Written in 1999 in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sigurd F. Olson
Sigurd Olson had a passion for wild places and wild creatures and a deep and abiding tenderness toward the natural world. He felt exhilaration in connecting with the past and in exploring the unknown waterways and paths of the "old wilderness" much as those who traveled before him. He was driven to express his feelings of reverence for wilderness through his writings and his speeches. Sig understood that his passion and talents led to a responsibility to defend these wild lands from human exploitation and abuse. In fulfilling this responsibility, Sigurd set a standard for conservation advocacy that begins in the canoe country of the Quetico-Superior and stretches from coast to coast and north to Alaska.
l grew up in Ely, Minnesota and Sig Olson was always a part of my life. His ties to my family began in 1935, when he befriended my father, Bill Rom, then a first year student at the Ely Junior College. My grandfather, Caspar Rom, had been killed in a mine cave-in when my father was several weeks old, so Bill Rom grew up without a father and dirt poor. His childhood playground had been the 3 million acre Superior National Forest, where he hiked, fished and hunted. As a dean of the junior college, Sig took a liking to my father, finding in him a kindred spirit, and directed him to summer jobs with the Forest Service that kept him in the woods. Sig suggested that my father finish his education at the University of Minnesota in wildlife management. But Sig did more than accommodate my father's desire to be in the woods and to find a profession that suited his desire: he instilled in my father a commitment to protect the canoe country, something he did for many others as well. During World War II, when my father was in the Navy, Sig wrote to him:
My conservationists are certainly well scattered in this old world of ours, but one thing you fellows never loose [sic], that is the love of the lake country of the north and the old wilderness. No matter where you happen to be, that longing stays with you and I can say this from personal experience, that no matter how long you are gone or how old you get, those memories will remain as vivid and fresh as the days they were made... I hope that when you fellows come back that you will tie into this conservation problem with all your young energy and enthusiasm and really give us the kind of a program that the country needs. It is men like yourself... who will eventually put the country back on its feet from a forestry and wildlife standpoint. You have real conservation at heart and are not bogged down with political considerations or commitments.
After the war, my father returned to Ely and the canoe country. Today, at the age of 81, he continues to do all he can to preserve the Quetico-Superior.
The guiding band of Sig Olson extended far beyond my father, My older brother, an experienced canoe guide, spent countless hours with Sig poring over maps of the far north and planning my brother's long canoe trips into the Arctic. I felt Sig's influence in a different way; in his moving and courageous speeches, Sig spoke with a quiet eloquence about the intangible values of the canoe country. To him, the wilderness canoe country of the Quetico-Superior was a sacred place.
In 1977, Sig testified during a Congressional field hearing in Ely dealing with the future of the canoe country. Despite his international prestige, his Ely neighbors hanged him in effigy outside the hearing and attempted to prevent him from speaking. When Sig was called to testify, wave after wave of thunderous yelling, booing, and jeers swept over the auditorium. Despite the deafening cacophony from the partisan Ely crowd, Sig calmly testified for full wildemess protection - no motors. no mining, no logging. no development.
My name is Sigurd F. Olson, my home, Ely, Minnesota. I support the Fraser Bill whose purpose is to eliminate all adverse uses from the BWCA and give it complete wilderness status.
He went on to talk of how he had crisscrossed the BWCA and Quetico countless times since his early guiding days, and spoke of the value of this special wilderness.
This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent. We can afford to cherish and protect it. Some places should be preserved from development or exploitation for they satisfy human need for solace, belonging, and perspective. In the end, we tum to nature in a frenzied chaotic world, there to find silence - oneness - wholeness - spiritual release.
For these values, and the courage to speak about them, Sig and his family were harshly criticized and even ostracized. His sacrifices were not in vain; Sig 's wilderness values were widely embraced and were the basis for extended protections of the Quetico-Superior canoe country, both in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the 1978 Boundary Waters Wilderness Act.
