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Science Desk: Protecting Clean Water

Friday, May 20, 2016
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

We can’t take our swimmable and fishable waters for granted, even in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The more time that has passed since the passage of the landmark Clean Water Act in 1972, fewer people remember that our public waters used to be at the complete mercy of polluters. As memories of burning rivers and bloated fish fade from public consciousness, it becomes even more important to understand the value of Minnesota’s remaining clean water. 

What is now known as the Clean Water Act was actually a set of amendments made to the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, spurred by increasingly visible environmental disasters. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching fire (1969 marked the thirteenth time, by one account) was perhaps the most spectacular of these, but Minnesota had its own problems with water impairment. Discharges of harmful materials, like a devastating soybean oil spill on the Blue Earth River near Mankato in 1963, were neither required to be reported nor cleaned up. Pipes emptied directly into our public waters, like the culvert releasing an “acrid smelling liquid” into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis in 1973, as depicted in this photo from the National Archives.

The Clean Water Act made it illegal for individuals and companies to directly discharge pollution into navigable waters without a permit, which in turn gave the EPA the authority to regulate pollutants being released into our public waters. The Clean Water Act allowed the EPA  and partnering states to set water quality targets for waters, as well, and to use the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to limit, but not eliminate, the discharge of pollutants by discrete sources. By controlling the flagrant dumping of toxic, flammable, and destructive materials into rivers and lakes, the Clean Water Act has achieved remarkable success in improving the overall quality of many of our waters to be fishable and swimmable, a major goal of the Act. 

Despite these historic achievements, our clean water is leaking through our hands. In April 2015, the Star Tribune reported that “half the lakes and rivers in southern Minnesota are too polluted much of the time for safe swimming and fishing,” results from a survey by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The MPCA’s work to update and reauthorize taconite mining NPDES permits under the Clean Water Act have stalled, and the commissioner admitted that the work is paused, despite an active investigation by the EPA as to whether the MPCA is sufficiently upholding the Clean Water Act. The Izaak Walton League of America reported results from a nation-wide survey that Minnesota’s waters are plagued with mercury, nutrients and sediment, bacteria, PCBs (a possible carcinogen), and salts that are detrimental to the aquatic environment. The Minnesota Department of Health has raised alarms about elevated nitrate levels (found in fertilizers, animal waste, and human waste) found in rural groundwater systems, since it can infiltrate drinking water wells and cause “blue baby syndrome,” a serious condition for infants under the age of six months. If we continue taking our remaining swimmable, fishable, and drinkable water for granted, we might not have much left.

One important step to protecting our clean water is to understand where the high quality waters remain and where waters have been degraded, and how. The Izaak Walton League’s report calls for increased frequency of testing water quality as an important step. Because state budgets can be tight, citizen involvement such as with the MPCA’s Citizen Lake Monitoring Program can help expand the reach of the water quality monitoring program. Explorers Amy and Dave Freeman are participating in this program and collecting additional water quality data as part of their Year in the Wilderness expedition in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The next step must be to protect sensitive watersheds that contain increasingly rare pristine water. The waters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are so clean that they are swimmable, fishable, and even (at your own risk) drinkable. In fact, the State of Minnesota rates the waters of the Boundary Waters as “outstanding resource value water” for their “high water quality, wilderness characteristics, unique scientific or ecological significance, exceptional recreational value, or other special qualities which warrant stringent protection from pollution.” As part of the administrative rules that govern the State of Minnesota, these waters may not be degraded by either new or expanded sources of pollution. Such concern for the Boundary Waters Wilderness is highly warranted, especially since half of the state’s waters have been found to be unsuitable for swimming and fishing.

We have the responsibility to ensure that the Boundary Waters Wilderness retains its clean water for this and future generations. We must prevent new sources of toxic pollutants, like from sulfide-ore mining, to be placed in its watershed.


Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

From The Freemans: That Squiggly Line Is Our Route

Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Posted by
Dave Freeman

Take a look at our DeLorme Map above. It is probably hard to tell if there is any rhyme or reason to the line, which starts to looks like a bowl of spaghetti. People often ask us how we decide where to go during A Year in the Wilderness. In this blog post, I will try to explain some of the factors that help us plan our route.

We spent most of winter in the greater Ely area. We did this for several reasons. First, the logistics associated with organizing our resupplies in the winter were more complicated due of the added skill and specialized clothing and equipment necessary for our visitors to safely travel in the winter woods. Amy and I have led dogsledding trips for Paul and Sue Schurke at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge for many years. Paul and many of the folks at Wintergreen used their dog teams and winter skills to assist with the resupplies, bringing many people out to visit us. For many of our winter resupply volunteers, it was their first time visiting the Boundary Waters Wilderness in the winter. Bert and Johnnie Hyde, Bobby Shusta, Elton Brown, Jason Zabokrtsky and many other area residents also donated their time and efforts to organize and lead these resupplies, and of course Levi at Sustainable Ely was in the thick of it all, helping to organize volunteers and to purchase, pack and ready all our food and supplies. A large number of volunteers with varying skills were needed for the winter resupplies and we are very thankful that so many people stepped up to assist.

As it turns out, this winter was a warm one! The lakes froze several weeks later than normal and many bogs, creeks and streams did not freeze solid until well into February. The weather created abnormal travel condition so a few places that we had planned to explore in the winter we had to avoid because of the unusually warm conditions.

