Littlbug is a Voyaguer sponsor of Pedal to DC.
Warm, hearty meals are a quintessential part of backcountry exploration for most people. Out of the simple pleasure derived from a steaming cup of coffee or golden brown walleye-fillet fresh off the skillet deep in the Boundary Waters, Littlbug created a simple, durable, compact stove that’s fueled by twiggs and small sticks that are abundant and easy to gather through out canoe country. Like a warm meal, clean water is one of those basic things that we all need and we are so thankful that Littlbug understands the importance of protecting the Boundary Waters and the more than 800 lakes, rivers, and streams which flow through our nation’s most popular Wilderness.
A sulfide-ore copper mine called Twin Metals is being proposed just outside of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and any water pollution from the mine could flow directly into the Wilderness. To raise awareness about this eminent threat my wife, Amy Freeman, and I decided to tow a canoe covered in signatures from the edge of the Boundary Waters to Washington DC. Our 2 month, 2,000 mile journey took us through 9 states and we did over 40 presentations and events in communities all along the way. Littlbug donated $1,000 to help make Pedal to DC possible and we are so thankful that they are supporting the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and our efforts to protect this national treasure. Littlbug understands that wild places like the Boundary Waters are critically important and need to be protected for future generations.
Thank you Littlbug for making such a great little stove, and for helping to protect our public lands. The Boundary Waters belongs to all of us, and its important that we all speak loudly for this quiet place.
Sawbill Lake, the 38th point of entry into the Boundary Waters, is one of the most beloved and memorable lakes for Boundary Waters explorers. In 1957, Frank and Mary Alice Hansen started up the renowned Sawbill Outfitters near the lake. Like many of the other outfitters surrounding the Boundary Waters, Sawbill Outfitters has helped make the Boundary Waters a more accessible Wilderness to people from all around the country.
Head northeast and you’ll find your way past Brule Lake, with the potential to make it to Gunflint. Going northwest will take you towards Little Saganaga Lake and Kekekabic Lake. There are many route options for your trips out of Sawbill, so be sure to take the time if you can and get out to some of the places deeper into the Boundary Waters than you might not normally venture. Don’t pass up the opportuniy to visit Sawbill Lake if you get the chance. It will always be worth your while.
Seven Sundays is a Voyageur sponsor of Pedal to DC.
Seven Sundays all started because of a honeymoon to New Zealand. It may have been predestined, but it was here over the course of this month long trip of backpacking and camping where we found ourselves, fell in love with nature, and discovered muesli. Within a 6 months, we were in a Uhaul headed back to Minnesota from our fast paced New York City life. In the Summer of 2011, we sold our first bag of Seven Sundays in the Midtown Farmers Market in Minneapolis. At the same time, we were starting a family. Admittedly, the balance of starting a food business and raising kids has been challenging at times. It has afforded us flexibility, though, and we have always prioritized carving out time to disconnect and "just be" in nature.
In our humble opinion, there is no better place in the world (outside of New Zealand perhaps) to disconnect than the Boundary Waters. We have taken many trips over the last 7 years, from week long adventures with no kids covering lots of water and portages, to a short and sweet 36 hour stint with our 2 boys (including a potty training toddler) this summer. Every moment of packing, portaging and paddling has been worth the effort. Likewise, every dollar we have donated to Save the BWCA as a family and as a business has been worth it. We are so thankful for people like Dave & Amy Freeman who are working hard and speaking loudly for this quiet place. The least we can do is provide them with a little nourishment along their journey.
Seven Sundays was an extremely valuable source of support and of sustenance to the Freemans on their bike tour across the Eastern United States to spread the word about the Boundary Waters. You can read more about Seven Sundays and their mission to “flip the breakfast aisle on it’s head” on their website. We are grateful for the support of Seven Sundays.
Piragis Northwoods is a Voyageur sponsor of Pedal toDC
We got really, really lucky one day in the spring of 1975. Nancy and I were hanging out in the Zoology Department at The University of New Hampshire as technicians and grad students when our major professor, Dr. Jim Haney, asked if anyone might want to work with zooplankton in Ely, Minnesota. Hell yeah, we both said, but the job was just for one person. With two volunteers, Dr. Haney called the EPA in Ely and made it clear that the work they needed done would require two people. Voila! We both had a job for the summer as contractors with the US EPA in where? Ely, Minnesota? Where the heck is Ely and what were we in for?
