Finding Stillness in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters in the Age of Trump
In the summer of 2014, Thomas Tidwell, who had worked for the U.S. Forest Service for thirty-seven years, the last five of those as its chief, decided to visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a mosaic of more than a thousand lakes and rivers on almost 1.1 million acres in northern Minnesota, along the Canadian border. A Chilean company, Antofagasta, had asked to renew two leases on land very near the wilderness area, where the firm intended to mine for copper. The U.S. Forest Service, which was later given the authority to grant or deny the request, would hold hearings and look at scientific data, both about the watershed and the kind of mining proposed. But Tidwell wanted to see the area for himself. That summer, in a Beaver float plane typically used for search and rescue, Tidwell became one of the few people to observe the B.W.C.A.W. from the air. In 1949, President Truman signed an executive order prohibiting all private and commercial aircraft from flying below four thousand feet over the area. Tidwell had grown up in Idaho and spent much of his career in the West; he was familiar with places like the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Utah’s Wasatch-Cache National Forest, but what he saw from the air over the B.W.C.A.W.s left him awestruck. “I couldn’t believe the beauty of the area,” he told me. “And how much water there was. It gave me this sense of wonder—a place where you could get away from everything.”
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Two and a half years later, in December of 2016, after an extensive study, the U.S. Forest Service denied the renewal of the leases in a detailed, strongly-worded twenty-eight-page letter to the director of the Bureau of Land Management. “I find unacceptable the inherent potential risk that development of a regionally-untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the B.W.C.A.W. might cause serious and irreplaceable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area,” Tidwell wrote. However, when Donald Trump took office, the next year, his Administration revoked the Forest Service’s authority on the issue, and effectively reversed the decision. Antofagasta has since taken the first major step to mine copper along what may well be one of the nation’s most bewitching landscapes. As Tidwell told me, “There’s no place like it in the country. There are places where mining feels like a realistic option. This is the wrong place.”
I first came to the B.W.C.A.W. in the summer of 1975. I had taken a break from college and had just finished working as a community organizer in Atlanta—an exhilarating experience but also one that left me exhausted and unsure of what lay ahead. I flew to Minneapolis to visit a friend who attended college nearby, and we decided to ride our bikes to Duluth and then up Highway 61 (yes, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61) along the Lake Superior shoreline. From a small shore town, Grand Marais, we headed up the Gunflint Trail, a winding road that was then partly gravel, and which extends fifty-seven miles to the northeast corner of the wilderness area. There we rented an aluminum canoe and Duluth packs, and followed a snaking river into a series of lakes, each of its own shape and character, each more beautiful than the last. I had never experienced such stillness. Indeed, it’s the wondrous paradox of the B.W.C.A.W. that although it’s easily accessible—roughly a hundred and fifty thousand people visit each year—within a day or two of paddling you can go days without seeing another person. There are few vistas from which you can inhale the landscape. Rather, travelling these connected waterways, one feels embedded in the wild, as if curled up on a couch, unaware and unconcerned with what’s happening in the house next door.
I fell in love. Every summer for the past forty-four years, I have headed north—with friends; with children; even, on one occasion, with strangers. Except for a brief period of seven years when I, along with my regular paddling companions, ventured into Canada to run white-water rivers, my destination has been the B.W.C.A.W. I grew up in Manhattan and have spent most of my adult life in Chicago, so I think it’s fair to say I’m a city boy. But I feel most at home on the water, travelling by canoe (now lightweight Kevlar, rather than aluminum). It’s there, in the B.W.C.A.W., that I find solace—where I shed my anxieties and worries; where I can jump from small cliffs into deep, clear waters; where I can eat freshly caught trout; where I can be serenaded by the mournful wails of the loons as they welcome in the night. When I’m not there, I yearn for it. As the naturalist writer Terry Tempest Williams has written, “If you know wilderness in the way you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go.”