Now that the canoe season has started in earnest, we are traveling east into territory we have not visited during the first seven months of our Year in the Wilderness. Our resupplies between now and the middle of July will be brought in by groups of volunteers from entry points scattered throughout the eastern half of the Wilderness. Then we will head west again and spend our final months exploring the far western side of the Wilderness. We have visited 217 different lakes, rivers, and creeks during the first 231 days of A Year in the Wilderness. We are hoping to visit at least 500 different bodies of water. As we plan our route for our final four and a half months in the Wilderness we are trying to visit as many new lakes as we can.

Visitors are another factor that we consider when we are choosing our route. Beside standard resupplies, which come in approximately every two weeks, we have groups of friends, family, reporters and other people who are coming into the Wilderness to meet up with us. All visitors much have their own permit, so plan our schedule to be near the entry point where they will enter the Wilderness so we can greet them.

Our route planning has been pretty loose; we have been going with the flow. As we visit more and more lakes, we will have to think more strategically about our specific route. One overarching routing question that we have been pondering is: Should we visit the Gunflint section and the Trout Lake section of the Wilderness?

The Boundary Waters Wilderness is broken up into three sections. The main section is approximately 800,000 acres. The Gunflint and Trout Lake sections are each about 100,000 acres. To enter the Gunflint section we would have to leave the Wilderness and paddle for about 10 miles across Gunflint Lake. Then, after spending about 10 days visiting the Wilderness north of the Gunflint Trail, we would paddle back across Gunflint Lake and return to the main body of the Wilderness. To access the Trout Lake section we would have to leave the Wilderness for a couple miles and portage across the Echo Trail as we enter and then exit the Trout Lake section. There are specific travel routes that allow you to travel from one section to another without needing to obtain a new permit as long as you follow a few basic rules like not spending the night outside the Wilderness and not obtaining food or supplies while crossing from one section to the other.

We are trying to decide if we should remain in the main section for the whole year, or if we should travel to the Gunflint and Trout Lake sections. The Wilderness north of the Gunflint Trail is rugged and beautiful, and Amy and I have never visited the Trout Lake section, so there is appeal to visiting both. However, there is a part of us that doesn't want to cross a road, or leave the Wilderness even for a couple hours. If we do not visit the Gunflint and Trout Lake areas we would not be able to see as much country and visit as many lakes, but we would have more time to explore smaller lakes and streams that are off of the main travel routes. These smaller lakes are not linked by portages and you often have to crash through the forest, slog through bogs, and climb over beaver dams to visit these hidden gems.

We would love to hear your thoughts. Send us a message on Instagram or Facebook, or email

Dave and Amy Freeman, 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, are dedicated to protecting the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on its wilderness edge. In 2014, they paddled and sailed 101 days and 2,000 miles from Ely, MN, to Washington, DC, on the Paddle to DC. They are now spending a year in the Boundary Waters on A Year in the Wilderness. Follow their journey on social media (#WildernessYear) and by tracking the trip on their map. More A Year in the Wilderness blog posts.

Resupply Report: A Throwback to Winter

Thursday, May 5, 2016
Posted by
Dave Caliebe

Scratching my head, I wondered how to fit all the supplies strewn on the ground at my feet into two sleds. A 40 pound bag of dog food, another 15 pounds of frozen chicken, five Frost River bags the size of watermelons, three sleeping bags, a duffle bag full of base layers, and a bag of Snickers. The sleds designed more for youthful exuberance down the local sledding hill than hauling gear over a mile into a Wilderness Area. Layered up and full of gumption, I set off across the frozen, wind-swept lake towards my destination – two folks living a year in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  

I spotted Dave and Amy Freeman’s tent and heard their sled dogs barking to the sky. A solitary skier emerged from camp, heading my way with a dog. Amy arrived with a smile and escorted me into camp. Arriving in camp, Dave and the other two dogs welcomed me. 

With the frozen burritos of gear unpacked, the Freemans took Tina, Tank and Acorn out skijoring to let the dogs release a little energy. I found a spot sheltered from the breeze and prepared my sleeping system (when in doubt, add another sleeping bag).

After a hearty meal followed by a couple hours of post-dinner talk, I retreated to my sleeping burrito outside.

I awoke from sunlight grazing the ice crystals that had formed around the air hole of my sleeping bag. The sunrise brought false warmth to the frozen landscape. The dogs rose from their beds when I approached, eager to begin the day. I wandered around camp, taking photos until I realized my unprotected hands were not functioning properly. I retreated to Amy and Dave’s tent to warm my hands and grab breakfast. The Freemans were in the middle of morning chores, cooking breakfast for the dogs, boiling water for coffee and beginning to plan the day.

Soon, we were headed out of camp, and Acorn dutifully pulled my sled towards the edge of the Wilderness while I lagged behind. I caught up with the dogs, the Freemans and a new group that was just arriving. Introductions quickly transitioned to goodbyes as we parted ways.

The silence of the Wilderness soon enveloped me. The crunch of my boots, the dragging of the sled on the packed down path and the breeze flowing past my face were all sounds, but sounds that best occur in a quiet place, a Wilderness Area. The bustle of man carries well across lakes and through forests and that is why we need solitude, quiet, the peacefulness of Nature. 

What does the Boundary Waters mean to me? The West Coast has Yosemite, Olympic and the Redwoods. The Mountain West has Yellowstone, Glacier and the Rockies. The southwest has the Grand Canyon, Zion and Arches. The southeast has the Everglades and the Smokies, the northeast has Acadia and Niagara Falls. But what does the Midwest have that resonates on the national level? We have the most visited Wilderness Area in the country. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park in Canada encompass the greatest canoe country in the world. 

I love the Boundary Waters because the only thing that my dad asked me to do when graduating high school was to spend a couple weeks in the Wilderness. I love it because my dad knew Dorothy Molter, the Root Beer Lady, and she wanted to hire him to be a guide. I love it because I can travel for days and not see anyone. I love it because it is mostly unchanged since the days of the Voyageurs. I love it because every whiff of spruce imbued in the wind reminds me of the words of Sigurd Olson. I love it because it’s bigger than my lifetime. I love it because the portages are measured in rods (which are 16.5 feet). I love it because of the Rose Lake cliffs and the North Hegman pictographs. I love it because it’s our Yellowstone, our Yosemite, our Smoky Mountains and our place of worship. 

We must protect this national resource so my kids and their kids can experience the same joy I do when the loon calls or wolf howls while paddling across a quiet lake.

Dave Caliebe spent his youth sauntering through the woods of Wisconsin and now works for a non-profit helping people to enjoy the outdoors. After listening to the Freeman's speak at Canoecopia in 2015, Dave began his effort to do his part to protect a landscape he holds dear. Having first visited the Boundary Waters in 1995, Dave became enamored with the landscape and has visited ever since. 

On Tuesday, April 19, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made a bold statement. Her speech laid out a vision for the next 100 years of American conservation policy, one that includes modern science and larger scale thinking to help solve our most complex conservation challenges. One line stood out: “What we need is smart planning, on a landscape-level, irrespective of manmade lines on a map.” Secretary Jewell continued to describe what landscape-level planning looks like, and she included Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a prime example of a special place “where science is helping us better understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development.” But what does landscape-level planning mean for the Boundary Waters Wilderness?

Landscape-level planning draws on a scientific discipline called landscape ecology. Though Secretary Jewell’s announcement makes it sound like cutting edge science, landscape ecology has a long pedigree and has been a useful tool for conservation scientists and land managers since the 1980s. Now that it is has infiltrated to the highest levels of the public land management agencies, landscape ecology can be used more pervasively to better deal with the large scale conservation problems we face today.

Landscape ecology cuts to the heart of what is difficult about studying the natural environment: spatial scale. Natural scientists must set boundaries on their studies to avoid the overwhelming complexity that is the natural world. Instead of considering all predator-prey interactions in the Superior National Forest, for instance, a Canada lynx biologist might only consider the interaction between lynx and snowshoe hares in a region inhabited by a particular group of lynx. Similarly, an ecologist looking into the history of species composition of the Boundary Waters Wilderness forest must first determine the spatial extent of her study so she does not end up investigating all of Minnesota. The discipline of landscape ecology gives ecologists tools to discuss the impact of spatial scale on the natural patterns and processes that affect the pieces of the environment--from underlying rocks to individual organisms to population size of threatened species.

Landscape ecology also provides an crucial framework and common language to understand the interconnection of different types of land. As Secretary Jewell noted in her speech, today’s United States is a patchwork (ecologists might call it a “mosaic”) of urban, suburban, agricultural, industrial, and more natural lands. Even those more natural lands fall along a spectrum of “wildness” -- from city parks planted with shade trees to the remotest parts of federally designated Wilderness Areas. Landscape ecologists seek to incorporate the whole landscape--patchiness and all--in their efforts to understand the natural and human-caused dynamics that affect places such as the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

Armed with the landscape perspective, an ecologist is no longer limited to focus solely within a Wilderness Area’s boundaries to understand how it functions. Instead, she can think about how large-scale patterns of land use, development, atmospheric pollution, climate change, human visitorship, shifts in vegetation species composition, or wildlife migrations can play dramatic roles in affecting a protected place. In other words, landscape ecology properly acknowledges that no place is an island -- even literal islands.

This why landscape-level planning is crucially important for both the future of American conservation policy and for the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Scientists know so much more in 2016 about watersheds and the interconnectivity of a landscape than they did in 1966 when the Bureau of Land Management first issued mineral leases in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. The Boundary Waters Wilderness does not exist in isolation from its surrounding environment. From fluxes of wolves and moose and Canada lynx moving across the Wilderness boundary to water that pours into the Wilderness area from outside of it, the Boundary Waters Wilderness depends on its larger landscape. In order to make the best possible decision, responsible action by the land management agencies requires the consideration of the impacts of proposed sulfide-ore mining at a watershed scale.

That’s why we are working for permanent protection for the Boundary Waters by protecting its watershed. And we need your help to make it happen.

Please tell Minnesota’s Senators Franken and Klobuchar and Representative Nolan that you agree with Secretary Jewell that Boundary Waters Wilderness deserves the best, modern science to be used in decision-making at a landscape scale by taking action here.

For further reading, here are some foundational pieces on landscape ecology (plus one specific to the Boundary Waters Wilderness):

Baker, W.L. 1989. Landscape ecology and nature reserve design in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota. Ecology: 70(1): 23-35.

Forman, R.T. 1995. Some general principles of landscape and regional ecology. Landscape Ecology 10: 133-142.

Turner, M.G., R.H. Gardner, and R.V. O’Neill. 1995. Ecological dynamics at broad scales. BioScience 45: S29-S35.

Turner, M.G. 1989. Landscape ecology: The effect of pattern on process. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 20: 171-197.


Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

From the Freemans: New Canoe Sports, Loons and Mosquitoes

Thursday, April 21, 2016
Posted by
Amy Freeman

We have invented two new sports during ice-out here in the Boundary Waters Widerness: canoe-bobsledding and canoe-joring. While camped on Knife Lake, we made explorations to patches of open water. The canoe-bobsledding seems to work well for launching the canoe off an ice sheet into open water. The canoe-joring is ideal for smooth ice where Tank can easily pull the canoe.

Several days ago a small lake south of Knife– Bonnie– had a swath of open water along the north shore. We took Tank for his first canoe ride there. With lots of treats and encouragement, he did great. We hadn't gotten our fill of canoeing for the day, so we walked down to the narrows near Robbins Island and Isle of Pines on Knife. Here we scratched our heads as we debated how best to reach the open water directly from the thick ice that we stood on.

We determined that the canoe slid quite easily on the ice, so I could jump in before reaching questionable ice. Dave sort of straddled the canoe while he continued to propel it with his feet. Once the bow touched the water, he hopped in as the edge of sketchy ice crumbled under the weight of both of us in the canoe. And then, in an instant, we were floating. There was a stark contrast between the noisy bobsled ride of the canoe scraping on the ice to the canoe silently gliding through the water.

We honed our canoe-bobsledding skills over the next couple of days, making one more trip to the narrows and then to Portage Lake. At this point, I should probably share with you that we were exercising extreme caution while walking on the ice and scoping out patches of open water. The temperature of the water is still darn close to freezing and immersion would mean a quick onset of hypothermia for someone not dressed for it. We are drawing on years of cold water kayaking experience on Lake Superior as we horse around on the ice fringes now.

We were wearing drysuits, with wool long underwear, polar fleece tops and bottoms, and thick wool socks underneath. We were wearing our trusty MTI Adventurewear PFDs (personal floatation devices). We had ice picks strung around our necks in case we unexpectedly punched through while walking on the ice. We had a throw bag at the ready in case one of us needed to assist the other. We drilled test holes and measured the ice thickness with a ski pole periodically as we walked. We never stood or walked very close together– so if one of us went in, most likely the other wouldn't. Also, we've practiced rescues in cold water. I'll never forget the first intentional dunk I took in Lake Superior while practicing sea kayak rescues or the time I skied into a hole in the ice (and pulled myself out) on White Iron Lake as part of a dogsled guiding initiation. While it was scary the first time and the cold water quite literally took my breath away, I'm glad I have that experience to draw on now.

Over the past week, we have watched the ice conditions on Knife Lake deteriorate. Being such a massive, deep lake, it will still be quite a while until it is ice free, but we knew our days of walking on the ice were numbered. That is why we packed up and headed south yesterday and we discovered canoe-joring. I was intending to assist Tank with pulling our loaded canoe across the ice, while Dave scouted out a safe route in front. However, it quickly became apparent that Tank could easily pull this load on the nearly frictionless surface. So I relocated to the back to serve more as a brake– keeping Tank from overtaking Dave as he trotted across Knife Lake.

That was the end of our ice-walking though. Once we got to the portage into Bonnie Lake, we canoe-bobsledded to reach shore. We completed our first portage of the season in two trips– an amazing feat given the absurd amount of stuff we have with us. Dave came up with the concept of wedging the 11 foot Black River Sled toboggan into the bottom of our 19 foot Wenonah Itasca canoe. The toboggan remained in place even while portaging! The skis and poles were easy enough to carry while bundled up. Our Granite Gear packs are totally full, but not very heavy as they contain bulky winter clothes.

Reaching the first view of Bonnie Lake brought a smile to my face. A wide open expanse of water with a loon placidly floating across the surface greeted my eyes. We loaded the canoe and paddled across half the lake. When we reached the remaining bit of ice that stood between us and the portage into Spoon Lake, it crumbled in front of the bow of the canoe. We plowed through the ice and portaged into Spoon.

More ice greeted us here and it was slow going after our narrow lane of water on the south-facing shore ran out. Although we didn't travel very far,  all three of us are enjoying camping on a new lake. We're positioned to keep making progress to the west after a little more melting takes place. For now, we are content to sit back and observe more of spring as it unfolds.

There are a few sure signs that canoe season is not far off. Several mosquitoes lazily drifted in the air around us last evening. (We're eager to get our Cooke Custom Sewing Lean with our next resupply so we can cook in a zone sheltered from the hoards of mosquitoes that are sure to come.) This morning was the first time I was awakened by the call of a loon. Trees are beginning to bud and the grass is looking greener. What a wonderful time of year to be in the Wilderness!

Dave and Amy Freeman, 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, are dedicated to protecting the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on its wilderness edge. In 2014, they paddled and sailed 101 days and 2,000 miles from Ely, MN, to Washington, DC, on the Paddle to DC. They are now spending a year in the Boundary Waters on A Year in the Wilderness. Follow their journey on social media (#WildernessYear) and by tracking the trip on their map. More A Year in the Wilderness blog posts.

From the Freemans: Ready for Anything, Especially Spring

Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Posted by
Amy Freeman

Changes are occurring rapidly out here. The sun is significantly more intense. In December we struggled to charge our batteries on non-cloudy days; now it seems that batteries charge in minutes. That same sun is working to diminish the snow and ice on the lakes. It is melting the snow that covered the ground all winter. A walk in the woods is suddenly made richer by the scent of earth, duff and pine needles– scents we didn't realize we were missing all winter, but now we inhale deeply and relish. The sun heats our tent like a little greenhouse; no fire needed in the wood stove on a sunny day. The length of daylight hours astounds me now– and they're still going to increase! We can travel so much farther in a day than we could back in November, December or January.

