When I was a kid "remote" was an overgrown half-block in my hometown. We called it the "grassy green jungle." Here you could step off the sidewalk with imagination as your companion. As I aged, wild places fell more distant from that vacant lot, but the experiences lodged close to my heart.
Wilderness gained a legal definition with the Wilderness Act of 1964, but there is no official designation of remote. For my purpose, I'm defining the most remote spot as the one most distant from a public road. In the United States, that spot is on St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea off the mainland of Alaska. The nearest road is over 200 miles away. In the Lower 48, the most isolated place is found in the upper reaches of the Yellowstone River. It is 28 miles from a road.
50th Wilderness Year
The landmark Wilderness Act of 1964 created the National Wilderness Preservation System. After eight years of debate, 65 rewrites, and 18 public hearings, the bill's primary author, Howard Zahniser, succeeded in directing the bill to President Lyndon Johnson's desk. Immediately on signing, the act protected 9.1 million acres of wild lands, including 886,673 acres of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota.
One eloquent sentence in the act defines wilderness: "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
The act prohibits roads, motorized vehicles, and permanent structures in designated wilderness. It also prohibits activities such as logging and mining.
Since its passage, two other areas in Minnesota have received wilderness status: portions of Agassiz and Tamarac national wildlife refuges, both managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Minnesota has 1,110,877 acres of designated wilderness, ranking 13th among states with the most wilderness acreage. Of the nation's 2.3 billion acres of land, the Wilderness Act now protects about 110 million acres in 44 states.
To determine Minnesota's most remote locations, I solicited the help of Andy Jenks, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota and an expert on geographic information systems, or GIS.
"What do you mean by remote?" Andy asked. "Furthest from a Starbucks? McDonalds?"
Good point. I suggested that for consistency's sake, we define remote as those points farthest from any public road, including U.S. Forest Service roads and private driveways.
Minnesota has the nation's fifth-largest highway system, with more than 140,000 miles of city, county, township, and state roads. This does not include over 5,000 miles of Forest Service roads and thousands of miles of driveways to homes and cabins.
Not surprisingly, Andy deciphered that the most far-away place in Minnesota was in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The spot is on the south shore of Knife Lake, slightly more than 12 miles from a road. Andy declared it the most "anthropogenically remote site" because of nearby human features such as campsites and portage trails.
With the necessary camping gear, maps, and geographic coordinates jotted down, I headed with my wife, Nancy, for an October getaway on the rugged shoreline of Knife Lake in the BWCAW. It seemed fitting that we would seek remoteness in Minnesota's iconic wilderness area.
The word wilderness conjures images of primal places where few people go. With approximately a quarter of a million visitors between May and September, the BWCAW might not be as remote as we imagine. Arguably, we humans and our behavior influence every square inch of the planet's surface.
On this sunny day, Nancy and I were alone as we paddled northwest toward American Point on Saganaga Lake. Stout west winds kept us from making any big-water crossing. Splashes of shoreline gold in stands of aspen betrayed the tardiness of the fall colors.
As we paddled in silence, I noticed the distant roar of a jet plane. I looked up and saw not one, but three arching contrails. The passing aircraft traversed a different, ephemeral sort of public highway, less than 8 miles above our canoe. It seemed wrong that speeding jets were closer than the nearest road.
With peak canoeing season past, all the campsites were empty. We finally settled on one near the far western end of Saganaga. Only 6 miles, three portages, and three lakes separated us from Knife Lake.
Humans had traveled and lived here, using these same portage trails and campsites, long before any Europeans or voyageurs entered this lake country. Early humans had no concept of wilderness: It was simply home. According to Anton Treuer, executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University, the Ojibwe people who lived here prior to European contact understood wilderness differently.
"The wilderness was an area without villages," Treuer says, "hunting and trapping land, rather than settlement. People didn't see themselves as urban and everything else as wild. The word [wilderness] revolved around use."
