One of the benefits of working for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is a lot more access to the Boundary Waters we’re all working so hard to protect. Last weekend, I was up in Ely on a work trip (poor me, I know) and I took the opportunity to bring my family up for an extended weekend. Dave and Amy Freeman were on Fall Lake, relatively close to the border of the Wilderness, in order to get a resupply for A Year in the Wilderness from another volunteer. So we were excited to head out and see them for the first time in 115 days!
It was the coldest day of the year (at -24F) when we woke up, but thankfully it had warmed to a balmy -20 by the time we got to the Fall Lake entry point. Once we were all bundled up (a big shout-out to our Ely and Duluth business supporters for their mittens, hats, and mukluks we’ve purchased over the years to keep us warm), we headed out. Elsie (age 8) walked most of the mile out there (with some assistance from her mommy) and I pulled Donnie (6) and Eddie (2) in our stroller with ski attachments.
The moment we stepped on the ice, we felt the familiar thrill and pull our hearts feel every time we step foot/dip our paddle in the Boundary Waters. There really is nothing like it. The quiet, the undisturbed forest, the only sign of humans were actually dog sled tracks.
As a family, we’ve been following Dave and Amy through their Wilderness Classroom website, blogs, and their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts. The kiddos love the pictures of the steam rising off a lake, wolves, holiday lights on their tent, pictures of them dancing on the ice, videos of the dog sleds in action and more. For Elsie in particular, heading out meant meeting up with her first celebrities! She even had a question prepared she really wanted to ask when we met up (we’ll cover that later).
About half way out, Dave and Amy came skijoring out with Tina, Tank and Acorn to meet us!! We greeted one another, met the dogs and then continued on our way. The dogs’ excitement and untapped energy could be felt, and it was exciting to watch them pull Dave and Amy back to camp.
Upon reaching their campsite, we got the grand tour of their temporary home for the next few days. The dog's sleep on their pads and outside the tent (in case you were wondering, they’re used to the cold and overheat in the tent), the dog sled and toboggans for hauling their stuff are stashed in one spot, and their tent is set up out of the wind in another area. Our boys were especially excited to get out of the stroller/ski/sled, so the kiddos all ran off, dug through the snow to find the ice, jumped and played and got to do what kids do best in the Wilderness -- explore.
Of course, being as cold as it was, we headed into the tent after a bit. Dave and Amy cooked up some hotdogs and we warmed up and chatted about their trip.
Elsie whispered to mommy “they’re making us food?” in a silent awe. After a bit, Elsie wanted to ask her question, but she was a bit too star-struck to say it, so we asked on her behalf (she really wanted to know this): “How do you go to the bathroom without freezing your butt?!” A very practical thing an 8-year-old would be concerned about! I don’t know if I should divulge the personal habits of Dave and Amy, but suffice it to say, Elsie learned a thing or two about the everyday needs of people living in the Wilderness year round and she was satisfied with the answers.
We did have to eventually get going, so we said our goodbyes, gave hugs and shared well wishes for the rest of winter and into spring.
The trip out for my family really touched on something we talk a lot about on the Campaign: Accessibility. It’s one thing to have a remote, untouched area full of wildlife, pristine water and a healthy forest. But it’s another to have one so readily accessible to people of all walks of life. In the Midwest especially where wilderness areas are relatively few and far between, to have 1.1 million acres within a day’s drive of major metropolitan regions is one of the reasons this is America’s most visited wilderness.
Take that into account with the fact that literally anyone can make the trip. When sharing our story on the Hill in D.C. or talking with concerned citizens at the Minnesota State Fair, I like to say “You don’t have to be able to climb 12,000-foot peaks, or carry 5 gallons of water into a dessert, or be able to afford a chartered plane to northern Alaska to experience the wilderness. All you need is a canoe for a day trip. Add to that a tent, sleeping bag and some cooking gear and you’re set for a week.”
And by “anyone” I also mean the young and the old (how many of us were introduced to the Boundary Waters by our grandparents and dream of carrying that forward to future generations?!). The physically disabled and the top physically fit people on Earth can each have their experience. Disadvantaged youth from Minneapolis or Chicago go through camps to learn life skills and come out better people, Veterans recovering from PTSD can find peace and solace and a place to heal, students from Madison and families from St. Louis … and so many more examples.
