Paddle punditry

strib-commentaryPeople should go canoeing more. That was the basic argument of my commentary published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Saturday. Minnesota’s rivers are amazing and largely ignored, go paddle them.

I feel like that is a solid suggestion. And it’s was satisfying to see my words in ink and paper on something that goes out to 300,000 people. Without further ado:

Get to know Minnesota waterways up close

They’re something to behold. So find a canoe and get to know them up close.

In a 1963 edition of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, the magazine published by the Department of Natural Resources, Gov. Karl Rolvaag wrote that canoeing on Minnesota’s streams and rivers was a “recreational sleeping giant.”

It still is.

In the same issue, editor John McKane wrote: “Aside from a small and dedicated fraternity of canoeists who know the secret of recreation at its best on state streams outside of the Arrowhead, the majority of Minnesota rivers remain ‘forgotten rivers.’ ”

Those same words could describe the state of paddling today.

That edition of the magazine introduced what would become Minnesota’s network of Water Trails. The idea was to inspire folks to explore our 15,000 miles of streams and rivers.The legislation turned 50 years old in 2013. Today there are 33 designated rivers, marking 4,500 miles of routes. But paddling in Minnesota is still largely invisible, besides the exceptional opportunities in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Personally, I return often to favorite stretches of my home river, the St. Croix. Too often, probably, but it’s a marvel of a waterway — so accessible, yet so wild. Earlier this month, as soon as eight friends and I got on the water east of Pine City, we could hear rapids ahead. The fast water quickly transported us to a very different state of mind. We spent the afternoon slipping by cedars and stopping at sandbars.

A week later, I took my kayak to a familiar landing closer to the Twin Cities for a Friday afternoon solo outing. I first paddled upriver through a side channel, pushing against the current a couple of miles to a sandbar, where I got out to fish. Then I floated back down the main channel past limestone banks seeping spring water, and past white pines and sandy beaches, letting the current carry me home.

It’s hard to ignore the river I love, but I’m resolved to explore more of the designated trails. By my figuring, I could see all 4,500 miles of water trails if I paddled a new river six days a year for the next 50 years.

The Conservation Volunteer recently published an appreciation of the water trails by Keith Goetzman and Javier Serna, with lyrical narratives of paddling three of them. It’s worth reading for inspiration and useful information. The DNR also has released online tours of some water trails, with videos, photos and descriptions of river sections.

In 1963, Rolvaag championed our state as the “Voyageur’s Highway.” Fifty years later, it’s time to recapture our voyageur spirit, pull away from computer screens and busy schedules, and explore a river. The words of Conservation Volunteer editor McKane hold true today as in 1963: “The canoe provides an ideal outlet from tensions; of escape from the coldness of concrete and steel.”

For Minnesotans, getting in a canoe is a way to connect with the place we call home — its history, its nature, its beauty. For visitors, a day spent paddling shows them Minnesota’s heart and soul, and is an experience they’ll tell their friends about.

Our rivers are more than just a sleeping recreational giant — they are a slumbering identity for our state. They are more than waters moving across the land — they are part of Minnesota’s, and America’s, story: Nothing represents freedom quite like a river, a canoe and a paddle.

Our state’s rivers have carried Ojibwe and Dakota, explorers and lumberjacks, settlers and missionaries, timber and steamboats. Our cities are built on their banks, and take them as their trademarks. We paddle them, but not enough.

Minnesota’s rivers are asleep. Let’s go wake them up.


Writing about reading

Lighthouse Road cover

I recently unleashed my inner English major as I reviewed a new novel set on Minnesota’s North Shore a century ago, Peter Geye’s “The Lighthouse Road.” The book would a good read for anyone who loves Lake Superior and its history.

The review was published on the Minneapolis literary website, Mill City Bibliophile:

Fate and the Lake: Seven Ideas about “The Lighthouse Road”

I: Odd Rex

Fate and free will have been debated since the ancient Greeks believed that oracles, channeling the gods, could foretell our lives. Oedipus would kill his own father and sleep with his own mother, no matter the actions of lowly humans. His parents heard the news and abandoned the child to die, but Oedipus clawed his way back. His exertions to avoid his own fate – and those of his parents – led him directly to that which the oracle promised.

Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (which I’ve massacred through summary) came to mind while reading The Lighthouse Road, Peter Geye’s newly published novel of northern Minnesota. Here, the biggest forces of fate have nothing to do with men or gods. Instead, at these northern latitudes, the seasons dictate our lives. They rule what we eat, what we wear, what we do. There is a time for fishing and a time for mending nets, for blueberries and for root vegetables, for snowshoes and canoes.

Odd Thiede, the orphaned protagonist forever searching for shelter from the storm, is subject to a profoundly Earth-bound destiny. His fate is specifically the harsh seasons of Lake Superior’s North Shore – not the gods’ will but the natural world’s ambivalence, the relentless cycles of the Earth. To take your boat out for its maiden voyage on the big lake during November (the month of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald) is not to challenge the gods but to merely gamble your own life, weighing the chance of a storm against the chance for a future and a family. The odds of this bet are not made by any bookie, but by the wind and the water and love. It is not an affront to god, but to one’s own instinct for self-preservation.

Continue reading…


Stories of solitude and silence

Firegrate Review cover

In every creative writing class I’ve ever taken, it has been stressed that you must be specific when you write — include details. The instruction is often misinterpreted as to include all the details, or as many as possible.

