Early-morning glass on a Boundary Waters lake
Hansi Johnson
Early-morning glass on a Boundary Waters lake
Early-morning glass on a Boundary Waters lake (Hansi Johnson)

The Uncertain Future of the Boundary Waters

At 1.1 million acres, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is one of the largest and most popular backcountry destinations in the U.S. and a longtime proving ground for adventurers. But now the region is facing the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining. Stephanie Pearson paddles into the wild.

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The new moon is invisible, and the night is black.

My sister, Jen, is paddling in the stern. Her shivering wobbles the bow where I’m sitting. Canoeing in 45-degree weather at midnight dressed in T-shirts and underwear is not our normal behavior while camping in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in September. But an enormous black bear is on its hind legs, ten feet away, aggressively swiping at the food pack dangling from a low tree branch at our campsite. By the sound of its grunts, it’s hungry.

In our panic, we failed to forage for layers. Jen scooped up her sleeping bag and white Labrador, Sunny, I grabbed my knife and headlamp, and we tripped over ourselves to get to the water’s edge, where we launched the canoe.

“Can you see it?” Jen asks while Sunny barks in docile intervals. The dog’s genes have been so greatly diluted that she doesn’t seem to be aware that we’re facing a wild animal that can run at speeds up to 30 miles per hour and swim long distances.

“I think it’s right under the pack,” I say. The bear blends so well into the night that it’s impossible to see, until my headlamp catches the glow of its eyes staring us down. It’s dipping a clawed toe into the lake, as if testing the water to determine whether it’s too cold to swim after us. There’s something about its crystalline gaze that makes it look ruthless, like the grizzly that mauled Leo­nardo DiCaprio’s character in The Revenant.

“Maybe we should have put the food pack on the island across from our campsite,” I say, calculating how long the Clif Bar I stashed in my fanny pack will last two humans and a dog.

Combined, my sister and I have spanned almost a century paddling in the Boundary Waters, a 1.1-million-acre roadless wilderness rich with 1,100 lakes, some so massive that they take days to cross, others so small that you can swim to the other side, most filled with water so fresh that diehard paddlers don’t bother to filter it. In total there are 1,200 miles of canoe routes lined by over 2,000 campsites. Jen and I visited the Boundary Waters first as tagalongs with our father, a Lutheran pastor, on his youth-group canoe trips, then on our own family’s trips. Later we returned as college-age guides for Wilderness Canoe Base, a camp on Seagull Lake, at the northeastern edge of the Boundary Waters, and finally on annual trips as often as we can escape adulthood, which isn’t too hard for me, but my sister is a married physician with three kids.

In college, Jen and I spent entire summers on trail, camping for weeks at a time in this wilderness, mostly guiding urban teens. I’ve evacuated a kid with a deep cut a day’s paddle from help. I’ve been caught in the middle of the lake with my hair rising straight in salute to an incoming electrical storm. I’ve carried a canoe eight miles over the Grand Portage, a rugged historical superhighway once used by Ojibwe hunters and French voyageurs to reach Lake Superior. And I’ve cooked countless soggy meals over an open fire in the rain for hungry, nearly hypothermic campers.

That the bear is now destroying our pack is a result of a lack of vigilance and perfect weather. This morning was one of those rare, glorious late-summer days, with temperatures hovering around 80 and a cloudless blue sky from which the sun shone down on the water to create shimmering diamonds in the ripples. The effect was so mesmerizing that it made us lazy.

Entry points to this wilderness are tightly regulated, and some require a reservation a year in advance. Surprisingly, I found a last-minute permit to put in our canoe at a lake 18 miles northeast of Ely, a former iron-ore mining town turned tourist destination of 3,400 year-round residents that sits near the terminus of Minnesota Highway 169, almost a stone’s throw from Canada. We planned to paddle quickly through two small lakes, then portage, with Jen carrying the canoe and me carrying the packs over a rocky, half-mile-long trail into the placid Kawishiwi River and beyond. Our goal was to spend a luxurious five days in the woods, veering off into remote lakes that neither of us have seen.

On our first day, we lined the canoe through riffly, benign rapids and plopped down on a granite rock for an hourlong lunch break, picking all the M&M’s out of the trail mix to eat first. From there we paddled and portaged through five more lakes, passing an area deeply scarred by a 2011 forest fire where new spruce were starting their climb toward the sun. By late afternoon, we’d paddled into a small, isolated lake and found a campsite with a sprawling granite slab sloping into the water, lined by pillowy white pines and graced with a flat tent pad. The only missing element was an easily accessible tree branch strong and high enough to hang our food pack. It had been more than 20 years since either of us encountered a bear in the Boundary Waters, so we nonchalantly hung the pack on a branch precariously near our tent. We were impatient to toast the luxurious weather and reminisce away our grief over our father’s recent death.

