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 quite 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.
One of the things I enjoy most about living in northern Minnesota is the constant change seasons. The longer days and brilliant wild flowers of spring, boating and fishing in the summer, fall colors and hunting in the fall, and last but not least, winter—my favorite season of all. For me, winter and dogsledding go hand in hand, and most winters Amy and I live and work at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge on White Iron Lake.
Shortly after paddling into Washington D.C. on December 2 after our Paddle to DC adventure, Amy and I were back in Ely prepping dog sleds, helping to train and care for 69 sled dogs, and leading our first dogsled trip of the season. The trips typically last four or five days and each week we get to meet people from different parts of the country—even far corners of the world. They come here to experience the wild beauty of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Superior National Forest, and learn to dogsled.
Most the groups are all adults or families, but our last trip was with 16 seventh and eighth grade students and their two teachers from Illinois. They were here for seven nights and we spent three nights camping out on a remote lake called Crockett. I love working with young people because, like the sled dogs, they are full of energy and excitement. With a little guidance and encouragement they will jump into most any task, from collecting firewood and cutting it into pieces to feeding the camp fire, chopping a hole through several feet of ice to gather water, or caring for and working with the dogs.
Our second night at Crockett Lake was clear and cold. After dinner we left the warmth of the fire and walked through the cold night air onto the frozen lake. The moon would not rise through the scraggly spruce trees across the lake for another hour and the Milky Way shimmered overhead.
I helped the kids find the North Star and pointed out a few of the constellations, which we take for granted, but are hard to see from their urban backyards. More than anything they were taken back by the silence. When they finally quieted down, which a group of kids that age rarely do, there was total silence, no cars, no wind, nothing but the sound of the cold snow shifting under people’s feet as they shifted their weight from side to side to try and stay warm.
The silence was broken by the faint call of wolves in the distance, which elicited a chorus of howls from the 22 sled dogs bedded down back at our campsite. We returned to the warmth of the campfire to fill everyone’s water bottles with boiling water and have a snack before bed. Then each kid ran back into the cold to stick the water bottle into his or her sleeping bag to help warm it up before climbing in for the night. As I headed off to bed I wondered how everyone would sleep. Surely some would sleep well and others would wake up several times and have trouble sleeping, but regardless, they were making memories that will stay with them for a long time.
Helping people experience dogsledding, sleeping on a frozen lake, the silence and beauty of this place, and the skills and confidence gained through wilderness travel reminds me why the Boundary Waters is so special. This thought helps me focus my efforts to help protect the Boundary Waters for future generations. Amy and I will continue to introduce people to the joys of dogsledding and the winter woods for a few more months, but we are also continuing our work with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters to educate people about the threats that mining in a sulfide ore body bring to this region. Last Saturday I gave a presentation about Paddle to DC at the REI in Bloomington, Minnesota, that was hosted by the Minnesota Canoe Association. Save the Boundary Waters Volunteers Ann Cosgrove and Margot Monson were there with a table full of information to share with people—thank you Ann and Margot!
On March 14, Amy and I will be speaking at Canoecopia, which is the world’s largest paddle sports expo, in Madison, Wisconsin, and we will be volunteering at the Save the Boundary Waters booth throughout the weekend. Plus, we will be speaking at the Midwest Mountaineering Outdoor Adventure Expo in Minneapolis the weekend of April 24-26. We are also planning events at the Patagonia stores in Chicago and St. Paul in April. I hope you can join us at one of these events—and bring a friend or two with you!
Dave Freeman and Amy Freeman were named National Geographic's 2014 Adventurers of the Year. They lead educational adventures through Wilderness Classroom. Paddle to DC, their 2,000-mile, 101-day paddle (and sail) from Ely to Washington, D.C., last year supported the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
The plastic sign posted to a tree in our campsite reads: "ALL FISH MUST BE RETURNED TO THE WATER IMMEDIATELY. FISH CONTAMINATED WITH PCBs DO NOT EAT." Paddling through a superfund site is not typically part of a canoe trip, but on day 73 and 74 of our journey from Ely, Minnesota to Washington D.C., that's where we find ourselves.
My wife Amy and I are about 1,500 miles into a 100-day, 2,000-mile expedition to protect the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the threat of sulfide ore mining. We departed from the Voyageur Outward Bound School on the Kawishiwi River on August 24, 2014 where a flotilla of 20 canoes joined us on the water for the first mile. We paddled right past the proposed mine site of Twin Metals and followed the flow into the pristine Boundary Waters to begin our journey.
74 days later we feel like we are on another planet. Giant machines scoop up black gunk from the bottom of the Hudson River and load it into barges as we canoe past. We have paddled into a $2 billion superfund site that has plagued the Hudson River for the last 40 years.
It's ironic because the place we are paddling to protect is being threatened by a series of proposed sulfide ore mines, which the EPA calls the nation's most polluting industry. Will our home on the edge of the Boundary Waters look like this some day? In the Boundary Waters I just dip my cup into the middle of the lake as we paddle along when I am thirsty. Here on the upper Hudson, I don't even want to touch the water we're gliding across.
Experiences like this make us realize what a truly special place the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness really is. The pristine natural beauty of the Boundary Waters has inspired awe for generations. It is among the United States' most accessible Wilderness areas, and for 50 years has remained America's most visited Wilderness. It is also a crucial driver of the economy in Northeastern Minnesota where tourism supports 18,000 jobs and $800 million in sales annually.
If you are concerned about protecting fresh water and want to stop sulfide-ore mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, please take a moment to sign the petition that Amy and I will be delivering to our federal government when we arrive in Washington, D.C. on December 3.
Minnesota guides and environmental educators Amy and Dave Freeman have traveled over 30,000 miles by canoe, kayak and dogsled, but they call Northeastern Minnesota home. Through their non-profit Wilderness Classroom, they connect, inspire and educate over 85,000 students around the globe using an interactive web platform. In 2014, they were named National Geographic Adventurers of the Year.
Nate Ptacek is an avid wilderness paddler, a former BWCA canoe outfitter and a member of the video team here at Patagonia. He directed, shot and edited the film featured in this post, a volunteer effort made possible through Patagonia's Environmental Internship Program for employees. This post was republished from Patagonia's The Cleanest Line blog. For more on this issue, check out Nate's previous post, "A Watershed Moment for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness."