By Steve Piragis
Steve Piragis is proprietor of Piragis Northwoods Co. in Ely.
On a clear, moonless night in December last year, I was alone in the middle of Gabbro Lake. The ice was clear and the wind was still; only the rumble of expanding ice broke the silence.
Out of range of all manmade light, the stars seemed to almost hum in the sky. As I walked along, awake and alive in the moment, a new light appeared between low hills on the northeastern horizon: a red, blinking light.
What was pure wilderness, like no other that a person can find in Minnesota, suddenly was interrupted. The Lookout Ridge tower is miles away from Gabbro by Snowbank Lake, yet on a clear night in winter the red strobe demanded my attention and disrupted what Ely advertising calls "the last great pure experience."
Is this experience becoming less pure as more towers and more lights are allowed to infringe on wilderness?
Winter or summer, the Boundary Waters is an escape from the modern world. It's where I go to find a pace of life that is natural. Where my mind can fix on one task or one view at a time. It's really why I love wild places. The gyrations of the mind settle down for a while and we see life in the present.
The sights are subtle here but no less impressive than the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. In summer it's the call of the loons, wings slapping the water as they struggle to lift their airframes off the lake. In fall it can be the glow of golden birches and poplar set ablaze in the late afternoon light and the sting of frost on the gunwales in morning. Winter is the quiet season, when I usually find the Boundary Waters mostly to myself. It takes only one short portage to a lake like Gabbro to find pure solitude. Booms of expanding ice break the silence, but overhead the silence of space seems close. In my mind it's as close as I can get to God, alone, walking on a frozen lake.
If we go to wilderness to find peace, quiet and solitude, do we need to bring with us the devices of our lives we sought to escape? On a calm evening in summer, camped on a wilderness lake, wouldn't it be annoying to hear a fellow camper talking on his cell phone? Do we need our iPads every night to have fun? Is it really the last pure experience if we have towers piercing the horizon with red strobes, reminding us of the jobs and responsibilities we left behind? Won't some of us start to think that maybe we need to find a more pure wilderness?
The profit motive may have made our country great, but now it threatens to impair wilderness like the Boundary Waters as huge corporations like AT&T struggle to compete and look to fill in big gulps of land on their coverage maps. Compromise on the issue of cell towers wasn't good enough. A 200-foot tower with 87 percent coverage wasn't good enough. Any budget for legal fees was OK as long as the corporation won in the end and its right to light up the night sky with red strobes was upheld.
The loons will still call and the fish will still bite and the stars will glow on moonless nights. But to escape the flashing strobes we'll have to paddle or snowshoe a little farther, and the wilderness will be a little smaller.