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Boundary Waters Legends: The Extraordinary Efforts of Ernest Oberholtzer

Thursday, November 2, 2017
Posted by
Paxton Alto

Ernest Oberholtzer, nicknamed “Ober”, took his first canoe trip to the Boundary Waters in the summer of 1907. Like so many of us, all it took was one trip to the BWCAW for him to be sold. In fact, Ober was so enamored by the wonders of the Boundary Waters that he returned in 1909 to canoe 3,000 miles of the Rainy Lake watershed. His time spent exploring here proved useful as he discovered and provided travel times for a variety of canoe routes. These early experiences proved critical in shaping Ober’s future preservation efforts, but it wasn’t until 1925 that Ober’s simple love of the Wilderness evolved into a fierce passion to save it. 

It was at this time that a 41-year-old Ober heard of industrialist Edward Backus’ plan to construct seven dams and develop four central water storage areas in the BWCAW, Quetico Provincial Park, Voyageurs National Park and portions of the Superior National Forest. Upon hearing this news, Ober was instantly on the defensive. He viewed these plans as an attack on the area’s ecology, one that would lead him to assume the primary role in the national fight against Backus’ proposed plan.

In 1927, a group of Twin Cities business professionals contacted Ober and offered their support with his efforts to protect the Rainy Lake watershed. With newfound allies, Ober proceeded in his efforts to not only oppose Backus, but also actively counteract him by creating his own plan to have the Rainy Lake watershed region be controlled as its own bioregion. To do this, Ober came up with the idea to have both the United States and Canada sign a treaty marking the Quetico-Superior region an International Peace Memorial Forest in honor of all those who fought in WWI. These efforts by Ober led to the birth of the Quetico-Superior Council, which he headed, to lobby for the creation of the International Peace Memorial Forest.

The Quetico-Superior Council held its inaugural meeting in 1928 wherein Ober agreed to a six month presidency that ultimately lasted for over 30 years. It was also at this time that Ober spent much of his time in Congress tirelessly lobbying for the passage of the Shipstead-Newton Bill. Ober was persistent in his quest to make the consequences of Backus’ proposal public knowledge. This is evident as Ober wrote Backus’ plan would be, “not at private but at public expense.” He not only lobbied in Congress, but he also met with President Herbert Hoover to gain his support for the International Peace Memorial Forest. All of Ober’s work paid off in 1930 when President Herbert Hoover signed the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act into law. This moment was historic in that it was the first U.S. statute wherein Congress ordered land to be guarded as “wilderness,” while also eliminating the sale and homesteading of federal land in the BWCAW, preventing dams from changing natural water levels and logging from being allowed closer than 400 feet to the shore.

Ober’s fight for the conservation of this region did not go unnoticed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, in 1934, appointed Ober as first chair of the newly formed Quetico-Superior Committee, which served the same purpose as the Quetico-Superior Council but on a federal level. Ober’s service didn’t end there as he continued to fight for wilderness preservation as a part of the Wilderness Society, which he helped found to help future generations to experience the outdoors as those before them had. In 1967, Ober received the recognition he deserved from the Department of the Interior as he was awarded the Distinguished Service Award for his preservation efforts.

Ernest Oberholtzer dedicated his life to protecting the wilderness, making countless personal sacrifices along the way. We admire Ober for relentlessly doing that which we strive to do everyday, speaking loudly for a quiet place, and for that he is forever a Boundary Waters Legend.

We're proud to have the Ernest Oberholtzer Foundation as one of our partner organizations. We are thankful for their support.

Lake of the Week: Big Moose Lake

Tuesday, October 31, 2017
Posted by
Meg Emory

Acres: 1031
Campsites: 5
Portages: 3 possible
Fish: Northern Pike, Rock Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Walleye, White Sucker, Yellow Perch

Entering Big Moose Lake is a unique experience compared to other lakes. You can paddle in from Big Moose River or portage over two miles from your car. There are many large beaver ponds around the lake with active dams, so keep your eyes out for beavers hard at work. The depth is relatively shallow compared to other lakes with the deepest area being 23 feet. Big Moose Lake has historically supported a good fish population, which is one reason it is a popular destination among anglers. Practicing and encouraging catch-and-release fishing will help preserve this great resource for  future generations.

