Grand Marais, MN – July 25, 2012
“Just look at a road map and ball your fist up,” Rolf Skrien said. “That”s how big it is, just the size of your fist on a map, that’s all the wild left.”
Rolf’s an old-timer, past 90, and other than when he was in the Pacific fighting World War II, he’s been paddling around the Boundary Waters. He used to run an outfitter off the Gunflint Trail north of Grand Marais and spent more nights on the lakes up there than off them.
“We were full service,” he said. “Anything from renting a canoe to setting up an entire trip. Used to have a doctor from the city come up and pay me just to get him as far away from his phone as he could get.”
When Hamm’s Beer needed an iconic looking outdoorsman to pose with a bear for their ads, they called Rolf.
“It took a few days for the bear to get used to me,” he said. “The guy tried to keep it as wild as he could. He’d feed it marshmallows from a pouch.”
The names of lakes roll off Rolf’s tongue like a parent talking about his kids. Saganaga, Seagull, and on and on. I told him about my route and he smiled and nodded and knew every inch of it. They say no one can see every lake out there, but Rolf probably comes as close as anyone.
“So has it changed much from when you first started going out there?” I asked.
He’d been in it since before it was even known as the Boundary Waters, before the forest service designated it a wilderness, before anyone outside of Minnesota knew it existed.
“It’s actually gotten better,” he said. “It’s more pristine and less crowded now that they got the quota system limiting people going in and we got rid of the planes.”
He leaned back and smiled.
“That was a fight,” he told me. “A lot of those guys were my friends too, pilots from the war. I even thought about going into it once.”
But he fought the planes anyway, even if it cost him a few friends, because he’d been on lakes no one’s ever heard of, a dozen portages in, and watched the wild break under the roar of a floatplane’s motor.
“People need a place to get away from all that,” he said.
But the fight to protect the Boundary Waters didn’t end when the planes stopped landing on far away lakes. Civilization is always coming for our wild places. Mining, roads, and cell phone towers that will blink all night on the horizon, they are all coming to cut away at the edges, piece by unnoticeable piece.
“What does a single light in the sky matter anyway,” they’ll say. “It’s nothing compared to a million stars.”
But a single light turns into two, then four, then you look out and it feels like any other place on the map.
I wonder what my answer will be when I’m 90 and someone asks me “has it changed much since you first started going out there?”
Will I be able to say “it’s gotten better” and tell some kid a story about pulling a sea kayak from one end to the other or will I think of Rolf’s balled-up fist, his wrinkled skin pulled tight across his knuckles, the color draining from his hand, and wonder what happened to it all.
“It’s that small,” Rolf said. “The whole rest of the map’s got phone towers and houses and roads. Just your fist, that’s all the wild we got left. Can’t they just leave it alone?”
Want to learn more about efforts to protect that fist of wild on the map called the Boundary Waters? Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness leads the effort to protect and restore the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from threats such as mining, logging, development, haze, noise, fire suppression, and loss of native species. The organization was formed in 1976 to protect this vulnerable area and two years later shepherded legislation through Congress that brought full protection to the Boundary Waters.
Today, the Minnesota-based organization is a sentry against further harm in the BWCAW and the Quetico-Superior Ecosystem. Whether it is proposals for risky new mines next door to the 1,075,500 acre wilderness, proposals to impair the wilderness’ character with massive, lighted cell phone towers, or plans to harvest trees in a sensitive habitat, Friends’ ensures that a “voice of wilderness” is always heard.
Go to their website and learn more about the issues facing the Boundary Waters and how you can help.