More and more as our lives get inundated by technology, busy schedules and the ongoing burden of every day life, we need special places where we can relax, feel ourselves restore, be one with nature and hear literally nothing but wind in the trees. This is one of the reasons why I am fighting to save the Boundary Waters, and it was reinforced by how easy it was for my kids, including Eddie the two–year-old, to make a day trip on the coldest day of the year.
There are, however, casualties of every trip:
"Daddy, why don’t we have a winter tent?"
"Daddy, why don’t we have sled dogs?"
"Daddy, when are we going to be in Ely again?"
At least the last question was easy to answer: "Soon, kiddos. Very soon."
Alex Falconer is state director for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Water. Alex has been in the outdoors, northwoods, northshore, Boundary Waters and beyond since before he could walk.
Jason Zabokrtsky (of Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service) and I were fortunate to be able to spend this New Year's Eve with Dave and Amy Freeman in the Boundary Waters. The trip was even more memorable because it marked Dave and Amy's 100th day of A Year in the Wilderness! To celebrate, we brought a delicious dinner (rotisserie chicken, fresh asparagus, baked potatoes, salad and ice cream), hats and noisemakers, and games.
We walked to their campsite on foot, pulling our supplies behind us on sleds. The conditions were ideal for travel. It was about 20 degrees out with a light dusting of snow, and we had a good view of the majestic snow-covered trees surrounding the interconnected lakes. Along the way, we saw several animal tracks. My favorite was the otter, which you can spot by its unique "hop-hop-slide" movement.
Our evening was filled with delicious food, laughter and good conversation. Highlights included soccer on the lake, making Swedish glogg, and lighting beautiful ice candles in a circle around the tent. Our evening was spent enjoying each other's company, laughing and playing games, and there was something very satisfying in that. I felt renewed and gained a sense of clarity that I could carry into my daily life. Spending New Year's with Dave, Amy and Jason reminded me of how special the Boundary Waters is and the importance of protecting such a valuable resource.
Sarah Whiting grew up in northeastern Minnesota, enjoying camping and the outdoors from an early age. She is currently an attorney in Minneapolis and makes frequent trips to the Boundary Waters.
I can still picture the living room floor in my childhood home covered with bags, each containing a specific meal for the trip ahead. These handmade cloth pouches were telltale sign of an impending adventure -- BWCA time! Childhood trips with my family fueled the passion in me that eventually led the way to summers of guiding canoe trips as a college and medical student. What better way in the world is there to spend a summer than in the woods? The endless lakes of varying character and personality, crystal clean water from which to drink, coffee enjoyed while sitting on the rocks, campfires, fresh fish, blueberries, crispy swims, rainy days, starry nights, northern lights. Those summers became engraved in my DNA.
As I met the man I eventually married, he of course needed to pass “the BWCA test.” Despite the perils of a mosquito-infested first trip, he passed the test and grew to love the wilderness as well. He paddled in to our wedding site, where I waited on the banks of a northern lake, wearing a white dress with flowers in hand. We honeymooned on nearby BWCA lakes.
Our first child took her first trip when she was six months old, and her two younger brothers followed suit. Ample chocolate filled the food pack for many years, to ensure the trip would be fun and treat filled for all. The strategy worked. Family BWCA adventures have become a staple in summer.
My daughter and I now have annual mother-daughter trips with a group of mother-daughter friends. Girls who were in kindergarten and barely able to hike over portages without tears can now out-paddle and out-portage their mothers. The BWCA: Pristine. Ageless. Timeless. Soul-filling. Strength and character-building. Treasure.
Perhaps I was naïve to assume that the Boundary Waters would always be the sanctuary that it’s been. Given that the BWCA is the most visited wilderness area in the country, I assumed uncompromised protection. It’s not so simple. If one looks at a mining prospecting map of northern Minnesota, it is a polka-dotted blueprint of that which imposes on the boundary of this pristine wilderness. The Duluth Complex: a vast swath of mineral-containing rock, worth billions to the mining industry, embedded under the surface of our northern Minnesota soil and water. The region is no stranger to mining.
