When four of us arrived at the pair of portages from Lake One to Lake Two on Thursday morning, there were a dozen or so Forest Service personnel scattered along the trails. The Pagami Creek Fire, which had been started by lightning a couple weeks earlier, had moved toward this popular area of the wilderness, and threatened to run north into private property. A controlled burn of about 700 acres had been executed a couple days earlier to prevent the fire from spreading in this direction. The air was hazy, and occasionally a tree could be heard falling back in the woods, the result of either fire or water-softened soils from fire control sprinkler lines.
As I pulled on a Duluth pack, I ran into my old friend Thompson, who has been working as a wilderness ranger out of Ely for the past couple years. He and others were on a public safety crew, ensuring no visitors were harmed by the fire activity. He had been camped on Lake Two for 14 days, and would be heading back to town later that day.
We paddled across calm lakes eastward, soon putting the fire behind us. We arrived at Lake Insula late that afternoon, and picked a campsite featuring a huge beach and a view to the west, toward the direction where smoke from the fire was still visible on the horizon. We stayed on Insula for three nights and the shifting character of the smoke was a source of constant interest.
One morning, I woke up first as usual and started water boiling for coffee. The lake seemed hazier, and the smoke on the horizon less defined than previously. It occurred to me that we were now directly downwind, something I had been afraid would happen. As the morning progressed, it never got very smoky, but I’m not sure we could have stuck it out if that level of smoke had continued. Fortunately, the winds shifted and the smoke rose up off the lake by midday. It continued to blow overhead, and ash and crispy, half-burnt leaves fell on us all day long.
We left Insula on Sunday morning and started paddling back east, first into Hudson Lake and then Lake Four. The smoke plume was massive, and for the first day since we arrived, there was wind, blowing out of the northwest. While carrying the canoe over the quarter-mile portage between Insula and Hudson, a helicopter and an airplane few over, low to the ground. The helicopter passed over us again as we paddled hard against the wind on Hudson. For my friend Eric, who was home on leave from flying Blackhawk helicopters in Afghanistan, and who wanted nothing more than a few days of peace and quiet and certainly the absence of helicopters, the visit was unwelcome but accepted.
At the portage into Lake Four, another party pulled up to land and said the area was being evacuated. That was about all I gleaned, and we continued on our way. We paddled another couple miles before meeting a Forest Service canoe mid-lake. In addition to telling us that the area was being closed to visitors, they took the names of everyone in our party and said they would relay it back to people at the landing, who would check our names off the list when we arrived. We also saw a couple big canoes with motors on the back, an incongruous sight on the non-motorized wilderness lakes.
Crossing Lake Three, we got our best views of the fire and the smoke. We only saw a few distant flares of flame, but the plume had risen to some 25,000 feet in the sky, by pilot Eric’s estimation, and consumed much of the southern horizon. The smoke was luckily blowing away from us, to the south and east, and we paddled under sunny blue skies.
Our progress toward the landing was marked by Forest Service personnel positioned on shore seemingly every half-mile. As we would paddle past, they would talk into their radios. At the portages, groups of the hardhat-wearing young men volunteered to carry our gear over the portages. While I respected that they were just trying to keep the portages clear while dozens of groups were streaming out of the wilderness, I had to politely declined the offers, explaining I don’t come to the Boundary Waters to have other people carry my stuff.
We had another couple miles to paddle on Lake One and met one more canoe of Forest Service staff. The man in the back started by saying, “I’m sure you’re sick of talking to the Forest Service,” and then just confirmed we knew we had to leave.
While the fire was maybe 1,000 acres when we went into the woods on Thursday, estimates were that it was 4,500 acres yesterday. Word comes today that it is believed to have grown to 11,000 acres, fueled by the dry air and strong winds. It is being allowed to burn for the most part, as fires are a natural part of the ecosystem and wilderness is uniquely managed to let natural processes occur. A few efforts are being made to control the fire where it threatens to escape the wilderness and potentially harm private property.
