After reading an article on the potential sale of more than 1,800 hectares and 30 kilometers of undeveloped Lake Superior shoreline potentially to developers who plan to develop the untouched bays, it occurred to me that we, as in the kayakers and canoeist alive right now, might be living in the last scrap of the golden age of wilderness paddling in the Great Lakes basin. And, I wonder if there’s any stopping the development of the remaining undeveloped areas on the Great Lakes. And, I wonder, even with the current protections, if those will remain as more people desire their own little piece of the big lakes.
Wilderness paddling in the Great Lakes basin has a long history dating back potentially to just after the ice age ended and the lakes were formed. Whether or not the first inhabitants of the Great Lakes basin used canoes to explore it, is an unknown, but, at some point in time, the inhabitants began using canoes to ply to waters, to trade from, to hunt and fish from, to harvest rice from and because the forests that grew up in the Great Lakes were so dense, the lakes and the rivers were the easiest way to travel long distances. However, the canoe arrived at its current shape; it remains an elegant and simple way to travel through the wilderness. It was quickly adopted by the Europeans as they invaded North America.
When Europeans arrived in the Great Lakes basin, doing whatever it was that Europeans did, such as fur trading, conquering and exploring, they adopted the canoe. For the fur-trading voyagers, the canoe offered a quick, light way to transfer fur and trade goods. Many of the explorers, such as McKenzie and Marquette used canoes to push far into the unknown meeting new peoples and mapping water paths that would eventually form trade routes and give the Europeans even greater access to the riches of North America. As the settlers moved westward with wagons and then trains, a system of paths, railways and roads replaced the waterways as the major form of travel. Eventually, the waterways ceased to function as a way to access wilderness (especially when float planes appeared). Roads circled the Great Lakes, bridges spanned the narrows, and even in the furthest northern reaches of the basin, roads and railways provided access. The North American wilderness had been penetrated by the modern system of transportation and paddling became a recreational pursuit.
Freed from the backbreaking work of carrying trade goods and furs through the waterways and the chores of providing food for families – and blessed with jobs that granted free time – some of the inhabitants started to explore the wilderness via canoe simply for recreation. As more people came to the area, more people wanted a house on a lake, or a lodge in the woods experience. The Great Lake basin with its timber and material wealth proved to be a good place to live for more than one-tenth of the population of the United States and one-quarter of the population of Canada. And the great wilderness surrounding the Great Lakes disappeared, except in a few places that were protected despite political fights, more so in Canada than the U.S. That wilderness was now easy to access, and the advances in camping gear and techniques and more durable and lightweight canoes and kayaks, made accessing what was left of the wilderness easy. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) became the most used designated wilderness area in the U.S.
And that’s where we, more or less, are today. We have limited wilderness left in the Great Lakes basin and it’s easy to access. On the America shore, it’s rare to kayak for one day on any of the Great Lakes without seeing development, and what is left undeveloped in private hands is being developed. On Lake Huron, as I found out on my Port Huron to Home Expedition, the entire shoreline from south to north is like the suburbs, and I’m not exaggerating. I had one day where I only saw just a few houses. The rest of the time was shoulder to shoulder houses.
Even on the Great Lakes, when you go into a remote area, you’ll see cabins, lighthouses, navigational markers, illegally built saunas. There is literally nowhere on the Great Lakes that you can go for a week without seeing development. Within the basin, we have areas that have fared better, such the BWCA, Quetico, Wabakimi, Lake Nipigon and other areas given protection by the governments. But, even there, you‘ll run into some development. And who knows if these areas will last. For example, a bill passed by U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 would essentially gut the Wilderness Act of 1964 and open the BWCA and other U.S. Wilderness Areas to development. It could pass the Senate in the 2012 lame duck session, and there goes our last bit of protected wilderness paddling in the U.S.
All of this is why I react in alarm when I hear about more undeveloped property on the Great Lakes being sold to developers. Right now, we have the time, the money, the access and the right gear to take advantage of the joy of wilderness canoeing and kayaking, more so than any other time in human history. You could say that we’re in the golden age of recreational paddling. The only thing we don’t have is the vast untouched and undeveloped land in the post-ice age Great Lakes basin to explore just like McKenzie and Marquette had. Instead, just a table scrap of that wilderness remains, and what does remain remains only because of laws that could go away or because the land remained held until the price of sale was right.
Something that we’ve seen in northern Minnesota on the edge of the BWCA and along the shore of Lake Superior is that smaller family-owned resorts are being sold off, and, erected in their place are larger resorts or second and third homes for the wealthy. While, you might have been able to land at a small family-owned resort, when you show up at a private house, you’re likely to get kicked off. And these homes and resorts take a toll on the visual appeal of the shoreline. On the inland lakes, the areas that aren’t protected are developed. Without protection, the inland lakes of the BWCA will end up looking like the Twin Lakes Canoe Route near Grand Marais, and any semblance of wilderness will disappear.
Wilderness disappearing from the Great Lake would be heartbreaking for paddlers like me. One of the main reasons that I got into paddling was to be able explore the areas that I live in and venture into the preserved wilderness areas of the Midwest and central Canada. The wilderness, to me, provides a place for reflection, not only on one’s life, but to the past, to the history of the area, the history of the nation and that reflection allows for mapping a way forward. The wilderness recharges a person’s energy, because it allows one to get away from the workaday life. The wilderness also allows us to satisfy the inner curiosity that launched the explorations and great population movements of the past. It’s a way to satisfy the need and desire to see the great unknown that’s around the corner. When any of that unknown around the corner becomes a half a million dollar house, the illusion of the once great wilderness of the Great Lakes disappears and robs one of all the benefits of visiting wilderness.
Now, I know that not everyone values wilderness, otherwise we wouldn’t have attempts to gut its protection, but enough people do that it’s worth protecting it for them and for the future generations as Teddy Roosevelt said,
Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying the ‘the game belongs to the people.’ So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.
So, even if you’re one of those paddlers that doesn’t value wilderness, perhaps, you can find it in your heart to protect it for those of us that need it, for those of us that would wither away without it. For the future.
I fear that that’s never enough though. Humanity on a whole has no desire to preserve and conserve our open spaces, our wildlife and as the global warming debate has shown, even our planet and our future. Even when we decide to protect something, such as the animals of the African plains, someone somewhere will pay enough that the poaching of the animals happens. And, someone that doesn’t value the protection, will hunt them. We see this in the Great Lakes basin with wolves. After a successful campaign to protect and restore wolves, once they lost the protection, they were immediately hunted in ways to permanently reduce their population. Like wolves being killed off after they lose protection, the last pieces of untouched land are constantly being picked at and developed.
Even though I lack the confidence that humanity has the will in the long run to protect the remaining wilderness, I still feel it’s worth fighting for, because I personally can still enjoy it, my family can enjoy it and our descendants can enjoy it while it’s still there. But, I say to you, get out there now and enjoy the last remaining wilderness paddling in the Great Lakes basin, because if you don’t do it now, when they take it away with development, that opportunity will be gone.