Hearing the gospel of the Boundary Waters

In the Land of Lakes, 150-mile stretch along U.S./Canada border is a gem

Photo by Dave Buchanan Sunset in the Boundary Waters finds Lukas Leaf, far right, settling into his canoe as he prepares to guide some visitors to walleye fishing spots in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Map courtesy of canoeing.com

Photo by Dave Buchanan Guide and outfitter Tim Barton of Ely, Minn., takes the time to check out the rest of his crew as he leads a trip in the BWCAW in northern Minnesota. Barton has been guiding such trips since he was 13.

Photo by Dave Buchanan The view across the bow as a small group of canoeists head out to explore the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The 150-mile long wilderness was so designated in 1978 and covers more than 1 million acres.

Photo by Dave Buchanan The end of a day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness means time to store the canoe on the shore of another of the 1,100-some lakes in the BWCAW. In the distance is Canada and the Quetico Provincial Park.

ELY, Minnesota — Tim Barton, a guide and outfitter for Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, Minnesota, likely knows as well as anyone the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1.09-million-acre gem of public land that stretches for 150 miles along the U.S./Canada border.

It’s a land that’s mostly water, where most of the more than 1,100 lakes, spruce-dotted islands and rivers with white-water falls are accessible only by paddle or portage.

It’s also a land of contrasts. On clear nights, an immense bowl of sky showers you with a king’s ransom of stars dancing across the dark like a million candles to light your way. In the day, that expanse of sky cradles an ever-changing vista of every imaginable shade of green, this month sprinkled with red, carmine and gold, the first changing of the leaves.

You hear the wind in the spruce, a loon’s distant whistle, the grunt of moose, maybe even the howl of a wolf.

Barton, 31, has been journeying through the Boundary Waters since he was “6 or 7, I guess,” he said. “By the time I was 13, I was guiding trips for my dad.”

He tried living in Colorado for a while but the lure of the north woods was too strong.

“I couldn’t live anywhere else,” he said.

Last week, Barton and fellow guide (and forager par excellence) Lukas Leaf, outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, herded four writers and photographers on a four-day trip into the bones of the BWCAW.

There, with a captive/receptive audience, Barton and Leaf preached the gospel of what the Boundary Waters means to the area’s estimated quarter-million annual visitors and the importance of saving the wilderness from the threats posed by a $2.8-billion sulfide-ore copper/nickel mine proposed to be dug near here in the Boundary Waters watershed.

Northern Minnesota is mining country, its past forged with complex history and millions of tons of iron ore being shipped to mills and foundries, many of them on the shores of Lake Superior less than 100 miles to the southeast. Many of those mines have closed, often because of competition from foreign ores and depressed national markets.

There still, however, are many people in Ely whose families survived on miners’ wages and who dream of the return of well-paying mining jobs in an economy now dominated by tourism.

They are well-meaning and serious about what the mine could mean to the economic future of the area and their families.

But as Leaf explained during one fireside conversation, mining iron ore isn’t the same as mining copper ore.

Iron ore rusts but the other acidifies, and a spill into a river can quickly change a vibrant river into a lifeless stream.

Anyone traveling through western Colorado can see the devastation a failed acid-leach mine tailing pile wreaks on an environment. Colorado’s mining history (e.g., Leadville, Del Norte, Silverton) is replete with what happens when a tailing dam fails or acid drainage leaches into a nearby stream or river.

The mine near the Boundary Waters is estimated to have a 30-year life.

“Over time, the structural integrity and the general competency of all tunnels and underground mine workings will continue to deteriorate without regular maintenance,” states an Environmental Protection Agency handout written about the Leadville acid mining drainage.

Today, tourism, mostly the year-round lure of the Boundary Waters and adjacent Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, has joined mining as key to the region’s economy. A story in the Wasabi Daily News (Virginia, Minnesota), quoting a study done by Mining Minnesota, a pro-mining public relations firm, said mining wages far outweigh the tourism wages. Among the officers of Mining Minnesota is Bob McFarlin, president of Twin Metals Mining, the company trying to open the copper mine near the Boundary Waters.

Ely Mayor Chuck Novak finds himself caught in the middle of a fight between mining jobs and tourism.

“I represent ground zero for Twin Metals and Save the Boundary Waters,” Novak told Mesabi Daily News reporter Jerry Burnes.

Two earlier mining leases for the area expired in 2013 and in 2016 the federal government announced it would not renew the leases, saying the proposed mine posed too great a threat to the Boundary Waters.

But that was before the Trump administration came to power. Now, Twin Metals has renewed its fight to have the leases renewed, feeling the chances are better with the current de-regulation attitude in Washington, D.C.

Currently, the leases are being reviewed. The public comment period closed last month.


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