Canoe Country Columnist Questions Quetico Cell Service

Basswood Lake, August 1940 (U.S. Forest Service photo)

“Is a wilderness still a wilderness if you’re communicating with the ‘outside world’ by way of a cellphone?”

That inquiry is at the center of Sam Cook’s recent column in the Duluth News Tribune. Cook recalls a recent trip when he discovered he had phone signal on the Canadian side of Basswood Lake.

Cook is critical of the connection to civilization while in the wilderness, but acknowledges it is tempting. He even sends a few photos to his family, and admits that he is thinking about providing live updates from Basswood Lake for fishing opener in the future. He also points to the example of Dave and Amy Freeman, who are providing daily photos and social media updates from inside the Boundary Waters during their Year in the Wilderness. 

In a blog post last year, Dave Freeman explained they would use communication devices to “amplify the voice of what Sigurd Olson called the “Singing Wilderness.'” The stated goal of their trip, which will end next month, is to raise awareness of the Boundary Waters through inspirational content, and call attention to the threats of copper-nickel mining. Instagram and the Save the Boundary Waters campaign have been essential to that effort.

While acknowledging the possible benefits, Cook says the day his group first found a signal, “the wilderness changed.” The loss of isolation and the hardy people it shapes, and the possibility of watching “internet cat videos while frying walleye fillets over a campfire,” seems sad and wrong to Cook.

St. Paul Pioneer Press outdoors editor Dave Orrick considered similar questions in an article in 2012. After using his phone to tweet and otherwise communicate from within the wilderness, he also advocated for letting kids bring them along if it means they’ll enjoy the trip and tell their friends about it. “Would we rather have a wilderness free of cellphones but also free of the young generation who hold them dear?” Orrick asked.

As a footnote, Sam Cook surmised that he was connected to a cell tower in Ely. He was actually most likely contacting the 450-foot tower built in 2013 near Fall Lake despite a lawsuit. The below map from legal filings shows coverage predictions extending well into Basswood:

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