Trip Tales is a recurring blog series featuring stories from supporters about their adventures in the Wilderness. Submit your own to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robyn and I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary on a boat. Not an island-hopping yacht or luxury cruise liner, but an 18-and-a-half-foot canoe. A performance touring Minnesota II loaded with 60 pounds of gear, a fishing rod, and a bear-proof barrel with enough food for our 100-mile, seven-day adventure through the wilderness country known as Quetico Provincial Park in southern Ontario, Canada.
It was a good plan. We prepped, meal-planned, and made appropriate arrangements with Canadian officials and our outfitter pals at Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, Minnesota.
What could possibly go wrong?
Back in early March, a tube of six maps arrived at the house. Spreading them out on the dining room table, we stitched together a route that would carry us over 30 lakes, four rivers, a handful of beaver marshes and 14 miles of portages from Beaverhouse Lake in Quetico’s northwest corner to Moose Lake on the U.S. border. Our outfitter, Drew Brocket (if you’re planning a trip up here, he’s your man) described the route as a giant 7. “You’ll cross some big water, that’ll open up into some of the best paddling in the area,” Drew said. “It’s a little more rugged than what you’re used to with Boundary Waters, but it’s really extraordinary country up there.”
Drew explained that Quetico sees a tenth of the traffic as its sister park in the U.S., so we could expect some gnarly portages, especially this early in the season. “But that’s part of the fun, right? Oh, and one more thing worth noting,” Drew added. “Quetico is under a Restricted Fire Ban right now, so you’ll need to make sure you bring a stove with you for cooking.” A restricted what? “Does your stove burn jet fuel? The pilots won’t let you carry any flammable liquids on the plane.” Drew explained that we’d need to bring in a couple empty fuel canisters that the pilot would fill from his plane once we landed on Beaverhouse.
Note to selves: buy new camp stove that burns jet fuel siphoned off a 1948 de Havilland Beaver plane by a friendly bush pilot. Check.
There is no “I” in canoe. The key to a successful voyage, and a marriage for that matter, is teamwork, communication, and a dash of blind trust thrown in for good measure. Up here, both paddlers can count on getting wet, slogging through knee-deep mud, scrambling over slippery boulders and dealing with tricky put-ins and take-outs. You’re likely to hear things like:
WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO GET A FISHING LURE OUT OF YOUR FINGER?!?!
HOW CAN BOTH THE COMPASS AND THE MAP BE WRONG?!?!?
HEY LOOK, A BEAR!
WHITE CAPS ARE PRETTY.
I DIDN’T KNOW A STORM FRONT COULD BLOW IN FROM THE NORTH, SOUTH, EAST AND WEST AT THE SAME TIME. COOL.
To panic is to fail. Ducks fly together.
Case in point: having missed the portage at the end of Kahshahpiwi Creek, Robyn and I had to slash our way a quarter mile along a creekbed fighting the trees and river rock the whole way. We dug in and worked together to maneuver the canoe up and over rocks and fallen trees, hopping from mossy boulder to mossy boulder taking care to retrace our steps as we double backed for the rest of the gear. What we thought would be a quick 15-minute carry-over turned into a 90-minute battle with nature. It’s all part of the deal when you’re traveling through the Northwoods.
We get it, Earth. You’re a bad ass.
While traveling can be a bit more rugged as Drew described, navigating Quetico is really quite simple. With good maps, guidebooks and a compass, you can move effortlessly between the wilderness lakes, rivers and beaver marshes. Battling white-capped lakes, setting up two-sided rain tarps, drying a tent in a downpour and removing a treble hook from your index finger, however, requires an altogether different set of skills and temperament.
The key to your happiness is an ability to quickly reset, and adjust your expectations, which it turns out, is a skillset neither Robyn nor I possess. At some point, you just have to laugh and embrace the elements and take every moment for what it is.
By Tuesday evening, we were both laughing. Hysterically.
For the fortunate ones who are blessed with good weather and angling chops, you can live like kings up here. In late-May-early-June, the waters are chock-full of lake trout and walleye just waiting to become a sunset dinner.
Not blessed with such skills* or weather, Robyn and I had to settle on dehydrated meals we enjoyed in our make-shift tarp-lined dining room with the pitter patter of rain for our evening soundtrack as we recalled the day’s adventures and reset our travel plans for the next big push in the morning. With the continued gusty winds, we traded in a direct route of big lakes for a series of smaller ones. It was a good strategy that paid off.
(*) To be fair, crappy weather, rain, wind and high daily mileage kept us from ever casting a line into the water. That said, I’m not much of an angler, though I can fillet a fish like nobody’s business.
Due to low visibility and unstable weather conditions at the beginning of the week, we had to flip our trip and paddle into the park on Saturday and make our way to the northwest corner of Quetico by 2 p.m. the following Friday to meet our float plane, which, weather-permitting, would safely bring us back to Ely, Minnesota. The other option was a 5-hour van ride back to the U.S. On Friday, June 5, we rounded the aspen-studded penninsula that guarded the Canadian Ranger Station, hoping against all hope to see a plane rather than a van awaiting us. Being an hour ahead of schedule, we saw neither.
After a quick lunch, we heard the chopsaw buzz of a 1948 de Havilland Beaver plane. It’s such a loud beast of a machine that it took almost a full minute until we finally spotted it low in the sky in its final approach onto the wide basin of Beaverhouse Lake.
After tying up to the dock, the pilot quickly loaded up our gear and strapped our 18-and-a-half-foot canoe to the plane (he had to ask Robyn to read the fine print on the boat to determine its length since he didn’t have his reading glasses with him — gulp).
And like that, we were ready for our first-ever water take-off.
Once we were settled (Robyn saddled up in the front seat), our pilot concluded his short safety briefing with one final instruction: should anything happen to him during the flight, we were directed to push a little red button on the dash, presumably so the Canadian authorities could retrieve our carcasses and gear. My stomach turned cartwheels as my imagination raced.
With that simple, terrifying declaration, he put on his radio headset — which he’d retro-fitted with a yellow kitchen sponge that was duct-taped to the headband for added comfort — and fired up the engine (singular, as in, oneengine). Within minutes, we were sailing across Beaverhouse towards the eastern shoreline.
Giving us a thumbs up, he pushed the throttle bar into the windshield. The cockpit filled with a deafening roar as the plane’s floats gently slipped out of the water and we gradually climbed up and up and up, over the wilderness lakes and trees. As far as we could see there wasn’t a house or road in sight. Nothing but the raw beauty of Quetico.
Cruising home, we weren’t thinking so much about Sir G’s large pizza and cold beer or the hot water, toilet seats, and comfortable pillowtop mattress that awaited us in Cabin #8 at our favorite Northwoods retreat, the Burntside Lodge, but rather the lucky few who were still cruising from lake to lake to lake below us. No matter how hard it can be at times, this trip gets under your skin like a splinter. It’s funny how quickly your thoughts can turn from utter relief to sentimental sappiness with just the right nudge in perspective.
Referring to Sigurd Olsen’s 1938 article “Why Wilderness?," David Backes writes:
Sigurd maintains that there is a “fierce satisfaction that only comes with hardship.” Fighting the waves, slogging through a mucky portage with a heavy pack and canoe, setting up camp after a bone-wearying day, and then sleeping on the ground may not always be fun, but nevertheless are for many people a stress-releasing break from a comfortable yet vaguely unsatisfying urban life. The exercise in itself helps release stress, but in addition is the sense of perspective that comes from spending days or weeks at a time in which the major decisions have to do with such basic physical necessities as food and shelter. Echoing Bob Marshall and Bertrand Russell, Sigurd also argues that sharing the physical difficulties and the simple pleasures of a wilderness trip with others can bring about a camaraderie that otherwise is most often found in the midst of war.
A hyperbolic leap, perhaps, but Backes and Olsen were certainly on to something, here. The wilderness can be an unpredictable, unforgiving place that requires you to surrender in new and unexpected ways.
In the end, you come to discover that the struggle is the joy of cruising.
Today is Give to the Max Day, Minnesota's biggest day of giving. Last year, hundreds of you showed support for the protection of the Boundary Waters on Give to the Max Day and we're so grateful. Please give again today and support our efforts to protect this beloved Wilderness for future generations. Give to the Max Day offers an exciting opportunity for those far and wide to give to support the Campaign. Here are stories from longtime supporters to help inspire you.
Vice President, 1977-1981
We’ve been fighting to protect the Boundary Waters for nearly a century. Today’s threat dwarfs them all. Sulfide-ore mining has never — never — been undertaken without serious environmental consequences. Sulfide-ore mining is dangerous everywhere and most dangerous in wet environments. And the Boundary Waters is nothing if not wet.
The consequences of such mining are perpetual. They will surely outlive all of us and will just as surely outlive the mining company’s pledges, promises and sureties. We must do what Minnesotans before us have done: defend the wilderness. I hope you’ll join me in this fight by making a donation to help ensure that the Boundary Waters Wilderness remains the place it is today.
Mining could cost us the soul of this splendid place that we have thought well-protected. Let’s not let that happen.
My name is Joseph Goldstein and I'm 15 years old. Two years ago I was diagnosed with what’s officially known as “High Risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.” That is doctor-talk for, “Wow, bad luck, mate. This is gonna stink.” I’d tell you about the experience, but most people aren’t terribly interested in the particulars of hair loss and vomit. The important detail is that I’m still here, and I’ve made it my mission to help save the Boundary Waters!