We have been busy making changes to the gear we have and our mode of transportation. Acorn and Tina have gone home to Frank Moe's kennel in Hovland (near Grand Marais). Tank is settling into his role as the sole dog, sleeping in the tent at night and lounging in the sun by day. When it is time to pull a load, Dave and I are helping Tank pull it, giving us a new appreciation for the hard work the three sled dogs did all winter.

Thanks to the hard work of many volunteers and Wintergreen sled dogs, we have a month's worth of food and all the necessary gear for the paddling season out here with us now. Two separate crews ventured out to supply us with all this stuff.

First, folks came with a heavily loaded dogsled towed by six burly Canadian Inuit dogs to deliver our human food and dog food on a 60-degree day last week. Then, just yesterday, a crew trekked across Moose and Newfound Lakes with our canoe, drysuits, PFDs and paddles in tow. We were all aware of the irony of their delivery of paddling equipment on a day when the high never surpassed freezing and a heavy snow fell from the sky.

One volunteer, Bobby Shusta, had been there on the day we traded our canoe for toboggans. It seemed only fitting that he would be leading the crew to trade our toboggans for the canoe. We enjoyed visiting with folks, as we were keenly aware that this could be our last human contact for a while. We were also floored by their generosity as they shared all manner of treats with us, from dehydrated sweet potatoes to fresh salad fixings to authentic Minnesota tuna noodle casserole (hotdish).

The resupply crew departed with our toboggans, some winter clothing and equipment that we no longer needed while we headed back to camp with everything they had just given us. We had to think creatively about how to travel with a 19-foot Wenonah Itasca Kevlar canoe in these conditions. Optimistic that we could just pull it across the lakes, we set it down on Splash Lake, loaded it and then Dave and Tank labored to move it a few feet. Realizing the grave mistake we had made, we headed back towards Newfound to catch the resupply crew that was now hauling our toboggans toward the Moose Lake landing. We retrieved the longest one, an 11-foot. Black River Sled, and devised a way to strap the canoe securely in place. It looks rather out of place, but it pulls like a dream!

As we returned to camp, we had to disassemble our rig a couple of times to portage over rocky portage trails like we would in the summer, with the canoe and a pack on Dave's shoulders and me carrying a pack with skis attached, paddles in hand, towing the empty toboggan behind me. It was a day for thinking on our feet and jury-rigging. This brought to mind two thoughts. One: this is just the start of creative solutions we will have to come up with as the seasons change. Two: this is one of the main things I love about time spent in the Boundary Waters. While the gorgeous vistas, rugged landscape and silent star-filled nights may be what come to mind first, the challenging moments are what make traveling in the wilderness memorable. There is nothing quite like the sense of accomplishment and confidence built by meeting a challenge in nature head-on and working through it. Some call it character-building. Some talk about type-2 fun (fun when you're laughing and having a good time is type-1 fun; type-2 fun is maybe not so fun while you're experiencing it, but it is what you tell stories about after a trip is over). We experienced plenty of type-2 fun as we trudged 13 miles back to camp, with the east wind blowing fluffy snowflakes in our faces, snow rapidly accumulating on the ground and the sun sinking lower in the sky. Back in the tent, stomachs full of tuna noodle casserole, fresh apples and homemade brownies, we laughed at the absurdity of hauling a loaded canoe through four inches of fresh snow.

Now we're ready for anything. We have plenty of food and an eclectic assortment of winter and summer equipment. We have a canoe and a toboggan. We have paddles and skis. We have life jackets and down jackets. We're here, in the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, ready and waiting to see what Mother Nature dishes out as winter transitions into spring. It kind of feels like you're at the airport, sitting at the gate, boarding pass and luggage in hand, all ready to go, but you just heard an announcement over the loudspeaker that your flight has been delayed. We're ready to paddle, but honestly we have no way to predict when that day will come– that day when we will ply the surface of the lakes with our paddles instead of plodding across their frozen surfaces.

[PHOTOS: Dogs towing sled by Willy Vosburgh; Group with canoe by Chris Chandler; all others by Dave and Amy Freeman]

Dave and Amy Freeman, 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, are dedicated to protecting the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on its wilderness edge. In 2014, they paddled and sailed 101 days and 2,000 miles from Ely, MN, to Washington, DC, on the Paddle to DC. They are now spending a year in the Boundary Waters on A Year in the Wilderness. Follow their journey on social media (#WildernessYear) and by tracking the trip on their map. More A Year in the Wilderness blog posts.

Resupply Report: The Freemans' Most Frequent Visitor

Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Posted by
Elton Brown

When a group of six intrepid Ely skiers recently dropped in on Amy and Dave Freeman, Dave said that I’ve certainly been their most frequent visitor during the first six months of their Year in the Wilderness. Let me count the days and ways that I’ve been thus privileged.

SEPTEMBER 23: I was at the September send-off and was part of the flotilla from River Point Resort & Outfitting Company. What a fine celebration that was! The Koschaks, whose beautiful resort is at ground zero for the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine, provided warm hospitality. That’s me, in yellow raincoat and green kayak, right behind Amy (photo, right).

SEPTEMBER 28: A few days later, on September 28, I drove down Glippi Road, paddled across Pickerel Lake, and portaged into the N. Kawishiwi River, hoping to find Dave and Amy -- and there they were, on their way to test the water in S. Farm Lake! I gave them a chocolate bar and some vegetables from our garden as we paddled together into a strong wind for a mile or so before I turned back.

OCTOBER 3: New Elyite Margaret W. and I portaged into Little Gabbro and fought strong winds all the way to Bald Eagle Lake. Whitecaps blocked our hopes to reach the Freemans at the south end of Bald Eagle. So we portaged to Turtle Lake instead, for lunch on a campsite, and later I delivered our edible gifts to the group that accomplished a resupply the next day.

