I have this very distinct memory from when I was thirteen. It lasts about ten seconds—the first ten seconds after waking up one morning. I am exhausted, but my body wakes itself up with the sun as it has done for the past three days. The first thing I see is the patterned red and orange fabric of someone else’s sleeping bag. I feel a cool breeze sift its way through the thin nylon of the tent wall and brush against my cheek. I hear… I hear the sound of something howling in the distance. I think for a brief moment that it is the highway, and that the sound I hear is cars speeding past one another. I think of the highways that I pass by back home in the suburbs of Minneapolis—the subdued brown of the noise barriers that flank them on either side, the way rain or snow amplifies the sound tires make against pavement.
But a couple seconds later, I blink and become aware of the fact that what I am hearing is not the highway: It is the wind howling over a lake. I am not in the suburbs or anywhere remotely near a road—I am on an island inside a tent. The island has no name.
When I think back on this moment, the feelings attached to it are muddled. First is the panic one feels waking up in a strange place. On top of that is a layer of shock produced by the realization that this unfamiliar place contains familiar stimuli—the howling noise—but these stimuli are caused by a different phenomenon—the wind. Realizing this in a brief instant jolts me back, all at once, to where I am without the ease of context. I can point precisely to where I am on a map, but beyond that I have no idea what surrounds this area. I have no idea how to leave this place if I wanted to. I am at the mercy of it. The wind howling. Wilderness.
I grew up near Minneapolis, Minnesota. I like to think I’m more Minnesotan than most, though, because no member of my extended family on either side has ever lived outside the state for more than a couple years, and they’ve always come back.
My mother’s family lives north of us in Duluth and some small towns outside of it. The journey north to see them is guided by a slowly shifting landscape on either side of the highway. Prairie and wetland give way to dense boreal forest. The air saturates with a cool sweetness blown off the enormous lake we hurtle towards and, driving at night, stars twinkle and slowly become more visible overhead.
Perhaps because of this I’ve always felt that my life is oriented north. It’s a strange and deep longing. Especially when I was younger, I felt a sense of calm knowing we were driving north, even if it was just for a quick errand. I used to crane my neck in my car seat to observe the compass on the dashboard. On the occasions that we’d visit a cabin belonging to my aunt’s father-in-law on a lake somewhere near Isabella, Minnesota, I exclaimed with glee: This is the farthest north I have ever been!
Maybe there’s a sort of magnet inside of me like those inside of compasses. Maybe I was in need of a point of origin. I’ve heard of people who have never been to the desert before longing for that landscape with a kind of pre-nostalgia. When we’re young I think we long to return to places we’ve never experienced. For me, that place existed in the Northwoods. There seemed a sort of clarity unique to that area. Somewhere up there, humming softly, an ancient calm permeates everything in hues of deep green, misted white, and the bright purple of lupine in summer.
When I was thirteen, I went to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness for the first time with a camp my next-door-neighbor had introduced me to. We spent the first two days at base-camp preparing for our voyages: packing food, planning a route, choosing canoes, getting to know one another. After that short time was up, we embarked on a five-day journey through the ‘back-country,’ carrying our packs and canoes on our backs on the paths between lakes.
The Boundary Waters is a 1.1 million-acre region of protected forest that straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border just west of Lake Superior. It is located in the northern portion of a state that is eight percent water and has a combined shoreline of 45,000 miles—more than the sum of both the inland and ocean coasts of California. The BWCA is an interconnected series of waterways that is littered with boreal forest. Looking at a map, you can see what little green is visible there. Most of the surface is bespeckled in blue. Look closer and you realize that not all of the dots have been charted for depth, leaving a portion a deeper and smoother blue—elegantly and mysteriously free of topographical lines.