Sig loved the woods and the natural world. Through talent and perseverance, he mastered the art of translating what was in his heart into the written word. But his greatest gift to the world was to recognize that he had to protect wild lands. He succeeded magnificently. But where he ended, we must begin.Thirty years ago, Sig inscribed a message in my copy of The Singing Wilderness. “As a guide in the Quetico-Superior, you have heard the singing in many places. Wherever you go, I know you will always be listening to the old refrain." The refrain will always be with me, along with the commitment to do what I can to protect the Quetico-Superior Canoe country.
The Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest are Anishinaabe land. The Boundary Waters region and the Superior National Forest are within the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory where Anishinaabe people (also known as Ojibwe or Chippewa) have lived for generations. The interconnected waterways across the Boundary Waters region have been important travel routes for thousands of years, prior to the arrival of fur traders and others from Europe who began to travel and settle in the region, displacing indigenous people.
The fight to protect these lands has been long and contentious, and continues today with the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining on lands in the headwaters of the Wilderness.
The first U.S. government act of protection for this canoe country was in 1902 when the U.S. Land Office withdrew 500,000 acres in the future Boundary Waters from settlement. Between 1905 and 1908 General C.C. Andrews, Minnesota Forestry Commissioner, persuaded the U.S. Land Office to withdraw 659,700 more acres in the future Boundary Waters from settlement.
President Theodore Roosevelt established the Superior National Forest in 1909 from previously withdrawn public domain lands while the Minnesota Legislature created a 1.2 million acre Superior Game Refuge, similar in area to the Superior National Forest and including most of the present Boundary Waters. Development of roads in the Superior National Forest led to concern about the development of the area, causing U.S. Agriculture Secretary W.M. Jardine to establish a 640,000 acres roadless wilderness area in a policy to “retain as much as possible of the land which has recreational opportunities of this nature as a wilderness.” Landmark federal and state legislation followed to further protect the area, including the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act of 1930, the Little Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act of 1933, and the Thye-Blatnik Act of 1948.
In response to airplane landings and overflights that threatened the canoe country, in 1949, President Harry Truman signed an Executive Order which prohibited aircraft from flying over the area below 4,000 feet above sea level. These types of actions continued through the following decades leading up to the Wilderness Act of 1964.
On September 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) and is considered one of the most pivotal conservation efforts for America’s public lands. The Boundary Waters was included in the Wilderness Act as one of the original nine million acres of federal public lands in the NWPS. But the Wilderness Act allowed some incompatible activity to continue in the Boundary Waters such as use of motor boats, mining, and some logging.
These incompatible uses were addressed in the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, which was signed into law on October 21,1978 by President Jimmy Carter. The Boundary Waters Wilderness Act added 50,000 acres to the Boundary Waters to bring the Wilderness Area to 1,098,057 acres of protected land and waters in the Superior National Forest.
Today, the fight to protect the Wilderness continues. While the Wilderness Area and the federal buffer area are protected from mining, the headwaters of the Wilderness is not. The Boundary Waters is threatened by proposals for toxic sulfide-ore copper mines in its headwaters, where all surface waters flow into the Wilderness. Pollution from this risky type of mining would degrade downstream waters and forests of the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, and Canada’s Quetico Park, and would irreversibly damage our beloved canoe country.
