Made to last

Save Our Precious Waters e-Rally

Read on for the latest post on my Star Tribune blog.

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

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
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
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.


Canoeing on the South Kawishiwi

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.

Spruce Road acid mine drainage

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.

Learn more about the mineral exploration proposal and comment by the end of the day tomorrow, June 30.

Sunset on Birch Lake
Sunset on Birch Lake

Wilderness tragedy

Cross-posted on my Star Tribune blog.

BWCAW morningLast 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 Tribune reported:

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.



“The Firegrate Review”

The Firegrate ReviewMy latest project is a new chapbook published through the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness called “The Firegrate Review.” It’s a collection of 20 essays, stories and poems by 19 different authors who generously contributed their work.

All of the pieces are focused on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I feel they really reflect the broad spectrum of experiences of canoe country, in all times of day and seasons of the year. There is the wind and rain and bugs, daybreaks and sunsets, family and friends and solo adventure, and wildlife and silence and solitude.

I wrote a brief introduction for the publication:

My wife Katie and I took a five-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters this September. A remote lake called to us. On the maps it looked like a place where a person could find some real solitude.

We rode a tailwind the first day, then paddled and portaged several miles the next day, arriving at the dead-end lake we had in mind. There was only one way in—a winding stream with questionable water levels and a beaver dam to cross, a portage in rough shape—and we found little evidence that the lake had seen many people this summer. The campsite we stayed at was full of firewood.

The silence roared that night. We felt minuscule in the dark land. It was 10 miles to the nearest road. There was nothing to do but speak in whispers and stoke the fire high. Continue reading…

More info

Buy it


“Paddle North”

Paddle North coverFor those who love traveling the Boundary Waters region by paddle and portage, the new book titled “Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico Wilderness” from photographer Layne Kennedy and writer Greg Breining from the Minnesota Historical Society Press should be of great interest. I wouldn’t normally engage in such promotion on this site, but I’ve already gladly lent my name to the endeavor, with a short endorsement that appears on the back cover of the book.

“In Paddle North, Greg Breining and Layne Kennedy have captured the beauty, solitude, and challenges of canoe country. They bring to the reader the essence of Quetico-Superior wilderness and remind us of why we go there. Contained in these pages are the roaring silence, the wild lakes, the rewards of canoe travel, and the unique, lifelong memories with friends and family that only a wilderness canoe trip can bring. – Greg Seitz, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness”

One thing people have appreciated about the book so far is that it isn’t just pretty pictures of the scenery (though there’s plenty of those photos, too). There are the muddy portages, the massive wildfires, filtering water, camp kitchens, and the other elements which are just as defining of Boundary Waters travel, but not photographed (and published) as often as the sunsets, cliffs, morning mist, and the such. It’s a wonderful mix between documentary and scenic photography.

Buy a copy via this link, if you’re so inclined, and I’ll get a small cut.

Muddy BWCAW feet


Boundary Waters caught on film

Our friends Jason and Kate took this amusing video of two Pine Martens tussling on their deck outside Ely, MN. Like they asked on their blog, can you watch closely enough to see which one starts in the planter and which one ends up there?

Two videos shot in the Boundary Waters in late September captured the eye of many last week. Filmmaker Alex Horner spent a weekend filming in the BWCAW with his dad and uncle and then worked with his dad when they got back on the music.

It’s like falling asleep and dreaming of canoe country heaven. I love the first rays of morning sunlight hitting the bright yellow birches. And I like pretty much everything else in both videos, too.

I’m pretty sure that when I tweeted the link to part two via my work Twitter account, it ended up making MPR’s News Cut blog:

When I first moved to Minnesota many years ago, an executive (who no longer works in Minnesota) pulled me aside and said, “these people… all they care about is getting through the workweek and getting to their cabin.” He wasn’t from here; he was from New York, where people go to work for entirely different reasons.

At the time I thought — but didn’t say — “so? What’s wrong with that?”