It’s a cold, dreary day along the Minnesota-Canadian border. With temperatures hovering in the low 40s, a brisk northwest wind whisks whitecaps across Basswood Lake. Rain drums steadily on the walls of the tent; the titanium woodstove groans and creaks with the heat of perfectly split cedar.
Late October is no time for a canoe trip, but this isn’t just any old canoe trip: We’re here filming the story of my dear friends Amy and Dave Freeman, who recently embarked on A Year in the Wilderness expedition to save the Boundary Waters Canoe Area from the threat of dangerous sulfide-ore copper mining proposals just upstream. Highlighting the unique and wild character of the Boundary Waters, Amy and Dave are using a satellite terminal to share their story as they travel the wilderness by canoe, ski, snowshoe and dogsled, and we’ll be joining them periodically throughout the year to film the experience.
For right now, the experience is hot bannock and tea. While the warmth of the stove feels nice, I remember that we have a job to do, and anxiously peer outside, the jagged horizon of spruce and pines on the Canadian shoreline still barely visible through the steady rain. Despite the dismal weather, it feels good to be back in canoe country. Now a video editor in southern California, I used to live and work as an outfitter on the Gunflint Trail, and in recent years the Boundary Waters has increasingly come to feel like home to me. I wish I could spend a whole year out here too, but a week in the rain in late October will have to suffice.
Finally, a small break in the weather. My partner, Matt, eagerly dons a hooded wetsuit, gloves and booties - and on top of all that, Amy’s bright orange drysuit. An avid alpine climber and outdoor photographer from Washington, this is his first time in the Boundary Waters. He admits that he’s probably more at home on a snowy peak than on the water - or rather, in the water - but that’s exactly where he’s about to go for some critical underwater footage.
As we paddle out to our location in a shallow bay around the point, I can tell that Matt is beginning to understand why the Boundary Waters is such a special place. And I’m enjoying this opportunity to share the nuances of travel by canoe with someone new. What had once seemed so commonplace to me is suddenly new and wonderful again as I explain the history and ecology of the region.
Stories and memories come flooding back, yet I too am beginning to see this place from a fresh perspective. It’s been five years since I moved from Minnesota to southern California, and on each trip back, the traffic, sprawl and drought of my new home contrasts ever more sharply with the abundant wilderness and fresh water we are fighting to protect here in Minnesota. It’s never been more clear to me exactly what’s at stake.
We soon arrive at our location near a swath of wild rice, and Matt dives in with camera in tow, encased safely in a waterproof housing. It takes a few tries to get the shot set up, but Amy and Dave graciously oblige our many requests to paddle past the camera “just one more time.” For a moment it all seems a bit ridiculous - swimming and paddling in circles in a near-freezing wilderness lake in late October - but I know the results will be worth it when the film is finished (see trailer below).
The power of film is unique as a tool for storytelling, allowing the audience to be immersed in the sights and sounds of a place, if only for a moment. I recognize that not everyone may have the desire or ability to come visit the Boundary Waters, but if they can simply take the time to watch a film, they too may understand what’s at risk and be compelled to protect our nation’s most popular Wilderness. And so with that in mind, we dive back in for yet another take … “just one more time!”
Nate Ptacek is a native of Wisconsin and former Minnesota resident. He is based in Ventura, California, where he works full time as a video editor for Patagonia. Nate filmed Dave and Amy Freeman’s Paddle to DC last year for the film, A Quest for Clean Water.