Recent evidence has pushed back the date when humans first lived in the current BWCAW. Mark Muñiz, professor of anthropology at St. Cloud State University, has found flint-knapped siltstone artifacts that were quarried from outcroppings near Knife Lake.
"Theoretically," Muñiz told me, "people could have been in the area within a century after the glaciers melted away from the lake. By this time, there seems to be decent evidence that Paleo-Indian people were utilizing Knife Lake."
Nancy and I leaned close to the campfire that first chilly night. I watched the slow, steady arc of a gleaming satellite pass near the North Star and proceed toward the Big Dipper. At any one moment, we could see from one to three spacecraft. I was glad we could not see the more than 1,000 satellites that orbit the Earth. We wondered what ancient dwellers or even Sigurd Olson, Minnesota's beloved wilderness author, might have thought of the 21st-century night sky.
As much as I scorn these nocturnal insurgents, we were depending on several of them: Our GPS (global positioning system) would receive satellite signals and interpret them to guide us to an exact set of coordinates.
The next day we paddled Swamp Lake to Monument Portage, which runs along the Canada–U.S. boundary. While carrying packs into Ottertrack Lake, I paused when I heard a distant wolf howl. Ottertrack Lake and its well-pined shoreline is where legendary woodsman Benny Ambrose settled and lived after serving in World War I. With the help of Ojibwe friends, he learned how to make a living here for 60 years.
One portage to the west was Knife Lake. Up until about 35 years ago, this remote area was home to Benny and his neighbor Dorothy Molter, aka the Root Beer Lady. Both lived for many years in this wilderness and died in the 1980s. Our destination would not have been the point of "most remote" if either Dorothy or Benny still lived here.
We paddled west along the south shore of Knife Lake. In less than a half-mile, our canoe glided into a slight, unremarkable cove with a thick wall of white cedar as a backdrop. According to our GPS, we had finally found ourselves at "most remote."
We quietly ate our lunch on the lichen-covered shoreline and watched an eagle soar along the opposite Canadian shore. We saw nothing exceptional about this wilderness site, another pristine BWCAW setting where tall pines appear as sentinels along high ridges overlooking rock-rimmed lakes. I took a long drink from my water bottle but wished for a bottle of Dorothy's root beer.
We left no trace of our being there and made the portage back to Ottertrack, where we set up camp at a lovely site we had eyed earlier in the day. That night a flare of the aurora lit up the night sky and drew our attention away from the silent passing of satellites.
Two days later we returned to civilization and began to focus on another northern Minnesota location. When Andy phoned me about his research of "most remote," he told me that the most primal place was in the bog country north of Red Lake. "Now that bog thing is impossible, even if you wanted to go there," he pronounced.
And with that declaration, I perked up. Bogs have a mystery of their own. In storytelling and literature, they are often portrayed as dark, threatening haunts. These are the kind of places that heroes must pass through as a test of their mettle. Without question, I knew I wanted to go see this "impossible" place.
Andy had determined that this isolated spot was 9.4 miles from the nearest road, far out in the Red Lake Peatland Scientific and Natural Area. This SNA encompasses 87,580 acres of the largest contiguous boreal peatland in the United States, in a region commonly known as the Big Bog. Fifty miles long and 12 miles wide, most of the Red Lake Peatland SNA is owned by the state of Minnesota. Scattered parcels within the SNA are Red Lake tribal lands open only to band members. All access into SNA properties must be nonmotorized, and no camping is allowed.
In the 10,000 years since the retreat of the gigantic Glacial Lake Agassiz, this region has accumulated nearly 10 feet of peat over earlier soils. The deepest peat layers have been found to be more than 3,000 years old. Sphagnum moss is the soft backbone of the Big Bog. About 30 species of sphagnum thrive here, making it a dominant plant.