Check out the below slideshow of photos of the fire:
I spent Thursday and Friday last week playing tour guide for a reporter in the woods of northern Minnesota. The trip was personally rewarding because in seeking to provide a good story for the reporter, I experienced one myself.
My journey north on Thursday took me to Two Harbors and then straight north to visit a man who has read everything Thoreau ever wrote and owns a canoe Garrison Keillor once paddled. Friday afternoon was foggy as I drove home via a circuitous route on lonely National Forest roads. I went 20 miles at a time or more without seeing another vehicle.
There was pretty scenery, but there was also interesting scenes. I documented the trip with some photos in the slideshow below.
In mid-May, I attended my cousin Samantha’s wedding in Mondovi, Wisconsin. The ceremony was in a small Methodist church. The minister stood before the couple and talked to them in a casual yet thoughtful tone, as if we were all gathered around a dinner table. He said that when he was growing up, living on a nearby farm, they had used baling twine for many purposes. He had learned that you could braid three strands of twine together to make strong rope, but you couldn’t braid two strands. He likened those two strands to the couple, and the third strand to God.
A couple weeks later, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I took to the St. Croix River with my wife Katie and our black lab Lola. Katie and I have been paddling on the St. Croix for years. I don’t remember when we first went, but it’s been several times a year for at least the six years we’ve been married. And I’ve been canoeing the river since I was a junior at Stillwater Area High School, when biology teacher Jeff Ranta took a group of us that spring to see a Great Blue Heron rookery near Copas.
Memorial Day weekend, the water was high and the current moving fast. Weaving amongst narrow islands, we drifted and talked about that metaphor the minister had spoken of at the wedding, of the twine braided to rope. It came to me that the St. Croix River is a third strand, braided into our lives. There are surely other strands, too: our families, friends, compassion, words. But the river possesses a mysterious combination of constancy and fluidity. And when there is just the two of us and the dog in the canoe, and the river carrying us forward, I sit silently in awe and wonder at it.
We went back to the river last Saturday. This time there were eight people: four couples, two married, two not, split amongst three canoes. And, of course, the dog. We happened to float the same stretch of the river as Memorial Day weekend. The water was down a couple feet from May, and warm for swimming, but still high enough that beaches and sandbars were few. We let the current carry us, we saw eagles and osprey, a musky was caught and released.
On the trip was myself, fretting about logistics, safety, sandwiches; Katie, gracefully duffing in the middle of the canoe, eating cherries most of the way; Wade, making a sombrero look sensible; Audrey, her fingernails painted red, white, and blue; Slim, often reclining, face to the sky; Nel, not only smart enough to bring coffee but generous enough to share it; Gabe, who dedicated the day to his fly rod; and Liz, steering the angler downstream with a saintly smile. And there was the river, the third strand of twine.
At another wedding this summer, in the woods of Afton, my friend Sunday delivered the sermon for Doug and Heidi. Sunday spoke about what Spiritual Humanism has to say about relationships. It came to mind again as I traveled down the St. Croix on Saturday, in the company of three other devoted couples. Sunday spoke of Plato, and said, “In searching for and recognizing the divine within your beloved, one discovers the divine in oneself, and comes to recognize that, in all its forms, divinity is one and the same.”
That might call to mind the words of Norman Maclean, at the end of his famous story, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” It also makes me think of another concept in that story (which is arguably about relationships more than fly fishing): that to love is to seek to understand, though we can love fully without fully understanding.
The skies last Saturday were blue and clear. A mile from the take-out, we stopped at a small beach and swam and sat in the water as the sun dropped toward the trees on the western bank. The water was perfect and the silence absolute. I said I thought I might just stay there. But then I figured the mosquitoes would be bad and my own bed sounded better than sand. We got back in the canoe — a wedding gift from our friends — and headed on down the river.
Tomorrow is the last day to comment on a Superior National Forest proposal for more mining exploration at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Learn more and speak up at www.preciouswaters.org.