Boundary Waters Timeline
1873 - Public domain lands in Minnesota withdrawn from General Mining Law of 1872
1909 - Superior National Forest established
1909 - Boundary Waters Treaty signed by Canada and the United States, requiring that neither country pollute boundary waters or waters that flow across the boundary
1946 - Congress authorizes mineral leasing on acquired national forest lands in Minnesota where leasing will not interfere with primary purposes for which the land was acquired
1950 - Contemplating granite, gravel, and iron ore mining that would not interfere with recreational uses, Congress authorizes mineral leasing on public domain national forest lands in Minnesota upon Forest Service consent
1964 - Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) designated by the Wilderness Act
1966 - BLM issues to predecessor of Twin Metals Minnesota two federal preference right mineral leases (MNES 1352 and MNES 1353) covering nearly 5,000 acres of the Superior National Forest adjacent to the BWCAW for a primary term of 20 years
1978 - Boundary Waters Wilderness Act bans mining within the Wilderness, establishes a 220,000-acre Mining Protection Zone along entry corridors, and further protects the BWCAW
1989 - Mineral Leases 1352 and 1353 renewed for 10 years
2004 - Mineral Leases 1352 and 1353 renewed for 10 years
Oct. 2012 - Twin Metals applies for a third 10-year renewal of 1352 and 1353
May 2012 - BLM issues 28 prospecting permits covering over 38,000 acres of the Superior National Forest in the BWCAW watershed
Mar. 8, 2016 - Solicitor of the Department of the Interior Hilary Tompkins issues a legal opinion finding that BLM has discretion to grant or deny Twin Metals’ lease renewal application
Dec. 14, 2016 - Following a 30-day public comment period and two public meetings, Forest Service issues decision withholding its consent to renew 1352 and 1353
Dec. 15, 2016 - BLM denies renewal of 1352 and 1353, and the leases expire
Jan. 19, 2017 - Forest Service files an application to withdraw from mineral leasing approximately 234,000 acres of Superior National Forest lands in the BWCAW watershed, initiating a 2-year segregation, and issues a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement
Mar.-July 2017 - Forest Service holds three public meetings on the proposed withdrawal, with approximately 2,700 people attending and 101 out of 157 speakers supporting withdrawal
Aug. 17, 2017 - Forest Service receives more than 125,000 public comments on the proposed withdrawal, with approximately 98% of the over 81,000 unique comments and 94% of the over 44,000 form comments favoring withdrawal
Dec. 22, 2017 - Acting Principal Deputy Solicitor of the Department of the Interior Daniel Jorjani issues a legal opinion withdrawing and replacing the Tompkins opinion and finding that BLM lacked discretion to deny Twin Metals’ lease renewal application
Jan. 26, 2018 - Forest Service downgrades withdrawal study from an environmental impact statement to an environmental assessment and initiates a second public comment period
Feb. 28, 2018 - Forest Service receives an additional nearly 56,000 comments in favor of withdrawal; altogether approximately 98% of the over 180,000 comments received favored withdrawal
May 2, 2018 - BLM rescinds its December 2016 denial of the renewal of 1352 and 1353 and reinstates the expired leases and Twin Metals’ renewal application
June 2018 - Three lawsuits filed in federal district court in DC challenging the reinstatement
Sept. 6, 2018 - Secretary of the Department of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announces in a press release that the Forest Service is cancelling its application for withdrawal, and the public process and development of an environmental assessment are terminated; the announcement followed statements by President Trump and Vice President Pence at rallies in Duluth, MN in June and August that they would “rescind the withdrawal” and are “rolling back the ban”
I am a lifelong resident of Minnesota, currently living along the Gunflint Trail in Grand Marais, MN. My passion for photography began as a little girl when I would take my camera outside in my yard and capture pictures of flowers and leaves and whatever else piqued my interest.
That interest blossomed into something more when, every summer, my family would make an annual trek to Bearskin Lodge on the Trail. I would spend hours hiking in the woods and exploring the wonder of nature. Through those experiences, I developed a love of the North Shore area of Minnesota and a deep respect for the animals that live here coupled with the breathtaking scenery of the Boundary Waters. I am most happy when I am outdoors.
My biggest thrill comes from photographing a wild animal doing what it would be doing if I wasn’t there. I strive to be unobtrusive both in appearance and approach. In almost all cases, the animal is aware of my presence, but the goal is to be so undisruptive and nonthreatening that they tolerate me and almost forget I'm there. The best shots come from using patience and being able to capture natural behavior.
I am passionate about photographing wildlife on the Gunflint Trail. Part of that passion comes from my ability to share my experiences with people who may never get to encounter some of the animals in my photos, i.e. moose, fox, wolves, bobcats,etc. Another part of my passion is chasing the perfect photo. Searching for tracks, looking for droppings or evidence of an animal foraging for food or consuming vegetation are all part of what it takes in pursuing that ideal image.
