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Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Water Protectors arrive at Great Bear after 2nd annual 4-day canoe/kayak trip on Menominee River against Back 40 mine

By Michele Bourdieu

On July 5, 2020, participants in the 2nd annual four-day Menominee canoe trip on the Menominee River are pictured with Great Bear, a statue at the mouth of the river -- the site of the cultural origins of the Menominee Tribe. The event is intended to call attention to environmental and cultural threats posed by the proposed Back 40 sulfide mining project. (Photo courtesy Dale Burie)

MENEKAUNEE HARBOR -- Native and non-Native water protectors in canoes and kayaks arrived at the mouth of the Menominee River on July 5, the fourth day of the second annual Menominee canoe trip in opposition to the proposed Back 40 mining project that threatens the health of the river as well as nearby Native sacred sites.

Canoers and kayakers set out on Day 4, July 5, 2020, the final day of their trip down the Menominee River in opposition to the proposed Back 40 mine. (Video © and courtesy Wayne Swett)

On Day 4, supporters join the original group of canoers and kayakers as they approach the mouth of the Menominee River. (Photo © and courtesy Tina Lesperance)

"We had a lot of supporters waiting for us at the Menominee bear and also a lot of canoers and kayakers that joined us on that last leg of the trip," said Wayne Swett, Menominee tribal member and co-organizer of the trip. "We must be well known on the river because people greeted us from shore and on the river."

Supporters of the canoers and kayakers welcome them as they approach their destination -- Menekaunee Harbor at the mouth of the Menominee River. (Video © and courtesy Gail Meyer)*

Swett, who made the trip a year ago with two other Menominee tribal members -- Dawn Wilber and Jwin Zillier -- said he was surprised at the number of people who joined them on the trip this year.

The three Menominee tribal members who made the first Canoe Trip last year -- from left, Dawn Wilber, Wayne Swett and Jwin Zillier -- pose for another photo with Great Bear on July 5, 2020. (Photo © and courtesy Tina Lesperance)

"At the end of the trip I asked if everyone was going to come back next year and everyone said that they are," Swett said. "I hope to see more people joining us on the trip next year."

Wayne Swett and co-organizer Dawn Wilber film each other and the arrival of the water protectors on Day 4 of the trip as they land their canoes and kayaks near the Great Bear. (Video © and courtesy Wayne Swett)

Co-organizer Dawn Wilber said about 12 people did the whole 4-day trip, while seven joined for part of it. Five supporters helped on shore by transporting camping gear, supplying food and water, and portaging the canoes and kayaks when necessary.

"Having the shore helpers was really a blessing because it would've been a hard paddle with all our camping gear and stuff in the canoes," Swett noted. "Our shore helpers said they will be coming back again next year."

Swett noted he plans to contact the Marinette County Parks (Wis.) about their difficulty camping near Bear Point on the first night of the trip, after a heavy rainstorm. Keweenaw Now also eventually heard from Bev Ruether, Marinette County Parks and Facilities assistant director, who said the group is welcome to call her in advance next year and she will work with them to find a place to camp.*

"The guy who resides next to the Bear Point boat landing also said we could camp out on his land too," Swett added.

Mary Hansen of the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River was at the Great Bear with a welcome sign she made for the occasion.

Mary Hansen of the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River, center, is pictured here at the Great Bear with Rick Prusak, left, and Lori Paitl. Prusak is holding the sign Mary made to welcome the canoers and kayakers home so she can use both hands to drive her wheelchair. Mary is active in organizing frequent protests against the Back 40 on Fridays. (Photo © and courtesy Wayne Swett)

"I watched the tired warriors as they slowly came ashore, raising awareness for the river," Hansen told Keweenaw Now. "But to them it's so much more. It is their Creation Story. It is where they all began. We stand with them in solidarity. I am Blessed they call me Friend."

