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  • Writer's pictureEmma

20 Years

Updated: Feb 4, 2023

A story of fresh water and the places it still exists.

Have you ever been to a lake with water so clean you could drink it?

Old posts from a logging railroad on Fall Lake in the Boundary Waters. (2021)

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. A city literally built between two lakes. Isthmus was the first word I learned in geography class. I spent most of my summer days in the water. Running between the local pool and the many beaches strewn throughout the neighborhoods of Madison. In November, in an effort to feel something under the dreary midwest winter, my sister and I would run into sloshy waters and emerge daring and chilled. Come spring, I would watch and wait for the ice to break. Jumping in the cold water was my way of asserting my cold midwestern blood.

Public doc at Lake Wingra in Madison, Wisconsin (2017)

When summer arrived, we’d visit Lake Wingra, a smaller lake that hosted many recreation opportunities and was bordered by the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. This was the same Arboretum that the famous conservationist Aldo Leopold worked and studied in. Our family friends, three little stark-white blonde girls we called the Gotzlers, would run and leap off the public doc with me. We would squeal as we tried to float atop the water. For the first 20 yards closest to shore, if you let any body part fall below the surface tension, you would be tickled and entangled in slimy weeds. As August rolled around, we stopped swimming in the lakes. Algae blooms caused by the runoff from the city would take over. Reports of Blue Green Algae began to hit the beaches. I wouldn’t trade the memories of floating under the sun or biking around with wet untamed hair for anything, but I always joke that if I ever get cancer it must be from the murky waters of my youth.

Gotzler Gal (2017)

When I moved to Colorado for college, I discovered most people don’t like swimming in cold water. On backpacking trips, I would be the only one dipping in clear turquoise snow-melt lakes hidden in the alpine. From the shore, I would hear my friends complaining about the temperatures and the weeds. Weeds! They had no idea what weeds were. The slime growing on the rocks in these lakes tickled your feet but didn’t encase it in a terrifying hug. In these alpine lakes, I could look down and see my toes swishing in the water. Mind you they were numb, but I’ve always been of the mindset that water is meant to be swum in. One of the many lessons I learned in college was this: A brain freeze from cold water is the best way to cure a hangover. The lakes and rivers we played in in college were the same waters that trickled down to Lake Powell and sustained the entire American West.

One particularly rowdy trip floating the Ruby Horse Thief Section of the Colorado River in celebration of graduation. Mooning the train is a long and important tradition (2021).

I first learned what Giardia was at 16 when I paddled in the Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. I was taught to put one tablet of iodine in a Nalgene water bottle, wait 30 minutes, run the water through the threads of the cap, and chug. The iodine gave the water a yellow tint and a slightly rotten taste. There were still pine needles and if you filled up in a bad spot some floaty bugs. Thankfully, I’ve never been a very picky person. It didn’t look like the clear, bug-free, water that came from my tap, but it got the job done.

I truly learned what Giardia was on a backpacking trip in India in college. It was the night before we were supposed to embark on our “trek,” a backpacking trip popular in this part of the world where you carry your personal gear and meet up with your guides who transport food and cook for you. I went to bed not feeling good and was awoken in the middle of the night with the immediate thought of, “SHIT.” Followed by a miserable couple of hours that left me with absolutely nothing in my body but Imodium. It couldn't have been Giardia because of the speed of onset, but the symptoms were identical. The next morning, amidst a peaceful meditation exercise, I fainted for the first time in my life from dehydration. For the next 24 hours, I was a shell of a human. The only things I could hold down were Coke and chocolate. Every time I tried to drink water, I would projectile vomit it back up in the woods. I never questioned my water. I knew how to treat water using iodine, I had survived off the 1 tablet to 1 Nalgene for months in the woods. In fact, I was trying so hard to drink as much as I could, terrified of how dehydrated I was getting. Sixteen hours into this hell, my roommates at the homestay came up to me and said they thought they figured out why I wasn’t doing so well. If you were to read the instructions on the back of the little brown glass iodine bottle it would say,

“Add 2 tablets of Potable Aqua to 1 quart or liter of water and cap loosely to allow a small amount of leakage. Wait 5 minutes. Shake container to allow screw threads on the closure to be moistened, then tighten cap. Wait 30 minutes before drinking.”

I learned to purify my water in the natural nonpolluted waters of the north woods. India is India. You should read instructions. The country is home to roughly ⅛ of the world's population. Apparently, when you are in India you need to fully purify your water. I don’t recommend learning this lesson the hard way.

The canoe barn at Camp Widjiwagan holds the largest active fleet of Wood Canvas canoes in North America. Some canoes are up to 100 years old. (2021)

At the organization I work at in the summers, there is an older gentleman named Joe. He was a camper when my grandpa was a counselor. He wears linen fishing hats and ball caps stained with sweat. There’s a rumor that there is no written record of the landline and electrical system at camp, but that the map solely lives in Joe’s head. He knows everything about that place. Every summer you’ll find him teaching the new staff to paddle with proper technique. A gangly crew of granola kids thigh-deep in Burntside Lake surrounding a guy in a button-down that’s seen better days. Counselors tell stories of reaching a week into their trip, miles from camp and waking to find Joe silently paddling past. If you’re lucky, unlike my friend Ewan, it will be at an opportune time and you won’t be sipping your first cup of coffee in your boxers. In so many ways, he has become the steward of a way of travel in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area (BWCA) which is nearly 100 years old. At the same time, Joe is just like the rest of us who found something we love and worked hard to build a life around it.

Joe playing fiddle with counselors on the porch of the Sigurd Olsen Center at Camp Widjiwagan. (2021)

I’ve found characters like this all over the lakes, mountains, forests, and deserts that make up the American Wilderness. The town of Ely, the gateway to the Western part of the BWCA, is full of people like Joe. They are the ones who have witnessed the land change from native land to logging to forest fires and, most recently, mining. People that will dip their cup right in those northern waters and drink one of the rarest delicacies in our modern world, fresh water.

A hazy morning on Basswood Lake in the Western Boundary Waters. The summer of 2021, saw a lot of closures due to high fire danger and potential wildfires from lightning, recreation, and the neighboring public land in Canada, Quetico Provincial Park. It was hot and barely rained for the entire thirty days we paddled. (2021)

In 2013, the campaign called Save the Boundary Waters was created to fight sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the BWCA (Save The Boundary Waters). Studies have shown this form of mining can permanently damage the land it takes from because of leaching from the waste it creates (Save The Boundary Waters). In communities like Ely, their life is impacted daily by this land and its resources. They walk the line of recreating and living off where they live. Finding joy and economic stability from the same resource. Over the summers, I’ve seen signs of split ideologies decorating lawns and car bumpers. As someone who relies on recreation for a job, I won’t pretend I am not biased in the conflict between protecting the water and creating jobs from mining.

There is a rule in the BWCA that no more than nine people can be at the same place at any given time. This means you must travel in small groups to reduce the impact on the land. It also leads to close relationships built over long paddles, challenging portages, and relaxing meals around the fire. (2021)

In the summer of 2021, I had the opportunity to paddle for 30 days in the BWCA. Over that time, I returned to some places I’d paddled before, learned to watch the sky for storms, read the maps using two wrinkles on my thumb to mark a mile, and felt myself fall in love with a life of pushing the unknown. After long paddles, strategic portages, and an abundance of dancing and singing, the blue and green that makes up this Annishinabe Land on a map are full of stories to share.

Paddling on Thomas Lake. (2021)

I started paddling canoes on trips like this when I was a teen. The northern forests inspired my hopes of a life of adventure. When I’m in the woods, I often read the words of those who also have spent their lives outdoors. One of these authors is Edward Abbey, a controversial figure, but inspiring nonetheless. In his books Desert Solitaire, Abbey writes,

“A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, power lines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need set a foot in it.”

Water levels were so low on the Granite River that summer, portages were twice the length. We had to crawl through thigh-deep mud to load and unload. (2021)

This last week, on January 26th, 2023, a 20-year mining ban was passed. This public land order bans sulfide copper ore mining from 225,504 acres of the Superior National Forest upstream of the BWCA (Save The Boundary Waters). I know many of the people who read this might never paddle in the Boundary Waters. After all, even the best tent isn't waterproof, and sitting on a plastic toilet swatting at mosquitos isn't for everyone. I can share my stories, but I am just another person and my stories will be forgotten. The foundation for the current life of this land was created by the Wilderness Act passed in 1964. The act defines and protects the American Wilderness. Its goal is to protect your right and all your loved ones' rights to places where you can recreate in fresh clean water. The BWCA is a gift we receive at birth as United States Citizens. I, like many, on a daily basis go about my life not thinking about these privileges. My hope in writing this is not to encourage you to drink unpurified water in the backcountry, but to share an important update on a gift in legality and life that we receive each day without reciprocation. Now, you know there are still places in the world with water so clean all you need is a straw. Even if you may never step foot in the BWCA, you now know it is there. Perhaps, that is enough for us to keep ensuring there is fresh water to recreate in and live off of for the next 20 years and all the years succeeding.


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