Photo by T.C. Worley

Worth Fighting For: BWCA Wilderness Area

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a unique wilderness, and one of our favorite places on the planet. This is why sportsmen will fight to protect it, always.

LukasL, BWCA, BHA Trip
Launching a canoe in the BWCA; all photos (c) T.C. Worley

This week, the federal government announced it would not renew the leasing rights to mine copper and nickel near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (See the full story, ‘Boundary Waters: Mining Leases Denied.’) Our contributor, T.C. Worley, visited the region this fall with a conservation-minded group to document the beauty and unique wildness of the place.

A FISH BREAKING WATER in the lake woke me from my sleep. Light was just beginning to glow on the eastern horizon as I forced one eye to open and look around. Ripples grew into an ever-widening circle on the lake, otherwise as smooth as glass.

Scenics, BWCA, BHA Trip
An island in the Boundary Waters; all photos (c) T.C. Worley

I listened for any sounds around me, but my ears only rang from the silence—nothing was moving, not even a leaf. This is daybreak in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

I was invited to spend a few days in the area by Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters and BackCountry Hunters and Anglers, two organizations teaming up to bring awareness to the area.

Sportsmen Protecting The Lands They Love

Their goals are to educate the public about the unique traits that make this area special and highlight the importance of protecting it from industries. Most often, some sort of mining project has the potential to harm these lands.

Scenics, BWCA, BHA Trip
All photos (c) T.C. Worley

For those unfamiliar, the BWCA is a massive (1.1 million-acre) plot of land established as a Wilderness Area in the 1970s. Since then it has been strictly managed and is among the most pristine wilderness areas in the nation.

Until this week there was a fight going on to save it from potentially damaging pollution. Antofagasta, a Chilean-owned mining company, wants to tap vast copper veins in the area in a process known as sulfur-ore mining.

“Although having the leases denied is a crucial step forward we still have a lot of work to do to gain 20 year protection and then the end game of permanent protection,” said our guide, Leaf. “This up to two-year environmental analysis is what will determine if the lands get withdrawn for 20 years or not.”

Boundary Waters: Mining Leases Denied
Boundary Waters: Mining Leases Denied
Mining rights will not be renewed on critical parcels near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in a big win for environmentalists. Read more…

Unfortunately, this process also creates sulfuric acid that, if not contained completely, would leak into nearby lakes and streams, then flow into either Lake Superior or the Quetico Provincial Park, depending on what side of the Laurentian Divide a theoretical spill occurred.

Exploring The BWCA

Scenics, BWCA, BHA Trip
Grouse hunting in the Boundary Waters; all photos (c) T.C. Worley

Our goal for the weekend was less about bemoaning the threats as it was to enjoy and respect the area for what it stands for. Day one was a chance to walk the land and see some animal and plant life.

One of our guides, Lukas Leaf, an outreach coordinator at Save the Boundary Waters and a former chef, collected mushrooms he’d later incorporate into a wild-game dinner.

We hiked lake edges and rocky trails, down portages that link the more than 1,000 BWCA lakes together. At each, we signed permits that limit the amount of traffic in specific areas see each day. This area could not be the clean, nearly untouched place that it is without tight restrictions on visitors.

Scenics, BWCA, BHA Trip
Canoe on a misty Boundary Waters lake; all photos (c) T.C. Worley

Later that day we split into groups. We walked miles of logging roads and ATV trails in an attempt to get a shot at a grouse. We only saw a few birds. No shots were taken, but the hunt took us deep into the woods to reveal other details of the area.

I saw wolf tracks and moose sign—two species that have recently experienced, or are currently at some level of endangerment. Seeing so much sign was a good thing!

Fishing Cristal, Cold Waters

Day two we canoed and fished for Northern Pike in a few different lakes. In water this clean, visibility is possible at depths of 12 feet or deeper. Fishing was slow, but you don’t much care when the scenery is stunning and the sun is shining.

Our final afternoon, six of us paddled to an island and set up camp for the night. Our resident chef prepared moose stew while the rest of us gathered firewood and pitched a tent.

The sky changed from blue to a wild mix of orange and hot pink.

Scenics, BWCA, BHA Trip
Boundary Waters wilderness at sunset; all photos (c) T.C. Worley

The unexpected highlight of my trip? It happened when we realized someone had forgotten to pack the s’mores. Two of us volunteered to take a twilight paddle back to the cabin to get the treats.

Paddling under a blanket of stars by moonlight was fantastic—the intense darkness, silence, and feelings of vulnerability combined in a perfect little adventure. And, of course, s’mores capped it all off.

Scenics, BWCA, BHA Trip
Paddling at dusk; all photos (c) T.C. Worley

My time in the BWCA this fall was as relaxing and beautiful as I could have dreamt. To think that this place could someday be irreversibly damaged was sobering.

As outdoor-lovers, it is partially our duty to protect these wild places. With the news this week, the BWCA is safer than before from industrial processes. But as long as there are resources in the ground, mankind will look to exploit them, even close to wilderness this unique.

–To ensure the preservation of the BWCA and other threatened wilderness areas, visit the links below, donate if you can, use your voting powers, and teach your family and friends to value what we have while it still exists.

Save the BWCA

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters