Updated: May 6, 2020
We were almost home, if only we could navigate our way through the maze of wooded islands. After a week in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, our crew was ready to leave, though with very mixed emotions. On the one hand we were ready for the comforts that most teenagers in the mid-1990s missed, like air conditioning, television and ice cream. On the other hand, we had to say goodbye to a corner of the country which was still as wild as when the early fur trappers first dipped their paddles into the clear, deep lakes of the North Woods. But first, we needed to find our take-out point, which was somewhere obscured by the dark rocks which formed the unnamed islands along our route.
Our group was made up of about ten boys, ranging in age from 14 to 17, and two adults, both named Bob. For many of us, this trip marked the first time we had seen a black bear in the wild, let alone needing to scare one off of our food packs. This trip was the first time many of us had seen a wild bald eagle, bathed in a waterfall, or caught a northern pike. This trip was the first time any of us had been able to drink straight out of a lake as the lakes surrounding our homes near Cincinnati were too polluted to do so.
My father, one of the two adults on this adventure, handed me the map and compass while we ate our lunch on a windswept point. We had learned the importance of finding such a spot with a reliable breeze to help cut down on the number of mosquitos. During this, our last meal in the BWCAW, we paused a little longer to enjoy the beauty around us, a parting gift from the wilderness to us.
With the map safely enclosed in a clear Ziplock bag, we entered our canoes and I took a bearing with the compass, pointing our little flotilla towards the takeout point. Some boys doubted we were heading in the right direction and complained vocally that I was leading us in circles. I had no onXmaps app to verify my location, no GPS to tell me how much further we had to paddle. I had to rely on what I had been taught by my father and others about orienteering and navigation. The wilderness provided the best classroom and laboratory to test my knowledge. Eventually, and without doing circles, we arrived at the takeout point.
Today, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is under attack by some who would mine the mineral deposits just south of the wilderness. In an area where the water flows north, this mine would have a devastating impact on the water and wildlife in the area. Currently, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act (H.R. 5598) has been introduced to stop this development. While I am generally in favor of development and progress, I feel this is a line we cannot in good conscience cross.
I realize there are some who are not convinced that the Boundary Waters is an area worth saving. After all, it is in the northeastern corner of Minnesota, an area known for harsh winters and clouds of mosquitos. I would argue that there are few places on the map where one can still drink straight from the lake. There are few places where wolves, moose and bears roam under a star choked sky. There are even fewer places where motorized boat traffic is prohibited and canoes can wander for hundreds of unimpeded miles, broken only by portages and rapids.
Letting a corporation build a mine on the borders of pristine wilderness is akin to someone else setting up an outhouse on the other side of your fence. While your new neighbor may have all the right permits and authorizations to set up that outhouse, what would that do to your property value? What about your quality of life?
Wilderness represents the heart and soul of our nation. We seek adventure, solitude, and recreation among its forests and streams. Perhaps we hunt and fish the bounty of its meadows and lakes, or nap within its shade. Losing wilderness means losing connection. Losing the ability to connect to portions of our country which are largely unchanged since the inception of time relegates us to humans having a synthetic experience in an industrialized world. While that might bring financial prosperity to some and tax revenues to local and national governments, it eliminates the ability for future generations to experience lessons which can only be taught in places like the North Woods. How will children build the confidence they need to succeed academically and professionally if they do not gain real world experience? In my case, navigating a group of 12 through an endless chain of islands which all looked alike gave me the confidence to attempt even harder endeavors in college and in my career. Learning how to hang a bear bag taught me the value of following directions and thinking creatively when few suitable trees were to be found. Where but the wilderness can these lessons be taught then immediately applied?
Maybe it is selfish to advocate for the preservation of an area which gave me so much. But that is the point of wild places. They always give more than they take. Perhaps as humans, there is still much we have to learn from the wilderness.