More information at:

Tales from the Trails: See What I Saw

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

I was terrified. My first solo guided Boundary Waters trip was off to a great start until that day. The gentle current of water channeling into the Frost River lapped the laces of my boots, and slowly cleaned the mud off of them. A friend told me the Frost River was “fun” and that I would “love it”. The promise of beaver lodges, excellent moose habitat and flowing interconnected waterways was enough to draw me to the river found at the heart of the Boundary Waters. After hours of wrong turns, dead ends, hot rain and steep portages, my whole group was exhausted. At this point I didn’t know which bend of the Frost River we were in after looking at the map, but I knew we couldn’t have much further to go. I wasn’t quite lost, but I dreaded the feeling of not knowing exactly where I was with the campers that I was responsible for.

Sure enough, we came to a long portage into the western edge of Frost Lake. After seeing the water that marked the end of our journey, we hooted and hollered, piled into our canoes and headed toward the first campsite we could find. I didn’t notice any boats at the other four sites on the lake, saw no smoke from fires and heard nothing other than the strokes of weary paddlers and the low croon of the swan, infamous for honking at paddlers that came too close, that lived in the eastern side of the lake. With the lake to ourselves, I tried to put my mind at ease.

“What could go wrong?”

Canoes were unloaded, turned upside down on the shore and camp chores commenced. The tent was raised, campers dispersed in search of wood, bundles piled up and the campers ran back to the fire grate with fistfuls of birch bark, ready to get warm by the fire. One camper (there’s always one) was taking a few minutes longer than he should so I wandered into the woods calling his name. After a few tries, he finally called back, “I found something! Come here, fast.”

I ran toward the noise and came to a clearing where I saw the camper holding a shiny hand saw. He’d found it lying against a tree, a couple hundred feet from the campsite. I told him not to worry, that it was probably someone from the Forest Service doing campsite maintenance and that we should go back to the fire with the rest of the group. Weighting the saw in my hands, I thought about how weird it was for someone from the Forest Service to actually do that. They teach Leave No Trace ethics, and this saw was nice. I never liked to lie to the campers on my trips, but I figured he might sleep better not worrying about why a new saw would be in the middle of the Boundary Waters. The more I thought about it, I wanted to sleep better not worrying about this saw. I tried to focus on the group, and leaned the saw against the fire grate.

Later, as we slid into sleeping bags and settled in for bed, I looked out the tent screen at the fire grate, wondering what to do with the saw. Deciding there was nothing I could do about it that night, I nodded off trying to read my book, the hum of mosquitoes on the other side of the screen keeping me company.

I woke up to the first warmth of the sun, facing east toward the fire grate. Groggy, as always, I lit a corner of birch bark to start a small cook fire for coffee. I read my book by the fire until steam spilled over the top of the pot on the grate. The chaos of yesterday was finally mellowing out, the weather was better today and there was a light breeze that would push us the direction we needed to go. Things were looking up, and as my first camper walked out of the tent I had a smile on my face, ready to crack some joke to start off the day. Then I heard him say, “What happened to the saw?”

My mind started racing and I looked around frantically. The saw was gone and the plot of every horror movie that ever took place in the woods ran from start to finish in my mind. What did the characters usually do next? I had to make sure I didn’t do whatever that was. I have no idea what I said to the camper looking back, but I’m sure I gave him at least three answers. The Forest Service ranger came back and picked up his saw, a bear interested in carpentry must have taken it in the middle of the night or there was a sudden wind, that none of us felt, that blew it into the lake. To this day, I still have no idea what happened to that saw, but I do know we set the world record for quickest break down of a tent and packing into canoes. I tried to remain calm, but as I paddled out of Frost Lake I felt a strange chill run down my spine.

What happened to the saw of Frost Lake? It’s impossible to know. Was it the most well-orchestrated prank ever pulled on a guide at a YMCA camp? It could be, but whatever happened be sure to keep your eyes peeled on your next trip to the Boundary Waters. You never know what you might find!

Boundary Waters Legends: The Lasting Legacy of the Root Beer Lady

Thursday, October 26, 2017
Posted by
Paxton Alto

In the 1940s if you were to ask someone to name a hero, they would likely have named a man. This was especially true if you asked them to name a wilderness hero. However, there were many exceptional women living during this time who deserve recognition, and Dorothy Molter stands out above the rest, man or woman, as a true wilderness legend. Dorothy visited the Boundary Waters for the first time at age 23. One time was all she needed as she fell in love with the Knife Lake area and never looked back. She was determined to make the Northwoods her home, so in 1934 she began helping out at the Isle of Pines Resort, and by 1948 she was the sole proprietor.

Dorothy was not following the life trajectory that was typical of a woman in the 1940s, and that was perfectly alright with her. She had always been a fiercely independent woman with an unwavering strength, and was once quoted as saying, “If I can ever find a man who can portage heavier loads, chop more wood, or catch more fish, then I’ll marry him.” No man ever met these qualifications, which left Dorothy to live by herself sans electricity and running water, and to be solely responsible for cutting wood and performing maintenance duties on cabins and boats on the resort.

Although she lived on her own, Dorothy was never alone. Despite her isolated location, she was once visited by 7,000 people in a single year, in no small part due to the attention her homemade root beer attracted. The business of making root beer began when Dorothy discovered the plethora of empty pop bottles on her property, and like the innovative woman she was, decided to give the bottles purpose again and filled them with her homemade root beer. Her root beer was especially popular with visitors who had drank nothing but lake water after spending days in the Wilderness. In fact, Dorothy’s root beer was so sought after that she couldn’t always keep up with the demand for it and had to limit the number of root beers per person. Summer was her busiest season and in the height of her fame she was filling around 10,000 bottles per summer. Thus, the famous nickname of “The Root Beer Lady” was born.

Dorothy also holds a certain notoriety for her fight with the U.S. Forest Service. The Wilderness Act of 1964 made it so Dorothy was no longer allowed to live in the Wilderness she had come to call home. However, area residents took this up with the federal government by petitioning that Dorothy be granted the right to stay, and after much interest generated by the media and a lengthy legal conflict, she was awarded the right to stay there for the duration of her life. With that, Dorothy became the final non-indigenous resident of the Boundary Waters. To this day, Dorothy Molter inspires all of us at the Campaign with her admirable ability to live simply, and with the utmost respect for the wildlife and environment surrounding her. She was a force of nature, living peacefully within it, and for that she will always be a Boundary Waters legend.

Lake of the Week: Knife Lake

Tuesday, October 24, 2017
Posted by
Meg Emory

Acres: 3756.5
Campsites: 53
Portages: 10 possible
Fish: Burbot, Lake Trout, Lake Whitefish, Northern Pike, Rock Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Tullibee, Walleye, White Sucher, Yellow Perch

Knife Lake shares the border between the United States and Canada. It’s so large that the lake is broken up into sections commonly known as Northeastern Knife Lake and South Arm of Knife Lake, or SAKL. There’s also a bit of history that goes along with these waters. In 2007 the Ham Lake fire consumed 75,000 acres of forest, surrounding businesses and homes due to an unattended fire at a campsite. However, there were no fatalities. Knife Lake was also the home of the famous root beer lady, Dorothy Molter. She owned a resort in the BWCA before it became a wilderness area, and brewed root beer for paddlers coming through. You can also find an old Forest Service cabin hidden along the shore.

