I am a life-long resident of Minnesota and am embarrassed to say I had never been to the Boundary Water Canoe Area (BWCA) before last month. Whether it was the pandemic, the long, hot summer of political unrest, or merely a minor midlife crisis, I decided to remove this unsightly blemish from my resume by spending five days in the area in late September.
With a friend and an experienced guide, I set out. After arriving at the Snake River entry point and taking a short portage, I was forced immediately to plunge my boots into cold, calf high water before even getting underway.
The initial discomfort of my wet boots soon faded as I was greeted by flowing fields of wild rice. In short order, the Snake River glided effortlessly into the Isabella River which then seamlessly merged into Gull Lake.
I didn’t realize it at the time but this was the point where my journey transformed from a tourist expedition into a pilgrimage. I say this because it has been said that a pilgrimage is an attempt to wake up and, as we paddled, I was awakened to the BWCA’s stark beauty — walls of golden birch trees, shockingly red moose maple trees, stately black spruce, and towering white pines.
In the silence, I listened to nature. I was struck by the land’s magical qualities and it’s easy relationship with its surrounding life, including the soaring eagles, stoic loons, courtly kingfishers, and elegant white swans.
At times, the journey was uncomfortable. In addition to the soggy boots, there were arduous portages, thin mattresses, outdoor latrines, heavy winds, and cold rains. At a few points, I questioned the wisdom of my journey, but to be a pilgrim is to open one’s heart and mind, and it is impossible to stand beneath the BWCA’s expansive night skies and not be opened to the transcendent power of the universe.
It has also been said that to be a pilgrim is to put oneself at risk — the risk of coming back a different person. On my final day, I stood in the middle of a grove of cedar trees which crowned the hilltop of an island overlooking the Kawishiwi River and found myself being transformed.
To my left, a pine needle deftly danced by my head. It was still connected to its host by the thinnest string of pine tar and the wind played with it with the ease of a master puppeteer controlling a marionette. Entranced, I was stunned when a second pine needle began intricately dancing to my right. After what seemed an unusually long time, the wind carried both needles off to their final resting place.
As I turned to leave, I pivoted 180 degrees and was confronted by a third pine needle engaged in yet another delicate eye-level dance that seemed to be being performed solely for my benefit. This needle, like the first, was connected to its mother tree by a translucent and impossibly thin strand of pine tar.
It then occurred to me that to be a pilgrim is really to be connected — connected to nature and connected to the sacred. A moment later, I had another epiphany: There are no unsacred places in this world — only sacred places and desecrated places.
As a first time pilgrim to the BWCA, I plead now with my fellow citizens — do not desecrate the BWCA with a mine. In addition to the region’s raw and untamed beauty, the BWCA has recently been designated a Dark Night Sanctuary. I am confident that if the area can stay clear of the noise and light pollution that a mine will inevitably bring along with the very real possibility of the air and water pollution a mine could produce, not only will more tourists come to the area seeking beauty, peace and silence, even more pilgrims will come in search of deeper truths.
Jack Uldrich is an author. His forthcoming book, Generation RE: The Guiding Spirits of the Coming Renaissance, is due out in 2021.