We had found the island campsite late in the afternoon last week. The day was hot, and we were ready to make camp. We were all looking forward to a swim.
The camp was on Ranger Bay of Basswood Lake, not far northeast of Ely. Although we were in Canadian waters, we were just a short paddle from the Minnesota-Ontario border. We could see the mainland of the American side across the channel.
So, it wasn’t a total surprise to me when I pulled my iPhone out in camp and noticed I had internet service. I presumed it was from a cell tower in Ely.
This wasn’t the first time that a group of us had discovered cell service from within the 1.2-million-acre Canadian wilderness of Quetico Provincial Park. Two years ago, a buddy of mine stepped to the edge of camp on a lake not far from Basswood. Reminiscent of Alexander Graham Bell making the first landline telephone call to his assistant, Watson, my friend had stared at his phone that day and said, “Hey. I’ve got service.”
He promptly sent a smartphone photo back to his family.
From that day forward, at least in that area of the park, the wilderness had changed.
One could fairly pose this question: Is a wilderness still a wilderness if you’re communicating with the “outside world” by way of a cellphone?
I had brought my phone on this most recent trip primarily to take photos with it. I also had brought along a battery power-pack so I could keep the phone charged during the trip. Once I realized I had service on Ranger Bay, I sent a couple of photos back to my family, much to the disdain of one of my paddling partners. He’s a very computer-savvy guy back in civilization, but he expressed his chagrin when I pulled my smartphone out in camp. It didn’t seem right to him.
I’ve been going to the border country wilderness for more than 50 years, and I’ve always gotten along just fine without a link to the outside. But once communication satellites began coursing the heavens, communication from the wilds was possible with satellite phones. Now, on the edges of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Park, towers make cellphone use possible.
Dave and Amy Freeman, the Grand Marais couple spending an entire year in the Boundary Waters, send out almost daily posts by smartphone.
None of us would have to use the internet service available on the fringes of the wilderness. But the fact is, it seems difficult to have technology available and not use it.
I’ve already considered covering a Minnesota fishing opener on Basswood Lake in the canoe country, sending a story and photos back by smartphone. The possibility exists.
But I’ll readily admit that something about having access to internet cat videos while frying walleye fillets over a campfire just seems plain wrong. I felt no sense of deprivation spending nine days in the Ontario wilderness earlier this summer without cell service.
Now, even remote resorts — 25 miles from a landing by boat — can enjoy full internet service with a satellite dish. I’m afraid we may have lost forever the likelihood of some backwoods character like Dorothy Molter, the “Root Beer Lady” of Knife Lake near Ely, living a remote existence.
I find that sad.
One could still choose to live a completely isolated life, of course. Nobody is requiring anyone in the backwoods to carry a cellphone or rig up a satellite dish. But we’ll have to see how that plays out.
Is a wilderness still a wilderness if you can text your spouse from camp? Or check on a presidential campaign? Or look up the capital of Zimbabwe?
That’s your call.