I recently spent seven days in the B.W.C.A.W., where my friend and I paddled and portaged hard the first day—the lakes are connected by rough-hewn portages through the woods, some as short as eighty feet, others as long as several miles—so that, for four nights, we had lakes completely to ourselves. The distances to other lakes are long, and the boreal forest is so thick with pine and spruce that, if people were on adjacent bodies of water, we had no way of knowing. The lakes in the B.W.C.A.W. range in size: some are as small as a city block, and at least one is nearly three times the length of Manhattan. Some have been given descriptive monikers: Fat Lake, Slim Lake, Clearwater Lake, Thumb Lake. Others have roots in the Ojibwe language: Ogishkemuncie, Ge-be-on-equat, Saganaga. And still others are more prosaic, presumably named after loggers and trappers and their girlfriends or wives: Lake Eugene, Tin Can Mike, Phoebe, Ima. On this trip, we spent two nights on Finger Lake, a body of water that—as the name suggests—is marked by a series of bays and inlets. We camped on rocks overlooking the water, where we bathed and fished, and stood outside our tents one night to listen to a pack of wolves howling from across the lake, a baying filled both with eeriness and nobility.
People marvel at the quiet there. The naturalist and writer Sigurd Olson, who made his home in Ely, a town of a few thousand along the western end of the B.W.C.A.W., wrote in one of his many essays of a moment “before dawn.” “The lake was breathing softly as in sleep; rising and falling, it seemed to me to absorb like a great sponge all the sounds of the earth,” he wrote. “It was a time of quiet—no wind rustling the leaves, no lapping of the water, no calling of animals or birds. But I listened just the same, straining with all my faculties toward something—I knew not what—trying to catch the meanings that were there in that moment before the lifting of the dark.”
At night, lying in your tent, even the rustling of leaves takes on outsized proportions. I’ve mistaken a squirrel scurrying outside my tent for a bear. Another time, a bear so stealthily entered our camp that we didn’t notice until it began foraging around and clanging our pots and pans.
Over the decades, the U.S. government has done what it can to protect the solitude. First, Truman banned planes. Then, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, setting aside more than nine million acres across the country “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The B.W.C.A.W. was a part of that original acreage. (The National Wilderness Preservation System now contains 111,368,221 acres.) And, in 1978, Congress stopped most motorized recreational use. (Though not by official decree, there’s also no cell-phone service.) Cans and glass are prohibited. By and large, the only way in is by canoe, and so everyone shares a purpose and a mode of travel. It’s rare at any of the nearly twenty-two hundred designated campsites to find traces of previous campers—except for maybe leftover wood collected for a fire.
The calm for some can be unnerving. A number of years ago, I joined a group of five teen-age boys from a hardscrabble neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. They were given six days in the B.W.C.A.W., led by two Outward Bound instructors. As I wrote in an article for the Chicago Tribune, the boys “brought with them the clatter of their neighborhood. It is, after all, a community marked by its dissonance. The gunshots and police sirens, mothers hollering for their kids and kids hollering for their mothers, the entrepreneurial cries of street-corner drug dealers, the deep, pulsating bass of car stereos. There can be comfort in the cacophony; it provides connection, it lets you know you’re not alone.” On this trip into the wild, to fill the quiet, they sang and argued, and shouted at one another in canoes, as if they needed the decibels to be heard. At one point, one of the boys remarked, “You never get quiet like this in the city.” Soon, they, too, found comfort in the placidity.
While paddling a narrow river on my most recent trip, my friend and I ogled a snapping turtle the size of a car tire sunbathing on a rock. We admired a young eagle taking an inaugural flight, its expansive wings working hard to keep itself above the treetops. We paddled past two trumpeter swans—they often mate for life—swimming protectively alongside their two cygnets. We caught trout and walleye and smallmouth bass. We portaged to one lake—Steep Lake—nearly half a mile straight up, my heart pounding from the climb. Another portage felt like an afternoon stroll in the woods, as it ran half a mile alongside a winding, babbling creek. We read and we talked and we paddled, but mostly we listened. The rhythmic hammering of woodpeckers. The pleas of the chickadees. The drumming wings of a ruffed grouse. The slapping tail of a beaver. As Olson wrote, in “The Singing Wilderness,” “This was a time for silence, for being in pace with ancient rhythms and timelessness, the breathing of the lake, the slow growth of living things. Here the cosmos could be felt and the true meaning of attunement.”
For more than fifty years, a company called Twin Metals Minnesota, now a subsidiary of Antofagasta, has leased 4,865 acres along the South Kawishiwi River, which flows into B.W.C.A.W. lakes so pristine that you can drink from them. It also has leased land three miles away. Until now, the land has sat untouched. Recently, Twin Metals asked to renew its leases for another ten years, this time with the intent to dig for copper and other metals. In September, 2018, Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, reversed the U.S. Forest Service’s decision—that “the B.W.C.A.W. is irreplaceable, but likely irreparable in the event of its significant degradation”—and removed the first roadblock to renewing the leases. This past May, Twin Metals got its leases, meaning it can now begin the process to dig for copper. What happened?
It could be the result of Trump’s business-friendly attitude, although that doesn’t fully explain why such attention was paid to this out-of-the-public-eye request so early in his term. Some have suggested that it could be the result of what appears to be an effort by a mining-company executive to curry favor with Trump’s family. As reported in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, immediately after Trump’s election, one of the members of the family that runs Antofagasta, Andrónico Luksic, purchased a luxury home in Washington, D.C., for five and a half million dollars, with the intent to rent it to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. It’s where they currently live, at a rent of fifteen thousand dollars per month. (In a written statement, the company called this suggestion “baseless,” adding that Luksic has never met Kushner or Ivanka Trump, and that the rental was arranged through an independent broker.) According to the Times, Luksic was at another time accused of trying to win favor with a different politician, Michelle Bachelet, the former President of Chile. The Times reported that he met with Bachelet’s son and daughter-in-law, who were seeking a ten-million-dollar loan for their company from a bank owned by the Luksic family conglomerate. After Ms. Bachelet’s election victory in 2013, the Times reported, the bank approved the loan.
In any case, the possibility of mining copper along the border of the B.W.C.A.W. is an alarming threat. The kind of exploration proposed is called hard-rock mining, because the copper is encased in sulfide-bearing ore. When that ore is exposed to air and water, it creates what’s called acid mine drainage, releasing various toxins into the surrounding area, including sulfuric acid. As Bill Carter writes in his marvellous book “Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal That Runs the World,” “no industry creates more toxins in the United States than hard-rock mining. No large-scale copper mine has ever not had an adverse effect on the surrounding groundwater.” The U.S. Forest Service reported, in its study, “a review of water quality impacts from 14 operating U.S. copper sulfide mines found: 100% of the mines experienced pipeline spills or accidental releases; 13 of 14 mines’ water collection and treatment systems failed to control contaminated mine seepage resulting in significant water quality impacts; tailings spills occurred at 9 operations.” In other words, if the past is any lesson, the future is fraught not with the possibility but the probability of contamination. What’s more, given that there are no roads in the B.W.C.A.W., and accounting for the number of lakes and rivers, any efforts to remediate damage to the water would be virtually impossible. The harm would be done—and would be irreversible.
On the other side of the Canadian border lies Quetico Provincial Park, another 1.2 million acres of lakes and rivers, connected to the B.W.C.A.W. (You can paddle from one to the other.) Canada has expressed its own concerns about the mine and its possible impact on the water in Quetico. “It is not worth the risk,” Tidwell told me. “We made the science-based decision that these leases should not be renewed.” At least, he added, “we created a record.” In a written statement, Twin Metals, which still must submit an environmental-impact study before mining can begin, said, “We believe we can mine without contaminating the surrounding water.”
On my recent trip, the day after my friend and I pulled off the Moose River, we attended a luncheon of a hundred locals at the Grand Ely Lodge, in Ely. The town is home to a number of outfitters from which you can rent canoes, packs, and virtually anything else you might need for a trip. At the lunch, Becky Rom, the national campaign chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, made an impassioned plea to nix any plans to mine. Rom grew up in Ely, and by the age of fourteen she was leading canoe trips. Her father, Bill Rom, was close to Sigurd Olson and for many years ran an outfitting business, until he was forced to shut down—locals, some of them loggers, upset that snowmobiles and motors would be banned from the wilderness, parked their trucks in front of his store to keep customers away. Bill Rom has a lake named after him. Becky, who returned to Ely after thirty years working as a corporate lawyer, in Minneapolis, has stirred controversy in her remarks about those who want mining. “We’re going to keep fighting,” she told the gathered crowd. “I think Antofagasta underestimates us. We’re the stewards of this place.”
At one point, toward the end of her presentation, someone shouted out, “Becky, you’re our hero.” Steve Saari, an Ely resident and a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, approached a microphone. Saari, whose father and grandfather were both iron miners, declared, “Becky, you’re not my hero. This town is dying.” For decades, people settled in Ely to take jobs in the nearby iron mines, but many of those mines have since closed, leaving some, like Saari, to welcome the possibility of new jobs at the Twin Metals site. It’s the age-old debate between jobs and the environment, which so often feels like a misleading conversation, as if we can’t have one without the other. Moreover, a study by a Harvard economist named James Stock, who is a Minnesota native, concluded that, because of the boom-bust nature of extraction industries, the area would, in the long term, likely be better off economically without mining, relying instead on the businesses centered around recreation in the B.W.C.A.W.
Later that day, we visited a canoe guide named Steve Johnson, who is sixty-six. Johnson came here forty years ago and never left. He built a cabin by a lake from which—via five portages and four other lakes—he can access the B.W.C.A.W. He estimates that he has eighty canoes, some of which he’s built. We sat by the water, swatting at mosquitoes, as Johnson pointed out the variety of flowers at our feet: twinflowers, pink moccasins, yellow buttercups. “I’ve guided in Greenland, in Chile, the Bahamas, in the Exumas,” he said. “They’re glorious places to visit. But not like this. If I found a better place, I’d move there.” He paused. “I don’t feel like a visitor here. I just belong.”
That, too, is how I feel. I just belong. Alone on a lake in the B.W.C.A.W., one is held gently, with a buffer from outside forces. On the lakes and rivers, one can disappear. I’ve paddled with a friend who was coming off of a divorce and another who was figuring out what to do next after resigning from the State Department, in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. I’ve come here to shed the stress of a looming book deadline, and, when I was younger, to pivot after a relationship had gone sour. I brought my children here for the first time when they were seven and four, and have, over the years, initiated friends. I’ve picked blueberries and raspberries, and watched ducks feed on the abundant rice. I’ve encountered black bears and moose and otter and mink. I’ve stood on flat slate late at night gobsmacked by the northern lights. I’ve been here in early spring and awoken to a thin layer of snow on my tent, and I’ve paddled in a driving September rain. I’ve skinny-dipped under the stars and fished in an early-morning mist so thick I couldn’t see my lure hit the water. In this place, everything peels away.
Olson, who died in 1982, worked harder than anyone to preserve this wilderness. He personally lobbied Truman to clear the airspace. He was instrumental in getting Congress to create the Wilderness Act. Then, in the nineteen-seventies, he pushed Congress to prohibit motorboats and snowmobiles in the B.W.C.A.W.—along with any prospect of logging. “This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent,” he once said at a public hearing in Ely, where outside his likeness was hung in effigy from the back of a logging truck. “We can afford to cherish and protect it. Some places should be preserved from development or exploitation, for they satisfy a human need for solace, belonging, and perspective.”