Every May I find myself longing for a trip northward. For the past 35 years, I’ve only missed a handful of opportunities to make the journey up highway 61 and along the Gunflint Trail to a canoe base near the border. These early-mid May trips have been a part of a volunteer opening weekend for Wilderness Canoe Base, and for me, an opening into life after winter. This year, especially, after the stressful months of trying to maintain my business during the covid-19 pandemic, the wilderness is calling to me very loudly for an opportunity to restore my spirit, but the current sheltering restrictions have me waiting for a later visit. I will try to be patient.
I grew up just three blocks from a lake, albeit a suburban one ringed mostly with houses and roads. I had a short bike ride to open fields and natural wooded undeveloped areas (now all but gone) that provided me with childhood adventures of many kinds. And as a child, I made many car trips into NW Wisconsin where my grandmother lived on the edge of the Chippewa Forest, nestled next to a resort and fishing lake. Being outdoors, camping, and studying nature were all part of my family’s attempt to bridge the gap between living in a tidy suburban development and the honoring the wilderness.
It was a visit into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area when I was 12, three years before its official federal designation, that gave me an entirely different perspective on wilderness. To go for days without cars, boat motors even, no homes and few if any people other than the group I was traveling with opened up my imagination to how the earth can get along just fine without humans. I didn’t have to pretend the homes weren’t there or try to block out the sounds of cars as I sat in the midst of this vast expanse. It was bigger than anything I could explore; it was awesome.
I found ways to return year after year on other trips, and while there were always familiar parts about the visit, there was always something new or at least new to me. Even if I was returning to the same lakes or portages, they were never the same. As I became more comfortable and familiar with the area, I also grew to understand that I was a visitor, an outsider, and that other creatures made this their home, I was just their guest.
Over the years I have tried to introduce this love and respect for the BWCA to my own children, to students I taught, and to friends and family who’ve been willing to join me on the long trek into the wilderness. And now, nearly 50 years later, I find myself fighting alongside others for its existence. How is it even possible after all these years that a federally protected area must defend itself against a multi-national mining corporation?
A few years ago, I visited a retreat center built from the remnants of a copper mining site. For all its beauty, deep in the cascades, there was a sadness there as well. The site was being remediated for issues from tailings and leaking. The destruction of the area was evident. The ability of the retreat center to function was a challenge as well. The costs were high, but just part of the ongoing operations of a multi-national mining corporation. Just another line item in doing business, pay the fines, spend the money for cleanup, move on and go extract somewhere else.
But for the creatures, the trees, the plants that make the BWCA their home, moving on is not an option. For the millions who have enjoyed the wilderness area for what it is and what it has to offer us freely, moving on is not an option. If the poisons of mining waste are allowed to leech and drift their way into the ecosystem, this beautiful area will just be gone.
Choosing to honor this area while choosing to make decisions that benefit our planet and people and business can be made. They are decisions that are about right time, right place, right scale. Unfortunately, these are likely not going to be in the best interest of a multi-national mining corporation, but that’s okay, because those kinds of corporations don’t have our best interests or the earth’s best interests in mind either. We have come so far in these past 50 years since that first Earth Day, yet the arguments must still be raised for why the earth itself deserves our respect and stewardship.
May we find the collective will and strength to make the arguments for preservation of the wilderness and to make decisions that will allow future generations to find the same wonder and beauty in our Boundary Waters Wilderness Area that I have been able to make. And I do hope to see you on that blue Green Path through the wilderness.
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