The rest is really one very long history but it still in many ways feels like the summer of 75 to Nancy and me. We did our jobs for EPA, came back in 76, got other jobs with the DNR and taught biology at Vermilion Community College. That all ended abruptly and we got into business and founded our company in 1979. We never looked back really. With degrees and some life experiences we found Ely to be home. It seemed right. We were in love with each other and the Boundary Waters and we couldn't imagine going anywhere else. Now, some 40 years later we're still happy and we have carved a niche that we're really pretty proud of.
In our tenure up north in Ely we've seen the Boundary Waters get more protection as a wilderness in 1978 and we've seen threats appear to the wilderness. The biggest threat that has lingered for a long time resurfaced in the last 10 years when the price of copper rose to record levels and mining companies became interested again in the ore deep in the crust just outside the Boundary Waters. This time the threat was real and imminent. As biologists we understood the threat to the water from acid runoff of copper mines. The sulfide ores around world are all dangerous to the watersheds and they always pollute wherever they are mined. Nancy and I had to act to stop any mine near the wilderness waters of the BWCAW.
Our little business, Piragis Northwoods Co. lead by two nature freaks from the east managed to prosper with a lot of hard work, great employees and a little luck. We've grown slowly and steadily and sustainably since 1979 to the point today where we employ over 50 people in summer and 20 year round. Our concern for the Boundary Waters has not waned over these years. The wilderness is what Ely is all about. It brings us business, pays our salaries and support all the families we employ. We love the wilderness just for its purity and its ability to bring us back to reality whenever we travel by canoe, ski or snowshoe. The lakes and streams here are vulnerable to acid pollution. The wilderness experience we and thousands of others seek could so easily be lost. Our work to stop copper mining in our watershed is because we love this wilderness and all it means to us. It's also because we love our business, our customers and all our dedicated employees. It's important that this threat never materializes and displaces all of us in this sustainable world with a boom and bust town and a dead watershed.
So life is good yet today in our end-of-the-road town. We still paddle, hike, ski, and enjoy every season. We have traveled the world since 1979 and have seen great wilderness areas and wild coastlines kayaking from Greenland to Chile to Vietnam. Nancy and I still find the Boundary Waters to be the wild country we love best. There's nothing like the call of the loon on a clear wilderness lake far from the maddening crowds of normal life. It focuses our attention on the present and why we work to protect it.
I have hope for the future of our business and our great wilderness if we can weather the current storm and put to rest all the claims to riches that lie beneath it today, safe and deep in the earth's crust.
Steve and Nancy Piragis founded Piragis Northwoods in 1979, and their doors are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., so be sure to stop by and say hello on your next Boundary Waters trip. We are grateful for the support of Piragis Northwoods.
One morning this July, I was fortunate to join hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts at the Conservation Alliance Breakfast in Denver, CO. The Keynote speaker was Mr. Timothy Egan, the inspiring author of one of my favorite books, The Worst Hard Time. He spoke about just one of the many things that has made America great over the last hundred years: Our rich legacy of shared public lands and wilderness. It is a uniquely American concept, and it has a storied history that is both tumultuous and eerily familiar in our current political climate.
As Mr. Egan spoke, I began reflecting on my own “conversion” story – that moment in time when wilderness reached into my soul and changed me irreversibly. It isn’t difficult for me to pinpoint – I was six and we paddled into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) for the first time. I spent the next week, shoeless and shirtless, running through the woods, climbing trees, swimming and drinking from the clearest of lake waters, building fires, catching and learning to clean fish and, of course, being utterly transformed as I watched the stars and listened to the stillness of the night. That week remains amongst the most vivid of my life’s memories.
That trip instilled a hunger in me for wild places, and soon we were travelling all kinds of wilderness, summers and winters, our trips getting longer and our adventures far reaching – trips across the arctic ice in Svalbard, two weeks living and travelling with Inuit hunters in Western Greenland. But always - no matter where I travelled or how exciting the adventure – every year the BWCA called me home again.