Renee Richer, Democratic candidate for Michigan's 108th State House District (Delta, Dickinson, and Menominee counties), was also on hand with her daughter, Camille, to welcome the water protectors. One of Richer's priorities is clean water. She has a PhD in biology from Harvard University and has spent her career studying the impacts of harmful pollutants on human health.

After welcoming the Menominee Canoe Trip participants, Renee Richer -- second from right, with her daughter, Camille -- chats with videographer Anthony Corey, center, and visitors from Door County, Wisconsin -- Jeff Lutsey and his son. (Photo courtesy Renee Richer)

Commenting on the event, Richer said, "It is wonderful to see so many people passionate about water quality issues and recognizing the link between water quality and human health."

Andi Rich, another clean water advocate -- who is running (as a Republican) for Wisconsin's 89th Assembly seat in the August 11 Wisconsin Primary -- participated in all four days of the Menominee Canoe Trip.

Andi Rich participates in a water ceremony during the Menominee Canoe Trip. (Photo © and courtesy Anthony Corey)

"The trip was incredible," Rich said. "It was such a peaceful time of quiet reflection, combined with a 4-day long water gun fight, and somehow it was the perfect combination."

During a hot day of paddling on the Menominee River, participants in the 2nd annual Menominee canoe and kayak trip have fun with "water wars." (Commentary and video by Wayne Swett)

Co-organizer Dawn Wilber said she appreciated the generosity of the Menominee Tribal School, who lent them a trailer with 10 canoes for the trip. She added that she invited people who she knew were interested in the cultural aspects of the trip, and some came from as far as five or six hours away, so it was good to have canoes for them.

"And a couple of my cousins, they brought their kayaks -- which was great, pretty awesome," Wilber added.

Wilber is also a teacher of Menominee language and culture at the Menominee Indian High School on the Menominee Reservation where she lives.

"We did a sunrise ceremony and a water ceremony (the first day), and that really gave us a feeling that we were in ceremony the whole way," she said. "That didn't mean that we couldn't  have fun and laugh and joke, because we did a lot of that."

Women do a water ceremony on the first day of the trip. (Photo © and courtesy Anthony Corey)

Another cultural activity was the harvesting of birch bark, imitating a practice of their ancestors who used the bark to make canoes. Even though Wilber and others were just learning how to cut and strip the bark and were taking only small pieces of the bark, it was important as a connection with the river and the ancestors -- to become a part of that history.

Dawn Wilber, Menominee tribal member and co-organizer of the Menominee canoe/kayak trip, harvests birch bark during the trip. (Video © and courtesy Wayne Swett)

"That's a connection that we as Menominees need to get with that river," Wilber said. "We need to be there. We need to travel that path that our ancestors did. And the birch bark was part of that."

Wilber said the group stayed together and kept track of each other even though individuals could take their time and explore. She said it was important to stop at the sand bars and cool off, and they hope to find more places to stop and cool off for the next trip.

Cooling off at the sand bars was essential for paddlers on the very hot days. (Photo © and courtesy Wayne Swett)

Siobhan Marks took this photo of Wayne Swett, as he films a sandbar stop, titling it "protector, fire keeper, navigator, jokester." (Photo © and courtesy Siobhan Marks)

"We took really good care of each other out there," Wilber said. "And friendships were made."

Wilber also said she wanted to commend the shore helpers, who did an amazing job of transporting their gear, setting up their tents, and more. She also wanted to thank Gary Rich, a cousin of Andi Rich, who helped with the birch bark as well as repairing some canoes that fell off the trailer.

"It was really amazing to have more people with us on this trip," Wilber said. "There was a huge camaraderie right away."

Wilber plans to do the trip every year -- even if she's 90!

Again this year, the group stopped at an island in the river that was gifted to the Menominee Tribe by Tom Boerner, a local resident who is involved in a contested case challenging the Part 632 Mining Permit for the proposed Back 40 mine.

