Thursday, May 13, 2021
Posted by
Megan Wind, Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters

Wilderness Healing - How the Boundary Waters can Benefit our Mental and Physical Health

Whenever we visit the Wilderness, whether it be for a few hours, few days, or weeks, these natural spaces leave an impression on us and our health. The more time we spend in nature, whether it be in the Boundary Waters or even in the park near your house, the more positive benefits we gain in our mind and our bodies.

Provoked by the pressures of modern life, managing my own mental health has always been a challenge. But I’ve found that I experience the most transformational healing in Wilderness. It slows down the rhythm of my life, and allows me to pay attention to the present. I find healing in chopping wood, portaging, paddling calm lakes, sitting on a rock enjoying my coffee, or hearing the call of the loon. 

As the mental and physical tolls of the COVID-19 pandemic weigh heavily on our communities, the Boundary Waters has seen a record number of visitors. This is in great part due to the fact that people have been seeking out outdoor sanctuaries like the Boundary Waters Wilderness, where they can heal, rest and rejuvenate themselves in a safe and socially distanced way.  

So what about spending time in the Wilderness and other outdoor spaces actually benefits both our mental and physical wellbeing? Sunshine, fresh air, and trees can have healing benefits, including reduced stress levels, stronger immune systems, and a greater resilience against both physical and physiological ailments, like anxiety and depression. Here are some factors that contribute to these positive benefits:

Although seeking comfort in the outdoors has become increasingly common during the pandemic, people have been convalescing in nature all over the world for as long as we can remember. In Japan, a researcher found that short, leisurely trips to the forest called “forest bathing,” or “Shinrinyoku” in Japanese, can have positive effects on our immune systems. When we breathe in forest air, we breathe in phytoncides, airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects and disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by an increase of white blood cell called natural killer cells. This means that being in the Wilderness is also good for our immune health. Learn more about this study. 

In addition to our physical health, the Boundary Waters can also be good for our mental health. During times of peak stress and anxiety in my life, my time in the Wilderness has always been grounding. It allows me to shift my perspective from myself, and realize that I am a small piece of a beautiful, interconnected ecosystem. 

Many of our nation’s veterans have also found themselves seeking out Wilderness experiences for it’s healing benefits. Iraq War Veteran Erik Packard expressed, “What I found back in the BWCA was a sense of peace that I thought I had lost forever. I could feel the poison that had infected my soul from the horrors of war being drawn out of me.” Sometimes veterans visit the Boundary Waters shortly after service as a way to refamiliarize themselves with civilian life, and other times to support and nurture their mental health, especially in terms of dealing with PTSD. 

Sulfide-ore copper mining at the edge of the Wilderness could devastate the Boundary Waters, and jeopardize these healing opportunities. This risky type of mining poses a health risk to the communities surrounding the Boundary Waters because of the high likelihood of surface and groundwater pollution along with acid mine drainage. The environmental impacts of this type of hard rock mining would likely impede the public’s ability to visit the Boundary Waters and also would endanger public health. 

The pollutants associated with this type of mining are linked to a heightened risk of cancer, lung disease, heart disease, and neurodevelopmental disease. As a result, the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, Minnesota Medical Association, Minnesota Nurses Association, Minnesota Public Health Association, and over 150 medical providers have raised concerns about sulfide-ore copper mining because of the tremendous public health risks associated with it.

A sulfide-ore copper mine next to the Boundary Waters would be detrimental to public health. It would devastate the forests and waters that bring peace and solace to those who visit.

Take Action to protect the Boundary Waters!

Additional resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 800-273-8255

Veterans Crisis Line - 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and press 1, or text to 838255

Wilderness Can Heal - Erick Packard, Veteran

Benefits of Spending Time Outdoors in Nature

A Prescription for Better Health: Go Alfresco - Harvard Health Publications - Harvard

Why 30 Minutes of Nature a Day Is So Good for Your Health

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams

Megan Wind is the Communications Specialist for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. She loves being in the Boundary Waters, and has been paddling in Minnesota's Northwoods since was very young!