Yesterday morning I poked my head out of the tent and found a thin, white blanket of snow. It was the first snowfall of the season in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota– another milestone in the slow and steady transition between fall and winter. My wife, Amy Freeman, and I have been exploring the maze of wilderness lakes and rivers that course through 1.1 million acres of our nation’s most popular wilderness area for the last 26 days. In many ways nearly a month seems like a long time to be in the wilderness, but we are spending a year in the wilderness. We will be in the Boundary Waters for another 339 days, so our journey is just beginning. We are looking forward to experiencing the Boundary Waters in every season and sharing the wilderness with as many people as possible.
We have embarked on this yearlong adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in support of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters’ efforts to protect the Boundary Waters from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining on the wilderness edge. Antofagasta, a Chilean mining company, is proposing to build a massive mine call Twin Metals along the southern edge of the wilderness. Any pollution from the mine would flow directly into the wilderness area, plus there are more than a dozen other companies prospecting in the area with the hopes of developing more mines along the edge of the wilderness. Through blog posts like this one, media interviews, a documentary film, and social media, we trying to “speak loud for a quiet place”, as Amy likes to say. We hope you will sign the petition and help protect this national treasure for future generations of adventurers to enjoy. (See more endangered wild places in our “Trails in Trouble” story.)
We are also sharing the adventure with nearly 100,000 elementary and middle school students through the Wilderness Classroom. Students and teachers are able to help us make decisions, email us questions, and interact with us throughout the year. Our goal is to spark students’ interest in the outdoors and help them improve basic academic skills by participating in our journey virtually through their classroom computers.
John Muir said, “Going to the woods is going home.” For Amy and me being in the Boundary Waters is like being home. We have led dogsledding trips and canoeing trips in the Boundary Waters for many years and have lived on the edge of the Wilderness for most of our adult lives. Northeastern Minnesota has always been the place we come back to after extended expeditions to far flung places. Spending a year in the Boundary Waters will certainly have its challenges, like extended periods of extreme cold when the mercury dips to -40, thin ice, dangerous travel conditions and total isolation during freeze up and break up, storms, swarms of mosquitoes, and arduous bushwhacks into remote lakes. But in many ways A Year in the Wilderness is very different than our previous expeditions. During our previous projects, like our 11,700 mile journey across North America by canoe, kayak, and dogsled, we were pressured to cover ground. We often traveled from dawn to dusk and had to keep moving.
We expect to travel about 3,000 miles by canoe, ski, snowshoe, and dog team, and visit over 500 lakes, rivers, and streams of the course of the year, but our focus has shifted. Our goal is to bear witness to this place and share the Boundary Waters with as many people as possible. We are focused on slowing down, watching the sunset, bushwhacking into lakes that few people visit, immersing ourselves in the Wilderness.
We camped for several nights where the Isabella River empties into Bald Eagle Lake; the days were warm and the fall colors were at their peak. Each evening flocks of geese and ducks circled over head and landed in the shallow river delta in front of our camp. In the darkness we could hear their wings gliding through the air and the distinctive sound as they landed on the lake’s smooth surface. At dawn the flocks lifted one by one through the dense fog covering the lake and continued their journey south in search of their winter home.
Most of the birds, and most of the leaves are gone now. On previous expeditions Amy and I would be paddling feverishly south, racing winter like the geese, but not this year. We are already home, awaiting winter’s bite and the adventures it will surely bring.