The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has always been a part of my life. My father started taking our family there when I was a baby, and it quickly became an annual trip. We would visit other states and Canada, but we would make sure to come back to Boundary Waters. My father would always say the most beautiful place he had ever seen was still the Boundary Waters. I went to the Boundary Waters in 2002, and not long after that I was deployed to Iraq, during the opening of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
When I returned my father was losing his battle with cancer and I could not find my place "back in the world." After my father passed away from cancer, I did not return to the Boundary Waters, though I thought about it all the time. When I returned from my 2008 deployment to Iraq, I began to struggle with PTSD, alcohol, depression and suicide. On the insistence of my wife and friends, I finally went back to Boundary Waters. What I found back in the BWCA was a sense of peace that I thought I had lost forever. I could feel the poison that had infected my soul from the horrors of war being drawn out of me. The trip started the healing process, and when I could make it back it would always refresh me.
This past December I was lucky enough to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine to dogsled in the Boundary Waters. It was through Voyageur Outward Bound School with other veterans. It was on this trip that I finally felt like I could move on from the war and live fully back in the world. On that trip, I found other veterans felt the same sense of healing as I had. The poison that had infected us was pulled out of us by the peace and quiet of the wilderness. Now that peace and quiet is threatened. The mining proposed near the Boundary Waters will forever alter and destroy that peace of the wilderness.
Already the noise of the exploratory activity of the mining interests is doing this. One instructor remarked that a trip for one veterans group that summer was not peaceful because of explosions coming from the exploratory site. These veterans that fought for their country were not able to have the same peaceful experience because of the interests of foreign mining interests. The Boundary Waters and places like it are one of the reasons I pledged my life to this country. The Boundary Waters is a rare commodity in this world, a place that has remained the same as God created it. We can visit it, play and pray in it, or we can destroy it. If this mine goes through, we will forever lose one of God’s most peaceful gifts to all of us.
For more on the importance of the Boundary Waters to veterans, visit Save the BWCA Veterans Group on Facebook.
Every year I like to take a winter camping trip into the Boundary Waters. Just this past week, I joined Vermilion Community College’s Outdoor Leadership and Outdoor Recreation Therapy program as base camp support for students taking solo trips as part of the Outdoor Pursuits course.
My first time winter camping was a painful learning experience; my roommate and I were clearing the Four-Mile portage from Fall Lake to Basswood and we camped out at the start of the portage. On our first night, condensation rained down from the ceiling of our Quickfish 6, a pop-up ice shelter we used. The second night was horrible, as unbeknownst to us the stovepipe had become clogged with soot. Smoked billowed into our shelter forcing us out, coughing and gasping for air while trying to stomp our feet into frozen boots. Both our eyes were burning with tears streaming down our faces. The ski back was brutal. I could only keep one squinty eye open while my partner, who was unable to open his eyes, followed me by the sound of my skis gliding over the ice. The lesson I learned from that trip is to check the stovepipe every day and to avoid burning punky cedar wood.
Since that first trip I have gone on four other volunteer trips that ranged from three to five days long, working to clear dogsled trails and rehabilitate campsites affected by the Pagami Creek Fire. Winter camping is hard work. If we were not clearing trails and cutting down hazard trees, we were constantly gathering wood, stoking the fire and boiling water for hot drinks. The only time it seemed we could relax was after dinner, but after the first few trips I really began to enjoy winter camping.
By the time the Vermillion group reached the landing on Snowbank this past week, it was snowing heavily and I could not wait to put my skis on and get out on the lake. We had two groups that departed at different times in order to stay within the bounds of our nine-person permit limit. After discussing where we would set up our two base camps, the first group of students departed. A half-hour later, Mark and I skied out followed by the second group. We set up our camp on a small bay along the western shore of Disappointment Lake. From there the other students in the group dispersed to set up their solo sites and build a shelter for the night. For their shelters, students just used a tarp set up low to the ground with snow piled up along the sides to block the wind. It was not too cold the first night and all the students were in high spirits.
When we awoke around seven in the morning, the temperature had dropped to negative 10 F. We skipped breakfast and headed out to check on all of the students. Mark and I did not stay the second night; instead, we went back to town. That night the temperature dropped to negative 25 F. I was a little worried about some of the students out on Disappointment, but knew they all had solid shelters and warm sleeping bags. Sunday morning we headed back to Snowbank to pick up the students.