“Do you remember the time Dad hung two fishing lures in a tree and shined a flashlight to make them glow like a bear’s eyes?” Jen laughed. “He scared the bejesus out of us.”

“My earliest memory of the Boundary Waters is being ridiculed by my older siblings,” I said.

“You probably were ridiculed, especially when you were six years old and came out of the tent in a frilly flannel nightgown on Lake Gabimichigami,” Jen said. “Dad forgot to check what you had packed.”

The author’s father, grandparents, and other relatives on Lake Vermilion in 1942
The author’s father, grandparents, and other relatives on Lake Vermilion in 1942 (Courtesy Pearson Family)

Jen and I laughed until tears streamed down our faces, remembering misadventures led by our father, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian prankster and the man who ebulliently introduced his five kids to the Boundary Waters when Jen was seven and I was three. Since our parents already owned a canoe and a tent, it was by far the least expensive way for them to share the raw joy of the wilderness with us. In November 2017, Dad died of melanoma. As we watched the setting sun sparkle on the water, we had no idea that our existential loss would soon be overshadowed by the very acute loss of our food.

“The good news is that our pack will be a lot less heavy with no food in it,” I say, shiv­ering in the canoe after what seems like hours. Once the bear, tiring of its piñata game, had retreated into the woods long enough for us to feel safe about returning to the tent, we grabbed my sleeping bag and our pads and paddled to a rocky islet a quarter-mile out from our campsite.

“Now, this is living,” Jen laughs as she lies down atop a cliff ten feet above the water. She falls instantly asleep, with Sunny curled at her side.

I stare up at the Milky Way. If I had been in a tent, I wouldn’t have seen this mysterious blaze of billions of stars. I stay awake all night, talking to my dad in my mind, wondering if the bear is his last big cosmic joke on his daughters.

At daybreak, when Jen and I return to the campsite, the food pack is still hanging in the tree, albeit with a ragged hole in one corner. All six chocolate bars, the gorp, the cheese, the cashews, and the dried mango are gone. Baby carrots are scattered everywhere, along with four packets of oatmeal and a bag of coffee, which has a claw hole slashed through its center. The coffee filters are missing, so we find a clean pair of quick-drying underwear in our tent and use the fabric.

“It was our own damn fault,” Jen says as we warm up in the sun, sipping coffee and consulting our maps to retrace yesterday’s route back to the car. “This will teach us to never get too complacent.”

Complacency, change, and loss are three factors that weigh heavily on me these days. As a kid, I assumed that these lakes and woods would remain pristine forever. Now, like the much fought-over Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, this wilderness, too, is in danger. The issue in northeastern Minnesota is a decades-long battle over mining.

Designated in 1964, the Boundary Waters is the most visited wilderness area in the U.S., averaging 155,000 people per year—mainly anglers here to fish for walleye and paddlers who travel among bald eagles, wolves, coyotes, deer, lynx, moose, and, yes, black bears, while moving under their own power past dense pine forests and granite cliffs. When the sun goes down in late summer through winter, the northern lights often dance across the sky.

For centuries paddlers have plied these waters, starting with the Anishinabek and, later, the French voyageurs, pushing westward in search of beaver pelts and a passage to the Pacific Ocean. Because of its harsh climate and rugged landscape, northern Minnesota has also bred explorers like Will Steger and Paul Schurke, the co-leaders of the first unsupported dogsled journey to the North Pole, in 1986. Both men still live near Ely and use this wilderness as a jumping-off point for exploration.

“I see the Boundary Waters as the first strip of wilderness leading to the Arctic,” Steger told me when I visited him at his homestead outside Ely. In 1985, he traveled 5,000 miles from here to Barrow, Alaska, with a dogsled team. “It’s probably as dangerous north of here as any other place I’ve seen,” he said. “These are big lakes. If you capsize in cold water, you’re not going to live.”

Schurke, who owns Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge near the Boundary Waters and has led many expeditions in the Arctic and the Amazon, said, “The great thing about the Boundary Waters is that it’s wilderness on a human scale. You’re up close and personal every step of the way with the boreal forest, the pristine waters, the exquisite flora and fauna, and the endless shades of blue, green, and brown. It’s wilderness that’s accessible physically and emotionally to people of all ages.”