Wet and vast, the peatland landscape looks level, but a very slight gradient accounts for some of its unique features. An imperceptible flow of water moves across the surface. From a soaring eagle's perspective, you would witness the broad, swirling arcs of open areas called water tracks. Nearby, you might spy teardrop-shaped islands of tamarack and black spruce. These islands resemble convoys of moored ships and give the land a boreal aspect. Isolated dark blobs of trees indicate raised bogs with domed surfaces of moss layers. Aspen and some birch grow on mineral-soil islands that extend above the peatland. Ribbed fens appear as parallel lines of sedges that grow perpendicular to the tireless water flow. Like a fingerprint, no two patterned peatlands appear the same.
With the help of Andy and Shane Bowe, aquatic biologist for the Red Lake Band, Nancy and I had acquired a good map that included tribal parcels. We also had a satellite photograph that delineated the islands.
Since this land is mostly too wet to hike and not wet enough to paddle a canoe, the most practical season to venture into such a place is winter. So on a mid-February morning, with snow falling steadily and the mercury sitting at 18 degrees, Nancy and I unloaded our sleds, snowshoes, and gear on the edge of Highway 72. Straight as a ruler, this piece of highway runs 40 miles north across the desolate peatlands to Baudette.
The irony of trying to reach this remote site was that our easiest avenue was to follow an old drainage ditch. A century ago, a massive ditching project cut hundreds of miles of ditches intended to drain the land for human settlement and farming. It failed, and three counties nearly went bankrupt. From the air, the bog resembles a giant checkerboard with the ditch scars still easily discerned. Scores of beaver dams stitch the gashes as if trying to pull the bog back toward complete wildness.
We pulled our loaded sleds through deep, fluffy snow. With my longer Alaskan snowshoes, I was breaking trail 90 percent of the time, and I knew this was not sustainable. Nancy's shorter snowshoes made it nearly impossible for her to break trail.
Snow fell steadily all morning, so any critter tracks we came across were fresh. After 3 miles of hiking, we had flushed four sharp-tailed grouse, upset one surly red squirrel, and found one ambling moose's hoofprints, which betrayed pauses for red-osier dogwood browsing. The most numerous and intimidating fauna in the Big Bog was wonderfully absent: Insects of the blood-seeking persuasion, such as mosquitoes and deer flies, exist here in fabled numbers.
A week before our hike, the air temperature here had been minus 28. So I was surprised when the ice gave way as I paused at a junction of two ditches. I managed to lunge toward the bank and luckily soaked only one foot. Two factors likely caused the thin ice: A very slight water seepage or movement that continually courses across this bog, and deep snow that insulated the ice, further thinning it.
After a brief discussion, we decided to turn back. It was nearly mid-afternoon, and there was no way we would be able to make the 5 remaining miles and return before dark. A soaked foot, tough snowshoeing conditions, and tiring bodies all factored into a smart decision to do an about-face.
In turning back, we had the pleasure of following our own track and not tromping through deep snow. We took our time, and I unhooked my sled harness and snowshoed out into the bog. I paused during my stroll and slowly turned 360 degrees. Here, the snow-covered bog was bristled with scattered stunted tamarack and spruce trees. It looked like the "land of the little sticks" found in the Canadian subarctic. There was not a human feature anywhere to be seen. It was dead quiet and utterly remote.
It seemed perfect that we could not get to this "most remote" spot. This quest is exactly how myths are born. Whether it is the Holy Grail, the big swamp buck, or the hook-jawed brown trout as long as your forearm, we need creatures and places where our imaginations can simmer. We could ponder a place so remote that on this day it was unattainable.
Perhaps the attraction to explore distant grounds is more than a curiosity or challenge. Perhaps it comes from deep-rooted nostalgia about our own ancient past when our lineage was forged and strengthened. Maybe it's the primal memory of such places that comforts us, much like paging through an old family scrapbook.
Whether it is a "grassy green jungle," a far shore on a wilderness lake, or the mysterious morass of the Big Bog, I have come to love all wild places. What happens in these shaggy remnants of wild is vitally important for human society and our future. To ensure these places continue to exist, we will always need advocates for wild lands.