Last June, I spent a day canoeing down the South Kawishiwi River with reporters and photographers from two major Minnesota news outlets. We launched at a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness entry point a short portage from the Spruce Road, then almost immediately left the BWCAW as we headed downstream toward Birch Lake.
Also in our party was my Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness colleague Betsy Daub and local Ely canoe outfitter and guide Jason Zabokrtsky of Ely Outfitting Company (and his dog Lexee, who I’m pretty sure has spent more days in a canoe than any other dog in the state).
Lexee-dog surveys rapids on the South Kawishiwi River
It was a beautiful, but nondescript, few miles of river. A snowmobile bridge crossed at one point, as did a power line. While we saw a handful of people during our brief trip through the Wilderness proper, we saw no one on the river outside the BWCAW border. We did see mother mergansers nervously herding their tiny chicks around the shallows, dragonflies zipping over the water, and turtles sunning themselves on logs.
Our group was there to see the area targeted by mining companies seeking copper, nickel and other metals in sulfide ores at the edge of the Boundary Waters. Development of such mines in the area have not gotten as much attention as PolyMet, the first company to try to open up such a sulfide mine in Minnesota. PolyMet, further along in the process, is some 15 or 20 miles southwest of where we were paddling.
The river we were on is in the middle of the area of interest for companies including Twin Metals — a joint partnership between Duluth Metals, a junior mining company based in Vancouver, and Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta. The partnership also recently acquired Franconia Minerals, making for a real mining juggernaut.
A sulfide mining drill site near the BWCAW
On the way to our canoe put-in, we stopped at a clearing on the side of Highway 1, where a couple young men ran a noisy drill mounted on the back of a truck. Gray sludge from the drill was pumped into a holding pond excavated nearby. The iconic north woods highway just east of the South Kawishiwi River is lined by such clearings in the woods, a wooden sign with a number nailed to a tree by the road, and red pipes jutting out of the ground, capping old drill holes.
Already, Boundary Waters users are hearing the noise of such drills while on wilderness canoe trips. And Birch Lake, popular for fishing, camping, house boating, and all sorts of other classic Minnesota activities, is really feeling the brunt. Homeowners and resort guests hear around-the-clock drilling, and they fish the lake alongside drill barges.
On our canoe trip, we portaged around a last set of rapids and then stopped at the Outward Bound camp on the Kawishiwi, where they have been sending young people into the wilderness since 1964. A staff member talked to us about how he could often hear the drilling in his cabin at night.
The Superior National Forest is considering a new plan for more mineral exploration in the area. The comment period closes tomorrow on the environmental impact statement for 33 permits to explore for which several companies have applied. This means more roads and ripped-up forest in this area, popular outside the wilderness for hunting, hiking, birding, and ATV and snowmobile riding. More importantly, it sets Minnesota down a path toward giant mines at the edge of the most popular wilderness area in America.
These aren’t the iron mines that “helped us win World War II,” as some are fond of repeating. This is a new beast, with pollution problems that Minnesota has never before encountered. Last June, after paddling the South Kawishiwi, we visited an old site along the Spruce Road where a company had dug up a bunch of rock in the 1970s, seeking copper and nickel. Nasty orange soup was leaching out of the rock pile and into a nearby wetland.
The Friends had the drainage tested in an independent lab, which showed levels of copper, arsenic and other metals and chemicals which exceeded water quality standards and could pose a threat to both aquatic life and human health. This was 36 years after the rock had been excavated, and of course the company that did the digging is long gone.
Certainly, we have heard much about the benefits these mines could provide. Jobs and metals needed for modern technology, primarily. But there is a wilderness cherished by tens of thousands where these metals happen to be buried. And outside that wilderness are thousands of acres of public land — wild lakes and rivers, vast forests. For the many that believe the clean water, healthy forests and wilderness of northern Minnesota is something special, putting it all at risk for a couple decades of mining seems like a poor trade-off.
