Rescue shows heroism, provides opportunity for reflection

A recent rescue of eight canoeists from Basswood Lake after their canoes capsized in high winds was a scary episode that ended as well as it could.  We’re very glad that nobody was hurt in this incident, and we think there’s great value in using it as an opportunity to reflect on smart wilderness travel practices in the Boundary Waters and its challenge in general. To be clear, this is not second guessing the party that was rescued, just using the experience to help others learn.

First of all, this rescue once again demonstrates the professionalism and heroism of first responders. From the time a call for help was received, it was a matter of hours before rescue crews had located and evacuated the stranded party. It’s truly a testament to the preparation and skill of these folks, and they deserve our respect and thanks.

It’s also important to remember that you cannot rely on this kind of rescue when you are in the Boundary Waters. In this case, the party had a high-powered radio that allowed them to communicate with a nearby resort, but normal means of communication like cell phones are not reliable in most of the Boundary Waters. If you are traveling in the wilderness, you need to be prepared to self-rescue. This means having the training within your party to provide at least basic first aid to an injured person, to have the equipment needed to evacuate, and to have the mindset that you are primarily dependent on yourself and your traveling companions to get out safely in the case of an emergency.

Better yet, take care to avoid the need for a rescue in the first place. As serious as this incident was, it is exceedingly rare. Despite nearly 250,000 visits to the Boundary Waters each year, only a handful of rescue operations occur annually, and only a tiny number are as serious as this one. Visiting the Boundary Waters is very low risk, as long as you prepare and maintain an expedition mentality. Respecting and paying attention to the weather and your group members’ conditions is the best way to avoid the need for rescue.

Here are a few things that any Boundary Waters traveler should learn from this incident:

  1. Pay attention to the weather conditions: Remember that the waves in the middle of a large lake can be much more challenging than near shore or in a sheltered area.
  2. Wear your PFD when in the canoe: This rescue could easily have turned into a tragedy without them.
  3. Be ready and willing to wait for better weather: Allocate extra time in case you become windbound or encounter another unforeseen delay. Rushing to meet a deadline can cause you to make more risky decisions.
  4. Don’t rely on cell phone coverage: You can rent a satellite phone from an outfitter or use a device like SPOT if you want a reliable way to contact the outside world for help. If you use a satellite phone, have your rescue numbers written down and ready to use. 911 may not work on a satellite phone. This party had a high powered radio and well defined protocol for contacting authorities.
  5. Bring emergency equipment: A well-stocked first aid kit is an absolute must. In this case, the party used a strobe light to signal for help, which helped rescuers locate them. Plan ahead and prepare. Local outfitters are excellent resources for beginning BWCA explorers.

Hundreds of thousands of people safely enjoy the incredible beauty and the physical, mental and spiritual renewal of the Boundary Waters every year. But a wilderness area requires your respect and attention, as its wildness makes it unforgiving. We’re very glad that nobody was hurt in this incident, and we are thankful for the quick response by the professionals and volunteers with Lake County, St. Louis County, the Minnesota State Patrol, and the U.S. Forest Service.

- Aaron Klemz, Communications Director, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

Summer trip report: Mudro Lake entry point (Part 2)

Editor’s note: Staff members at the Friends of the Boundary Waters regularly take trips in the wilderness that we all love. Membership and Administrative Coordinator Cori Mattke wrote this trip report from her August trek. This is part of two – you can read the first part here.

Entry & Exit Point: #22 Mudro Lake
Number of Days: 5
Season: August 2013

Day 3

Blueberries!! Scads of them. All over the campsite. I suppose that is one silver lining to the extremely late spring the BWCAW experienced this year – blueberries ripening in August. Who would have thought? Not us. Though we enjoyed it thoroughly.

Crooked Lake CampCrBlueberries

Day 4

Fueled by blueberries and sunshine we set off the next morning and traveled south through Friday Bay, down Papoose Creek to Papoose Lake, Chippewa Lake, Nikki Lake, and on to Wagosh and Bullet Lake. We camped that night on Moosecamp Lake. A lake that is deceptively long as you paddle across it once, and then twice, looking for an open campsite…

Day 5

The next morning we woke to much cooler temperatures and a thick fog that not only obscured the lakeshore, but short distances within our campsite itself. It was equally as eerie as it was stunning.