Canoes and kayaks head for the Menominees' island, a peaceful stop on Day 4 of the trip. (Photo © and courtesy Siobhan Marks)

Anthony (Tony) Corey completed the four-day trip, taking videos for a documentary on the story of water, which includes the Menominee people on the Menominee River.

Anthony (Tony) Corey films a scene on the Menominee River during the 2020 Menominee Canoe Trip. (Photo © and courtesy Wayne Swett)

"It was a culturally immersive experience to be with the Menominees on the Menominee River," Corey said. "From participating in traditional ceremonies to gathering interviews with modern tools, I am learning that the Menominee People are not locked in the past as our history books tend to teach; rather, their story is still being written."

On Day 4, Corey captured the sounds of some baby ospreys in this video clip:

Videographer Anthony Corey captures the sounds of baby osprey in their nest along the river as he is canoeing with Wayne Swett. (Video © and courtesy Anthony Corey)

On Day 2 of this year's trip, Corey interviewed Jeff Linbom, a member of the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River, who lives on the river. Here is an excerpt, filmed by Wayne Swett:

Videographer Anthony Corey interviews Jeff Linbom, a local resident who joined the canoers for part of the trip. (Video © and courtesy Wayne Swett)

Dale Burie, president of the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River, Inc., and his wife, Lea Jane, were on hand for the Day 4 reception for the paddlers at the Great Bear. The Buries together founded the Coalition in April 2017.

"This event organized by the Menominees gives widespread coverage of the purpose, beauty and usefulness of the Menominee River," Dale Burie told Keweenaw Now. "The 4-day trip was over twice the size of last year's event. And it will grow even larger next year."

Coalition president offers update on Back 40 permits

Recently Dale Burie wrote a letter to the editor updating the status of Aquila Resources' Back 40 mining project, published on Aug. 1, 2020, by  the EagleHerald (a newspaper serving Marinette County, Wis., and Menominee County, Mich.) In his letter, Burie states the following about Aquila's permits:

"Aquila has yet to submit a tailings dam application to the State of Michigan, after withdrawing the first one in December 2019. If they submit a new application, a public hearing will be scheduled. The Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River, Inc. stands ready with an internationally recognized tailings dam expert to assess the construction plans, in preparation for the public hearing. With the failure of two dams near Midland, Michigan, and increased rainful due to severe climate change, all eyes are on EGLE of Michigan to be diligent in their decisions allowing ANY kind of dam within the state. The Coalition is also awaiting Administrative Law Judge Pulter's decision on our Wetlands Permit contested case hearing from last fall. We will likely be back in court to either defend his decision if we have won, or take our case further to Circuit Court."

Burie also states in the letter that the status of the five required permits has not changed since last January and that Aquila, despite their claims, actually has only one permit -- the NPDES water discharge permit. Three others are not "effective" because of conditions attached and because they are in litigation: the Part 632 Mining Permit Amendment, the Modified Air Quality Permit, and the Wetland Permit. The fifth is the Dam Safety Permit, mentioned above as withdrawn.**


* See our July 3, 2020, article on Day 1 of the 2020 Menominee canoe trip, "Second annual Menominee canoe trip against Back 40 mine begins; water protectors overcome challenges on Menominee River."

Part 2 of this series of three articles is a guest article by Gail and Roger Meyer, who hosted the group on their third day of the trip: "Guest article: Hosting the water protectors on the Menominee River."

** Click here for the rest of Dale Burie's Aug. 1 letter. For more on the proposed tailings dam and Aquila's failure to have a social license to operate, see the Urban Milwaukee July 26, 2020, article, "Proposed Mine Faces Mounting Troubles:Back Forty Mine along Wisconsin border faces insufficient funding, increasing opposition," by Al Gedicks, emeritus professor of environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council.

For some background on the permits and public opposition to the mine, see our Feb. 3, 2020, article, "Federal Circuit Court rejects Menominee Tribe's appeal on Back 40 mine wetlands permitting; most Back 40 permits remain in state contested case litigation."