Growing up, my dad used to call me his “mud and water daughter.” It was a fitting title, since I spent most of the summer mixing various concoctions of mud pies under the playhouse and squirting things with the hose. As an adult, though, I am more of a “bedrock and water daughter,” and I thrive in the places where waves lap on crystalline shores.
Recently, I shared my love of such places by taking a small group of Museum members to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota, which just happens to be my favorite place on Earth. I’m not alone in my opinion. The Boundary Waters is the most visited wilderness in the United States, with more than 250,000 annual visitors.
Why do we love it so much? Many have waxed poetic about its beauty. On this trip we slipped through a meandering river lined with golden stands of wild rice, watched a sunrise through the swirling fog from a pink granite knob, and ran out from under the tarp to marvel at a rainbow that began and ended right in our bay. We paddled under towering cliffs of well-worn stone, painted by eons of dripping water and softened by an intricate crust of lichens. We marveled at the endless variety of clouds in the sky, and became mesmerized by their glimmering reflections in the silky medium that supported our thin-walled canoes.
The Boundary Waters is beautiful, but that’s only part of it. What really keeps people coming back, I believe, is the way this place helps us to challenges ourselves. When you cut out the excess, the superfluous, and the mess, and fit everything necessary for a week or two of life into a single, green pack, life becomes simple. There is an incredible sense of freedom in this knowledge of self-sufficiency. This freedom feels all the more sweet when it comes with manageable challenges and a means to test our mettle.
Portaging the canoe over steep and muddy portages is not easy. Paddling into a fierce headwind fatigues both the arms and the will. Living with our mistakes (a forgotten food item, too much heavy gear, a wet sleeping bag), can hurt our pride as much as our bodies. Our sense of accomplishment at the end of a long day isn’t due to our conquering the wilderness, it’s because we conquered ourselves. And, a hot meal and the wail of a loon at moonrise don’t hurt.
This place would be nothing without clean water. It seems obvious, but it bears repeating. Not only is the water our highway, but clean, drinkable water is our lifeblood. To dip a pot full right out of the lake and be able to simply filter, treat, or boil it to make it safe is amazing. You can’t do that everywhere. I wouldn’t do that from the river I grew up with.
In observing the six (very different!) participants on this trip, I was reminded that water doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Ed found his peace in fishing, and paddled out into a flurry of whitecaps to test his skill. We ate well from his efforts. JoAnn slipped reverently into the water each afternoon for a graceful swim along the shore. She found joy in this glassy cradle. Others preferred just to admire the sparkling view, or relax to the serene lapping of waves. I love drinking the wilderness waters, as Mary Oliver says, “flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt, the feet of ducks.”
Our first night out, we met up with two travelers who are worried about the future of clean water in the Boundary Waters. Dave and Amy Freeman—world class adventurers—are in their last month of a yearlong stay in the Boundary Waters. I have to admit, I was more star-struck in meeting these trail-worn, down-to-earth kindred spirits than I ever have been meeting a celebrity. They’ve made a dream come true, and in the process, (with the help of satellite internet and Facebook,) have brought me a window into my favorite place on Earth almost every day for the past year. For that, I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
They didn’t just embark on this adventure for a fun challenge, though. A Year in the Wilderness was launched in response to the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters. Dave and Amy and their scientist sources have seen that even conservative models of pollution show that waterways would carry contaminants into the wilderness. A single mine in this watershed will continually pollute the wilderness for at least 500 years. Rocks and water go hand in hand, until you start mixing them in the wrong way. You can learn more on their website: savetheboundarywaters.org.
A quarter of a million people visit the Boundary Waters each year to paddle, fish, swim, drink, and test themselves in the presence of beauty. What would we do without this vast reservoir of personal challenges and clean water? What would I do without it? As a mud and water daughter, I can’t even begin to fathom that future. Neither can Dave and Amy. They’ve dedicated a year to the fight to keep it safe. What if we all showed such a commitment to our planet?
Water reflects not only clouds and trees and cliffs, but all the infinite variations of mind and spirit we bring to it. – Sigurd Olson
Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at http://cablemuseum.org/natural-connections-book/.
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.