Moosecamp Fog

After waiting out the fog we were on the water again. We were headed south down the Moosecamp River to Fourtown Lake for our last evening in the woods. A short paddle, but not an easy paddle, as we encountered water levels that had dropped significantly in the few days since we began our journey at Mudro. I am a firm believer that polling your way through a reedy BWCAW river is a character builder. No question. And it offers an experience of the wilderness that is much different than the experiences one has paddling in high water levels, or even normal water levels. Polling your way through water lilies and pulling the boat over mud ridges offers a bit of unfiltered truth to the wilderness experience. It keeps the challenge alive and reminds you that you have to earn the opportunity to see the complex beauty of this place. Pristine lakeshores and sunsets are one thing, but can you find the beauty in a backwater lily patch, half-eaten by bugs?

Water LilyPaddling Lillies

In time, we made it to Fourtown. Found a campsite, ate lunch, and then spent the afternoon reading in the park-like Red Pine forest that was our home for the evening. I’ve become a big fan of this slow exit of the wilderness – taking time to soak in the last hours of silence and the colors of a sunset before turning our boat to the exit point.

Fourtown Lake

Day 6

Our last day and true to form, morning coffee takes twice as long – anything to stall the final pack-up. It was sitting by the lake that morning that I realized that we had done it, we had had the ideal trip. Not a drop of rain during the day, wonderful travel days, restful hours in between, good food, good company, and a route that toured the diverse micro-landscapes of the BWCAW.

Wilderness tripping takes time to get good at. I don’t pretend to know the best way to set-up a tarp, the winning structure for starting a camp fire, or how to perfectly balance travel days, but I have learned over time and refined my routine trip after trip. My traditions have mixed with experience and now, have mixed with the traditions and routines of those that I travel with. It’s a wonderful collaboration of history, experience and interaction and I can’t wait to see how it develops in the years to come.

Boat Pic

(Photos by Ryan Mattke)

Summer trip report: Mudro Lake entry point (Part 1)

Editor’s note: Staff members at the Friends of the Boundary Waters regularly take trips in the wilderness that we all love. Membership and Administrative Coordinator Cori Mattke wrote this trip report from her August trek. This is the first part of two.

Entry & Exit Point: #22 Mudro Lake
Number of Days: 5
Season: August 2013

A week-long BWCAW trip is an annual tradition for me and my husband. We started paddling together when we first started dating and over time have learned each other’s tripping styles. It’s a delicate dance to wilderness camp and travel with new people. You take routine, preference, and personality, stir them all together and you never really know how it’s all going to come out. Sometimes the people you hardly know at the entry point, turn out to be your ideal wilderness companion.

Thankfully for us, our tripping styles meshed pretty well but it got me thinking about tradition and how each of us carry tradition with us into the wilderness, like a compass and guide. Tradition is a part of everything we as paddlers do out there, from where you set up a tent and how you build a fire, to the route itself and how you structure your days of travel.

I think it’s safe to say that on this trip, we nailed it. We found that perfect balance of covering ground and relaxation, of “pushing it” and enjoying exactly where we were.

Day 1

Our trip started at the Mudro Lake entry point. We arrived early in the morning, fresh and ready to get on the water. The sky was the clear, the air slightly cool, and the water calm.

Entry Point

The week before our arrival, Ely had experienced a string of late summer storms that swelled lake levels and we coasted down the entrance to Mudro with uncharacteristic ease.

Our route took us quietly through Sandpit Lake and Tin Can Mike Lake, to Horse Lake where we stopped from lunch and contemplated our targets for camp.

Horse Lake

With sunny clear weather on our side, we decided to push on down the Horse River for a site on Basswood Lake, near Lower Basswood Falls. With a little entry-day luck we secured a site on a point, just east of the falls. It was wide and open, with shady pines and a breeze that lasted all evening.

Basswood Camp

Day 2

After a night of sound sleep we filled our bellies with oatmeal, packed up camp, and launched out onto a sunny, flat Basswood Lake.

Basswood Lake

We made a brief stop at Lower Basswood Falls to see the recent influx of water charging through the channels of bedrock between Basswood and Crooked Lake. Lower Basswood Falls is one of my favorite sets of rapids in the BWCAW. It’s right up there with Curtain and Rebecca Falls. There is something about the sheer power behind water and the glassine way it flows over rocks at the beginning of its violent journey down into Crooked Lake. It’s hard to believe that years ago voyageurs with the Hudson’s Bay Company would run these rapids with fully loaded canoes. Which also makes it no surprise that so many of those canoes capsized, leaving little bits of trading history wedged under the base of the falls.

Basswood Falls 1Basswood Falls 2

The rest of our day was spent paddling on Crooked Lake – up through the eastern channel and through Wednesday Bay. Stopping to take in the pictographs and offering a moment of reverence for the now dismantled Table Rock.

Crooked Lake Cliffs

Before long, the sun started to slip in the sky and our hunger and tired muscles began to suggest finding camp. After two long days of travel, we were ready to find a campsite worthy of a layover day. The criteria: a relatively flat tent pad, ample downed wood, a latrine that isn’t full, sunbathing rocks, and a point out onto the water to see the Perseid Meteor Shower as it passed through that evening. After checking a number of sites, we found the perfect one nestled between Thursday and Friday Bay.

Part Two of Cori’s trip report is coming soon!

(Photos by Ryan Mattke)

On towers, visibility and humility

by Paul Danicic, Executive Director

Last week I had the good fortune to present on the value of wilderness to the Ely Tuesday Group. The brainchild of Ely business owner Steve Piragis, this is an active group of about 60 Ely area residents who meet for lunch on Tuesdays and hear from different speakers on many diverse topics, often centering around furthering their community. It was also very good fortune to be presenting alongside Dr. Stephen Wilbers, senior fellow with the Technological Leadership Institute at the U of M and long-time Boundary Waters Wilderness paddler and author. Having not spent enough time on trail this summer, we couldn’t resist taking a quick overnight wilderness paddle after the presentation.

At the luncheon, we talked about the value of wilderness. We spoke of wilderness as an economic engine, as a place to spend time with family and friends free of distractions, as a place where positive rights of passages happen for young people, as a place that provides ecosystem benefits like purifying water and air, where we can learn from cultural artifacts still being discovered, and where our spirit can be renewed. We talked about wilderness being special for what was not there, essentially signs of modern human activity. In other words, it is special specifically because we decided to leave it alone. This ultimate act of societal humility is precisely what gives it value to our generation and the next.

On our paddle, we decided to check out the visual impact on the wilderness horizon of the 450 foot Fernberg cell tower AT&T built earlier this year. The Friends, with pro bono assistance from Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, had argued for a 199 foot unlighted tower that would have provided comparable service without being visible within the wilderness. My co-presenter Steve had written eloquently on the impact this tower would have on the wild wilderness horizons especially as a reasonable alternative was proposed. It turned out to be a very pleasant, if brief, trip with a purpose.

Our goal was to travel to several of the sites used in a visibility study used in the court case and see what we could see.  These areas included Fall, Mud, Ella Hall and Basswood Lakes. Steve and I paddled across Fall Lake into the BWCAW immediately in sight of the new tower. It dominated the southern skyline hundreds of feet taller than the surrounding birch and spruce forest. We pulled over at the northernmost campsite on Mile Island, one of the first sites within the BWCAW.  Nearby, up a well-used overlook, the tower showed clearly above the trees.

We hiked about a quarter of the historic Four Mile Portage out of Fall Lake. On Ella Hall, a beautiful lake off the main canoe trails, we camped and paddled the lake on a beautiful starry night under the milky way. On the northwest part of the lake where the report showed the tower would be visible, a bright, laser-like red light exploded into the night sky, blinking regularly. Steve and I were both shocked by its intensity and it jolted us out of the wilderness and into the world from which this lake was set aside.

