The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

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By Sam Lungren, Backcountry Journal editor

This piece was published in the Fall 2018 issue of Backcountry Journal and has been updated to reflect recent developments.

At the same time, Dad’s large silver casting spoon hit the water by a fallen tree and the surface erupted in a four-foot radius. Coming tight on the spinning reel he swung a hard side-arm hookset to no more resistance than the twirling lure. He kept cranking fast as it would go and, a few turns further, the water surged again in the vicinity of the spoon. Quick pressure, still no resistance. Then everything switched direction – the rod tip, reel spool, spoon and pressure wake. 

The nexus of the flight shot toward shore then sheered sharply left along the log toward deep water, peeling line and pivoting our canoe. Dad tightened the drag each time the fish tried to sound and soon enough, 10 pounds of pike were seething alongside the Kevlar hull.

I backpaddled our craft along the bank to a natural pier of table rock jutting out from a point where we were able to disembark and land the angry northern without trying to snatch it boatside – a caution we maintained since two days earlier when a frisky hammer-handle pike drove a barbed treble hook point to the bone in my thumb. We took several photos and released Dad’s fish. It was nearly noon so we secured the canoe, grabbed sandwich fixins and walked up the flat rock to the attached campground – one of hundreds of sites hewn from this dense, lush landscape but somehow integral to it. Food in our bellies, Dad lay down for a nap in the shade and I re-launched the canoe to go drift on the wind out deep in search of lake trout.

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My dad is the youngest of five children, 17 years junior to his oldest sister. Though from a mildly outdoorsy Indiana family, Dad’s parents were too old and his siblings gone from the house by the time he was old enough to attend the fishing trips to the magical North Woods. He heard stories from Michigan and Ontario but it was never his reality. And the Boundary Waters, the most pristine and remote of all? He could only dream.

Dad has been dreaming ever since – 50 years of attending presentations on the Quetico Provincial Park north of the border, reading articles on the canoe area wilderness to the south, watching videos from Voyageurs National Park to the west. This spring we made that dream a reality. And maybe just in time.

After three days of muskie fishing in Northern Wisconsin with my friend Brian and staying with Dad’s sister, my Aunt Becky, we headed north toward the Boundary Waters on June 27. Crossing into Minnesota on our way to Grand Marais and the Gunflint Trail we passed through Duluth, a historic city in the midst of a renaissance due in part to a blossoming outdoor recreation economy. But the newspaper I skimmed when we stopped for fried walleye fillets was still talking about a more auspicious visitor to the port city: President Trump had been there one week prior.

At a rally for his supporters in Duluth’s AMSOIL Arena the president attended to many of his priorities but also delved into a topic of particular interest, given my father’s and my destination.

“Under the previous administration, America’s rich natural resources ... were put under lock and key, including thousands of acres in Superior National Forest,” Trump declared.

Here’s what he’s talking about: In 1966, the U.S. Government leased the mineral rights for about 5,000 acres of the Superior National Forest to a mining company later acquired by Twin Metals, a subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta. Those leases were renewed in 1989 and 2004 but expired in 2014, just as the company became more serious about exploring what is thought to be a major copper and nickel sulfide ore deposit centered three miles upstream from the border of the Boundary Waters. Another, similar mine is being promoted by PolyMet Mining on state trust lands nearby. When asked to renew the leases, the Obama administration ruled there was no right to automatic renewal and pressed pause on mining for two years within the Superior National Forest while the Forest Service conducted an environmental review on the potential impacts of extracting these minerals and considered a 20-year mineral withdrawal. In addition to working with the Sportsmen for the Boundary Water coalition, BHA helped contribute 4,700 comment letters and petition signatures in support of the mineral withdrawal.

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Spanning 150 miles of the Canadian border and 1.09 million acres, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is America’s most visited designated wilderness area and the largest east of the Mississippi. It contains one tenth of those 10,000 lakes Minnesotans are so proud of, and two tenths of all fresh water under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service. The historic home of the Ojibwe Tribe, segments of the area first were set aside from development in 1902 with additional roadless areas added over the decades and codified under the original Wilderness Act of 1964. The 1978 BWCAW Act established most of the borders and regulations we know today.

This country is a spongy web of clear, clean lakes and streams interwoven through bedrock and dense vegetation. The waters terrace down off either side of the Laurentian Divide, which separates the drainages flowing north to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean, south to the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico, and east to the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River and Atlantic. Much of the Boundary Waters area is north of the divide, and so are the contested sulfide ore leases.

Taconite mining long has been an important industry for this region, known as the Iron Range, supplying ore to the steel mills of Duluth, Detroit and elsewhere. But the sulfide ore sought by Antofagasta and PolyMet is a different beast. When exposed to air and water, these minerals react to create sulfuric acid and a cocktail of chemicals known as acid mine drainage, toxic to most aquatic organisms and extremely pervasive. Many sportsmen are concerned that such mines located in the South Kawashiwi River Watershed would flow acid mine drainage downstream into the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Voyageurs National Park and Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, drastically impacting the pristine, protected ecosystems therein.