But one needs not dig too deeply to realize that sulfide-ore mining is a much different type of mining than anything done within our borders up until now. Once sulfide-containing rock is extracted and exposed to air and water, it becomes a potential source of acid mine drainage for centuries. I have been unable to find evidence of a sulfide mine in existence that has not had significant deleterious affects to the surrounding waters and ecosystem. Couple this reality with the water-rich geography of northern Minnesota and it’s hard not to be concerned. Current proposals underway would put our last mother-daughter trip campsite on the Kawishawi River at ground-zero for acid mine drainage. The thought is quite sobering.
As a physician, the concerns run even deeper. The World Health Organization lists the Top Ten Environmental Toxins of Greatest Risk to Human Health. Of these 10, at least five of these are known toxins released from sulfide mining: mercury (as well as the sulfides released that methylate mercury already in the environment to its more toxic form- methylmercury), arsenic, lead, manganese and air pollution.
More and more medical literature is connecting the dots between environmental toxins and the eventual effects on human health. Take the Lancet article from February 2014 as one of many examples: “Neurodevelopmental disabilities, including autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and other cognitive impairments, affect millions of children worldwide, and some diagnoses seem to be increasing in frequency. Industrial chemicals that injure the developing brain are among the known causes for this rise in prevalence …. we identified five industrial chemicals as developmental neurotoxicants: lead, methylmercury, arsenic ….”
We can no longer separate toxic assaults to our environment from eventual potential effect to human health. Suffice it to say, a much longer blog post would be needed to address each of the specific toxins, the known deleterious effects to human health, and the risks to each vulnerable population: unborn fetuses, children, on site-workers, nearby residents, and frequent utilizers of the Boundary Waters. We do know, however, that effects will be insidious and that the generations to come will be the ones paying the price.
It is not possible to mine to the border of one Boundary Waters lake, and continue to drink straight out of the water and eat the fish out of the next for decades to come without effect. Our treasured wilderness, and the environmental and human health that go hand-in-hand, is at risk. There are some things too precious to compromise. As my own kids have caught fish, swam, paddled, and portaged alongside their grandparents, my hope includes doing the same with my grandchildren in decades to come. Perhaps best summarized in the wise words of Sigurd Olson: “Not only has wilderness been a force in molding our character as a people, but its influence continues, and will, if we are wise enough to preserve it on this continent, be a stabilizing power as well as a spiritual reserve for the future.“
Now is the time to raise our voices, to assure that this beloved wilderness can continue to be a stabilizing power and spiritual reserve for all, long into the future.
Dr. Jennifer Pearson is a family medicine physician from Duluth.
On a cold, snowy Saturday morning in November, our group of paddlers set off from the Moose Lake BWCAW entry point on a mission to resupply Dave and Amy Freeman. Distributed in our canoes were various portage packs brimming with food, gear, clothing and other essentials—Including two pair of snow shoes, intended to see Dave and Amy through the critical ice-in period expected some time in the near future. A period when they will be cut off from resupply for an extended period of time when the danger of thin ice will prevent travel by either watercraft, ski, sled or snowshoe. Our course was set for a rendezvous at the Splash Lake portage.
At the time of this writing, Dave and Amy Freeman have been out living and working in the Boundary Waters Wilderness for more than seven weeks. Their work will keep them there for a full year. They are educating school children, taking water quality samples, contributing to science, photographing and filming and acting as the standard bearers for tens of thousands of people with whom they are in solidarity. The goal of this solidarity is simple: to keep the place undisturbed. We on this resupply trip felt proud and privileged to be participating in this effort.
We found Dave and Amy waiting at the portage, backdropped by snow-covered evergreens and a gurgling stream teaming with spawning whitefish. Eagles were circling overhead. I'm happy to report they both look healthy and happy, upbeat and at ease in the woods. We spent part of the morning with them visiting and repacking, organizing and loading their fresh supplies. On the portage trail there was an abundance of fresh wolf scat. Amy told us how they had heard and seen wolves the last few days. They've heard splashing as the wolves take advantage of the white fish in the shallows. Amy described the beauty of being camped near a pack that has been howling just a short distance from their tent. Dave told us how they too have been enjoying eating the fresh fish that are schooling. They recently met up with friends in the area out netting the fish.