There’s an obvious metaphor here: the toxic runoff from sulfide-ore copper mining on the borders of the Boundary Waters is a cancer that will kill our Wilderness. Unlike my hair, once the Boundary Waters is gone, it will be gone for good. There will be NO recovery from the poison that will leach from the mines planned along the borders of our perfect waters.
We cannot allow this to happen. Not Here. Not Ever. And that’s why we need you to give what you can to protect this special place.
National Campaign Chair
The Boundary Waters is my home. No matter where I have lived and traveled, I have always returned here. I grew up in Ely and took my first canoe trip at the age of two. I explored the Boundary Waters by canoe and by foot as much and as often as I could as a child.
If we allow sulfide-ore copper mines to be built on the edge of this canoe country, it will never recover. The cleanest water in the world would be polluted. Woods and wetlands would be destroyed. Wildlife and fish would suffer. My home would no longer be a place for families to enjoy.
Because of everything you’ve helped us accomplish, we’re hopeful that the US Department of the Interior Forest Service will deny the leases Twin Metals’ leases needs to mine on the edge of the Wilderness. We will continue to advocate for the removal of the lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters from the federal mining program. The edge of the Boundary Waters is simply the wrong place for an industrial mining district. But unfortunately, that is only a temporary solution. We will be working harder than ever before in the coming years to win permanent protection for this incredible Wilderness.
Piragis Northwoods Company
Soon after coming to Ely, Nancy and I fell in love with Ely, its people and especially the surrounding wilderness. We’ve now been residents for 40 years. We started our retail business and canoe outfitting company, Piragis Northwoods Company, in 1979 on the main street of Ely.
The threat that sulfide-ore mining represents hits me and our business at the core of our existence. Hundreds of paddlers pass through our doors each summer, telling us how important this pure wilderness is to their lives and their psyches. The Ely Chamber of Commerce advertises Ely as “the last pure experience.”
When I heard that the Boundary Waters was threatened by sulfide-ore copper mining, I couldn't sit back.
Dave and Amy Freeman
Explorers and wilderness guides, Paddle to DC 2014 & Year in the Wilderness 2015-2016
During our 366 continuous days in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, we made huge progress towards protection of this incredible place. On day 167 in the Wilderness, Governor Dayton publicly announced his support of protecting the Boundary Waters. On day 210, Sally Jewell added her voice. And on day 265, the Forest Service announced they were “deeply concerned” about the threat of mining on the edge of the Wilderness.
Although our fight isn’t over, this is a lot to be proud of.
Please help save the Boundary Waters. Stand up for what is truly important. Our time here on earth is short and precious, but the decisions we make right now will have a ripple effect long into the future.
Paul and Sue Schurke
Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge & Wintergreen Northernwear
I have been fortunate to travel to some of the most remote and incredible places on the planet. I've completed six North Pole expeditions, and trekked across Alaska and Siberia. Yet I have found the same silence and immersion in nature right at home in the Boundary Waters that I have found in more remote places. Sigurd Olson made the same observation; this place is as beautiful and pristine as any place out there.
For 30 years, my wife Sue and I have owned and operated Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. We offer guided dogsled vacations to more than 500 people each year. People come from all over the world to experience the Boundary Waters as a place "untrammeled by humans."
Our lodge is just five miles downstream from Twin Metals’ proposed mine sites. Mining threatens the wildness, serenity and pristine lakes and streams that are so unique to the Boundary Waters.
With every step and stroke into the Boundary Waters, visitors can experience the beauty and grandeur of this canoe country and the solitude and quiet that you can only truly find in wilderness.
Thank you to everyone who has given to support the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. Please consider giving today!
Fifteen-year-old Joseph Goldstein is dedicated to protecting the Boundary Waters. In March 2015, he shared a very personal story and plea for Boundary Waters protection. Today, he shares an update and a speech he made earlier this month on behalf of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
Nine years ago my parents took my brother and me to the Boundary Waters for the first time. For me, it was like coming home. I fell in love, and, as I was recently reminded, I sobbed when it was time to leave. Since then, the BWCA has become “my place” – that space in the world that I want to be as much as I can, whenever I can.
Two years ago today, I was diagnosed with leukemia, which I guess makes today my “Diagnosaversary” or “Cancerversary.” Something like that. I’d tell you about the experience, but most people aren’t terribly interested in the particulars of hair loss and vomit. The important detail is that I’m still here, and I’ve made it my mission to help save the Boundary Waters!
Saving the BWCA started as my “Wish.” I wanted to help, and using my Wish to protect this place we all love seemed the perfect ask. But, along the way I’ve learned that life doesn’t work that way (so much wisdom between 13 and 15!). So, while I still wish to save our Wilderness, now I’m working at it, too.