The Trump administration has taken a different viewpoint. Shortly after the 2016 election, the billionaire owner of Antofagasta and richest man in Chile, Andrónico Luksic, sued the federal government over the suspension of his leases. He also bought a mansion in Washington, D.C., and, a month later, rented the house to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law, who have resided there for nearly two years. In May 2018, the Department of the Interior reversed the previous administration’s decisions and renewed the Antofagasta leases, as well as downgrading the Forest Service’s environmental study. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue then had to make a recommendation to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on whether to lift the mining ban. Legislation to the same end also has passed in the House of Representatives.

“It’s now up to Secretary Perdue,” Trump told a roundtable of politicians and mining advocates in Duluth. “And I know he’s looking at it very strongly, and I think you’ll do very well.”

Within days of Trump’s rally, two lawsuits were filed by conservation organizations and outdoor recreation business challenging the Interior Department’s decision to reinstate the mining leases. These groups contend the department violated mineral leasing policy and ignored the Forest Service’s decision to withhold consent for renewal based on pollution and acid mine drainage risks.

On Sept. 6, Sec. Perdue announced that the Forest Service would be terminating its environmental analysis early, going back on his word that it would continue to the end of the year. He said that the analysis had revealed no new information and that the public had been heard. However, a recent study conducted by Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters indicates that 70 percent of Minnesota’s constituents support a permanent mineral withdrawal from the Superior National Forest.

“I’ve been going into the BWCA to hunt and fish my whole life, and it’s some of the best public land in America for it,” said Lukas Leaf, executive director for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters. “Both secretaries should take all the necessary steps to reject any leasing activity next to our nation’s most visited wilderness. Upstream of the Boundary Waters is absolutely the wrong place for sulfide ore copper mining.”

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These titanic forces hung over my head as we drove north from Duluth along the rugged, sweeping northwestern coastline of the world’s largest freshwater lake. We stayed the night outside Grand Marais and visited the lovely seaside tourist town in the morning to purchase food, tackle and several forms of bug repellant. Well supplied, we headed up the hill on the Gunflint Trail. An hour later we arrived at Hungry Jack Outfitters, owned by BHA members Dave and Nancy Seaton. We also bumped into Minnesota BHA Board Member Mark Norquist who was there shooting a new Forest Service instructional video for wilderness permittees. After our mandatory viewing of the old film on VHS, which includes several scenes with a trained black bear, I understood why they wanted an update.

Armed with a 40-pound Kevlar canoe, paddles, PFDs and a waterproof map covered in notes from Dave Seaton, we followed the launch van to a nearby residential lake, loaded five fishing rods, four days worth of gear and food and pushed off. Beyond excited, we paddled briskly through a maze of islands to our first portage. It felt odd unloading all the gear we had diligently packed into the canoe only an hour earlier. Everything, including the canoe, went on our backs and we humped over a ridge and down to the next lake, reloaded and shoved off again, soon passing the only sign that could intensify our enthusiasm: Entering The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. No Motors Allowed.

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After three more portages, a few smallmouth bass and a little lakeside surgery to remove the hook from my thumb, we arrived at our destination, an island campsite in a large lake I wanted to strike out from for the following days.

A vicious thunderstorm kept us holed up in the Seek Outside tipi until late morning, but we set off to explore as soon as the wind let up a bit, working our way down the north shore of our camp lake to a portage at the far end. Packing the boat and gear over a ridge was notably easier without all the camping gear and food. We emerged at the long, serpentine lake recommended to us for big pike. Fishing was slow until the sun started to dip into the tops of the pines, firs, spruce, cedar, birch, aspen, ash and maple all stacked against of each other like the rows of teeth on a pike’s tongue. A cow moose emerged onto the narrow, grassy bank with two, weeks-old calves in tow. Loons began calling. That crepuscular switch had flipped. The surface started to boil anywhere we cast. Thick smallmouth attacked any commotion without hesitation. As darkness set in we begrudgingly pulled ourselves from the festivities, bonking the last bass for the skillet – a two-man meal for sure.

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We got out earlier the next morning, winding through a wetland maze to a portage that took us up several hundred feet in elevation to one of the larger lakes in this segment of the Boundary Waters. We heard it had big lake trout. I hooked into something enormous while dredging a large, flashy muskie fly in the depths as Dad napped on the bank, but the mackinaw didn’t stay pinned. Soon after, I landed my biggest pike of the trip in the flush of a waterfall tumbling down a granite mountainside into the lake. More good sized northerns, bass and moose entertained us until the waning sunlight sent us back to our personal island.

We retreated from the wilderness the next morning through an exponentially intensifying rainstorm and were soaked to the bone by the time we crossed five lakes and slid up to the boat ramp. Bug bitten, bruised, drenched, paddle sore and exhausted, we each held one single regret: that our busy lives hadn’t provided us more time. I hope each of you BHA members finds more time, and sometime you get to explore the national treasure that is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I hope there is more time until the eternal, grinding march of development and pollution finally invades these wild boundaries.

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