On the final day of our introduction to the Boundary Waters area, I elected to go with the group that was to tour places where mining explorations have already disrupted the Boundary Waters, and this was back in the late ’60s and early ’70s! — leaving places that are still, to this day, devastated, unable to support life. I decided to go on this tour despite my reservations about the person who would be leading the trip, Steve Koschak, who runs River Point Resort, an extremely high end place (as is obvious just by the elegant design of the sign announcing its presence on the road to Ely, near our Kawishiwi Campground).
I confess: obvious displays of wealth (for that is what this sign appears to signal) trigger me. I grew up in Idaho, close to Sun Valley, and the enclaves of the 1% there; in my 30s I migrated to Jackson Hole, and watched that valley also transform into a rich man’s haven, the very gates announcing entrances to “ranches” far off in the distance morphed into more and more elaborate displays of what their owners were “worth.”
So yes, my initial perceptions of Steve Koschak were automatically skewed by judgments based on my own life’s experiences.
But the affable man who met us at the parking lot to the campground with his touring van, and who showed us maps of the area on the way out to the places he had chosen to show us, soon disarmed me.
That started immediately, when he drove us into the River Point Resort, to show off his pride and joy. Guess what? Over the past 40 years, he and his wife Jane have built this glorious resort, formerly a tiny lodge operated by his father on weekends, into an elegant world-class place, from scratch. And I do mean built. Steve personally, over 40 years, has constructed all these cabins and lodges and little buildings with specific purposes, like, for example, one with a sign that says “Fish Cleaning.” I especially enjoyed the whimsical little sign, set in front of a birch tree: “Squirrels Play Area.” Here’s a layout of the whole place —
We stopped in to see his wife Sue at the little coffee bar she operates in their gift shop, where she served us sugar cookies and coffee while telling us of their origins and current heartbreak.
Sue and Steve, both Ely natives from mining families, met each other in kindergarten, where “our mats were right next to each other at naptime.” They’ve been a team ever since. After college at, as I recall, the University of Minnesota, they were both teachers in the Minneapolis School District. When Steve’s father offered the little Birch Lake lodge property to them, they jumped at the chance, spending every weekend on the four hour drive to and from Ely to start to construct what morphed into their life’s dream. Of course the rich and famous are attracted to what they have created there, and many come back year after year; hopefully, some of these clients will have the kind of clout needed to help make sure this wilderness area is not ruined by copper mining.
Sue told us that she now spends at least half her time every day educating clients as to what’s going on, the threats to their clients’ beloved vacation home. She and Steve have endured the incessant hammering and pounding of nearby drill rigs during the off-seasons, operating 24/7. As she confessed, both to us and later, at a dinner that night with all the Broads, “We live under a constant black cloud of unknowing. This entire place that we have spent our lives creating, could be ruined. Sometimes we go around completely depressed, and have to pull each other out of it.” Hearing her speak of both the beauty and the threats, I am struck by the fact that both she and Steve are from mining backgrounds, which means, as she says, “there’s nothing they (the opponents) can say to us.” As native stock, they are NOT outsiders. Together, they have constructed an extraordinary enterprise from modest beginnings on teachers’ salaries, scrimping and saving every penny to get where they are today. And yet, as she tells us, shrugging her shoulders ruefully, “the townspeople just think we are lucky.”
As you can imagine, by this time, my initial judgments had completely evaporated.
Now for the tour.
Here are some photos, some with annotations. I wish I could remember more specifically what each site was about, but just know that each was an exploratory site that mining companies worked on 40 to 50 years ago, on which the land has NOT regenerated.
At the end Steve gladly took photos of our group, in a “thumbs down” signal to the devastation of copper mining from sulfite rock. Picking up three or four of our cameras and phones, one after another, this dynamic man who lives with the possibility of complete devastation in his lifetime, raced from back and forth, from close-up to far-away, like a little kid, having fun.
I posted this earlier. Here it is again.