There’s an obvious metaphor here: the toxic runoff from sulfide-ore copper mining on the borders of the BWCA is a cancer that will kill our Wilderness. We cannot allow this to happen. I hope you will stand with me today in saying, “Not Here. Not Ever.”
Today, I have three little brothers who love the BWCA as much as I do, and so many friends who are working every day to protect this special place for all of us. But we need more; we need YOU, too.
Please add your voice to the Save the Boundary Waters campaign today. This Wilderness is in danger, and it deserves our protection.
Two years ago this month I was diagnosed with what’s officially known as “High Risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.” That is doctor-talk for, “Wow, bad luck, mate. This is gonna stink.”
So, my family deals with tough times in two ways: we body slam it with hard work and we mock it with sarcastic humor. My leukemia diagnosis was no different. My mom and I figure we’re gonna make a fortune someday with a very special line of “Sarcastic Cancer Wear.” I probably should mention that my dad doesn’t find our cancer jokes even the tiniest bit funny. But frankly, that just ups the hilarity for the rest of us.
The hard work, though? That’s the good stuff. That’s where you roll your sleeves up and dive into a problem, and that is exactly what the threat to the Boundary Waters prompted me to do.
To hear my mom tell the story, Tinkerbell came to visit me in the hospital and granted me a Wish, which I immediately and selflessly sacrificed in order to join the fight on behalf of the Boundary Waters. Moms are supposed to make us sound like super heroes, and my mom is the queen of spin.
In truth, a very nice woman from the Make A Wish foundation came and told me that, because of my “bad luck,” the foundation would grant me a Wish. She talked about the wishes they’d granted for other kids my age: trips, ponies, swimming pools .... Pretty cool ideas when you’re strapped to a chair getting chemo. And I’ll tell you the truth – I wrestled hard with the idea of wishing for a trip to the North Pole. But, by the time we were driving home that afternoon I knew, I knew, what I wanted: to save the Boundary Waters, forever, against the threat mining on its borders. I figured it was the perfect ask. Because after all, who’s gonna say no to a kid with cancer, right?
Turns out that in the non-Tinkerbell version of life, though, wish granting is a lot more complicated and takes a lot more work. But that’s ok, ‘cause as I said, we body-slam hard work in our family.
Luckily, the ground game to Save the Boundary Waters was already underway, led by the people who brought us here tonight. All they needed me to do was to step up when and where I could. I started by writing to President Obama. And then to members of Congress, the Senate, and any other government official who might be willing to help. I went to DC with my friends Jason and Ellie to lobby on behalf of the BWCA, and I took every chance I could to head to Ely, grab a paddle or a dogsled and head into the Wilderness to recharge with my family and the friends who are here tonight.
As funny as we try to make it though, at the end of the day living with cancer is no joke. It’s hard in ways that are difficult to articulate, and it takes things from you that you have to fight very, very hard to reclaim. (Except my hair – my hair came back just fine). There’s joy in the fight, though, especially when you’re scrapping for what is right, what is just, what is fair, and what is good: The fight to save the Wilderness is all of those things.
Wilderness brings out the best in us, and it’s a powerful and demanding teacher. We have to learn to persevere, to earn our comforts, to appreciate silence, and to find a decent fishing spot if we want to eat. And believe me, nothing comes between a Goldstein and their fish-fry. But if we are going to save the Boundary Waters, we have to go to the mattresses, and we have to go NOW because, unlike my hair, once it’s gone, it will be gone for good. There will be NO recovery from the poison that will leach from the mines planned along the borders of our perfect waters.
My parents say it's the hubris of youth to believe that life is binary (obviously, they also like to use words I have to Google). My mom even went so far as to once make me write a position paper in favor of mining, an effort on her part to teach me dissect an argument from the other side, or something about shades of gray ... it was all very mom-ish and it obviously didn't stick.
But I think that the greatest thing about youth is that you GET to be as hubris-y as you want. You get to say things like “either you're a defender or you’re a destroyer.” There is no room for gray on this issue. The science, the community, my friends and my gut all tell me the same thing: we are called to be fierce defenders of this sacred place.
In my letter to President Obama, I said, “Wilderness is important for its own sake.” I believed this when I wrote it two years ago, and I believe it even more today. Dave and Amy brought incredible attention to this cause, but it is up to all of us to safeguard the Boundary Waters because it cannot defend itself. My three little brothers are counting on you and me to do this. Everyone who has ever fallen in love with, found peace and healing in, or made their living on these waters is counting on you and me to do this. People who haven’t yet set foot here, who have never experienced the joy of a walleye pulled from the lake, or listened to the call of a loon at sunset, or experienced the peace of a paddle steadily dipping into these waters - they are counting on you and me, too, and they don’t even know it. We can’t let them down. We can’t let the Wilderness down.
This year we're back at the Minnesota State Fair. We have a booth in the Dairy Building where we are educating visitors about the risks facing the Boundary Waters and gathering signatures in support of permanent protection for the Wilderness from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining.
