On one of the coldest winters on record, the 2014 polar vortex swinging down across the brow of North America, I set off across frozen Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin, harnessed to a sled carrying what gear I needed for the night. A heath of snow lay across what looked more like an Arctic ice sheet than a lake. I wore boots that could serve a person on the moon, marching out past the last ice fishing shacks eight miles into a white emptiness. The snow under my step was drifted and crusty, the sky clear, the sun low and golden, afternoon temperature ten below zero.
I was not in the wilderness according to any law or designation. In fact, people drive trucks out on the lake, erecting ice-fishing shacks that can be lavishly stocked with space heaters and sometimes rugs and couches. But I couldn’t see anyone else from here, which is at least one of the requirements for wilderness. I’d found a place with, as the law says, “ample opportunities for solitude.”
How do you define wilderness? The noble act of 1964 offered a clear framework, its easy to understand definitions ruling some land in and other land out. The word became a designation at that point, an almost desperate grab for what lands were not yet being consumed by human enterprise. Never mind that wilderness itself is a human enterprise – setting places aside to soothe our minds and allow nature as we imagine it to go about its business.
I am a defender of the Wilderness Act, believing there are places that we just shouldn’t touch, in some cases any of us, but my definition of the word flexes depending on where I am and what is needed. It’s the purely personal definition of someone who grew up in the suburban West, finding wilderness in a leaking culvert, abandoned lot, or accidental marshland, and then in mountains or desert with trails and primitive campsites. The definitions I go by color outside the lines.
There should have been a sound as the sun dropped to eye-level, hissing as it lost its warmth. All I could hear was a hush of a breeze across hard snow as icicles lengthened out of my mustache and down my beard. I dropped gear for a camp and added layers, insulating myself enough to get me through.
In the distance I could see a spit of birch trees connected to the mainland where the Bad River flows into Lake Superior. Before coming out here, I’d checked with a representative from the Bad River Reservation, Lake Superior Tribe of the Chippewa. I was advised to go around the river’s delta, which would be sloughs and marshes of wild grasses come summer. It was traditional harvest grounds for wild rice. The harvest goes back as far as anyone can remember, probably 10,000 years, so I had swung wide around it. You don’t mess with things that old.
Thirty seconds of bare knuckles was too much to stand, so I gave up trying to get a stove going. I just focused on the rudiments of my camp, laying out a simple bivvy bag with a bear of a sleeping bag stuffed inside, standing the wood toboggan on its side to block the breeze. It didn’t matter at that moment whether I was eight miles from shore or 80. Human contrivances seemed meager against the weight of this world, 20-below at sunset, raspberry-colored snow turning a frigid, oceanic blue as the sun dropped under the horizon. As stars rained in, I walked wide circles around my camp, keeping moving, not yet ready to sink into my bag.
The headwaters of the Bad River lie in the Penokee Hills of northern Wisconsin, not far from the lake. These hills are a hodgepodge of private and state ownership. I’d gone up into them with a local activist who wanted to show me Wisconsin’s version of wilderness. I’m from the West, where wilderness is a thing with dotted lines around it, great swaths of mountain, desert, and plain set aside and not to be touched. What, I wondered, could Wisconsin offer? We broke trail into the Penokees, snow sometimes hip-deep and sculpted into waves and troughs around white pine, white cedar, white spruce. Frozen in place were ponds, lakes, and valley-bottom swamps crossed by few roads and no bridges, the earth made of hard, black rock in which there is iron.
The activist was a man with a meditative stutter. Words like beautiful and love came out slowly, in a way that made you pay attention. He brought me here because a strip mine has been proposed for the headwaters of the Bad River, water that flows into Lake Superior, one of the largest freshwater reserves in North America. If the mine were allowed to happen, a 90-year plan for iron extraction would carve open 22 miles of ridgeline through the heart of the Penokees.
Water carries whatever it’s given, and wilderness goes beyond its own boundaries. It flows away.
We slogged through a short chasm, river grumbling under the ice. Under hemlock and maple, we saw the tannin-darkened water through skylights. In halting words, the activist said it is easy to argue in favor of a mine, how it puts money in pocket and steel in cars. But how do you defend a place like this? How do you defend the Penokee Hills, the Bad River, the rice that grows in the marsh, and the history of people who harvest that rice? How do you defend the freshwaters of Lake Superior? He said he’s walked in all directions from here at all times of the year, sleeping and fishing in these woods. He says it’s good to live here. “To live,” he strained to say, because it was important that I understood. “You know, to actually live.”
He walked me to the headwaters of what would be a marshy, winding river in the summer, but in January was a sensual field of white. There was so much snow, the water barely showed. We saw punctuation marks where river otters had made a course in and out of the water. There were no other tracks, no snowmobiles, no snowshoes. He said that here would be a tailings pile so tall it would be the highest point in the state.
