A Place to Escape: The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
The paddling, camping, and fishing here are legendary, and if you're game to portage through the pain, you can have a spot all to yourself
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.
Bound and Determined
We reached our campsite later that evening. Across the lake, water washed onto the Canadian shores, and hours had passed since we’d seen another group of paddlers. We camped in a grove of spruce and pines and ate steak, chopped potatoes, and mushrooms by the fire. After dinner, conversation turned to the mine. Leaf, an outreach director for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, explained that the mine would include a 7,000-acre tailing pond that would hold a slurry of toxic by-product, and that Antofagasta had, at past sites, let the pollutants contaminate the surrounding areas, which in this case would mean the Boundary Waters. “These chemicals can radically change the acidity of the water, which can affect fish,” Leaf said. “It would change the environment forever. What do you do when the damage to something is irreversible?”
At dawn we set out for a day trip to Lower Beaverwood Falls, fly rods rigged for pike and smallmouths. The longest portage that morning was more than a mile. I stopped halfway and stripped a Clouser Minnow through a pool at the base of a waterfall. On my third cast, I hooked what I thought was a log. I struggled for a minute, my rod bowed deeply, before a 3 1⁄2-pound smallmouth surfaced. After I released the fish, the rest of the portage seemed to take no time at all.
As we paddled that afternoon, I caught a few more smallies—not huge fish but steady action, so I was content. My thoughts seldom strayed from my friend, though. I found myself wanting to hike and camp with Ryan again, or to sit on the front porch of the house we’d shared in Chattanooga, Tenn., drinking beer and listening to John Prine records. But even more so, I wanted him here in the Boundary Waters, where we could fish and explore and trade stories in this unspoiled wilderness, a place that has, for now at least, remained perfect.
The Trip Home
On our third morning, we woke to storm clouds gathering in the distance. We hustled to break camp, rolling up sleeping bags and collapsing tents as fast as we could. To be safe, we decided to paddle at least halfway back to the put-in in case the weather got dicey. And we had a feeling that it would.
I paddled hard, looking over my shoulder every couple of minutes at the storm bearing down on us. We made it to a sloped bluff and set up our tents and tarps just before the rain began to hammer. I couldn’t help but laugh. It felt as though we’d slid in safe to home plate. Our group huddled together and drank coffee under a tarp, and when the rain let up later that afternoon, we went fishing for walleyes. We paddled to a few islands in the middle of the lake and fished steep dropoffs, but no one had any bites. Still, it felt good to get in one more afternoon of fishing.
We had covered about 30 miles in three days and had another 5 or 6 to go tomorrow. I was sore and worn out, but in a way that felt satisfying, as though I’d earned it. I wanted to make the most of the time we had left.
At first light the next morning, we broke camp and set out for Ely. Fog hung over the water, but the rain had subsided, so the paddle in would be easy. It had been good to get out of my head and into this wilderness these past four days. As we paddled back, I found myself regretting that Ryan and I had never made a trip to the Boundary Waters together. I don’t know whether the mine will get approved or whether it will ruin these waters if it does, though the latter seems almost certain. But being here now meant something, even without my friend. I felt lucky to have experienced this place for what it is and has always been.