In the early afternoon we hugged one another goodbye. Darkness comes early this time of year. Amy and Dave climbed aboard their heavily ladened canoe and paddled north toward Knife Lake and our group headed south toward the take out and our respective homes. A slate grey sky and light winds reminded us of the coming winter. Though we were parting ways, our goal is the same.
Brad Carlson is a native of Virgina, MN, and lives with his wife in a small cabin on the Kawishiwi Trail, eight miles outside of Ely. They split their time between Ely and Austin, TX. Carlson is a retired deaf blind specialist in the field of vocational rehabilitation. Carlson spent his childhood growing up in proximity to the Wilderness and Superior National Forest. He and his wife love paddling the waters of the Wilderness and exploring the back country. They feel strongly that this place should be left undisturbed—forever.
The sun broke through between dark cloud layers and shone with a warm brilliance on bronzed sedges and grasses and the cedar fringe beyond. We were in a sheltered bay, hoping for another glimpse of a moose couple we’d inadvertently alarmed back at our lunch spot. Something about the moment--the subtle fall colors in the golden light, the fresh tang of the bog edges, the deep stillness, the sense of anticipation--called to mind another October paddle of many years ago.
We were paddling the shore of Cap Lake, just past the outlet of a little stream that runs down from a beaver pond, when an odd movement caught my eye. It was at the low crown of a rock ledge that sloped up from the water. Camouflaged by a screen of hazel and dogwood, a pair of great moose antlers jerked upright … and then began to droop. Even though this was happening no more than 20 feet back from shore, it took a moment for the startling big picture to come together. A bull moose, no doubt exhausted from the rut, was dozing. Every time the end of his long nose sunk into the lush lichen garden he lay in, his head jerked up and his eyes almost cracked open ... but then sleepiness overtook him, and head and antlers sank again.
Silently we pulled the canoe tight against the shore and settled in to soak up the peaceful scene. Late fall colors, the dark moose against pale lichen behind the brown and red brushy screen, a passing breeze tossing a handful of old gold tamarack needles, the warmth of sun on back and cold of water on dipped fingers. A dark crimson bunchberry grew so close to shore that, low as it was to the ground, its four leaves cast a perfect reflection on the narrow gap of still, clear water between canoe and shore.
Suddenly a tiny least chipmunk ran down the rock to water’s edge and took a drink, so close I might have touched it, making ripples that obscured the red reflection. A drink, a long look around, then it raced back up and disappeared into an old gray root wad. We had to laugh (though silently!) and the spell was broken; we paddled on and left the bull dozing. Or maybe that’s when the spell was cast, the spell that makes that memory so fresh after nearly 30 years.
One part of that long ago event that I don’t recall is what I was thinking. The feeling of it, the sensory impressions, yes, but not the thoughts. I’m positive, though, that I wouldn’t have been thinking that someday there would be plans for sulfide-ore copper mining operations that would devastate these Boundary Waters. I would have innocently assumed myself to be in the middle of a vast wilderness protected in perpetuity by the Wilderness Act and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act.
I know better now, but I want the next generations to have the luxury of that happy innocence. I want us--you and me, today--to be tenacious, taking this hard won chance we have to permanently protect the Boundary Waters watershed from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining. These days, while I’m soaking up the pleasures of an autumn paddle, I’m also vowing to myself “We have to make it happen, and we will!”
Ellen Hawkins is a board member of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness. She lives near the edge of the Boundary Waters, off the Sawbill Trail. Retired from the Forest Service, she finds that surprise encounters with wildlife of all kinds are still among her most delightful experiences, just as they were during her years as a wilderness ranger.
Today is Give to the Max Day, an unparalleled day of giving across the state of Minnesota. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has received an outpouring of generosity from supporters. One of the most passionate wilderness warriors in this Campaign is National Campaign Chair Becky Rom, a third-generation Ely resident. An avid outdoorswoman, Becky has unique insight into the politics of the Boundary Waters. Becky’s father, Bill Rom, studied under conservationist and wilderness advocate, Sigurd Olson, and worked as an outfitter in Ely for nearly 30 years. She began guiding trips in the Boundary Waters at the age of 14. Learn more about Becky's passion for protecting the Boundary Waters in her own words below or in her recent interview with Great Old Broads for Wilderness, in which Becky reflected on her history in Ely and connection to the Northwoods. Please give today to support our efforts to protect the wilderness.