I feel it is my responsibility to not only showcase wildlife but to educate my followers about their behaviors and how where they live, what they eat, and the weather they live in may influence their longevity. Many of my followers appreciate the educational aspect I lend to photography.
I believe that photography can be both a fine art and a powerful way to raise awareness of not only the beauty of animals but also of their intrinsic worth. I draw inspiration from the rare beauty of the Trail and the opportunity of living near the shores of Lake Superior. My art offers a uniquely female perspective in a predominantly male profession. Women are not only still largely under-represented in wildlife photography. One of the main concerns: women are raised not to be alone in isolated places and nature photography requires just that. I have been able to break those barriers, in fact, I am sometimes most at peace alone with my camera. A comment that I often receive is that my photographs tend to have a softer more feminine touch to them.
On Friday, March 26, 2021, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) urged U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, to initiate the federal process to consider a 20-year ban on sulfide-ore copper mining on public lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). This is a huge expression of support for protecting this iconic place against the threat of sulfide-ore mining on the doorstep of the BWCAW.
With her letter, Senator Smith affirms that the BWCAW is a priceless resource for America, and should not be endangered by the damage that inevitably happens with this type of mining. The federal process called for by Senator Smith will include a comprehensive analysis of the environmental and economic impacts of sulfide-ore mining, and will provide a strong scientific basis for an administrative mining ban of 20 years. It will also provide a rigorous scientific basis for permanent protection to be achieved by an act of Congress.
The “mineral withdrawal” process would be initiated by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture led by Secretary Tom Vilsack. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency in the U.S. Department of Interior led by Secretary Deb Haaland, is responsible for mineral leasing on federal lands. When the USFS initiates the withdrawal process, the lands and minerals in the application are “segregated” by the BLM from the federal mining program for two years, during which time no mining leases, prospecting permits or other approvals are allowed. During the segregation period, the USFS would undertake an environmental assessment of the proposed 20-year mining ban, including the potential harmful impacts of sulfide-ore mining if there was to be no ban. After completion of the environmental assessment, the USFS would make a recommendation on the proposed 20-year mineral withdrawal to the BLM. The BLM would then advise the Secretary of Interior on her decision to withdraw the federal lands and minerals from the mining program for up to twenty years.
This process was first initiated in 2016, but abruptly stopped in 2018 by Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, who wrongly claimed there was no new science. While the mineral withdrawal process had been underway for 20 months - and dozens of high quality scientific studies had been submitted by the public and significant background research had been conducted - the Department of Agriculture refused to release any of the underlying studies or its analysis, likely because the science clearly showed that sulfide-ore copper mining posed an unacceptable risk of harm to the Boundary Waters region. A new mineral withdrawal process could utilize the extensive materials developed during the first - aborted - analysis.
A conclusion of harm had been the basis of a decision by the USFS in 2016 to withhold its consent to the renewal of two expired Twin Metals federal mineral leases. These leases cover public land and minerals upstream of the BWCAW. The USFS decision to withhold consent was brushed aside by the Trump administration when it reinstated and renewed the Twin Metals leases. The reinstatement and renewal of the Twin Metals leases were challenged by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, the lead organization in the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, and its partners in lawsuits pending in federal court. The lawsuits are on hold while the Biden administration reviews the government’s position and the history of the mineral leases.
Watch the Save the Boundary Waters Campaign Update today with National Campaign Chair Becky Rom and Campaign Government Relations Director Alex Falconer:
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters leads the fight to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageurs National Park, and Quetico Provincial Park from the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining in the now-unprotected headwaters of the Rainy River Drainage Basin. Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (NMW), the founder & lead organization of the Campaign, believes that all people deserve clean and safe water, and joins others in pushing for stronger, more effective laws and rules, and vigorous enforcement of new and existing laws and rules to protect and restore clean water.
