Have you ever wondered just how sulfide-ore copper mines pollute their surrounding environments? It’s a good question, because in order to understand the environmental impacts to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park, we must first understand all of the ways sulfide-ore copper mining can cause harm to the surrounding lakes, streams, wetlands and forests. Independent studies show many vectors of pollution, and combined they create a significant risk of contaminating the Boundary Waters.
Sulfide-ore copper mining is a risky type of mining that has never been done before in Minnesota. No matter the method, sulfide-ore copper mines proposed near the Boundary Waters would extract trace amounts of metals from large volumes of rock. Rock is blasted from pit walls and sorted into metal-bearing ore and waste rock. In the mine's first years, 4.1 million tons of waste rock will be stockpiled on the surface while the mine is hollowed out. The sulfide-bearing ore deemed to be economically valuable is crushed to increase surface area and then sent to a surface stockpile before entering the concentrator plant where the metals are chemically extracted. Since less than 1% of the rock contains metals of interest, ninety-nine percent of the rock mined turns out to be economically value-less and will remain in perpetuity in the tailings storage facility, waste rock storage piles and as backfill in the underground mine itself. No metal recovery method is 100% efficient, and metals and sulfides are left behind in the tailings. Tailings also contain residue from the explosives used to blast the pit wall, chemicals used to separate metals from sulfide minerals, and other ore components with little economic value.
When sulfide minerals in ore, tailings or waste rock are exposed to air and water, acid mine drainage develops. Oxidation and hydrolysis reactions turn otherwise benign minerals into toxic materials, including acid, metals (e.g., mercury, copper, nickel, lead and zinc) and sulfates (Jennings et al. 2008). Acidic conditions further catalyze these reactions, making them proceed at faster rates than would otherwise occur (Jennings et al. 2008).
The sulfide-ore copper mining industry has a disastrous track record. A peer-reviewed report prepared by Earthworks studied fourteen sulfide-ore copper mines representing 89% of current U.S. copper production. Of those fourteen mines, all had experienced some sort of pipeline spill or other accidental release. Thirteen of the fourteen (92%) had experienced water collection and treatment failures that resulted in significant impacts to water quality. The tailings dam failure at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia in August 2014 shows the catastrophic potential for such failures (Earthworks 2012).
Run-of-the-mill pipeline leaks and seepage from underground mine sites are also serious vectors for contamination as shown by Dr. Tom Myers, a hydrology consultant who has studied the preliminary plans for mines proposed near the Boundary Waters. The Twin Metals pre-feasibility study calls for a massive network of pipelines to dispose of sulfide-, metal- and chemical- laden tailings. Half of the tailings would be piped from the 1,000-acre concentrator facility on the shore of Birch Lake; the other half would be piped back underground. Based on industry history (Earthworks 2012) and the danger of northeastern Minnesota’s extreme cold freezing and blocking pipes, this pipeline network carries a high risk of failure.
In addition to tailings dam failures and pipeline leaks, sulfide-ore copper mines can pollute through seepage from underground pits and surface waste rock and sulfide-bearing ore. These pollution vectors are hard to detect and difficult to fix. By exposing sulfides minerals in the pit walls to oxygen and water, they are able to produce acid mine drainage. Cracks in the bedrock connecting the underground mine to groundwater can then transmit the generated acid mine drainage to streams, lakes, and some wetlands. It is reasonable to expect that underground seepage of pollutants from the Spruce Road deposit owned by Twin Metals would eventually penetrate the Boundary Waters, according to modeling conducted by Dr. Myers. Any surface storage of waste rock, tailings and sulfide-bearing ore also creates the opportunity for water bearing acid, heavy metals, or sulfates to seep into groundwater despite engineered liners designed to contain them. All liners leak to some extent, and no liner has been tested over the decades and centuries required to permanently protect the Boundary Waters from pollution from sulfide-ore copper mining.
In light of the combined facts that sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters would likely contaminate the Boundary Waters and surrounding lakes, rivers and streams, and that the industry has a poor track record of preventing water quality impacts, it is clear that sulfide-ore copper mining would be too risky for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.
Earthworks. 2012. "U.S. Copper Porphyry Mines Report: The Track Record of Water Quality Impacts Resulting from Pipeline Spills, Tailings Failures and Water Collection and Treatment Failures." Earthworks, Washington, DC.
Jennings, S.R., Neuman, D.R. and Blicker, P.S. 2008. "Acid Mine Drainage and Effects on Fish Health and Ecology: A Review." Reclamation Research Group Publication, Bozeman, MT.
[TOP PHOTO: Carol Stoker, NASA; BOTTOM PHOTO: Mount Polley Tailings Pond Breach—Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press]
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.
As the riders from the Bike Tour to Save the Boundary Waters have traveled from Winona to Ely, they have been sharing photos, videos and reflections from the road. Below is a look at selections from their Facebook diary. For more, follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Read about organizing this amazing expedition here.
April 2 in Winona: Already off to a great start at Winona State University today. Meeting amazing supporters and getting signatures for the canoe. Great end to the day at the Boat House, where we met supporters and shared about the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters with Steve of Piragis Northwoods Company.
April 3 in Winona: Riding out of Winona this morning. Thanks to all the great friends and supporters who celebrated with us yesterday, started to cover the canoe with signatures, and saw us off onto the trail! [Photo Steve Piragis]
April 7 in Mankato: Thanks Mt Olive for letting us park in your yard and letting us play along at recess!
April 11 in Red Wing (Erin's Birthday): Happy 30th! Come sign the boat at Hanisch Bakery!
April 14 in Northfield: We've been finding that even people who have never been to the Boundary Waters know how important it is to protect. We met some folks on the street today outside Tandem Bagles and FIT to be TRI'd eager to support the effort. Paul said "I haven't been there myself but I have a lot of friends that go. It's an important place for Minnesotans - all Americans actually, Canadians too. It's a national treasure that needs to be protected in perpetuity."
April 15: Biking has become the perfect meditation, the grind between connection and mindfulness. We see a lot as we move across the state on county roads and neighborhoods, businesses and schools. To move in this way is to s l o w down the speed of life. To pause for the conversation that comes from a spectacle of a boat out of water. To allow the senses to smell the springtime air and the miles of dairy farms that pepper the lands of Minnesota. It is not unlike the way we travel in the Boundary Waters. Biking and paddling are both meditative practices. No one stroke or revolution is more significant than another, but the methodical patience that comes from synchronicity propels you forward. As we migrate towards the Northwoods and the BW there is a fondness that lingers, a recognition of favorite trees and stunning vistas. Have you seen the ancient cedar on Rice Bay, have you walked the stair portage on Rose Lake, or have you closed your eyes at the base of Lower Basswood Falls and felt the power of water resonate within? As I pedal along, I cannot impress enough about the majestic qualities of this wilderness. Please help to speak for the protection of the Rainy River Drainage Basin and thank Betty McCollum for proposing a bill to create permanent protection for this watershed.
April 16 in St. Paul: Another great event! Thank you to our sponsor Patagonia for hosting us in St. Paul. We had a great time presenting with our friends Dave and Amy Freeman who completed the Paddle to DC last year. Their adventure advocacy is an inspiration!
April 19 in Minneapolis: Glad to be here at Surly Brewing Company tonight to support the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters! Great tunes from Roe Family Singers!
April 20 in Downtown Minneapolis: It's really windy today. Not sure which is harder: pedaling a boat in a headwind or paddling up St. Anthony Falls. Stay tuned, maybe we'll find out
April 23 in Minneapolis: Thanks Joseph for being an inspiration and motivation. We think about you every day and want you to know how much we appreciate you and your efforts. Read Joseph's story and see the rider's video thank you.
April 23 in Minneapolis: Success! Thank you to the University of Minnesota Outdoors Club for helping us out today! Heading over to Senator Klobuchar's office now to deliver MORE signatures in support of wilderness
April 24 in Minneapolis: Hey! We're at the Midwest Mountaineering Outdoor Adventure Expo! We will be here all weekend and we want to see your face. Look for the giant boat next to the popcorn and beer. Oh and if you talk to us, we'll give to a raffle ticket to win super gear and stuff.
April 25 in Minneapolis: 539.56 miles to date, 23 days done, and many miles more until we have successfully towed a 70 lb canoe from Winona to Ely by bike. Feeling strong and fueled by all our supporters.