Just as we got to the landing, we spotted the second group returning across the lake. Their faces were red and frosted over; one of them had the biggest ice-coated beard I have ever seen. The wind was coming out of the northwest that day and it was bitter cold. We drove out on the ice road to wait for the first group. After half an hour of waiting, we decided to head down the portage into Parent to see if we could find them. We reached Parent at the same time as the first group and helped them get their gear to the vehicles.
I’m sure at times during their winter solo trip it seemed like a brutal challenge to camp out in extreme temperatures, but it is one of those great experiences in college that students will look back on fondly. Getting out and winter camping is a way to see the Boundary Waters in a different light. I think it is important to have diverse experiences in a place; these help build on our relation to it. I have been lucky enough to travel throughout the Boundary Waters and the Crown Lands of Ontario and Manitoba, experiencing the landscapes different moods in all four seasons. These experiences have fostered a deep sense of care for this landscape and have led me to take action to protect it.
Appreciation for wilderness is part of who I am. I think it is a part of all of us. My passion for the wilderness began on canoe trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. I grew up paddling and camping there with my parents. My appreciation has only continued to grow. I've guided dogsledding trips out at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, played my fair shake of broomball, met adventurers like Dave and Amy Freeman and even embarked on a solo canoe trip.
Living in Ely, a community based on its proximity to wilderness, has turned my passion to action. It led me to a yearlong internship with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters supporting our goal to protect the clean water and forest landscape of the Boundary Waters and its wilderness community out of Sustainable Ely. We started by scrapping old paint off of the façade of a quaint house on the main drag of Ely. There, we collected signatures on a Wenonah canoe to be paddled to Washington D.C. and presented as a petition to President Obama. No one could anticipate that the Paddle to DC would make waves in every town that it passed through, across America and Canada, and become a true movement.
Sustainable Ely serves as the very active birthplace of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. There, we host monthly movie nights, bring in nationally recognized speakers, connect adventurers to the issue and host discussions on the mining threats. Next time you venture out to enjoy the beautiful wilderness lakes and serenity here, stop by Sustainable Ely and see the work that goes into protecting the Boundary Waters and its wilderness-edge communities.
As users of this land, we have to remember that it is not an accident that the Wilderness exists. It is not an accident that some of our most beautiful and precious wild places are set aside for public use. It took action.
Activism and adventure go hand in hand; they are part of our national heritage reaching back to Lewis and Clark, Alexander McKenzie and others who explored and mapped the vast expanses of North American wilderness. Adventure and social change are also not a new idea. Ansel Adams explored and documented the beauty within his favorite wilderness areas, and his images were used to expand the American National Parks System, saving these areas for generations to visit and marvel in, rather than develop.
Protecting wild places comes in many forms. Here are six simple ways that you can do your part as a wilderness traveler and speak for the trees:
1. Learn about the existing threats to the area that you are enjoying. Being informed is the first step to action. Want to understand the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining to the Boundary Waters, scroll our homepage.
2. Do something cool! Next time you go adventuring, share those images and stories with a purpose. We'd love to see your Boundary Waters photos on Instagram.
3. Share your experiences on social media! Next time you post a picture or share a story of your favorite place, tag the organization working to protect it. Share your Boundary Waters story with us on Twitter or Facebook.
4. Find a relevant #hashtag and use it. This is sometimes the easiest way to spread information about an issue. We use #SavetheBWCA.
5. Tweet your representative. Tell them that you care about the issue! Tell Rep. Betty McCollum you love the Boundary Waters, for instance.
6. Work for wilderness! Spend an internship with an organization that is doing good. Working for creative team of fellow outdoor enthusiasts will not only serve wild spaces, but also inspire you in your future work and connect you to the outdoor community. We have openings right now!
Best of luck to any of you searching for your voice who will speak for the places that have none. I hope it leads you on many more outdoor adventures!
One of the things I enjoy most about living in northern Minnesota is the constant change seasons. The longer days and brilliant wild flowers of spring, boating and fishing in the summer, fall colors and hunting in the fall, and last but not least, winter—my favorite season of all. For me, winter and dogsledding go hand in hand, and most winters Amy and I live and work at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge on White Iron Lake.
