Archive for the 'Minnesota' Category

Suffering From A Serious Case of NIMBY Syndrome

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“Not in my backyard.”

 I used to cringe at NIMBY syndrome, thinking it elitist and out of touch. Then I learned that my backyard is being primed for sulfide mining.

My roots run deep in Minnesota, where I grew up living in a cabin on a remote island part of every summer. My parents still live there. From our dock we can paddle, then portage, into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1.3-million acre playground where more than a quarter million people commune with “God’s Country,” the nickname for this part of the world popularized by a Hamm’s Beer commercial in the 70s.

Six years old on my first Boundary Waters expedition, I packed a flannel nightgown. My older brother and sister laughed at me, but those were the days before down puffies and I was plenty cozy as I padded out of my tent in the early morning to watch the mist rise off the lake. In college I guided inner-city tough kids through chains of BWCA lakes with names like Jap and Little Sag. If we were thirsty, we’d dip our cup straight into the deepest part of the lake. The kids were far more afraid of bears and muskie than they were of hanging out at midnight on a North Minneapolis street corner. Most were miserable carrying their canoes across a portage. But it never failed that after surviving a Boundary Waters trip, they earned serious street cred back home. For a lot of them, it was the first and last time they would camp in wilderness. I, on the other hand, took it for granted that someone would be paddling these lakes long after I was gone. That’s the beauty of a federally protected “wilderness.” Right?

It turns out, not really. Lately, mining companies have been exploratory drilling underneath the BWCA and surrounding National Forests. The conglomerates—most of them foreign—estimate that the earth here holds one trillion dollars worth of copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, and gold. They intend to procure it by sulfide mining—a procedure so toxic that it can contaminate water for thousands of years. Land-swap deals have already passed Congress. Exploratory drilling is running round the clock. Environmental Impact Statements have been filed. The inevitable march toward sulfide mining has begun.

So, here I sit typing NOT IN MY BACKYARD. Yes, jobs would be a positive result if these mega conglomerates were allowed to mine here. And mining companies assure residents that their new, sophisticated technology will mitigate environmental damage caused by past sulfide mining operations. But what if they’re wrong? Thousands of streams and watersheds in the U.S. have already been irreversibly contaminated by sulfide mining. If even God’s Country is up for grabs, what chance does any wilderness have?

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Rite of Passage

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“It’s rare. It’s quick. It has no track record,” my friend Marcus told me from the St. Luke’s emergency room in Duluth, Minnesota, on August 15. We were supposed to have dinner the previous week. When I didn’t hear from him, I knew something was not right. So I called.

“It’s very aggressive, Steph. I’m not going to have chemo. It’s not an option. The cancer started from inside, with small polyps on the colon, and moved to the liver. My liver is full of tumors.”

By September 13 Marcus was dead. The last time I saw him, he was sitting like a Buddha on a sleeping pad under the Norway pines outside the log cabin he built in the woods. Marcus loved to push around boulders and trim Minnesota pines into Japanese bonsais to create a Zen garden where he could read and think. Eighteen years older than me, Marcus was a brilliant, liberal theologian who enjoyed a dissenting opinion as long as it didn’t have anything to do with telling him how to paddle a canoe or live his life.

A rugged guy, Marcus didn’t have many personal mementos. I have nothing tangible other than the photo below to remember him by—not even his memorial service. Marcus’s family and friends are scattered across the country. His only son lives in Boston, his mother lives in California, his sisters are from St. Paul, many of his friends live in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but his closest buddies were a cluster of doctors, construction workers, and woodsmen from northern Minnesota. He wanted the memorial service, which he planned himself the weeks before he died, to be held in the town near the cabin he loved and considered home. To give everyone time to gather, his son set the service for November 12. By then, I was gone.

I’m not sure what kind of closure I’m expecting from watching the mailed DVD of his memorial service, but I know that being absent from the real thing has been much harder than expected.

Missing the service makes me think about ritual. A synonym for the word funeral is “laying to rest,” which makes a lot of sense. Without that last communal goodbye, to share a laugh and a memory with people who loved Marcus, the world just moves on as if he didn’t exist. I guess that’s why I wrote this post—to use it as a place holder. It’s an attempt to let Marcus rest, but also to keep him alive.

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Waiting on Thin Ice

The suspense is killing me. A week ago my front yard was one gigantic skating rink, the ice smooth as glass. It’s so tempting, but if I step onto the ice before it’s ready, I will be in for the swim of my life.

This is what the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources web page advises:

When is ice safe?

There really is no sure answer. You can’t judge the strength of ice just by its appearance, age, thickness, temperature, or whether or not the ice is covered with snow. Strength is based on all these factors — plus the depth of water under the ice, size of the water body, water chemistry and currents, the distribution of the load on the ice, and local climatic conditions.

There is no such thing as 100 percent safe ice.

Thanks for clearing up the ambiguities, Mr. DNR. This morning the temperature was -17, plenty cold for “spontaneous nucleation,” and all the other chemical reactions scientists say have to take place for lake ice to properly form. It looks solid. And there’s even a thin layer of snow, making the lake almost perfect for skate skiing. But what day do I finally take that leap of faith, click into my skis, and start gliding? Your guess is as good as mine.

Catching Bass While Fishing For Walleye on Trout Lake


“There is nothing absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

That sums up my dad’s philosophy, which is why he framed the line from “The Wind in the Willows” and hung it in his bathroom. Dad’s love for boats goes way back: He bought his first sailboat from an old college chaplain with a bottle of scotch.

The reason Dad loves boats is that they make fishing more fun. So last Sunday, we portaged the canoe into Trout, a pristine BWCA lake, to fish for walleye, which makes the perfect sandwich.

My mom and I paddled while Dad trolled for walleye. In less than five minutes he was reeling in a bass—which he eventually caught and released because he can’t stand their wormy filets. Another five minutes later, he reeled in another bass. Then another. It went this way until lunchtime, at which point we landed the canoe at a campsite, sat on a slab of granite sloping into the water, and ate turkey sandwiches. After lunch we paddled the opposite shoreline while my mom and I scanned the Norway Pines for bald eagles and my dad laughed like a kid and reeled in bass.