April 27 heading north: For me, it is apparent that the air changes as you move north. Oxygen breathed in off of a lake is of a different quality than that inhaled over pavement. All of us remarked on the addition of the red pines to our landscape today - the first sign of home in canoe country. The second sign was the $10.99 casino buffet. (We will not be hungry until Thursday, thank you). We stopped for the night on Grindstone Lake. The lake is still; stars are bright; the coyotes, owls, loons, and amphibians all barking their own tunes. This is where the better part of my childhood and teenage fun was had. It's where I learned how to swim, skate, water ski, explore, touch worms, fish, and spiders without flinching, and paddle solo before the sun came up. It's where I made my cousins go on treasure hunts with me and where I learned to be less bossy or no one would help me build snow forts. It's where my family has put a lot of sweat and pride since the early 50's and it's the place we gather, no matter the time of year. I experience the same emotions every time I'm here: peace, confidence, joy. It's places like this where identities take shape. Kids learn who they are and are free to practice being themselves. They get to marvel at the world and their own imaginations. It's no different for adults, really, as long as we're not too preoccupied. Tomorrow, we will pedal further north toward more places like this. Places touched even less by development. Come back with us to the Boundary Waters and think about the places that have shaped you along the way. -LP
April 29 nearing Duluth: The riders took the canoe for its maiden voyage and shared the name they chose for the canoe: "Betty Joe." Named for Congresswoman Betty McCollum, who introduced the National Park and Wilderness Waters Protection Act on April 15, and Joseph Goldstein, a 14-year-old with acute lymphoblastic leukemia devoted to protecting the Boundary Waters who delivered more than 60,000 petitions, collected by the Campaign and partners, to Washington, D.C., in March. See the riders' video explaining why they chose this name.
Mileage total as of April 29: 649!!
Bike Tour to Save the Boundary Waters in the media:
Winona Post: Canoeists' plea for the BWCA (April 2, 2015)
KTTC Rochester (video): Save the Boundary Waters bike tour kicks off in Winona (April 2015)
Northfield News: Environmentalists to make pit stops at Northfield colleges while biking to Ely
Winona Daily News: ICYMI: Bicyclists head north to save BWCA (April 6, 2015)
LaCrosse Tribune: Canoeists journey from Winona to Ely to save the Boundary Waters (April 4, 2015)
Find the final Bike Tour to Save the Boundary Waters events here, including events in Duluth and Two Harbors before the closing celebration in Ely.
Congresswoman Betty McCollum introduced the National Park and Wilderness Waters Protection Forever Act, HR 2072 (formerly HR 1796), on Wednesday. This bill takes a historic step toward completing permanent protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and enhancing protection for Voyageurs National Park by ensuring that risky mining operations are not permitted in places where they might pollute the areas' priceless lakes, rivers and forests.
"This Act is crucial to protecting large portions of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park from acid mine drainage," said Becky Rom, third-generation Ely resident and chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. "Sulfide-ore copper mining would do more harm than good to this beloved region. Allowing industrialized mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters would not only pollute water, it would also destroy National Forest lands in areas now used for hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, dogsledding, hiking, skiing, canoeing, logging and other activities."
To understand more about this bill, and what it could do to help the Boundary Waters and Voyageur's National Park, check out the Infographic below and read our full press release about this announcement. Then thank Rep. McCollum and urge your representatives to support the bill.
If you’ve attended a Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters presentation or read any of the Campaign’s materials, you’ll notice our tight focus on the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park watershed. A watershed can be a difficult concept to grasp, as the boundaries aren’t searchable in Google Maps, let alone marked on a traditional highway map. Understanding the watershed boundary--and what it means for the direction of water flow--is crucial to understanding the risks posed to the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs from sulfide-ore copper mining.
What is a watershed?
A watershed is defined as all of the land that drains to a specific point, like the drain of a bathtub. At a more complex level, an urban sewer grate’s watershed is comprised of all of the gutters, sidewalk, streets, driveways and grass strips that flow into it. Small streams tend to have small watersheds that build upon each other as small streams combine to form larger streams and rivers. Thus the whole state of Minnesota can be seen as layered watersheds of different sizes, much like neighborhoods combine to form towns, which form counties, which form the state. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) defines 81 major watersheds in the state, and it recently released a great interactive map of them.
How is the Boundary Waters & Voyageurs watershed defined?
Three major watersheds flow into the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park, according to the MPCA’s map: Rainy River - Headwaters, Vermilion River and Rainy River - Rainy Lake. The Campaign calls the three major watersheds that flow into the Boundary Waters the “Rainy River Drainage Basin.” To delineate these watersheds, hydrologists rely on advanced mapping software and digital elevation models to predict in which direction a drop of rain will flow at any given point. These maps and models form the basis of the MPCA’s 81 major watersheds, which agree with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Hydrography Dataset (though the names differ slightly). These authoritative maps provide clear boundaries within which acid mine drainage would flow toward the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs, threatening their interconnected lakes, rivers and wetlands.
Why do the watersheds matter?
