y knees buckled as I swung the pack onto my shoulders. This was the first portage our group of six had begun in the Boundary Waters, on the Minnesota-Canada border, and as I hiked up the trail, it felt as though I were packing out a bull elk quarter. Meanwhile, my paddling partner, Lukas Leaf, hoisted our canoe above his head and then strode off down the trail to the next lake, a quarter mile up the path. As I lagged behind, I realized for the first time how grueling this million acres would be. Still, despite my failure to anticipate the trip’s physical demands, I was glad I had come. I needed to be here, camping, fishing, and exploring this wilderness. I owed it to a friend.
We reached the end of the portage and repacked our canoes and set out for Basswood Lake, some 11 miles north. Our plan: camp and fish for four days, then head back to Ely, Minn. Motors are largely forbidden in the Boundary Waters, and navigating the 1,000-plus interconnected lakes requires a canoe. These restrictions have made the Boundary Waters one of the most unpeopled places left in the Lower 48, and a bucket-list destination for adventurers. But a proposed sulfide-ore mine just outside its border is threatening this trackless wilderness, which is part of why I’d come here. A Chilean mining company, Antofagasta, has spent the past decade fighting to mine the precious metals worth more than $1 trillion buried here. No surprise, outfitters, guides, and sportsmen have fought back, fearing the mining would ruin this wilderness.
Earlier in the day, as I paddled these iconic waters, I felt relieved to be here, to see what was at stake should the mine get approved—because I almost backed out of this trip entirely. Days before I was due to leave, I learned that my college roommate and one of my closest friends, Ryan, had killed himself. I caught the earliest flight home after hearing the news, and I considered canceling my Boundary Waters trip. But at Ryan’s memorial service, one of his uncles mentioned that the Boundary Waters had been one of Ryan’s favorite places, a detail about him that I’d forgotten. That’s when I decided I needed to go—to be somewhere that had mattered to my friend.
We reached our campsite later that evening. Across the lake, water washed onto the Canadian shores, and hours had passed since we’d seen another group of paddlers. We camped in a grove of spruce and pines and ate steak, chopped potatoes, and mushrooms by the fire. After dinner, conversation turned to the mine. Leaf, an outreach director for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, explained that the mine would include…