Saving The World's Greatest Canoe Area
By Mark Steinbuck, KEEN Grants and Community Specialist
The Northwoods always held a certain fascination for me. Back in the ‘60s, my grandparents hand-built a cabin on a small lake in the Nicolet National Forest, which sits to the west of Lake Michigan and to the south of Lake Superior. Growing up in Chicagoland, I never wanted to be in the city. By day, I longed to be at the cabin swimming in the lake, casting my line or rowing the boat; by night, catching frogs, slapping mosquitos, or staring into the embers of the fire. All in all, a more idyllic existence.
What I didn’t know as a kid was that I was within the southern extremity of an expansive forest and lakes system. Repeatedly redefined over millennia, the Laurentide Ice Sheet carved out massive tracts of rock and soil and left in its recessions a vast network of lakes as large as Lake Superior and as small as our little Star Lake in Wisconsin.
A Special Kind of Magic in America's Heartland
Keep going north from the cabin, past Duluth on Dylan’s Highway 61, and hang a left toward Ely, Minnesota. You are now in Superior National Forest, and the lakes start to look different. There are thousands of them, devoid of dense housing peppering the shores, and visitors like the timber wolf, moose, marten, and loon appear.
Known as the Arrowhead Region, this slice of Minnesota is unlike anything else in the United States: a sensitive boreal ecosystem that is, in certain places, now celebrating its 40th anniversary of protection through the Wilderness Act. The protected area, known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, is wholly unique. A 1.1-million-acre system composed of 237 miles of backcountry trails, 1,200 miles of paddling routes and 2,000 designated campsites, it represents the vestigial sacred grove of the Upper Midwestern wilderness—a vast region of the country utterly devoid of any other wilderness designations.
A Canoe Area is a landscape so broken up by water that it’s better thought of as a waterscape broken up by land.
A “Canoe Area” is not well-known to the American lexicon. Sadly, it does not appear in Barry Lopez’s celebrated reference book “Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape.” Hell, it’s not even on Wikipedia. But allow me to define it here: A Canoe Area is a landscape so broken up by water that it’s better thought of as a waterscape broken up by land. Except when portaging, it is impassable by dry foot, and so the canoe reigns supreme as the method of travel here since generations of indigenous peoples populated it following the last recession of the ice sheet. If you’re heading north into Canada anywhere in the Arrowhead region west of Lake Superior, you’re doing it in a canoe.
Assessing the Threats to the Boundary Waters
As with most protected areas, the limits of the Boundary Waters end at an often-arbitrary line inscribed on a map, usually cutting indiscriminately through the middle of lakes and along narrow portages. Unfortunately, the geology of the Arrowhead knows little of these recent political discriminations. Underneath the surface lies a vast network of interconnected drainages that extend well beyond the Wilderness Area and into areas long sought after for mining and other forms of development.
No matter if our roots and our wilderness experience is in Idaho or the canyons of Utah, this place right here is special, and we all have to do our part to help it stay here.
– Story Camp participant
As the people of the Arrowhead do not just canoe, and do not survive solely on an outdoor recreation economy, the settlers of the 19th and 20th centuries have often been drawn in and supported by the mining and extraction of natural resources like metals or timber. Some of these ventures have threatened the ecological integrity of the Boundary Waters to various degrees, and others have not. To assess the level of any threat posed by mining, the EPA has historically done its due diligence in conducting scientific environmental reviews to balance what is necessary to sustain the local population without taking on outsized risks.
But on September 6, 2018, the Trump Administration canceled all scientific reviews and opened up lands within Superior National Forest on the edge of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and its adjacent major river, the Kawishiwii, to copper-sulfide mining and development, an act some have described as the most dangerous threat to this place in memory.
Story Camp: Joining Together to Reflect on the Lakes
Just two days after the announcement to green-light all mining leases without review, a few co-workers and I traveled across the country to hold a public open-mic session called Story Camp on the boundary of the Wilderness, where we canoed the lakes during the day and told stories around the fire at night, just as I did on the lakes as a kid.
At that session, we heard voices both local and visiting tell stories in support of the ecological integrity of the landscape, good times had with friends fishing, the power of the lakes to heal broken lives and spirits, and how a true wilderness setting can uniquely empower young women to test their strengths.
Much of our future generation’s ability to relive these stories will be destroyed by the acid mine drainages that are the potential impact of copper-sulfide mining on the edge of the Upper Midwest’s only wilderness.
Our interest in supporting the Save the Boundary Waters campaign is to advocate that, at bare minimum, we need scientific reviews so that our government agencies can carry out due diligence in protecting the American public and our lands from the disastrous consequences of development. At best, we need to maintain the full integrity of our most valuable, bio-diverse, unique and story-filled landscapes across the country.
As we learned from nearly four hours of storytelling at Story Camp, this landscape is alive with stories of love for, and growth within, this place. A storyteller left us, the audience, silent with the wisdom of his position earned through decades of love for an area much of the country is unaware of:
"That place [the Kawishiwii River] represents not just something special to me, but it’s pretty much the heart of the wilderness. It bleeds into the hearts of the wilderness. And no matter if our roots and our wilderness experience is in Idaho or the canyons of Utah, this place right here is special, and we all have to do our part to help it stay here. We don’t have a choice anymore. We have to find our roots. We have to find what’s important. We have to share it, and stand up for it."
Want to Help?
As of December 2020, the effort to protect Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness continues. If you’d like to take action on behalf of the BWCAW, please visit bettertakesaction.com to find this and many other call scripts advocating for public lands and other important conservation issues. You can also visit Save the Boundary Waters to learn more and support their work.