One of the primary risks from sulfide-ore copper mining is the leaking or spill of acid mine drainage--which can include sulfuric acid, toxic heavy metals and sulfates--into the rivers and streams around the mine, as well as into the groundwater which then connects to surface water. Some of the contaminants present in acid mine drainage can travel large distances downstream from their original source. Simulations of realistic contaminant releases show that the contaminants could reach the Boundary Waters from the proposed Twin Metals mine site, on the shores of Birch Lake. Pollutants from proposed sulfide-ore mines near Eagles Nest, Minnesota, could also reach Voyageurs by flowing through Lake Vermilion and down the Vermilion River.
Mines located among headwaters also have a larger regional impact than previously thought. By comparing indicators of fish health in streams in the Southeast, Midwest and Northeast with the density of mines in their headwaters, a team of researchers from Michigan State University, Oregon State University and the U.S. Geological Society found that the presence of even one mine was a source of regional stress whose impacts to fish health are felt much farther down the watershed than sampling immediately around the mine site would indicate.
From this perspective, then, the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs watersheds must be kept free of potential sources of acid mine drainage in order to prevent the potential for harm to their beloved lakes, streams and wetlands.
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.
Q: What is the best way to prepare for a 700+ mile bicycle tour ... in April ... in Minnesota?
A: I don’t know, but I’m going dog sledding.
As “Bike Tour to Save the Boundary Waters TOMORROW” flashed across my Google calendar yesterday morning, my mind flashed back to August when I dove headfirst into yet another adventure. I’m not keen on organization, so seven months is easily the most advance planning I’ve ever done for an expedition. I’ll attribute my surviving the preparation phase to three things:
For the month leading up to the tour I instructed a 30-day course in which we traveled on two separate expeditions and built a dog sled in between. With four incredible students, 13 quirky yet hardworking dogs, and one intrepid co-instructor, we were able to cover a lot of ground—physically and mentally—in some extreme temperatures and wind. We even made it up to see Curtain Falls at the edge of Crooked Lake—a sight not commonly seen in the winter due to its remoteness. That right there will have been worth the saddle-sore I’m sure to experience due to my lack of actual bicycle time prior to the ride.
Last night, the three of us riders have finally converged in the same place, the place where most great adventures begin—my parents’ basement in Apple Valley. It’s great to finally be in the same room with these two women laughing about everything and worrying about (almost) nothing. So, tomorrow we begin. Tomorrow we walk (ride) the talk and take action to save the place we love, need and want to share.
[Top photo: credit Justin Brewster]
Inspired by the Paddle to DC expedition last year, three dedicated young women: Erin, Iggy and Lisa -- wilderness guides from Voyageur Outward Bound School near Ely -- are gearing up for the Bike Tour to Save the Boundary Waters, which begins in Winona on April 2.
From there they’ll head across the state. The route takes the riders from Rochester, Mankato, St. Peter and Northfield up into the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, then finally to Duluth and Two Harbors before arriving in Ely on Mother’s Day, May 10. Behind their bikes the riders will pull a donated Wenonah canoe that will become covered in signatures. Their goal is to connect with thousands of people along the way, expanding the power of our movement.
I’m the lucky one who gets to work directly with these riders, and our full team of supporters here at the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters to make sure this ride has the biggest impact possible. I’ve been in touch with student groups and professors, business owners and local organizations, gear shops and cyclists and restaurants and breweries. It’s a lot of work to put together massive outreach projects like this, but it’s a blast to find so many allies in this work and connect over our desire to protect the Boundary Waters for generations to come.
We believe in the power of outdoor experiences to transform lives. So when we engage in advocacy – why not make it adventure advocacy? A human-powered journey across the state – sure it’s hard, but the riders take it on with such excitement! Are there logistical challenges of coordinating 27 public events in the span of a few weeks? Yes! It’s tough but we do what it takes to reach thousands of new people for the cause and create the kind of visibility this issue deserves.
And we work so hard because we’re up against tough opposition. Big mining companies are proposing sulfide-ore copper mines -- a new type of mining never before done in Minnesota -- right on the edges of the Wilderness. Everywhere this type of mining is done, it causes pollution. Twin Metals already has mineral leases along the South Kawishiwi River and test drilling disrupts the solitude of the wilderness edge at places like Voyageur Outward Bound School. Ours is a people-powered movement to convince our leaders that the Boundary Waters is worth protecting, that these new mines would do more harm than good and we should put the whole area off limits to mining and save it for future generations.
You’re sure to hear more from our Bike Tour team in the weeks to come. We hope to see you along the route! Check out our webpage and listing of events. Connect with the riders on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Please spread the word and come see us in a community near you.
