by CHRIS ROGERS
Tomorrow, Winona will be the starting point for a very long bike ride and a campaign against a proposed copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). Three women who work as canoe guides in Ely, Minn., are riding bicycles — and towing a Winona-made canoe — from Winona to Ely to rally support for federal and state regulation that would block the mine.
After a kickoff party in Winona tomorrow, Erin McCleary, Iggy Perillo, and Lisa Pugh will ride 725 miles, zig-zagging across central Minnesota for rallies before pedaling north to Duluth, Two Harbors, and Ely. The three women lead canoeing, backpacking, and dogsledding trips at Voyageur Outward Bound School, including programs for school groups, delinquent youth, grieving teens, and military veterans. Their bike trip is part of a battle in Northern Minnesota, St. Paul, and Washington, D.C., over development near one of the nation's most-visited wilderness areas and the future of jobs in the arrowhead.
Twin Metals mining company hopes to open several copper and nickel mines near the Boundary Waters. A similar, nearby project, the proposed PolyMet mine, is midway through its environmental review process. Twin Metals is just beginning. Water quality permitting will be one of the significant hurdles for Twin Metals. The mine would produce large amounts of sulfureous waste rock, or tailings. When rain water mixes with those tailings, it produces sulfuric acid, and the acid runoff from such tailings — also known as acid mine drainage — can pollute streams and lakes.
On its website, Twin Metals leaders highlight their plans for advanced wastewater treatment and safe storage of the tailings. They also estimate they will create 850 full-time jobs operating the mine plus construction jobs and invest over $5 billion in land and equipment over the mine's 30-year lifespan. Mining is part of Northern Minnesota's heritage and an important part of the economy there, the company and Northern Minnesotans who support it say. Environmentalists and Northern Minnesotans who oppose the project say the mines will pollute the Boundary Waters and threaten the jobs provided by outfitters, fishing guides, lodges, and restaurants.
For McCleary, Perillo, and Pugh, this is all very close to home. Their otherwise quiet days and nights are currently disrupted by the rumble of test drilling, and they are worried about the future of their careers and a place they love.
Perillo first came to the BWCA as a child on a canoe trip with her parents. She has worked as a guide there for the last 17 years. When asked where the best places to go are, she could not even begin. "Anywhere," she said. "There are lakes with sandy beaches and lakes with towering cliffs. There are places where you can look out for miles and miles and bogs where you're sinking up to your armpits. There are places where you can look 20 feet down into clear water. You can go into lakes that basically nobody goes to or places where you see families playing with little kids."
The Boundary Waters is one of the only places in the Midwest where you can travel for weeks without seeing any sign of civilization. While it might be hard to explain, the perseverance that traveling in the wilderness requires and the escape from the modern world it provides changes people in a wonderful way, Perillo and Pugh said. "It does amazing things once people really unplug," Perillo said.
"That was incredible; that changed my life" are phrases Pugh has often heard from the young people and adults she guides. Three boys from very different upbringings bonded over a canoe trip with Pugh and at one point saw four bald eagles eating fish just a dozen yards from their canoe. "I have not seen a bigger grin on those boys' faces," Pugh said. "Those kinds of smiles you can't put a price on." On another trip a 16-year-old girl from inner city Boston saw a starry sky for the first time. Her face was frozen with amazement, Pugh remembered. "Oh my gosh, I didn't know this is what the sky looks like," the girl exclaimed. On a dogsledding trip with a group of veterans, a younger veteran who would not say a word to anyone at the beginning of the trip slowly let his personality show. "The last night of trip the guy really opened up and in just a few sentences expressed how deeply grateful he was for everyone on that team. He had never felt that kind of confidence in himself and he said he is going to take that confidence forward into his situations at home and see how that helps," Pugh explained.
"It seems like what the wilderness does for people is act as a mirror," Pugh continued. "It reveals character. You get to see different sides of yourself and the people you travel with that you don't normally see. The wilderness really reveals a lot about who you are in a pretty empowering way, and that comes through the challenge. You don't get to experience that unless you experience the challenge."
Thousands of people have been working in the BWCA tourism industry for decades, but the pollution caused by copper-nickel mining would threaten that, Perillo and Pugh said.
"Nobody wants to fish in an industrial mining zone," Perillo stated.
When asked about the need for jobs in Northeastern Minnesota, Pugh said, "There is definitely poverty in the Arrowhead, as there is in most places in the country … but we have something that's working for us. We have a stable and sustainable industry that does support a lot of people in this region. It's something we already have and we want to protect it."
The kickoff party for McCleary, Perillo, and Pugh's bike tour will be from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 2, at the Boat House Restaurant in Levee Park in Winona. The riders will talk about their project, give away outdoor gear from sponsors, and invite visitors to sign petitions and the We-no-nah canoe they are hauling. Cyclists are welcome to pedal along with McCleary, Perillo, and Pugh as they bike to Mankato over the weekend. The trio is also appearing at the gazebo at Winona State University's campus earlier Thursday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.