I have loved the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness since I was a child. Growing up in Ely, Minnesota, I took my first canoe trip at the age of two (pictured right). As I grew older, I worked alongside my father, Bill Rom, in his outfitting business Canoe Country Outfitters (pictured left, below), often guiding visitors on Boundary Waters trips to experience the wonder and natural beauty of canoe country. No matter where I have lived and traveled, I have always returned here. You can canoe in spectacular wild country and catch great fish, or have an extraordinary winter adventure by dogsled. You can tell stories around the fire while the loons and wolves call and the stars pave the sky. There is no other place like it in the world.
That’s why, when I learned that a South American mining company had plans to develop sulfide-ore copper mines right in the heart of the Superior National Forest—in an area stretching for many miles, involving thousands of acres of woods and wetlands along the edge of and upstream from the Boundary Waters—I knew that we must take action.
If we allow this risky type of mining to happen along the streams and wetlands that flow into the Boundary Waters, this canoe country will never recover. The water would be polluted, large areas of woods and wetlands would be destroyed, wildlife and fish would suffer, and this would no longer be a place for families to enjoy.
Together, our voices are powerful. Whether you’ve volunteered at the Minnesota State Fair or elsewhere, traveled to Washington, D.C. with us, or simply signed a petition asking for the Boundary Waters to be protected, thank you.
With NMW’s leadership and the tireless work of fantastic volunteers and staff, the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has grown with pro-bono legal support from excellent law firms and advice from some of the best and most experienced public lands defenders in the country. We are making progress every day. None of this would be possible without the financial support of people like you. We promise to spend your money wisely.
Give to the Max Day is an important day for giving in Minnesota. We have been lucky to have such an amazing group of supporters behind the Campaign from the beginning and we’re grateful to everyone who has joined our efforts since. Today, many of our longtime supporters are sharing their stories in an effort to urge people, near and far, to give. Here are their stories.
Steve and Jane Koschak are the owners of River Point Resort and Outfitting Company. Located just four miles from the Boundary Waters on the shores of the Kawishiwi River, River Point has served visitors since 1944.
River Point Resort and Outfitting Company is our pride and joy. Visitors travel from all over the United States and the world to enjoy peace and serenity here. They come to get away from the noise, sights and stress of urban life.
This peaceful sanctuary will be destroyed forever if international companies succeed in building large industrial mines right across the river from us. These companies plan to build an underwater tunnel to connect the Twin Metals mine to the concentrator site here. We have a short window of opportunity to prevent these mines from being built. We have already experienced the loud and constant noise from test drilling during certain times of the year. If these mines are built, we could no longer offer the peaceful experience that our guests come here to enjoy. It would destroy our life’s work and investment - the legacy we want to pass on to our son.
But it won’t only devastate us personally. The more than 250,000 visitors who come to the Boundary Waters every year would lose the opportunity to visit and experience solitude and joy with their children and grandchildren.
Please give generously before midnight – your gift today will be doubled by people who share our love of the Boundary Waters.
Thank you so much,
Steve and Jane Koschak, River Point Resort & Outfitting Company
Nearly two months ago, Dave and Amy Freeman embarked on their 365-day journey in the Boundary Waters. Today, they’re writing from their campsite on Knife Lake.
We have been traveling in the Boundary Waters for 50 days now on A Year in the Wilderness. Because we embarked on this journey to raise awareness about the threat to the Boundary Waters posed by sulfide-ore copper mining, we have a few pieces of technology that allow us to write to you as we sit around the wood stove in our tent nestled between towering red pines.
Every day out here in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is special. More and more, we feel grounded and connected to the world around us. We remember that 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.
Our journey is about bearing witness to the Wilderness. We are here to be a constant reminder to you about what is at stake. America’s most visited Wilderness area is under a serious threat that could permanently pollute the lakes and streams that we travel on each day. Even though there are times when we miss our family and friends, we know that our efforts are important.