The BWCA occupies a smaller portion of this protected wilderness, for which camping licenses may be bought. The area makes up the northern third of the Superior National Forest and contains over 1,200 canoe routes, twelve hiking trails, and more than 2,000 Department of Natural Resources (DNR)-maintained campsites. The area was set aside initially in 1926 to preserve its “primitive” character, and in 1964 it became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
In the tent again, I am at the mercy of the wilderness, but not entirely. I am here for the first time with four other young girls and two tough, older women—our guides. As I’m looking back on it now, I realize these women must not have been in their twenties yet, but to me they were ancient, and stronger than I ever imagined I would be. Technically we are at a summer camp, but the actual base-camp is far away from us. Now we are “on trail”—in the woods surrounded by an impossible vastness. There are no roads or motors anywhere near the island. There are no houses and there is nowhere to purchase firewood or food. Everything we have, including our five canoes, we’ve carried and paddled with for miles.
We find firewood near our campsite that is “dead and down” and no wider than our wrists. We burn it only in the designated fire grate. Food scraps must be carried out in our packs and not tossed down the latrine or burned. We wash our dishes at least 150 feet from the water’s edge. When we brush our teeth, we spray out the paste in little droplets. If we were to see a group of more than four more people—and we never do—we would not congregate on a portage, campsite, or lake.
While the Boundary Waters isn’t in another class of wilderness, perhaps it should be. In comparison to my experiences in various other wild places throughout the country, I’ve found the BWCA has a certain unmarked quality to it. In other protected areas, the paths are somehow more well worn: There are signs, and the trails on the maps are named. In the Boundary Waters there are no signs. There are no rangers gliding by on motorboats, there is no evidence of human life outside of your own and even that becomes somehow strange and alien, reduced to periods of intense movement and absolute stillness.
I kept a diligent and water-stained diary during this trip in 2009. The first entry reads:
We cook with lake water, we drink lake water, we swim in lake water. We can’t taste it but we know it’s there. The way the water moves, ripples and sways creates an intricate pattern. Decorating where the dense forest breaks sloping down to the bay.
Paddles break the surface creating whirlpools, disturbing the quiet peace. Then restored again. The wind paints the water and the moon pulls it towards the bays.
The canoe’s rhythm is a lullaby. No noise, wind slowly gliding over the water dancing on the waves. The whole arrangement is low haunting melody, playing harmonious with the cheerful singing of birds.
One night on that trip as we are nestled in our line of sleeping bags, thunder intensely reverberates around the lake and a few seconds later lightning strikes. We exit the tent in the pouring rain and retrieve the life vests we’ve stashed under the canoes. All seven of us, counselors included, then sit scattered throughout the forest on the vests. The logic behind lightning drills is quite simple: we scatter to lessen the likelihood that we are struck at once. If one of us is hit by lighting or crushed by a falling tree, the loss is numerically lesser than if all of us are struck huddled together in the tent.
We have adorned ourselves with protective layers of rain gear, but this barely helps. The wind howls and rain pours down into my lap, slicks my pants to my skin. I can hear my fellow campers around me loudly singing to distract themselves above the noise of the thunder and wind. I imagine what it would be like to get struck by lightning. The flash and the sharpness. I crane my head to watch the trees wobble ominously over my head.
At the age of thirteen, the self is a particularly nebulous concept. So sitting there in the forest absolutely vulnerable to the forces of the natural world I experienced a kind of fear that was so refreshing in its absolutism and rawness that I almost forgot who I was. To that storm, I was no different than any one of the boulders or stumps that surrounded our campsite. I was equally disposable and equally organic.
On trail we aren’t allowed to have watches. We move through the environment in the daylight hours and retreat at dusk. We eat when we are hungry, and sleep when the light fades. I lose track of the days, too. Dates are meaningless and years are equally irrelevant—July 12, 2009 becomes “Day Three.” I feel ancient and dirty. I no longer remember what I look like without access to mirrors, and this adds to my bodiless sensation. At first this is disorienting to me and I find myself trying to steal peeks at the highly guarded watches of the counselors. But eventually I lose interest and my body begins to merge with the surrounding elements. I am entirely alone with my mind and the minds of those around me. I find myself returning to my body as a kind of shelter unto itself.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture proclaims that the Boundary Waters “allows visitors to canoe, portage, and camp in the spirit of the French Voyageurs of 200 years ago.” But when I am in the Boundary Waters I don’t feel like I am hearkening back to any point in human history. When I am in the Boundary Waters, I feel as though the place I have immersed myself in has less to do with humanity than it does with eternity.
