Monday, August 6, 2018
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Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters

Business Spotlight: Piragis Northwoods

Piragis Northwoods is a Voyageur sponsor of Pedal toDC

We got really, really lucky one day in the spring of 1975. Nancy and I were hanging out in the Zoology Department at The University of New Hampshire as technicians and grad students when our major professor, Dr. Jim Haney, asked if anyone might want to work with zooplankton in Ely, Minnesota. Hell yeah, we both said, but the job was just for one person. With two volunteers, Dr. Haney called the EPA in Ely and made it clear that the work they needed done would require two people. Voila! We both had a job for the summer as contractors with the US EPA in where? Ely, Minnesota? Where the heck is Ely and what were we in for?

The rest is really one very long history but it still in many ways feels like the summer of 75 to Nancy and me. We did our jobs for EPA, came back in 76, got other jobs with the DNR and taught biology at Vermilion Community College. That all ended abruptly and we got into business and founded our company in 1979. We never looked back really. With degrees and some life experiences we found Ely to be home. It seemed right. We were in love with each other and the Boundary Waters and we couldn't imagine going anywhere else. Now, some 40 years later we're still happy and we have carved a niche that we're really pretty proud of.

In our tenure up north in Ely we've seen the Boundary Waters get more protection as a wilderness in 1978 and we've seen threats appear to the wilderness. The biggest threat that has lingered for a long time resurfaced in the last 10 years when the price of copper rose to record levels and mining companies became interested again in the ore deep in the crust just outside the Boundary Waters. This time the threat was real and imminent. As biologists we understood the threat to the water from acid runoff of copper mines. The sulfide ores around world are all dangerous to the watersheds and they always pollute wherever they are mined. Nancy and I had to act to stop any mine near the wilderness waters of the BWCAW.

Our little business, Piragis Northwoods Co. lead by two nature freaks from the east managed to prosper with a lot of hard work, great employees and a little luck. We've grown slowly and steadily and sustainably since 1979 to the point today where we employ over 50 people in summer and 20 year round. Our concern for the Boundary Waters has not waned over these years. The wilderness is what Ely is all about. It brings us business, pays our salaries and support all the families we employ. We love the wilderness just for its purity and its ability to bring us back to reality whenever we travel by canoe, ski or snowshoe. The lakes and streams here are vulnerable to acid pollution. The wilderness experience we and thousands of others seek could so easily be lost. Our work to stop copper mining in our watershed is because we love this wilderness and all it means to us. It's also because we love our business, our customers and all our dedicated employees. It's important that this threat never materializes and displaces all of us in this sustainable world with a boom and bust town and a dead watershed.

So life is good yet today in our end-of-the-road town. We still paddle, hike, ski, and enjoy every season. We have traveled the world since 1979 and have seen great wilderness areas and wild coastlines kayaking from Greenland to Chile to Vietnam. Nancy and I still find the Boundary Waters to be the wild country we love best. There's nothing like the call of the loon on a clear wilderness lake far from the maddening crowds of normal life. It focuses our attention on the present and why we work to protect it.

I have hope for the future of our business and our great wilderness if we can weather the current storm and put to rest all the claims to riches that lie beneath it today, safe and deep in the earth's crust.


 Steve and Nancy Piragis founded Piragis Northwoods in 1979, and their doors are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., so be sure to stop by and say hello on your next Boundary Waters trip. We are grateful for the support of Piragis Northwoods.