You can imagine what 90 years of open-pit extraction, mineral leaching, truck tires in the mud, and spilled fluids could do to the Bad River and everything downstream. Think of that January’s spill into a West Virginia river. Although the 2,000 gallons of DT-50-D was claimed to be non-toxic, it turned the Elk River a milky white (residents described it as having a licorice-like odor), and the State Department of Environment warned 300,000 people not to drink or bathe in municipal water. Water carries whatever you give it, and wilderness goes beyond its own boundaries. It flows away.
A Natives’ protest camp sprang up in the Penokee Hills last spring. People said they would remain until the mine proposal was turned back. Inhabitants called their protest site a “harvest camp,” a place to come and gather, hunt, split wood, and sit out long nights around the woodstove in ramshackle wigwams made of tarps and blankets. When I visited in January, the proposal had not been halted, and the camp seemed to be barely hanging on, snows heavier than anyone had seen in years, double digit, below-zero temperatures going on for months. The remaining protesters were few, and most were over 60 years old, Natives of surrounding tribes, including the Bad River Indian Reservation that is directly downstream of the proposed mine site.
As I entered the camp, I passed flags on wooden poles. They were tribal flags, a state flag, and a solidarity flag sent from Tibet recognizing Indigenous struggle against a powerful encroacher. Eagle feathers hung from a pole where people who come in offered pinches of tobacco, permission to enter.
Some of the structures had collapsed under the weight of snow and they looked like skeletons of baskets, their tarps crumpled around broken and bent wooden rods. Their inhabitants had either moved on, or figured they’d come back later in the season. Those still standing had soot-dripping stovepipes. Some had fires going, smoke drifting through the northern hardwood forest. The wigwams were made traditionally, ironwood bent and tied, entrance through the flat side. Inside, they smelled of wood smoke, kerosene, and grease. Light came in through seams. There were sleeping bags, boxes of donated food, a radio, coffee mug, matches. From the willow rods hung pins and bumper stickers. Most read: NO MINE!
The exciting days of summer were over. The camp felt subdued, the last diehards subsisting on mac-n-cheese and wild game. Squirrels hung frozen stiff from lines outside, along with a leg of venison.
Subdued, but not finished. In the coldest of winter, people were still here. The wilderness they were fighting for was still very much at risk – not just the hills, but everything downstream, and the people refused to leave.
Part of what got the Wilderness Act through Congress way back in 1964 was the sentiment that we personally need wilderness. It was the promise of being in a place where you would see few or no other people, and the human mark on the land would be meager. But what we were really doing was saying that by whatever means, some places must be put away not for us, but from us. Left to our own devices, we might mistakenly devour all the land and water we could find. The Wilderness Act implored us to consider Earth and its untrammeled elements, the places that speak to what is not human.
The night I spent on Lake Superior was its own form of wild. As I wrestled to stay warm in my bag, the ice beneath me groaned and cracked. With air temperature nearing 30-below-zero, the lake ice was expanding, and I listened to splinters race like lightning under my back. There were deeper sounds, cracks from underneath, like submarines colliding in the vaulted depths.
I slept with my water bottles to keep them from freezing, but they pulled warmth from my body. I shouldn’t say I slept because I didn’t. Between the symphonic percussion of the ice and the iron-hard cold, I could hardly drift off. I was at the whims of constituents greater than myself, which was one of the reasons the Wilderness Act was put forth, so there would be places where we might be reminded that this world is not all about us.
When the sun rose, I could barely see its light. Just getting out took at least an hour, first breaking ice from around the sleeping bag zipper, then working free the frozen zipper on the bivvy. Coming to the light was like birth, headfirst, my first free breath a ball of fog. I’d hoped that sunrise would warm things up, but the air was still about 20-below even in the clear morning light. I was grumpy and tired, and the skin on my cheeks felt as if it were peeling off.
The stove was slow to start since I could expose my bare hands only for seconds at a time. I have to admit, I wished I were somewhere else. The experience sucked. Maybe that is wilderness, too. It does not bend to you, and so you bend to it. The lake I stood upon in my giant boots would in the summer turn to water so clean you could dip your hand and drink, which is one form of wilderness. And in the winter, it would again harden into ice where you could drop a camp in isolation, which is another form.
The law that was signed in 1964 worked. Places have been protected, a good many of them. But sometimes the effort feels desperate, like clutching at gems. In the bureaucratic avalanche of land use issues, it was a critical move. That was 50 years ago. Now we have to look beyond the dotted lines to places that do not fit the rules.
Craig Childs is the author of several books on wilderness and science, including his most recent, Apocalyptic Planet.
For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.