MID OCTOBER: I noted on the DeLorme map that Amy and Dave were camped on Tin Can Mike Lake. I called around to find a canoe partner. Debbie H. was available, so we met and drove to the Chainsaw Sisters entry point. There we ran into Levi, the Freemans’ expedition manager, and some Patagonia employees, going out to resupply and camp with the Freemans. Dave and Amy met us on Mudro, and we all had a fine visit and lunch together on a Sandpit Lake campsite. During our paddle out, Debbie said, “Thanks for inviting me. This was the most fun day of my fall!”

NOVEMBER 7: My friend Tim L. came up from the Twin Cities and we joined a resupply paddle from Moose Lake entry point to the Splash Lake portage. The day was an early taste of winter, a beautiful sprinkling of snow on every branch. After the fun visit, my hands, in wet gloves, got so cold that Tim and I pulled into the winter portage for a walk across to Splash and back in order to revive my fingers for the return paddle.

JANUARY 15: The first of my visits with Amy and Dave by skis. Chris C., Chuck Z. and I brought some goodies and a charged battery to their camp at the far end of Fall Lake’s Mile Island. As we arrived, the Freemans were returning from gathering firewood on the Four Mile Portage. As the dog team and loaded toboggan approached, David put on the brakes, to stop for a chat, but the dogs would not be deterred from their mission, and so the visiting waited until all arrived in camp.

END OF JANUARY: I saw the Freemans three times in one week! On Sunday, the day after we raced “The Pepsi Challenge” on Giants Ridge trails, I introduced friend Greg K. to Dave and Amy during our skate ski outing to Basswood Lake via the Four Mile Portage. On Tuesday, my friend Margaret finally got to meet Dave and Amy on Fall, on our way to explore Ella Hall Lake. Then, on Saturday, more ski friends came from Mora (Phoebe M., David K. and their one-year-old twins). Pulling the boys in a pulk, we skied from Moose Lake, crossed to Basswood via the winter portages through Found and Manomin, and found the Freemans camped at a small island across from the Spirit Tree (a popular 1,100-year-old white cedar). The twins, Miles and Daschle, who never complained all day, were fascinated by Acorn, Tina, and Tank, especially when they commenced to howling as several Outward Bound dog teams passed us heading west.

EARLY FEBRUARY: Greg K. loved our first lake crust ski so much that he came up from the Cities again a few weeks later. This time we found Dave and Amy at the far end of Snowbank Lake. From there we cruised around Disappointment Lake, where we watched a lone wolf for a long time along the far shoreline.

MARCH 25: I still can't believe how far six of us skied and hiked on March 25. Somehow, an ambitious trek out to Knife Lake’s Thunder Point became a 40-plus-mile loop, partly I suppose because we weren't excited about retracing some of the tough winter portages we'd taken to get to Knife, and partly because we thought it would be fun to drop in on Dave and Amy on Fraser Lake, but mostly because the spirit of Ely backwoods ski trekkers is always to push the boundaries of time and distance and the rumored end of winter.

Near Dorothy Molter's Isle of Pines, the less-bold of us clambered over a little island to avoid the risk of open water and thin ice on both sides, but this was a piece of cake compared to the bushwhacks necessary to avoid open streams at our exits from Kekekabic and Fraser; even so, none of these compared in difficulty to slogging through the miles of brush tangles, weak ice, swamp hummocks and mushy snow of the winter portage from Thomas to Disappointment. Our brief visit with Amy and Dave was a nice mid-afternoon break. A broken binding, broken ski, and broken ski boot slowed our progress (along with strong wind and slower skiing on softened lake crust). Other than the Freemans, we saw no one. It was a great relief to reach the Snowbank landing, dehydrated, wet, utterly spent, and pile into a warm van to be shuttled to our cars back at the Moose Lake public access.

APRIL 3: The "spring" resupply for Dave and Amy. A group of six, walking across the ice into a cold and snowy east wind, pulled the Freemans' canoe and carried several packs of food. I wanted to ski, so headed out on Moose Lake earlier. There was lots of slipping on ice but some sections had enough snow for decent skate skiing. Heavy flurries sometimes made for white-out conditions -- beautiful and exhilarating! Took until Horseshoe Island for my fingers to thaw.  I walked the winter portage to Splash and skied on to Ensign, finally spotting dim figures in the distance about half-way down the lake. Turns out Dave and Amy were camped on Knife, near Thunder Point, so they'd already come a long way. Tank, their one remaining canine companion, was working hard pulling the toboggan loaded with winter gear no longer needed, often slipping on the ice as we skied back together towards Splash. After a while, Dave linked himself up front with Tank to share the pulling. We met the resupply party towards the end of the winter portage from Newfound (three young-adult VCC students, Becky Rom, Chris Chandler, and Lindsey Lang). After intros, lunch, and a good visit, I headed home, followed by the hikers, now pulling the toboggan. The Freemans plan to head to Basswood, where they hope to cross paths with Will Steger, who is making his way (pulling his loaded canoe) from Ontario through the Quetico on his way home to Winton. I am privileged to have had a part in the two "shoulder season" major resupplies.

I tell this story to illustrate the joys and challenges of the BWCAW: the great variety of lakes and routes, the beauties of the changing seasons, the exhilaration of traveling through unspoiled wilderness under one’s own power. Every day of this remarkable year, Dave and Amy’s blogs reinforce how special, how rare, how precious we find this vast natural preserve of undeveloped forest and clean water. I am very grateful that they are dedicating an entire year of their lives to helping all of us preserve the BWCA wilderness for generations to come.