All that changed in a blink. In October of 2014, at age 13, my travels came to a screeching halt. Unusual bruising led to a blood draw, which landed me directly in the pediatric ICU with a diagnosis of High Risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Just like that, our adventures were on indefinite hold. I was suddenly staring at 3.5 years of daily chemotherapy and wondering, not how I’d survive my cancer, but how I could possibly survive without my wilderness.
Inspiration, though, comes from surprising places. The summer before my diagnosis I’d been in Ely, MN, the last town at the end of the road before one heads into the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and I’d learned that a sulfide-ore copper mine had been proposed right on the edge of the Wilderness, within its watershed. This type of mining has never been done without significant environmental damage, anywhere, and has been deemed by the EPA as America’s “most toxic industry.” I’d signed petitions while in Ely and promised I’d do what I could to help the campaign to stop this dangerous and toxic mine.
About two weeks after my diagnosis, a representative from the Make A Wish Foundation came to visit me at the hospital. She told me I’d been granted a wish, and talked about the foundation and the work they do on behalf of critically ill children. It was shocking – the idea that my “bad luck” had earned me a wish like that…it set the wheels spinning. Especially as she told me about the wishes they’d granted other children: trips, celebrity visits, shopping excursions, even a swimming pool and pony.
For me, choosing my wish was simple: To Save the Boundary Waters.
As it turns out, though, wishes take work, even with an organization like Make A Wish in your corner. The political nature of my wish made it impossible for them to help and, ultimately, my wish was “closed” as ungranted. In the meantime, though, I had learned how fight for what matters: my life, (my hair!) and the Boundary Waters.
Over the next 3.5 years, whenever my treatment allowed, I travelled to Washington D.C. to meet with lawmakers and leadership to make our case in defense of the BWCA. I wrote blogs, gave speeches, made phone calls, wrote letters and granted interviews – whatever I could do with my time and energy to try and protect this wilderness that myself and so many Americans love so much.. The Boundary Waters are 1.1 million acres of pristine water and unspoiled woods. It has a long history of environmental protections put in place dating back to 1909 when President Theodore Roosevelt established the Superior National Forest. I felt as though I walked in the footsteps of environmental giants with every trip, every meeting, and every small success in the fight.
In February of 2018 I took my last dose of 3.5 years of daily chemotherapy. It was remarkably anti-climatic, and as I swallowed the pills and headed up for my homework it occurred to me that as I closed the door on cancer it was time to up my game on behalf of the BWCA. And so on June 19th, in front of the Washington Monument and with a small group of equally committed teenagers by my side, I launched my new initiative: Kids For The Boundary Waters (Kids4BW). The fight for the BWCA is most especially about us KIDS; we will be inheriting whatever mess gets left behind. This is our future, our water, our public lands, our resources, our health, our country at stake.
Kids For The Boundary Waters will focus on honing a message of conservation and protection of the BWCA and teaching kids how to advocate - how to write letters, make phone calls, follow up, and how to make personal appeals during DC fly-ins. We all have a huge stake in protecting this wilderness, and beyond that, in learning to effectively and efficiently navigate the political system. Today, we vote with our dollars and our voices, but very soon we will be voting with our ballots. The more engaged we become as teenagers, the more we understand our power and our ability to effect change, the more likely we are to STAY engaged.
Though the Kids4BW campaign focuses on preservation and protection of the BWCA, it is my belief that teaching kids about the process of advocacy will undoubtedly spill over into political action in defending - and visiting! - other wild places as well. The BWCA was a “gateway drug” for me, getting me hooked on camping, on backcountry biking, on dogsledding, on backpacking, and on adventuring to remote, wild places around the world. Wilderness adventures instill a hunger for more. And although there are a multitude of reasons why people choose to pick up a paddle – or throw on a pack - and head into the wilderness, one thing is certain: Universally we all come out changed for the better.
Since our launch in June, we have been hard at work creating the infrastructure and making the connections necessary to recruit and get our message out. But most importantly, Kids4BW recently activated its network to call and write in opposition to the Nolan-Emmer amendment to the 2019 Interior Appropriations Bill. During floor debate, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) read aloud from 7 handwritten letters she had received from Kids4BW advocates, and at the last minute the amendment was withdrawn when Rep. Emmer realized he did not have enough votes for it to pass. We count this as our first official (shared!) victory on behalf of the Boundary Waters!