Author Jim Landwehr grew up in Minnesota and took his first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in 1979. That trip during high school was a disaster. “We did pretty much everything wrong,” says Landwehr, “but the area was captivatingly beautiful and serene. The following year a friend and I repeated the same exact trip with a much better outcome. I was hooked and have been taking trips up there on and off over the last 25 years.”
Landwehr’s book, Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir splits his Boundary Waters memories into three parts. He first shares his early trips with friends and then chronicles adventures with his brothers and friends in the 1980s and 1990s. Finally, he takes a look at how, 25 years later, he’s now taking his kids up there and passing on his love of the area to the next generation. He’s already got a trip on the books for this June. “The last time we went up, it was refreshing to see the kids with no access to phones, tablets or technology,” he says. “They had a blast creating their own fun while fishing, paddling and even playing card games in the tent during a rainstorm. These trips have instilled a love and respect for the area in them that I hope they then pass on to their children.”
“The Boundary Waters is one of America’s greatest untouched wilderness areas,” says Landwehr. “It is a place of beauty, serenity and restoration. The lack of technology, noise and people make it one of the best refuges from the frantic pace of the world that I can think of. When I’m there, it grounds me.” Landwehr feels so strongly about the value of the area that he donated part of his book sales to a Minnesota nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Boundary Waters. He appreciates the importance of advocating for keeping the “wild” in wilderness.
Below is an excerpt from Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir.
Part of the beauty of the Boundary Waters is that in the more remote areas, you can paddle for days without seeing another soul. Getting to those areas requires portaging between water bodies. This involves transporting your boat and gear across short, and sometimes not so short, stretches of land. The terrain, trail conditions and how well you packed often determine your experience. For the most part though, it is not for whiners or slackers. Having participated in enough portages, I’ve drafted my own definition of portaging you won’t find in Webster’s dictionary and it goes as follows:
- A voluntary death march crossing over godforsaken terrain in the name of transporting a boat from one body of water to another, exceedingly similar body of water.
- A self-inflicted hardship involving back-breaking labor, often producing random hallucinations and coarse language.
It is hard, sweaty, thankless work.
The portaging experience begins with you and your canoe buddy deciding who gets to hoist the canoe overhead and carry it to the other side. Because we usually went three or four portages deep on each trip, we alternated who would take the canoe and who would take the packs and other gear.
The process of loading the canoe ranges from a thing of beauty and grace to one of an Olympic sport gone bad. The canoe hauler began his hoist by centering himself on one side of the canoe where the shoulder padded yoke was. He grabbed the yoke at the opposite side from where he stood, took a deep breath and lifted the canoe so that the near-side gunwale rested on his thighs. From there, using a turn and bench-press type motion, he lifted the yoke over his head and set the pads on his shoulders. This sometimes resulted in the stern or bow banging on the ground as the handler struggled for control. What was intended as a one-two-three step motion often turned into a four-five-need some help here-six motion. Eventually though, liftoff was achieved and the canoe-bearing Sherpa began his trek.
While loading the canoe on our shoulders was always a treat, walking the actual portage trail was when the real fun began. It wasn’t so bad when we were moving the canoe across those short, flat, straight stretches we rarely encountered. It was those hilly, rocky portages strewn with ankle-turning roots that made us question our use of vacation time. Portages which we swore were cut by drunken, practical joking Forest Service employees designed to weed out the weak and uncommitted.
Some of the longer portages even had two or three canoe “rests” along their length. These were locations where some merciful worker fashioned an overhead hook where people could set the canoe to regain the feeling in their shoulders and perhaps receive CPR or stress counseling. There were a couple of these rests where, by the time we got to them, we were seeing visions of the Virgin Mary, Jerry Garcia and Elvis. Trails like these were life changing.
Hilly portages required a great deal of strength, grace, and balance. A third lung helped too. Walking up or downhill with a sixteen-foot aluminum teeter-totter on your shoulders is not for clods or the weak. Occasionally, as we descended a hill, we forgot to watch our stern, and the back end would bang on the rocky trail. If you were the second or third canoe in a train, you just followed the noise in front of you and traveled by sound alone, kind of like portage foghorns, or audible GPS. It also tipped you off as to where to lift your back end so as to not look as inept as the guy making all the noise in front of you.
There’s an unspoken understanding among the portaging brotherhood that whoever’s wearing the canoe is King of the Trail. If you’re packing anything less, yield or suffer the righteous tongue-lashing of the guy with the canoe. When you’re carrying the canoe, your field of vision consists of your boots and about ten feet in front of them. At this point, you're a visually-impaired, oxygen sucking, one-man right-of-way.
Jim Landwehr enjoys writing creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. His poetry collection, Written Life, will be released by eLectio Publishing on March 31, 2015. His first book, Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir was published by eLectio Publishing in June of 2014. He has non-fiction stories published in Neutrons/Protons, Parody Magazine, Boundary Waters Journal, Forge Journal and MidWest Outdoors Magazine. His poetry has been featured in Verse Wisconsin, Torrid Literature Journal, Echoes Poetry Journal, Wisconsin People and Ideas Magazine, the Wisconsin Poets Calendar, Off the Coast Poetry Journal, and many others. Jim lives and works in Waukesha, Wisconsin, with his wife Donna, and their two children, Sarah and Ben. Jim works as a geographic information systems analyst for the Waukesha County Department of Parks and Land Use. Find out more about his writing at www.jimlandwehr.com
We are humbled and inspired by the passion shown here by Joseph Goldstein. It’s amazing to see how the Boundary Waters has impacted his life and inspired him to make it his mission to protect the wilderness. The following is a letter Joseph drafted and sent to decision makers in D.C., which he shared with us.
My name is Joseph Goldstein. I am 13 years old, I live in Springfield, Illinois, and in October of 2014 I was diagnosed with leukemia (ALL). I’m writing today to request the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the protection of one of America’s most beautiful and pristine wildernesses: The Boundary Waters Canoe Area. This very special place is at risk from sulfide-ore copper mining, and I have made it my Wish to permanently protect the BWCA from this danger.
When the Make A Wish foundation first came to me, I was pretty surprised and didn’t really know what to say to their offer. The idea of having a wish granted was...uncomfortable. They talked to me a lot about all the Wishes they grant every year – trips and swimming pools and ponies. I’ll admit that I did like the idea of asking for a trip to the North Pole, something my dad and brother and I have talked about doing with our friend and explorer, Paul Schurke, but it just didn’t feel right – it didn’t feel BIG enough.
After we left the hospital, I kept thinking that a wish is an important thing. I think it should be about more than just me. It should be about my brothers and my friends and my parents and all of us – a wish for my generation and everyone after. I have been exploring the Boundary Waters since I was 5 years old, both summers and winters. I know what an important, beautiful place it is, and I know how much my friends and teachers all want to hear more about where we went and what we did. I want them to have the chance to be there and love it, too. I want them all to know what it feels like to pull a huge Pike from the lake, to clean and cook it over a fire they built, and to be able to drink straight from the lake (I know I’m not supposed to but the point is I CAN). Everyone I know is interested, even if they haven’t yet had the chance to experience it, and I want to protect that opportunity for everyone, forever.
Because of my experiences in the BWCA and the friends we have made there, I’ve had the chance to travel to and learn from a lot of other wild places. I have seen, first hand, that a lot of damage has been done because of short sightedness, and I know that there is no “safe” way for the area around the BWCA to be mined. Water and runoff won’t understand man’s boundaries, and sulfide-ore mining for copper and nickel will create destructive pollutants that will poison the water, and kill the fish, the animals and the forests of the Boundary Waters. This type of mining is just shortsighted destruction for temporary gain. I know that there are people who call this job creation, but I hope we can come up with something better.
Wilderness is important. It is important for its own sake. It is also important for the sake of all of us. My dad says that wilderness is a place to learn and grow and be challenged to be more. My mom says it’s a place that can heal who we already are. I think they both are right. I know that the BWCA is a place I want all my friends to see and experience. It is a place I want my brothers to grow up with, too. It is a place I want my kids to know and love someday. It is a place that can change who we are, for the better. It also is a place that can’t protect itself – wilderness relies on us to understand its importance in our lives and guard it for the future.
Nearly 100 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt understood the need to guard our beautiful, natural resources and began protection of the Boundary Waters. Fifty years ago, the Wilderness Act made those protections stronger. Today, we have a chance to permanently save this special place for everyone, forever. Edward Abby once said, “Wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” I am proud to use my Wish as a defender of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, asking you and all our leaders to please, permanently protect this beautiful, important wilderness.
Cancer doesn’t make any sense at all, and my mom says there’s no use trying - we can’t choose what happens to us, we can only choose how we respond. My choice, my Wish, is to try to make things better. I’m very grateful that I have a lot of friends who were already working on this, and I truly hope you will join us in this, too.
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.