Come visit our booth where you can spin the wheel to win a button or bookmark, take action to get a Save the Boundary Waters bag and sign our new petition. Take a minute to put a sticker on our big BWCA map marking your favorite lake too if you can. You'll also get to see an exclusive sneak peek at the documentary Bear Witness, about Dave and Amy Freeman's Year in the Wilderness.
The State Fair is also a great time to get social. Take a photo in our booth, use our Snapchat geofilter in the Dairy Building and share your photos and messages about the need to #SavetheBWCA.
This year we again partnered with The Heavy Table to bring you a great review of Minnesota State Fair foods. Check out their annual food tour then watch as James Norton runs through the best and worst in this video filmed in our booth at the Fair.
Each spring the frozen lakes and rivers of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness bust apart and beckon the canoeists of the world north. Hundreds of guides, camp counselors and outfitters flee their winter haunts for more northern latitudes, toward the familiar call of loons and drone of mosquitos that welcome them back to their summer home. Thousands of new and returning campers follow this call too, hoping to be exposed to the most distinctly Minnesotan landscape one can experience.
Minnesotans have migrated north for generations: My grandpa was a bush pilot in Northern Minnesota and Ontario in the 1960's, and my dad paddled old routes in and around the Boundary Waters and to Hudson Bay when he was younger. I've been lucky enough to be a part of that migration for the last two summers, to West Bearskin Lake, home of YMCA Camp Menogyn, a place unlike any other and a part of a unique heritage of lodges, cabins and camps that make the Boundary Waters so special. I got the chance to guide a three-day trip in late July, and as many Minnesotans do when offered the opportunity to escape North, I packed my gear and took off.
So, five twelve-year-olds and I put in on our East Bearskin Lake entry on a sunny Boundary Waters Tuesday. None of them had ever been to the Boundary Waters before. Although this 1.1 million acre playground is teeming with visitors (at least a dozen other groups from the camp we came from), we waved goodbye to the last people we would see that day. No other place in the state offers the beauty and solitude that the Boundary Waters do to so many.
Every reentry into that beauty and solitude is special, but I'll probably never be able to appreciate like these twelve-year-olds did, seeing the BWCA for the first time. No crawfish, frog or leech is safe from the prying fingers of a child let loose on their first portage into this boreal wonderland. Ferrying Duluth Packs and canoes from one end to the other started to lose importance, long sticks began to look a lot like fishing poles and soon, all of us forgot what we were there to do in the first place. It's always astounding just how much life is hiding under every unturned leaf and log in the Boundary Waters, and it was hard not to laugh as the kids splashed after animals living in the muddy twists and turns of the trail. After most inhabitants of the portage were properly caught and examined, curiosity gave way to hunger, and each portage went faster than the one before.
It was an ideal few days in the Boundary Waters: sunny skies, starry nights, and just enough wind to push us in the right direction. We saw loons of all ages, a nest of snakes, a menacingly massive wolf spider, eagles perched on top of old pines, waterfalls, walleye and even found a treasure trove's worth of lures that previous anglers had cast into trees and the log submerged in front of our campsite to catch them with. We cooked pizza, brownies and the walleye we caught over the fire we built.
All of this taught these kids lessons seldom learned in the classroom. To eat, they needed fire, which meant gathering firewood. To get where we needed to go, they had to navigate, learn to paddle, then portage canoes over rugged trails and fallen trees. To sleep, they needed to pitch a tent (that happened to be a few feet taller than they were). They did these things together, often without my help.
They worked hard, played tons, laughed and slept well after full days. They learned that patience is often rewarded, in this place by remarkable beauty and that there are things worth being patient for. Away from phones and computers, they talked to one another, interacted with new people they'd never met and explored together, using a map and compass. They stretched themselves outside their normal routine and were given a different one, an older one that inspires confidence and offers empowerment. They may not need to use a compass much at home, but the confidence will endure. Lakes that were far too long to be paddled, portages made up of way too many rods, and other tasks that seemed insurmountable now came easily. The Boundary Waters taught, as they always do, more than simply the skills they learned.
Maybe they'll use the things they learned here again. I hope they do, and I hope they come back. Whether or not they choose to, we've made a promise that they can. We made a promise that the things they learned will be there for the next generation to learn. The Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Boundary Waters Act of 1978 both codified into law that we want them to be able to, that these places will be set aside for them forever, just as they were set aside for you and I, as they were for those who came before us. The promise we made is one we can't go back on. No resource is worth more than what the Boundary Waters offer endless generations of Minnesotans to come.
That promise is in jeopardy, this time in the form of a mine, and it'd be a shame to watch this place disappear because of inaction. Speak for the Wilderness now. Sign the petition here. Stand with the thousands who have already declared the Boundary Waters off limits to sulfide ore-copper mining, and fulfill the promise we made.