I know I speak for every member of our Board when I say we take this fight very, very seriously and are committed to doing everything possible to defend the BWCA. Beyond that, we are wholly dedicated to training the next generation of advocates in how to effectively use their voices and their considerable power. I truly believe my generation will become an unstoppable voice for environmental protection, defense of our public lands, and protection of wild places across America.
Living with Cancer is no joke – it’s hard in ways that are difficult to articulate, and it takes things you have to fight very, very hard to reclaim. But Cancer is also a surprisingly good teacher. Most importantly, it trains you to fight like hell for the things that matter. Although I’ll still be sorting lessons for years to come, the one thing I have learned for sure is that sometimes life only gives you one chance to get it done. And I think this is it. This is my chance to help save America’s most visited and pristine water Wilderness.
When you volunteer, it’s easy to get trapped into thinking that the work doesn’t matter unless you “change the world.” What my work has taught me is that it’s all about the small steps forward, about getting back up despite setbacks, about consistently showing up and about staying even when you’re discouraged, when the work you’ve done gets undone, or when other things compete for your time. Change happens when you suit up and show up, over and over and over. It may not be enormous, instantaneous change, but many small steps over a long period of time add up. And though we are “not obligated to complete the work, neither are we free to abandon it.”
I hope you’ll join me in this fight. Meanwhile, paddle on!
Joseph A. Goldstein
Joseph Goldstein is a student at Glenwood High School. He lives on a farm in Springfield, Illinois with his parents, three brothers, three dogs, 10 cats, 12 sheep, and a variety of chickens, ducks and other farm critters. He plays the guitar and trombone (marginally) and skis and mountain bikes (awesomely). You can follow the Kids for the Boundary Waters campaign online at their website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
On a sunny afternoon at the end of July, five of my closest friends and I launched from Burntside lake and set out on our two-day camping adventure–destination: Crab lake in the Boundary Waters. I was the only native Minnesotan on the trip, and in fact none of my friends had ever been to Minnesota before! It was a great pleasure to introduce my friends, whom are also students at DePaul University in Chicago, to the wonderful treasures that Minnesota has to offer.
Our group had varying levels of camping experience, and we quickly realized that this trip would require a lot of learning on the fly. The majority of the ladies learned to paddle moments before setting out onto Burntside, and all of them were taught how to portage earlier that day at my uncle’s home. Despite having little to no experience each member of the trip proved how resilient and innovative they could be in an unfamiliar environment. The girls have told me they now feel mobilized to protect this wilderness after basking in the Boundary Waters’ expansive beauty; they have all formed deep personal connections and memories with this place. They all remarked at how powerful a feeling it is to put yourself into a situation that is new and challenging. Each of these women learned just how far they could be pushed in the expansive wilderness that makes up the Boundary Waters.
We were all extremely grateful for the experience to get to know each other better and bond in a setting as awe-inspiring as the Boundary Waters. Plans are already underway to make this an annual trip, and the humbling influence of the Boundary Waters’ beauty will be extended to my friends’ friends, mobilizing to protect this special place. These testimonials speak volumes to the power a place can have on a person, even after just one visit.
The whole group before we paddled out from the public landing on Burntside Lake, just 15 minutes away from Ely. The girls and I would soon go on to problem solve as a team to so we could find the portage entry behind many, many, islands.
This trip report must kick-off, of course, with my uncle, Steve (and also, not pictured, my Aunt Annie) for providing most of our gear and for effectively and efficiently explaining everything we would need to know about our trip. We are so thankful and grateful to Steve for his expertise and support for our adventure!
The instant wave of relief that washed over everyone was evident as we arrived at our campsite, two hours before this photo was taken, leaving us plenty of time to set up and go for a quick dip in the lake before dark.
The propane camp stove that uncle Steve had so graciously supplied to us was not working in our favor on the first night, so we gladly opted for PB&Js. Here is Lorissa thoroughly enthused about her camp dinner.
