St. Paul team swims and paddles Boundary Waters in mine protest
Jul 28, 2019 04:37PM
● By Editor
By Deanne Weniger of the Pioneer Press - July 28, 2019
The mine was on his mind and so was his sleeping bag.
These two things kept Daniel O’Kane, a St. Paul bartender, going as he swam or paddled nearly 90 miles through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness during a 12-day trip in early July.
He was one of a team of four that tackled the route along the Minnesota/Canadian border for the adventure and to raise awareness of the environmental dangers they believe proposed copper-nickel mines pose to the area. Mining has pitted supporters who argue the area needs the economic boost against those worried about the impact on the pristine wilderness area.
“I thought about how this could change so easily and so quickly and people wouldn’t be able to see what we saw every day,” he said.
Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining company Antofagasta, and Swiss company PolyMet Mining are currently undergoing environmental reviews as they move closer to opening near Ely and Hoyt Lakes, respectively.
Environmentalists fear waste from the mines could contaminate the area’s watersheds.
O’Kane, 38, thought about his sleeping bag too, with water temperatures in the low 60s and air temps ranging in the mid-70s. He imagined being warm and cozy inside of his sleeping bag at the end of the day.
“It was hard for me to keep getting back in,” he said. “It was really, really cold. I didn’t wear a wetsuit, so I was freezing for the first couple of hours.”
LOOKING FOR A CHALLENGE
The idea was hatched by Nick Zdon, 38, a graphic designer from St. Paul, after hearing O’Kane, his longtime friend and a competitive swimmer, complain about not having anything to train for as he went for his regular swims in a local pool.
“The Boundary Waters had been on my mind for a long time,” Zdon said, “especially with the proposed mining that’s been in the news. Offhandedly I just said, ‘Why don’t you swim the Boundary Waters? I don’t think anybody’s ever done that.’ After that, it just started to get more and more real.”
Initially, the two planned to do it themselves, similar to a trip O’Kane did in 2017 when he swam or paddled to all of the 22 Apostle Islands, which lie off northern Wisconsin’s Lake Superior shore.But O’Kane wanted to make sure the route was completed, and he knew another swimmer who needed a challenge, so he asked Jerry McMurray, a merchandising manager with Erik’s Bike Shop in St. Paul, and Paul Voge, an attorney from Two Harbors, to join them.
McMurray was in a bike accident a year ago and has a metal rod in his leg. He’d been swimming for therapy and needed a trip like this to get stronger. Voge was O’Kane’s canoe support on the Apostle Islands trip.
As leader of the crew, Zdon had multiple challenges facing him.
McMurray was severely allergic to tree nuts, which make up a majority of granola bars and protein snacks, and O’Kane is a vegetarian. He had to find food that met both criteria, was light enough to portage and was something he and Voge would want to eat, too. The food needed to meet the 3,500-calorie needs of each swimmer each day.
He found nut-free chocolate in the baking aisle that both could eat, made soup and burritos and often concocted his own recipes.
DOING THE MATH
Another challenge was calculating progress. O’Kane wanted to swim 10,000 yards every day to represent the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota. That equaled about 5.7 miles daily.
“Our goal was getting to that 100,000 yards overall,” Zdon said. “That was something I dealt with a lot both with planning the trip and keeping track of the progress. We’d have to whip out the calculator and figure out how many yards is that? There was a lot of math involved.”
The team began the July 1-12 journey at Trail’s End, the northern-most entry point on the Gunflint Trail.
They swam and paddled along the Minnesota/Canada border around United States Point, into the Kawishiwi watershed at Basswood Lake, and south to Fall Lake.
There, they exited the BWCA and re-entered on a second permit at Farm Lake, where they continued to the South Kawishiwi River, past the proposed Twin Metals mine site and finished at Birch Lake Campground.
“So many things could have gone wrong that didn’t because of his foresight,” O’Kane said of Zdon. “It worked out because of his meticulous planning.”
FIRES, FLIES AND LEECHES
There were some things Zdon couldn’t plan for.
Such as a wild storm that sent them scurrying onto an island, huddled and shivering until it passed. Wildfires in Ontario blocked out the sun with a smoky haze and made breathing difficult for a couple of days.
And there were the bugs and leeches.
“The mosquitoes and the black flies were really bad,” O’Kane said. “I cut my ankle on the first day and had to deal with leeches trying to make a home in my leg.”
BEAUTY ABOVE AND BELOW THE WATER
Neither know if they broke any kind of record, but both said that wasn’t the purpose of the trip.
O’Kane kept a journal all four wrote in.
The swimmers described the underwater beauty such as seeing a snapping turtle the size of a hula hoop, and the canoeists talked about the above-water beauty, such as bald eagles and wolves howling.
“Between the four of us, we got to see so many perspectives of that environment,” he said.
Zdon’s already thinking about the next trip, possibly along Loch Ness in Scotland or something closer to home, such as the Red River along the western edge of the state.
O’Kane is game, but he has one request: “I’d like warmer water to swim in.”
To read the original articles and see related stories, follow this link to the twincities.com website. https://www.twincities.com/2019/07/27/st-paul-team-swims-and-paddles-boundary-waters-in-mine-protest...