In September 2015, adventurers Amy and Dave Freeman embarked on a yearlong paddling, dogsledding, and camping expedition in the Boundary Waters as a way to advocate for the wilderness. “One of the best parts about the Boundary Waters is that you can plop a toddler in a canoe and take them out for a sunny July camping trip,” Dave told me. “But this place has moods. In spring and fall, the lakes are freezing and you’re totally isolated. You can challenge yourself in ways that would be like navigating the far reaches of Canada or the heart of the Amazon. There’s constantly challenging conditions, especially in the winter, when it’s 40 below zero and exposed skin starts to freeze in seconds.”

Mining has long been a part of this region, too. South and west of the Boundary Waters, iron ore and its derivative, taconite, have been heavily extracted for more than a century. Between 1888 and 1967, Ely’s five mines produced more than 86 million tons of iron ore. The amount of iron ore mined in northern Minnesota between 1892 and 2018 exceeded 5.1 billion tons, more than three-quarters of the country’s total production.

The irony isn’t lost on me that in 1883, my great-grandfather, Peter Pearson, left Sweden to start a new life in the mining and logging boomtown of Tower, 20 miles west of Ely. Peter logged until 1909, when he could afford to move his wife, Josephine, also a Swedish immigrant, and their growing family onto a homestead ten miles from town.

My grandfather William spent his rare free time fishing and swimming with his eight siblings in Lake Vermilion, a 62-square-mile body of water that sits adjacent to what is now the Boundary Waters. My dad grew up two hours south in Duluth, and in 1963 he honeymooned with my mom on the same Lake Vermilion island where his parents took him on vacation as a boy. Mom and Dad returned from that trip the proud owners of a one-acre piece of shoreline property shaded by towering Norway pines. They built a single-room cabin that eventually grew into their year-round home. Every summer of my childhood I ran around that island, building forts, taking saunas, fishing for walleye, and learning how to flip Swedish pancakes over our outdoor stone fireplace. From our cabin, we could paddle and portage straight into the Boundary Waters. We took the abundance of fresh, clean water for granted. That line of thinking, I have come to realize, is dangerously naive.

Traditional iron-ore mines are almost depleted in northern Minnesota. But the Duluth Complex, an eyelid-shaped mineral deposit that begins southwest of Duluth and arcs 150 miles northeast through Superior National Forest and portions of the Boundary Waters, reportedly holds four billion tons of copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, silver, and gold that could be worth more than $1 trillion.

In 1978, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act banned mining within the wilderness and established a 222,000-acre protected zone along entry corridors that would further shield fish and wildlife and ensure the highest water-quality standards throughout the entire Rainy River Drainage Basin, which also encompasses nearby Voyageurs National Park. But in 1966, preceding the ban, the Bureau of Land Management had issued two 20-year federal mineral leases on 4,800 acres of Forest Service land, one directly adjacent to the Boundary Waters and the other within five miles. Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta, eventually acquired them. The leases are within the 1854 Treaty Area, lands that the Chippewa ceded to the federal government in exchange for payments and provisions, in addition to reserving the right to hunt, fish, and gather in perpetuity.

The leases have been renewed twice, in ten-year increments. Since 2005, Twin Metals has drilled more than 1.4 million feet of core samples from 700 holes in preparation for an estimated $1.6 billion underground copper, nickel, and precious-metals mine located approximately nine miles southeast of Ely. Twin Metals’ efforts stalled out during the Obama administration, after the BLM denied a third lease-renewal request in 2016, citing environmental risks. But in May 2018, the Interior Department under the Trump administration reinstated the two leases. And in December 2018, the BLM proposed to renew the leases for ten more years, pending the completion of the agency’s process, which includes reviewing 39,000 public comments in response to its environmental-assessment report. On May 15 of this year, the BLM renewed the leases.

“This place has moods,” adventurer Dave Freeman says. “In spring and fall, the lakes are freezing and you’re totally isolated. You can challenge yourself in ways that would be like navigating the far reaches of Canada or the heart of the Amazon.”

What has many concerned about mining in this area is that the Duluth Complex metals are contained in sulfide ore, which would require a vastly different extraction process than the one used by the region’s traditional iron-ore mines. When sulfide ore and its waste tailings are exposed to air and moisture, sulfuric acid is created. Water is the vehicle through which sulfuric-acid compounds can leach from mine sites and create acidic drainage, which can contaminate lakes, rivers, groundwater, and everything living in them.

“The primary difference is that the iron ore mined in Minnesota and the rest of the world is basically a sulfide mineral that has already been oxidized,” says David Chambers, a geophysicist and president of the Montana-based Center for Science in Public Participation. “When you mine nonoxidized ore for copper, nickel, lead, and zinc, the waste contains sulfide minerals, which are the primary threat for acid drainage. And that’s typically toxic to aquatic species at relatively low levels.”