There is really an interesting story behind this photo…but in short, Megan crafted a fishing pole and hook from the bare elements and managed to catch this fish against all odds. Thanks Lori for being brave enough to hold this lil’ guy for the photo!
Mattox asserted herself beautifully in many aspects of the trip, but took extra special care and direction when the coffee making was at hand. As you can see, our camp kitchen was really top notch, as was the view from the dinner table.
One of our tents with the two Wenonahs. Not pictured – the aluminum canoe that I got the privilege of portaging on the 420-rod path from Burntside Lake to Crab. That being said, every person had an intensely difficult task on the portage, and we conquered the second longest portage in the BWCA with 5 first time visitors to the Boundary Waters.
Luna enjoying her breakfast potatoes.
Lorissa coming up from a casual swim to a nearby island. The best kind of BWCA camping trips focus on relaxation in my opinion, so this was one of our most challenging activities of the day.
Mattox climbing up our lovely landing rock after a long soak in the lake. Crab lake was wonderfully warm.
Some BWCA camping essentials. We had an exciting thunderstorm and rainstorm on Saturday night, but luckily we had snacks and some legendary camping stories from Sigurd Olson to get us through it.
Audrey grew up in the Twin Cities, and is now a development intern at the Save the Boundary Waters Campaign in the Minneapolis office. She has always enjoyed summer trips up to Ely to visit her aunt and uncle and explore the surrounding area, so she jumped on the opportunity to share these experiences with her out-of-state friends.
Looking to swap stories? Do you have some sweet photos to share from a recent Boundary Waters trip? Send your stories our way and we might just feature them on the blog!
Northstar Canoes is a Voyageur Sponsor of Pedal to DC
Building canoes is a craft, and Ted Bell, founder of Northstar Canoes, is one of the best. A former flatwater and downwater canoe champion, Bell has an eye for what paddlers need and has been building canoes for nearly 40 years. Northstar Canoes are often seen cruising toward campsites in the Boundary Waters.
With that dedication to creating fine canoes, comes an appreciation for Wilderness. Northstar places value on protecting the Boundary Waters for its paddlers and future generations. “It'd be dumb not to support an unparalleled wilderness area,” says General Manager, Bear Paulsen.
For the last two years, Northstar has teamed up with Rutabaga Paddlesports at the annual Canoecopia event in Madison to give back to the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. A portion of the proceeds from all their canoes sold goes towards protecting the Boundary Waters. Northstar has also donated gear to many of our events.
Don’t miss out on their collectible, limited edition BWCA pint glasses, which support the Campaign. As Northstar says, “What’s better than a beer after paddling? Drinking it from a charitable pint glass.”
We’re grateful for the support of Northstar Canoes.
For all those backcountry-cooking enthusiasts out there who haven’t tried this yet, or anyone wondering why they wouldn’t just stick to freeze-dried and dehydrated food while on a Boundary Waters trip, I’m going to do my best to convince you to try, just once, to make bread from scratch on your next trip. It doesn’t have to be crazy fancy, but it sure could be.
The first time I made bread in the backcountry was on a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) trip during my sophomore year of college. I took part in the Patagonia Semester course, and in our food rations we had all the standard stuff we’d need to cook simple meals like pasta, cheesy lentils, cinnamon and apple oatmeal, and fry pretty much anything. We also had white and wheat flour, delicious Chilean spices, and the means to make cinnamon rolls, lasagna, pies, quiche, birthday cakes (yes, with candles and sprinkles), and even a fruit cobbler. Cooking became the focal point of each day, the one time when everyone could just sit and focus on one thing instead of all the chaotic factors that sea-kayaking and mountaineering in Patagonia brought with them. It was our decompression and community-building time, and we all developed a really thoughtful relationship with the food we were eating. It was my first experience cooking in the backcountry that I truly cherished.
Now, picture this: you’re at camp, the sun is setting, and there’s nobody else but you and your group on the lake. It’s a huge lake, probably Saganaga, maybe Knife. You wonder, “hmm, strange there’s no one here, but I’m not complaining”. As the sun descends from its golden height into a dampened silvery-purple, you reach into the smoldering fire and pull out a freshly-baked, steaming, golden loaf of bread. In a single loon call, the entirety of the Boundary Waters cheers at your accomplishment. Your group basks in the heat of the dying fire and the warmth in their tummies, and then you have the best night's sleep of your life. The next day you paddle like you’ve never paddled before, the water practically parting before you at the bow of your canoe.
Bread is a very simple recipe; all it just takes a little time, patience, and love, of course. Here’s how you do it, straight from the NOLS cookbook:
Dissolve yeast in lukewarm water with sugar, and salt. Cover and let sit for 5 miuntes in warm spot until it froths. (Try putting it in an insulated mug and capping it. when frothed, it bubbles through the hole a little.) Add half the flour and beat vigourously 2 to 3 minutes to develop the gluten; the wet batter will smooth out and start to get a little stringy. Add margarine and remaining dough to get a thick dough. Flour your hands and knead the bread on a floured pan. Knead with the heels of your clean hands for about 8 minutes, folidng when dough becomes too sticky to handle. The dough will be silky and springy when done. Shape into a loaf and place in a well-oiled pot or fry pan. Press dough out to touch the edges, and grease the top of the loaf with oil or margarine. Cover and set in a warm place to rise for about 1 hour, or until doubled doubled in size. If it's a very cold day, let the dough rise by placing on top of a pan of boiling water with a cover over it. Once risen, bake the bread 30 to 50 minutes in a low fire with coals or on top of a stove. Use a twiggy fire on top of the cover or flip it to bake the top. When done, the bread will be a golden brown and will have a hollow sound when thumped. Take it out of the pot/ pan and cool it in a spot with good air circulation 5 to 10 minutes before cutting.
This is one of many ways to enhance any backcountry cooking experience, but don’t fret if it goes wrong the first time! I’ve burnt more bread than the average college-student with a toaster. And just to be clear, I had freeze dried meals on my last Boundary Waters trip and loved them. They’re actually very yummy and certainly more lightweight than packing in a bunch of flour, but that’s besides the point.
Have you tried making backcountry bread? Tell us about your favorite backcountry recipe, or your favorite experience cooking in the backcountry. We know there’s probably some pretty creative ways to do Boundary Waters fish out there.
Directly south of Saganaga lake by just a handful of miles is the slightly smaller and thus aptly named Little Saganaga Lake. The larger Saganaga may be a unique experience, and oh do we love it, but there is a special place in our hearts for lakes like Little Saganaga. They can be overlooked in the shadow of their larger counterparts, and in life it’s always the little things that we remember best, right? Slightly faster crossings, a smaller chance of encountering other parties, stronger chances of having the fishing to yourself, what more can we say? Don’t be deceived, though, since Little Saganaga is only little in name at a solid 1700+ acres.
Little Saganaga is a great connector lake to the larger Saganaga, and thus a gateway to many other parts of the Boundary Waters. We’ve heard great reports from different folks passing through Little Saganaga, some of which you can read on Paddle Planner. This is a great lake to stop by for a night or two to enjoy a starlit sky in a place that feels like the middle of nowhere and the center of the universe all at once. Little Saganaga has numerous islands, peninsulas and bays, and high winds on this lake can make navigating it a challenge as this trip report reminds us, although poor weather can make for pretty exciting trips sometimes!
What’s the diciest weather you have experienced in the Boundary Waters and how did you handle it?
This post has been summarized from a longer piece that our board member Ellen Hawkins recently sent our way. You can read her piece at this link, which we highly encourage you to do! Many thanks to Ellen for sharing this with us and offering a glimpse into the world of our Wilderness, winged friends.
The Superior National Forest, an important Birding Area with the Boundary Waters at its core, is recognized as having global significance in the world of avian conservation. It’s home to 225 species for at least part of each year, with 45 more species spotted occasionally. As many as 165 species nest here. It supports the highest diversity of breeding Wood Warbler species (24) anywhere in the world. The numbers of individual birds is also impressive, and those population density numbers indicate what top quality habitat this is for many species. It’s clear that maintaining the pristine condition of the Boundary Waters is absolutely critical to their long term survival.