The next day, paddling up Pipestone Bay of Basswood Lake we viewed the changing fall colors and breathed the warm pine scented autumn air. Because our work and family commitments required us to leave at a certain time, we were unable to reach a specific site on Pipestone Bay that was a part of the study. “Next time.” I said as we turned the bow of our canoe south, “Or perhaps someone else can check it out, but that would require them looking for it while on a trip taken specifically to go away from all it represents.” We had a generous amount of time to discuss the strangeness of the purpose of our trip. As Steve said afterward, “Paul and I found ourselves paddling with mixed feelings, both hoping not to see the tower and searching for it to verify the claims of those who oppose it.”  From USFS staff and others, I have heard this tower is being reported as “visible” from within the BWCAW in other places.

The value of the Boundary Waters Wilderness is real enough for thousands of people to support the work the Friends does to protect it. It is real enough to warrant sacrifice from industry and from ourselves. Is this value reduced by seeing visible signs of human development from within it’s boundaries? I believe it is. The Boundary Waters Wilderness’ value comes specifically from it being a land set apart from our improvements. We should honor our culture’s sacrifice and and our collective humility by keeping it that way.

Sigurd Olson once famously said, “This is the most beautiful lake country on the continent, we can afford to cherish and protect it.” Steve and I both came away from this trip knowing we couldn’t agree more.

Trampled by Turtles help Friends reach new friends

Eight days into a paddling trip, your muscles are beginning to have an earned ache, your skin is burnt and dotted with bites, and your mind? Totally clear, except for the soundtrack that has started bubbling up unexpectedly in your mind. Many of us have experienced it, the constant flow of 80′s classics, camp songs, and current hits that seem to jump out of the deepest reaches of our brains when we least expect it.

Its an odd and frequent phenomenon and begs the question, if the Boundary Waters had a soundtrack, what would it include? Yep, it would probably include all of the above. However, for this paddler, there isn’t a better collaboration of place and music than paddling to a reel of bluegrass in your head. Even better if it’s local bluegrass – Minnesota music in a truly Minnesota place.

3 lucky people who signed up to our email list won signed posters

3 lucky people who signed up to our email list won signed posters

This past month the Friends were invited by local bluegrass heroes, Trampled By Turtles, to attend their shows in Duluth and Minneapolis as part of their 10th Anniversary Tour. It was a wonderful opportunity for us talk to new audiences about the uniqueness of the BWCA as well as the threats that face it. Our booth fielded a steady stream of concert goers each night and each TBT song from our corner of the venue was punctuated by exclamations of “I love the BWCA!” and “What can I do to help?”

We met so many new and great people and were heartened by your enthusiasm for the BWCA. Thank you to all of you who came out to the shows, stopped by and said hello, and offered your support.

Thank you also to TBT for your support and generous invitation to be a part of such a memorable tour. Here’s to the next ten years of TBT and Minnesota bluegrass in the wilderness.

AT&T announces plan to tear down 450-foot jumbo cell tower

Just in case anybody is confused, this post was published on April 1st, 2013. To see our official reaction to the erection of the AT&T mega-tower go here.

In response to the City of Ely’s ban on social media, AT&T announced plans this morning to tear down a 450 foot tall cell phone tower it just finished erecting on the Fernberg Road outside of Ely.

A clearly frustrated spokesman for AT&T sent out a series of tweets this morning expressing bewilderment about the announcement that Ely was banning social media and was considering a ban on all electronic devices.

City of Ely bans social media? But we just got done building a 400 foot cell tower! This is worse than Bloomberg banning Big Gulps!

— ATTEly (@ATTOpsEly) April 1, 2013

That’s it, if Ely wants to ban electronic devices, we’re tearing the tower down. I can’t believe this.

— ATTEly (@ATTOpsEly) April 1, 2013

All of this non-electronic fun in the wilderness will really hurt the bottom line. Thanks a lot, Ely.

— ATTEly (@ATTOpsEly) April 1, 2013

Unnamed sources in Ely tell us that it will be at least a day or so before someone from the city responds to AT&T’s decision. Not only will it take time to draft a letter on stationery, it will be a couple of days before the mail reaches AT&T’s offices.

Happy April 1st!

Spring, a time for green shoots

As the calendar turns to April, changes are happening all around us. Sap is running in the trees, snow is melting (too slowly for some of us), and birds are migrating. Soon the world will turn green, the lakes will throw off their frozen coverings, and wilderness travelers will exchange skis and snowshoes for canoes and boots.

