How Wild is Wild
A walk in the wilderness next door
By Molly Wick
The Red River Breaks is 7,000 acres of wilderness that not even Google Maps knows. I was lived next door to this terra incognita of ferns and fungi for several years. A friend gave me an aerial photo of the area, with rough hand-drawn lines in Sharpie, and an X marking the spot of some historic hotel ruins. Map in hand, I explored the Red River Breaks like it was my own personal wilderness. The state-owned property was preserved to protect water quality downstream, and access to the property is extremely limited, with motorized vehicles prohibited.
The hotel was built and operated in the late 1800s, when the area was platted to become a lumber mill town. The entire region was razed, and the lumber mill on the river handled the logs and then shipped them downstream. A new rail line, supported by complex trustles over acres of swampland, carried people and supplies in from nearby Superior and Duluth. A rail depot was built of wood, and a handful other businesses opened.
I came to this wilderness for the first time in the fairy season of spring. This is the season of melting snow and warming rains that turn the steep clay banks into fudge and the streams into Ovaltine. Lime green shoots poke through a cold, damp duff layer next to crusted brown remnants of snow. The animals awake, muddy tracks and trails criss-crossing under a still-bare canopy. Roots cascade over undercut streambanks, the perfect fringe for hiding trolls. Leaves grasp drops of water for days untouched. Tiny white flowers eventually come of age in delicate carpets of chartreuse, waiting patiently to be noticed.
I found my first morel here without even looking. I nearly stepped on it, as it sat unassuming between muddy logs of a fallen bridge. Since then, that bridge washed downstream in the turbid flow of a rapidly evolving river.
I found the hotel ruins in the spring, too. Its huge sandstone bricks have been weathered into curved, feminine shapes cloaked in moss. The corners stand tall but the walls between have long since fallen into piles of rock and moss, obscuring the boundaries of this once imposing building. A poplar grove has taken root in the parlor.
I can hardly imagine this landscape 150 years ago: the hotel nestled a barren east-facing hillside. What women were here trying to keep their skirts out of the omnipresent mud? A creek meanders unsettlingly close to the hotel wall. What alternate form did it have so long ago? A forested black ash wetland stretches out next to the knoll. Who lived here before the white man came with his plans? Are there traces of them on the landscape, too?
Sunshine cuts the early spring chill and pours through bare branches, until eventually spring yields to the unbridled growth of summer. Everything becomes insufferably green. Ferns grow shoulder-tall. The heat and moisture stagnate. Mosquitoes abound. In the summer, I turn to the water and paddle this place’s clay-rich namesake, the Red River. Wild rice, well-adapted to the clay-rich streams were still no match for the lumber and pulp mill industries; and now hang on only in sparse patches. I paddle my canoe up the narrowing brown creek until fallen logs turn me away. A beaver slaps her tail at me as I retreat. I pretend for a moment she’s trying to lure me in, but I know better; this is her territory.
For the 10,000 years since glaciers retreated, dendritic streams have eroded steep ravines through layers and layers of red clay along the southern edge of Lake Superior and the St. Louis River. These streams are prone to erosion, so the forgotten property was set aside to protect water quality. Since the logging era, the old growth boreal forest has been replaced with early-succession poplar. Only small patches of young spruce, cedar, and pine spread from a few tall old growth holdouts. Nineteenth century land clearing ignited erosion that has spread across the landscape in search of a new equilibrium. The land is still re-calibrating, while also responding to the legacies of today: climate change, invasive species, emerging contaminants, and more.
Autumn descends on the forest from above, touching the tops of the poplar trees first. The trees fade to yellow in protest of the cold blue nights setting in. The winds grow louder and stronger, and the trees bow to the wind and drop their leaves. Rustles on the ground join a chorus of shhhhs above. And then the wind dies and silence sets in. Grey clouds hug the forest close. From the sky, in the slow quiet way that winter starts, a snowflake, and then another, starts drifting down. And then the ground is covered with fluffy white weightless snow.
I have never seen another human here; my rosy cheeks are the only color in this white and black forest. But it was in the silent, cold winter when I realized that I share this place with the rosy cheeks of snowmobilers. These locals created the crude snow-packed trails that I explore. But the rogue trails that they have established pale in comparison to the legacy that logging left on this landscape.
We live in a geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, defined by human impacts on our landscape. Legacies like logging, mining, ranching, or fishing are common for the nation’s wilderness areas. Logging occurred in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was until as recently as 1978. The nation’s first wilderness area, the Gila Wilderness, had a history of mining even before its protection as early as 1924.
We call beavers ecosystem engineers, but rarely look in the mirror. We have impacted every single square inch of this world in one way or another. In designated wilderness areas, those impacts seem to be just subtle enough that we keep on believing our fairy tales: that pristine, intact, untouched wilderness is out there… Somewhere.
So, is this place truly wild, truly terra incognita? The Red River Breaks is a place of questions with no answers, and this is just one more. After years of exploring, this land is still unknown to me. Walking into the woods alone always feels like a new discovery. The seasons here feel like new worlds to explore. I call this place a wilderness.
And maybe it doesn’t matter. Wild or maybe not so wild, this place is no less vital for the lucky few who call it our own. I walk in that forest and I am enchanted by the stories it tells me. I am convinced that fairies live in its moss-covered nooks and under it’s orange spotted fungi. Wild or not, the places that fully ignite our imagination are places worth saving.