There is a difference between being humbled by wilderness and interpreting its emptiness as simply emptiness, or that which is capable of being conquered. Words like emptiness and nowhere connote a kind of hierarchy. If something is empty, then it is empty of something and can or should be filled. Nowhere implies a similar theme; if a place is nowhere then it must be outside of somewhere.
As I explained earlier, the Boundary Waters is a vast and interconnected series of waterways. No motorboats, no planes below 4,000 feet, even, are allowed to infiltrate its protected bubble. But something that I’ve been forced to come to terms with recently is that nothing, not even a wilderness as pristine and seemingly limitless as the Boundary Waters, is disconnected from outside influences. The earth resists our attempts to delineate it.
While mining within the BWCA is illegal due to its protected status, mining directly outside of it is not. Twin Metals, a mining corporation with offices in St. Paul and Ely, Minnesota, proposed a Sulfide-ore copper mine located a few miles from the BWCA in the Kawishiwi River watershed. In the frantic final days of his administration, Obama refused the renewal of mining leases owned by Twin Metals, Minnesota (a mining company owned by Antofagasta, the multi-billion dollar Chilean mining conglomerate). Before this can come into effect, though, the area must undergo (and is currently undergoing) a two-year environmental review to assess the economic, social and, of course, environmental impacts of this proposed mine.
But since Trump’s election, two Minnesotan senators, Tom Emmer and Rick Nolan, have been attempting to end the environmental review and reinstate the leases to Twin Metals. They drafted a bill, H.R. 3905, that is currently making its way through a series of votes. If it passes, it could have devastating environmental implications in the region as it would immediately end the environmental review, and reinstate Twin Metal’s leases, allowing them to mine in the region.
Waterways do not taper off where the U.S. government has drawn lines on a map. They continue onward and are connected with less protected areas outside of the preserve. I spoke with Scott Beauchamp for about an hour on the phone one evening as the days were beginning to shorten in late October. Beauchamp is the Director of Media Relations at Save the Boundary Waters, a national campaign that works to influence legislature and spread general awareness of environmental threats to the region. He told me, “The issue with this type of mining [is] it’s a very water-heavy area, and all the water of the Boundary Waters is very interconnected, and these proposed mines are on the Kawishiwi—which directly flows into the Boundary Waters—so the pollution from those mines would flow right into the Boundary Waters. Because [it] is so clean right now and so interconnected, it would cause devastating pollution throughout the wilderness.”
So the chemicals will more than likely flow from the somewhere, the outside world, into nowhere, and potentially destroy it. The earth shows us, through its infinite connection to itself, that you cannot protect a portion of it; you must protect it all.
One lake is entirely covered in yellow and orange lily pads. We stretch out our hands to feel their leathery surface. The bottoms are coated in a kind of green slime that we rub between our fingers. The canoe slowly glides forward, making the sound of an exhale: shhhhh…
Toxic pollutants will affect aquatic ecosystems, and infiltrate the waterways, resulting in a decrease in biodiversity on land, too. Mercury levels in fish will rise, putting human health at risk.
Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) Congresswoman Betty McCollum pointed out in a statement condemning the mines that 92 percent of sulfide mines in the U.S. have experienced failures and directly impacted the water quality of surrounding areas.
The Forest Service cited the potential environmental impacts of sulfide-ore mining as rationale for their decision to deny the leases under Obama. “We’re concerned about the impacts of copper-nickel mining in sulfide deposits, because there is extensive research that shows that should impacts occur, it would be virtually impossible to mitigate those impacts,” said Kathleen Atkinson, a forester with the U.S. forest service who specializes in the region. Moreover, sulfide-ore mining is generally more toxic than taconite mining, which is more common in Minnesota.