More information at


Photo: Steve Piragis

For the first time, our federal government is conducting a thorough study to identify and assess the environmental, economic, and social impacts if sulfide-ore copper mining were to be allowed on Superior National Forest lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Claims by supporters of such mining that this study is unnecessary because such a study was “already done” are demonstrably untrue.

In December 2016, the U.S. Forest Service requested that the Secretary of the Interior exercise authority under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to withdraw 234,328 acres of federally-owned minerals in the watershed of the Boundary Waters from the federal mineral leasing program for 20 years.  FLPMA requires environmental review (in this case, preparation of an environmental impact statement) to determine the effects on land, water, wildlife, people, and the economy if the proposed action is, or is not, undertaken. The two-year environmental review process began in January 2017.   

Supporters of Antofagasta’s proposal to dig sulfide-ore copper mines in the watershed of the Boundary Waters oppose this FLPMA-mandated environmental review process.  They wrongly claim that an environmental impact statement has already been prepared with respect to such mining. Proponents of this false claim point to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Federal Hardrock Minerals Prospecting Permits Project, which led to Records of Decision (ROD) by the U.S. Forest Service in May 2012 and by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in September 2012. Those RODs authorized the issuance of 28 prospecting permits on Superior National Forest lands in the Boundary Waters watershed. Both state plainly that they are limited to prospecting – or exploration - and that any applications for federal mineral leases would require a new environmental review process. For example, the Forest Service ROD, which is signed by the Acting Supervisor of the Superior National Forest, says:

To be clear, this decision facilitates prospecting (i.e.exploration) activities described in the Federal Hardrock Minerals Prospecting Permits Project Final EIS. It is not a minerals development project (i.e. it is not a mining project). Issuance of prospecting permits by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) based on Forest Service consent to them confers exclusive rights to the permit holder to prospect on and explore the specific lands within a permit area to determine the existence of a valuable mineral deposit. I understand that it is possible that a permit holder may apply for a noncompetitive lease to develop minerals in these permit areas should exploration find a valuable deposit. However, any subsequent application for a lease to develop minerals would be subject to a separate National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance process on its own merits, and require specific decision-making in which the Forest Service would exercise its consent to leasing authority (see Attachment 2, Forest Service Stipulation #9). (p.6)

The clear distinction that the ROD draws between prospecting and mining is directly applicable to the environmental review process that is currently underway.  Because the EIS being prepared as a result of the proposed withdrawal will examine whether all sulfide-ore mining, and not just prospecting, will be barred for 20 years in the Boundary Waters watershed, the EIS will take into account factors such as the vastly greater impact that mining development (massive and varied infrastructure, excavations, and waste) would have in terms of the nature and degree of the disturbances; the areas affected; the lands, waters, flora, and fauna affected; and the amount of time over which the disturbances would occur.  The prospecting permit EIS considered none of these things in the context of the development of mines and mine infrastructure.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a crown jewel of America and an international treasure. It is the most heavily-visited Wilderness Area in the United States because it is the most family-friendly and accessible, and because it is within relatively easy travel distances of major population centers in the heart of the nation. It is the largest Wilderness east of the Rockies and north of the Everglades.  It is our only large lakeland Wilderness.  It is the linchpin of the sustainable Wilderness-edge economy that characterizes Ely, Grand Marais, Lutsen, Tofte, and adjacent rural areas of the Minnesota Arrowhead.

The Boundary Waters is priceless and irreplaceable. The idea of putting a major sulfide-ore mining district in its watershed is irresponsible. Misrepresenting the efforts to assess the threat is inexcusable.

From the Freemans: Anniversary of Year in the Wilderness

Saturday, September 23, 2017
Posted by
Dave and Amy Freeman

"You know a Year is a really long time,” that’s what our friend Jason Zabokrtsky told us as we were preparing to paddle in to the Wilderness for a year on September 23rd, 2015. A year is a long time, but we were in the Wilderness for the purpose of protecting it from Twin Metals and other proposed sulfide-ore copper mines within the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We were kept busy from dawn to dusk paddling, portaging, gathering firewood, hauling water, and bearing witness to the Wilderness. Slowly the seasons changed, the loons migrated south to the Gulf of Mexico and returned in the spring as the ice retreated. Before we knew it the earth had made one full rotation around the sun and it was time for us to paddle out of the Wilderness after 366 days. 

