Most of us learn to forget about water—water as a wild thing, that is. Our water systems today are re-engineered in so many ways—by damming, diversion, channelizing, contamination, invasive species—that they barely resemble their natural state. We make do with what we can and recreate in ponds, streams and reservoirs. But the experience of water as a true wilderness is something so remote it has all but disappeared from our collective imagination. This is perhaps why the Boundary Waters has become a beloved and essential place for millions of people: an ecosystem barely impacted by humans, despite being the United States’ most visited wilderness area.
The “Boundary Waters” is not a precise spot on the map but a vast network of interconnected waterways spanning northeastern Minnesota. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), established in 1978 with an act signed by President Jimmy Carter, is a 1.1 million acre protected wilderness within this watershed encompassing 1,175 lakes and countless rivers and streams. Unlike most of the United States’ most celebrated parks, you can’t drive through it. Its beauty can only be experienced at a human scale—on foot, through trees and across water.
With over 1,200 miles of canoe routes, you can set your own course across a vast territory of pristine waterways without running into another soul for weeks. “Portages'' allow canoers to travel between lakes under canopies of aspen, spruce, and pine. Along the shorelines, smooth ancient rocks plunge into cool, clear water so pure that it’s drinkable without filtration. At dusk, Loons call out hauntingly over the lakes and by night the only light comes from campfire and moon light. It is a place best described by its deep colors, present wildlife, and profound tranquility. Relatively large bodies of water and low fishing pressure support a diversity of over 150 native fish species, where walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass and lake trout dominate. Hunting opportunities in the BWCAW and surrounding Superior National Forest range from whitetail deer and black bear to grouse, waterfowl and snowshoe hare. Wildlife—such as beaver, eagle, wolf and black bear—thrives here in large part due to restrictions on motorized boats, road-access points, and development.
But what makes this ecological area so extraordinary also makes it extremely vulnerable: in a contiguous water system, which metastasizes over the landscape like a crack in ice, any contamination would be uncontainable. Save the Boundary Waters (STBW) is an organization dedicated to the permanent protection of the wilderness from proposed industrial development within its watershed. A SITKA Ecosystem Grant helps STBW in its mission of ensuring the pristine habitat of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is protected from prospective threats such as sulfide-ore copper mining.
Scientists and analysts like Roger Powell and Lisa Pugh help the group’s cause by monitoring the ecological health of the area through water sampling and species observation. “There’s something about water,” says Roger, an ecologist that works with the group to provide research on mammalian conservation, explaining the powerful draw of this place. To say that he is in his element would be an understatement. After first discovering the Boundary Waters more than a half-century ago with his father he has returned every year since 1970. Features of the landscape now hold a lifetime of memories: the white pine his daughter climbed as a child, the swimming rock that his students favorited, a beaver pond he’s watched over the years return to meadow, the lake where he first mastered the “J stroke,” an oar maneuver known to bedevil beginners.
As Roger and Lisa, a Science and Policy Associate with STBW, ponder over a map that looks more like a paintball splatter than cartography, they share a moment of mutual fascination. Even for Lisa, who has led wilderness expeditions in the BWCAW for almost a decade, its scale and complexity are still bewildering. You could spend a lifetime exploring these waterways and never see it all. Talking to anyone familiar with the Boundary Waters, you quickly get a sense that nobody ever comes here once. This place is like family heirloom that gets passed down through generations and across lifetimes, as something to love, enjoy and protect.