Elton and Emily Brown retired to their Morse Township cabin seven years ago and have been active volunteers at Sustainable Ely and with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. During the years that Elton was the pastor of United Methodist churches in Minneapolis, they took their four kids on Boundary Waters canoe trips every summer. Elton is one of many Ely-area trekkers who love to ski into the Wilderness, especially in early spring when lakes are covered with a firm, fast crust.

Resupply Report: Bringing Music to the Wilderness

Thursday, March 31, 2016
Posted by
Ben Weaver

The far side of Snowbank Lake was hidden, stitched behind snow and wind. Atop it’s trackless white surface lay an ankle deep layer of slush. We set our bearings on a long island whose south eastern side was visible, estimating its mid point to be the location of the wilderness boundary, where we planned to meet explorers Dave and Amy Freeman.

The night before I had fallen asleep to rain, and woken up to snow. Blown from the north, it was wet and heavy, weighing down branches, pulling trees to the ground. I loaded my banjo, guitar and other supplies onto my bike. The roads weren’t plowed yet. Ely was quiet, headlights like fireflies winking through the handfuls of fat tumbling flakes. As I rode out of town towards Snowbank Lake, the wind blew the snow back into my eyes like spears.

Since beginning their expedition in September 2015, different groups have been volunteering to bring Dave and Amy resupplies every couple weeks. This was the nature of my trip, but the contents of my resupply were slightly different. I planned to resupply Dave and Amy with songs, poetry and conversation, oh …  and Bent Paddle did send me in with some insulated growlers of beer.

After a wet snowy ride along the Fernberg Road and Snowbank Lake road, I joined the rest of my group at the public boat landing: Levi Lexvold, expedition coordinator for A Year in the Wilderness; Bill DeVille, a DJ from The Current; and Nate Ryan, audio/video correspondent for The Current. Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current sent Bill and Nate in to document my performance and help tell Dave and Amy’s story of living in the Boundary Waters.

Since mechanized forms of transport are not allowed in the Boundary Waters, I left my bicycle in Levi’s truck, transferring my supplies to a pulk sled and walking into the Wilderness. As much as I love riding a bicycle, I believe there are some places they don't need to go.

We began crossing the lake, trudging through the heavy slush. Looking in almost any direction revealed nothing but white. A true snow globe. I heard dogs barking, and in the distance made out silhouettes, both human and animal. Drawing closer, several yellow stakes in the ice became visible, marking the wilderness boundary. Amy was on skis and Dave drove a small sled pulled by a three dog team. Greeting one another I could see the landscape in their faces, the weather, the rocks, the pine boughs. I could smell six months of wood smoke in their smiles. We continued slowly across the lake to their camp.

For dinner, we shared a pot of chili Levi made, the warm fire purring away in the wood stove at the center of the shelter. We laughed about how much better food tastes outside, after hard work and travel. As the sun began to fade, we stepped outside for some fresh air. The snow had subsided and as twilight soaked up the last daylight two black squiggly lines hopped and slid across the snow covered lake: otters. 

We gathered back around the stove in the center of Dave and Amy’s shelter. I sang songs and read some poems. In between, we talked about what makes the Boundary Waters so unique, and the importance of imagination when thinking about the future. If we cannot imagine new ways to live and work, then how can we develop them?

There is a connection between the restorative value of art and the restorative value of wilderness spaces like the Boundary Waters. They feed our souls. Inspire reflection. The Boundary Waters offers a chance to experience life at the pace of trees, water and animals, which promotes a stronger understanding for why it is so important to maintain these places on the planet. Where it will always be possible to hear the wind, drink water straight from the lakes, and hear the music made only by these natural ecosystems.

Bill DeVille had never been in the Boundary Waters before, and this was his first time sleeping outside in winter. His first time behind a team of dogs. His eyes were wide. It never ceases to amaze me how the wilderness transforms people. Even newcomers. It reminded me, it is not just necessary to tell people about the importance of a place like the Boundary Waters, but also to show them. To let them to stand on the ground and witness the power and beauty it possesses.

Dave joined us as we headed back across Snowbank Lake as we departed. There were two eagles perched in an island pine and a third one circling in the air above. We said goodbye at the wilderness boundary. Bill, Nate and I continued toward the boat landing. I stopped to look back at the open expanse behind me. Dave’s silhouette grew smaller and smaller until it completely dissolved back into the landscape. The moment he disappeared felt metaphorical. It reminded me of the eagles, the otters, and all the trees bearing the weight of the new snow. Quiet, yet extremely powerful. Part of the landscape. Without any words, Dave and Amy’s action to live in this vital and pristine place gives voice to its rare beauty and power. I know we can save it.

Listen to Ben's song, "Ramblin' Bones," from I Would Rather Be a Buffalo below.

Ben Weaver's resupply story will air on The Current during Bill DeVille's United States of Americana on Sunday, April 3 (8-9 a.m.). Ben and musician Mike Munson will perform a benefit concert for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters on Thursday, April 14, at the Byrant Lake Bowl & Theater (Facebook Event).