Now it’s September 23rd, 2017 and all of the seasonal changes that we experienced during a Year in the Wilderness have repeated their timeless cycle once more and another year has passed. Amy and I have spent most of the past year outside of the Wilderness, but the Boundary Waters remains in our hearts and we are continuing to speak loudly for this quiet place.

Shortly before we exited the Wilderness on September 23rd, 2016 Daniel Slager the CEO of Milkweed Editions paddled into the Boundary Waters to discuss publishing a book about our Year in the Wilderness. Milkweed has published several of our favorite books including Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner and Being Caribou by Karsten Heuer and we were thrilled to leverage Milkweed’s talents to create a book with them about our journey and Wilderness that we all love so much. 

On the one-year anniversary of our exit from the Wilderness we are thrilled to release A Year in the Wilderness: Bearing Witness in the Boundary Waters. We hope you can join us on September 25th from 6 to 8 PM at Able Brewing Company in Minneapolis for a book release party and silent auction in support of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. Tickets are $15 and they are going fast so please purchase your ticket right away. 

For Amy and me the coming months will be filled with book signings and speaking engagements that will take us from New York to Nebraska and many places in between. We are excited to use our new book as a tool to elevate and protect the Boundary Waters and we hope that you can use it as a tool to share the Boundary Waters with others as well. Please encourage your local library and local bookstores to order the book, consider buying a copy for yourself, and sharing it with friends. Please consider writing a review on Amazon and use it as a conversation starter and a call to action. The Boundary Waters needs our help more than ever so please join us in continuing to speak loudly for this quite place.


What's happening in Congress? Update from Becky Rom

Thursday, September 14, 2017
Posted by
Becky Rom

Hi everyone,

There has been so much going on recently with the Campaign and the fight to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that it can be hard to keep up. Because of this, I wanted to take a few minutes and give everyone a quick update on what’s happening now and how you can help.

What’s Happened so Far

As you know, the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters works to permanently protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining. Thanks to the hard work of the Campaign, in January 2017, the Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) launched a study to determine whether sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters would create a risk to the Boundary Waters and other Superior National Forest lands. The study, called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), is the process provided under federal law to guide a decision by the Secretary of the Interior on whether public lands should be off-limits to mining for twenty years. Twenty years is the maximum period allowed by law unless Congress or the President act to permanently ban mining on these public lands.

Over 126,000 Americans have been involved in the study so far – a record for any EIS in Minnesota history – by providing comments at three listening sessions and in writing, to suggest issues that should be studied. By law, the two-year study will examine the potential environmental, economic and social impacts of sulfide-ore copper mining.

The Threat

Some politicians and the mining industry, including the giant Chilean mining company Antofagasta, have mounted a grave threat to the study and the rights of all Americans. The industry and these politicians – led by Congressmen Rick Nolan and Tom Emmer – don’t think that Americans should have a say in what happens to the Boundary Waters and the Superior National Forest. They want Antofagasta, the owner of Twin Metals, to receive federal mineral leases so it can build a massive mine on vulnerable federal lands next to, and along rivers and lakes that flow directly into, the Boundary Waters. They want to end the study and prohibit any consideration of the Boundary Waters and the effects of pollution, among other things, before giving away our public lands.

Specifically, in the past two months, Congressmen Nolan and Emmer have taken two actions that, if successful, could lead to major and permanent pollution of the Boundary Waters. At the same time, Congresswoman Betty McCollum and other leaders have courageously fought against the efforts to degrade America’s most popular Wilderness.

Emmer/Nolan Amendment

On September 6, 2017, Congressmen Nolan and Emmer added an 11th hour amendment to the omnibus funding bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would prohibit spending federal dollars in the 2017-2018 federal budget on the study. The omnibus bill funds the entire federal government. Both Congresswoman McCollum and Congressman Paulsen rose in objection to the amendment and submitted testimony into the Congressional Record. With just 24 hours notice before a vote on this treacherous amendment, hundreds of you called the offices of your Representative to oppose the amendment. Nonetheless, the amendment passed on a voice vote as a part of a bundled group of amendments. The omnibus bill won’t likely be considered for a vote until December. We must all work very hard to make sure that this amendment does not get in the final bill, and that Congress does not de-fund the study and deprive Americans of their right to determine the future of the Boundary Waters.

Emmer Bill

In July, Congressman Emmer floated a draft bill for discussion that would grant Antofagasta the right to build its massive mine on Superior National Forest lands in the Boundary Waters watershed. This bill would effectively amend four longstanding bedrock conservation laws for the benefit of one mining company with no ties to Minnesota and with a record of water quality violations, labor strife, and close dealings with politicians. If it became law, Emmer’s bill would block public comment and eliminate review of the environmental, economic or social harm that would likely be the result of this brazen give-away of our public land.

What Can We Do?

To fight these threats, it is critical that we come together and continue to support the Forest Service and the BLM in conducting the two-year study. We must demand a comprehensive and credible review of the ecosystem and the abysmal record of sulfide-ore copper mines, which always pollute waters. We must insist that NO risk to water quality is acceptable.

The threat to the Boundary Waters, and the priceless downstream waters of Quetico Provincial Park and Voyageurs National Park, is very real. It is incumbent on all of us to work together and urge elected officials to fight for the Boundary Waters. We must ensure that the great Boundary Waters region is protected for all people for all time. The time to act is now!

About the Author:

Becky Rom, a retired attorney, is a third generation resident of Ely. She is the daughter of Bill Rom, who owned and operated Ely-based Canoe Country Outfitters for 30 years. Becky worked in the family business and learned at an early age the importance of wild country. She first worked on wilderness preservation when she was a seventh-grader, engaging in public debates on the merits of the bill that became the Wilderness Act. For the past 40 years Becky has worked as a citizen activist on wilderness preservation throughout the United States but she continues to be drawn back home to the Boundary Waters. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is her fourth national campaign to protect the area.

Volunteer Spotlight: Deborah Kleese Shares Her Story

Thursday, July 27, 2017
Posted by
Deborah Kleese

Volunteer Spotlight is a blog series where we feature our outstanding Sustainable Ely volunteers. Learn why these dedicated volunteers share their time with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, how the Wilderness has impacted their lives and why they choose to call Ely, Minnesota, their home. Long-time Sustainable Ely volunteer Deborah Kleese shares her story.

Before arriving in Ely, I spent about 28 years in the Hudson Valley of New York state. As my husband Dave and I planned our retirement, we concluded that the place we wanted to be was Ely--in close proximity to the Boundary Waters and Quetico Provincial Park. Canoeing is an important part of our lives, and there is no better place to canoe than in this vast, shared Wilderness between the United States and Canada. We spend time year-round in the Boundary Waters. We hike the trails in spring, fall and summer; we fish and ski the frozen lakes in winter; and take many day-trips to the various Boundary Waters lakes during summer. We also take at least one two-week trip that typically spans both the Boundary Waters and Quetico Provincial Park.

Prior to moving to Ely, I was a college professor teaching psychology, and my particular area of expertise was environmental psychology. As an environmental psychologist, I was interested in the transactions between people and the biophysical world. By “transactions,” I refer to human behavior, experience and the physical environment as a reciprocal unit. Humans, through thoughts, feelings and behaviors, intentionally or unintentionally change the environment and are, in turn, changed by the places we inhabit. In this context, place matters, and I can say that I have been profoundly changed by the Quetico-Superior ecosystem. Gradually, through years of traveling through this waterway, I am beginning to understand how it came to be and how it has changed. I appreciate its complexity and I am constantly surprised by what it reveals. I am beginning to understand its human history and how the various waves of human habitation have informed and transformed the region.