Twin Metals has not yet released the plan of operation for its proposed mine. But spokesman David Ulrich says the company is creating underground mining techniques and other design considerations that will meet or exceed local, state, and federal regulations to minimize and avoid environmental impacts. Ulrich also cites that “21st-century technology allows us to do our work with remarkable precision and safety.”

While sulfide-ore mining techniques vary and continue to evolve, in the past some safety records have caused concern. A 2012 study by the nonprofit Earthworks reviewed 14 U.S. sulfide-ore copper mines—­predominately open-pit—which produced 89 percent of the country’s copper in 2010, the most recent data available from the U.S. Geological Survey. All the mines experienced pipeline spills or other accidental releases. Tailings spills occurred at nine operations, and at 13 of the 14 mines, the study says, “water collection and treatment systems have failed to control contaminated mine seepage, resulting in significant water-quality impacts.”

That risk is more worrisome in Minnesota, where 6 percent of the surface area is water—more than any other state in the country. The three-million-acre Superior National Forest, which contains the Boundary Waters, holds 20 percent of the fresh water in the U.S. national-forest system. It also borders Lake Superior, the largest and least polluted of the Great Lakes, which holds 10 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. The Kawishiwi River, which my sister and I paddled, is under such threat from the potential mine that the nonprofit advocacy group American Rivers designated it the third most endangered river of 2018.

Now that the federal mineral leases have been renewed, Twin Metals will submit its formal plan of operation to the BLM. According to Ulrich, it expects to do that “in the near future.” Once the plan is submitted, it will undergo a complex environmental review, involving multiple state and federal agencies and including time for public commentary, in order for the BLM to create a final environmental-impact statement. If the plan is approved, Twin Metals must obtain permits from various regulatory agencies. The entire process can take years. (But approval can happen. In March, after more than a decade-long environmental review process, the company PolyMet was granted its final permit by the Army Corps of Engineers for a separate sulfide-ore copper-nickel mining project 52 miles southwest of Ely. PolyMet hasn’t announced a timeline for the mining to begin.)

Last June, after the federal mineral leases were reinstated, nine northeastern Minnesota businesses and one environmental group joined forces to sue the Interior Department, seeking to overturn the decision. That lawsuit is pending. Meanwhile, Congress has requested the government documents and scientific and economic reports that administration officials used to justify the lease reinstatements.

“The Boundary Waters is being challenged by forces unlike anything we’ve seen in decades, if not a century,” Ely native Becky Rom, a former corporate lawyer and the national chairwoman of the six-year-old Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, recently told a group of supporters.

For people who enter the Boundary Waters from the west, the gateway is Ely, a town of hipster tourist cafés, dark taverns, trinket shops, and canoes stacked five high on outfitter lawns. Adventurers, miners, artists, and environmentalists live side by side yet are sharply divided about how to use and protect the surrounding woods and waters.

A study published in 2018 by Harvard University economist James H. Stock showed that over a 20-year period, an economy based on copper, nickel, and precious-metal mining would provide temporary growth in employment and income, but because of the boom-bust cycle of mining, it would ultimately underperform and potentially harm Ely’s current economy, which is based on the outdoor-recreation industry and people moving to the area for its beauty and livability.

For its part, Twin Metals says that the mine project would create hundreds of jobs in the region. Joe Baltich, the owner of the Northwind Lodge and Red Rock Wilderness Store, is in favor of that. Baltich served as the mayor of Ely in 1985 and is the founder of the nonprofit Fight for Mining Minnesota. “The best path forward, I maintain, is solid employment through mineral resource use,” he tells me over the phone. “We’re sitting on a natural resource that is worth $500 billion. There’s enough in that hole to make our taxes go away and still make money.” And, he adds, “The anti-miners are anti-everything. When it comes down to it, they don’t even want you to touch the Boundary Waters.”

“It’s a Chicken Little thing. ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling,’ ” says mining consultant Jay Mackie, who grew up in the middle of what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (In 1965, the federal government moved his family off their land to create the BWCAW.) “Minnesota has the most stringent environmental rules in the nation,” he says. “If the permits are issued according to those rules, then I have no problem with the mine going forward. I think it’s for the strategic benefit of the United States, and it will benefit the area big-time. Tourism here does not pay a living wage to any multitude of people for 12 months.”

If not yet outwardly hostile, the vibe in Ely is certainly tense. “Mining is of course the elephant in the town,” says Steve Piragis, a lake ecologist and the owner of Ely canoe outfitter Piragis Northwoods Company, one of the businesses suing the Interior Department. “The undercurrent is silent but deafening.”