Ben Weaver is a songwriter and poet. The bicycle is Ben’s vehicle of choice for touring his music. His most recent bicycle-powered tours include tracing 1,500 miles of the Mississippi River from Saint Paul to New Orleans and circumnavigating Lake Superior working to raise awareness about fresh water. I Would Rather Be A Buffalo is Ben’s most recent record (listen to a selection of songs or buy). Follow him on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

Know the Issue: Sulfide-ore Mining Creates Unacceptable Risks to BWCA

Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

The science is clear: allowing sulfide-ore mining next to and upstream from the Boundary Waters Wilderness would threaten it for generations. In our new scientific report, we summarize the best scientific research on this issue and outline the ways sulfide-ore mining would harm the Boundary Waters Wilderness, whether by contaminating its water or destroying the surrounding forest. In our report, we also share the conclusions scientists and experts in their fields have made regarding the risks from this type of mining.

"If sulfide mines are developed in the Rainy Headwaters [part of the Boundary Waters watershed], it is not a question of whether, but when, a leak will occur that will have major impacts on the water quality of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness."
-- Dr. Myers, hydrologist

"It is not feasible, given today’s or tomorrow’s technology, to reduce the risk of impacting waters downstream from a copper/nickel mine in a sulfide ore body to zero."
-- Dr. Chambers, mining expert

Read and download the full report here.

Science Desk: Success Stories: Protecting Special Places

Friday, March 25, 2016
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

As Governor Mark Dayton and former Vice President Walter Mondale have both stated in recent weeks, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a national treasure. It belongs not only to every Minnesotan, but to Americans across the country. We sometimes forget that we are co-owners of America’s public lands, including 1.1 million acres of interconnected lakes, streams, and woods in our own backyards: the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

As the threat of sulfide-ore mining in the Boundary Waters Wilderness watershed looms large, it is helpful to remember that other national treasures around the country have successfully been protected from similar mining proposals. When we, the people, weighed in on how we want our public lands managed across the country, we have successfully protected icons such as Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. We are trying to do the same thing for the Boundary Waters Wilderness, so it can be instructive to look at how similar icons around the country were saved.

Saving Yellowstone National Park from the New World Mine
In the mid-1990s, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC)--a coalition of recreation, tourism, business, and environmental groups based in Bozeman, Montana--successfully stopped a proposed sulfide-ore mine from being built on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. A Canadian company, Crown Butte Mines, wanted to build a massive open pit gold mine only a few miles from the park’s northeast entrance, and less than a mile from the park boundary. Crown Butte Mines claimed that its tailings sitting along rivers that flowed into Yellowstone would not pollute the park, but they could not prove it.

GYC took two strategic paths toward victory: assembling a group of experts that showed the impossibility of mitigating the impacts from such a mine, due to the likely enormity of the mine, and the nature of the orebody, and the potential for acid mine drainage to develop. Additionally, GYC raised concerns about the fundamental change in landscape character so close to the park boundary that would occur with the development of an industrial mining district.

In addition to raising scientific concerns about the impact of the proposed mine, GYC amassed political support for protecting Yellowstone. Building on the broad coalition of local and regional opposition to the mine, GYC elevated the profile of the issue to the national stage and caught the attention of the Clinton Administration. This advocacy ultimately convinced Crown Butte to retract its proposal, and the federal government compensated Crown Butte for site reclamation and reclamation costs. Check out this 1996 photo of the signing of the deal that saved Yellowstone from the New World Mine.

Protecting Grand Canyon National Park from Uranium Mining
Protecting America’s special places didn’t stop in the 1990s. Thousands of uranium mining claims in the watershed of the Grand Canyon were filed in the late 2000s, prompting a network of conservation groups, Native American tribes, businesses and downstream water consumers to advocate for permanent protection for the Grand Canyon watershed.

Starting in 2008, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Grand Canyon Trust and Sierra Club embarked on an advocacy and legal strategy aimed to protect the health of the waters flowing into the Colorado River and thus the Colorado River itself. They responded to overwhelming public opposition to the proposed uranium prospecting and mining by filing injunctions, sending letters to federal land management agencies, and suing the Department of Interior (DOI) for allowing mineral exploration on public lands in the Grand Canyon watershed in direct opposition to a congressional resolution that prohibited such activities.

At the same time, widespread support for permanently protecting the watershed of the Grand Canyon was mounting. Towns and cities dependent on the Colorado River for drinking water expressed support for a two-year “pause” to study the need for withdrawing public lands in the watershed from the mining laws, which would prevent new mining operations. In 2009, DOI Secretary Ken Salazar announced just such a period -- a two-year moratorium on new claims and exploration on public lands within the Grand Canyon watershed. After a complex and thorough process to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, invite public comment, and revise the document in response to those comments, in October 2011 the Bureau of Land Management issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement showing the need to protect the Grand Canyon. In January 2012, DOI Secretary Salazar ordered a 20-year withdrawal of public lands in the watershed of the Grand Canyon from the mining laws, creating an effective moratorium against new mining claims and operations that would threaten the Grand Canyon. [For a more detailed timeline of these activities, plus all of the additional actions necessary for the campaign’s success, see this chronicle.]

It’s Time to Save the Boundary Waters
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has learned a lot from these campaigns and others to protect nationally significant natural icons, and we are committed to achieving permanent protection for the Boundary Waters. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is a broad coalition of more than 25 partner organizations, including sportsmen, conservationists, veterans’ groups and more than 100 local and national businesses. Organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation have passed resolutions opposing sulfide mining in the BWCA watershed and 53 leading scientists in ecology and natural resource-based disciplines signed a letter expressing deep concern over the proposed mine sites.

The Campaign also has the support of the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council, an official advisory group established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act to advise the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture on recreational hunting and wildlife resource issues.

Our broad-based coalition will continue advocating for permanent protection for Minnesota’s national treasure, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Will you join us?


Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.