Shortly after paddling into Washington D.C. on December 2 after our Paddle to DC adventure, Amy and I were back in Ely prepping dog sleds, helping to train and care for 69 sled dogs, and leading our first dogsled trip of the season. The trips typically last four or five days and each week we get to meet people from different parts of the country—even far corners of the world. They come here to experience the wild beauty of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Superior National Forest, and learn to dogsled.
Most the groups are all adults or families, but our last trip was with 16 seventh and eighth grade students and their two teachers from Illinois. They were here for seven nights and we spent three nights camping out on a remote lake called Crockett. I love working with young people because, like the sled dogs, they are full of energy and excitement. With a little guidance and encouragement they will jump into most any task, from collecting firewood and cutting it into pieces to feeding the camp fire, chopping a hole through several feet of ice to gather water, or caring for and working with the dogs.
Our second night at Crockett Lake was clear and cold. After dinner we left the warmth of the fire and walked through the cold night air onto the frozen lake. The moon would not rise through the scraggly spruce trees across the lake for another hour and the Milky Way shimmered overhead.
I helped the kids find the North Star and pointed out a few of the constellations, which we take for granted, but are hard to see from their urban backyards. More than anything they were taken back by the silence. When they finally quieted down, which a group of kids that age rarely do, there was total silence, no cars, no wind, nothing but the sound of the cold snow shifting under people’s feet as they shifted their weight from side to side to try and stay warm.
The silence was broken by the faint call of wolves in the distance, which elicited a chorus of howls from the 22 sled dogs bedded down back at our campsite. We returned to the warmth of the campfire to fill everyone’s water bottles with boiling water and have a snack before bed. Then each kid ran back into the cold to stick the water bottle into his or her sleeping bag to help warm it up before climbing in for the night. As I headed off to bed I wondered how everyone would sleep. Surely some would sleep well and others would wake up several times and have trouble sleeping, but regardless, they were making memories that will stay with them for a long time.
Helping people experience dogsledding, sleeping on a frozen lake, the silence and beauty of this place, and the skills and confidence gained through wilderness travel reminds me why the Boundary Waters is so special. This thought helps me focus my efforts to help protect the Boundary Waters for future generations. Amy and I will continue to introduce people to the joys of dogsledding and the winter woods for a few more months, but we are also continuing our work with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters to educate people about the threats that mining in a sulfide ore body bring to this region. Last Saturday I gave a presentation about Paddle to DC at the REI in Bloomington, Minnesota, that was hosted by the Minnesota Canoe Association. Save the Boundary Waters Volunteers Ann Cosgrove and Margot Monson were there with a table full of information to share with people—thank you Ann and Margot!
On March 14, Amy and I will be speaking at Canoecopia, which is the world’s largest paddle sports expo, in Madison, Wisconsin, and we will be volunteering at the Save the Boundary Waters booth throughout the weekend. Plus, we will be speaking at the Midwest Mountaineering Outdoor Adventure Expo in Minneapolis the weekend of April 24-26. We are also planning events at the Patagonia stores in Chicago and St. Paul in April. I hope you can join us at one of these events—and bring a friend or two with you!
Dave Freeman and Amy Freeman were named National Geographic's 2014 Adventurers of the Year. They lead educational adventures through Wilderness Classroom. Paddle to DC, their 2,000-mile, 101-day paddle (and sail) from Ely to Washington, D.C., last year supported the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
Recently, we posted our top 10 favorite things about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on Instagram with some great pictures. These 10 are some of the inspiration behind why we are are so passionate about our fight to save the BWCA! Take a look at the full list and pictures below, then share reasons YOU love the BWCA on social media with the hashtag #savethebwca (Make sure you are following us on social media: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram).
1. Paddling. It's simply the best part. Drip, Drip, Swing. (Photo: @arborealis)
2. Asking for S’more.
3. Being ourselves. Something about the woods brings out our truest selves, the good, the bad, and the crazy.
4. Snapping pictures. Let's be honest, the BWCA is very photogenic. And you know you look better in a canoe.
5. Floating around on a Thermarest. Does your bed at home also double as a wave rider? These Forest Service Rangers take a “water break” on Lac La Croix.
6. Taking a hike. Although the BWCA offers hundreds of miles of walking trails, it is notoriously best seen by boat. To get from one lake to another, you’ll have to do some crazy portaging. The real purpose: to bring out the desire in all of us to carry an 80 pound food pack or canoe on our shoulders or a mile, uphill.