Because place matters, places are not interchangeable. The Superior-Quetico region offers unique and special features that make it one of the best places on earth. Minnesota is fortunate to have one of the best freshwater environments on the planet, home to part of Lake Superior as well as the Boundary Waters. The human history is therefore written on these waters, and part of my interest in this place is in reading the chronicles of those who traveled from Lake Superior through waters now named the Boundary Waters and Quetico Provincial Park and then on to the Canadian waters to the west. In reading the journals of early surveyors and explorers, I recognize many places and empathize with their experiences, (not only with their accounts of impressive falls and rock faces, but also with their exasperation with mosquitoes, storms and tedious portages). Every day I can briefly pause and consider what a privilege it is to live here, in what is so aptly marked on early maps as the “region of rocks and water."

We couldn't be more thankful for the hardwork and dedication that Deborah Kleese has given to Sustainable Ely and the entire Ely community.

Check out how to join Deborah and others as a Sustainable Ely volunteer! Or sign up to be a volunteer for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.

Trip Tales: May Trout Fishing

Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Posted by
Dodd Cosgrove

It was May 17, the Wednesday following the Minnesota fishing opener.  Rich, Mark and I had rendezvoused the day before at my cabin outside of Ely, Minnesota.  That Wednesday morning we set out on another canoe trip into the Quetico-Superior country.  A spring canoe trip has become a tradition for various friends and me over the last three decades.  As years have passed and we have grown older, our ambitions have been faced with the reality of our physical condition.  The mileage has dwindled, but the enthusiasm has not.  This year our destination was the Quetico side of Basswood Lake. The route included five portages and approximately four hours of paddling.  

I have learned over the years to discuss my canoe trip plans with locals in Ely who are deep in experience concerning routes, campsites and fishing holes.  My reconnaissance this year had identified an excellent base camp on the North Bay of Basswood.  The weather in May is unpredictable and can be punishing.  It’s best to think about the possibility of frigid north winds and also prevalent west winds travelling over 40-degree water before impacting a campsite.  Once at the campsite, one should consider where the fire pit is situated.  Will the fire be exposed to prevailing west winds or north winds?  A campsite can often make the difference between a wonderful experience and an endurance contest.

Our trip began with little fanfare.  We were greeted with light north winds as we left Prairie Portage and headed west down our largest exposure on Basswood Lake, which is notorious for strong westerlies and big rollers.  Paddling on lakes with 40-degree water should not be taken lightly.  Safety is of utmost importance.  We headed north into Bailey Bay and crossed the portage into Burke Lake.  Light rain began to fall.  The temperature was a relatively warm 60 degrees.  I have often felt that traveling in the rain is preferable to staying in camp.  The conditions were quite comfortable.

As we entered North Bay, the north wind stiffened to 15-to 20-miles-per-hour gusts.  Although we did not have a long way to go, our destination had us paddling straight upwind.  The next hour or so was a grind.  All paddlers can relate to this.  If mankind has one common denominator, it is hatred of a headwind.  We arrived at our campsite for a late lunch, thankful that its orientation faced south, protecting us from the north wind.  Friends in Ely had advised us well.  This campsite was perfectly situated for the weather conditions.

We were greeted to a pleasant surprise at the fire pit.  There was a good stack of bucked, but not split, white cedar.  It appeared to be enough wood to get us through a couple of meals.  The only problem was that it was still raining and everything was wet.  North winds meant dropping temperatures.  As the afternoon progressed the temperature steadily declined.  It was going to be a cold night--a good fire was comforting.  After setting up our tents we divided the responsibilities of organizing the cooking area, finding kindling and splitting wood.  