The first time I set foot in a canoe, there was a storm. Rain poured through my jacket and hid the far side of the lake behind a damp grey veil. The waves rocked us as we paddled, and I loved every minute. Luckily, there were other people in the canoe who knew what they were doing, so I had the unique privilege of feeling like an intrepid, seasoned adventurer while simultaneously learning how to paddle.
The setting of my second canoe adventure was quite different. A long, winding drive beneath a blue sky and scattered clouds took us from Sustainable Ely to Sawbill Outfitters, where Mr. Hansen generously lent us a Minnesota 3 canoe. Sawbill Lake awaited us, a calm reflection of a gentle sun. After balancing the packs in the canoe, we climbed in and started to paddle.
We had embarked on this journey as a delivery service. The two bulky packs we carried with us contained supplies for Dave and Amy Freeman as they continue their Year in the Wilderness expedition. The packs were filled with dog food, muesli bars, granola, and an assortment of dehydrated vegetables that I had prepared in Sustainable Ely’s cozy upstairs kitchen. After reading about them in National Geographic, processing their water quality data, and prepping their veggies, I was ecstatic to meet Dave and Amy in person.
It didn’t take much paddling to remove ourselves from the sights and sounds of other humans. Once the dock was out of sight, a small group of loons came into view. They were our companions as we glided past jack pines, white spruce, black spruce and cedar trees.
As the occupant of the bow seat, I was tasked with scouting for any rocks big enough to pose a threat to the bottom of the canoe. Most of the rocks were far below the surface, forming a mute landscape of sandy plains and sharp drop-offs. Occasionally, we would float past a submerged forest of swaying plants. As we neared the shore for our portage, minnows and crayfish darted away from the looming shape of the canoe. A short path led us through a tunnel of trees to Alton Lake, where crystal clear water revealed a pebbled bottom and kelp-like plants. My companions, Reid and Becky, spotted birds and stubby saplings that sprouted up from the rocks, but I was fixated on the underwater scenery.
Dave and Amy waved at us from their campsite, a little clearing on the shores of Alton Lake. We parked the canoe at the waterfront and climbed out. In my excitement, I missed the rocks and stepped right into the water. After clambering up on shore, the Freemans greeted me with warm smiles and handshakes, and their sweet sled dog Tank greeted me by licking my cheek. Becky and Reid introduced me as Sustainable Ely’s full-time intern, and I added that it was an honor to work for the campaign. Amy then asked what kind of work I did. Naturally, the first thing out of my mouth was
I followed that outburst by telling them how much I loved learning the lay of the lakes through their water quality data, and how rewarding it is to talk to Sustainable Ely’s visitors about the cause. We discussed our mutual love of Maine, the dazzling clarity of Alton Lake, and the unfortunate omnipresence of microplastics.
Becky and Reid had brought fresh bread, fruit, and vegetables, and we sat down to a lunch of sandwiches and apple slices. It was delicious, and no doubt a welcome break from bags of dehydrated peas and carrots. Between bites, we remarked at the weather’s perfection. We couldn’t have asked for a better day.
As we were getting ready to start paddling back the way we came, Dave had a surprise for us. He has been working on compiling videos of all the visitors, a brief personal introduction accompanied by five words they had for the Boundary Waters. Dave set up the camera and relished the opportunity to say, “quiet on the set!”
There was no way I could contain the experience of being in the Boundary Waters within only 5 words. Should I hyphenate the words to draw it out? What if I said it in French?
It was my turn to be in front of the camera.
“My name is Liesl Helminiak, and I am from Barrington, Illinois.”
Five words for the Boundary Waters.
“I want to stay here.”
This is Liesl's first summer working for the Campaign. She plans to remain active in the fight to protect the Boundary Waters. Liesl studies environmental science at Carleton College, where she will be a sophomore this fall.
We are all looking to be a part of something. A desire for this has been evident throughout human history. It is apparent today in our obsessions with sports, religion, social media politics, etc. To be part of something with a clear purpose, where the person next to you has your back and is “all in.” For many that something is the natural world. A circle of people that ultimately are not guided by any one organization but through a feeling of responsibility for the earth. A sense that nature, truly, is not separable from our modern lives. While it is understood that living in modern society is virtually requisite, people like myself, balance our lives with immersion in the outdoors, from extended adventures to a simple walk in a beautiful park.
Places like the Boundary Waters exist for that healing to take place. It is an absolute joy to watch people at a Boundary Waters entry point who are either ending, our just starting their trip. The look of euphoria on their faces and the excitement in their actions is hard to describe. These people will be taking something back with them to their daily lives that will be of benefit to all they come in contact with. For them, the world and our place in it is back in perspective.