But we can’t protect the Boundary Waters alone. We need you. A whole community of supporters is necessary for this work to be successful. This effort needs many people to raise their voices and concerns with decision makers across the country. Thank you for contributing to the cause and helping us bear witness to the vast expanses of unspoiled lakes, rivers and forests that make up the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Please give today to help preserve this amazing wilderness.
From the Boundary Waters,
Dave and Amy Freeman
Paul and Sue Schurke are the owners of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge and Wintergreen Northern Wear. The couple has been sharing the Boundary Waters with people of all walks of life for more than 30 years. Steve shares their story:
I've been lucky to explore some of the most incredible and remote places on the planet. I've completed six North Pole expeditions, and trekked across Alaska and Siberia. And I have found that you can experience the same silence and immersion in nature right here in Minnesota. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is extraordinary and special.
My wife, Sue, and I have been sharing the Boundary Waters for over 30 years with people from all walks of life. We guide about 100 dogsledding trips per season, accommodating over 500 people, who come from all over the world. It's a joy to take someone out into the Wilderness on a winter dogsledding expedition. It is especially moving when they have only imagined the beauty of the Boundary Waters before coming here for the first time.
One of the things that our guests are almost always struck by on their vacation is the extraordinary night sky. The stars seem impossibly bright, and the Milky Way glows. On special nights, the sky erupts in a stunning, ethereal display of the Northern Lights.
The Boundary Waters is a true national treasure. But I worry that the Wilderness that we know and love won't be here for the next generation to enjoy. Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness' Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has made incredible progress toward protecting this place. However, there is much still to be done, and it can only be accomplished with your support.
That's why I can't just sit back while the Boundary Waters is at risk from sulfide-ore copper mining. I hope you'll join me in making a gift today to fund the critical work of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
Thank you so much,
Paul and Sue Schurke, Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge and Wintergreen Northern Wear
Thank you to all who have given today. If you haven't given, please consider supporting the Campaign today.
While many think of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Ely area as a summer destination for canoeing and camping, there is much more to this part of the Superior National Forest that takes place throughout the year. In a milder November than recent years, locals and visitors alike are enjoying the warmer trend while hunting, fishing and taking the canoe out for one last paddle before the ice arrives. Instead of walking across the frozen water, this Veteran’s Day we are walking around flowing streams and across the boggy marshes that feed into the Wilderness while soaking in the tranquil music of the water flowing over rocks.
As a child, this Wilderness played an enormous role in the outcome of my future. I remember peeling the bark off dead-fallen and rotting birch trees to help aid our efforts to start a fire after a rainy night not far from one of our favorite campsites on Lake Two. I remember walking the short portages from Lake One that felt miles long to my little feet while contributing to the effort by carrying a paddle or a few fishing poles to the other side. Our family trips were often in June and July, so the Kawishiwi River typically had a decent flow in the rapids that we would portage around between the two lakes. I learned at a young age how to pronounce Kawishiwi, because in Ely the name shows up almost everywhere you go—much like the river itself—as it weaves and flows through dozens upon dozens of the connected wilderness lakes.
As an infantry Marine Veteran of the war in Iraq, I have set foot in the murky and polluted waters of both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. While the palms lining their banks made for a welcoming view after drudging through the desert for several weeks, the waters themselves left me yearning for something clean to swim and drink from. Despite all the purification technology used by the U.S. Military to make these waters “safe” to drink, we managed to get sick routinely from the negligently managed, over polluted rivers of Iraq. The first thing I did after returning to Minnesota after the war was to walk straight to the kitchen sink, turn on the faucet, and drink the clean water that flowed out. I realized over the period of a decade spent across the world and the United States that there was only one place I had been where I trusted not only drinking water from the faucet, but also straight from the lake itself.
I would be lying if I said I hadn’t gone through much suffering after my medical discharge from the Marine Corps. I spent the first few years of my reintegrated civilian life living alone in San Antonio, TX, where I studied business management. In 2009, six years after returning from Iraq, I moved back to Minnesota to pursue a hopeful lifetime in Ely amongst the wilderness lakes, rivers, trees and fish. The more time I spent away from the sounds of civilization, in the woods or on the water, the more I began to heal from my own grief. Being able to share this with others became a passion of mine that I pray never dies.
