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A Watershed Moment for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Nate Ptacek  /  April 9, 2013  /  5 Min Read  /  Activism

Brushing past lily pads, my canoe cuts through the serene calm of a September evening. I glide silently under massive pines in the fading light, careful to avoid the weathered snags of black spruce jutting out from shore. The water is still warm, but there is a slight chill in the air – a reminder that the brief northern summer is waning.

Suddenly, the silence is broken by a loud buzz. With a few draw strokes, I reach the source – a large dragonfly is trapped on the water’s surface, blown into the lake during a passing storm just an hour before. Ripples echo out in a delicate pattern as she struggles to take flight. Instinctively, I reach into the water, taking care not to crush her wings as she trembles wildly in my grasp.

Video: Watershed by Nate Ptacek

Now in the safety of my canoe, she crawls over my hand, shaking off beads of water and slowly flexing her wings in the evening air. One wing is broken, and I wonder if she will be able to fly again. Minutes pass as I gaze in awe, my canoe drifting ever closer to shore.  Then, without notice, she takes flight, haphazardly landing on a cedar bough at first, and then off again into the forest night. Beaming with joy, I land my canoe at our campsite, where my companions gather water and build a fire – the nightly rituals of life in canoe country.

Out for a solo paddle on Otto Lake. BWCA Wilderness, Minnesota. Photo: Nate Ptacek

The dragonfly just moments before taking flight. Otto Lake, BWCA Wilderness, Minnesota. Photo: Nate Ptacek

Nick Brady and Ben Goforth relax in camp after a long day on the water. Long Island Lake, BWCA Wilderness, Minnesota. Photo: Nate Ptacek

Moments like this are the reason I make an annual pilgrimage to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), a vast million-acre wilderness of lakes and boreal forest along the Minnesota-Canadian border. It is a landscape seemingly frozen in time, where I go seeking solitude and solace. But my cherished canoe trips here would not be possible were it not for the hard work of a small group of people nearly forty years ago.

In the face of increasing motorized vehicle use, logging and development, The Friends of the Boundary Waters was formed in 1976 to advocate for full wilderness protection of the BWCA. After much debate, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1978, designating 1,098,057 acres as federally protected wilderness. Today, with more than 200,000 annual visitors, the BWCA is the most visited wilderness area in the nation.

The Friends have diligently continued their work, leading the way on acid rain issues in the 1970s and 1980s and working to restore the natural fire cycles of the boreal forest ecosystem. They remain vigilant in their work to preserve the character of the region for future generations.

It’s Nick Brady’s turn to carry on a swampy, seldom used portage into the east branch of Otto Lake. BWCA Wilderness, Minnesota. Photo: Nate Ptacek

Today, an even greater challenge looms on the horizon: two major sulfide mines have recently been proposed in northern Minnesota. A Canadian firm is furthest along, actively exploring an open-pit site located in a 1,600-acre wetland within the St. Louis (Lake Superior) watershed that would pave the way for future mines. Another firm seeks to operate an underground mine extracting 80,000 tons of ore daily just three miles from the BWCA and along one of the major entry points to the wilderness area.

Seeking copper and nickel from sulfide-bearing ores, these mines would produce a tremendous amount of waste rock that, when exposed to air and rain, creates sulfuric acid and toxic metal discharge. Processed mine waste, called tailings, can also leach harmful polluted drainage. At mines of this type across the country, runoff from waste rock and tailings have led to significant water contamination and subsequent damage to fish, wildlife, and even human health. Even more unsettling, the track record for mines of this type is not positive when it comes to polluting nearby waters.

This is truly a watershed moment for the BWCA, where the decisions we make today will determine the future of our wilderness heritage forever. I know firsthand what is at stake – not just the wilderness itself, but also the countless moments experienced there. So as The Friends of the Boundary Waters stand up to protect the wilderness once again, I will be standing with them.

Photo: Nate Ptacek

If you’re concerned about sulfide mining in northern Minnesota, educate yourself on the issue, speak up to your friends and relatives and reach out to your representatives to let them know how you feel.

Since December of 2001, Patagonia has supported the Friends of the Boundary Waters and the important work they do with $38,050 of grant funding – the extra $50 was from a Patagonia employee-match on Minnesota’s Give to the Max day (thanks, Mary!). Help protect the wilderness for future generations by making an online donation today.

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