Not to mention that Antofagasta, Twin Metals’ parent company, is no stranger to environmental violations. In 2009, a sulfide deposit site in Chile called Los Pelambres dumped 13,000 liters of copper contaminate into the Choapa River. In 2014, the Chilean Supreme Court found Antofagasta guilty of cutting off water to the village of Caimanes as a result of its waste dam upstream.
On trail we are constantly moving through different environments, and I come to realize that each lake has its own personality. Some are narrow and shallow with reeds and an abundance of dragonflies. Some are wide and twisting, surrounded by rocky outcroppings. The angle of the sun also affects how I perceive each new lake. In early afternoon, the water sparkles and becomes daunting as I struggle to force my arms into another paddle stroke. At dawn, the lakes are more serene. I come to find my physical and mental states reflected by the world around me. When I struggle with a canoe on my back, the sun reaches its highest point in the sky and the world is lit with a garish intensity. When we slide into a campsite in early evening, I feel calmer—nurtured by the deep purples and blue streaks of the clouds above.
In press releases, Twin Metals spokespeople framed the denial of their leases as a direct assault on hardworking Minnesotans, denying them of a mine that could provide 850 jobs and sustain itself for thirty years. Executive director of Mining Minnesota Frank Ongaro called the move “nothing but political B.S. All this does is chase investment away from the U.S., and makes us more dependent on foreign governments for our metals,” he said.
Up North Jobs, based in Ely, Minnesota, is one of the leading dissenters to the environmental review. It makes its position quite obvious: Denying mining companies the opportunity to develop federal land is akin to stealing jobs and resources from Minnesotans. In an open letter “To Repeal Federal Land Withdrawal,” Chairman Gerald Tyler writes: “The decision by the Obama administration and the USFS/BLM [United States Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management] to conduct a study and complete an environmental impact statement… is a shameless attempt by the anti-mining activists and their federal agency ‘friends’ to preemptively quash the development of Twin Metals Minnesota’s proposed project by delaying exploration until at least 2019, and perhaps for an additional twenty years if a moratorium on prospecting is imposed.”
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak is in support of mining as well. Ely, a town with historical and geographic ties to the BWCA, is no stranger to mining controversy nor, for that matter, wilderness conservation controversy. “It takes the hope out from all the people who looked for a brighter future with great paying jobs, family, living wages, a boost to the economy,” he said.
However, Beauchamp makes the case that, while mining would provide a certain number of jobs for northeastern Minnesotans, these jobs are ultimately temporary and the loss of the Boundary Waters would result in deeper economic loss. “Our position is, if you look at the size of this, it’s very, very, very likely that it will pollute the boundary waters. So you’re kind of forced into a bargain, or not necessarily a bargain, but a decision,” he says. “You know, is it going to be these mining jobs for twenty to thirty years? Or do we want to try to work with the clean, sustainable Boundary Waters that we have right now? Because you can’t have both. […] There’s over 17,000 jobs that depend on the boundary waters… why would we throw away that economy for a few hundred mining jobs?”
He adds, “We need to be focusing on the Boundary Waters as a resource. As long as we protect it, it’ll be around forever. How do we use that to create an economy that helps everyone become employed and not endanger the wilderness?”
One of the only people I see besides the members of my group on trail is an older man resting at the head of one of our portages. It is late morning, the sun dapples his face. As we unload our canoes I hear him softly explain to one of our guides that he’s been out here for months paddling his way around the area in a grand loop. He sports a rugged grey beard and smiles at us good-naturedly. Before we embark on the trail, he is off with a pack and canoe on his back, the veins in his calves bulge and he disappears around a bend.
I wonder if wanting to save the Boundary Waters is a stance taken mainly by people who have the economic resources to make a visit to the wilderness. I asked Scott, “I’m just thinking about mining supporters who are pro-jobs up there… Do you think that they have access to the Boundary Waters in the same way that people who are pro-Boundary Waters? Does that somehow have an impact on their stance on it? Do you have to experience it in order to want to protect it?”
