In the coming months I will visit two places which I will call Potterville, Nebraska and Potterville, Minnesota.  You won’t find these towns in a road atlas; they are first defined as if they actually exist, which they would today had Mr. Potter had his way, which so far he hasn’t.  For those who aren’t aware of Potterville, see the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” next holiday season.

Potterville, Nebraska is a place where Platte River water is used for solely for recreation, irrigation of crops, and drinking.  Cottonwoods and invasives have turned the river into a treelined thin strip of water, often dry.  There are no longer any Lesser Sandhill Cranes there in March.  I’m not sure where they went.  Maybe they went the way of the now extinct Passenger Pigeon, which like the Sandhill Cranes, once darkened the sky.  But I’m talking birds, and to many, birds don’t matter, not if one believes man owns the Earth and all the resources that can be extracted right now, because now matters, and the future….well, that is Potterville, where the special places like the Platte disappeared, as does its water every summer.

Potterville, Minnesota has many resorts on nearby Basswood Lake, providing guiding and other low paying jobs to those in Ely, Minnesota, where good jobs are scarce.  Crooked Lake is huge, with drowned trees still visible well out from the current shore, the hydroelectric power from Curtain FallsCurtain Falls; Canada on Left, US on right. providing cheap electricity to the mines on the Iron Range.  Two beautiful islands, out in the middle, on the border, are deeply submerged.  I never saw them with the late Mike Manlove.  Nor is there an island near the border, where I would have heard wolves on 25 September 1992, had the island been there.  I never saw Basswood Falls, for it was flooded.   Nor did I see the pictographs that once made Crooked Lake famous, for they were also flooded.  Mr. Potter said 80 years ago we needed jobs at all costs, to support our ever growing population; having smaller families and preserving wilderness just wasn’t–well, an American solution.

Overhead in Potterville, Minnesota are many aircraft, the noise rivaling that of the Grand Canyon.  No executive order was given by Harry S Truman forbidding flights below 4000 feet over the wilderness, for it had never been done before, and new ways viewing the world and of doing things are not part of Potterville.  In winter, the sound of snowmobiles is heard all through the region.  The last wolf sighting was about 90 years ago.  A sulfide mine has created a lot of jobs, but the water has become extremely polluted, and the mine will close soon.  Unfortunately, the company has gone bankrupt and will not pay for the cost for cleaning up the pollution.  Many said that a mine would pollute and the cost to the environment would not be paid; they were shouted down at town meetings.  Funny how you can’t find anybody in Potterville now who said they were for the mine.    Curtain Falls

But there is no Potterville, Minnesota, thanks in large part to Sigurd F. Olson, one of America’s first wilderness writers, Bill Magie, and many others who fought Potterville tooth and nail, recognizing that the world had changed, and Americans needed wilderness, not to conquer, but to visit, to test themselves, to see sights they couldn’t see anywhere else, and to recover their senses.  Sig Olson knew that we aren’t all that removed from the land, and there are many for whom wilderness is not just an escape, but a requirement for their sanity.  I am one of those.  There aren’t many like me, and most don’t understand us, but we exist.

Sig was once burned in effigy in Ely, Minnesota.  Nevertheless, he persevered until his death in 1982, while snowshoeing near his home, which today is called “Listening Point.”

Because of Sig and others, Curtain Falls is a wilderness cataract, straddling the international border.  Mike Manlove and I saw the lovely two islands, and I heard wolves that September morning out on Crooked Lake.  Basswood River is untouched, and Lower Basswood and Wheelbarrow Falls are beautiful.

Because of a few who fought Mr. Potter in Nebraska, in March there will be a half million Lesser Sandhill Cranes–90% of the world’s population– along a short stretch of the Platte River.  There will be water for the birds, for 4 miles of shoreline are protected by Rowe Sanctuary.  Many thousand people will visit Rowe’s viewing blinds during the 5 week season.  These people will spend several million dollars in Kearney, Nebraska, providing a big boost to the local economy.

Cranes Landing at sunset, 2012

I will guide about 10% of those people, telling them about the cranes, what they mean to me, and how this is one of two great North American migrations.  I will go to Nebraska, paying my own way, sleep on the floor in the gift shop, so I can hear the cranes at night, and work 17 hour days.  I will come home exhausted but thrilled.  There is not a time in the 70 trips I have taken into the blinds where I have not learned something new or seen an absolutely mind boggling sight.

Cranes at sunset, Rowe Sanctuary, 2011

Cranes Landing in Platte, sunset, 2012

Experiences such as mine have no price tag; Mr. Potter thinks everything without a price tag has no value.  He is wrong.  I’m not a hunter, but I think every guy and gal who has sat in a duck blind, gone out in camo on a chilly autumn morning to get a buck thinks that the country they traverse is worth something.  They just can’t put a price tag on it, Mr. Potter.  I can’t put a price tag on seeing 50,000 cranes in the sky at once, watching a crane dancing 100 meters away, hearing the calls at night, watching them kettle, catching the south wind north on their way to perhaps Siberia.  No, I can’t put a price tag on seeing them in Bettles, Alaska, last August, north of the Arctic Circle.

No, Mr. Potter, I can’t put a price tag on making 20 miles in a headwind, hearing wolves at night, sitting by a campfire, not thinking of anything, seeing the Harvest Moon coming up over Lake Insula, hearing the call of a loon at 2 a.m., looking at the darkest skies in the US and being in the largest roadless area in the Lower 49.

Lake Insula sunset

Common Loon

Big Water...vast sweep of Agnes Lake.

Or seeing Curtain Falls, in its natural state.  These things are priceless, Mr. Potter.

In April, I will spend a morning with the Executive Director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters, before going up north to Ely to spend two days on Basswood, not expecting to see anybody, sitting by a campfire, thinking of nothing, and maybe hearing a wolf.  I will be able to drink right out of the lake. I will be by myself, alone in a vast wilderness, which I require visiting periodically to be the person I am.  It’s a birthright of Americans that these places still exist.  But preserving these places must be fought against the Mr. Potters.

The Friends have worked to protect the Boundary Waters, just as Rowe Sanctuary has worked to protect the Platte River.  Both of these organizations, together employing about 8 people, will get about half of whatever estate I leave behind.  After I come out of the woods, I will attend the Vermilion Community College Scholarship Banquet, where I will give 3 scholarships I have created or helped fund.  Supporting VCC means a great deal to me.  It is a special night for many students.  Jobs are scarce, and the father of a young woman who was the second recipient of our scholarships wanted his daughter not to follow him into the mines.  He is not alone.  Money goes a long way in northern Minnesota and rural Nebraska.

It can cause or prevent Pottervilles. I’m trying to prevent them, but the battle can not be lost.

Not even once.


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