The wet conditions were going to make it challenging to start a fire.  Having seen such circumstances before, we got out our pocketknives and began shaving some of the cedar that Mark and Rich had split.  Patience is extremely important when attempting to start a fire in soggy surroundings.  I always bring some paper towels with me.  I find them very useful when cooking.  In this case, we put a flat rock on top of the wet ashes and placed a crumpled paper towel on the rock.  The dry cedar shavings were placed on the paper towel followed by a layer of very thin, dead branches.  It was not long before we had a good enough fire to begin drying the bark of the split cedar that was to be burned subsequently.

When we were younger these trips were all about how many miles we could paddle.  These days the mileage just isn’t important.  Now we prefer base camping.  This was to be our base camp for the next five days.  By dinner, the rain was diminishing to a light mist.  The weatherman had predicted improving conditions for the next few days with rain returning for our paddle back to Prairie Portage.  The conversation over supper turned to our plans for the next day.  We would stick fairly close to camp, fishing the North Bay.  

Thursday dawned with much cooler temperatures in the upper 30s.  Skies had lightened and most importantly the rain had stopped.  We were confident that we would not see rain with the stiff north winds continuing.  We were anticipating a good day of fishing.

Fishing in May is my favorite time of year in the Quetico-Superior country.  In May it is possible to catch lake trout near the surface. Lake trout are only found in deep, clear, cold, oxygenated oligotrophic lakes.  The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park are famous for its pristine, sky blue waters. The border lakes of Minnesota and Ontario are about as far south as one will find these lakers. Farther south, water temperatures are too high and lakes lack the oxygen to support lake trout.  It is this scarcity value that makes lake trout fishing special. The lake trout represents true wilderness to me.

Thursday morning Rich and I were fishing in my 18-foot Bell Northwinds canoe.  Mark was paddling a Wenonah Canak, a hybrid canoe/kayak suited for solo wilderness tripping.  The three of us are paddlers more than fishermen.  Therefore, our preferred method of fishing is to troll the shorelines with crank baits until we find a hot spot.  Not too long after leaving camp and paddling through a channel, Rich had a solid strike.  As the fish tired, the excitement grew when we saw one near the boat.  It was a substantial laker, and we were eager to get it in the net.  Soon the fish was landed.  It measured 32 inches, suggesting about a 12-pound fish.  The photograph of Rich and his fish says it all.  A lake trout is a beautiful fish.  Catching and releasing such a large aquatic denizen is the essence of a wilderness experience.

As many of you know, a large Chilean mining company named Antofagasta has proposed to develop a mammoth copper mine adjacent to the Kawishiwi River south of Ely.  Hard-rock mining, which includes sulfide-ore copper mining, is considered the most toxic, most polluting industry in the world.  Copper is found in sulfide rock.  If mined, more than 99 percent of the rock will be left on the land's surface as vast piles of sulfide bearing waste-rock.  When this waste-rock is exposed to air and water, it generates sulfuric acid.  This sulfuric acid leaches heavy metals from the wate-rock as it leaks from mine sites into nearby bodies of water. A combination of acid, water and heavy metals is known as acid mine drainage, and it changes the pH of waters it enters by increasing its acidity.  Scientific studies have shown that the lakes of the Boundary Waters have low acid-neutralizing capicity, making them particularly vulnerable to acid mine drainage.  It is predicted that the development of copper mining next the BWCAW will have devastating effects on aquatic life in down stream lakes.  Basswood Lake is downstream from the proposed mining complex and in the path of pollution.  As I look at the fish in this picture and the human response of catching such a magnificent fish, I ask if it is worth the price of polluting this great wilderness for the benefit of a few jobs and a large profit for a foreign mining giant.

Dodd Cosgrove is a board member for the Campaign. Cosgrove first paddled the Boundary Waters in 1964, one month before it gained official designation as a Wilderness area. Retired after 30 years working as a Chartered Financial Analyst, he has served on multiple boards, including The Quetico-Superior Foundation and Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, at times serving as treasurer for both. For the last 19 years he and his family have owned a cabin on Little Long Lake and all of his children have been campers at a YMCA camp near the Boundary Waters.