Welcome to the BWCAW blog of Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service!

See our websites at ElyOutfittingCompany.com and BoundaryWatersGuideService.com.

We are a Boundary Waters canoe trip outfitter, Quetico outfitter, and guide service in Ely, Minnesota. This Boundary Waters blog shares photos, stories, humor, skills, and naturalist insights from guiding in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Most entries are from our founder and head guide, Jason Zabokrtsky. He is the Boundary Waters Blogger.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sulfide Mining on the Edge of the BWCAW

Border Lakes Outfitting and Jason Zabokrtsky teamed with the Friends of the Boundary Waters recently to raise awareness for the potential environmental impacts of proposed sulfide mining operations on the edge of the Boundary Waters.  Jason guided the group of environmental advocates and media representatives, including Stephanie Hemphill of Minnesota Public Radio and John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune.

See the Duluth News Tribune Article here.  Listen to the MPR story here, or see the full text below.

Ely, Minn. — Six mining companies are doing exploration work that could lead to mines near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and that's got a lot of people concerned.

The companies are drilling deep holes, probing huge deposits of valuable copper, nickel, gold, platinum, and palladium.

Steve Koschak looks at a drill site near his River Point Resort on the South Kawishiwi River just east of Ely, Minn.

"This goes 24-7," he says of the constant drone of a drilling rig.

A contractor for Ely-based Duluth Metals is drilling a six-inch hole, about 3,000 feet into the earth. A trickle of water runs to a pit a few feet away. The pit holds water and a scum of gray muck, finely ground rock from deep in the earth.

"If you were to analyze all that, there's probably copper-nickel in that. But look what it's going into, it's going into the swamp," he says. "That's all this is, is a network of spruce swamps, all interconnected, this all goes into Birch Lake, all this water."

When the drilling is done, workers will bury the muck on site, a state requirement. The trouble is, around here there are so many wetlands, it would seem impossible to keep the muck out of the water system. Duluth Metals officials say there won't be enough mineral waste here to be any cause for concern.

This drilling is a precursor to what could be a deep shaft mine, more than half-mile below the surface of the earth. A mine would produce tons and tons of ground-up waste rock.

And this is sulfide rock. When it's brought to the surface, a chemical reaction occurs that produces sulfuric acid. If the rock is not carefully isolated from air and water, it can acidify nearby streams and wetlands -- possibly enough to poison the life in the water.

In many mines, discharges also contain traces of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and manganese. The problem is called acid mine drainage, and it's happened wherever copper mines have been drilled.

The advocacy group Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has organized a canoe trip for reporters to show how close the mining operations are to the Boundary Waters wilderness. We put in at entry point 32 on the South Kawishiwi River.

We pass turtles sunning themselves on rocks, and a pair of mergansers keeping a close eye on their young brood.

"This is where all the mining exploration's going on, just to the east of the river," says our guide, Jason Zabokrtsky. He points out that the drilling is going on about three miles south of the edge of the Boundary Waters. But here the river turns north and then flows into the heart of the wilderness.

"Into Fall Lake, then into Newton and Basswood Lake, across to upper and lower Basswood Falls, into Crooked Lake, into Iron Lake, across Curtain Falls, and into Lac la Croix," he says. "All really well-known Boundary Waters lakes."

Some people who live near the potential mining sites are worried. Bob Tammen, who lives in Soudan, about 20 miles from Ely, and has vacation property on the South Kawishiwi River, says he doesn't trust the state to protect the environment. The state, he said, hasn't been able to completely clean up pollution from the Dunka pit, a waste site from a taconite operation that accidentally exposed sulfide rock 50 years ago, and ever since has been leaching metals into a nearby creek.

"We've been trying for 30 years to get the Dunka site cleaned up. My contention is, if the state of Minnesota, working with the mining industry, can't clean up a mining site in 30 years, why should we ever grant a permit for a copper mining operation?" Tammen says. "We know that copper is generally in sulfide ore bodies, whereas our iron mining industry is generally in oxide ore bodies, which is not as damaging as sulfide. They haven't been able to manage the iron mining industry; we should not, at this time, trust them to permit a copper mining industry."

State officials say the Dunka problem happened before rigorous rules were imposed on mining operations.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Ann Foss says it's difficult to solve an unexpected problem, but the experience at Dunka has taught the agency a lot about how sulfide rock reacts when exposed to air and water. She says that experience will help inform environmental reviews of any sulfide mining proposals.

The Friends of the Boundary Waters has backed legislation at the state level to beef up requirements on financial assurance -- similar to the escrow fund that BP has agreed to set aside for the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Last year, the Minnesota measure died in committee.

Some of the neighbors here, around the edge of the Boundary Waters want to go further: they want the state to prohibit sulfide mining unless a company can point to one place in the world where a mine has operated without polluting water. Since a similar law passed in Wisconsin, no mines have been built in the state.

The exploration is happening on the southwest edge of the Boundary Waters. Fifteen miles to the west is the town of Ely.

There are varying opinions in Ely on the exploration and possible mine development. The area has long been dependent on jobs in mining, logging, and tourism. Some people are excited about a new source of good-paying jobs. They still remember when the underground mine in Soudan used to ship tons of rich, iron ore. It closed in 1962 and now is a state park.