Mackie, who has lived in or near Ely his entire life, told me, “I’m 76 years old, and I have never seen the polarization like it is today. There’s no reasoning, there’s no communication, there’s no nothing, and that’s the sad part.”

It’s hard to live with that tension, Piragis tells me. But, he says, “Our business depends on the purity of the wilderness experience, and Ely’s prosperity depends on it as well. With so few untrammeled wildlands still holding on, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is worth all we can do to help save it. This geographic wonder of 1,100 lakes in a million acres exists nowhere else on the globe.”

I’ve sent letters to politicians and participated in protests, but my only true antidote is to paddle these lakes as much as I can. Last August, a month before my sister and I set out, I rallied my boyfriend, Brian Hayden, to canoe a circuitous route bordering Canada that I frequently traveled with teen campers 30 years ago.

More of a cyclist than a paddler, Brian hasn’t camped in the Boundary Waters for years. “It’s exactly as I remember it,” he says on the first night, as we watch a loon dive underwater while we swat mosquitoes at sundown. “The water is so crystal clear.”

By day two of our four-day trip, we’ve paddled and portaged across six lakes into the fickle big water of 4,919-acre Knife Lake. We start early, paddling the length of it into South Arm Knife Lake, passing eight loons, a few soaring eagles, and a burn area that disorients me. In 2013, a forest fire charred nearly 200 acres, and instead of the towering pines and mountainous relief of my memories, the shoreline feels sparse and barren, like the Arctic tundra in summertime. But the water is still luxuriously cool and fresh, and the way it drizzles off my paddle with every stroke puts me in a trance I’ve known since I was three years old.

“With so few untrammeled wildlands still holding on, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is worth all we can do to help save it,” says Ely local Steve Piragis. “This geographic wonder of 1,100 lakes in a million acres exists nowhere else on the globe.”

The beauty of a canoe trip is that when you’re paddling, you have nothing else to do but take in the scenery, monitor the weather, talk, and think. I think about all the people nationwide who have stepped up in support of this wilderness. Since Becky Rom and other Ely business leaders organized the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters in 2013, more than 340,000 Americans have publicly commented to the federal government in support of protecting it.

Last summer, 17-year-old Joseph Goldstein, a leukemia survivor from Springfield, Illinois, formed Kids for the Boundary Waters, an arm of the Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness organization “run by kids for kids who know and love the Boundary Waters.”

“The Boundary Waters is like a gateway drug,” Goldstein says in his promotional video. “It opens the doors for adventure.”

Filmmaker and ski mountaineer Jimmy Chin grew up in southern Minnesota and still supports his home-state wilderness through the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “It’s true untouched wilderness, and its intrinsic value as such cannot be overstated,” he wrote me in an e-mail. “But it’s so much more. It’s priceless habitat, its forests are critical for carbon capture, and it’s one of the places left to offset the other wilderness areas we are destroying and giving up to mining interests.”

By midafternoon, Brian and I paddle out of the burn and find a site with a rocky point that faces east toward tomorrow’s sunrise. The lake is legendary for its walleye and trout, but Brian and I neglected to pack fishing rods. Instead, he jury-rigs a tarp over our cooking area while I gather water and scout a tree for the bear pack. When our chores are finished, we strip and splash into the calm, cool water, swimming laps around a small island sprouting six miniature white pines.

What strikes us both as we stretch out on the flat rock to dry off is the absence of noise—no call of a loon, gentle lap of waves, or wind whistling through the pines. Instead, we feel the eerie pre-storm silence of the woods, before the sky turns pink, the clouds roll in, and all hell breaks loose in the heavens.

Until then, we lie in awed wonder.

“You don’t hear silence like this anymore,” Brian says, intermittently dozing off in the sun. Eventually, the rain comes in steady, gentle drops, and we suit up in raingear to explore the hill behind our campsite, where we find hundreds of plump, juicy blueberries.

“Let’s leave some for the bears,” Brian says, laughing at my blue teeth.

Done with our berries and a dinner of freeze-dried Thai noodles, we zip into the tent and fall asleep until the storm converges on us, the cracks of thunder and lightning flaring frighteningly close together.

The next morning breaks clear and smells clean. We dry out our gear, eat breakfast burritos, and load up to start the return paddle toward Ely via a string of six lakes that border Canada. The sun is bright, the wind is at our back, and we pass a half-dozen turtles sunning themselves on scattered rocks and a family of otters splashing along the shoreline. We don’t say much, mostly because I’m struggling to feel the peace that, until now, this place has emanated. These lakes are where my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, my mother, my siblings and I, and countless others before and after us first felt the joy and freedom of the wilderness. If this million-acre universe of wild things and fresh, clean water is ever contaminated, I think, what else is there?

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