7. Hearing the crunch of crusty snow beneath your feet. Whether it’s on skis, snowshoes, dogsled,
or foot, the Boundary Waters is at its wildest in winter.
8. Picking wild blueberries. In August these bad boys are at their peak juiciness. The stains on your fingers never let you forget about the trail pancakes you made with them.
9. Cooking over a fire. Everything tastes better when you are hungry. And when there is smoke in your eyes and sparks burning through your polypropylene Patagonia.
10. Fishing for "water wolves" in the deep BWCA. Here, @Jahbeas catches pike on the fly.
With each town we passed through, we met local groups working toward a better environment. Each community was plagued by an environmental fight, to avoid a superfund site, to better their rivers, or even to discuss controversial proposed sulfide-ore mining for copper in their region. Wisconsin and Michigan both have past, or in Michigan's case, recently permitted copper mines. These communities gave us a national perspective on our local issue.
While in the Michigan UP, I took a slight detour to scope out a new Sulfide-mining project in the Yellow Dog Plains. We had heard from our friends at Save the Wild UP that the most surprising and immediate affect from the new mine was the change to their forest. Here in Northern Minnesota, our Superior National Forest could face similar changes as the setting for the proposed Twin Metals mine. I wanted to see for myself what the development looks like.
Image #1 is of a small logging road through the forest of the Yellow Dog plains. Previously, the Yellow Dog Plains was a remote and virtually untouched wilderness, aside from large scale logging operations. Image #2 shows the expansion of the logging roads in the forest for the purpose of the Eagle Mine. Michigan's new Eagle Mine was permitted in 2007. The life of the mine production is estimated to last up to eight years. The necessity of a four-lane highway for the transportation of the ore and heavy machinery during the 8 years of production has lead to the vast expansion of dozens of miles of their roads and clearcutting of the trees. The affect on their forest is indisputable.
As we work toward protecting our clean water, let's not forget about the trees. Our Superior National Forest is a treasure in itself.
Here is what you have all been waiting for. The REAL story from the support crew. Your exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the Paddle to DC.
As the Paddle to DC support team, I traveled with Dave and Amy for the past 100 days. My journey was more like a road trip. A road trip at the pace of a canoe. We passed through wilderness, rural towns, forests, mountain ranges, and beautiful cities. In the context of my road trip, these big cities provided welcome energy and fun. They were the next destination in my mind. The Paddle to DC was, in this same way, a unique and difficult canoe trip. The cities were a bit of an interruption to the trip, both logistically, and mentally. Don't even get me started on the driving.
This was my office for a week in Fort Coulonge, Quebec. A small historic town on the edge of the Ontario /Quebec border. Because I was working on setting up events in Ottawa for the next week, this phone booth made a convenient office. Luckily, public telephones are easy to come by in Canada. Since being back in the United States, I have not found a singe one in operation.
Dave and Amy did 40 presentations in 100 days. Think about that for a moment. They paddled nearly every single day for 100 days and managed to spend nearly half of their time sharing their journey with others. A large part of my work throughout the journey was transportation to and from these events or organizing the events themselves.
Thank you to all of our amazing partners that allowed Dave and Amy to speak to their circles. It is truly amazing to see so many people working to protect their water, get people outside, and defend our environment. I am especially grateful for the students that reached out to us by asking Dave and Amy to speak at their school, writing about the trip, and sharing it with their friends. I know far too well how easy it is to put the blinders on when you are in school and work on what is in front of you. As I think about going back to a University soon, I now have so many examples of how to stay involved in current issues and be a leader.
All of you still reading are waiting for the juicy gossipizzle of working with Dave and Amy. The shocking truth is that they are the most humble, genuine, kind, and hardworking people I have ever met. Dave and Amy would paddle all day and manage to do as much communication as I did. They spoke to over 2,700 people over the course of the journey and even at the end of the day, never let them see how tired they were. But to truly see Amy and Dave in action, is to see them working with kids. We visited many schools over the 100 days where they spoke to loud, energetic school groups. It is amazing that they didn't lose their voice from trying to be heard over the rumble of middle schoolers in an assembly. The excitement of the kids is truly contagious. And there is no doubt that many of them will be our future adventurers thanks to Dave and Amy. It was an honor to work with them and be inspired by their true passion to protect wild places.