The writer’s work is to choose the details that tell the story. This idea and others are discussed in the introduction I recently wrote for The Firegrate Review, Volume 2, what you might call a Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness/Greg Seitz production:

Details from the Trail

In my introduction to Volume 1 of The Firegrate Review, I wrote that “every canoe trip is a story.” That held true for me in 2011, as I managed to paddle into Lake Insula just as the Pagami Creek Fire was set to explode into the biggest wildfire in the recorded history of Minnesota.

My friend Stephen Wilbers, who has shared excerpts from his latest Boundary Waters book in this publication, told me recently that he could not have written his books without keeping a detailed journal of every trip he has taken to the wilderness over the past several decades. It made me think about how I can recall each trip I have been on, but it usually just one or two highlights: A night at a terrific campsite, a day with a bad headwind, a moose or the northern lights or a long, hard portage. I have to consult my own logs to remember the minutia.

A good story is about the details, and that is why Stephen’s journals are essential to his books. If you read his work, you inevitably feel like you were there with him, his dad, his son and the other companions that joined him in the wilderness. That is because he includes details like breaking a fishing rod, a conversation around the campfire, a solo paddle after dinner on a perfectly still lake.

Even though my experience with the Pagami Creek Fire is a story I will probably tell for the rest of my life, I hold fast to parts of that trip that had nothing to do with the fire.

One afternoon while we were camped on Insula, there was not a breath of wind, the water was perfectly calm, and the air was hazy with smoke from the fire, which was several miles away. A quarter-mile across the lake, a group of young men landed their canoe on an island and took turns jumping off a 15-foot cliff into the water.

We watched them from our campsite, and we would see the splash when they hit the water, but only a second later would we hear it. That sense of the empty expanse of water between us and the island was powerful – it amplified the vastness of the wilderness we were in, and how empty it was of humans.

Continue reading here.

Buy The Firegrate Review here.


Wilderness words

Minnesota Naturalist magazine cover
Minnesota Naturalist

Today was the third anniversary of my career as a “professional water-worshiper.” It has been at turns exhausting and exhilarating. I am often struck by simply how much I have done and experienced in these 36 months.

Luckily, my job often involves writing. I sometimes say it is the only thing I’m any good at it, and I enjoy it like really nothing else. I inherited the affliction from my Dad; a bequest that’s value is yet to be determined.

In my latest exercise of the craft, I co-authored a commentary published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press today. My partner was Kevin Proescholdt, a long-time wilderness advocate and a respected writer in his own right. We wrote about the prospect of new sulfide mine proposals, which would seek copper and nickel in the Arrowhead region:

For several years, companies proposing new mines in Minnesota have pledged to comply with our state’s environmental laws. But today they are seeking to roll back and weaken environmental protections with the help of a willing Legislature. All that talk about “doing it right” and “playing by the rules” seems to have been just that: talk.

Read the whole piece »

I believe my organization carries on some of the work of Sigurd Olson, the writer whose books about the canoe country and his passionate advocacy are largely responsible for its protected status today. My three years of work and minor written output deserve no comparison, though I take solace knowing that he was 50 before publishing his first book.

Most folks would probably associate Sig with his prose, which sang the song of “The Singing Wilderness” (the title of his first book). He had adventures all over the Boundary Waters and wild Canadian rivers, and he wrote about his trips and the profound impact wilderness could have on the human soul.

Not many people probably would associate him with the conservation issue that I wrote about above and which consumes much of my life. But, the other day I dug up a magazine from 1974 called “Minnesota Naturalist,” a special issue which was all about the issue of proposed copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota.

Sigurd Olson wrote a short introduction to the magazine. He was 75-years-old, and his words don’t quite hit the high notes of his prime, but it is unmistakably Sig. This is some of what he says:

Today this land is faced with a new threat that could destroy swiftly and forever the very qualities that engender love and dedication in those who have known it. Short term mining developments within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area or close enough to affect it adversely must be weighed now against its value as wilderness.

This is an ethical and humanitarian problem rather than one of economics and industrial development. Let us therefore plan wisely to preserve this wilderness treasure of the North … America cannot afford to lose another priceless heritage.

Read the whole introduction (PDF) »

Click the magazine cover above to see a full-size version. The whole magazine featured color photographs by Les Blacklock, and the cover is Kodachrome goodness.


The Firegrate Review

Firegrate Review logoThose who know me and know my work probably weren’t surprised when the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness announced that we’ll be publishing a chapbook this fall. It’s a special project of mine and I would love it if some of my BWCAW-loving readers sent in an essay, poem, or other writing of some sort.

We are seeking submissions from anyone who loves canoe country. Unfortunately, we don’t have the funds to offer monetary awards this year, but I hope writers might see it as a way of supporting a worthy cause and a chance to get their words in print in front of an audience of people who care deeply about the Boundary Waters.

The deadline is September 30. Click here for details and to submit your stuff!

Also, Katie and I had a great five-day trip to the Boundary Waters over Labor Day weekend. We took a lot of photos and I really do want to post a full trip report with pictures… But I have a feeling that’s going to take a while. Here’s one photo:

Mist and islands on a BWCAW lake.
Morning on South Wilder Lake... which we had all to ourselves. It was a place of intense solitude and roaring silence, quiet save the occasional red squirrel chattering from the woods or crow caw-cawing as it flew across the water. We were more than a mile from the nearest human, and about 10 miles of paddling and several portages from the nearest road.