THE WATER AND THE WATERSHED
Twenty percent of all the freshwater in the entire 193-million-acre National Forest System is here, in the Superior National Forest. In an increasingly thirsty world, that is a priceless resource. The waters of the Boundary Waters watershed are among the cleanest in America; the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency calls them “immaculate,” but the highest compliment may come from the many experienced Boundary Waters paddlers who take water straight from the middle of the cool deep lakes … cup-to-lake-to-mouth means really clean.
A huge portion of the waters in the Boundary Waters flow into the Wilderness from Superior National Forest lands outside the Wilderness boundary. The water is not magically pure. The watershed that is continually receiving precipitation and releasing the flowing water – that is what is so special and must be protected if the water is to remain clean and healthy.
A place defined by water cannot be protected unless the sources of the water flowing into and through it are also protected. Voyageurs National Park, the Superior National Forest, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota’s crown jewel and the nation’s most visited Wilderness Area, are vulnerable to the most toxic industry in America. Large international mining conglomerates are laying claim to large swaths of public land in the unprotected portions of the Rainy River Drainage Basin to mine for copper, nickel, and other metals in low grade sulfide-bearing ore. Sulfide-ore bodies generate acid mine drainage.
The solution is to eliminate permanently the threat to the Boundary Waters and the larger Quetico-Superior ecosystem by banning once and for all sulfide-ore copper mining in the Rainy River Drainage Basin.
THE CAMPAIGN TO SAVE THE BOUNDARY WATERS
Since 2013 the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has designed and worked to advance a clear multi-step plan for a permanent ban on sulfide-ore copper mining on public lands in the Rainy River Drainage Basin. Accomplishments resulting from the Campaign’s advocacy at the federal and state levels include, for example:
When the Trump Administration abruptly cancelled the environmental review shortly before it was to be finalized, the Campaign took further action.
In addition, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness has pushed for vigorous enforcement of stronger and more effective water rules and standards. NMW has:
Before European occupation, nearly the entire landmass that is the continental United States produced water as clean as the cup-to-lake-to-mouth water that paddlers still find in the Boundary Waters. While most other landscapes were heavily converted to non-natural uses, the Rainy River-Headwaters, which encompasses and delivers water to more than 80% of the Boundary Waters and is a sub-watershed of the Rainy River Drainage Basin, remains more than 99% undeveloped, naturally vegetated, and used for timber production, hunting, fishing, hiking, and other recreational opportunities. For clean water’s sake, in the Boundary Waters and downstream, let’s keep it that way.
 The Quetico-Superior ecosystem is an international border-straddling lake-and-forest landscape, the protected core of which includes the Superior National Forest (including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) and Voyageurs National Park on the U.S. side, and the Quetico and LaVerendrye Provincial Parks on the Canadian side of the border. https://www.mdpi.com/1999-4907/10/9/747/htm
Youth and adult camps surround the Boundary Waters and are directly in the Twin Metals path of pollution. Proposed sulfide-ore copper mining will ruin these longstanding educational centers. Generations of Minnesota families have sent their kids and grandkids to life-defining experiences in and near the Boundary Waters. Hear some of their stories below:
"When I was 12 I started going to YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, and it’s amazing how a group of strangers can be thrown into the Boundary Waters together, and then come out two weeks later best friends. I knew more about their hopes and dreams and fears than any of my school friends because of the time we spent together in nature.
I attribute a lot of my identity and confidence and strength to growing up with the Boundary Waters.
I’m fighting for the Boundary Waters not only because it’s my favorite place, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
-Elsa attends Middlebury College and is on the advisory board of Kids for the Boundary Waters and has led trips of youth advocates to Washington D.C.
Hear Elsa's full story about the Boundary Waters here.
- Jules Billmeier (age 18)
Hear Jules's full story about the Boundary Waters here.
"Going to the Boundary Waters built up my identity and the grounding principles that are most important to me."
-Julia Ruelle (age 19)
Hear Julia's full story about the Boundary Waters here.