Laura Erickson has been speaking for the birds on a nationally broadcast public radio show for 32 years. Maybe you can hear her familiar voice in your mind’s ear, saying, “This is Laura Erickson, Speaking For the Birds.” On June 23 she came to Cook County to speak for the birds of the Boundary Waters.
Laura is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s prestigious Roger Tory Peterson Award for her lifetime’s work as a teacher, author, and science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She spoke of the astonishing diversity of birds that finds an essential sanctuary in the Boundary Waters Wilderness, but the venue was a segment of the Superior Hiking Trail several miles from the Wilderness boundary. The logistics of doing it in the Wilderness was just too daunting, but as Laura pointed out, every bird we saw or heard can also be found within the Boundary Waters during breeding season.
Waiting at the trailhead for the early event of the day, a bird walk, we watched a Cedar Waxwing on a nest and heard a Tennessee Warbler. They are one of the three spruce-budworm specialists (along with the Cape May and Bay-breasted) among the 24 warbler species that nest here, and they’re a great example of how essential insectivorous birds are for healthy forests. For example, a Tennessee warbler can consume 65 to 100 caterpillars, roughly half its weight, every day. These insectivores have the power to regulate outbreaks of forest pests in ways we’re just catching on to. And speaking of birds being useful: they spread seeds, cycle nutrients, pollinate plants, prune prey populations, clean up carrion, and sometimes, to our delight, put their gorgeous and fascinating selves out where we can admire them.
Laura’s presence at the event also demonstrated some other ways birds are important to people: they can be a huge inspiration for a life’s work of spiritual or artistic endeavors, and the best entertainment ever.
More prosaically, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that bird watchers spend nearly $41 billion annually on trips and equipment. Local community economies benefit from the $14.9 billion that bird watchers spend on food, lodging and transportation. In 2011, 666,000 jobs were created as a result of bird watching expenditures. I don’t know what piece of that pie belongs to northeast Minnesota, but with Boundary Waters and surrounding Superior National Forest an international mecca for birders, it’s bound to be significant. All this isn’t meant to contradict the incontrovertible: these birds of course have to the right and reason to exist aside from however we might benefit from them.
Most species on our walk had to be identified by song on this beautiful summer morning: it’s a huge challenge to spot a singing bird once the leaves are out. Luckily there were some excellent local birders along, plus Laura, who made that work. Our group counted 31 species and 80 individual birds on that pleasant two and a half hour walk.
The wild call of a loon was a good possibility for our bird walk, but by chance none flew over–or if one did it was quiet–but they are a bird that belongs in this piece because loons are key players in the wilderness ecosystem and in the mining issue. Mining would add a new source of methylmercury pollution to the many deadly dangers loons face.
Loons can live a long time. We see individuals coming back to the same lake, or the same bay of a big lake, year after year, sometimes for decades, to nest at their favorite bit of shoreline. If mercury is present in a water body, it becomes distributed through all levels of aquatic food chains by means of bioaccumulation. Plants and small organisms like plankton take up mercury and then are consumed by bigger organisms and so on, all the way up to loons (and eagles, otters, and people). If a loon’s lake is contaminated with mercury, over time, the toxin will accumulate in the loon’s body. Mercury poisoning changes behavior, resulting in diminished reproductive success, and it kills loons.
Mercury can be a component of air pollution that falls out across lakes and streams, and it can also enter water directly from active and retired mining operations. Acid mine drainage, a byproduct of mining in sulfide-rich ores, leaches heavy metals like lead and mercury into surface or subsurface waters. These acidic and toxic waters flow from mine sites through the environment (in ways that humans often can’t foresee), causing loss of aquatic life and leading to catastrophic changes in that ecosystem and to human recreational and economic endeavors that depend on it. This is the inevitable end result, based on the evidence presented by science, the history of this kind of mining, the sad testimony of sickened and dead wildlife, thousands of miles of ruined streams and many lakes, and contaminated groundwater drinking supplies.
Birds need clean water, shelter, good food and an opportunity to reproduce. They find that when they make it to the Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters and surrounding wildlands are the critical nesting habitat of many neotropical bird species, ranging from vireos and warblers to flycatchers and thrushes. For them, an ample food supply exactly when they need it is reason enough to run the gauntlet. For the permanent residents this place provides a home with everything they need in all seasons.