As a people, we all, directly or indirectly, benefit from having places like the Boundary Waters to heal our bodies and minds. In a time when the danger to our natural environment from self-interest and the pursuit of wealth seems to be only accelerating, to do nothing is not an option. Let us band together to protect this place that hundreds of thousands of people visit each year where families and friends reconnect to replenish the heart and soul. Our future and the future of the earth will be better for it.
Doug Coomer is a canoeist and freelance writer living in the St. Louis, Missouri, area who also happens to be a technology engineer.
Our early June visit to Dave and Amy Freeman's Year in the Wilderness on Horseshoe Lake was one of the clearest reminders to our group of why the watershed in the Boundary Waters is such a unique and valuable supporter and sustainer of life. Clean water anywhere makes sense, and especially here!
We were taught the ways of the dragonfly nymph and how it spends so much of its life in water. We saw the mink along the shoreline and witnessed how this habitat is really its home. The water bugs were busy and the black flies were hatching while the nighthawks were attracted to their feast. We heard of the mom and baby moose around the way that came to the water to eat the aquatic plants.
How is all this life to be supported in this place without clean water?
Our group of four came in with several goals in mind - accomplish the resupply; introduce two younger people (my daughter and nephew) to their first overnight Boundary Waters trip; and, for my cousin and I (prior Boundary waters tripmates), to “remember what silence sounds like."
We accomplished the main objective of getting the resupply pack to Dave and Amy on the first night safely (along with a burger and fries for each from Trail Center)! From there we witnessed the many sights and sounds of the dragonfly, mink, water bugs, black flies, birds, beavers, geese and many other forms of life that reminded us of the life the clean water, woods, and air supports.
We are always reminded at least once per trip that we are visitors here and it is their home. That moment occurred after our few nights with Dave and Amy when we had moved on to Caribou Lake for our last night and returned to our campsite from our day trip to Meeds Lake chased back by a bit of rain. The night was active with an on and off shower - we kept a fire going through it all with logs on top of the fire grate. Then, all in a matter of minutes it seemed after the shower came and went and chased us in and back out of our tent ... the double rainbow from end to end, the excited beaver passing along the shore, the large groups of Canadian Geese flying overhead, and back to the hope and awe of the fading rainbow.
This flurry of activity reminded us of the watershed, the new rain, and what the clean water supports -- It matters greatly. We know that each moment that we get to experience here is something to treasure and also know they are fleeting. We wondered if Dave and Amy had seen the rainbow at their new campsite. So many experiences in this amazing wilderness are frozen in a short moment or two at the right place and right time - you don’t ever see or experience it all and what you missed someone else may have experienced around the way, but you are always reminded clearly that this is home to so many forms of life.
The grassroots effort going on to forever protect this life supporting and sustaining watershed matters to keep this place a home to so many and help us keep our lives in proper perspective. Thanks to everyone who is making a difference to this end!
As we ended our trip, my daughter knew she would come again, my nephew crossed this item off his bucket list, and my cousin and I for sure “remembered what silence sounds like, "but most importantly we dipped our paddles in that water, and we saw the universal sign of hope that it will remain the clear, untarnished life-sustaining watershed it needs to be forever.
Greg Braun lives in Mason City, Iowa, with his wife and four daughters. He loves visiting the Boundary Waters with his family and believes in the power of the Wilderness to reduce stress and increase perspective. Greg is the CFO of Opportunity Village -- a private, non-profit disability services provider located in Clear Lake, Iowa. He became interested in conservation as an adult and has taken trips to the Boundary Waters for nearly ten years. Previously, Greg served on the board of Lime Creek Nature Center Foundation and has a strong interest in the life and work of Sigurd Olson.
Bill Rom founded Canoe Country Outfitters in Ely, Minnesota, in 1946 and served as an outfitter for Quetico Provincial Park, the Superior National Forest and what we know now as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. At the time, it was often called the largest canoe outfitter in the world. A 1976 New York Times article crowned Bill Rom the “canoe king,” and his fleet of 600 rental canoes served generations of visitors.
Growing up in and around Canoe Country Outfitters, his daughter Becky became an explorer and defender of the wilderness in her own right. And it led her to her current role as our national campaign chair. When asked why she fights tirelessly for this quiet and beautiful place, Becky said this to the Great Old Broads for Wilderness: “I have a good support network. And, I do this for me, my dad, and Sig Olson—I feel an obligation to carry on their work.” Click here to learn more about Becky.
We're sharing this and other BWCA Dad stories on Instagram and Twitter. Share your story and tag your photo with #BWCADad and @savethebwca.
Bill Rom- The Early Days of Canoe Country Outfitters (1940's)
I am one lucky person. In May, I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet two of my heros, Amy and Dave Freeman, who are spending a Year in the Wilderness to help protect the Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters is a place for me where I can just let everything go for a bit and enjoy life to its fullest. I had been following the Freeman's journey since day one and it was unbelievable to experience it firsthand.