Hear Mia's full story about the Boundary Waters here.
"Every summer, Girl Scouts from all economic backgrounds, from northeastern Minnesota and across the country, experience wilderness travel for the first time through a Boundary Waters trip based out of the Northern Lakes Canoe Base, run by Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin Lakes and Pines.
The Boundary Waters brings out the best in teenage girls, teaching them that their individual strength and the power of teamwork is far greater than they ever imagined. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described Girl Scouting as a "force for desegregation”, and nowhere is this more clear than on a canoe trip. A girls’ race and class is irrelevant when a Girl Scout crew is problem-solving to get across a muddy portage or get a fire started from soggy wood. The wilderness brings out their creativity and kindness, and they learn that hard work and getting dirty are part of the fun.
Girl Scouting, and in particular, Girl Scout canoe trips, expose us to so many meaningful experiences and interactions with other people, and countless girls have found their voice and strength to use it while traveling through the Boundary Waters. They use this voice to go on to make their communities and our world a better play in so many unique and important ways."
-Ann McNally is the Summer Program Director for the Girl Scouts Northern Lakes Canoe Base in Ely Minnesota
"For years, I have been going to the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness to experience the outdoors and the northern part of our state. My great aunt and uncle, Heidi and Mike Pazlar, used to own Bearskin Lodge on East Bearskin Lake, and my family makes a point of visiting the Gunflint Trail often.
I had the opportunity to attend OLT, Outdoor Leadership Training, with Sovatha Oum for the first time a few years ago. Personally, OLT has given me a large opportunity to experience the BWCA and what it has to offer at a greater scale while working on leadership skills, including mapping a course when going on trail, navigating through the lakes and portages while leading a team of young people.
I have also learned how to plan an outdoor wilderness trip and how to properly prepare to be ready for any eventuality, such as valuable survival skills for taking care of myself and others and keeping us safe. Through my experiences in the Boundary Waters, I have gained confidence in myself and my ability to problem-solve. It has allowed me to believe in myself and my opinions when taking the lead on group projects at school as well and allowed me to have more of a voice in social situations.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is an escape from the city. It’s hard to find something that allows you that space and distance from the distractions of outside people and influences. I feel that it’s a very good way to have your own personal time, to be able to reflect on yourself and who you are in the world. When I return from a trip, there is always a period of grief that my time there has come to an end, but I immediately start looking forward to when I can visit again. "
-Lene (age 14)
My experience with the BWCA through OLT is very good, it was a great experience when I first started because usually when my family and I would go up north we would stay in a cabin, but through OLT I was able to see more of the Boundary Waters through a different perspective. The BWCA has so many great features and attributes that are just overlooked by a normal tourist. Plus the fishing is great most years and we can get out to some untouched waters and throw a line in. The program has made me take a different approach on life and made me more responsible in general. Coming up on my 5th (technically 4th) year with the program, I am very excited to get out and do a trip this year since our last one was canceled because of COVID 19. Since my first trip into the BWCA I have been able to problem solve and work things out better with not just my family but also friends and teachers. That’s why I’m always ecstatic to tell someone about my experience because I know they will get hooked as well.
-Kjell (age 15)
“One thing this summer that’s stuck out to me, especially, is that coming up to Ely in a time of covid when all the Y camps and all the other youth camps have been closed, I was expecting to see a little bit decreased, or a little bit less than normal, youth participation in the Boundary Waters.”
“And what I’ve noticed, just between my time both on trail and at the shop [at Ely Outfitting], is that I don’t think I’ve seen any decrease at all. If anything, I feel like more youth have been coming through [to the Boundary Waters]. I’ve seen, you know, a lot of kids coming with their parents but also a lot of purely youth groups. You know, a lot of groups comprised entirely of 15, 16, 17-year-old kids have been going to the wilderness, and I’ve been seeing them on trail. So I think, I mean, that’s just really stuck out to me this summer, and I think it’s great. I think youth participation in the wilderness is really, really important, I think particularly this year. Increasingly, the amount of technology that’s available as youth, we’re sort of sucked into this 24/7 media cycle, and especially in a year of pandemic and all the other things that are going on in the world, it can be really easy to get sucked into that and stuck in it. And I think the wilderness is, part of what it’s providing this summer is an escape, for everyone to disconnect but also for us youth, who I think are increasingly being trapped in that cycle, and increasingly called upon to be social activists as well with what’s going on.”