Here at Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, we have another change to announce. As of today, I’m joining the Friends as Communications and Engagement Director. It didn’t occur to me right away that I would be starting on April 1st, and I’m left to wonder whether this is one colossal April Fools joke! I feel so lucky to be part of a team of people that work every day to protect and preserve the BWCA wilderness and the Quetico-Superior ecosystem. And by part of a team, I mean more than just the folks who work here or serve on the board. The team includes you, and everybody else who cares deeply for the Boundary Waters.

It won't be much longer, I promise.

It won’t be much longer, I promise.

That’s why I need your help. As I get up to speed here at the Friends, I need your input on what you need from us. Tell us – what can we do to make sure you are getting the information you need and want about the Boundary Waters?

I want to leave this question open ended so that you can respond in any way you like, but here are some specific items you might consider:

- Are we using Facebook, Twitter and social media effectively? What do you think we can do better?

- What information do we provide that is the most valuable to you?

- What information do you wish we’d do a better job of communicating?

I’ll open a comment thread below, so you can post your thoughts in a comment here, comment on our Facebook page, or on Twitter (tweet @FriendsBWCAW). If you have more extensive thoughts about how we can best communicate as a team of wilderness supporters, please feel free to email me ( or call me at 612-332-9630.

We do our best to make sure you have the information you need to enjoy, protect, and share the Boundary Waters. Let us know what you like and what we can do better.



Interview with Boundary Waters filmmaker Carl Martin

Carl Martin’s Boundary Waters crew seems to redefine the meaning of canoe party. His second canoe country video, released this week, shows them bouncing down rapids, climbing waterfalls, and laughing at a thunderstorm which catches them out on the lake.

The video is simply fun to watch, especially with paddling season just far enough way to inspire a bit of wilderness wistfulness. I asked Carl a few questions, from the background on the group to his advice for making high-quality Boundary Waters films.

Enjoy the video below, and then read on for his thoughts on capturing the wilderness’s character.

What was your route on this trip?

We entered through Kawishiwi, headed north to Malberg and then west over to Alice, up through Thomas and Frasier to Kekekabic.  Eddy falls was as far north as we made it.  We came back through Ogishkemuncie, Gabimichigami, and Little Sag.  Then it was a lot of little lakes back to Malberg and then out through Kawishiwi.

How many trips have you done with this group?

This video documents the ninth year of this trip, but I actually didn’t go on the first few trips, so this was only my sixth year. The guys who started it were 17 the first time they went up. We joke that they weren’t old enough to book a hotel room, so they went to the wilderness.

Carl Martin photo from recent BWCAW winter camping trip

Carl Martin photo from recent BWCAW winter camping trip

We also went on our first winter Boundary Waters trip as a group a few months back, so that might become a new tradition.

What kind of experience are you trying to convey with your videos?

The videos are about us as people and the energy, excitement, joy and challenge that we get from the Boundary Waters. I try to treat the Boundary Waters like another character, rather than having it be the subject of the film itself. There are some really great videos out there that take on the Boundary Waters as a subject and present it in a beautiful, Ansel Adams-like style, but the stories I’m interested in telling are about people and the way this amazing place affects them. Obviously, there are still nature shots and landscapes in my videos, but for me, it’s the reaction shots and the people shots that make my videos work.

Any tips for other people looking to make wilderness videos?

You can’t be too precious with your gear. The first few years that we brought digital cameras, we kept them inside a dry box, inside a bag for most of the trip, so we didn’t really come back with anything worth showing. Whereas this year, I took out my camera during a thunderstorm out on the water. It’s probably my favorite shot in the whole video, and there’s no way I would have gotten it a couple years ago. I’m not saying you should be reckless. I didn’t keep the camera out for long, and I kept it covered, but you have to be bold and trust that your gear is tougher than you think.

Do you spend a lot of time shooting video while you’re up there? How much do you have the camera on?