Duluth Metals has an office in Ely, in a house on a quiet street. The walls are covered with colorful geologic maps, and in an attached garage there are lots of core samples from those drill sites down the road.
David Oliver, the project's manager, is very excited about the minerals that lie more than a half-mile beneath the surface, on 1,500 acres near the South Kawishiwi River.

"We have now drilled 170-some drill holes that verify a resource in excess of 900 million tons that was never on the books before," Oliver said.

He says a mine tapping into that resource could employ 400 people for decades to come.
Copper and nickel, and the associated precious metals, are used in everything from electric wires and computers, to catalytic converters and rechargeable batteries, so demand is going up all the time.

The combination of higher prices and improved technologies to recover the minerals is generating new excitement about a deposit that geologists have known about for a long time. Oliver discounts worries about polluted groundwater. He says the core samples are solid, nearly free of cracks, so it wouldn't be easy for any polluted groundwater to travel through this ancient rock.

And, he says, the waste rock will contain so little sulfur that the kind of pollution that has occurred at other mines is unlikely.

"This is deemed below any threshold that would generate acid drainage," Oliver says. "It just doesn't have enough sulfur to do it."

Until recently, a different company -- Polymet -- was the front-runner in the race for copper-nickel in Minnesota.

Polymet's property is just south of the land Duluth Metals is exploring. The Minnesota DNR and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Polymet project, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency did a scathing review of the work, saying it was inadequate. It will take more than a year to re-do it.

Meanwhile, Duluth Metals' new partnership with Antofagasta, a Chilean company, provides enough money to move that project ahead quickly. David Oliver says Duluth Metals should be ready for environmental review in about three years.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ely, MN - The Coolest Small Town in America

Ely, MINN - National travel magazine Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel has named Ely, Minn. as its 2010 “Coolest Small Town in America.” The magazine received 147 nominations, then selected 21 American towns that stood out from the crowd to open up to public online voting. In online voting, 439,411 votes were received, and Ely captured 118,899 of those—27 percent of all votes.

A feature on the city of Ely will be included in the magazine’s September 2010 issue.

Ely is located in the Boundary Waters region, on the US-Canada border between Ontario and Minnesota, and is a popular destination for campers, as well as canoe and fishing enthusiasts, and those looking for natural scenery and relaxation.

The magazine defined what they sought for 'Coolest Small Town' as a town with a population under 10,000. According to the original solicitation for nominations, the magazine wrote, “we're talking small towns, not big cities. It's also got to be on the upswing, a place that's beginning to draw attention—and new residents—because of the quality of life, arts and restaurant scene, or proximity to nature. And cool doesn't mean quaint. We want towns with an edge, so think avant-garde galleries, not country stores.” The runner-up cities were Cloverdale, Calif. and Brevard, N.C.

See the original competition details here: http://www.budgettravel.com/bt-srv/coolestsmalltowns/CST2010.html.

“People have long recognized that Ely’s a town full of eccentric people and interesting cultural offerings, but also a land of beautiful wilderness,” says Linda Fryer, director, Ely Chamber of Commerce. “We may be at the end of the road, but once you get here, there’s a lot to see and do.”

The magazine summarized Ely in an introductory article in January: “Also called the End of the Road, Ely sits in Minnesota's scenic extreme north, where it once served as an iron-mining hub. But Ely has come a long way since her unglamorous mining days, now playing host to a number of renowned wilderness facilities like the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center. The city is a perfect base for camping, canoeing, and fishing, as the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness offers an untouched expanse of lakes and bogs straddling the U.S.-Canadian border. Ely has become notorious for the annual April Fools’ jokes that city leaders play on the eager-to-be-fooled citizens. In 2008, a press release announced that Ely was being sold to Canada to boost tourism. The mayor commented on the subject in a local newspaper, and cheeky ‘Say No to Canada’ signs were displayed along the highway. The following year, Ely began a mock-campaign to secure the right to host the 2016 Olympic Games.”

In 2010, Ely once again engaged in April Foolery with an announcement on April First that it, in conjunction with the Forest Service, had signed a multi-year deal with a nationally known corporation  for naming rights to the legendary Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine is published monthly except for combined issues in December/January and July/August by Intellitravel Media, Inc. BudgetTravel.com is the website for Budget Travel magazine, which receives approximately 1.8 million unique page views per month.

For more information on Ely, Minn., and to book a Boundary Waters canoe trip vacation that’s less than four hours from the Twin Cities, please visit www.BorderLakesOutfitting or call 218-343-7951.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Common Merganser and Ducklings on Lake One in the BWCAW


We paddled to a quiet bay away from the main travel route to look for wildlife on a guided day canoe trip today on Lake One.

Luckily, we spied this Common Merganser and her ducklings. The young were probably born in a hollow tree - where Mergansers typically nest. The mother must have just recently nudged the furball ducklings out of the nest because they are still tiny creatures. Part of me expected to see a giant pike splash out of the water after one of them.

We saw no sign of the male merganser, which is not uncommon. Motherhood is a lonely job for these females. The males typically play no part in raising the ducklings.

We watched this Common Merganser dive down looking for minnows to catch in its orange serrated bill - often called a sawbill. It didn't appear to succeed in hunting minnows, but it did successfully pluck a dragonfly nymph from a rock wall as it swam by.
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