On the first day of our Boundary Waters journey, it wasn't quite all sunshine and roses, it was more like snow showers and wind gusts. When I got up in the morning, I thought to myself, ”wow this is really happening, I get to meet the people i've been dying to meet since the beginning of their epic journey.” Finally, we got on the road after all of the hard work of getting packed. We stopped at Kwik Trip to get some gas and of course our favorite donuts. The journey had begun. The drive up the North Shore was nice, and I knew it was going to be a great trip.
After getting our permits from the Tofte Ranger Station, it was BWCA or bust. The first portage of our trip came up quick. My dad and I skipped the first rapids, but after Kelly Lake we decided to save ourselves 15 minutes by going right through the rapids.
The Freemans campsite was so close we could feel it. Once we arrived, we talked for a while, and got started setting up before it started to snow. We all went inside the Freemans tipi tent and I couldn’t wait to eat. For dinner we cooked steak, pasta and stir fry. After dinner we just chilled for a while, and then some guys from Frost River came over to our campsite to hang out. We all talked in the tent listening to the wind howling and snow falling outside. It wasn’t until late that the guys went back to their campsite. We gathered outside for a group picture in the snow and then they were on their way. It was a very cold night. Day one was great, and I hoped day two would have many fun-filled adventures as well.
The second day was again very cold. We decided to stay at camp and have a relaxing day. The smell of coffee and fire burning filled the tipi tent, it was very nice. For breakfast Amy cooked some dehydrated eggs and vegetables. She added the leftover steak to the eggs and that sure added some good flavor. We relaxed for a pretty long time and it sure felt good to contemplate life in one of the most precious places in the world.
I decided to entertain myself by going on paddles with Dave and Don. At one campsite we visited, there were a few black-capped chickadees and chipmunks, and I got really close to the chipmunk. As we paddled back, some heavy winds started to pick up, and it made it pretty difficult to steer the canoe. Our afternoon paddle was quite windy in some spots and very calm in others, which made for an interesting trip. On the way back there was a beautiful loon. We paddled right up to it, and I got some great pictures. We took our time getting back to the campsite, because the weather was so nice.
When we arrived back at camp, Tank was very excited. I helped chop some wood, and that made my hands very cold. Amy started cooking dehydrated stir fry and rice for dinner. I had never had much dehydrated food before this trip, and it was actually quite good. After dinner we were all gathered in the tent around a nice fire. We heard a saw-whet owl that had been making a constant noise searching for a mate for quite a while. We crawled into our cold tent, and I feel asleep pretty fast.
On my final full day in the wilderness, I was finally able to hop out of our tent and not sprint straight to Amy and Dave’s warm tipi tent. It was still pretty cold, but the sun was shining over the lake nicely. I could sense it was going to be a nice day. My dad and I made some blueberry pancakes on the griddle and they were delicious. Later, all of us headed out on a day trip. I was very excited to paddle with Tank and Amy. We visited Jack and Weird Lakes and we explored the Vern River. When we got to the first portage, Amy asked if I wanted to portage the canoe. At first I was kind of skeptical, because I had never actually portaged one before. I had always let my dad do the heavy lifting. Also, that thing was huge, but with Amy’s encouragement I tried it and it was awesome.
After that we paddled to a nearby campsite to stop for some lunch. The site had been occupied not too long ago, and there was a lot of trash left behind and the fire was still smoking a bit, which is not the way you should leave a campsite. After lunch, we all picked up the trash and Amy put the fire out with her water bottle. It was so nice to be in the wilderness taking a break from my everyday school life.
We took the 10-rod portage into Weird Lake, making plenty of weird jokes. The Vern River was a very cool place and I’m so glad I got to paddle up it. On our way back to camp some sprinkles started to fall.
The closer we got to camp, the harder it rained. I put on some dry clothes on and found myself right back in the tipi tent. For dinner we made a nice vegetable and meat stew that had carrots, potatoes, onions and an array of spices. Tank was very happy to join us in the tent and he also enjoyed licking the pan before it was washed. We gathered around the warm wood stove and listened to the steady rain while enjoying each other’s company. It was very difficult for me to leave the wilderness the next day.
Thank you so much, Amy and Dave, for having me, Don, and my dad, you guys are truly an inspiration. I’m so honored to have met Amy and Dave and I can’t wait to be back. We have to keep working to save this national treasure from these horrible mining threats towards the BWCA wilderness. My hope is that by spreading awareness about this majestic place, the younger generation will want to #SavetheBWCA.
Helen Clanaugh is a 14-year-old from Duluth, Minnesota. She attends North Star Academy. This was Helen's second BWCA trip, but she plans to go back for a third time this summer. Helen enjoys playing basketball and being outdoors.