We always have the camera handy, but it’s definitely not always on. We cover a lot of ground on our trips and spend a lot of each day paddling and portaging, so that sort of naturally gives us a balance. 2011 was the first year that I made a video from our trip, and I didn’t really explain to the other guys, or even admit to myself, the real scope of what I was trying to achieve. So we treated the video shooting very casually at first. I had just gotten my first video-enabled DSLR, and one of my friends had just gotten a GoPro, so we were both playing around with the features and trying things out. It wasn’t until a few days into the trip, once I started going back through the footage, that I realized we might actually have something and I started becoming more intentional about getting shots.

It can take time to get the right shot. Is the rest of your group pretty accommodating of you shooting video?

As I said, the first year was pretty casual, but once we got home, and they saw the footage from the first year, everyone got on board with making these videos. They even helped me lug around all the additional camera gear I brought this year. Now we are all working together as a group to orchestrate a larger-scale documentary piece to capture our trip this coming summer since it will be the tenth year of the trip.

What keeps bringing you back to the Boundary Waters?

The Boundary Waters is kind of the perfect vacation. It is so completely different from what I usually do on a daily basis, and it has an excellent balance of relaxation as well as hard work and a sense of accomplishment.

Also, once you have the basic gear (a sleeping bag, paddle, etc.) it’s an absurdly economical vacation. Every year we each throw in $100 to cover food, gas, permits, water filters and other miscellaneous supplies, and we usually each get about $20 back at the end of the week, so it’s $80 for an eight day vacation. It’s cheaper than staying home.

Report from the Sigurd Olson Lecture Series

Last week, the Friends was proud to bring Tim Bristol, Trout Unlimited’s Alaska director, to Minnesota as part of the annual Sigurd Olson Lecture Series, co-sponsored by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness. While in the state, Bristol presented about his work on issues like management of vast roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest, and the massive Pebble Mine copper mining proposal in Bristol Bay.

Tim spoke in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Ely and Ashland, Wisconsin. His presentation at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment was recorded and is available for viewing online.

In the Institute on the Environment’s blog, writer Monique Dubos reported on Bristol’s talk:

Tim Bristol is playing offense. That’s how the Trout Unlimited Alaska director described his group’s efforts to protect Alaska’s vital watersheds at the Feb. 20 Frontiers in the Environment seminar, “Watersheds: Clean Water, Wild Places, Healthy Communities.”

Trout Unlimited Alaska is fighting to protect two critical habitats and communities that rely on them: Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska and the Tongass National Forest in the southeastern panhandle. Both areas boast productive salmon fisheries that have vital economic benefit to the communities that rely on them, said Bristol. Both are at risk from development projects that threaten the health of their watersheds.

Continue reading…

Institute on the Environment staff member Dan Kunitz also tweeted during the talk. Here are a few highlights from him:





Thank you to Tim, the organizers at each location, and everyone who attended!

A sense of stewardship

Matt Hannah

Matt Hannah

I recently had the opportunity to serve as a volunteer for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. I traveled with my wife up to Brainerd to discuss the Precious Waters film with the Brainerd Lakes Audubon Society.

Despite the temperature being -10 degrees and the night windy, 40 people from all over central Minnesota turned out for the film. A good turnout on such a cold night attests to two things: one, Minnesotans are a tough bunch; two, our lakes, rivers, and streams are very important to us.

As we opened discussion after the film, I thought to myself: “this is exactly what needs to be happening around this issue.” With so much at stake, we need to let our neighbors — and especially our legislators — know how we feel. So many different organizations have shown Precious Waters in the last few years, but ultimately everyone’s concern is the same: the lakes and rivers of the BWCA and northern Minnesota are what make this state special.

When the safety assurances of industry seem like wishful thinking and lack historical precedent, we have serious doubts about whether these projects should proceed.

Every time I talk with Minnesotans about wilderness conservation, I feel a deep sense of gratitude, but also a sense of responsibility. I am proud to live in a state where so many people have made it their responsibility to take care of our beautiful and wild places. Volunteering on this issue has deepened my connection with my fellow citizens, and to the land itself.

I felt honored to be speaking up on behalf of our lake country, and on behalf of such a great organization. Let’s make all of our voices heard so the next generation can enjoy the treasure we have today.

Request a Precious Waters DVD and resource packet and organize a showing of this documentary with your group, friends or other organization.