This month marks the close of my fifth season as an outfitting manager and guide. Back in September I had the opportunity to share my favorite childhood campsites with a nonprofit group I was guiding called Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). TAPS came to us for help in planning a healing retreat for those who lost loved ones in the service. It was my honor to serve them on this trip and it was humbling to hear them openly discuss the greatest pains and the happiest memories they had endured, while stoking the fire with balsam branches. Unlike a majority of the trips TAPS takes its members on, the Boundary Waters regulations of 9 or fewer people to a group had them splitting up into smaller, more intimate parties.
There aren’t many places in the country where you can embark on this kind of journey; there is a measure of healing one can find here that a lifetime of therapy may not be able to achieve. With the threat of introducing sulfide-ore copper mining, a process labeled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the most toxic industry in the country, into the Boundary Waters watershed; there is a level of risk too great to overlook. No one can ensure that sulfuric acid waste will notleak into this colossal connection of lakes, rivers, streams and marshes. I couldn’t imagine a Boundary Waters canoe trip where one has to bring in their own water because a mining incident made the water unsafe for consumption. With any likelihood of polluting these pure waters, is it worth the risk?
As Veterans, we are not strangers of fighting to protect the land we love. Today, let us remember all of those who gave life and limb to defend our freedoms, let us honor them for their sacrifices. For those of us who are still able, let us stand up together and do what we know is right. It is clear that this Wilderness will not be able to protect itself from our own doing. For those who value the blessed serenity of this Wilderness, let us continue to stand up to defend her against all threats, foreign and domestic.
St. Paul native Ben Putnam is an outfitting manager and guide at Boundary Waters Outfitters in Ely, MN. He served with the Marine Corps and was deployed to Iraq as a machinery gunner in the Third Battalion of the Fifth Marine Regiment during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Boundary Waters is a special place to me. I had dreamed of going there for years, and finally received the opportunity through my Boy Scout Troop when I was 18. The Troop was comprised of all of my friends, including Chris, who became my oldest son’s godfather, and nearly a brother to me. Chris and I always talked of going back to the Boundary Waters, but work, the military and school stepped in the way. Sadly, we never made it back together. His life was cut short, and at 24 he passed away before we could make it back up there.
Fast forward to 2011. I was deployed with the Minnesota National Guard 34th ID 194 CAV to Kuwait and Iraq. My platoon and section was responsible for convoy security operations during the drawdown of the Iraq war. We were very lucky, and did not have any severe incidents, but were still exposed to the strain of being deployed in a combat zone.
Upon returning home, I made the decision to go back to the Boundary Waters. I thought my oldest son was old enough, and I longed to go back. I rediscovered Entry Point 37, on Kawishiwi Lake, the original entry point I had set out from with Chris and the other Scouts in 1998. That experience sparked an annual trip out of this entry point, in memory of Chris, as well as multiple trips out of Ely with my son's Boy Scout Troop.
While I do not suffer from PTSD as a result of my service, I do have some stress and issues with people that I attribute to my time in the service. I found that the Boundary Waters provides an instant healing and calming effect over my body. When I arrive, the calming begins. Upon touching the water, nature takes over and I almost go into sensory overload taking everything in; feeling calm and "normal” again. I have talked to other veterans, from Vietnam to the current conflicts, and the Boundary Waters has a similar effect on them. Not too many places on Earth have the ability to remove one from a troubled state of mind into a state of peace and calming.
When I first started going back to the BWCA, I found it much like I remembered. I also found out that Twin Metals and other companies were proposing to build sulfide-ore copper mines near the Boundary Waters’ edge. I will admit, at first I was naive, and sympathetic to the cause of the mines. I took it upon myself to do further research and was shocked by what I found. I couldn’t believe how close in proximity exploratory drilling was taking place to the BWCA--literally on the edge of this sanctuary of nature and peace. I found that the byproduct of this type of mining, sulfuric acid, has significant dangers associated with it. The video of the Mount Polley Disaster was the tipping point for me. I was shocked and in awe of the damage that was caused when a tailings pit wall gave way. They have destroyed some of Canada’s most pristine wilderness forever. I was appalled to discover that the engineering firm that managed the Mount Polley tailings pond when it failed has done work for Twin Metals. I have found many cases of mines similar to this going bankrupt, leaving taxpayers to pay the price for cleanup, and dealing with permanently scarred land.
I decided to take a stand, and became involved with the Save the Boundary Waters Veterans Group. Here, I found like-minded veterans who suffer from PTSD and who have also been saved by the healing qualities of the BWCA. They too want it to be kept a pure wilderness. One of my missions after exiting the military service is helping veterans with PTSD, and preventing veteran suicide. I believe that a place like the BWCA can help deter the negative effects of PTSD. I know many veterans who have attended Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS) on the edge of the BWCA, and adjacent to the proposed Twin Metals mine site. Twin Metals and other companies have drilled extensively and flown helicopters in the vicinity of VOBS, the noise from which can cause stress and trigger relapse to veterans with PTSD who have been injured by IED blasts.
A person shouldn’t have to be exposed to this when they are trying to heal. This is one of the many reasons sulfide-ore copper mining should be kept away from the BWCA. There is so much information out there about why this type of mining is dangerous for our environment, especially in this close proximity to water; but the healing factor is so strong for me. I would hate to see the wilderness ruined, especially since it has helped so many like myself.
I feel, as a whole, we need to protect this natural resource and wilderness that we are privileged to have. The Wilderness Act set aside this area for a reason. Over and over, the BWCA has been helping veterans and it would be a shame to destroy it. Especially since those who served, both at home and overseas, are fighting hard to protect it. I think we owe our veterans some thanks by protecting this area and allowing veterans to continue to be healed by the awesome beauty, tranquility and solitude it affords. I hope we can continue to preserve this treasure for generations to come so that my son's sons and daughters and their children and grandchildren can continue to enjoy the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. We owe it to ourselves.
Nick Millette is from Pine City, MN. He is a former staff sergeant for the Minnesota Army National Guard. B Troop 194 CAV
[Photos by Adam Steinhilber]
My trip to Ely was not planned. I hadn’t anticipated spending nearly a month living and working at Sustainable Ely on the famed East Sheridan Street. Had it not been for my brief stint volunteering at the Minnesota State Fair with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, I might have missed this small gem of a town. Having only traveled through it on my way to the North Shore of Lake Superior, my knowledge of Ely was limited. During my stay, several things left a lasting impression on me. The most prominent was the fervent passion for the land expressed by Ely’s citizens and visitors.
I knew that Ely was a gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but I didn’t realize the sheer volume of tourists that flock from across the country to see it. I couldn’t believe the shops and storefronts that cater to this crowd either. From the Brandenburg Gallery, sporting stunning prints of the Northwoods, to Piragis Northwoods Company’s sprawling eclectic variety of everything outdoors. From the spa advertising pedicures for the weary paddler, to Steger Mukluk’s mystical front window display and Wintergreen Northern Wear’s classic sub-zero apparel.
Ely isn’t an ordinary small town; the dynamic is truly eclectic. Many have been visiting for generations, others stumbled across it on a whim and never left. Never before had I met such passionate people committed to tradition and history. Ely is a community with deep roots in both wilderness preservation and mining. It is often talked about in polarized dichotomies and animated discussions about the issues that have faced the area, but despite the contrasting opinions, it was clear that people are drawn here for the land and its wealth.
Either in the utilitarian sense of the word, through its timber and mineral resources, or through its inherent intrinsic value; its waters, vast landscapes, ancient sprawling white pines, lichen covered rocks, and diversity of flora and fauna, people can connect to the land. It is the landscape that binds Ely together. There is something inherently powerful and intriguing about this massive network of lakes laced with boreal forest.
Following my summer at Sustainable Ely, I was inspired to continue to help the Campaign gain permanent protectionof the Boundary Waters watershed. I began working as a full time employee for the Campaign in the beginning of October. It has been clear from the beginning that this is truly a motivated and proactive group of passionate individuals working for a worthy cause. I am proud to be a part of the effort to protect this unique place and the communities that thrive because of the wilderness.
Piper Donlin is the Campaign's administrative coordinator and has a degree in environmental science and policy. She took her first trip to the Boundary Waters to Brule Lake at age 7.