5 Books that Will Make You Appreciate the Boundary Waters Even More

Art & Science

The Boundary Waters is a national treasure. A stunning expanse of clean water, rocky shores, birch groves and pines.

But most people who visit the area don’t realize that behind the natural beauty is a very human story. One that involves intense disputes, political horse trading, and yes, French Voyageurs.

Many are surprised to learn that the history of the Boundary Waters is a history of controversy, one that encapsulates many of the debates — and tensions — over Public Land in the United States.

It is also a story about people coming together and saying this area is worth protecting. There may be a fortune to be made from damming the Rainy River, from mining for minerals or harvesting the forest, but this land needs to be protected. It’s too valuable to be turned into a profit.

These five books are great guides to this rich history that we at the Friends are happy to be a part of. We hope reading some or all of them enhances your next trip to this magical place.

1. Rainy River Country: A Brief History of the Region Bordering Minnesota and Ontario by Grace Lee Nute

RAiny River Country

For a concise overview of the history of the area that would become the BWCA, it’s hard to do better than this book. From the earliest known inhabitants of the land, through the fur trade and into the 20th century, Nute gives a loving account of what she considers one of the most beautiful rivers on the continent.

Nute wrote many books on the French Voyageurs and the history of northern Minnesota. Her style is charming, a bit romantic at times, and highly enjoyable. Her companion to this book, The Voyageur’s Highway, further explores the lives of those who called the area home.

2. Saving Quetico-Superior. A Land Set Apart By R. Newell Searle

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Politics are everywhere these days. When you go to the Boundary Waters, the last thing you want to think about is politics. However, for over 100 years, politics have played a part in the protection and preservation of what would become the Boundary Waters.

Searle documents the battle over roads, dams, logging, air traffic and more. Reading this book makes you realize that the Wilderness is not a given. It took many people many decades to preserve this area.

3. Troubled Waters: The fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness by Kevin Proescholdt, Rip Rapson, Miron L. Heinselman

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Vice President Hubert Humphrey lobbied to get the Boundary Waters included in the 1964 Wilderness Act, but he was unable to give it full Wilderness protection. Logging, mineral exploration and motorized traffic were still allowed in much of the Boundary Waters. It was a wilderness only in name. Written by three people who were very much involved in the ensuing political battle to give the Boundary Waters full Wilderness protection, this books gets into the weeds, detailing the long battle that eventually led to the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, which made the BWCAW what it is today.

4. Lob Trees in the Wilderness by Clifford and Isabel Ahlgren

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A wonderful blend of natural and human history, this book is divided into nine sections, each centering around one type of tree found in the Northwoods. From here, the authors discuss how this tree plays a part in the ecology of the area, and how its role in the human story of the Boundary Waters. For instance, the chapter on white pines documents the timber boom in the late 19th century. The chapter on birch trees considers how native peoples depended on the these trees.

5. A Wonderful Country: The Quetico-Superior Stories of Bill Magie, transcribed, edited, and arranged by Dave Olsen

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To really know the history of the place, you need more than dates and a chronology of events. You need to hear from the people who were there. While this collection of oral stories isn’t technically a “history,” it gives you an up close and personal sense of what it was like to travel through canoe country in the early part of the 20th century.

If you don’t have time to read these books, Pete Marshall will be giving a talk on “Why is the Boundary Waters so Controversial” on April 27 at 11:45 PM, a part of the Midwest Mountaineering Outdoor Adventure Expo. While you’re there, be sure to stop by our booth!

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