On a rainy day in late August my wife Amy and I climbed into our canoe and paddled away from the Voyageur Outward Bound School in Northern Minnesota. About 50 people came out to paddle the first mile of the Kawishiwi River with us as we followed the path of pollution from the proposed Twin Metals mine into our nation's most popular wilderness, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota. The goal of our journey was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and rally support for the Boundary Waters to protect it from a series of proposed sulfide ore mines on the edge of the Boundary Waters. 101 days later many of the same Minnesotans huddled together in the freezing rain and climbed into canoes to paddle with us for the final stretch of our 2,000 mile journey by water from the Boundary Waters to Washington D.C. Our Wenonah Canoe, Sig, had gained several thousand signatures and a couple of scratches along the way. Through out the journey we did over 50 interviews with a wide range of local, regional and national media outlets, met directly with close to 3,000 people during 40 events along our route, portaged nearly 100 miles and dipped our paddles over 3 million times into dozens of waterways, from pristine Boundary Waters lakes to Superfund Sites along the East Coast.
Several dozen people came out in the pouring rain to welcome us when we paddled into the Washington Canoe Club on December 2nd. We have compiled a few of our favorite images as well as a short video the distills Paddle to DC and the threats the Boundary Waters face into 8 minutes.
Paddle to DC: A Quest for Clean Water from Nate Ptacek on Vimeo.
A photo posted by Save The Boundary Waters (@savethebwca) onOct 10, 2014 at 1:17pm PDT
There were really 4 of us on this journey, Olivia Ridge (our project manager), Sig the canoe, Amy Freeman and me (Dave Freeman).
We followed the path of pollution from the proposed Twin Metals Mines site on Birch Lake down the Kawishiwi River into the Boundary Waters and spent 8 days paddling through the Boundary Waters to reach Lake Superior at Grand Portage.
A photo posted by Nate Ptacek (@arborealis) onSep 9, 2014 at 4:14pm PDT
We spent 3 weeks sailing across Lake Superior and Georgian Bay, stopping in towns in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario to give presentations and share our story.
Edward Abbey said,"The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders." Our goal was to gather more defenders for the Boundary Waters from communities in Northern Minnesota and across the country through events like this one at the Patagonia store in Washington D.C., media coverage, blogging and social media.
A photo posted by Dave and Amy Freeman (@freemanexplore) onSep 9, 2014 at 5:52pm PDT
During the first 80 days we camped most of the time. We usually found beautiful campsites along the waterways we traversed like this one on the French River in Ontario. We left our sailboat near the mouth of the French River in Georgian Bay. We would spend the last 2 months traveling about 1,300 miles by canoe.
We encountered many beautiful places, like the Mattawa River in Ontario, but none were quite like the Boundary Waters, where we still dip our cups in the middle of the lake when we are thirsty.
A photo posted by Dave and Amy Freeman (@freemanexplore) onOct 10, 2014 at 7:36am PDT
There was a lot of portaging, including 3 portages that were 15 to 30 miles long. We used our cart to traverse some pretty urban areas and connect an unusual network of waterways on our way to Washington D.C. The portaging gave us a chance to meet more people; lots of people stopped us ask what we were doing and many of them wanted to sign Sig and our petition to protect the Boundary Waters.
As the weather got colder more people invited us to stay with them as we past through more urban areas between New York City and the Nation's capitol.
A photo posted by Save The Boundary Waters (@savethebwca) onDec 12, 2014 at 2:29pm PST
Sig toured the Capitol and portaged past the White House. Chief Tidwell, the head of the US Forest Service, accepted Sig, our canoe, on behalf of the administration and the Sig is being displayed at the Forest Service Headquarters in DC so that more people will be able to learn about our journey and the Boundary Waters.
40 Minnesotans joined us in D.C. We spent 3 days meeting with elected officials and government agencies to educate them about the sulfide ore mines that are being proposed on the edge of the Boundary Waters and share our concerns. We have hung up our paddles for the moment, but our work to save the Boundary Waters from copper mines in a sulfide ore body has just begun. Please learn more about this important issue, sign the petition and join the movement. The Boundary Waters belongs to all of us and it is up to us to protect it. Dozens of people opened their homes to us, organized events and supported us physically and emotionally along the way. Hundreds more donated time and money through the Save the Boundary Waters Campaign to help make Paddle to DC a success.
Thank you for all of your support. Paddles Up!
Dave and Amy Freeman