My knees buckled as I swung the pack onto my shoulders. This was the first portage our group of six had begun in the Boundary Waters, on the Minnesota-Canada border, and as I hiked up the trail, it felt as though I were packing out a bull elk quarter. Meanwhile, my paddling partner, Lukas Leaf, hoisted our canoe above his head and then strode off down the trail to the next lake, a quarter mile up the path. As I lagged behind, I realized for the first time how grueling this million acres would be. Still, despite my failure to anticipate the trip’s physical demands, I was glad I had come. I needed to be here, camping, fishing, and exploring this wilderness. I owed it to a friend.
We reached the end of the portage and repacked our canoes and set out for Basswood Lake, some 11 miles north. Our plan: camp and fish for four days, then head back to Ely, Minn. Motors are largely forbidden in the Boundary Waters, and navigating the 1,000-plus interconnected lakes requires a canoe. These restrictions have made the Boundary Waters one of the most unpeopled places left in the Lower 48, and a bucket-list destination for adventurers. But a proposed sulfide-ore mine just outside its border is threatening this trackless wilderness, which is part of why I’d come here. A Chilean mining company, Antofagasta, has spent the past decade fighting to mine the precious metals worth more than $1 trillion buried here. No surprise, outfitters, guides, and sportsmen have fought back, fearing the mining would ruin this wilderness.
Earlier in the day, as I paddled these iconic waters, I felt relieved to be here, to see what was at stake should the mine get approved—because I almost backed out of this trip entirely. Days before I was due to leave, I learned that my college roommate and one of my closest friends, Ryan, had killed himself. I caught the earliest flight home after hearing the news, and I considered canceling my Boundary Waters trip. But at Ryan’s memorial service, one of his uncles mentioned that the Boundary Waters had been one of Ryan’s favorite places, a detail about him that I’d forgotten. That’s when I decided I needed to go—to be somewhere that had mattered to my friend.