PAYNESVILLE — The winds whipped up a steady procession of whitecaps on Lake Koronis as a small flotilla of kayaks and a canoe launched last Saturday afternoon.
“A horrifically, terrible day for being on the water,” said Bill Virant. He was among those who paddled into the rough waters all the same.
It was too important not to do so, according to Virant, a retired educator in Paynesville. The small contingent of five paddlers wanted to make a statement by participating in the May 29 Save the Boundary Waters Flotilla Paddle Day of Action, he explained.
Virant is a veteran paddler of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and a member of the board of directors for the Crow River Trail Guards. For nearly three decades the Paynesville organization has provided young people with opportunities to appreciate the outdoors.
On most Saturdays, as many as 30 youth will join to take care of the trails along the North Fork of the Crow River in Paynesville. The youth are rewarded for their work with outdoor adventures, including whitewater rafting and an annual trip to the BWCAW.
Seventy-five miles, 27 portages, four nights and five days. That’s the itinerary for the annual BWCAW trek starting at the Little Indian Sioux North entry. Adult leaders in the Trail Guards have been leading youth, ages 12 to 15, on this annual test of their mettle since 1995.
Virant said the experience is almost magical. It’s a challenging and even grueling pace. He’s watched young people balk at the idea of picking up a 40-pound pack or canoe and carry them over portages, including one on the route that is one mile in length. At the end of the portage, you can see it in their eyes, said Virant. The sense of accomplishment is real. “So empowering,” he said.
The Trail Guard leader said he is among those who are concerned that we could lose a precious natural resources by allowing a Chilean company to build a sulfide-ore copper mine on the edge of the BWCAW. Its proposed location puts it within the Kawishiwi River flowage, which runs directly into the BWCAW. Opponents of the proposal fear that it’s just a matter of time before the heap of acid bearing rocks that would be unearthed at the site contaminate the waterway.
Virant has attended public hearings on the proposal. He said he heard the most poignant message in Duluth, when a man who said he was from the School of Mines in Rapid City, South Dakota spoke. “I have never seen a copper sulfide mine turn into anything more than a super fund costing billions of dollars to clean up. They all become a toxic waste dump,” Virant said the man testified.
He said he understands the economic development concerns for residents in northeastern Minnesota, but believes there are options besides “mining or no mining.” He points to the good-paying jobs at Marvin Windows in Warroad as proof that manufacturing and other economic endeavors can succeed in the state’s north country.
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters sponsored the national day of solitary for the Boundary Waters. Over 50 paddlers took to the waters of Bde Maka Ska Lake in Minneapolis, host site for the event, according to Jeremy Druker with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
He said the event was all about raising awareness about the risks the proposed mine represents. While the decisions that matter for the project will ultimately be made in the halls of government, public opinion matters. “The more people know about the issue, the more concerned they are,” said Druker.
Virant said he has been surprised when sitting around the campfire and chatting with friends. He continues to find people who haven’t been paying attention to the issue.
At the heart of it all for him is a desire to protect this special place for young people. The Trail Guard’s mission is to connect kids to the outdoors. The wilderness experience can be transformative for young people, said Virant. “It’s fun to see kids getting along and enjoying the outdoors,” he said.