The mining industry has not given us much reason for confidence, besides a lot of talk about “doing it right.” In addition to the Spruce Road acid mine drainage, there was the PolyMet environmental review, which earned a failing grade from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in February 2010.
The environmental impact statement for the mineral exploration near the South Kawishiwi and Birch Lake is unfortunately flawed, too. It tries to do two things — provide guidelines for even more exploration in the future, and review impacts of the 33 permits up for consideration — and doesn’t do either very well. There is not nearly enough information about how noise pollution in the BWCAW will be prevented, what will be done to ensure local ponds and streams are not de-watered, or how species like the Canada lynx and wolves will be protected. You can learn more on the Friends’ website.
We started and ended our day of canoeing last summer at River Point Resort, located where the South Kawishiwi enters Birch Lake. Husband and wife Steve and Jane Koschak run it, hosting vacationers in quiet cabins, and outfitting canoe parties heading out on wilderness canoe trips. Steve’s dad started the resort as a fishing camp in 1944 and Steve built many of the resort’s buildings himself. Those cabins were built to last.
Last Friday, I heard the news that a young man was missing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Ty Sitter had been on a fishing trip to Swan Lake, on the eastern end of the wilderness, with his father and 19-year-old brother. He left camp by himself about 7 p.m. Thursday to do some fishing. The Star Tribunereported:
When he didn’t return to their campsite by 9 p.m., his father and brother began to look for him, finding his canoe upright and unoccupied on the lakeshore. It was filled with 4 inches of water, but had everything Sitter left with — a life jacket, fishing net, tackle box and rock anchor — except his fishing pole. According to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, the two paddled out and alerted authorities at midnight; a search began immediately.
His brother and father had pledged to not come home without finding Sitter. Very sadly, the young man’s body was located Monday with sonar in about 90-100 feet of water. In a Monday interview with North Shore radio station WTIP, Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk reported that searchers located the body within a minute of starting to use a sonar device. They showed the image to Sitter’s family, who also said they were confident it was the young man. Due to equipment malfunctions, rough weather, and the remote location, it took authorities until last night to recover Sitter’s body.
This is a tragedy. An annual vacation ending up with the worst possible scenario. Sitter was fortunate to have a devoted father and brother, and a fiancee back home who had kept up hope. But nothing changes the fact that the full potential of his life was unfulfilled, and his relationships incomplete.
The sad event brought to mind an essay written by Mike Link, published in Backpacker magazine in 1980 and printed in the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness’s newsletter a couple years ago. Link, the long-time director of Audubon Center of the Northwoods, made the news last year when he and his wife Kate Crowley marked their retirement by walking the entire way around Lake Superior. Titled “Risk and the Wilderness,” Link’s essay was about a tragedy he had suffered: the death of his son in a kayaking accident in New Zealand. Mike wrote (PDF):
My life has been shaped by risk and the wilderness in ways I never could have predicted.
My son and I used to talk around campfires about grizzly bears, sheer cliffs, storms, distant rivers—the beauty and exhilaration of the outdoors. It was a common love we could share. And we also talked about risk. If a bear kills me, don’t let anyone try to hunt it down, one of us said. If I get lost in the woods, don’t send in the helicopters and search planes, let me find my own way out, the other responded. If I die on a river, don’t let them dam it and steal its life on my account. These were our campfire conversations. More »
My heart goes out to those Sitter left behind. He died in a place he obviously loved, but I’m sure that’s meager consolation: he was simply too young. I know that, on future canoe trips, I’ll tighten the straps on my life jacket and keep the dry clothes handy, and I won’t roll my eyes when my loved ones worry about what I will do if there’s an emergency. And I’ll respect the wilderness not just for its many gifts, but also what it can take away.
I have published two volumes of a chapbook titled "Esker." The most recent volume, "Nowhere Else But Here," was released in January 2010. It features writings from every day of June 2009 in an old Japanese form called haibun.