He answers, “It’s really difficult for me to say whether or not people have been there, because I think it really just depends on the specific person. But, you know, I think that a lot of people are looking at [mining] as a way for them to support their family, which is something… you know, it’s not like we’re against mining, we’re just against mining in this place. We don’t think we should sacrifice the Boundary Waters for it.”
On my last foray into the BWCA, as a camper at age fifteen, our group ran into some trouble. The route we had chosen appeared to have been abandoned for a number of years, and the portages were heavily overgrown and almost impossible to navigate. On top of that, many people in the group experienced injuries and we had to back-paddle an entire day’s distance to our drop-point after one member twisted her ankle on a tree root.
At one point, we mistook a dried-up waterfall for a portage and found ourselves on a small, unnamed lake with no connecting routes. How long has it been since someone experienced this lake? I thought as we aimlessly floated and our guide panicked with the map. Eventually we were forced to bushwhack our way out down the side of a cliff. Later that day, I got a concussion during a portage, and another member slipped on some wet rocks at our campsite, injuring her spine. No one had a phone and we were a day behind. We needed an ambulance, but were down three paddlers.
On the morning we were set to evacuate for the second time, our guide woke us up when it was still dark out. Our campsite was on a peninsula surrounded by hollow and barren trees—ravaged in a forest fire. We were tired and dirty. We hadn’t seen anyone outside of our group for five days. Suddenly, in the distance, a fleet of canoes emerged and we flagged them down. They were gracious—a troop of Boy Scouts from South Carolina—and helped us radio a nearby hospital while we ate their trail mix.
It is not so much the exhaustion or fear that I remember most clearly. Upon entering the ambulance I noticed among the bright white lights and oxygen tubes, an analog clock hung near the back door. This was so jarring to me that I began to cry with a mixture of relief and regret. For the first time in a week, I knew what time it was. Suddenly, all at once without the ease of context, I am jolted back into a space where time is meaningful. Yet now it feels unnatural in the same way the whiteness of the interior of the ambulance feels unnatural. In that moment, the only thing that felt real—natural—was the dirt ground deeply into my skin.
This is how I’d rather exit the Boundary Waters: through its rivers and lakes and bogs. Paddling silently from mid-morning until dusk. Meandering slowly until houses start to become visible and the low murmur of voices again is audible. Paddling some more until the hum of cars cannot be mistaken for the wind.
In November of 2017, I received an email from Save the Boundary Waters with the subject line: BREAKING. My stomach dropped as I opened it and read that H.R. 3905 had passed “in a close vote” by the House Natural Resource Committee on November 8, 2017. The bill is now cleared for a vote by the full U.S. House of Representatives. The Boundary Waters Need Your Help More Than Ever, it warned.
So this is how I fear I’ll only be able to enter the Boundary Waters from now on: in the first few moments after waking, hearing the sound of the highway, and mistaking it for the wind.
After the longest and hardest portage of my first trip through a place called “Howl Swamp,” we emerged at dusk to our surprise on a sandy beach. The portage was brutal, through mud and dense forest and the most mosquitoes I’d ever seen in my life. My arms shook with exhaustion as I attempted to keep my concentration away from the swarm of insects that had entered the hood of the canoe to bite my arms and face. The portage seemed to go on for miles, but all of a sudden my boots touched water and I flung the canoe off of my shoulders to see the expanse of a large, sparkling lake. We spent the next twenty minutes splashing in the shallows and rubbing sand on our muddy skin in the waning light.
Of course, this lake wasn’t our own discovery. Of course, hundreds, or even thousands, of people before us had come upon this very lake and paddled its water before us. Of course, long before the Boundary Waters was even categorized by the U.S. government, people had called this place home. Of course we knew this. But there is a difference between being awed and humbled by emptiness and wanting to conquer it.
When I threw off that canoe and witnessed the scene before me, my first thought wasn’t that this was all mine. My first thought was how big the clouds were and how their pink reflected off the water. My first thought was how clear it was, and how peacefully it lapped at the shore—the stillness and vastness of the scene before me. My first thought was, This is the farthest north I have ever been.