Some years ago in the fall, my canoeing buddy, BT, and I planned a rugged canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. Years earlier, we had spied a remote lake on the maps, far off the normal travel routes. To reach this lake we needed to bushwhack (or to "crash," as we liked to call it) quite a distance both to reach the lake, and again to travel out another way.
BT and I started guiding canoe trips together in the BWCA back in the mid-1970s. We were both experienced canoe-country hands, and we had enjoyed many crashing trips over the years to visit remote locations not reached by sane people, and to experience the real wilds of the Boundary Waters.
On that fall trip, it took us a day and a half to reach the spot where the crashing would begin. Our first stretch was strenuous, but not too difficult. We could paddle portions of a small stream, often needing to portage around obstacles like fallen trees or rocky shallows. At one point we improvised a steep carry up a small hill and almost straight down on the other side to bypass a tangle of rocks and fallen trees. We repeated these maneuvers again and again before pushing into a small lake as evening began.
On a small island, we were visited several times at dusk by a barred owl that flew so low over us that we might have touched it if we'd stood up.
The next day would be our most challenging. We broke camp in the morning, paddled to a connected small lake and crashed overland through mostly wet muskeg bog, and finally launched our canoe into the lake we had sought. We paddled the entire shoreline, exploring. What a beautiful, remote lake! It was worth the effort to see it.
Then off we went a different way, only to find a stream impassable due to low water. So we began the long crash out, slowly portaging our canoe and gear. We climbed up a ridge at one point to avoid the thick alder brush, only to encounter more brush and deadfalls atop the high ground as well. We pushed on.
After hours of the grind, near sunset, we finally reached a lake that connected to an official portage trail. We had returned to civilized wilderness. We pushed on to the next lake, found a campsite, and collapsed in exhaustion.
After two more days in the wilderness we arrived at a motel room in town. We turned on the TV and, uncomprehendingly, saw Tom Brokaw standing in front of a pile of rubble.
While we had been in the middle of nowhere, the world had changed. The 9/11 attacks occurred on the day the barred owl soared above our heads. Coming out of the woods, we felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up from his nap.
And the world continues to change — now, ironically, in ways that may significantly harm the same Boundary Waters we had enjoyed on that Sept. 11.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Congress passed a series of new national security measures like the Patriot Act, some of which have seriously inhibited not only individual freedoms but environmental protection as well. A new bill by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, would waive over 30 federal laws like the Wilderness Act within 100 miles of the Canadian border so that the Department of Homeland Security could "maintain and construct roads, construct a fence, use vehicles to patrol, and set up monitoring equipment." Homeland Security would be free to do essentially whatever it wished in the BWCA, Voyageurs National Park, and everywhere else within that 100 miles.
Some may doubt that the federal government would harm the BWCA and Voyageurs. But we need only look at the terrible damage to areas along the Mexican border to see what could be in store. Massive construction to erect an enormous border wall, construction of towers and buildings, establishment of roads for Border Patrol vehicles — all this has already happened in places like the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness, Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness and Otay Mountain Wilderness.
Let's not wake up in the future like another Rip Van Winkle only to find our BWCA and Voyageurs degraded in similar ways.
Kevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis has worked on issues related to the BWCA since the 1970s. He co-authored "Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness," and serves on the board of Wilderness Watch.