- Joseph Goldstein president of Kids for the Boundary Waters
“For more than ten years I’ve seen first hand the way a Boundary Waters canoe trip provides young people with the opportunity to dis-connect from the distractions and stressors of their daily lives and full engage with their own capabilities and strengths. I’ve seen students grow more confident and emerge as leaders and team members. I’ve seen firsthand how a canoe trip is an opportunity for young people to learn as much about the natural world as it is an opportunity to learn about themselves.”
-Fred Sproat lives in Duluth Minnesota and is the Program Director for Big City Mountaineers, an organization focused on getting youth outdoors, including on wilderness trips in the Boundary Waters.
The Conservation Alliance is a group of companies that value conservation as part of their business model. The fund disburses its collective annual membership dues to grassroots environmental organizations each year, specifically directing their funding to community-based campaigns to protect threatened wild habitat and outdoor recreation. The Alliance was founded in 1989 by outdoor industry leaders REI, Patagonia, The North Face, and Kelty, who shared the goal of increasing outdoor industry support for conservation efforts. The Conservation Alliance now has more than 250 member companies, a number of whom are also members of the Boundary Waters Business Coalition.
In early March, The Conservation Alliance announced that the fight to permanently protect the Boundary Waters from copper mining was one of their three top conservation priorities for 2021, along with restoring Bears Ears National Monument and protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Additionally, Save the Boundary Waters/Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness has been chosen as one of two organizations to be included in The Conservation Alliance’s brand new, multi-year grant funding program.
We are so grateful to The Conservation Alliance for their phenomenal partnership over the years and are honored to be included in their new funding program. TCA has supported our efforts through grant funding every year since 2015, demonstrating an incredible confidence in and support of our multi-pronged strategy to achieve permanent protection for the Boundary Waters and Rainy River Watershed. The Conservation Alliance has also helped spread awareness and drive action to protect the Boundary Waters through their advocacy efforts, events, and the reach they have with the people and brands across the outdoor industry.
In addition to the support of The Conservation Alliance staff, we are extremely grateful to the many member businesses of TCA that have supported the Boundary Watersand our grant applications year after year. A full list of TCA member businesses can be found here, but in particular, we’d like to highlight TCA members that are also members of our Boundary Waters Business Coalition, including:
** This business is a Pinnacle Member, meaning that they donate a minimum of $100,000 each year to The Conservation Alliance.
You can read more about The Conservation Alliance’s 2021 conservation priorities here, as well as their brand new multi-year grant funding initiative here.
Thank You Conservation Alliance and business partners!
Every year I have the privilege of traveling to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. There are few places I enjoy more than the Boundary Waters and no physical place that brings me greater peace. It is a place that allows me to imagine what Earth might have looked like before humans began to tinker with it. It is a place that offers the kind of silence, true silence, rarely ever heard in the busy world of today.
Imagine for a moment that you are gently lowering yourself into a canoe. You push away from the shore smoothly, making sure not to lean too far. You gather your balance again and begin to paddle. You’re sitting in the front, so all that’s before you is the tip of the canoe, the water and the tree-lined shores of the Wilderness. In the early morning there is a misty fog that sits atop the water creating a mystical canvas through which the horizon is nearly indiscernible. As you paddle your way across the lake the only sounds you hear are the droplets of water that fall from your paddle with each stroke and the occasional call of a distant loon. If you are close to shore you might hear the rustle of leaves or branches as the squirrels and chipmunks scurry about. You can, at times, hear your own breathing…a sensation that highlights the quieted world around you.
If there were ever a time you were going to bear witness to the divine, this is it. There is nothing to distract you and no one to interrupt you with a text. This is a place in which I feel God’s active presence every time I visit. From year to year, no matter what is happening in my life, my time in the Boundary Waters is a spiritual “reset” for me. It reminds me of the people I hold most dear and the ones I’ve lost on my journey. It crystalizes for me the things that are most important - my family, my friends, and my church. That time of silence in the Boundary Waters is perhaps one of the moments of my year that speaks to me the loudest.
One of the critical ways we fight to protect the Boundary Waters is to ensure that the state and federal governments follow laws regulating public lands and minerals. Unfortunately, over the four years of the Trump administration, the federal government has engaged in unlawful activities to promote sulfide-ore copper mining on public lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters, including reversing decisions without following the rules, engaging the public, or considering science. At the state level, decades old rules benefit mining companies because they fail to incorporate current science and ignore the siting of sulfide-ore copper mines away from valuable and vulnerable areas.
Sometimes we find that the best path forward to resolve these conflicts is through lawsuits brought in federal and state courts. Hiring law firms to sue the government or a foreign mining giant is generally not feasible for the budgets of most public interest nonprofit organizations - including Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, the lead organization in the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. We have been extremely fortunate, however, because we have benefited from extraordinary pro bono legal representation by several law firms and additional legal guidance from other non-profit organizations.
In particular, we have been represented in our federal efforts, including three lawsuits,by Morrison & Foerster, LLP, a national law firm headquartered in San Francisco, since 2013. In that time, we have initiated two major lawsuits against the federal government and joined a third lawsuit as an intervenor. In the two lawsuits still pending, we have challenged the unlawful reinstatement of expired mining leases and the subsequent renewal of the expired mining leases for Antofagasta’s Twin Metals. Top notch lawyers from Morrison & Foerster and their many support staff have provided an extraordinary amount of pro bono legal services (“pro bono” means at no charge). They have worked countless hours on behalf of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and have built extremely strong cases on our behalf. We are convinced that when the Courts hear our cases that we will prevail in overturning the unlawful practices of the Trump administration. A special thanks to the Best & Flanagan law firm and Stephen Snyder for their pro bono assistance with our federal lawsuits in the role as local counsel for Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.
We are engaged in a fourth federal lawsuit challenging federal prospecting permits on public lands next to the Boundary Waters. In this case, we are represented pro bono by the Center for Biological Diversity. The Center has done an exceptional job demonstrating the failure of the Bureau of Land Management to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. We are optimistic that this case will be resolved favorably. Thanks to Marc Fink and Alli Melton and the entire team at the Center for representing Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.
At the state level, we have been extremely fortunate to secure the pro bono services of Ciresi Conlin, LLP, a Minneapolis law firm. The Ciresi attorneys and staff have documented a strong case under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act that state mining rules are insufficient to protect the Boundary Waters. The lawsuit demands that the mining rules be changed to prohibit copper mining in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters, a reflection of the serious negative impact sulfide-ore mining would have on the Boundary Waters. The state has proposed a process to review the rules. Antofagasta’s Twin Metals has opposed this, of course, and we are presenting our case to the Court at this very moment. While this lawsuit has only been underway for less than a year, we are already the beneficiary of generous pro bono legal assistance.
Finally, we have enjoyed effective collaboration with environmental attorneys at the non-profit law firm EarthJustice. This group of attorneys works with us and our partners at Morrison & Foerster to build and bring our lawsuits against the federal government. They specialize in environmental law, and have incredible expertise in this area. In addition, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness has several attorneys on our Board of Directors that help guide and advise all of our legal efforts.
Without these extremely generous and talented firms, we would be without one of our most powerful tools in the fight to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We are extraordinarily grateful for the outstanding legal services these firms bring to our cause. Everyone who enjoys the BWCAW today - and for those that will enjoy it tomorrow - owes a huge debt of gratitude to these amazing partners.
“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: