak or crunch of snow under your boots that changes tone with the temperature, the more frequent howls of the wolves in their mating season, the groans and cracks of the ice as it forms and shifts on particularly cold nights. I love how the winter can embrace drama and peace at the same time. I love how in winter you must keep moving but then feel such satisfaction in the moments when you can become still.
I should perhaps mention that I spent many years and many hundreds of frozen nights as an instructor for Voyageur Outward Bound School in Ely, MN. My job was to take groups of teens and adults, almost always totally novice and sometimes as their first-ever time camping, on week-long or many weeks-long expeditions in the Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters is where I really learned the values and skills I most cherish – compassion, stewardship, humility, risk management, group facilitation, and how to hold a paddle and steer a canoe. The Wilderness, even on my own personal trips, or maybe especially on my own personal trips, continues to serve as the ultimate classroom in my life. Time spent in the Boundary Waters has helped me become a more patient, more aware, more capable, and more confident person and I’m so thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to witness such profound beauty and persevere through challenges great and small.
Sitting across the crackling fire from my partner now, with my best little pal curled up next to us, I breathed a sigh of relief at having made it here, back into the Wilderness, back to my home.
We built the fire back up to reheat some water to take in our Nalgenes to bed with us and then let the fire go out as we tidied up the kitchen and covered our wood stash in preparation for the snow that we could already see on its way.
While I brushed my teeth back at our shelter in the woods, the advice I heard on my first winter trip echoed in my mind, “if you put hot coffee in a thermos, it’ll stay hot for a long time. If you put cold coffee in a thermos, it’ll stay cold for a long time.” Sleeping bags act much the same way a thermos does so for that reason, we did some jumping jacks and squats to raise our body temperatures before plunging ourselves into our respective sleeping systems, peeling off and storing our heavy outer layers as we went. The last thing I saw before turning off my headlamp and zipping up the hoods of my sleeping bags, were the big, soft snowflakes falling all around us.
When I later asked Paul what stood out to him about our trip, he said that it’s amazing how you can get the best sleep of your life on the ground in the freezing cold and that it’s incredible how easy it is to leave traces of your visit. I totally agree. We all slept like babies on our 24-hour camping trip, and I’d say we dedicated about 3 of those hours in total to practicing the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles that are Boundary Waters law. You’ll never be able to make a winter camp fully disappear – I mean, eventually the snow will cover all evidence, but come late winter/early spring, it’ll get uncovered and will become an unsightly mess to anyone who might happen upon it - and you can do a lot to minimize your impact. It takes some planning and preparation to be a good steward of this amazing resource we have here in Northern Minnesota and that’s probably why it’s the very first principle of LNT.
After we’d made our morning fire, melted some more snow, cooked our bacon and breakfast sandwiches, and drank our coffee, we began the process of disassembling everything we had assembled the night before. We made sure to burn up all the wood we had brought out for the fire, not leaving any piles behind on the ice, and we even used the shovel that we took along to scoop up the bits of debris and sawdust left over from our wood-processing operation. Pro-tip here: if you clear the snow out of an area on the ice before you haul your firewood out, you can usually clean up the debris in just a few shovel-loads and then fill the snow back in once you’re done for an almost-invisible post-camp aesthetic.
We took apart our tripod and returned it and our base logs to the woods, taking with them the cold ashes that had accumulated on our fire pan. The fire had melted into the ice a bit and it would be impossible for us to get all the bits of ash and coals that were now half-frozen in a sloshy mess, but we scraped up what we could and covered the rest with snow. This would all eventually melt back into the lake, leaving no scars upon the land, and minimal visible impact to anyone who might travel past it later in the season.
I actually find this whole process to be pretty enjoyable. I mean, yes, it’s a chore, but it’s part of the responsibility we take on in exchange for the freedom of the spirit that this place offers us. I’m so grateful for even 24-hours in the wilderness, and I’ll gladly put some of that time back into the place that has given me so much. Would we have liked to stay longer? Definitely. Is 24-hours really worth it? Absolutely. Even if you get a late start.
If you’ve never been winter camping in the Boundary Waters and would like to go, I recommend letting one of these fabulous local businesses show you the ropes:
Grand Rapids, MN
Paddles rupture still water. Swirling, twirling tornadoes follow underneath a glassy blue. One, two, three, I count. And then they are gone, melting back into the current that runs below. A current that will bring these waters north, to the lake where my family lives, eventually to the Hudson Bay. Seven tween girls scatter themselves about our three canoes. I lead. We filter water from the lake and make dinner around a campfire that smells of pine needles. Afterwards, the girls skinny dip in the blackness, pinpricks of light dangling above their heads. Laughter and screams ñ sounds of friendship forming ñ echo in the night. I stand on the beach, allowing the grandeur of it all to humiliate me. I think about the whipping winds sending white crested waves into our boats, 12 year olds with twigs for legs carrying canoes on their shoulders, packs twice their size on their backs, each portage leading us to a new world. I think about how these waters have shaped us. How they have nurtured, comforted, provided. How it is our duty to respect, protect them. Incoming waves tickle my toes, sinking my feet deeper into the grainy sand, rooting me, keeping me here.
I lay here with my son, awake, beneath a canopy of jack pine, spruce, and cedar, as stars and constellations flicker, from the highest of celestial limbs far above, a song of woods and waters plays in our head, a throbbing pulse drumming in our hearts, vulnerable to the allure of this most special of place, we yearn to know, to find, to climb, to stumble, to run through, to look what lies behind those firs, that bit of rock, that yellow lichen below, to gaze, to step upon, leaving not a trace, our sounds of song linger in that air, water that ripples away from our canoe, it will dissipate, but we were there, of that moment, now we are near dreams, tired and nestled away, in song with my son, my boy, he looks up with me, I say to him kept words, that these deepest of woods have raised me, these the woods of my youth, are now of his, once it was me and my grandfather, now me and him, of these sacred woods, of these cherished waters, of these stars, I leave my boy these places, filled with mystic songs of youth and memory.
There are summers where I've spent more nights camped on beds of fragrant pine needles than on box springs. Winters when I've longed for clear cold stars over popcorn ceilings. Sometimes the in-between seasons have found me knee deep in mud, watching loons and geese flee south, or return home... And on the days when I wasn't, when I was far away from the Boundary Waters, I wished for the weight of a canoe on my shoulders. Sometimes it's hard to communicate to the ones who've never sweat and strained behind a dog sled what exactly is wrapped up in this wilderness. What meaning the misty mornings of stillness and the smoldering fires and the sweet blueberry bushes hold. For me, it's independence and vulnerability. It's shared memories and triumphs. Defeats that cracked me open and laughter that sewed me back up. For my community it's pride. It's contention but it's liberation. Stewardship, recreation... It's permission for entry into the world of trout and moose and wolves. I hope we'll always be able to have these experiences, timeless and endlessly fresh. I hope those who haven't yet had the privilege will always have the choice to discover it for themselves.
I have four brothers, and my parents were the Boy Scout leaders. I tagged along on small trips with the boys, but I was never allowed at the official camps. I was so jealous of my brothers going to Philmont and Sea Base, but I didnít have the opportunity. We lived in rural Iowa, and the local Girl Scout troop just did crafts in the church basement. At 13, I finally found a troop an hour away that went camping. My first trip with them was to the Boundary Waters. It was the first time I met other girls who would rather wear the same shirt for five days in the wilderness than tie dye one. It was the first time I saw that girls can portage canoes and fish for dinner. It was the first time I didnít have to feel left out by a bunch of boys in the woods. Iíve been back twice since then, and always with a bunch of badass women. The Boundary Waters is my favorite place in the world, not only because I love loons, but because every girl should have the chance to go and see how strong they are.
West Jordan, Utah
I recently returned from Afghanistan. I was proud to be there, as serving my country has been my deepest desire since childhood. Regardless of the reasons the war there started or the reasons it has continued for two decades, I knew my reasons for serving there when asked. Because I love my family and the land that we call Home. Such is the case for every other servicemember that I have ever met. And for all warriors throughout history. We don't fight for industry, organizations or national coffers. We fight for the people and places we love. We fight to protect them so that we can come back to them. We fight for Home. The Boundary Waters is one of those places. Specifically for some, but representatively for all. No deployed soldier daydreams of open-pit mines or oil fields. It's the peaceful places where one is allowed to be alone with their thoughts, or where oneís thoughts finally allow them to be alone that are behind a warriorís tired eyes. Home. These wild places have so much meaning for so many. They must be protected, for they are so much more than just places. They are home.
The wilderness is my home. I've literally planted myself on its front doorstep. I have explored only a percentage of what the Boundary Waters has to offer in the last 8 years, but I've traversed her over dogsled, skis, canoe, and by foot. I am lucky enough to have a job with the USFS fire program. I've made it a point to tailor my career to living on the edge of this wilderness, because I truly believe it to be one of the most unique places in the country. I've seen first hand at the positive impact this wilderness has brought to our community, the energy of travelers from all around the world that have come to our little corner to experience something truly one of a kind. The Boundary Waters provides me with a career im passionate about and the ability to be a member of a community in a town I love. I will probably never find fulfillment in a 100k job, a fancy sports car, and a luxury home on the lake. Where I find the most fulfillment is working in the woods with a group of dedicated folks and sleeping under stars of an incredible wilderness.
Grand Marais, MN
This morning we wake to rain. The water plays plinko down balsam branches and softly patters our tent. We sleep in. The storm tires and wanders wayward. Great pines guarding our island campsite dance in the mist. We make coffee on a fractured granite slab, then find our canoe and shove off into the unknown. On a calm forgotten pond, the bow gently parts sedge and bulrush. The grass leans under stress - thousands of dragonfly perch on stem and flower, awaiting their final molt. We paddle around aimlessly, catching a few small pike. A beaver slaps their tail in protest and a moose departs across the muskeg. The sun burns through the clouds and we bask in the warmth. A sun-dipped dragonfly discovers its new wings and takes flight. Another follows. Then another. Soon the air is filled. Birds take notice of the naive lunch and swoop en masse. At camp we sit by the fire while a trout roasts on cedar boughs. A dozen loons call out and we respond with our own barbaric yawp. The echoes recede with the painted cotton ball clouds... I think to myself: let greed never destroy such a wild and sacred place.
Bill Summary - The Boundary Waters Permanent Protection Bill - H.F. 840 (Morrison) / S.F. 763 (Cwodzinski)
The Boundary Waters Permanent Protection Bill permanently protects the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and Voyageurs National Park (VNP) from the inevitable and devastating damage that would result from sulfide-ore copper mining pollution in its watershed.
Pollution from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining on lands upstream of the BWCAW and VNP would flow directly into the system of pristine lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands in the Wilderness.
The bill permanently bans both sulfide-ore copper mining and the issuance of state permits, licenses, or leases for sulfide-ore copper mining on state-owned lands in the watershed of the BWCAW.
The bill is the state companion to the bipartisan Boundary Waters Protection and Pollution Prevention Act introduced in Congress by Congresswoman Betty McCollum that establishes the same permanent protections on federal lands in the Rainy River Headwaters.
The bill ONLY applies to sulfide-ore copper mining and does NOT prohibit or otherwise impact existing or future taconite, iron ore, sand, gravel, and granite mining.
What’s at Stake
“Critical Minerals” Offers Poor Justification for the Twin Metals Mine.
Over the past several years, mining interests and President Trump’s Administration have misused the concept of “critical minerals” as a scare tactic partly to justify the rolling-back of clean water protections and the gutting of longstanding environmental review rules. See, e.g., Sections 3 (a, b, and d) and 4 (b) in the Dec. 20, 2017 Executive Order 13817 “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” instructing federal agencies to create a list of minerals of critical importance to the economic and national security of the United States. The Administration’s argument can be refined to something like this: 1) the U.S. relies on imports to obtain supplies of key minerals; 2) import reliance leaves the U.S. vulnerable to having its mineral supplies cut off; 3) mining more at home will free us from our reliance.
Yet upon inspection there are serious flaws in how the industry and Administration use the concept of critical minerals. The most-promoted solution by the mining industry and its mouthpieces -- more mines (in more sensitive places) -- has been grossly oversold. In addition, the Administration’s actions to advance one such mine -- the Chilean-owned Twin Metals Mine proposal in northeastern Minnesota -- undercut the Administration’s own critical minerals case for the mine. These flaws and inconsistencies are explained below.
1. Import reliance does not equal import vulnerability.
In its June 4, 2019 “Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals, the Department of the Interior correctly notes that the U.S. imports 100% of certain minerals it has classed as critical. Interior errs, however, in defining import reliance as a problem and a vulnerability. For example, Canada is a leading supplier of critical minerals to the United States. This puts U.S. national security at risk only if we expect imminent hostilities from our northern neighbor. The U.S. imports other minerals on the list from Mexico, Belgium, India, Germany, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, Austria, Estonia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Rwanda. In short, the U.S. can and does source important minerals from a host of trading partners - many of them long-time allies. Our allies and trading partner options are a source of strength and security.
2. For many of the listed critical minerals, the industry imports because the metals are produced more cheaply overseas.
Many of the 35 identified critical minerals are not mined alone, but are produced in significant quantities in the as byproducts of hardrock gold, copper, and lead mining operations. Call them “byproduct critical minerals,” or simply “byproducts.” The U.S. has no shortage of gold, copper, and lead-producing mines, and these mines produce metal concentrates that must be processed in a smelter and then further refined to produce pure streams of distinct metals.
The U.S. Geological Survey explains that, “the recovery of these byproducts typically is low compared to the total amount of material that was made available from mining, and recovery facility capacity poses a greater restriction on supply than geologic availability.” The copper, gold, and lead concentrates shipped to smelters contain lots of critical minerals such as arsenic, antimony, bismuth, cobalt, tellurium, and others, but the smelters discard these byproduct minerals as impurities and waste products. The smelters do not invest to fully recover these “byproduct critical minerals,” simply because it would cost more to produce them than the smelter/refiner could make in selling them. In short, a new mine [the Twin Metals Mine] won’t solve this problem, and therefore this set of critical minerals should not be used by the Administration as an excuse for promoting risky mines in sensitive places, or for gutting environmental laws. Rather, a production credit (if that’s desired) or a run-of-the-mill supply crunch would cause prices to rise, and the market to respond accordingly.
That’s exactly what happened in the rare case of an actual constraint on trade in rare earth elements. In 2010 when China attempted to corner the market for the rare earth elements by restricting exports, the market reacted by raising rare earth element prices (the WTO also intervened, but the metals market achieved results more promptly). As a result, additional mines, some of which had been on long-term “care and maintenance” since the cheaper producers in China had undercut their prices years earlier, came back into production. The Mountain Pass rare earth elements mine in California is the prime example.
In addition, if the real concern short-term interruptions such as might occur between the start of a restriction on trade and a resumption in supply from either domestic producers or replacement trade from allied countries, the U.S. has in the past and could in the future rely on domestic strategic stockpiles of select minerals. Particularly when overseas mines are lower-cost suppliers than domestic sources of potentially critical minerals, it makes sense for the federal government (Dept. of Defense, Dept. of Commerce, or U.S. Geological Survey) to make steady additions to our domestically-based strategic stockpiles.
3. Even if it were ever built, the TMM mine would meet less than 4% of the U.S. annual demand for cobalt, and as U.S. consumption rises, that percentage would decline; the U.S. could sacrifice water and air quality in the Boundary Waters, and still need to import > 96% of its cobalt needs.
The Trump Administration has promoted the Twin Metals Minnesota copper-nickel mine (TMM) as a way to “reduce the vulnerability to disruption of critical mineral supplies,” even though copper and nickel are not critical minerals. The minerals at issue are the very small amounts of platinum, palladium, and cobalt that could be produced by a TMM mine.
It is not wise to get hung-up on platinum and palladium from a mine that might come into production 14 years from now. Both palladium and platinum are heavily used in the manufacture of catalytic converters, which are not found on electric vehicles. Gasoline vehicles are expected to be in steep decline 2035, which is likely the earliest a TMM mine might possibly come online. The advent of price parity between electric and gasoline cars, after all, is expected by 2025, if not sooner, which means long-term demand (and prices) for Pt and Pd will likely decline. That leaves cobalt to consider.
Proponents of the TMM like to talk about cobalt, of which the U.S. has almost no domestic sources. But TMM will produce very small quantities of cobalt, as a byproduct mainly from the smelting/refining of its nickel concentrates. Cobalt is not present in sufficient quantities at TMM to make much of a dent in the U.S.’s growing appetite for the metal. For example, the U.S. apparent annual consumption of cobalt in 2019 was 12,400 metric tons. In comparison, TMM’s average cobalt production over 25 years might be as much as 460 metric tons per year, meaning that at some point, many years from now, TMM could supply only 3.7% of the U.S. yearly consumption in 2019.
Thus, under the TMM proponents’ plan, the U.S. would risk the permanent pollution of the Boundary Waters and still be reliant upon imports and other mines for 96.3% of its cobalt consumption. Who but the mining company and its Chilean billionaire owners could possibly think of this as a good bargain?
Moreover, the focus even on that tiny supply of cobalt presumes that it would be mined, smelted, and refined and made available in the U.S., which turns out is a false assumption.
4. Critical minerals from the Twin Metals mine would go to China, not the U.S.
Critical minerals from a TMM mine would be sent overseas, most likely to China. This is true for two reasons. First, the U.S. already produces more copper and nickel concentrates than it has capacity to smelt. Thus, the TMM mine, or indeed any new copper-nickel mine, would be sent for smelting overseas.
The result of initial mining extraction is a mineral concentrate that needs to be smelted and refined in order to produce pure stocks of copper, nickel, and other metals from which manufactures create end products. There are only three active copper smelters located and still operating in the U.S., and these are vertically-integrated, meaning that the companies that own them also own their own copper mines, which supply the smelters with enough concentrates to keep them running at or near capacity. In addition, there are zero (0!) nickel smelters in the U.S. Accordingly, any new copper-nickel mine (such as TMM) will certainly send its copper and nickel concentrates out of the country for smelting, most likely to China, Japan or South Korea. Since it is owned by Antofagasta PLC, a TMM mine would likely send its concentrates to China for smelting/refining, as Antofagasta does.
In short, a TMM mine would not make America great. It would produce very little critical minerals, and it would send American critical minerals to China or other overseas countries with ample and cheap smelting capacity.
The second reason why any critical minerals from a TMM mine could be shipped overseas to fuel China’s economy is a Trump Administration decision in 2019. The old version of the federal mineral leases held by TMM contained a provision requiring the leaseholder, if it shipped concentrates overseas for smelting, to return an equivalent amount of refined metal to the U.S. In 2019, however, the Department of the Interior removed that provision when it renewed the leases. By removing that key provision from TMM’s federal mineral leases, the Trump Administration aided the movement of critical minerals out of the United States.
If "critical minerals" were anything more than a fig-leaf for the Administration’s determination to gut environmental protections, gut NEPA, and force risky mines into some of the most sensitive and beloved public lands in America, then the Trump Administration would have kept in place the “return to U.S.” provision in the federal mineral leases. Now, however, Antofagasta PLC has neither the obligation nor the incentive to bring the refined metals back.
To summarize, “critical minerals” as a concept is a poor justification for the TMM mine:
the U.S. has many trading partners, including long-time allies, with whom we trade for critical minerals. Those trading networks are a source of U.S. strength.
Many of the minerals that are identified as critical minerals are in fact produced in sufficient supply in copper, nickel, lead, and gold concentrates, but are discarded as waste material and not recovered during smelting/refining because the costs of recovery exceed the sale price at current prices; hence the issue is one of lower-cost producers overseas, as opposed to domestic lack of supply from existing mines.
Even in the case of cobalt, the best example of a critical mineral that the TMM mine can offer, pushing the TMM mine would meet less than 4% of domestic demand, and dropping.
And the TMM mine, if it were ever built, would supply China with critical minerals, not the U.S., because the U.S. has no nickel smelters, its three copper smelters are all fully-subscribed, and furthermore because the Trump Administration changed the terms of the federal mineral leases needed by TMM, so that TMM no longer has to bring back to the U.S. any of the metals it sends overseas for processing.
On Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, President Biden signed an Executive Order focused on addressing climate change in all relevant work of the federal government. For the Boundary Waters, a key component of the Executive Order is the mandate to achieve permanent protection of 30 percent of America’s lands and adjacent oceans by 2030. This goal is intended to simultaneously help address climate resilience, slow the species extinction crisis and support maintenance of native biological diversity. This is an opportunity for permanent protection of the Boundary Waters - a critical element for biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation.
While the Boundary Waters currently has a high level of protection through its designation as a federal Wilderness, it is still extremely vulnerable to degradation from outside influences. Since it is a water-rich ecosystem, pollution from sulfide-ore mining anywhere within its watershed will cause irreparable damage for centuries to come. Further, while the adjacent Superior National Forest has basic protections from private exploitation, it is subject to devastation that would result from sulfide-ore copper mining. Destruction of boreal forests and massive pollution of aquatic habitats and interconnected lakes results directly in the emission of greenhouse gases and the loss of climate change resilience.
A key part of fulfilling the ‘whole-of-government’ approach to the climate crisis should include development of specific actions by federal land management agencies to determine which public lands should be completely protected from mining, drilling and other detrimental development. Protecting and preserving Minnesota's Boundary Waters Wilderness and the surrounding boreal forest ecosystem from sulfide-ore copper mining is an important part of a national climate solution.
An important first step will be for the U.S. Forest Service to request a mineral withdrawal (or a mining ban) of all federal lands and minerals on Superior National Forest lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. Such a request would trigger an environmental review of the proposed mineral withdrawal (mining ban), and the risks that sulfide-ore copper mining would pose to the Superior National Forest, the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and downstream lands and waters. The Forest Service made such a request in early 2017, after concluding that the renewal of two federal mineral leases in this location would pose an unacceptable risk of harm to the Boundary Waters Wilderness. The environmental review based on the 2017 request was abruptly halted by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in September 2018, after more than 181,000 people submitted comments (98% supported a ban) and dozens of ecological and economic reports had been received by the Forest Service. A new request would allow the environmental review to continue to completion, and provide the scientific basis for a decision by the Secretary of Interior on the request for a twenty-year mining ban.
The recent Executive Order is wide-reaching, visionary and critically needed. Permanent protection of the Boundary Waters fits squarely into the intended actions of the Order. An important first step will be the initiation of a request for a twenty-year mineral withdrawal and an environmental review of the proposed ban.
Be sure to stay connected with the Campaign and follow us as we help ensure this step - and the ultimate protection of the Boundary Waters Wilderness - is quickly initiated and comprehensively addressed.
Want even more information? Watch the hour-long Campaign webinar here from January 29, 2021 with Becky Rom, Board Chair, Tom Landwehr, Executive Director, Matt Norton, Science and Policy Director, and Alex Falconer, Government Relations Director.
Have you ever hiked 47 miles in 4 days? I hadn’t either—in fact, I had never truly gone on a backpacking or a Boundary Waters trip without a canoe. But that’s what I did, a hike on the elusive Kekekabic Trail in Northeastern Minnesota—a trail almost all within the breathtaking Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The “Kek”, as the trail is called, stretches from Snowbank Lake in Ely, Minnesota all the way to the Gunflint Trail, near Grand Marais. And to make the longest walk of my life even more interesting, I signed up for it with a brand-new, Almost Boyfriend, of all things. (What can I say, I like to keep things interesting...)
Maybe you’re like my (now) boyfriend and are an experienced hiker who doesn’t need to look down to make sure you don’t slip or trip over every single rock on the Kekekabic Trail. Or maybe you’re like me: a walking, talking, and tripping-over-your-own-feet and every rock machine.
Lesson #1: Pack a deluxe first aid kit—you will have no cell service on the Kek and no canoe to act as your gurney in the case of a rolled ankle—more on this later.
No matter your personal experience, you can do this hike if you truly want to. You see, the Wilderness welcomes everyone, no matter your skillset or level. You don’t have to be an extreme hiker or weathered outdoorswoman. You can come as you are with borrowed or outfitted gear. Hell, even a “How to” book is good company on a trail if you’re a novice, although I did prefer my survival-encyclopedia, Almost Boyfriend, as a resource on this trip. But I still had to do it, all the hard stuff, on my own. Just like you’ll have to. All you need is the will to put one foot in front of the other, no matter what comes your way.
Lesson #2: Trekking poles are a must if you’re as graceful as me and are prone to tripping while walking on flat surfaces.
While planning your trip, people will tell you, “oh there’s just a little bit of elevation on the Kek, you’ll be fine.” However, I’m not going to lie to you, yes you will be fine, it’s not like hiking in the mountains at 9,000 feet, but to a novice hiker, this was more than a little elevation. I remember going breathless up what felt like a mountainside, explaining to myself out loud how I was going to write so many reviews on all the group-hiking pages I researched before the trip to warn people like me that the phrase, “a little elevation,” is extremely subjective.
Lesson #3: Stop and take as many breaks as you need and consider borrowing or buying a hydration pack, but water bottles work just fine.
The Kekekabic is described as a remote, minimally maintained trail, but we had no problem following the trail—we still brought a GPS which read 47 miles at the end of our hike and not the claimed 41 miles.
However, instead of writing a review, I’m leaving you with my packing list and a non-sugar-coated run-down of what I encountered on my journey (which I would wholeheartedly do again) to fully prepare you for your first hike on the Kek.
*Some items are per person
Tent (lightweight if possible)
Sleeping bag (w/ stuff sack)
Sleeping pad (Must fit into backpack)
Water bottle or Reservoir
Backpacking Stove (can cook on fire grate at campsites if wood is available.)
Cookset (lightweight if possible)
Bowl/plate and a utensil
Meals (dehydrated preferably) and snacks
Biodegradable Soap (do not use directly in lakes)
Bear bag and paracord to hang from non-existent bear-safe trees
Garmin GPS (optional)
Ziplock bags or trash bag to leave no trace
Headlamp and backup batteries
Hiking boots (Broken-in….more on the joys of this classic move later)
Camp booties to give your feet a break at camp (optional)
Trekking Poles (optional)
Insect Repellent (depending on the season)
Duct Tape (You can bring a small amount wrapped around a nalgene)
Permit to enter the BWCAW
Fun items that I brought:
Cribbage board and cards that you’ll be too tired to play
Journal and pen to document your travels
Deluxe first-aid kit (with extra duct tape)
.410 shotgun and ammo for hunting grouse
Flask of whiskey, for those 16 mile days (keep reading for more on this)
Two Cars—one at either end of the trail or a friend to drop you off/pick you up
Fresh socks - for every day
T-shirt (Moisture wicking, not cotton)
Longsleeve (Moisture wicking, not cotton)
Fleece or wool sweater (depending on the season)
Quick drying pants and shorts
Rain jacket and pants
Hat (warm for cold weather or baseball cap for sunny days)
Gloves or mittens (for cold weather)
NIGHT ONE ON THE KEK
On the first day of our October trip, Almost Boyfriend and I started off late in the afternoon. With the sun sinking in the sky earlier and earlier on the rapidly decreasing Fall days, we found ourselves in camp only 6 miles East of the Snowbank Lake trailhead on Parent Lake, with less than an hour of light left. We quickly set up, ate, and crashed for the night after a swig or two of whiskey. Although we hadn’t accomplished what we set out to do day one, we were happy to finally be surrounded by the beautiful Wilderness and it’s serenity—finally we were alone in the wild.
Lesson #4: Plan your miles-a-day around the hours of daylight you have and set up camp before it’s dark. Check seasonal sunset times before you head on trail.
Day two started off bright, early, and full of dreams of making up for our late start on day one by hiking a full sixteen miles. I’ll say it again—SIXTEEN MILES of hiking in a single day. As you can imagine, this was mentally hard for me, as a novice, to even comprehend. I don’t think I’ve even walked sixteen miles in one day on a paved road before. Nonetheless, I managed to accomplish it, even though I tripped more than a few times and even rolled an ankle.
However, this is the day I learned that breaking in your brand-new hiking shoes is a crucial step in preparation for a biped journey such as this one. About 6 miles into day two, I had blisters the size of a silver dollar (Google “silver dollar” if you were born after 1984) on the back of each heel. By the time we reached camp, I could barely walk right because I was in so much pain.
Lesson #5: Break in your hiking shoes before you go on a hike. Moleskin blister covers aren’t a bad idea either, although I found duct tape and gauze to stay in place and work much better. Did I mention trekking poles?
A COLD DAY IN—HELLO ELEVATION!
We were blessed with really great weather on this early October trip, but even the sunshine on day three couldn’t take the sting out of my now torn-up heels. However, nothing could stomp on my spirit. We were now halfway through our journey, in the middle of the wild (aka, I knew I had to keep going unless I wanted to live in the Wilderness forever), and my heart was so happy to have this experience. That is until I discovered what people meant by, “a little elevation on the Kek.”
LOL oh my goodness. You will go up and down and up and down more times than a kid on a perpetual sugar high while hiking the Kek. Pair this with painful, duct-taped, double-socked heels and you’re in for a real treat of a day. In all seriousness, once you do make it to the tallest point of your journey at about 1900 feet, you will love the view and the feeling of sheer accomplishment on how far you’ve physically and mentally come.
Lesson #6: Hiking is mind over matter. No matter how tired your body is or how much your feet hurt, you can push past the pain to reach something beautiful.
NO LONGER A VISITOR
The last day of our hike was a bittersweet one. I knew my blistered-heels needed a break and that we needed to get back to our civilized lives, but I was lovingly lost in the wonder of the wild—I didn’t want to leave.
You see, humans are marvelous creatures of adaptation. After three days of living amongst the beautiful Boundary Waters, the trees, forest fire remnants, even the sometimes scary sounds and winds at night, I no longer felt like a visitor there but a part of it. Like the wild was what reality should be and that my home in the suburbs was just a facade.
In short, I didn’t want to leave this quiet place or even be separated from my now-bonded Almost Boyfriend who had shared my laughs and pain on this incredible, wild journey with me. But we had done it. There were no more steps to take and honestly, no more gauze left for my wounds.
Lesson #7: Soak up every moment, even the bad ones. They are the stories and scars you will tell once out of the woods and you’ll be damn proud of them when you’ve officially taken your final step off trail.
Eating well on the trail thanks to Almost Boyfriend hunting grouse!
In the end, was it all worth it? Hell yes! On so many levels.
Let me be clear: a trip into the Wilderness will show you your true self. It strips away any shred of fiction in your life and reveals what’s hiding behind your screens, social posts, and societal masks. It has the capability to force you to see yourself as you truly are. No makeup. No “cute” clothes. No lies. There is no hiding from it. From the weather, from the wildlife, from the pain and challenge of completing your first epic hiking or paddling trip. The Wilderness will find you—the real you. And I personally can’t wait to do it again.
For more information on the Kek, contact local outfitters and the Superior Hiking Trail Association for resources.
“It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.” -Confucius
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is America’s most visited wilderness. It consists of 1.1 million acres of interconnected waterways, uninterrupted forests and diverse wildlife. It has 1,200 miles of canoe and kayak routes, 237.5 miles of overnight hiking trails and 2,000 designated campsites. Outdoor recreationalists from around the world seek out the Boundary Waters for paddling, fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, observing wildlife and enjoying the incredible scenery.
The Boundary Waters region are the homelands of the Anishinaabe people.*
Many outfitting businesses provide route and trip planning options as well as gear rental, guiding services, and even lodging before and after your camping trip. We recommend reaching out to an outfitter or guide service to help you plan the best possible trip.
Here are a few questions to think about when starting to plan your trip:
Permit quota season goes from May 1 - September 30, so you will have to reserve an overnight permit during this time. Learn more and reserve your permit here!
Different seasons bring different delights and challenges in the Boundary Waters. In May, you’ll have fewer bugs, but the water can be cold and won’t be great for swimming. In July, there will likely be more mosquitos but you can swim! In August, It’s usually more dry, so less bugs, less muddy portages, but still warm enough for swimming. In late September, you’ll have no bugs, get to see the leaves changing, but also a small chance for snow (it happens!)
The maximum group size is 9 people and 4 watercraft. Also take into account the fitness level, age and experience of your group when choosing your route. Depending on skill or experience levels of your trip participants you can choose an entry point that either starts off right at the water’s edge or is a portage from the parking lot to the first lake or river. Any outfitter can help you decide which entry point is the right one for your group!
Do you want to go fishing? See waterfalls or pictographs? Want to be far away from people? Do you want to basecamp or travel a route or loop? See wildlife? An outfitter can help you pick a perfect route to fit most of your interests.
There are multiple “gateways” to the Wilderness, including Ely, Tofte and Grand Marais. Depending on what permits are available you can choose whether you want to go into the Wilderness via entry points along the Gunflint Trail or Echo Trail and more.
You can also try Paddle Planner. It’s a great route-planning tool (and many outfitters use it too!) You can see photos of a few of the campsites and see how long it will take you to paddle a certain lake and more!
You’ll need to plan ahead for your meals as you can’t just head to the grocery store if you’re hungry! You also can’t bring most cans or glass bottles - so plan accordingly. Most people bring along an assortment of dried foods: pasta, fruits, energy bars, pancake mixes, etc. Adding in tortillas for sandwich wraps, fish tacos, quesadillas, peanut butter wraps, breakfast burritos and more is a good compact source of a versatile food. Get creative and try to mix it up! Pro-tip, that first night out you’ll probably travel the most and expend the most energy - plan a good hearty meal even with some fresh foods that won’t spoil in a day. A crowd favorite can be steak (season and freeze them and they’re thawed by the time you set up your first camp) and potatoes with green beans as an example. And again, any of the outfitters mentioned below can help plan your meals and even provide pre-packed meals for you!
Northern MN Boundary Waters Business Coalition members that can help you plan & outfit your canoe trips:
Bearskin Lodge (Gunflint Trail)
Clearwater Historic Lodge & Canoe Outfitters (Gunflint Trail)
Hungry Jack Canoe Outfitters(Gunflint Trail)
Lodge of Whispering Pines (Ely - Echo Trail)
River Point Outfitting Co. (Ely - Kawishiwi River )
Rockwood Lodge and Outfitters (Gunflint Trail)
Sawbill Canoe Outfitters (Tofte)
Sawtooth Outfitters (Tofte)
Williams and Hall Outfitters (Ely - Moose Lake)
Check out more Boundary Waters Business supporters here.
Principle 2: Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces (BWCA Designated Campsites)
Principle 5: Minimize Campfire Impacts (Use USFS Fire Grates)
You must take out all of your trash with you, and leave campsites better than you found them. It is also illegal to cut down trees that are still alive, so try to find firewood that is dead and down, and make sure all your fires are in a fire grate. Make sure your fires are drowned out and cool to the touch before you leave them. Cans and glass bottles are not allowed. Do not bring them.
Dogs are allowed, just make sure they are in control. (And send your pics to @bwcadogs on Instagram!)
Here is a suggested list of things you should bring to the Boundary Waters. Think about the weight of your gear as you’re packing and the amount of portaging you will have to do between lakes.
PFD (or lifejacket, for each member of your party)
Tent & Tarp(s)
First Aid Kit
Portage Packs with Liners
Camp Stove with Fuel
Coffee Pot or Press
Pot(s) and Fry Pan(s)
Utensils for eating and cooking (e.g., spatula!)
Hot Drinks Mug
Water Filtration (gravity filter or pump)
Dish Soap (biodegradable) and Scrubbie
Food Hanging System or Bear Barrel
Garbage Bags and extra Ziplocs (pack out all your waste)
Matches and Lighters
Sunglasses with lanyard
Bug Spray and Headnet
Dry bag or compression sack for your clothes
NOAA Pocket Radio for weather alerts (optional)
Pants (quick drying is better)
Shirts (Try not to wear cotton, especially in cold weather)
Shorts (quick drying)
Wet boots or toe covered sandals
Socks (wool is best, not cotton)
Good rain gear
We hope you can experience a trip to the Boundary Waters this year!
*The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Superior National Forest are within the 1854 Treaty Area where Anishinaabe people (also known as Ojibwe or Chippewa) live and hunt, fish, gather and govern as sovereign people.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service have the ability to ensure the permanent protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Boundary Waters), America’s most visited wilderness. In response to the potential for negative impacts from proposed sulfide-ore copper mines along the wilderness edge, the BLM and the Forest Service can recommend that the Secretary of the Interior exercise her authority under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to withdraw the federal lands within its watershed from the mineral leasing laws for twenty years.
A mineral withdrawal would start with a two-year segregation period for the federally managed minerals within Boundary Waters watershed. The segregation period would allow land managers to hit the “pause” button, retain the status quo, and weigh carefully the impacts of proposed sulfide-ore copper mining before granting companies the right to mine next to the Boundary Waters. The public, transparent process would allow the best science to prevail, as well as encourage robust public involvement in deciding what is the best future for the Boundary Waters.
The proposed mineral withdrawal protects the status quo:
This step would be consistent with over a century of action to protect the Boundary Waters:
o Provide for the protection and management of the fish and wildlife of the wilderness so as to enhance public enjoyment and appreciation of the unique resources of the region
o Protect and enhance the natural values and environmental quality of the lakes, streams, shorelines and associated forest areas of the wilderness
o Maintain high water quality in such areas
o Minimize to the maximum extent possible, the environmental impacts associated with mineral development affecting such areas
Precedent exists for federal protection in similar instances:
In the end, there are some places that you shouldn’t mine. The BLM and Forest Service have the ability to take the necessary steps within their purview as responsible land managers to make sure we don’t risk the Boundary Waters
Winter is a great time to start planning your summer 2021 Boundary Waters Wilderness trips! Visit again or for your first time, and remember why this wild place is truly worth saving.
On Wednesday, January 27, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness entry permits become available through Recreation.gov. The most popular entry points and dates will fill up first and don’t forget, you will need an entry permit for any overnight/multi-day trips in the Boundary Waters between May 1 and September 30.
Are you interested in planning a canoe trip but are not sure where to start? Many outfitting businesses provide route and trip planning options as well as gear rental, guiding services, and even lodging before and after your camping trip.
Check out more Boundary Waters Business supporters here.
Do you just need a little help with route planning maps? Try Paddle Planner. It’s a great route-planning tool (and many outfitters use it too!)
We hope you can experience a trip to the Boundary Waters this year!
Giving a Zoom presentation about Wintering in the Wilderness on the shortest day of the year and the first day of winter felt quite appropriate to me. I had the opportunity to reflect on the year that my husband, Dave, and I spent a whole year in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in an effort to help the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters call attention to the threat posed by sulfide-ore copper mining being proposed upstream from the BWCAW. That's 366 days (it was a leap year) of camping and traveling under our own power in the 1.1 million acre Wilderness Area. During that year, we traveled roughly 2,000 miles by canoe and ski with three amazing sled dogs, visiting about 500 lakes, rivers, and streams throughout the year. Although it was 5 years ago, I still find myself regularly comparing the present moment to what we were doing on the same day or time of year back then.
As the fall season progressed into winter, we learned to slow down. For all of our previous expeditions, we had to keep moving because we had a destination in mind. A Year in the Wilderness was different— it was about bearing witness to this place we were trying to save and sharing it with as many people as possible by posting photos on social media, writing blog posts, recording a podcast, making a short documentary film, etc. So, the point was not to get somewhere as quickly as we were physically able, but instead to truly experience the BWCAW.
Waiting for freeze-up tried our patience. The holidays highlighted for us the fact that there were no material things that we missed from the outside world. Instead, what we sorely missed were family and friends. Acknowledging certain holidays helped us reconnect. Even though we were physically apart, just knowing we were cooking the same sort of meal and upholding some traditions made us feel as if we were home, celebrating with family and friends.
We added three canine teammates shortly after New Years. Our friend, Frank Moe, dogsledded in to drop off Acorn, Tina, and Tank. Traveling and camping with them added much variety and joy to our days. The new year also brought with it a flood of visitors who trekked in to say hi and drop off some tasty treats. People arrived by foot, snowshoe, ski, and dogsled, helping to make the rest of the winter fly by.
One lesson that I actually didn’t share during the Zoom (but wished I had) was the way in which people have come together to share their unique talents to support this cause. That is, in a nutshell, what Dave and I did— we knew how to paddle, camp, dogsled, and document a journey, so we did just that during A Year in the Wilderness. There are so many who have contributed by using their talents for this cause— writing songs, running for the BWCAW, biking for the BWCAW, writing letters to the editor, you name it, people are doing it. Please keep it up and consider lending your talent, whatever it may be, to this cause.
The light is now returning, both literally and in terms of our efforts to protect the BWCAW. With the change of administration comes a chance for real progress in gaining permanent protection for the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining.