Back in March, I entertained the idea that I would spend my pandemic days far away and alone in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota. Though I was partially kidding, I realized that I could be one of those people who is always surrounded by nature, who has stress about the winter or wildlife and not about assignments, grades or viruses. To me, that is the ideal life, and I have reflected many times about why these places are so meaningful and invigorating.
In the early months of the pandemic, when I stayed in my room taking my first round of Zoom classes, I consumed a lot of nature shows: “Epic Yellowstone,” “Wild Russia,” “Alone Among Grizzlies with Richard Terry.” While they helped to fulfill my love of the outdoors, I would much rather be outside in nature myself. This week, I will focus on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, or simply the Boundary Waters, is “part of the historic homeland of the Ojibwe people” (Boundarywaters.com) and part of the Superior National Forest in Northern Minnesota. According to Minnesota’s tourism website, “[the Boundary Waters’] vast wilderness extends 150 miles along the U.S.-Canada border, covering 19,000 acres with over 1,100 lakes and 1,500 miles of canoe routes;” in addition, Recreation.gov reported “12 hiking trails and over 2,000 designated campsites.”
In the summer, it is excellent for canoeing across multiple lakes and portaging — carrying the canoe and gear on land — to get to the next lake and camping on a marked campsite that comes with a latrine, fire grate and, ideally, a flat spot for a tent or three.
It is also popular year-round for cross-country skiing, dogsledding, leaf-”peeping” and, of course, nature-watching. There are many moose, black bears, deer, fish, beavers, birds and even wolves to spot or stay away from. As a protected wilderness thanks to the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the 1978 BWCA Act, nature lovers may only visit with a permit and must strictly follow the Leave No Trace rules; for the most part, sulfide-ore copper mining has been kept out as well. The three main entry points to visit the wilderness are located in Ely, Tofte and Grand Marais, Minn.
I was first introduced to the Boundary Waters around 2012 by my stepdad, Chris. At the age of 12, I had already grown up going camping every summer in Shawano, Wisc. and near the Eagle River, Wisco. area and taking trips where we’d camp in campgrounds in South Dakota. I’d quietly walk on trails, listening for deer, and I’d lift up rocks in my backyard with my dad and look for night crawlers.
I knew I loved being outside, but I had been in modified environments — I walked on trails, slept in designated campsites and explored in the woods right by our booked cabin. I was not expecting to love canoeing and being in this truly unique place as much as I do — nor did I imagine it as an ideal escape in a pandemic.
But, in 2012, leaving my new phone in the car for five days, saying goodbye to news and middle school worries and Snapchat streaks, was liberating. I also said goodbye to running water and welcomed a three-person canoe, portaging and day trips where I saw moose and beaver dams. Since that initial, amazing trip, I have been four more times — twice out of Tofte, twice out of Grand Marais and once out of Ely; most recently, my stepdad and I traveled there in the summer of 2018.
Unlike the routine lives many of us live at Lawrence or at home, my trips to the Boundary Waters were never on a tight schedule. We would loosely plan for a day trip on a lake, in which we would eat, rest and take in the beauty. There was no guarantee that we’d take a certain route on the lake or know which campsite we’d set up on or even if we’d encounter any animals.
Unlike this life we are used to, where we might ignore fighting squirrels in trees because we are talking with a friend on the way to Warch, the Boundary Waters area is quiet. It is just us, the water, the sun, the nature and the wildlife. It’s very possible to never see anyone else there. This quietness leads to a mindfulness: we listen and pay attention to our surroundings. My favorite moment was the morning we realized our campsite faced a moose crossing. From the gray-blue of the foggy water, a bull crossed in front of us as we ate breakfast.
I also am reminded of paddling on a narrow, peaceful stream and encountering a beaver dam. The water was too low, so we all had to get out of the canoes and step onto the dam to push the canoe onto the other side. Miraculously, it supported all of us. I still have so much respect for beavers and their ability to build strong dams.
Going to the Boundary Waters always reinforces what I know: humans do not own the planet; rather, we share the planet with nature, wildlife and bugs. We are lucky that a place like the Boundary Waters still exists in 2021, but we must ask why the government and big fossil fuel companies have increasingly taken away the few beautiful natural wonders we have left.
I hope that this introduction to the Boundary Waters has made you consider experiencing this marvel yourselves, at least for as long as it is still around. For our sakes and for nature’s sake, I hope it will never stop being a protected wilderness and that many generations will continue to appreciate being surrounded by quiet in a moving world.